Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

colorless tsukuruI’m please to say that Haruki is back!  Most of us were less than fully satisfied with Haruki Murakami’s last novel, 1Q84, most of us didn’t even  make it through to the end, so I suspect we were all a little nervous about this new one.

But I’m pleased to say that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, delivers the goods.  This time around Murakami provides a character and a story that worked their way into this reader and left me both satisfied and wondering.

Even with no talking cats.

Colorless Tsukuru is a realistic Murkami. That is to say nothing fantastical happens even though what does happen touches the border lines of believability at times.  Murkami’s characters act in ways that might lead some readers to expect magical realism to happen, but events stay firmly rooted in the real world.

Tsukuru Tazaki is the only one of five closely knit high school friends to have a name that does not reference a color.  Each of the other four have a name associated with either red, blue, white or black.  The five friends are inseparable until Tsukuru leaves their home town for Tokyo where he goes to college in the hopes of one day becoming an architect who designs train stations.

One day, Tsukuru receives a call from one of the four informing him that he is never to contact any of them ever again.  They want nothing to do with him.  Shocked, Tsukuru doesn’t even think of asking what happened, what could he have done to make them all reject him.  Over a decade goes by.  Tsukuru graduates and gets a job with a railway company.  He doesn’t design stations so much as remodel and update them, but he is satisfied with his work.  Eventually, a young woman whom he hopes will become a girlfriend convinces him to make contact with the four friends who abandoned him so long ago and find out why the did it.  She says this is what he needs to truly get his life going again.

What he finds out shocked me as much as it shocked Tzukuru.  I won’t discuss it here in case I mange to convince someone to read the book, but I will say that it was a big risk for Murakami, making this particular reason the reason.  I wonder if he lost some readers with this reveal.  He may have, but I don’t think he should have.

While I don’t think there is much new ground covered in Colorless Tsukuru, long time Murakami fans will recognize elements of Norwegian Wood multiple times, Murakami’s book had a mature feel to it this time around.  It’s not as playful as books like Wind-up Bird was, but that’s okay.  It feels more rooted, maybe even stripped down some for a Murakami story.

One thing I loved that I want to discuss was the use of railway stations.  In making his main character a railway station designer Murakami his stumbled upon the perfect occupation for a Murakami hero.  Few Americans have serious experience of railway stations, so substitute airports, the two are similar enough.

A railway station, like an airport, is really no where.  They are in towns and cities but they are not really part of them in the sense that so many travellers are just there to change trains or change planes.  I’ve been to the airport in Salt Lake City to change planes several times, but that doesnt’ really count as being in Salt Lake City.  I never left the airport, therefore I was never really there.

One airport is much like another.  To be in one is to be between places.  The station is almost an extension of the train itself.  Meeting someone in a station is just about the same experience as meeting someone on a train.  You might begin a conversation, you might share a drink or a meal, but even if you spent enough time together to share something about your life, you are just passing through.  You’re not forming a lasting bond.

So many of Murakami’s main characters have this same feeling to them. They are not really anywhere even though they may be in a particular place.  They don’t really interact with the world just with the few people they are travelling with.  Since they are travelling, not arriving, many of their relationships have a temporary feel to them.    Tsukuru doesn’t really leave his metaphorical station until the final pages of the book, after he has completed his years a pilgrimage most of which he spent in the same place.

I had one other really good point that I wanted to make, but I’ve forgotten it.  If I stick to my metaphor then I guess it’s a piece of lost luggage, something I left on the train.  Who knows what it might have contained.

Posted in Book Review, Fiction, Japanese Literature, Novel, Translation | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Sunday Salon: Do You Read Book Reviews? A Challenge and a Rant and a Sad Attempt to Attract Traffic ran a short post on how to draw traffic to your book blog this week.  Her top ten ways to bring more readers to your book blog were:

  1. Tutorials
  2. Resource dump
  3. Lists
  4. Cheat Sheets
  5. Rants
  6. Challenge/Project Posts
  7. Event Post/Participation Post
  8. Personal Stories
  9. Survey/Quiz
  10. Comedy

I refuse to run tutorials because I teach for a living so I’m not going to give it away.  I’m not sure what a resource dump is-sounds messy.  Is is a list of links?  I’ve run several of those.  I’ve no idea what she means by cheat sheets but I do know that cheating is wrong. If I catch you at you’re going to get a referral.

But did you notice that none of the top ten ways to attract readers to your book blog included anything to do with writing better reviews.  In fact, you could do all ten of the items of Parajunkee’s list without even mentioning books.

It’s been this way since the beginning.  Last year I ran a post on comment worthy book blog posts in which I listed what sorts of posts get the most comments.  Here’s my list:

  1.  Posts about dramatic personal news get the most comments.  Good dramatic news like an engagement or the birth of a baby (human child, puppy or kitten) get the most.  This is followed by new jobs, graduations, promotions, moves to new towns, and children who win sporting events.  Bad dramatic news comes close behind.
  2. Post about blogging topics come next.  Wondering how to treat Advanced Review Copies, whether or not to publish negative reviews, should you change your blog’s layout design again?  Just about everyone who keeps a book blog has an opinion to share.  A post about comments usually does fairly well.
  3. Participants in weekly topics can do very well.  Sunday Salon still thrives on comments.  Booking Through Thursday still has a base of fans though Top-Ten Tuesday seems to be the current favorite.
  4. Post about general publishing issues and book world controversies come next.  Posts about Young Adult book controversies always do very well.
  5. Pictures of pretty scenery and cute pets.  Cute babies trump both, however.  (See #1 above.)
  6. Reviews of current popular books/authors.  Reviews of a popular author’s newest book will get more comments than a review of the same authors previous books will.  Positive reviews tend to get more comments than negative reviews do. I you loved The Goldfinch, then you have lots of freinds out there just dying to tell you how much they also loved The Goldfinch.
  7. Reviews of classic literature that is still widely read, especially if a new movie adaptation of the book has recently come out.
  8. Reviews of books people have heard of but not many people have read.  Comments will increase if the book is a classic people feel they really should have read at some point.
  9. Reviews of obscure books by well known authors.
  10. Obscure books by little known authors get the least number of comments.

While I basically match up with, I do include book reviews in my list because I am old school, Dawg.

That post, by the way, got 15 comments which was darn good for my old blog.  Since it met three of’s top-ten because it was a list, a rant and a comedy piece, it also increased traffic to Ready When You Are, C.B.   I can’t remember for sure because it was several years ago and I’m old, fifty and a half in fact, but I think I even gained a follower.  It was pretty popular post.

So here we are, on this new blog where I post mostly book reviews and don’t get all that much traffic.  You can sit there, wherever you are, and tell me you don’t care about traffic, but I don’t believe you.  You’re keeping a book blog, you want people to read it.

So do I.

I Read a Book Review TodaySo, to help drive traffic to this post which is already a list, a rant, and an attempt at a comedy piece, I’m going to give you a challenge that you can participate in as well.  Go out into the world, well, into cyber-space, and read a book review today.  After reading it, leave a comment.

If you’d like to participate, you can sign up in a comment below.  After you have completed the challenge you can include the cool button I made on your blog.  You’re not required to tag five friends, but if you want to, I’m not going to stop you.  How could I?

And who doesn’t love a good game of tag?

Have fun.

And watch out for traffic.

Posted in Rants, Ramble | Tagged , | 23 Comments

A Wednesday Wonder Retrospective: Larousse Gastronomique; Cuisine Economique; A Humument; Walking Paris; Penland Book of Handmade Books; The Pop-up Book of Nightmares; Giggles in the Middle

For a short while I had this great idea–run reviews of the sort of books you don’t see but love to have: cookbooks, how-to books, coffee table books.  Fun thigs, but things that are not novels or non-fiction meant to be read cover-to-cover.   Turned out nobody else was interested.  Instead of generating traffic for my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. the Wednesday Wonders became silent echo chamber.  I kept at it for a couple of months, even got my good friend Sandy at You’ve GOTTA Read This to do a guest post.  It was fun.  Book blogs are supposed to be about fun, not about traffic, right.  

So in the spirit of fun I’m moving all of the Wedensday Wonders here in one omnibus post.  Here’s hoping this particular ‘bus’ gets stuck in traffic.

These all first ran in late 2008.

Today’s Wednesday Wonder is a guest post from a relatively new blogger Sandy at You’ve Gotta Read This. Please stop by her site sometime.

Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne

When fellow blogger C.B. James asked me to review Larousse Gastronomique as one of his Wednesday Wonders, I instantly got sweaty palms. You see, reviewing my favorite culinary tome of all times could be likened to reviewing the Bible, or War and Peace. How to do it justice? But with a glass of Bordeaux in hand, I pledge to try.

In the spirit of the holidays and gift-giving, this is perfect timing. If you know someone that has a passion for cooking, and equally a passion for literature, look no further for the ultimate gift. Originally written in 1938 in the French language, with 8,500 recipes and over a thousand pages, Larousse is THE world authority on anything remotely related to the culinary arts. It is almost beyond comprehension that this much information could be contained in one book. In 1961, it was translated to English for the first time, which is the edition that I own, and is the picture shown at the left. I found this edition on eBay for less than $20, but trust me that it would be one of the first things I grabbed if my house caught on fire. I received the book with yellowed pages and large splatters on it (wine? sauce? blood?) which even made it more precious to me. Today, Larousse can be found in any superior restaurant and owned by any culinary expert worth his salt.

Larousse would officially be named an encyclopedia/cookbook. To describe it this way, however, is sacrilege. What subject of cooking do you dream of knowing more about? How about agaric fungi, its number of species, where to find them, which are edible, and how to prepare and with which sauce best complements its flavor? Maybe you need to know about alcoholism and all its forms, just to make sure you’re OK. A bit of poetry, perhaps, by the French poet Berchoux who prefers to write about gastronomy. And what kind of French reference guide would it be without all things vino? You can take a trip through any of France’s divisions and regions, Guyenne, Champagne, Provence, Marche, etc., learn about the culinary specialties of each, as well its wine production. Like eggs? Larousse has over 400 ways to prepare them. You want to butcher your own cow, pig or lamb, or at the very least understand all the cuts? Look no further. If you have any leftover parts, like a pig leg, you will have wonderful advice on how to make good use. Maybe you are a history buff, and would like to better appreciate the evolution of cooking over the ages, from prehistoric times through the present day. Nothing is missed in this little treasure.

One downside of Larousse, if I were pushed to come up with one, would be that it assumes the reader knows something about cooking. Recipes are not laid out in step-by-step detail like you might find in a common cookbook. I also feel that later editions (which you can find anywhere from Barnes and Noble to Williams Sonoma), each one just a little more modern and pristine, loses a little of that shameless passion that you see in the 1961 edition. And to me, that is what cooking is all about.

The rest of the Wednesday Wonder posts were all mine.  First up, another cookbook.

Of all the books I own, Cuisine Economique by Jacques Pepin is probaby the one I turn to most frequently. True, it is a cook book, but it is also the most useful book I own.

I am not someone who collects a lot of cookbooks. (I own about 12 and I have a file folder of recipes torn out of Bon Appetite magazine.) It’s my belief that it’s better to have a few cookbooks full of recipes that are actually used than a bunch of cookbooks with nice photographs and one or two thing that you’ve actually tried once when you first got the book. My edition of Cuisine Economique has no pictures, just recipes, every one of them delicious. I’ve cooked almost all of them over the years most of them many times.

In Cuisine Economique, Jacques Pepin pays tribute to the food his family served when he was a boy. His family was not wealthy, so they had to make the most of their food budget, but this did not stop his family from having excellent meals. The recipes are grouped in menus and arranged by season so they fit both the weather and what vegetables are available and cheap. It’s possible to prepare a full meal–soup, main course, side dish and dessert–for four to six people for under 30.00 dollars U.S. Keep this information to yourself and your guests will thank you for a wonderful meal that clearly took great time and exspense to prepare.

One recipe that I like which anyone can make:

Fromage Fort

3 or 4 peeled garlic cloves

1 lb. leftover pieces of cheese, a combination of as many hard and soft varieties as you desire(like Brie, cheddar, Swiss, bleu, mozzarella or goat), trimmed to remove surface dryness and mold. Mr. Pepin recommends that you use bits of leftover cheese for this. I never have leftover cheese, but maybe you do.

1/2 cup dry white wine or vegetable broth or a mixture of both. Again, leftover wine is recommended which I do sometimes have.

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Salt, if needed.

Place the peeled garlic in the bowl of a food processor and process for a few seconds, until coarsely chopped. Add the cheese, white wine (or broth), pepper, and salt (if needed) and process for 30 to 45 seconds, until the mixture is soft and creamy but not too smooth. Place in a crock, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
Enough for about 50 pieces of toast.

All of the recipes are easy to follow and the results are both delicious and eye-catching. Take two of our favorite desserts: peaches in red wine and pears cooked in mint tea. Each recipe is just about as straight forward and simple to prepare as their titles suggest. Served in wine glasses they create an elegant finish that never fails to impress. And, they are so light you can have them even after a heavy meal. Our all time favorite is the strawberry bread pudding, which is basically fresh strawberries (Mr. Pepin says that you can use berries that have just begun to turn though I never do) blended with and equal amount of bread crumbs and some sugar and some strawberry jam. Refrigerate in small ramkins and serve with a dollop of sour cream. You may live a long life, but you’ll not have anything better.

The main courses, soups and salads are all just as good and just as easy to prepare. I’ve yet to try anything that we didn’t love or that put a crimp on our budget. If I had to live with just one cookbook, which I hope never happens, it would probably be Cuisine Economique by Jacques Pepin.

A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by Tom Phillips is a book unlike any other. It’s life began when British artist Tom Phillips found a cheap edition of an old Victorian novel by W. H Mallock called A Human Document. Mr. Phillips took the novel apart, searching for stories locked inside the text and then brought them to the surface by using the pages of the book as a canvas for his art. He has created a new work of art on every one of the original book’s 367 pages. Thought he ‘finished’ the project and published it in 1980, Mr. Phillips continues to find more copies of A Human Document  to make new pages for A Humument. You can find a complete gallery of all the books’ pages at his website.

volume And side I shall like, bones my bones

The following sing I a book a book of art of mind art and that which he hid reveal I

The poetry Mr. Phillips found inside the text amazes me. I have tried to do this in my own art work, but I’ve seldom come close. In the edition I own, Mr. Phillips has discovered the story of a, ill-fated love affair between a man called “toge” and “Irma” his love.  Reading A Humument is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle.  There is a plot arch, there are characters, but how do you read the book?  Words are connected into groups, sometimes you read them forward, sometimes backwards.  Each group is like a peek into the life of “toge”; together, they create a story.

Saturday displeasure sea-side child

his mind like water he mentioned the convenient train

they met at Waterloo an hour’s rapid travelling brought them to a wild common soon flickering sun singular primitive surprised undulating round glimpses shimmering through He took her by the gorse-bushes; beyond, backed by blue

Keeping up with Mr. Phillips’s website can be fun as well. Since he is continually updating the book, I can compare my edition with the new pages on the website. The artwork and the story are always changing.

Ill, ill in his room take his orders

ill Irma, ill.

ill, ill, toge he has not strength as he lies in bed, to drink champagne, nurse

You kill me she replied

I’ve tried to do this kind of found poetry with both modern and Victorian novels. It works much better with older novels. You have to begin with a text full of rich language to come up with poetry this spare.

If you have a suggestion for a Wednesday Wonder, the kind of book you treasure but don’t always read cover to cover, please let me know.

Two years ago (now eight years) CJ and I had the chance to exchange homes with a family in Paris. We went to the Port d’Italie neighborhood in the 13th Arrondissement and stayed in a three bedroom apartment while a French family of five came to Vallejo, CA and stayed in our home with its huge backyard. (We also traded cars.) Needless to say, we had a fantastic time. Since then, during slow moments in the day, I’ll look over at C.J. and know that he has gone back to Paris in his mind, on a trip of the imagination.

One reason why we had such a good time is that we took this weeks Wednesday Wonder, Walking Paris by Gilles Desmons along as our guidebook. There are many guidebooks on Paris out there, quite a few videos, too, so choosing the right one can be a challenge. What CJ and I look for in a guidebook is insider information; something that will tell us about places that even the locals don’t know about yet. You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to find a guidebook like this for a place like Paris. We checked out a video on touring Paris from our local library only to find it suggested we go to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum as though those two places never would have occurred to us otherwise.

Walking Paris  lays out thirty different walks  centered on one or two neighborhoods, each full of unusual sights and fascinating information, the kind of thing other books leave out and many of the locals haven’t even seen yet. Here’s a brief look at one of the tours through Le Marias, one of the neighborhoods many tourists don’t get to.

The tour starts at the Pont-Marie metro stop. (Each tour in the book begins and ends at a Metro stop.) The guidebook tells us that this is one of the oldest and best preserved districts in Paris. It was ‘the place to be up until the revolution when it gradually became one of the poorer sections of the city. Now, it is a area known for its museums, and the middle class has begun to move back in.

Just over the bridge you’ll find the Hotel de Sens one of the oldest buildings in Paris. The Hotel de Sens was once the residence of an archbishop who was so fat that tables had to be specially cut so he could sit down at them. It was also once the home of Queen Margot who was well known for her ability to collect lovers. She moved into the hotel at age 54 and though she was bald at the time she continued to add to her collection. She simply had the blond hair of her pages cut to make wigs. Not the sort of information one finds in Fodor’s.

One of the highlights of Paris is its many parks. Le Marias is the home of the Place des Vosges. In 1605, Paris was quickly growing and there was no place to hold large fetes. So Henri IV decided to convert what was once a large horse market into an elegant park. He was assassinated two years before its completion. It quickly became a popular destination and the setting for many duels.

It has been the home of many famous people including author Victor Hugo whose apartment is now a museum open to the public and usually free of charge. (One of the great things about Walking Paris is that it’s a treasure trove of small, low cost and free museums.)

CJ and I had a picnic lunch in the park after touring Victor Hugo’s home. This is what most Parisians do, I’m told. The food in Paris, like everything else there is very expensive, and not nearly as good as we were led to believe. We carry a small lunch box type cooler with us when we travel, so we filled it with fresh bread and one type of cheese or another every morning and had lunch in parks throughout Paris. Fortunately, the weather was very good for 20 of the 24 days we were there.

The Hotel Carnavalet is the next major stop on the tour. Built in the late 16th century, it is one of the better examples of Renaissance architecture in Paris. The museum here is very old-school. The exhibits are arranged in chronological order from pre-Roman times to the present. The building is huge, and a bit of a maze, so plan on getting lost when you go, but lost in a good way. You simply do not know what you’ll find. The best part of the collection is the antiquities which are plentiful. There are also a couple of gardens like the one pictured.

The Cognacq Jay Museum is next. Located in the Hotel de Donon since 1991, it features an impressive collection of 18th century furnishings and paintings assembled by Ernest Cognacq and his wife Marie-Louise Jay the founders of the Samaritaine department store. You can see everything here in about 30 minutes, and then go on to the Picasso museum around the corner afterwards. I won’t say anything about the Picasso Museum because I simply hate Picasso. CJ likes him and says the museum has an excellent collection. But an entire building filled with Picasso’s was just too much for me, so I waited outside in the courtyard and eavesdropped on the passing tourists.

The tour of Le Marias ends at the St. Paul metro station. This was one of our perfect days in Paris. Four small museums featuring a wide range of things to see from ancient Roman times to modern art, a lunch in a beautiful park, a tour of an interesting and entertaining neighborhood. And very few tourists because most tourists never make it out of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Even the Picasso Museum has a small, comfortable crowd.

During our stay in Paris we took five the 30 tours described in Walking Paris and enjoyed each one. We just picked out a part of the city we were interested in seeing, and followed the maps. If you find yourself heading to Europe any time soon, or if you want to take a trip of the imagination, you can’t go wrong with Walking Paris by Gilles Desmons, this weeks Wednesday Wonder.

Beside keeping this blog up-t0-date and teaching middle school, I make books. I don’t write books, rather I practice book arts: making books that are art or making art from books. You can see some of my work here. I consider myself a very good amateur at this point in time, with prospects for improvement. I’m not yet in the same league with the artists featured in The Penland Book of Handmade Books this week’s Wednesday Wonder.

The Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina has offered workshops in bookbinding and other book arts since 1930. Anyone who wants to can register to take classes there. The Penland School is in the Appalachian Mountains and sounds like a terrific summer vacation to me.

The Penland Book of Handmade Books features chapters on ten different book artists. Each chapter showcases the artist’s work and features a detailed workshop wherein the artist describes how to make a particular book. These have the usual range of difficulty, but this is not a book for first timers. You’d be better off starting with a few simpler projects before trying the projects in the Penland Book.

One of the artists is Carol Barton of Popular Kinetics Press who specializes in pop-up books. Once you start dabbling in book arts it is difficult to stay away from pop-ups. Pop ups are an easy way to explain why C.J. considers book arts to be a form of sculpture.

I think you can see what he means in the picture above. Words are certainly involved and are important. But the overall visual effect is sculptural with a pop-up book. If you define sculpture as three dimensional art then you can argue that all books are sculpture. Pop-up books certainly are. They’re actually kinetic sculpture.

Daniel Essig’s work drives home this argument. The cover of the Penland Book is a photograph of his piece Niche Bridge Book. It uses carved mahogany, maple, handmade paper and rag books from the 1850’s along with bones and fossils. The two pillars that support the book each have a carved niche containing a smaller handmade book. (This is not shown in the cover photograph.)

Even Mr. Essig’s blank journals are works of sculpture.

Mr. Essig does not write in his journals though other people do. He considers each blank journal to be a record of his life at a particular time. The book itself is the journal in Mr. Essig’s case.

The artists and artwork in The Penland Book of Handmade Books stretch the idea of the book. It’s interesting to see this happening at a time when the publishing industry itself is changing the idea of the book with new electronic readers like the Kindle. The question of just what is a book seems to be more up for grabs all the time.

Mary has three times as many apples as Susan, who is on a train traveling from New York to Los Angeles at an average speed of 80 mph. Using the formula below, prove that morality can exist is a Godless universe. Show all work.

The Pop-up Book of Nightmares by Gary Greenberg, Balvis Rubess and Matthew Reinhard is not really a pop-up book for kids, maybe for precocious middle schoolers, but not for little kids. Sandy at You’ve Gotta Read This mentioned her family’s love of pop-up books in a comment last week, and that got me thinking about them and one of my favorites, The Pop-up Book of Nightmares.

All of the standard nightmares are here, all cleverly and creepily illustrated: taking a test, public speaking, falling, spooky bedrooms, child-birth, appearing naked in public. The illustrations are clever and the mechanical design of the pop-ups add to the fun. The doll below has eyes that move back and forth as you open and close the book, for example.

Pop-Ups have come a long way since I read them as a child. The advent of computer design tools has made very complex pop-ups possible, many of them far more complicated than The Pop-Up Book of Nightmares. But the illustrations here are still quite good, even eight years after publication. In one, the falling nightmare is illustrated by a pop-up spiral staircase featuring three floors of stairway that the reader ends up staring into for a startling illustration of falling.  In another, the fear of appearing in public naked, the a baseball player and an umpire pull back the shower curtains to reveal that the reader is in the middle of a baseball game with thousands of spectators.  That’s as racy, and probably as scary, as the book gets, probably safe for most 6th graders  and up.

So this week’s Wednesday Wonder is The Pop-Up Book of Nightmares.  

Sleep tight.

I’ve spent the last 18 years looking for ways to make learning grammar fun, to little avail.  I’ve got fun activities for reading, writing, even spelling, but fun grammar has always  eluded me.

Until now.  I hope.

Last month a colleague of mine loaned me her copy of Giggles in the Middle by Jane Bell Kiester.   Giggles in the Middle is a grammar book for students grades six to eight, but don’t click away yet.  It’s actually pretty fun.

The methodology is nothing new; students start each day finding and correcting errors in a short passage.  What is new, and kind of fun, is that the passages are all part of the same humorous story about a group of friends in middle school.   The plot is right out of an easy read/high interest book; there are struggles with adults, mix-ups between the friends, and a few magical spells that go awry.  It’s not great literature, but it’s much more fun than the usual sentences students have to correct.  Another new thing, new for me anyway, is that the sentences in Giggles in the Middle feature a rich and varied vocabulary.  I’ve had to look up several words myself, already.  The vocabulary is reinforced by naming each character after their primary characteristic and by repeating the vocabulary words throughout the book.  Take this sample for example.  This is the uncorrected passage that starts of the grade seven section of the book.

 ingenuous always animated twirled n nervousness and a excess of energy.  pauline puerile whined in a babyish manner about the tardiness of olivia otiose about having to return to horribly hard middle school for another year and about the homework the teachers loved to pile on her

The teacher’s guide lists the vocabulary words, which are also in bold face; the grammar topics covered in the passage, in this case paragraphing, use of simple sentences, commas in participial phrases and lists, use of strong verbs, capitalization,  a vs. an and use of alliteration.  I would probably use Giggles in the Middle just for the vocabulary if for no other reason, at least with my GATE class.  None of us had ever heard the word otiose before, and it’s the perfect word for so many students.

All of the exercises are on the CD which is included with the book, so it’s very easy to set them up in whatever worksheet form you like, or to put them in Powerpoint.  Ms. Kiester also includes a writing assignment every two or three pages if you’re looking for topics and suggestions to go along with the story of Horribly Hard Middle School.

At this point it may be that I love Giggles in the Middle more than my students do.  They are in seventh grade, and grammar is still grammar, and we did start it very late in the year, but I’m definitely going to give the book a full test run next fall.  It’s the first time in 18 years that I can say I have a grammar program that I’m looking forward to using.

otiose: adj, 1. lazy; indolent.  2. Of no use. 3. Ineffective; futile.  For pronunciation go here.

Posted in Book Review, Classic, French, Non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright is a multi-award winning account of the people and events behind the September 11, 2001 hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The book lives up to its publicity and deserves the awards. It’s one of the best pieces of recent history I’ve read.

While thoroughly researched, The Looming Tower is written in straightforward prose that reads almost like a spy thriller–if only it were simply that. Mr. Wright has interviewed just about everyone with any connection to the terrorists and the government agents who hunted them and he has read all there is to read about them as well. The result of his research is a fascinating, page turning, in-depth account that will add to the understanding of all but the most expert readers. Take, for instance, this paragraph explaining why so many young Muslim men were willing to become martyrs:

The lure of an illustrious and meaningful death was especially powerful in cases where the pleasures and rewards of life were crushed by government oppression and economic deprivation. From Iraq to Morrocco, Arab governments had stifled freedom and signally failed to create wealth at the very time when democracy and personal income were sharply climbing in virtually all other parts of the globe. Saudi Arabia, the richest of the lot, was such a notoriously unproductive country that the extraordinary abundance of petroleum had failed to generate any other significant source of income; indeed, if one subtract the oil revenue of the Gulf countries, 260 million Arabs exported less than the 5 million Finns. Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectation and declining opportunities. This is especaily true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment–movies, theatre, music–is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remained the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment, and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies.

This situation led many young people to actively seek the “glorious death” martyrdom promised. This desire only increased after the crack-downs which followed early attacks in Egypt, such as the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The men charged and imprisoned for this crime were severely tortured by the Egyptian government which only served to radicalise them and their followers even further and led to increased growth of fundamentalist terror movements in Egypt. One of these men was Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri the leader of al-Jihad movement in Egypt and later the ideological leader of al-Queda. At one point the Egyptian government forced two young boys, both sons of members of the al-Jihad movement, to turn against their fathers and attempt to plant a bomb in the home of Dr. Zawahiri. (That this was done by photographing the boys while raping them and then threatening to show the photographs to their fathers indicts both the government of Egypt and fundamentalist Islam which would subject the boys to the death penalty for their “crime.”) The plot failed and the boys were executed but Zawahiri’s movement was left in shambles.

Zawahiri had few resources remaining other than bin Laden’s backing. He was determined to strike back quickly against the Egyptian authorities in order to redeem his reputation and keep the remnants of his organization intact. His views had undergone a powerful shift from those of the young man who spurned revolution because it was too bloody. He now believed that only violence changed history. In striking the enemy, he would create a new reality. His strategy was to force the Egyptian regime to become even more repressive, to make the people hate it. In this he succeeded. But the Egyptian people did not turn to him or to his movement. They only became more miserable, more disenchanted, frightened, and despairing. In the game Zawahiri had begun, however, revenge was essential, it was the
game itself.

And the focus of the attacks shifted from the government to people in general. The goal soon became to kills as many as possible with no real regard to who the victems were. It is no coincidence that many of the 9/11 hijackers came from Egypt. Mr. Wright does an excellent job of clearly explaining the roots of al-Qaeda, beginning with revolutionary intellectual movements in Egypt in the 1950’s.

Mr. Wright presents a comprehensive biography of the key players in al-Qaeda, namely Zawahiri and bin Laden. Whle Mr. Wright makes no effort to paint these men as monsters, as the book progresses they become them, at least as far as I’m concerned. The form of Islam that they embrace is so extreme one wonders how anyone could be attracted to it. Then they themselves begin to make it even more extreme by finding in it the justification for killing innocent people including families and children, even fellow Muslims. I was reminded of the justifications Christians came up with during the 4th crusade to make it acceptable for them to attack and kill other Christians. There is, unfortunately, nothing new under the sun.

While most of The Looming Tower is about the development of al-Qaeda and bin Laden, Mr. Wright does present the law enforcement side of the story. The F.B.I and the C.I.A. were both very late to the party. Fundamentalist Islamic terrorists didn’t make it onto the radar screens of either group until rather late in the game and not enough people at either agency took al-Qaeda seriously enough until September 12, 2001. One man who did was John O’Neill at the F.B.I. Mr. O’Neill and a handful of other agents doggedly pursued anti-terror investigations only to be thwarted by the C.I.A. which withheld information they wanted kept secret as a means of gaining further intelligence. Mr. Wright lays out the details here and makes a good case for the argument that had these two agencies cooperated, namely had the C.I.A. given the F.B.I. the information they requested, the 9/11 attacks could very likely have been prevented. Mr. O’Neill retired in early September 2001 and began a new job with security at the World Trade Center. He was killed when the towers collapsed.

The Looming Tower ends with the September 11 attacks which makes for an oddly unsatisfactory finish. I wanted to know more. Mr. Wright explains how al-Qaeda and bin Laden ended up in Afghanistan under the Taliban but he does not develop this material enough to explain why the United States felt justified invading that country. These events happened afterwards, true, and are therefore material for another day, but it remained a nagging question in a book that provided so many answers. I do not know if Mr. Wright is planning a second volume. If he is, it will certainly find a place on my TBR shelf.


While it has been six years since I first published this reveiw on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., it’sdifficult for me to judge just how much the situation has changed.  I fear we may be gearing up for a third invasion of Iraq, third one in my lifetime.  The Looming Tower still provides a look into just how we got here.  Mr. Wright has not written a second book yet, but I think we could use one.  A final volume would be nice.  

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The Nose by Nikolai Gogol translated from the Russian by Ian Dreiblatt


It’s highly possible that I’m no longer rational in my love for NIkolai Gogol.  He may not actually be as wonderful as I think he is.

So be warned.  I’m a Gogol fanboy.

The Nose  is the story of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov who wakes up one morning to find that his nose is gone.  Aware that he will most likely lose his position in the civil service if he appears in public without his nose, he immediately begins to look for it.

To his shock, he discovers his nose at church where it has already assumed a circle of friends and a civil service rank higher than his own.  When his nose refuses outright to return to his face, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov his few options left him and sinks into despair.

Like much of Gogol’s work it’s hard to tell if The Nose is really a finished product.  There are two complete stories in the slim volume published by Melville House as part of their Art of the Novella series.

In the first story, a lower ranking civil servant finds the nose in his morning bread loaf. How it got there he can only speculate.  Since he cannot come up with a way to return the nose to Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov who outranks him, he takes the nose to a nearby bridge and tries to surreptitiously through it into the river.  That he was able to tell whose nose it was shows you just how prominent a nose we’re talking about here.

Afterwards, the second, more familiar story begins.

I’ve read The Nose several times, but never encountered this pre-coda before.  Is there a term for a coda that comes before the story begins?  This tale before the tale and the kind of loose way Kovalyov finally gets his nose back in the end leads me to wonder if Gogol was really finished with The Nose.  I still love the story. I would still love to sit in on a graduate seminar on Gogol, but this time around I felt the ending was a little problematic, not as problematic as Gogol’s wonderful novel Dead Souls which really was never finished, but a little too loose.

Of course, what happens to the nose is not really the point of The Nose.

I confess that I may have written this entire review just to make that sentence possible.

Posted in Book Review, Classic, Fiction, LGBT, Russian Literature | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments