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.

Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke

It took me almost three months to read this book.

The little page counter/timer on my Kindle claimed that I should have been able to read the entire book in just about three hours, but even when using the audio read-a-loud feature, I never made it more than a few pages at a time without falling asleep.

Okay, I was reading in bed, sometimes lying on the sofa in the late afternoon.

But still.

It’s easy to see why Arthur C. Clarke is considered a visionary, one of the standards to whom subsequent science fiction authors have been compared to ever since.  From what I know, Earthlight is not considered one of Arthur C. Clarke’s best novels, but it’s still a very forward thinking book.  At least it is technologically.  Mr. Clarke imagines a realistic future featuring a colonized solar system.  Humans have moved on from the earth to large settlements on the moon and Mars along with several other smaller colonies on various moons throughout the solar system.

Things have reached a point where the colonies have begun to rebel against their home planet much like American colonies rebelled against England.

It’s all very well thought out, very feasible.  Earthlight is what’s known as hard science fiction, based on real science, focused on technology and what future technology might include.  In spite of my sleepy reaction to the book, Mr. Clarke is good with plot and with characterization.  I also really liked the central image of the book, that of the earth in various phases sitting in the moon’s sky.  What it would be like to live your entire life with the blue earth as the thing you see in the sky at night, is an interesting question.

What I have a problem with is that in Mr. Clarke’s future not a single woman is capable of working on the moon.  Not only women, but every man who’s neither white nor heterosexual.  What is that about?

I understand that Mr. Clarke wrote Earthlight in 1955 but seriously.  You can imagine life on the moon but not a woman capable of working in the observatory there.  Even if women can’t work on the moon, if there’s a colony there, surely some of the men will be married with children.  They’re all straight, right.

I’m a little tired of granting people leeway just because they come from a time and culture other than our own.  If someone who writes about the future is to be considered visionary, it’s not too much to expect that their vision include social progress along with technical progress.  And if you want to give an author credit for creating a world, you have to prove the existence of at least one fully realized female character in their work.  Yes, I’m talking about Mr. Tolkien.  The most emotionally complex female character he ever created was a giant spider.

That’s right.  I said it.

End of rant.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., a few years back, but I still stand by my little rant. Since I’ve been focused on science fiction this past week or so, it’s been clear that the above rant is right on.


Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Things start out very well. A great opening line. A paragraph that grabs you like it’s not going to let go.  This wonderful bit:

It’s not the moment that is the tragedy. It’s the memory.

Things don’t go wrong either, not exactly. They just don’t quite go anywhere.

I’m a dissenter.

Jacqueline Woodson’s novel for adults Another Brooklyn has gotten nothing but the highest of praise. Everyone loves it. Everyone.

But me.

The story of a young girl’s move to Brooklyn and her subsequent friendship with three other neighborhood girls in the 1970’s has all the elements for a terrific novel.  Interesting characters. Complex relationships with families.  A changing landscape as Brooklyn goes from white to black. And the usual tensions growing up always brings.

But while the writing is up to Ms. Woodson’s usual high poetic standards it does not work so well in a novel.  I loved her free verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming  but this time I felt like I was reading a fictional memoir instead of a novel.  There was no driving dramatic tension.  There was more dramatic tension in Brown Girl Dreaming now that I think about it.

The thing about memoir is that it’s not really about plot, not really about story, more about anecdote.  That’s fine in a memoir, wonderful if you enjoy reading memoirs, but it doesn’t serve a novel all that well.  Even a character based novel like this one, needs some kind of dramatic tension to keep things going forward.

There’s a quote I read long ago about E.M. Forster’s work.  I cannot remember who said it but essentially “Forster never gets past brewing the kettle.  Feel this kettle.  Is it not delightfully warm?  Yes, but there isn’t going to be any tea.

That’s how I felt about Another Brooklyn. It was delightfully warm, but it was no cup of tea.

Two Award Winners I Didn’t Finish

Two days after I gave up on Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout, it won the Mann-Booker Prize, the first American novel to do so.

My general rule of thumb is that the books on the long list that don’t win the Man Booker Prize are generally much better reads than the winner is. I have not read the rest of the long list, so I can’t say if that rule holds true this time around, but my money is on yes.

I hope someone who made it through The Sellout can let me know if the rest of it, I only made it to page 50 or so, turned out to be a play on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or not. I had a feeling that it was going that way.

I had two problems with The Sellout.  First is the shear density of the writing.  Every line is packed as packed can be.  I felt like I the narrator was one of those fast talking comedians who go on long rants that leave the audience breathless from trying to concentrate on getting every reference so they don’t miss a single joke.  That’s great. For about seven minutes. But for an entire novel?

My second problem was with language.  I know full well what Mr. Beatty is up to and I know that this requires the use of certain terms, but I just can go there anymore, not even when it’s funny.  The Sellout is funny, by the way.  Earlier this year I gave up on Billy Flynn’s Long Half-time Walk because over the use of “faggot” in the dialogue.  This was totally natural dialogue, just how you would expect a group of young soldiers to talk when no one important was listening.  It wasn’t even all that homophobic in context, just casual homophobia, literally locker-room talk. But I don’t need that in my reading life anymore.

The Sellout has the same issue.  I gave it an honest go, but enough is enough.

Just before giving up on The Sellout I gave up on Nobel Prize winner author Patrick Modiano’s The Night Watch. Another satire, this time set in occupied France, The Night Watch features an over-the-top main character, a Jew who is gleefully collaborating with the Nazi occupiers.

Again, the writing is very dense.  Just about every line of the forty plus pages I read referenced some aspect of French culture, history or literature, tearing them all down.  I understood a few references but I suspect most non-French readers will have a very tough time with The Night Watch.  Page after page of multiple references I didn’t understand about people I’d never heard of before.  I suspect many French people find this challenging reading.

Which brings me to my second rule of thumb about award winning literature–Nobel Prize winners are always great writers, but their books are usually very difficult reading.  That was certainly the case with The Night Watch.  

Sunday Salon: Catching up with This Week’s Reading and Lionel Shriver Wears a Funny Hat.

screenshot-2016-09-24-at-6-53-02-amThis post is more of a ramble than a rant, so don’t worry.

It’s been a busy week, getting ready for the 20th anniversary party C.J. and I threw yesterday, so there have not been many posts here lately.  I’m hoping to have a good amount of down time today, enough to relax and get a bunch of robo-posts ready for the week.

Some I’m going to do one of those multi-book posts today right off the bat.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading with my students this year which I’d fallen away from for some reason.  Between this week and last I finished three books.

img_1356The first was Crystal Allen’s touching comic novel about a young bowler’s rivalry with his basketball star older brother How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy.   This is the current favorite of one sixth grade teacher at my school.  I’ve a connection to it in that the author’s agent was once my student teacher.  She was a great teacher, too.  Sorry we lost her to publishing, but it’s certainly a been a boon for children’s books.

Next, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt who wrote one of my favorite YA books in recent years The Wednesday Wars.  Orbiting Jupiter is a good book, I’ve no qualms about it’s quality, it’s characterization or anything really, except the ending.  I liked that the story presents a positive tale of foster parents.  I’ve several friends who are foster parents. The things they have done with the children they have known, the sacrifices they have made for their foster children make them heroes of the highest order in my mind.  I’m sick to death of “bad foster parents” being used as shorthand to explain why a img_1357character is sad and lost in life.  Rant aside, Orbiting Jupiter has a tragic ending that I found gratuitous.  A happy ending would have worked just as well.  So, I won’t be passing this one along to the boy in my class who just got a terrific new foster dad after all.

Lastly, I read Chew on This, Eric Schlosser’s kid version of his best-selling Fast Food Nation.  Though I suspect his co-author Charles Wilson did most of the work for this version.  Chew on This was selected to be our first school-wide book, probably in January if the school board approves.  At our department meeting Wednesday, one of the teachers expressed some reservations about the book, so I went home and read the whole thing.  I think it’s fine, but we’ll see what happens.  I did read Fast Food Nation back when it first came out; even stayed away from fast food for several months afterwards.  Last month by blood test came back pre-diabetic so no more fast food for me, probably forever.  Except for an occasional trip to In-and-Out.  What’s the point of living in California if you never ever go to In-and-Out.  img_1358

Chew on This will probably have a lot of appeal to our middle schoolers.  It’s non-fiction which the Common Core loves.  Each chapter focuses on one topic that will interest the kids–french fries, sodas, meat production, obesity, the history of MacDonald’s.  We’re hoping the math and the science departments will take a chapter or two. There’s plenty in it that applies to P.E. as well. The teachers new to our school who have used it before say it was a big hit.  There are some graphic sections about meat processing and a few other issues, but I did not see any red-flags.  We’ll see what happens.

I did read another round of short stories this week.  Patrick Ryan’s new collection The Dream Life of Astronauts has been struggling through my little tournament.  I’m a big fan of Mr. Ryan’s work, since I stumbled upon his first collection Send Me several years ago.  He also writes wonderful YA novels under the name P.E. Ryan.  Mr. Ryan did an interview, one of my favorites, with me back in the day when we all did author interviews as a regular thing.  But I had not fallen in love with his current anthology until this round.  In his story “Miss America”  the narrator gives us this paragraph about her step-father who is about to leave her mother after many years together:

The thing is, I guess I do love Roger.  My real dad died when I was a baby (he had a rare cancer, my mother told me, but she doesn’t like to talk about it) My first concrete memory of my mother is of her pitching a fit–I mean, screaming her head off–in the checkout line of a grocery store because the cashier wouldn’t take her coupons. She was always pitching fits when I was little. Then Roger came along when I was seven, and they got married, and she calmed down some. We moved into a new house, I got a bigger room, and we started buying real trees at Christmas. So I love him for that. But I don’t miss him, not really.  Maybe that makes me a cold person, or emotionally wounded, whatever a psychiatrist would call it. I don’t feel wounded, or like I need to choose sides. Roger was never mean to me, never once yelled at me, never even scolded me that I can remember; he was always just there: calm and reserved and focused on some inner thought, like the most patient man in the world waiting for an elevator that would take him to some other floor–and then the elevator arrived, and he got on.

This is Mr. Ryan at his best.  He gets at the heart of three characters giving us a clear picture of how they relate to each other and just how complicated what looks at first like a simple relationship really is.  I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

But this means the very good stories in The Pinch will go back on the TBR shelf for now.  I’ve enjoyed this literary journal from the students at The University of Memphis.  They’ve won me over to college literary journals in general.  I’ll be looking for more.

Finally, hasn’t Lionel Shriver been fun this week? As RuPaul would say, “Girlfriend, Please!” I posted links to her speech on the perils of “cultural appropriation” and to the response to it last week, scroll down to find them, but I had no idea she was wearing a sombrero while she spoke.  After fifteen seasons of Project Runway and eight seasons of Drag Race, I like to think I would have walked out on her to protest her bad taste in fashion.

While I do love a literary kerfuffle, at this point I think she should exit the stage as gracefully as she can.  Go write another book, that’s what you do best.  We Need to Talk about Kevin  proved this. You can read her latest comments in the New York Times which struck me as mostly wrong.  There’s also another response in the Washington Post from the book critic who started all this by not liking Ms. Shriver’s new book dystopian novel The Mandibles which sounds awful.   I try not to comment on books I have not read, but I also try not to read “literary authors” who dabble in science fiction and I’m on a break from dystopias for the next couple of weeks.  I think Jia Tolentino writing in the New Yorker does a very good job with this topic and with Ms. Shirver.

A common lesson in every fight about cultural appropriation is that no one appears to be changing anyone else’s mind. Shriver wanted her detractors to be less touchy, and instead she reinforced their position. The Brisbane Writers Festival’s response to Shriver will, in turn, underline her conviction that free expression is being stifled. On this topic, as on most, audiences self-sort after every flare-up; opposition convinces us, over and over, that we are right.

Opposition convinces us, over and over, that we are right.  Unfortunately, the longer I live the more this seems to be true.  Still, from a reader’s perspective, a good literary battle is a good thing to have once in a while.  I still miss Gore Vidal and Truman Capote who two champions.

But I do hope we can all agree to stop it with the funny hats.

Mr. Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo

Was it okay for Bernadine Evaristo to write this book?

I ask this question in light of the ongoing controversy over cultural appropriation, specifically who has the right to write about whom.

If you haven’t been following this issue lately you might want to check out Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s essay explaining why she walked out on Ms. Shriver’s speech.  Both do a good job explaining their position–reading them will give you a pretty good idea where folks on both sides of the issue are coming from.

I can see validity in both points of view, but I tend to come down on the side of more art.  Make more art.  If you don’t like the art other people are making, make your own.  I do agree that folks who are writing about characters outside their own experience should do their research, should read what they can, talk to people, visit places, experience what they can experience.  But I also suspect that writers who shy away from characters or stories because they are outside their immediate experience are probably mediocre writers.  If a writer has a story to tell, they should tell it. Tell it as well as they can. Even if it includes a culture not your own.

Which brings me to Berandine Evaristo’s wonderful novel Mr. Loverman.  Mr. Loverman is the story of Barrington Jedidiah Walker, a 74-year-old man from Antigua who has lived in London most of his adult life.  Barry became a very successful man–he currently owns many London properties which he bought back in the day at rock-bottom prices.  He has two adult daughters, one whom he spoils and one who hates him nearly as much as his wife does.   Barry spends as much time as he can with his childhood friend Morris.  Barry’s wife suspects that he has been seeing a series of women all through their marriage, that he cheats on her almost daily with these women and that he has no love at all for her.  The truth is that he has loved only Morris since they two were boys back in Antigua.

Barry and Morris have had to hide their love all their lives because to be a gay man in Antigua is so terrible an offense it is life-threatening.  Should their families find out, chances are they would all turn their backs on them as would their communities.  This is why they have had to live a double life for nearly 60 years.

Barry is the narrator of Mr. Loverman. He’s a great narrator. I would love to join him for a pint or two sometime.  He’s charming, he’s funny, he’s got a great wit and a great way of looking at the world.  An autodidact he loves showing off his knowledge and his vocabulary but always manages to do it in a way that charms.  He won me over in a matter of pages.  True, he is more than a bit mean to his wife, whom he really should never have married in the first place.  And he may not be the best of fathers.

But here’s the thing.  Ms. Evaristo is not a 74-year-old closeted gay man.  She may or may not be from Antigua, I don’t know.  The biography on the back flap says she lives in London and writes about the African Diaspora.  She may or may not be a lesbian: I don’t know.  From her picture on the back flap, if we can trust that is really her, I know that she is far from 74-years-old.  Old age, like death, is another country.  But how much of this story has to be “hers” before she can tell it?

Opinions will vary.

She’s done a great job, as far as I’m concerned, but I share only two forms of identity with Ms. Evaristo’s narrator, so I’m not the person most capable of judging.  I haven’t even spent enough time in London to know if she gets the setting right, butI found all the characters in Mr. Loverman to be realistically portrayed.  I believed them all.  I liked most of them, too.  Did Ms. Evaristo research this book? did she run it by various readers to check her portrayals for accuracy? for sensitivity?  I do not know.

What I do know is that Mr. Loverman is a terrific novel.  I’m glad Ms. Evaristo wrote it; and I’m glad I read it.

More please.

Sunday Salon: I Trolled Someone On Facebook And I Liked It.

a lot is two wordsUsually, I make it my policy not to correct people on Facebook, though there are many people who are frankly wrong out there. Except for the occasional stray bit of punctuation, and spelling “a lot” as a single word, I make it my policy to let things slide.  Though many people want to make the world a better place through linking, I believe sites like Facebook should have fun as their goal.

But now and then someone pushes one of my buttons making it very hard to look the other way.

A few weeks ago, someone I know liked a post about the stand off in Oregon between the local sheriff and Ammon Bundy’s followers who were holed up in the visitor center of a national wildlife refuge.  The post was about how some people had taken to writing fan fiction satires featuring romantic plot lines between the men in Bundy’s gang.  I never read any of them, but with the hashtag #BundyEroticFanFic we all get the idea.

So I left a comment calling out the underlying anti-gay bigotry in this sort of thing.  It bugs me when gay people are expected to laugh along with our hipster friends about “those bigots who are all probably gay anyway.”  No one ever implies that someone they admire is in the closet about being gay.  (Oh, those wonderful young men who rescued all those people from that burning church, you just know they’re going to grow up to be gay after they’ve done something so brave.)  I tried to funny about it, wondering why the authors didn’t also make the Bundy Bunch Jewish or trans-sexual, too.

The original poster, who found #BundyEroticFanFic funny, didn’t see the humor in my comment.  He replied back that I was missing the point, that #BundyEroticFanFic’s weren’t homophobic since they were satire, that the Bundy Bunch were probably homophobic anyway so it was fair to call them gay, that you can’t really explain humor, that if you can’t make fun of things like this, then there is no comedy, etc.

Normally, I would have stopped there, but I replied again.  I pretended to understand his comments and to agree with them.  But why not make the Bundy bunch secretly Jewish, too, since they were just as likely to be anti-semetic as they were to be anti-gay.  Why not have them secretly reading the Torah.  And if they are anti-gay they are almost certainly anti-trans, so why not show them cross-dressing or something like that.  Maybe when they look for snacks after having an intimate moment, they could put on women’s robes and complain that they had run out of the good lox.  Wouldn’t that be funny?

While I was having fun, I knew that I was deliberately goading the original poster on, hoping to get a rise in response.  It was kind of exciting.  He did  reply, but I didn’t read it.  I knew I was becoming a troll; I knew I had to stop.  The only way to avoid trolldom was to give someone else the last word, so that’s what I did.

But the temptation was great.  I could really understand why so many people become internet trolls.  It was fun.

Now I’m back to my more typical policy of only correcting grammar mistakes on Facebook once in a great while.  This may not make the world a better place, but it will help with my tiny corner of social media.  People should be nice; people should have correct grammar.

In other news…..

We have this week off! Hurrah!  No real plans for the week, perhaps a trip to Coppola Winery since we have a gift card.  Some work around the house, maybe finally get the doors on the time machine we’re building in the back yard, make a few things in my studio downstairs, read a bunch of books from my TBR shelves.

The dogs do need a bath, so there’s that.  The taxes forms are all in so there’s that to be done, too.  And we need to trim the rose bushes.

But we’re basically footloose and fancy free for the next seven days.

I have three reviews to type up:  a kids book on Noah Webster, a Simenon crime story not about Inspector Maigret and a wonderful little novella by Flauberd called  A Simple Heart.

So, a perfect vacation.