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.

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

How to find a place to begin when you’re confronted with something that’s not like anything you’ve read before?  When you’ve been reading for nearly 50 years, this doesn’t happen all that often which doesn’t make starting any easier.

I could say Chris Bachelder’s novel The Throwback Special is a book about sports, but like the other great sports books I’ve read, it’s not really about sports.   It is about football, but ootball is just a means to an end, here.

All of the 22 or so characters in the book are middle-age men, almost all of them white men, which made me feel a little guilty about reading it for some reason.  We’re supposed to be reading books about people not like ourselves, aren’t we?  I worry about how well a book about middle-aged white men will do in the Tournament of Books which I’m following closely this year for the first time.  I only read The Throwback Special because it made the final cut for the tournament’s short list.

If it had not been listed for the Tournament of Books, I probably never would have read this book about 22 middle-aged white men obsessed with a single 5-second play they all saw live on Monday Night Football 16 years ago.

I would have missed out.

It’s a wonderful book.

The men all gather each year at a nondescript strip-mall like hotel, one like all the others you find throughout suburban America, to re-enact the Throwback Special, in which Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann’s leg was broken so badly that he never played another game.

Mr. Bachelder’s novel floats from character to character as each of the men arrive at the hotel.  We get some of their back story, some of their thoughts, some of what brings them back to the hotel year after year, but we never find out how this entire ritual began.  They all seem to only know each other through this annual re-enactment.  But that didn’t matter to me at all.

Each man seems to be at a crossroads in life. A marriage that has not gone as hoped for.  Children who didn’t grow up to become what they promised to be. Career regrets. Lost relationships.  Aches in places where they used to play, as Leonard Cohen said. More than a few of them men are questioning why they go through this annual meeting at all.

I’m not doing a very good job conveying why I loved this book so much here.  I’m not really sure why I loved it.

I loved how well the author conveyed the nature of male friendships, how so much of it is performance.  They all seem to be great friends, very close, but so few of them really know what’s going on in each other’s lives. The talk but they don’t talk, connect without connecting.

There are three men for example, who all go outside by the dumpster to smoke one evening.  They’ve been doing this for 16 years.  Over the past few years each of the men has quit smoking, but none of them can bring themselves to admit this to the others.  They each feel like they would be letting the other two men down, breaking the bond that holds them together by ending this one connection. So they all end up standing there asking if anyone can give them a cigarette since none of them have a pack without them of course.  They all wind up bumming cigarettes off of a hotel employee who comes out to empty the trash. While this is both funny and kind of sad, I think it illustrates the nature of many relationships. We build them around whatever we have at hand when we can’t build them around things that really matter. When the connections cannot be based on something deep, they must be based on something shallow.

By the time the night of the actual re-enactment came along, I was excited to see what would happen.  I don’t care about sports at all, but good sports writing always captures my interest.  The men all spend the afternoon before the “game” preparing for their roles, studying the game footage, reviewing what happened that night and what each player went through before and after the event.  Each man will re-enacted the movements of and actual player so they have to know exactly what to do.  All this for five seconds of action.  But, I have to admit, by the time that re-enactment came along, I was excited to see it; I was thinking about how much I would like to know more about Joe Theismann and what really happened that night.

Mostly, I loved the writing itself.  I don’t say this often, but I found each sentence excellent, writerly but not forced.  The book I’m currently reading for the Tournament, which I’ll review later, relies heavily on the simple declarative sentence.  It’s very straightforward writing.  Economical.  Mr. Bachelder doesn’t go to Henry James extremes but reading his writing is reading someone who is very good at writing and willing to celebrate it for its own sake.  Reading The Throwback Special is putting your reading in the hands of a writer who knows his craft inside and out.

This rambling review has not done the book justice.  At its heart, is a strange little story, almost a non-story, that touched me and has stayed with me.  While I think it’s clearly an underdog, I hope it does well in the tournament.

I’d love to read it again some day.

Frankenstein: Performed by the San Francisco Ballet

So this year I bought C.J. two tickets to the ballet for Christmas.  C.J. is a fan. I’ve never really understood why you would have all that dancing without any singing.

But it’s a gift so I’ll keep an open mind.

Which is how I ended up at the North American Premiere of Frankenstein, a new ballet by choreographer Liam Scarlett and composer Lowell Liebermann this past Tuesday night.  Frankenstein is the real deal, a full show. three acts over nearly three hours with a full orchestra and a full ballet corps.

I was skeptical but very intrigued by Frankenstein.  Just how would one convert what is a fairly heady novel into a ballet? I was expecting something very modern, probably with unusual dancing.

Instead, Frankenstein is a very traditional ballet, as far as I can tell. By the end of the first act it was clear to me that the show would stay within the established vocabulary of ballet. Certain moves appear and then appear again as do certain forms.  I didn’t see anything new in the dancing, nor unexpected. Even the creature struck me as traditional.

But I did see why fans of ballet are fans of ballet. At points in the evening when just two people are on stage, or when just two people are featured as dancers, the man picks up the woman and moves her through the air, sometimes across the floor while she continues to dance–moving and being moved at the same time which was eye-opening– gliding across the stage making this viewer think the two were skating across a field of ice so smoothly and so fluidly. Even from the cheap seats back in the balcony, I was impressed.

As for the story, well, I don’t think people go to the ballet for the story. 

The first act is too long. Why do so many dramatist think we need all the back story.  How Victor Frankenstein’s childhood affected him, leading him to attempt reanimation, blah, blah, blah.  We all know this, don’t we? It’s what I hate about the first half hour of every Batman movie every made.  Childhood trauma, overcome the loss of a parent, No one cares. Get to the good stuff already.  I would have cut everything in the first act but the creation scene that ends it. Everyone knows the story never really gets good until the monster shows up, so why not just start at that point.

But Frankenstein does take off in Act II. With the characters established and events in motion, the story finally moves into action allowing the audience to enjoy the dancing without worry too much about who is who and what is going on.

And it does go on.  It’s Frankenstein so it should come as no surprise that the stage is littered with bodies by the end of the show. Six, by my count.

So we really got our money’s worth.

And we already have tickets for another performance later this year.

If you happen to be in the Bay Area, Frankenstein runs through the weekend.

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.

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.

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.


Science Fiction in the Mail from Way Down Under

Pam also sent me this wonderful Penguin delivery truck. We don’t have those in the states, to my knowledge, but it would be cool if we did.

Those of us who have been at this book blogging game for some time, around ten years now for me–I’ve lost count, all know that one of things which keeps us going is the blogging friends we make along the way.  Pam at  is one of mine.

Recently, Pam began breaking up what must be one of the largest collections of Penguin books in the world.  Since I have mentioned collecting Penguin science fiction editions lately, particularly the ones with the black covers, she asked if I would like six from her collection.

I said yes, of course, thank you.file_002

They arrived in the mail this week.

I admit I have been collecting them for the cover art which was  featured in this terrific boxed set of postcards I bought in Chicago last summer.  The books Pam sent me have me thinking I should consider reading them, too.

file_001-3Have you read any of these?  Any recommendations?

Pam is a regular on my mail art distribution list. Look for something in the mail by mid-February, Pam. I’m working on a couple of projects.