Someone I can’t remember once wrote that we come to books when we’re ready to appreciate them…evidently I am not ready to appreciate some books….
Kristin Lavransdatter II; The Wife by Sigrid Undset (image courtesy Goodreads)
I’m about 100 pages into Book Two of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Wife.
This is not the book I expected to be writing about. I began Book I of The Tale of the Genji by Murasaki Shikibu in the Royall Tyler translation. About 50 pages in I realized that I could not make myself read it. Whether it is Tyler’s translation or the work itself, I found it impossible to stay the course. The Tale of the Genji’s focus on the life of a young prince at the emperor’s court in medieval Japan is certainly a fascinating topic. Still, 50 pages in I found myself completely unengaged.
When one reads (well, when I read), there is always that moment of absorption – that moment when one, in a psychologically satisfying way, “enters” the world of the story. Perhaps it was the artificiality of the storytelling in The Tale of the Genji; there is certainly a level of distancing in the text that reflects both the formality and the subtlety of Japanese culture. Perhaps the translation, scholarly and thorough as it is, is problematic in that it adheres to the letter of the language (in other words, it transliterates rather than translates, an ever more challenging). For whatever reason, I found that I simply bounced off Skikibu’s classic each time I attempted to enter it.
That brings us to Book II of Undset’s classic of medieval Norway. Continue reading
Those who read know what I am speaking of when I say a book has sneaked into my heart…those who do not read…have my sympathies….
Rivers Parting by Shirley Barker (image courtesy Amazon)
I read -rather, I reread – a book over the holiday break. It is a book that I mentioned in conjunction with an essay on a much more successful book, a book that I found a combination of pretentiousness and mediocre writing. As a contrast to that book, the much ballyhooed dreck Cold Mountain, I used the book, a historical novel about colonial New Hampshire called Rivers Parting as an example of a historical novel that is both well written and that does not pretend to false grandeur.
I first read the novel about 40 years ago ( I have shared the background about how I came to possess a copy of this work in the Cold Mountain essay linked above) and I have read it a half dozen times since. What brings me back to this novel, that even I would grudgingly admit is a typical example of the middle-brow literature that enjoyed great popularity through the middle third of the last century? The same things that attract me so often to the highest brow literature: engrossing characterization and memorable writing. Continue reading
Jane Kirkpatrick’s historical novel A Sweetness to the Soul does a fine job of giving the reader historical information about Oregon pioneers in the second half of the 20th century; it struggles, however, with whether it wants to be a novel or history….
A Sweetness to the Soul by Jane Kirkpatrick (image courtesy Goodreads)
The first book from the 2016 reading list is a historical novel from one of our many bookshelves, a book that my Carol asked me to read. A Sweetness to the Soul details the lives of an Oregon pioneer couple during the latter half of the 19th century. As with most historical novels it is long (though it covers only the lifetime of one generation) and it offers a mix of historical fact and fiction. As one would expect with a novel set in the 19th century West, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and Hispanics play significant roles in the narrative. Interestingly, since this novel relies on historical accuracy, there is almost none of the “traditional” sort of violence one associates with Westerns. There are, however, the sorts of natural disasters one expects for pioneers living in a wilderness: forest fires, floods, and blizzards.
This is a novel of pioneer life, accurate and eventful, that nonetheless readers will find echoes the frontier life of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work more than that of Zane Grey. Continue reading
An old PSA from the sixties told us that reading was “fun!-damental” – for me, despite whatever other demands tug at my time, reading is absolute necessity….
Most dogs do not wear glasses when they read (image courtesy Reading Stock Photos and Images)
As I have written recently, my reading time has been somewhat curtailed. I have some new administrative responsibilities with the university where I teach (and my latest book to finish) and so have made the decision to shorten my reading list. I suspect I have cut the list too drastically, but better to be cautious than to overreach, I think. I also want to leave plenty of space for books I am asked to review. Then, too, I hope that I’ll be asked to review some books. :-)
So here in all its glorious brevity is a kinda sorta eclectic list of books I’ll be reading this year. As you’d expect and despite my best intentions, it’s literary fiction heavy. But it has some variety – and as the year goes on, there’ll likely be some additions. Stay tuned… Continue reading
John Hairr’s North Carolina Rivers is part reference book, part history, part guidebook. What it is not is particularly engaging….
North Carolina Rivers by John Hairr (image courtesy Goodreads)
While I haven’t completed my book list for 2016, I will say a couple of things about it for those who have any interest in such things: it will be considerably shorter (12 books – to allow room for the numerous reviews I am asked to do and to allow me some writing time for completing my latest book), and it will focus on no particular area as the 2015 reading list did.
That said, we begin 2016 with a book I picked randomly from one of our many groaning bookshelves. In an effort to get away from my penchant for reading fiction, particularly literary fiction, I chose what I thought would be an interesting read for a dedicated fly angler: North Carolina Rivers: Facts, Legends, and Lore by John Hairr.
Hairr’s book might be thought of as part reference book, as part guide book, as part informal history of the rivers – and the river systems in North Carolina. It is trying to be all these things, perhaps, that causes North Carolina Rivers to be problematic for readers. Continue reading
The New Southern Gentleman tries to use the methods of what is called “dirty realism” to examine a very different sort of character: the privileged upper class Southerner. It succeeds in doing that – it fails in igniting a meaningful discussion about how little difference there is between lower class Southerners and those whom those Southerners see as their “Betters.”
The New Southern Gentleman by Jim Booth (image courtesy of Read North Carolina Novels)
As we end 2015 – and as I prepare to change my approach to my infamous reading lists project (mainly due to circumstances beyond my control) – I have decided to indulge myself by writing an essay about my first book – the novel The New Southern Gentleman. I have wanted to write about NSG for a long time (the novel appeared in 2002), but two factors have deterred me:
1) I am terrible at that thing so valued on the Interwebs called self-promotion. Publicly discussing my work is uncomfortable for me unless I am in a forum to which I have been invited for that express purpose. I am happy to discuss the works of others, reluctant to discuss my own. This is not the path to fame and fortune, dear reader. Avoid it if you can.
2) In the Age of Social Media, I doubt seriously that anything I have to say will make any impression on anyone other than family, friends, and my colleagues at the blogs (here and here) where I write about books and writing. This is the truth about social media: social media are primarily vehicles for those who crave and demand attention for – well, sometimes it seems for every act they engage in, every belief they hold dear, every idea they agree/disagree with. They are more like party conversations than anything else.
Again, as you may have discerned from #1, that is not I.
Still, the urge to discuss my work has welled up within me strongly enough to make me write this essay. I ask your indulgence. I’ll get back to touting other writers in my next outing. Continue reading
In Persuasion Jane Austen looks forward to where the novel must go – and suggests a path for her successors to follow….
Persuasion by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)
My last Austen essay – on my favorite Austen novel.
My laptop died about ten days ago. Luckily this came at the end of the academic term so I had finished my classes. Unluckily, this occurred at the beginning of my holiday vacation time. In the holiday rush of shopping, cooking, gatherings, etc., I lost the thread on writing of all sorts as is wont to happen this time of year. Coming as this did on the heels of the busyness of the end of the academic term, I now find myself
woefully behind on writing that I have meant to do this month.
Thus it is that I find myself far nearer the end of the year as I begin this last round of essays on works I have read (or in this case re-read for perhaps the, oh, I don’t know, 15th time?). This does not reduce my pleasure in writing about Persuasion: indeed, it probably enhances it.
Yes, I am one of those people who saves the cherry on the sundae until last. Continue reading
There are three. Based purely on deep affection for them.
The first is George Harrison’s and Paul McCartney’s twin lead work on “And Your Bird Can Sing.” The Fabs were great players. With all the other baggage they carry, we forget that….
Jeff Weddle’s stories explore that interesting turf where life’s sweet ordinariness meets the sometimes sinister, sometimes scary, always striking truth: life is strange and inexplicable.
When Giraffes Flew by Jeff Weddle (image courtesy Goodreads)
Jeff Weddle’s new collection of stories, When Giraffes Flew, is one of those short story collections that is hard to describe. The stories hang together thematically and stylistically even as they range from children witnessing horrific accidents to – well, giraffes attaining the ability to fly.
The stories range in length from longish short stories (“Dog Day,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Showdown at the 7-Eleven”) to flash pieces (“The Night Before,” “Test Day”). Through all these stories Weddle explores how the ordinary and the strange co-exist in life and how the one can veer into the other with surprising ease. One will be reminded at times of Harry Crews, at times of Richard Ford, at times of David Lynch. Pretty good company for any writer to find himself in.
Love and loss and making decisions – Zelle Andrews’ Paisley Memories is the epitome of the noble genre we know as bildungsroman….
Paisley Memories by Zelle Andrews (image courtesy Goodreads)
When we meet Tess Cooper, she is a young woman in trouble. Her father has just died, and she is left to fend for herself as the single mother of a two year old with Down’s Syndrome. The little Alabama town she hails from is like most little towns: gossipy, judgmental, and uncomfortable for a young person who carries visible proof of an unfortunate life decision. Faced with the choice between rearing her daughter in the social ignominy her home town provides or striking out on he road with her child and her father’s old car (a 1957 Thunderbird in need of restoration), Tess chooses the road.
Her year of wandering is passed over quickly, though Andrews’ description of a typical day (that eventually turns out to be unusual) gives the reader a glimpse into what that life has been like – struggling from small town to small town, working menial jobs to supplement her small inheritance, trying, though she hasn’t realized it yet, to find a place where she and her daughter, the Paisley of the novel’s title, fit in. Continue reading
James Street’s The High Calling is the rare sort of sequel that continues a story without giving in to the typical reader’s desire for neatly tied up plot lines.
The High Calling by James Street (image courtesy “From Among the Books of…”)
As I have written on a couple of occasions now, work and the need to complete my latest book have slowed my reading. As a bit of indulgent diversion for myself, I have just completed the sequel to James Street’s novel about the life of a Baptist minister, The Gauntlet. This later work, The High Calling, picks up Baptist minister London Wingo’s story some 20 years after the ending of that earlier novel. While The High Calling is a sequel, however, it is a sequel that cares less about tying up previous plot lines than about exploring how time and change (that elusive quality we know as mutability) affect the lives of Wingo, his daughter Paige, and their friends.
Street’s novel finds London Wingo returned to Linden, MO, where he began his career as a minister to accept a call to a church. That church, Plymouth Baptist, is a new church founded by members of Wingo’s earlier church, First Baptist. Street seems to be setting the stage for a battle between churches, between ministers (the current First Baptist minister, Harry Ward, seems to be the sort of minister cum entrepreneur one sees much of in contemporary American religion), between visions of what the Baptist church should be. Continue reading
In which we learn that Buddha and Jesus met the same sorts of people…
4th Century statue of Buddha (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Each morning my wife Lea and I read together, a delightful habit which we have been practicing for a number of years. Our readings consist of a religious/spiritual works (we are eclectic, though our readings tend to rotate between the Christian and Buddhist, particularly Zen Buddhist, traditions primarily), works about art (we’re fond of both art history and criticism), and poetry. We recently finished the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and we are currently working our way through a work called Teachings of the Buddha. This work is a compendium of various lessons and stories – one might use the word parables safely – attributed to Siddhartha Gautama.
Of particular interest to us have been remarkable similarities between stories of the Buddha’s experiences and stories of those of a later teacher, one well known (at least by name) to Western culture – Jesus Christ. One of these “shared stories,” the woman at the well, is worth a look because it gives us insight into the traditions of two major religions and of how we understand their teachings. Continue reading
A little over two hundred years ago a college student named P.B. Shelley got himself expelled from Oxford. Now, at last, we know exactly why.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, war protester (image courtesy Wikimedia)
The Bodleian Library at Oxford has made available a recently discovered copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Poetical Essay on the State of Things.” Long thought lost, the poem, along with his essay “The Necessity of Atheism,” got the most intellectual of the Romantic poets expelled from Oxford.
The story of Shelley’s expulsion from university and his subsequent life as poet, free thinker, friend of both Keats and Byron, and political activist are well known and do not need further rehearsal. At this moment, given the horror of the recent attacks in Paris that we’re trying to comprehend, it seems particularly fitting to ponder Shelley’s arguments. Continue reading
Herk Harvey’s cult classic Carnival of Souls is full of creepy, atmospheric goodness – just right for a Halloween movie fest…
Press book cover art for Carnival of Souls (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Given that it’s Halloween, time to take note of a cult classic that in its atmospheric creepiness ranks as high as Romero’s original Zombie classic or anything dreamed up by David Lynch, Brian de Palma, or any of the other more recent masters of what Count Floyd would call “scary stuff.” In fact, this is a film that both Lynch and Romero have cited repeatedly as influential on their work.
The film is Carnival of Souls, and it was made by a highly successful industrial/educational film director. Harold “Herk”Harvey spent most of his career making films for Lawrence, Kansas, based Centron Films (later subsumed under Coronet Films, an even more well known ed/industry film company) with titles such as Health: Your Posture, Shake Hands With Danger, and Manners in Public. On the road driving back to Kansas after having worked on a film in California, he passed an abandoned amusement park outside Salt Lake City that creeped him out – and which inspired Carnival of Souls.
The film concerns a young woman who is involved in a horrific car accident (the car she’s riding in plunges off a bridge into a swollen river). As rescuers are dragging the river trying to recover the car, she emerges from the water, having somehow survived the catastrophe. Perhaps. Continue reading
Giving attention to what others write – and what they say about writing – is very enjoyable…but it does keep one from doing what a writer is supposed to do…write….
Thomas Wolfe with a crate of his writing…(image courtesy NY Times)
I’ve been off the radar for a couple of weeks now. Part of this is due to an increase in some of my duties in my job (for those who somehow don’t know, I am a professor of writing as well as a writer – though my professing seems to be becoming more and more eaten up by administrative tasks – not something that makes me happy – these days), part of it is due to some conflicts I’ve been feeling about spending so much of whatever writing time I do have writing about other people’s writing.
Don’t get me wrong. As anyone who reads my pieces knows, I love reading as much as writing. (Sometimes I am tempted to think that I love it more than writing, but that is only the lazy side of me trying to convince me that the hard, painful, rewarding work that is writing can be avoided, when every writer who is a writer knows that only two things cannot be avoided: writing and death.)
And that leads me to what I want to write about here. Continue reading
Sam Staley’s latest entry in his Pirate of Panther Bay series is a swashbuckling pirate tale with a subtext of social criticism.
Tortuga Bay by S. R. Staley (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)
S.R. Staley, whose alternate holiday adventure, St Nic, Inc. I reviewed last year, is back with a new novel, this one the second in his series on female pirate Isabella. Tortuga Bay continues Isabella’s saga, this time putting her history as an escaped slave seeking justice for her fellow plantation workers. This desire to help others find freedom as she has done forces Isabella into making difficult decisions.
Isabella, who escaped slavery on a sugar cane plantation and learned the pirate trade in the first book in the series, finds herself on the run from the Spanish viceroy of the Caribbean. Complicating that danger is the fact that the man she is love with, Juan Carlos Santa Ana, is the Spanish officer charged with capturing her and seeing her brought to Viceroy Rodriquez who plans her execution.
Another complication in this already complicated scenario is Isabella’s friendship with her partner and mentor Jean-Michel and her pirate crew. Completing this set of complications that create a classic emotional triangle is a prophecy Isabella lives with that she is to be a deliverer of her fellow slaves. Continue reading
Both John Lennon and his youngest son Sean share the same birthday. Imagine that….
Today is Sean Lennon’s birthday. He’s 40. That’s an eerily special birthday to Sean, I’m guessing, given that his dad John celebrated his 40th birthday exactly 35 years ago – and was dead two month later, murdered by the madman who shall not be named here. I also suspect that he’s doing his best to enjoy his day and find what peace he can in his likely fuzzy (he was only five when his father was killed) memories of John.
I’ve written plenty about John Lennon over the years which you can read here and here. I’ve also written about Sean and his half-brother Julian. Their lives have been like the lives of many children of famous people: not particularly happy despite their wealth and fame.
So let’s remember the good times on this special day in the Lennon family. Continue reading
The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded today. There are a large number of arguably splendid candidates. Who will win? Likely none of them….
Nobel Prize Medal (image courtesy Wikimedia)
The Nobel committee has chosen the 2015 Nobelist in Literature and their choice will have been announced by the time you read this. The list of candidates with credentials strong enough to be legitimate contenders. There are even those out there who spend time handicapping the field. First, the bad news: it seems highly unlikely that an American will get the award despite a strong contingent of worthy candidates including Joyce Carol Oates, John Ashberry, Don DeLillo, and my personal favorite, Richard Ford. (Odds makers exclude those whom the Nobel committee likely consider “regional” writers – worthy authors such as Cormac McCarthy or John Ehle.)
Even Bob Dylan is mentioned as a candidate. But that choice is by all accounts blowin’ in the wind. Or tangled up in blue. Or something. Continue reading
Americans are writing and publishing more than ever; meanwhile, arguments rage about the inability of Americans to write and what educators should do to address this perceived inability.
Ursula Le Guin (image courtesy Wikimedia)
In a recent interview with Salon, author Ursula Le Guin bemoans the lack of skill she sees in aspiring writers. Le Guin blames the problems she sees in writers – serious, well educated people – on a lack of two sets of skills. First, she notes that she sees many people trying to write who don’t have solid language management skills: they lack solid backgrounds in syntax (sentence structure) knowledge and they have weak vocabularies so that they do not easily see possibilities in sentence construction or word choice that would give their writing imagination and vigor. The other problem Le Guin observes is that the way in which many people attempt to become writers – through creative writing programs – does many nascent writers harm by forcing them to submit to a form of group think.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, writer Natalie Wexler attempts to explain “Why Americans can’t write.” Wexler’s thesis, that Americans do not get adequate writing instruction, meshes nicely with Le Guin’s observation. One can easily conclude that, if Wexler is correct in her claim that Americans get too little writing instruction, it is only natural that their creative writing efforts would suffer from the sort of grammar and syntax deficiencies that Le Guin mentions.
As with most easy explanations, this one leaves some questions unanswered. Continue reading
A bit like a mystery, a bit like a thriller, a bit like the notes from a theological conclave: John Chaplick’s Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion offers all kinds of readers an interesting trip into the search for the various forms of truth religious texts offer us….
Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion by John Chaplick (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)
A Roman centurion who knew the Apostle Paul sends his son an original version of the New Testament. Twenty centuries or so later, the letter he sent along with the manuscript is discovered by an archaeologist and brought to the attention of a museum curator, a couple of theologians, a history professor, and a graduate student writing on material related to the discovery. These five enlist the archaeologist, they split into two groups of three, and each group goes in search of that important – and likely controversial – document.
That, in a nutshell is the plot of Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion, a book that explores some profound ideas even as it veers between being a mystery, a thriller, and a theological symposium. What Chaplick seeks to do is almost as elusive and difficult as what his characters attempt to do in his novel: explore a profound religious question while at the same time keep readers entertained.
He comes close to pulling off this near impossible feat.
What will make Forbidden Chronicles a challenge to the reader attracted to its Da Vinci Code like narrative is that author Chaplick peppers the novel with at times almost dauntingly philosophical and theological discussions among his main characters. Continue reading