Saturday, October 29, 2005

America Writers - need help here!!! 

American Writers, from the 20th and 21st centuries that are worth reading. Just to make this interesting, the authors need to have written more than one book and ideally should write fiction. Add any others in the comments.

Ernest Hemingway. I love everything I've read by him, made the obligatory pilgimage to his home in Key West, and just stared at his desk and typewriter.

Douglas Coupland (Generation X, Microserfs, Life After God, et al.). Canadian, but the distinction between Canadian and American blurs; though he has a Canadianview, much of his writing takes place in America. He defines Gen X.

James Dickey (Delieverance, To the White Sea, and several books of poetry). Survivalism and independence, while being part of something greater, whether it's a group of friends or simply belonging to the land. I know Deliverence became a movie; I never saw the movie. Don't think I want to. His books are incredibly powerful; generally speaking, there's a single character, with the landscape acting as a supporting character.

Neal Stephenson (Snowcrash, Cryptonomicon, et al.). Redefined science fiction to be just that - fiction that includes a great deal of science, that can be set in the present, the near past, the future, or centuries ago. Brilliant writing.

Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozac Nation; More, Now, Again, et al.). A memoirist criticized for writing her first memoir just after college. What could she possibly have to write about? Plenty, and she writes it well and doesn't hide anything. Young and depressed in America, she describes the disease, friends' reactions to the disease, denial, and being one of the first to go on medication. And somehow she's managed to repeat her successful soul-baring in further memoirs. Her non-memoir non-fiction tends to be rambling, but her memoirs are excellent.

J. R. R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings trilogy, et al.). The books are slow, and that's deliberate. He's written a modern epic, akin to the Edas, the Iliad, the Mahabharata. The landscape is a character in its own right, and the "boring walking" scenes deserve a fresh look. I love him, and I'm generally disdainful of fantasy.

Anyone else? I read so little fiction, this is harder than I thought...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Read Banned Books, but Not in Bethesda, MD 

So students in my home town are given a list of 100 "banned books" and told to read one. The list had everything from Where the Wild Things Are to American Psycho.

The assignment got pulled pretty quickly.
"People can cry censorship," this mom says, "but I am going to assert myself as I see fit to protect my child from premature exposure to inappropriate material."

Tauber grants that "it's difficult to raise children in these times, but we need to teach children to think. The children who went ahead and read these books on their own read 'Lord of the Flies,' 'Catcher in the Rye' and 'Beloved.' They're making good decisions and thinking about what offends people and why."

Nevermind that the offened parents can just tell their kids to read Where the Wild Things Are or A Wrinkle in Time or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Where's Waldo.

No word on how many children went ahead and read the books without their parents' consent. I know I would have. And did. Here's the list (.pdf form) if you want to check how well you've done.

Story from Joanne Jacobs.

Friday, October 21, 2005


The air is getting cold. Autumn is floating heavily into my urban town, clearing out the sidewalk tables and tripling the thickness of the clothing on the teenage schoolgirls. I can feel the air moving through the glass balcony door, and I close the drapes against the dusk to insulate my home.

I take out a book. I curl up on the floor, back against the sofa, wrapped in soft fleece. Autumn is here, and I am happy.


Does anyone remember The Man without a Face? It was a book before it was a movie, but I'll talk about the movie first. It starred Mel Gibson as a recluse with half a face, the result of a car crash that killed his wife and child (IIRC). He befriends a young boy who's at risk of failing out of school. The man becomes the boy's tutor. The boy does better in school, feels better about himself, becomes more accepting of those different than he, and so forth. Then the town and the boy's parents start hearing rumors of a sexual relationship between the teenager and the man. There is no such relationship, but the boy is forbidden from seeing his teacher, mentor and friend, and the man is ostracized even further from the community.

That's the movie.

The book is similar. Except, in the book the characters do have a sexual relationship. The rumors are true.

I read the book as a teenager, not long after the movie came out. I was furious at the movie for betraying what felt like a key element of the book, of the relationship between teen and man. I couldn't see what was wrong with the relationship. The book was well written and the characters very carefully crafted and there was no coercion, implied or otherwise, in the relationship. Now, though, I can feel uneasy about the relationship. I can't remember the boy's age, only that he still hadn't graduated high school (the man broke a restraining order or something to sneak into the boy's graduation; they saw each other but didn't speak). I remember that the boy described the man only in terms of love and respect. I remember the caution the man took before kissing his student, not out of fear of the law or the town but out of a desire not to hurt the boy. I remember the boy, troubled, waking the first morning after and struggling to come to terms with his new definition of himself and how the man with no face simply waited, spoke when asked questions, and let the boy decide.

I am troubled by the relationship now simply because I question whether there is true consent when two lovers are also engaged in a power imbalance, like teacher and student, like adult and child. I don't want to say the relationship in this book was wrong or bad or even harmful. Just that it could have been. And its been so long since I read the book - maybe it was. But maybe it wasn't.

The movie, though, strips that complexity right out, making a troubling and complicated coming-of-age story into a "watch-the-ignorant-people-bash-the-outsider" movie. It betrays the theme of the book. It tells a very different story.

Read the book. If you want, watch the movie. But don't think they're the same story.

Project X by Jim Shepherd 

Eh. I couldn't sleep last night, so I read this. It's a young adult novel about two boys, teased and beat up at school, who plan a Columbine-style revenge. The narrator was very well-written, a combination of obnoxious and likeable, with a great relationship with his kid brother. The leading character, who is of course the ring leader, is less defined. What really stuck in my mind, though, was that the author had no idea what he was talking about when it came to guns. I should have expected that. But I was willing to go with it, since it was first person narration, maybe the narrator didn't know anything about guns. But the narrator apparently knew enough to identify a Kalashnikov on sight, something I'd be hard-pressed to do (there are lots of imitators), but calls the next guns just "a carbine" and "a nine-millemeter," aparently unaware that the carbine could have been a Kalashnikov or that 9mm doesn't tell me to visualize a rifle or a handgun. There's a scene that I thought was deliberate, in which the boys look at the "clips" (arg. The word the author wanted was "magazine") and wonder how many "bullets" (arg. "Rounds" or "cartridges") each holds. Neither knows. Neither knows how to release the magazine from the rifle. I infer that neither knows then how to load them. I expect this will be significant.

It isn't. Somehow the leading character learns how to load both long guns properly, learns how all the safeties work, and of course there's the dramatic ending.

At the end, I felt cheap. I felt the characters weren't real. The guns weren't real. Nothing was real. And I'd lost 2 hours of sleeplessness that I could have used learning Spanish.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Meta-Reading Again 

I've been busy. I've had a wedding (see here for evidence), and work's been hectic, and one of my bridesmaids got me sick. I just came home from the grocery store. I checked the mail, walked into my apartment with it, set it down to start typing on my computer, and now I can't find it. My head is that full of cold and cold-medicine.

So my reading has been limited. I'm working, essay by essay, though Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, edited by Kevin Smokler. Only halfway done, but loving it. The introduction takes on the NEA survey I ranted about. Smokler's thesis is that readers are expanding their libraries to include online writings, and that's not a bad thing. He cites the increasing number of e-newsletters and blogs devoted to books (like this one). Readers debate the future of publishing as well as the fate of the characters in Harry Potter. He, at least, sees these as good omens for reading. Reading's changing, not dying. The essays are great. One dissects the "author's photo" that graces the back of many books. One critiques the concept of the invisible narrator, especially in interview/profiel pieces. The essays are on all different topics, by all different writers, and so far, I've enjoyed them all.

And I mailed a copy of Michael Dirda's Readings to my cousin in Europe. He's loving it. It's a collection of essays about (surprise) reading, everything from falling in love with cheap paperbacks as a kid to muddling through "classics" as an adult. Each essay stands alone, and was originally meant to stand alone as individual columns in the Washington Post Book Section, but as a whole they describe a man, complete through reading.

Monday, October 10, 2005


I've been...busy the last few weeks. But I'm back now.

I got married Saturday. That's my excuse. And I was so stressed leading up to it. I wasn't even reading. I didn't get nervous until we were ready to start walking into the ceremony, and they I almost started crying, and I was clinging to my father, babbling about how I felt like I was going to miss him but knowing that was silly, I'm still going to see him, and my mom, and everyone. The ceremony went perfectly and the party - let's just say I have never had so much fun dancing in my entire life. I still ache from dancing, jumping, bouncing for five hours. I'm still glowing.

I will be back online tomorrow. I return to my day job, and I have an article to write on the history of a local highway. Should be fun, actually. But I'm a history geek.

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