Sunday Salon: Ponyboy and Johnny and Dally

Reading is a creative act.

This is a controversial idea, one that many people resist strongly, one I resisted when I first learned about it.  But, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate it as an adult reader.  That young readers are creative agents is apparent to me and to probably anyone who has spent more than a few years working with them.

In her acceptance speech for the Newberry Medal, which she won for her novel The Giver, Lois Lowry talks about this.  She refers to a young reader, a fan of her Anastasia Krupnik series who wrote to her once as follows:

“I really like the book you wrote about Anastasia and her family because it made me laugh every time I read it. I especially liked when it said she didn’t want to have a baby brother in the house because she had to clean up after him every time and change his diaper when her mother and father aren’t home and she doesn’t like to give him a bath and watch him all the time and put him to sleep every night while her mother goes to work…”

Ms. Lowry then points out that none of what this reader describes actually happens in the Anastasia books.  What this reader has done is to find a place for herself in the Anastasia novels.  “She has found a place, a place in the pages of a book, that shares her own frustration and feelings.”  I imagine she already felt so close to the Anastasia character that she could easily add these little personal details to the story making her own identification with Anastasia even stronger.  I argue that this is a creative act, one that is necessary if one is to become immersed in a work of art.  Ms. Lowry won the award for The Giver which is famed, in part, for the openness of its ending.  What actually happens to Jonas and Gabriel is anybody’s guess.  It’s totally up to the reader.  At least it was until the sequels came out.

There was a young man in my first graduate seminar back in 1990 something who insisted, in spite of all our arguments to the contrary, that Kate Chopin’s The Awakening had a happy ending.  We don’t know that she has drowned, he claimed.  We see her enter the water but we don’t know what happens after that.  She could very well have had a change of heart and returned to shore alive.

Why not?  The author doesn’t say otherwise.

All of which is a long-way-round introduction to my annual post on S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders which I’ve been teaching to my 7th graders for nearly two decades now.  The Outsiders is God’s gift to the 7th grade.  It never fails to touch them, to move them in ways books have not moved them before.  Friday one student happily told me that she got her very own copy for her birthday along with S.E. Hinton’s other books. The last time I saw a student so excited about a birthday gift it was tickets for an upcoming One Direction concert.

This past October S.E. Hinton spoke about The Outsider’s, something she doesn’t really do all that often.  A reader asked if there were any romantic feelings between the characters of Johnny and Dallas.  She forcefully said no, there were not. She wrote the book and she ought to know.  (You can read more about this here.)  She insisted that there is no textual evidence to support this, either.  They are simply friends.

Young readers, the ones I work with at least, are not concerned with textual evidence.  I suspect that few people outside of literature classes, some book blogs and maybe a few book clubs really are.  Young readers will find what they need to find in the books they read.  Young readers who need to find a love like their own will find it where they can.  Some of them may even go so far as to write it in themselves if needed.  Check out the many fan fiction sites on-line for the growing body of examples.

Back in graduate school I learned of something called Reader’s Response Theory.  This was a school of critical thought which argued that there were three agents involved in creating the experience of a poem: the poet, the text, and the reader.  Together these three created the poem.  Poem here, can stand for any work of art in my opinion.  Along with many students in the class, I resisted this idea. Our professor had her work cut out for her.  Some she won over, some she did not.  Plenty of adult reader agree with S.E. Hinton–the author’s word is final. What she says goes.

I don’t agree, not anymore.  Once a book is written and published, the author’s opinion is no longer of much use to me as a reader.  Sometimes, not as often as you might expect, it can be interesting to now what an author thinks, but how I interpret the text is really all that matters to me.  As a teacher, I insist my students come up with textual evidence to support their ideas.  This is what makes for a good and proper essay.  But as a reader, if I say she drowns in the end, then she drowns in the end.  If I say she lives, then she lives.  The better my experience of a book is, the stronger I feel this way.  Passion in defense of our interpretation is a testament to a book’s quality.

None of y 7th graders have ever brought up the subject in regards to The Outsiders.  As far as I know, they all agree with S.E. Hinton, they are simply very good friends.   But there’s actually a fair amount of textual evidence to support the idea that Dally has a crush on Johnny who has a crush on Ponyboy.  Why does Johnny agree to run away with Ponyboy when he really has no reason to join him? Why is Dally willing to let Johnny boss him around so easily?  Maybe they are just very good friends or maybe there is something more.

My point is that it’s not really up to S.E. Hinton any longer.  The young adults who continue to find meaning in The Outsiders will find the meaning the need to find.  A good friend or someone like them in a way may not yet be ready to talk about.

In any case, reading is a creative act.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Classic, Fiction, LGBT, Novel, Ramble, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Bookstore Victory! Hannah Arendt, I Found You at Last

It took a while, but last night I finally found a print copy of Hannah Arendt’s book Origins of Totalitarianism.

On the way home from work, I stopped at the best taqueria in town to buy a burrito.  (Yes, the best taqueria in Novato where I work is on a corner, though it’s not a “taco-truck” but an actual store.) Before entering, I popped into Copperfield’s Books which is just across the street.

“Do you have Hannah Arendt’s, Origins of Totalitarianism?”

Yes.” Clerk reaches over to the bookcase next to the register and grabs a copy which she hands to me.  I look it over, noting the price, how small the print is and the picture on the cover.

“Too bad there’s not an edition without Nazi’s on the cover?”

“I know, right.”

The burrito was excellent, by the way.  Carne asada with the works.

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Sunday Salon: Hannah Arendt is Sold Out

I have been looking for a copy of Hannah Arendt’s book Origins of Totalitarianism for two weeks now.  It seems like it would be a timely read and I enjoyed and admired her book Eichmann in Jerusalem about the trial of the notorious architect of the Holocaust.  (I highly recommend it, by the way.)

I’m a big fan of brick-and-mortor bookstores, so I was determined to find a copy of Origins of Totalitarianism in a real store.  It’s an old book, I reasoned, I should be able to get a used copy somewhere.

Okay, it was just an excuse to go visit a lot of bookstores, I admit it.

But, nope.  No copies.  Not at Half Price Books, not at Copperfield’s, not at The Napa Book Mine.  There was one, but it was in hardcover.  I want a paperback that I can carry around with me to impress the other cafe goers while we all sip lattes and type up reviews for our blogs.

file_000-4Should I just break down and order one on Amazon?

No.  I’m going to a workshop at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco this weekend.  I’ll go to City Lights books afterwards. They’re sure to have a copy. They have a whole section of books dedicated to “The Resistance.”  They’re sure to have a copy of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.

So, yesterday, after the workshop ended at 12:30, C.J. and I walked over Nob Hill, through Chinatown to North Beach where the famed City Lights is located. Along the way we stopped for some wonderful Dim Sum.  If you’ve never had Dim Sum, you should put it on your list of things to do before you die.  Dim Sum is a type of Chinese food usually made for special occasions.  Most Dim Sum are dumplings of one kind or another, small bites of food, pork or shrimp, in little buns.  The servers come out of the kitchen pushing little cards full of Dim Sum plates. You select the ones you want whenever they come by and pay by the plate at the end.  In Chinatown the best Dim Sum places are down little alleys in basement rooms.

The Dim Sum was delicious but City Lights Books did not have anymore copies of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.  So, I’m going to order a copy at my local bookstore, Bookshop Benicia.

I did find a three-in-one edition of Don Carpenter’s Hollywood novels which will probably be much more entertaining reading than Hannah Arendt.


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The Game of Thirty by William Kotzwinkle

William Kotzwinkle is funny.  His wonderful novel, The Midnight Examiner, is one of the funniest books, certainly the funniest detective novel I’ve read.  Why he doesn’t have a wider audience is beyond me.

Mr. Kotzwinkle doesn’t break new ground in his mystery novels: he’s not a pioneer of anything in particular.  What he does is springboard off of accepted tropes of the genre, things seen in many other books, into the heights.  While he doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before, he does it so well, better than we’ve seen in such a long time, that reading him feels like something new.  Finding him when I did, especially in The Midnight Examiner, wasn’t like finding the next Raymond Chandler, it was like finding Raymond Chandler funny cousin.

His novel The Game of Thirty features the very Chandleresque detective Jimmy McShane. Formerly with an investigative arm of the military police, McShane left the services to avoid a promotion which would have taken him away from investigating cases and put him behind a desk at the rank of colonel.  I liked him from the start.

McShane’s narration includes things like this:

Usually on nights when people try to murder me I drink extra-dry martinis.  Now I drink mineral water.  This was spiritual progress.

While I love the  little gems like that which Mr. Kotzwinkle drops throughout The Game of Thirty. I’m agnostic enough to stick with extra-dry martinis, myself.

The Game of Thirty concerns the murder of a wealthy Manhattan antiquities dealer.  His daughter hires McShane to take over the case once the police investigation goes cold.  We know, even McShane knows, that she will lead the detective down a rabbit hole of high society scandal before the story ends.  And she does.

While the first two thirds of  novel are a witty aside laden thrill-ride, the book becomes problematic towards the end.  Kotzwinkle is no stranger to the salacious. Since The Midnight Examiner is about the people who work on a national tabloid reporting the most scandalous news available when they are not making it up outright, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise when The Game of Thirty entered tabloid territory, or tabloid adjacent territory.  But after the investigation exposes a child prostitution ring, the book ceases to be funny.  It also ceases to be serious, too, oddly.

When the victim was a very wealthy antiquities dealer, McShane was free to be as acerbically witty as he wanted.  The reader is also free to laugh along with the fun.  But once the victims become eight-year-olds, neither of us can enjoy the story in the same way.  We have to be serious.  But Mr. Kotzwinkle strayed too far into the extreme for me to take him seriously.   I can accept the notion of a child prostitution ring, but one of the level Mr. Kotzwinkle describes in The Game of Thirty strains credulity.  And it really wasn’t necessary, either.

In spite of the problems with where The Game of Thirty ends up, the journey rewards the reader more than enough to make it all worthwhile.  Late in the book, one of McShane’s clients, a diamond merchant, looks wistfully out the window towards New Jersey and says, “We’re born, we have a little heartburn, we die.  What’s it all about?”

It’s about the moment just before the heartburn begins, my friend.  That good pastrami, whether it’s real meat or metaphorical, that we eat for the sheer pleasure we know it brings even when we know we’ll pay a price afterwards.  Heartburn isn’t such a high price.

I’ll be back for more William Kotzwinkle.  He is one good pastrami sandwich.


Rereading this review, which I first ran on Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2012, made me laugh. I hope you also found that bit at the end funny.  I was so young an innocent in 2012, so full of hope. We all were, weren’t we?

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fiction, Noir, Novel, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Murder in Memoriam by Didier Daeninckx

On October 17, 1961, thousands of Algerians took to the streets of Paris in a peaceful demonstration against a curfew that had been imposed only on them.  At the time, Algeria was engaged in a struggle for Independence from France which had long held the nation as a colony.

The demonstrators were met with extreme violence from the police who opened fire on them without provocation.  Unofficially, the deaths numbered in the hundreds.  Officially, they numbered three.

This is the background for Didier Daeninckx’s detective novel Murder in Memoriam.  It’s also the occasion for the first murder in the book.  While on his way home from an early matinee, Roger Tiraud is shot and killed during the opening moments of the police violence.  Officially, his death is the result of his participation in anti-government pro-Algerian movements.  Unofficially, his death remains a mystery until two decades later when his son is killed in a nearly identical manner.

What links the murders of father and son?  The son was just a baby at the time of his father’s death.  His father was a simple history teacher, he was a student working on a degree in history.  Why would anyone want to kill them?

Mr. Daeninckx’s detective Inspector Cadin’s investigation will reveal the cover-up that occurred after the violence of October 17, 1961 and implicate high level government officials in crimes dating back to the Nazi deportation of France’s Jewish population.  That Mr. Daeninckx’s murderer bore a striking resemblance to a real life high-ranking official in the Paris police department led many people to conclude that Murder in Memoriam played a significant role in bringing that man to justice, several years after the book was first published in France.

And it’s a darn good book, too.  If you like your detective stories stripped down to the actual work of the detective, if you don’t care who the various officers are sleeping with or which ones bear psychic scars from a deeply troubled childhood and just want the author to get on with the business of solving the crime which really ought to be interesting enough anyway, then Murder in Memoriam is a book you should check out.

While Mr. Daeninckx’s book is concerned with exposing a particular set of injustices that really occurred, these do not work against the story telling.  Instead, actual events become part of the book’s plot which works to entertain the readers as it works to educate them.  The author clearly has two goals in Murder in Memoriam, but neither undermines the other.  It’s a perfect piece of agitprop in that one can still read it, now  almost 30 years after its initial publication, and enjoy it.

And it has a really cool cover, too.


Since first running this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2012, I continue to look for these cool covers, books published by Melville House.  They are known for being good books, but also for having very cool cover designs like the one here.  They’ve led me to many author’s I would not have read and enjoyed otherwise. So, yes, go out there and judge books by their cover, at least pick up the ones with good covers, certainly the ones published by Melville House  

Posted in Book Review, Classic, European Literature, French, French Literature, Noir, Novel, Thriller, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments