Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Fiction Works by James Wood

So let us replace the always problematic term “realism” with “truth”… Once we throw the term “realism” overboard, we can account for the ways in which, say, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Hamsun’s Hunger and Beckett’s Endgame are not representations of likely human activity but are nevertheless harrowingly truthful texts.

How Fiction Works was not what I expected. Because Chris recommended it, I expected it to be drab and lifeless, full of terms like mimesis, queer theory, and death of the author. I was expecting something more like the small book I own titled Literary Theory, which has a bookmark between pages 12 and 13 that will probably never be moved.

But seriously, this book was great. It was extremely readable, probably moreso than something by, say, Chuck Palahniuk, and Wood’s exuberance for his topic really comes through. He’s read everything worth reading apparently, but still seems free of snobbery. This might be the least snobbish nonfiction book about books I’ve ever read.

As far as the content, the book is short, and I don’t feel the need to summarize it, but I really enjoyed the last section of the book, about realism. It tied in closely with a discussion I was having the other day about how some literature seems more true than the truth—that is, how a novel about, say, sexual deviants, can seem more real than a nonfiction work about a real one. It seemed silly to me, even though I’d felt it, but the excerpt at the beginning of this review crystallizes it so clearly, I don’t feel like I can add much. I’d like to force read it to every idiot who’s ever said “I don’t read fiction” with a condescending look on their face. Nonfiction will make you smarter; reading (good) fiction will make you a better person.

So, good book, even though I don’t read nonfiction. If you have any interest in the thesis of the title, check it out.

p.s. When I Google image searched "How Fiction Works", the first result was Chris's cover image from his review for this very site. Moving up, fellas!

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Brief Interviews is a difficult book to even describe, let alone review. Ostensibly a collection of short—usually very short—stories, it nevertheless defies this easy categorization. The stories, although they could probably stand alone, are linked thematically and sometimes by recurring characters. The themes? Sex, connection, sex, communication, sex, self delusion/discovery, sex, and footnotes. So the point is, there’s a lot of sex in this book. Consensual, non-consensual, loving, hateful, normal (occasionally), perverse, etc. With all the interest in sex, however, Brief Interviews is never prurient, although it does manage to be profoundly unsettling without being offensive, at least to me. That’s not to say it wouldn’t offend others—indeed, of all the DFW I’ve read, Brief Interviews is the one I’m least likely to recommend to others.

It’s not just the subject matter that’s daunting either. In addition to tackling some extremely tricky topics, it’s all over the place structurally. Wallace’s fondness for footnotes is well-known, but in Brief Interviews, he pulls out every postmodern trick he can think of: Complex structural conceits, like a short story told in the form of a futuristic dictionary entry, or one written in truncated outline form; Long stream-of-consciousness rambles; A long section in the middle presented in Question and Answer format; and so on. It’s a testament to Wallace’s skill that this rarely seems pretentious, although, aware that it might, the Q&A section closes out with Wallace confessing that the conceit didn’t work as well as he’d anticipated, and urging the author (who is you—it is a Q&A after all) to confess and just be honest for a moment, instead of hiding behind postmodern conceits.

It’s kind of a mess, but while some sections don’t work as well—and here I’m thinking of a story about the rise of television and mass media written in the form of one of Ovid’s myths, complete with Greek gods as stand-ins for the technology—it’s mostly remarkably coherent, and, as always, there are some transcendent moments. The last full-length story in the book is the best, and possibly the most grueling. It tells, in interview form, the story of a (hideous) man who, trying cynically to hook up with a spacey, new-agey sort of girl, falls in love with her when she tells him about the rape and near-murder she experienced a year back. The setup is brilliant, with the interviewer appearing only as a “Q” before each answer, eliminating the context the questions themselves would have given us. Secondly, the story the man is telling is two levels removed from what happened—the girl tells him, he tells the interviewer—and the story itself is both grim and sort of beautiful, as the girl describes tells what happened. She is hitchhiking and picked up by a man who soon reveals himself to be a psycho. At first she is terrified, but then, realizing she’ll likely be killed, decides to try and empathize/connect with the rapist, in hopes that this connection will make it harder for him to kill her:

I’m well aware that what she is about to describe is but a variant of the old Love Conquers All bromide but for the moment bracket whatever contempt you must feel and try to see the more concrete ramifications of—in this situation in terms of what she has the courage and apparent conviction to actually attempt here, because she says she believes that sufficient love and focus can penetrate even psychosis and evil and establish a quote soul connection, unquote, and that if the mulatto can be brought to feel even a minim of this alleged soul-connection there is some chance he won’t be able to follow through actually killing her.

She survives, in a passage that manages to be extremely moving inspite of its grisly subject matter, and the interviewee finally concludes, disturbingly, that the connection the girl formed with her attacker was deeper and more meaningful than any he’d been able to form with anyone. The story ends on a depressing note as he severs any connection he may have formed with the interviewer herself by releasing a string of shocking invective and restating his love for the lost hippie girl, love born out of the story of her rape. Like I said, difficult stuff.

This is the sort of thing Brief Interviews is about: connections, usually filtered through sexual situations, the ability/inability of people to connect on a meaningful level and the poor substitutes they settle for. It’s a draining work, not very funny in spite of the cover blurbs proclaiming otherwise, and complex. I think it was worth it—Wallace connects with me more consistently than virtually any other author I’ve ever read—but for those starting out, I’d recommend one of his essay collections or even Infinite Jest.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Death of Innocents by Sister Helen Prejean


The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder. - Justice Harry Blackmun

Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.

(As The Death of Innocents primarily focuses on Sister Prejean's experiences as the spiritual advisor to two innocent men who were killed by the state, in this review I will try to stay focused on the execution of innocent men and not wander into arguments for and against the death penalty in general).

In a word, this book was heartbreaking. Sister Prejean tells the story of two men, Dobie Williams and Joe O'Dell, who were falsely convicted of murder and were killed for it. She begins with Dobie Williams, a black man with an IQ of 65 who was convicted for breaking into a house and murdering a woman in her bathroom. Prejean tells the story of his trial, including the total incompetence of his attorney, the suspect nature of the prosecution's evidence, and the ridiculousness of the prosecution's version of what it thought happened. Though there's no way for the reader to really know if Williams was actually innocent, Prejean lays out a case so compelling that you can't doubt it. And plus, she's a nun, so you it's not hard to believe she's telling the truth. Prejean also tells the reader about Williams's last hours on earth, the dignity with which he accepted his fate, and the heart rending effect the execution had on his family.

Next, Prejean tells the story of Joe O'Dell, who was convicted for raping and murdering a woman after she left a night club. Again, Prejean recounts the facts of O'Dell's trial. After a string of incompetent or conflicted attorneys, O'Dell finally says screw it, and represents himself. He is, of course, woefully unable to stand up to the prosecutors, and even though O'Dell has an alibi that could have been substantiated and there is substantial physical evidence that shows he wasn't connected to the crime, he is still convicted. Much of the blame lays at the feet of the prosecution (who blocked O'Dell's access to crucial evidence), while the rest can be heaped on the courts for refusing to grant him evidentiary hearings so he could prove his innocence. Prejean also tells the moving story of how O'Dell met Lori Urs, who was his staunchest and most aggressive advocate, and how they fell in love and got married hours before he was killed. O'Dell's last words before he died were, "This is the happiest day of my life. I married Lori today. . . Lori, I will love you through all eternity." Prejean's account is incredibly moving.

Finally, Prejean addresses arguments for and against the death penalty, including the Catholic church's enlightening views on the subject.

And now I'll hop up on my soapbox. Whether or not you believe in the death penalty in theory is completely irrelevant to the discussion about whether we should abolish it. The fact remains that as it stands today the courts are just not able to fairly and competently use it, as the stories of Dobie Williams and Joe O'Dell show so tragically and clearly. Even though most of the Supreme Court disagrees with me, I believe that the death penalty is unconstitutional as it stands today. You don't even have to go to the 8th Amendment (which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment) to get there, either, although you certainly could. I believe it is unconstitutional because of the 5th and 14th Amendments, which state that a person shall not be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." As it stands today, there simply is not any process that is sufficient to uphold that standard, as Williams and O'Dell show.

For those of you who don't know me, I am a third year law student, so this issue hits close to home. I believe that if everyone does their job, the judge, the jury, the prosecution, the defense, etc, then justice will be carried out. It is for this reason that if I thought I would be at all competent in a court room (and didn't have a mountain of debt looming over me when I graduate) I would become a public defender. Basically, we just aren't good enough at determining a person's guilt or innocence to enforce an irrevocable punishment. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, more than 100 people have been released from death row because they were later found to be innocent. From 1976 through 2004, when the book was written, approximately one out of every eight people sentenced to death were later found to be innocent. Some might say that that is just proof that the system works, but the way the system actually functions makes those lucky people exonerated post-conviction seem like a seed found by the proverbial blind chicken. Here are just a few of the reasons the system is flawed: cops have too much unchecked power; prosecutors have access to evidence and witnesses that the defense doesn't; in many cases, prosecutors and judges have to run for election (a concept that would be laughable if it weren't so horrifying), which gives them an incentive to push for the death penalty to appear tough on crime; defense attorneys assigned to indigent defendants (the vast majority of people sentenced to die are too poor to hire their own attorney) are often egregiously bad (falling asleep during your client's trial was only recently found to be an example of incompetent lawyering bad enough to warrant relief, but being drunk or on drugs isn't); and finally, many times the appeals process focuses more on procedure than substance, making it nearly impossible to fix the aforementioned errors (one man's appeal was denied because his attorney labeled it a notice of appeal instead of a petition for appeal, which the court found too presumptuous).

I'm going to wrap this up because I've gone on long enough (I haven't even gotten to how capricious and racist the enforcement of the death penalty is). To end, this is a moving, intelligent, well written book that asks questions and poses arguments that everyone should consider so we can stop the slaughter of innocent people at the hands of the government they trust to protect them.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

And yet I swear by the sacred name of my creator that it was true. It was true sunshine; the true music; the true splash of the fountains from the mouth of stone dolphins. For, if for me we were four people with the same tastes, with the same desires, acting--or no, not acting--sitting here and there unanimously, isn't that the truth? If for nine years I have possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core and discover its rottenness only in nine years and six months less four days, isn't it true to say that for nine years I possessed a goodly apple? So it may well be with Edward Ashburnham, with Leonora his wife and with poor dear Florence. And, if you come to think of it, isn't it a little odd that the physical rottenness of at least two pillars of our four-square house never presented itself to my minds as a menace to its security? It doesn't so present itself now though the two of them are actually dead. I don't know...


The Good Soldier is about two couples: John and Florence Dowell and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. John, who narrates the story, and his wife are an American couple who meet the British Ashburnhams at a German resort for those with ailing hearts. Edward is the "good soldier" of the title, idolized by Dowell to the point of fawning, but he also conducts a years-long affair with Dowell's wife.

As it turns out, neither Florence nor Edward truly has a heart condition--not a physical one, at least. Edward is a serial philanderer, incapable of avoiding petty, sentimental affairs with beautiful young women, and comes to the resort in pursuit of a girl with a real "heart." Florence is a fake and an opportunist with designs on Branshaw Teleragh, Edward's estate and the ancestral home of Florence's family. Leonora seeks to endear herself to Edward by managing his love affairs, but throughout all of it Dowell is either painfully, idiotically unawares or represses his understanding, perhaps out of a powerful homosexual attraction for Edward. When, as above, Dowell says "I don't know..." it is a universal expression, as the full realization of the situation--which has caused the suicide both of Florence and Edward--causes him not only to doubt the genuineness of his friendships but his ability to understand any human being.

Dowell begins his tale by saying, "This is the saddest story I've ever heard." The Saddest Story was Ford's original title (and seems still to be Dowell's), but he changed it due to the outbreak of a story arguably sadder--World War I. As such, The Good Soldier is decidedly pre-modernist, as WWI is generally considered the origin of modernity, yet it prefigures so well the modernist model: Dowell's unreliability, the immense gap between the author and his narrator, the disjointed, out-of-sequence narrative. Yet, Graham Greene, an acquaintance and admirer of Ford, thought that he could see underneath it all a great amount of pain and anguish suffered by Ford himself.

I think that this is probably one of the greatest books of the twentieth century--I absolutely love it. It is peopled by generally loathsome characters, who nevertheless manage to make themselves exquisite in pity. Edward is a monster of sympathy, brimming over with such love for the sad young maidens of the world that he cannot help but give himself to them, compelled to be an eternal Christ figure. Leonora is a devout Catholic determined to salvage the wreckage of her marriage. Dowell is an utter fool, ravaged by a misery he does not understand, pursuing an unspoken love through a method that can only be described as self-deletion. Florence is unmistakably the cruelest of the lot, yet she is also the one who keeps with her a vial of prussic acid that she might kill herself should her malignancy be discovered. It is hard not to think of these people as Dowell himself thinks of the Ashburnhams:

But what were they? The just? The unjust? God knows! I think that the pair of them were only poor wretches, creeping over this earth in the shadow of an eternal wrath. It is very terrible....


Poor wretches, creeping over this earth in the shadow of an eternal wrath. I think perhaps much of the novel's power has to do with the fact that we are meant to wonder if we are not a little bit like the narrator, unable to see the things in ourselves that an audience, reading the story of our lives, may intuit immediately and pity us for them, and that, as Dowell says, "the record of humanity is a record of sorrows."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Once upon a time I was skimming a book entitled Book Lust that is composed of lists of book recommendations for every mood, taste, and moment, all compiled by librarian Nancy Pearl. One book that stood out because she comments on it several times was Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair.

The book itself inspired mixed emotions. It was well-executed with all kinds of intrigue, literary crime on a level that only a fantasy author could come up with, and even a sort of suspenseful romantic byline because no author worth his or her salt can write a story that doesn't involve somebody falling for/being hurt by/sleeping with someone else. The cynic in me likes the "original" ending to Jane Eyre that Fforde concocts, but the cynic is locked in the pantry most of the time so its opinions are practically moot.

Once upon a time, Acheron Hades built a reputation for himself as one of the most thoroughly evil men in the world. Well, whether he's completely human is anybody's guess, but the book doesn't worry itself too much with that. Place aforementioned unscrupulous man in a world where literature is so important that it actually has its own crime division in Special Ops and the fabric separating fiction and reality gets rent or even downright shredded... You get some pretty fantastic highjinks.

The plot was great, everything I could possibly want from a fantasy novel. I suppose where my mixed emotions come in was in a lack of connection with the heroine, SpecOps agent Thursday Next. She has a lot of drive and gumption, but not a very textured personality, so she ends up being a bit like a pit bull. It might be funny to watch him chase every stick you throw, but eventually you get a little bored and he's never going to stand on two legs and recite Othello, so the relationship is rather limited.

Liked it, not loved it, may read some more Fforde in order to see what else he comes up with.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hinds' Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard; The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

I seem to be founding a pattern of reading companion books. First it was Blink and The Invisible Gorilla, now I'm on an allegory kick. We shall see what happens next...

When I first picked up this book, I was a little bit leery of it. After eight months of reading somewhat dry, intellectual approaches to spirituality, an allegory with a (literally) lame, ugly main character with the uninspiring name of Much-Afraid seemed like it was headed into soft and undesirable territory.

And I will say that yes, to a certain extent, that impression was correct. There were times when I got a little sick of the less-than-intrepid heroine crying in the face of some new disaster or failing yet again to fend off her not-so-dear cousins, Pride, Bitterness, Self-Pity, &c. But at the same time, I connected too well with too many parts of the story to discard it as mere fluff.

Literarily, it's something of a modern Pilgrim's Progress, though Hurnard tends to avoid Bunyan's rather more obvious sermonizing. It makes no pretenses about being anything but an allegory, so all of the characters have names that aptly describe who they are: no mystery there. Lots of symbolism, a motif or two, and a neat little twist to tie it off at the end, those are really the bulk of the fine points there.

In brief summary: Much-Afraid, a cowering shepherdess whose only rebellion is to break away from her family (the Fearings) to work for the Good Shepherd, discovers that there is a way for her to leave the Valley of the Fearings and to be healed of her physical (and emotional/spiritual) deformities. The path, however, is difficult and will require her to climb up into the mountains, facing unnamed trials and tribulations.

In short, a good book so long as you do not like to pursue interpretation.

The Great Divorce was a fun read, in part because searching for it gave me an excuse to plunder a few used bookstores in my area (resulting in a biography of Charles Fox, the previously reviewed Dark Lord of Derkholm, and several other works), and in part because it was all of the intellectual delight that Hinds' Feet lacked while also being incredibly readable. I think it took me about two, maybe two and a half hours to actually read it, plus another hour when accounting for all of the quotes that I wrote down.

The premise of the story is captured in the preface when Lewis says, "I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself."


The story itself concerns an unnamed narrator who finds himself dazedly wandering through silent, gray streets until he comes to a queue of people. Seeing aught else to do, he joins the line without questioning what its purpose is and eventually comes to understand that it is for a bus. The people are a more or less unpleasant lot, but some seem decent enough. None of the other characters stick around for very long. When they have taken their long bus ride, they arrive in a land that is somehow more real than they are, a land in which they are ghosts who can barely walk on the unbending grass for the pain of it. The bulk of the story that follows is taken up in the encounters of the various ghosts with the spirits who come to greet them and offer to guide them to the mountains and a greater reality.

Lewis delivers all of the usual profundities in what I found to be an easy to follow format. Perhaps if it suffered at any point, it was in the repetition of structure. Spirit meets Ghost, offers to lead Ghost, Ghost shows recalcitrance, stalks back to bus. But each situation was sufficiently fresh and different to make this a non-obstacle for me. Highlight would have to be the cameo appearance of George MacDonald, whose works I have not read (save for a copy of The Princess and the Goblin through which I am painstakingly making my way), but whose professorial Scottishness and character make him perfect for his role.

Downside: The part of me that has been subconsciously avoiding fiction has been complemented by an increased desire to read non-fiction. Curses!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is probably the best example I’ve ever seen of the necessity of reading a book before making a judgment on it. Previous to this year, I’d thought of Pride and Prejudice as literature lite, frothy Victorian romance for silly little girls and silly older women—Twilight for people who don’t like vampires, basically. In my defense, it’s easy to get that impression. Every crappy romance novel written in the last 20 years claims Austen as an inspiration, not to mention that Jane Austen herself has become a posthumous cottage industry. In your average bookstore, you’ll find significantly more books about Austen or inspired by her work—including some dreadfully explicit Darcy/Bennet erotica—than you will novels by the woman herself. So when Christopher told me that Pride and Prejudice was one of his favorite books, I was intrigued.

And so, how was it? Safe to say, it was nothing at all like I expected. In fact, after reading it, it’s hard for me to imagine how the Austen-worshippers have gotten from the book what they’ve gotten. To judge from Pride and Prejudice, Austen would have mocked the culture her work has spawned. Not to mention that, although it’s certainly romantic—but never treacly—at points, to me, it reads more like a comedy.

For those who don’t know, the plot is thus: The Bennets are a moderately wealthy family, made up of r. Bennet, their easy-going and uninvolved father, Mrs. Bennet, who is completely crazy, and five daughters, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Elizabeth’s story gets the most ink now, but in the novel, both Jane’s and Lydia’s get nearly as much space in the book itself. There’s a lot to the plot and a large cast of characters, but considering the volumes that have been written already, I think I’ll focus on a couple things that stood out to me and leave the in-depth summaries to Wikipedia.

First, Pride and Prejudice is funny. Austen has a dry sense of humor, maybe too dry for a lot of modern readers (especially the kids who read it in school), but it’s hard to see how anyone could be unamused at the perpetually useless Mr. Collins, who, lacking in social graces, thinks the appropriate response to Lydia running off to elope with a less than pristine officer is the encourage her parents to disown her and to congratulate himself on not getting involved with Elizabeth, or this exchange, to which every comedy in the last 20 years owe royalties:

“Then it is as I always hoped,” cried Jane; “they are married!”
Elizabeth read on: “I have seen them both. They are not married,”

Jane’s hopeless optimism, Mary’s overwrought moralizing, and even Austen’s slow-burning disdain toward Mr. Bennet, who starts off with the reader’s sympathies but is eventually revealed to be passively complicit in his daughters’ situations. That’s not even to mention Mr. Darcy who spends approximately 2/3rds of the book acting like a major jerk. He insults Elizabeth at their first meeting, but is drawn to her when she rejects him. For her part, her interest perks up about the time she sees his beautiful estate. It makes a good point, one that romantic fiction rarely addresses: that frequently, the deepest affection can start in the shallowest of waters.

Secondly, Austen’s treatment of Lydia is interesting. Lydia elopes with the promiscuous Mr. Wickham, and upon her return home to see her family, we—and certainly the readers in Austen’s time—expect to find her cowed and realizing the error of her ways. Instead, she’s gleeful as a nymph, flitting around boasting about the wonderful man she’s landed. After that, we might expect some comeuppance, but even this doesn’t quite happen. True, when we last see her, we are told that her passion has cooled and that Wickham’s cooled long ago, and she is has little money or communion with her family, but is this really the most terrible thing? There is no cosmic consequence for her actions; she simply reaps more or less what you’d expect.

I guess what I’m saying is, read Pride and Prejudice. I’m glad I did.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

How to Read and Why is a book that seems to accomplish its goals a little early. I had imagined it as presenting a Grand Unified Theory of Reading, by which I might expand my appreciation of literature as a whole, and in its first section it does something of that, as Bloom presents a set of what he sees as essential principles for reading. Among other things, he puts forth what seems to me the most persuasive and encompassing rationale for reading I have ever encountered:

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of all pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.


Terry Eagleton--basically England's Harold Bloom--notes in his remarkably negative review that "[i]t sounds as though Harold is a bit short of mates and reads to make up for it." With all due respect to the achievements of Prof. Eagleton, such a statement reeks of petty snark and, worse yet, of intellectual dishonesty. Loneliness is the undiscussed companion of the human condition and if you do not feel at least a little bit like Prof. Bloom does, then I simply don't understand you.

With the why out of the way, Bloom turns to the how in the 200-odd pages that follow, and it is here that Eagleton's criticisms have some bearing. Bloom divides his book into five sections, one each for short stories, poetry, and drama, and two for the novel, and within each section he briefly treats five to six major authors or works. Each gives the impression of being somewhat less than Bloom has to offer; while the section on Keats may serve as a passable introduction to the poet and enlightens us as to why Bloom treasures "Le Belle Dame sans Merci," it fails to break free from Bloom's solipsism. Despite Bloom's notions that we should be forever reading the best literature available to us, knowing how to read Keats is not the same thing as knowing how to read; knowing how to read Keats exactly like Harold Bloom is more distant still. Furthermore, the meager selections of works suggest no reason for their being included together, and while Bloom tosses superlatives around with impunity (there is no "higher aesthetic achievement by a twentieth-century American writer than As I Lay Dying," no greater book by a living American than Blood Meridian, no greater book by an American black than Invisible Man), their ubiquity drains them of power and it is hard to shake the feeling that the works have been selected, not for their greatness, but by whim.

One notable exception to this piecemeal feeling is the final chapter, on the American novel since Melville, in which Bloom articulates an affinity among seven novels: Moby-Dick, As I Lay Dying, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Crying of Lot 49, Invisible Man, Blood Meridian, and Song of Solomon. These novels all express a "negative sublimity," a horrific transcendence in the tradition of Moby-Dick and a uniquely American and apocalyptic vision:

It is not the function of reading to cheer us up, or to console us prematurely. But I conclude by affirming that all of these American visions of the End of our Time offer us more, much more, than their cleansing negativity... There are survivors among these: Ishmael, Oedipa, Invisible Man. Why read? Because you will be haunted by great visions: of Ishmael, escaped alone to tell us; of Oedipa Maas, cradling the old derelict in her arms, of Invisible Man, preparing to come up again, like Jonah, out of the whale's belly. All of them, on some of the higher frequencies, speak to you and for you.


This, unsurprisingly, does not meet Terry Eagleton's expectations of serious criticism, and though my expectations were quite different it did not quite meet them, either. But to read Bloom is to be in the presence of someone who truly loves reading; I hope that one day I should love my own children as much as Bloom loves books. There is little concrete advice in How to Read and Why, but I do find that it inspires me to find something in books that speaks to me as loudly as these works speak to him. Insofar as the success of How to Read and Why is encountering another soul with its unique passions, a literary fellow traveler, it fails as literary criticism but succeeds as something of sister text to the books it idolizes, alleviating a trace of human loneliness.

Fun Books (that I got for cheap for Kindle)



Rules of Deception by Christopher Reich

I used to love a good spy novel when I was younger, but for some reason I haven't indulged in many recently. Well, I sought to remedy that with this one. To me the key to a good spy novel is, even more than action and intrigue, to have enough twists to make it exciting and that, most importantly, those twists are believable. Nothing worse than investing time in a book and then be forced to call shenanigans at the end. Fortunately this one fit the bill. Sure, you could kinda see the big surprise coming, but it was explained sufficiently well enough; unlikely, but still possible. There were times where it was hard to tell who was on what side and what the sides even were, but it never got too frustrating. Overall a satisfying diversion.

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

I don't know what it is, but I've been on a little bit of a fantasy kick lately. Whatever, I'm going to run with it. This is the first in a series of quasi-historical fiction novels set during the Napoleonic wars, except there are dragons and the countries use them as an air force. Laurence, a captain of a ship in the English navy, finds himself in (what seems to him at the time) a devastating position when a dragon egg his ship has captured from a French vessel hatches and the newborn dragon chooses him as its handler. In this world, a dragon and its handler are linked for life, which means he'll have to leave the navy and join the generally disdained aerial corps. He grows devoted to his dragon, Temeraire, however, and predictably they save the day in the end. I liked this one quite a bit and recommend it to anyone who likes action and dragons and the like. I look forward to reading the rest in the series.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Like Warm Sun on Nekkid Bottoms by Chuck Austen


"Well," she said. "It's your life. But honestly, I'm convinced that unreleased semen interferes chemically with brain activity in males. So don't make any rash decisions you'll regret later until after you've masturbated and given it some additional thought."

There used to be a priest at my church who gave great sermons. In one of these sermons, he explained the difference between being naked and being nekkid: you're naked when you're born, when you get in the shower, or something else totally innocent that just happens to be unclothed; you're nekkid when you're naked and you're up to something. Just throwing that out there. It kinda relates.

Like Warm Sun on Nekkid Bottoms certainly has its flaws (the story is a little out there, the protagonist is generally more of a coward than someone you can relate to, Austen goes for quality and not quantity with his use of silly metaphors...though some actually do work, etc), but overall it was pretty enjoyable. In short, it tells the story of Corky Wooplesdown (pronounced whoo-pulls-dun), who works as a reviewer of lingerie at his family's lingerie company. He's kind of a lovable loser who only got job because he's the only person in his family who can do the job without sexually harassing the models and opening up the company to litigation. He is in line to be very wealthy, but doesn't really have any marketable skills. He trudges along in relative mediocrity until he has an outrageous and amusing encounter with a model, falls in love with her and tries to win her over. The big (but not only) problem is that she lives in an alternate dimension that is basically the same as ours except everyone is a nudist. So basically Corky has to overcome his fear of being disinherited and of walking around without pants and prove himself to Wisper, the exceedingly gorgeous model. Shenanigans ensue.

If you enjoy Christopher Moore and his wackiness, as I know some of you do, you'll probably think this one is ok. It would probably fall in about the 40th percentile of Moore books. Not as good as some, but better than others. I chuckled several times and especially appreciated that the book only cost about 2 bucks for kindle. Well worth it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

Warning: this book is NOT about tapping into superhero potential through the use of genetic engineering that has been used to successfully create invisible gorillas.


If you're disappointed, feel free to stop reading now. If that seemed elementary and you're shaking your head... You can still stop. Anyway, the title is actually a reference to the study that was rather cheekily entitled, "Gorillas in Our Midst." If you don't know what I'm referring to and would like to test yourself, check out a version of the experiment and see how you do.

Reading this book was interesting because less than a month ago I also read Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, which defends the opposing stance to Chabris and Simons. Since they write partly in response to him, they do actually refer to his works, but it was intriguing since I had no idea what I was getting into in the first place.

The authors are experimental psychologists who have built on the work of Ulric Neisser with regard to change blindness. They took the results of their studies to write, as the subtitle states, about ways that intuitions deceive people. This, in opposition to Gladwell's idea that often a gut reflex is more or equally trustworthy than protracted analysis. But they base their position on the fact that such reflexes rely heavily on certain beliefs about the way that our minds work which may not necessarily be true.

Chabris and Simons deal specifically with six illusions: attention, memory, confidence, potential, cause, and knowledge. They discuss ways that each illusion tricks us into believing ourselves more capable than we are, sometimes with serious consequences as in the case of an overconfident witness in a rape trial.

It's pretty interesting stuff, although I was a bit disheartened to think about all of the ways that I'm tricking myself. There were some pretty keen insights that tried to answer questions I've asked of myself but never quite been able to respond to, and hey, fortunately for me, I am brilliant so obviously none of those illusions apply to me anyway. (This example of the illusion of knowledge/confidence brought to you by the Optimists' Club of America)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Keesha's House / Return of the King / Stop Pretending

Keesha's House - Helen Frost
Written in poetic forms (sonnets and sestinas), Keesha's House takes the reader into the lives and thoughts of hurting teenagers and those around them. This book explores young adults dealing with issues such as teen pregnancy, homelessness, sexual abuse, and neglectful parents. It is the perfect read for any teenager, or adult who works directly with teens.

Return of the King - J. R. R. Tolkien
Last in the Lord of the Rings series, Return of the King ends the epic tale of Frodo Baggins' quest to destroy the Ring of Power. While not a thin book, Tolkien's word choice aids suspense to the tale making it an easier read. (Chris's Review, Jim's Review)

Stop Pretending - Sonya Sones
This autobiographical book conveys the feelings and thoughts of a young girl when her older sister suffers from a nervous breakdown and is placed in an asylum. Each chapter, written in poetic form, is configured as if it were a journal entry. While banned in many schools across the United States, this book is a great tool to help children and young adults learn about mental illness, and help them take a step closer to breaking down the walls of fear. (Brooke's Review)