Sunday Rant and Ramble: Lionel Shriver Makes me Mad; A New Cat Arrives; Tournament of Books Results

What makes a book a classic?

Lionel Shriver was a guest on my favorite BBC program A Good Read.  You can listen to the program here.  It was the dullest episode of my favorite program ever. Knowing something of what Ms. Shriver is like in person, I almost didn’t listen, but I thought I’d be open-minded, give it a try.

The conceit of A Good Read is that the host along with each of two guests suggests a book which they all read and then discuss.  I love it in part because it often brings books to my attention that I otherwise would never have read.  Oddly, maybe not all that oddly, the best episodes feature guests who are neither authors nor involved with publishing.  Ms. Shriver brought John Knowles A Separate Peace as her good read.

She began the discussion with a dig at teachers when the host mentioned that most American high schools use the book in their classes.  Fortunately, Ms. Shriver quipped, I didn’t suffer that fate. Or something like that.

I no longer have any patience with people denigrate the teaching profession in any way.  We didn’t ruin any book for you, we don’t have that power.  If we did, we’d use it against Twilight.  Own your nonsense.  You don’t get to blame your teachers for anything anymore. Be a grown up. Or face my wrath, ’cause I bite back. Hence this post.  Okay, not much in the way of wrath but it’s what I’ve got.

Apparently, people in the U.K. do not read A Separate Peace; Shriver was the only one on the program who had heard of it.  So the host brought up the question of what makes a book a classic.  I don’t recall what Shriver said, but my instant answer was high school teachers.

If you think John Knowles book A Separate Peace, published in 1959 would still be in print if it weren’t for generations of high school teachers bringing it to their freshman English classes, you are slightly delusional.  The reason a book remains in print generations after it is published, honestly even 10 years after it is published, is that some group of teachers somewhere in the world loves that particular book enough to carry it into a classroom or to encourage their students to read it on their own.  Teachers.  Even  popular classics like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings owe their success to teachers.  We were the ones getting our friends to bring book two back from trips to England so we could read Chamber of Secrets to our sixth grade students.  My seventh grade English teacher brought The Hobbit to class.

Teachers, Ms. Shriver, are the ones who make a book a classic.

Later in the episode, the host mentioned the homoerotic element of A Separate Peace which Ms. Shriver pooh-poohed immediately as wrong-headed and isn’t is a shame we can’t appreciate non-sexual friendships between men anymore.  Yes, I suppose, but wasn’t it worse that any hint of same-sex attraction had to be immediately denied so forcefully that it often led to acts of violence between those who felt it?  And just what makes you so uncomfortable with this idea, anyway, Ms. Shriver?  Is A Separate Peace not quite so wonderful if Gene really is in love with Phinny?

End of rant.  Now a cat video.

Last week, C.J. and I got a cat. Floyd, who came with that name, is not our first cat, as long time readers of this blog may recall.  We had one that ran away, and several rounds of foster kittens, but I think this one will stay.  Here’s a  video of him on the day we brought him home.

This year, for the first time, I am reading  along with The Tournament of Books.  It’s been a lot reading, almost all of it good, some if it great. I didn’t set up a full field of brackets, since I was not able to read all of the books in advance, maybe next year, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.

The tip in round in which three books compete before the tournament officially begins went to Alvaro Enrigue’s terrific historical fiction Sudden Death.  My review is here.  While this book was not quite my pick, I was pleased with the result.  I did not get a chance to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, but my favorite, maybe my favorite of all the tournament contenders so far, was Chris Bacheldar’s The Throwback Special.  My review is here.  While it garnered high praise from the round’s judge, as did all three books, it did not win.  It won’t be the zombie round winner either.  I knew there was no way a book about a group of straight white men facing middle age would win, and I’m okay with that, but it’s a wonderful book.

While I came to admire Michelle Tea’s book Black Wave and was genuinely moved by the ending, I knew it would lose to Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  Underground Railroad is a contender to take the contest or at least come in second to Homegoing.  My review of Black Wave is here; my review of Underground Railroad is here.  While I feel a little bad about Black Wave, this was the right choice as far as I’m concerned.

Inexplicably, Charlie Jane Anders science fiction/fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky defeated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Things like this do happen, but when they do, they make you wonder. Ms. Ander’s novel is good. Though I did not read it all, I can see its appeal and I admit it is well done.  But it’s been done before.  Two young people, a boy genius capable of inventing a time machine with spare parts he finds around the house and a girl gifted with powers of witchcraft beyond her control, become friends before they are each sent to different schools where they will learn to control their abilities until things come to a climatic head in a battle of some sort. I didn’t make it to the end so you’re own your own.  If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar.  Very familiar.

Han Kang’s book is not like anything I’ve read before.  That alone gets my attention and my praise.  You can read my review of it here.  A window on another society, a study of one woman, a study of a family, a metaphor for modern Korea.  There’s a lot going on in what looks at first like a fairly simple story.  I wonder if Han Kang has a chance to take the zombie round. I think she’s a long shot.

Of course, there’s no way one could ever agree with every decision the judges make, little chance of it anyway, and that probably wouldn’t be any fun.  Disagreeing is part of the entertainment.  The commentary and the comments make for very interesting reading.  I’m struck by how insightful and how interesting the commenters are.  Book people are the best people.

Could that be because so many of us are teachers?

Just asking.

Black Wave by Michelle Tea

When I was in college, I was friends with a group of women who shared a flat on Divisidero Street in San Francisco, decades before it became a trendy neighborhood.  In the 1980’s, four college students living on four or five hundred dollars a month  each could come up with enough money to rent a flat.  As longs as no one spends all the rent money on cocaine.

One month, that happened.  The leaseholder, who collected all the cash, spend the rent money on cocaine.  When the land-lord came to call, they almost all ended up on the street.  One of them managed to convince the landlord to give them an extra month to come up with the money and to move the lease over to a different room-mate.

The former leaseholder, the one with the fondness for cocaine, was evicted by consensus.

So, yes, I do understand that addiction is a disease, but the rent is the rent.

Which is why I have less patience for stories of addiction than I might have.

Which is why I had a tough time with Michelle Tea’s novel, Black Tea.  I should have liked it more.  The first half of the story is set in San Francisco, much later, some 30 years or so, than my college days, but familiar territory that I am fond of. The main character is a lesbian woman who shares the flat with a series of roommates and girlfriends.  She even works in a book store.  But, boy does she use a lot of drugs. I kept thinking as I read her story that her roommate should throw her out.

So I found it all very tough reading in the same way I found Charles Bukowski’s Ham and Eggs tough reading.  I just don’t have much interest in stories of how far addicts go to serve their addiction be it alcohol or hard drugs.

Still, since Black Wave is in the Tournament of Books this year, I kept reading.  I think I’m glad I did.


Just short of halfway through the novel, the story shifts to Los Angeles.  The main character then turns to the reader to admit that not all of what she has told us so far is true.  The girl she introduced briefly as a sort of one-night-stand was really a long-term girlfriend.  She just didn’t want to be included in this “memoir.” Other details had been changed as well. So what’s really going on.

In Los Angeles we discover that the world is about to end.  Things are decaying around the main character who manages to get a job in a bookstore like the one she had in San Francisco.  Things get worse, gradually then dramatically.  It’s an unclear end of the world scenario that features the main character in a bookstore strewn with unshelved books, reminding me of Paul Auster’s wonderful novel In the Country of Last Things.  But Mr. Auster and Ms. Tea are up to very different things.  Ms. Tea is doing something much more in line with Samuel R. Delany’s Dahlgren in which a city, probably New York, decays in chaos while the hippie-like main characters build a temporary utopia amid the soon to be ruins of civilization.  I loved Dhalgren and came to enjoy the second part of Black Wave.

But what really surprised me about Black Wave is how moved I was at the ending. Even though I was enjoying the book by the end, I did not expect to care about the main character, this drug addled hipster with an attitude she is in no position to hold.  But I was.  The final scene, her last moments of life, struck me, profoundly struck me.

I did not expect that, not at all.

So I think I’m recommending Black Wave. 100 pages into the book I was ready to lay it aside for good, but by the final words on the last page I was thinking I might read more by Michelle Tea.  I think that’s a recommendation.

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 concerns an alien invasion attempt but that doesn’t really matter.  Samuel R. Delany’s main concern in Babel-17 is language.  What is the future of language?  How might exposure to alien language’s affect us. As a sub-plot, or sub-concern, there is a question of what my sexuality look like in the future something Delany has often been interested in.

He has some intriguing ideas.

Babel-17 features a set of characters who are a trio, two men and one woman.  They more than love each other, they have minds that function together to help pilot the space ship in the novel.  Many such sets of three exist in Delany’s future.   The two men in this story are looking for a woman to replace their original third who has died.  Their captain helps them find a woman who was formerly part of trio. Her two mates, both men, died years ago.

This is really interesting idea, if a somewhat squeamish one.  I’ve long admired Samuel R. Delany, and other science fiction writers of his generation, for their willingness to examine how sexuality and love might change in the future.  It’s an interesting aspect of Babel-17, thought not the book’s main concern, as I said.

The main concern is language.  The hero of the novel, the ship captain mentioned earlier, is a famed poet and an expert in language.  She has been put in charge of deciphering the new alien language Babel-17 as a means of defeating the invasion.  She is somewhat telepathic, something many people will be in Delany’s future, so she is able to hear language where others cannot.

Much of this book went over my head.  It’s something that would benefit from having a professor guide you through.  I meant to look it up on-line before typing up this review and may get around to it someday.

But while I didn’t understand all of it, I did enjoy it and I do admire Delany’s writing. There is a wonderful passage where the ship captain is dreaming in the new language.  We read this dream as a single, four page, sentence interspersed with block of text that describe what is going on outside the ship captain’s dream in the “real” world.

I thought it was terrific.

So terrific that I am keeping my copy of Babel-17 on the to-be-reread-in-retirement shelf.

Sometimes you get so much more out of a second reading.

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.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

The main character, Jack Leavitt, deserves no sympathy.  True, he was born into a terrible situation, orphaned by his mother who abandoned him to the state in secret just to keep his father from ever finding him.  He grows up under very bad circumstances; faces young adulthood without anyone to help him steer a path through the mean streets of Portland and Seattle where the early sections of the novel take place.  That he ends up in prison, even in a high security prison like San Quentin, is not a surprise.  He never had a chance.

But he still deserves no sympathy.  Racist, sexist, able to take the bad hand life has dealt him and turn it into something much worse again and again knowing full well that the choices he makes are the wrong ones, Jack is unlikely to be the sort of character many readers willingly identify with.

Yet, his story moved me.  Jack’s failed attempts at redemption and  his final acknowledgement of his own failings in life, and in love, didn’t bring tears to my eyes, but they’ve left a strong impression all the same.  I wish Jack could have come to a better end, even as I understand exactly why this was never possible.

Don Carpenter paints a picture of the American under-class that we ought to see more often.  At present, close to 2% of Americans are either in prison, on parole or on probation, yet we rarely see them as characters in serious fiction.  Crime fiction, yes, but not in literature.  Except in the case of cross-over works like Hard Rain Falling, a mix of crime and literary fiction, Great Expectations if Magwitch had stolen Pip away  and raised him himself.  That Hard Rain Falling was published in 1966 puts it squarely in the Ken Kesey school of literature, social outcasts trying to make their way in the word.  The world of Hard Rain Falling is one of pool halls, wild parties, reform school and prison.  But even in this hard edged world, Mr. Carpenter’s hero manages to find love, though he cannot call it by its name until far too late.

But he never really does find redemption.  The closest he comes is a sort of acceptance, a willingness to face his life on its terms.  That this small bit of cold comfort in his hard-scrabble life make Jack Leavitt’s story a moving one is a testament to Mr. Carpenter’s skill as a novelist.  I never heard of him before NYRB Books sent Hard Rain Falling my way, but I’ll be on the look out for more.

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in late 2011. Since then I have come to rank it as one of my favorite reads of all time, all of my lifetime at least. I continue to purchase NYRB Classics, too, in the hopes that I’ll find another random book as wonderful as Hard Rain Falling.  Every once in a while, I do.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

Ifile_000-3 don’t know. I guess I liked What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, maybe in spite of myself.

It’s complicated.

In What Belongs to You an American school teacher living in post-soviet Bulgaria meets a young hustler in a public men’s room.  Over the following months he seeks out the young man again and again, developing a relationship made up of desire, loneliness, and something like love. Not love, but something like it.  For a while.

To be honest, I was a bit surprised to find this is still a plot in 2016.  It used to be a standard plot line in gay fiction and gay film back in the 1970’s and 1980’s when both were outsider art forms you had to look for even in big cities.  It became such a cliché that it was even made fun of in a movie I saw at the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival circa 1986. I thought we’d moved beyond this story line.

But, it was a good book. So there’s that.

There really are just two things in the novel, the characters (two of them) and the setting.  The narrator, who is unnamed, keeps the story focused on his relationship with the hustler, Mitka.  This is not a romanticized relationship, there is no magical moment when the two find true love or when one leads the other to a triumph of the spirit or even a deep realization.  The story remains firmly rooted in the real world.  It’s all very believable, very sad, kind of pathetic in the end.

Urban Bulgaria is quite a setting.  Reading What Belongs to You made me feel like I was there. It feels bleak, it feels institutional, it feels isolated and lonely.  I didn’t like it at  all and wanted to leave.

But making me feel that way is a sign of a well written book.  I would read more by Garth Greenwell.

But it’s complicated.



Elegy Beach by Steven R. Boyett

There are certain types of books with devoted readers–readers who purchase, collect, devour, debate them, become a bit fanatic about them.  The way certain kids did with Harry Potter.  They way some readers did with Lord of the Rings back before is was cool, back when people wrote “Frodo Lives” on the walls of subway restrooms.  Other, more cynical people, make fun of them on late night comedy shows and in animated series.   Think comic book guy from The Simpsons.

I’ve always been a little jealous of these readers myself.  They look like they’re having fun to me.  And their books always have such exciting covers.  Look at the two posted for this review: an attractive young men, armed with cool weapons, staring intensely at the ruins of civilization.  You must be this tall to ride this ride.

Now and then, probably four or five times a year, typically in summer, I pick up a book like Elegy Beach out of simple jealousy.  I want to read something just for the thrill of it.  But the trouble with books like this is that so many of them turn out to be  full of talking.  Time and time again the cover promises adventure and excitement, but the book delivers pages and pages of dialogue, debating strategy or problem solving or which side of the upcoming apocalyptic battle to best align with.  Enough political intrigue.  Get on with the adventure.  Stop talking about the end of the world and start doing something about it!  That 90% of this dialogue could be trimmed away without hurting the plot does not help matters.  Really, does anyone ever list the 60 pages spent discussing who should make up the Fellowship of Ring as their favorite part of The Fellowship of the Ring?  Move along, nothing worth saying here.

Steven R. Boyett delivers just the sort of escapist reading I’m looking for.  Adventure.  Magic.  Fun.  Dialogue only when necessary.

Elegy Beach is the story of Fred and Yan, two young men who leave their families to make their way in the world.  Theirs is a ‘post change’ world.  Mr. Boyett’s novels Ariel and Elegy Beach take place after the change, an inexplicable event that rewrote the underlying laws of nature rendering almost all machines inoperable and returning magic and magical creatures to earth.  Fred and Yan are second generation–both born after the change occurred.  They have grown up listening to stories of life before the change without having any point of reference to understand them.  Fred and Yan like the post change world they live in and have no desire to see things go back to the way they were before.

Until a few chapters into the book.

The two friends both study to become spell casters.  Both are very good at it, better than their fathers and better than their teachers who were all born before the change.  Yan becomes obsessed with becoming the greatest spell caster ever.  When the two have a falling out over this, Yan leaves to strike out on his own and to become powerful enough to cast a spell that will undo the change.  To gain this power he must get a unicorn’s horn.

Enter Ariel.  Fred’s father is Pete, the main character of Ariel, written in 1978, who found a ‘new-born’ unicorn in the days following the change.  Because Pete was a sexually inexperience teenager at the time, he was able to raise the newborn unicorn, Ariel, and to travel with her for several years.  Eventually, after events separated the two, Pete traveled west to Del Mar, a seaside town in what was once California, where he raised his son Fred.   Pete and Fred learn from Ariel that in his quest for power Yan has killed her companion and taken his horn.  If they do not stop him, Yan will reverse the change ending magic and the lives of all magical creatures forever.

Okay, this is silly stuff.  I admit it.  Elegy Beach is also largely a retread of Ariel.  Wise-cracking, foul-mouthed unicorn and her innocent companions set out to defeat a powerful wizard against over-whelming odds in both books.  But it sure was fun.  Again there is plenty of adventure, just enough dialogue to keep the story moving along, and inventive touches along the way, as well as above average characterization and quality writing.

I had a very good time.

But I wonder why Mr. Boyett is so coy about his main character’s sexuality.  It’s clear to me, though it may be something other readers miss, that Fred is in love with Yan.   In a private discussion with Ariel, Fred asks if she thinks he’ll be able to touch her.  Is he a virgin?  He doesn’t say what sort of sexual activity he has engaged in, but I can’t be the only reader to suspect that he’s really asking if gay sex counts.  Technically, if he’s only ever had sex with Yan, is he still a virgin as far as the unicorn is concerned?  The subject doesn’t come up again until the very end of the book.  At no point do the fathers of either boy ask about it or appear to suspect anything other than friendship between Yan and Fred.  It all felt very 1950’s to me.  James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause comes to mind.  Couldn’t this all be out in  the open nowadays?

Mr. Boyett waited almost 30 years to write this sequel to Ariel.  He’s said that this second post change story is the final one.  Both a blessing and a curse if you ask me.  Ending the stories here means they won’t go on long enough to become stale, nor will readers be encouraged to look long enough to begin finding fault with them.  Knowing when to close the show in spite of the audience’s calls for an encore is always a good thing.  On the other hand, there won’t be anymore show.  I’d like more.   That’s the trouble with always leaving them wanting more.  There isn’t any more.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011.  Since then, I have continued to try fantasy and science fiction every could of months, about five times a year.  This year I found Leviathan Wakes, the first in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey which fit the bill perfectly. I’ve already got the second book on my TBR shelf waiting for winter break.  However, there have been more than a few that failed to fit the bill as well.  There’s still far too much talking in fantasy/science fiction if you ask me.