Fat Books & Thin Women


Criticism and the Self
February 9, 2012, 3:10 pm
Filed under: meme, Ways of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

This post is a part of the Literary Blog Hop held by the great ladies over at The Blue Bookcase.

Every month The Blue Bookcase posts a new question for their Literary Blog Hop. This round, it’s a great one:

In the epilogue for Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman writes:

“It’s always been my theory that criticism is really just veiled autobiography; whenever someone writes about a piece of art, they’re really just writing about themselves.”

Do you agree?

Sometimes when I’m reading a book review – and often, when I’m reading a book review on a blog – I get the sense the reviewer is writing as much about the book as about him or herself. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about this on book blogs, though the minor “is it reviewing or reacting?” war (prompted in part by The Reading Ape’s post on the use of “I” in reviews) died down long ago. The question of how objective book reviews are, or should be, or can be, is going to stick around for as long as people are looking, slightly askance, at book blogs and what they mean about the deires of the reading community and the trajectory of professional book reviewing.

I wouldn’t go so far as Klosterman in that there is autobiography in every review; but often, of course, it’s there, even if unstated. When I review books I try to maintain some sort of critical distance. I don’t want these purported book reviews to be more a catalog of my latest woes, or of what I “felt” while reading. Sometimes, though it’s impossible to maintain that critical distance, or to deny the influence of autobiography on how I read and review a book. Would I have been so suspicious of Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea if I hadn’t been a Peace Corps Volunteer with some firsthand experience of the spectacular failures of foreign aid? Would I have rolled my eyes through most of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, if I didn’t have years of living abroad to teach me that no place and no culture is there to help us “discover” ourselves? Would I have identified so much with Krakeur’s writing on Alexander Supertramp if I couldn’t see some of those same desires to escape in myself? Probably not, and I tried to recognize that fact in all three reviews.

That said, because of the clear influence my own life had on my reading of those books, when I reviewed them I felt obligated to give some background to my reading. Those reviews, in many ways, are more reaction and autobiography than a consideration of the works for their literary merits (or lack thereof).

I think that Ben of Dead End Follies has it right when he writes that we need to find a place in the middle when we’re reviewing – neither too close to the work nor too far away. To read a review with bits of autobiography can be an illuminating experience, when it’s done well and when that autobiography is used to better color the experience of reading the book. But when autobiography is simply tossed into the review, when it stands in place of looking critically at a book, the so-called criticism becomes anything but – it becomes simply another tired entry in the journal of “what I read and why I kind of liked it.” As Ben writes:

I read an alarming number of book reviews on a weekly basis that have a “the characters really got to me”, “I could feel her inner turmoil” and “I really liked it” in the body of their argumentation. Right there, you’re saying nothing about the book and everything about yourself.

Done well, a review with touches of the autobiographical can make the criticism as worthy of reading and critique as the work it is addressing. Done lazily, though, it can do the opposite and make the “review” an exhausting trawl through someone’s baggage or inability to express him/herself without a string of modifiers. I try to keep myself out of my reviews because I’m not confident in my ability to write a piece of criticism that artfully mixes my own life with the novel I’m writing about. That’s why you won’t see too many “I think”s and “I feel”s, around this site. Sometimes, though, I do wonder if book blogs don’t provide the best venue for this sort of reviewing. If we read book blogs in large part because we’re attracted to the personality of the reviewer, what does my effort to exclude myself from my reviews mean about the “success” of the reviews I write here? Or is it, as Klosterman suggests, impossible for me to excise myself from my reviewing so cleanly as I think I have?

Literary Blog Hop

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Top Ten Books for Reluctant Readers
February 7, 2012, 7:53 am
Filed under: meme | Tags: , , , ,

The Broke and the Bookish this week asks us to recommend books for reluctant readers. Awesome! I am not a reluctant reader, but I am doing my best here to be a good recommender of books. I notice, now, that a lot of these recommendations have been adapted to film – so perhaps I wasn’t the first to see how much crossover appeal they have.

The Fellowship of the Ring – ok, there are certain disadvantages to recommending Tolkien to a reluctant reader, wordiness and heavy song use being key among them. But this story is such a well-known one that it can easily suck anyone in, leading them to spend a full month immersed in The Lord of the Rings. Which reminds me, it’s time for me to read The Two TowersRead the reviewBuy

Mystic River – My Dennis Lehane love is well-established by now, so safe to say that I would hand pretty much anything the guy’s written to someone who’s not much into reading. Mystic River wins out because (a) I just read it a month ago and (b) it does such a good job of pulling together character development and plotting. As a runner-up, I’d recommend going through the whole Kenzie & Gennaro series. Read the reviewBuy

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Not to suggest that I myself am a crier, but if you regard percentage of crying time while reading a valuable indicator of how good a book is…this book is very good. This is also such a great crossover book that will appeal to anyone – teens, adults, men, women. Because, it has time travel! and romance! and so many scenes of Henry being naked in really, really awkward situations! – Buy

‘Salem’s Lot – Generally, I think of Stephen King as one of the best choices for reluctant readers. Or for me, when I don’t really feel like reading (but can’t think of anything else to do). I read a fair amount of King’s work while I was a freshman in high school, before deciding that he wasn’t “worthy” (don’t ask me) and avoiding his work for the next seven years. ‘Salem’s Lot was the first of his books I read on my return to King fandom, and it’s such a great example of what he can do. Certainly one of the best vampire stories, slow-moving as many of King’s novels are, but without the verbal diarrhea that afflicts so many of his efforts. – Buy

The Book Thief – Another one of those books with great crossover appeal. I judge its appeal not just on what a fantastic and engrossing read it is, but on the fact that this is one of the few books from the Peace Corps library that volunteers went out of their way to hunt down and request. Any time a book doesn’t actually see the library because it’s being passed hand-to-hand, you know it’s a good one. This also serves as a nice introduction to what is happening in young adult, and should quickly silence anyone who doesn’t think there’s much of worth in that category. – Buy

True Grit – as with Lehane, my Charles Portis fandom is a well-established thing. I choose True Grit, out of all his books (some of which I may like a little more) because (a) it’s also a movie…well, two movies and (b) it’s short, and (c) it’s funny, and (d) it is two hundred pages of showing us that westerns are awesome and we should be seeking out more of them. Mattie is a great, strong female character, and Rooster Cogburn not only has one of the best names in fiction but is funny to boot. Read the reviewBuy

Stiff – I’m reading Mary Roach’s book on astronauts right now, which reminded me of what a welcoming and fun author she is. She does this great mix of nonfiction and humor writing, and it’s hard not to go through her books recording all the weird facts she sticks in footnotes. I mean, where does she find these things? I love nonfiction but often go months without reading any, because it can be such slow-going. As I’m facing some scholarly reading on Albanian national identity, it’s nice to have Mary Roach to the side to wake me back up. I imagine that anyone would feel the same way, whether or not they share my reading commitments. – Buy

The Places in Between – While we’re on nonfiction, let’s roll out some Rory Stewart. This memoir is about walking across Afghanistan, in the middle of winter. Awesome! Everyone tells him he’s crazy, and he is, but he keeps going, accompanied by a dog. This memoir includes one of the most tear-worthy moments of The Written Word (really, it is that good – I can’t narrow the category down), you will know what I’m talking about when you get there. – Buy

Room – Emma Donoghue’s Room is maybe a riskier selection than those above, but it still seems pretty “hip” to me to be carrying this book around. Plus, I am pretty sure it’s made its way into airport bookstores. The narration may turn some people off, but Donoghue does an amazing job with her child narrator, and the viewpoint adds much to the book – many moments are especially affecting because we’re coming at them from the view of a child who doesn’t fully understand his world. Room is also a short read with high potential for sucking readers in as they try to find out what will happen to Jack and his mom?!! Read the reviewBuy

A Clockwork Orange – There’s some risk for revolt with this book as well, but like Room it’s a short read that raises some interesting issues. Burgess’s story is one that’s probably known to the reader through film, and despite the play with language here, it’s a pretty easy read that will nevertheless have the reader, at end, thinking, “holy shit. What just happened?Read the review

Read more recommendations for reluctant readers!

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 30

Your favorite book of all time:

Gosh, last day of the 30 Day Book Meme. I bet you thought this would never arrive!

Since it stands to reason that my favorite book by my favorite author is my favorite book overall, you already know that Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor is my #1. I’ve offered so many repeats this month (posts on Harry Potter, posts on Nabokov, posts on stuff I read when I was a kid) that I don’t want to close this out by parroting something I wrote two weeks ago, as good a thematic fit as that might be.

Looking at Favorite Books Not Written by Nabokov, then, leaves us with a toss-up between Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I am going to get a denar coin…

Well, a five denar coin.

Heads One Hundred Years of Solitude, tails The English Patient. I hope you are getting as anxious as me, wondering who will win this lamest of literary showdowns.

It’s heads! With apologies to Ondaatje, who I’m eventually going to write a post on, but it’s García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude declaring its domination of the literary arts today. You can read my scattered post on One Hundred Years here. While you’re doing that I’ll be laying down for a nap – it’s been a trying few minutes.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people have read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 29
August 30, 2011, 5:17 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , ,

A book everyone hated but you liked:

Special note: today is Bajram, my favorite day of the year in Macedonia. Really, one of my two favorite days of the year here, since there are two Bajrams – this is Ramadan Bajram, the next one is Kurban Bajram. Yesterday was the last day of Ramazan (known elsewhere as Ramadan), and today my family and I woke up early to eat ruchek, lunch, a little past seven. This is the fourth and last time I am celebrating Bajram with them, and it’s sad to think that I’ll never again be pulled out of my house by my six-year-old host sister to eat baklava right after the sun is up.

This has nothing to do with the book I’m writing about today, but I wanted to set the baklava scene simply because there are not many opportunities when a grown woman has the chance to eat baklava for breakfast.

Signs that Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons is widely despised by reader and critic alike: I bought my copy off the remainder table. It won an award for “bad sex in fiction.” Even most Tom Wolfe fans refuse to acknowledge this book.

But me? I loved it. Sure, Charlotte Simmons can be frustratingly naïve and Wolfe sometimes strives too hard to take in the whole of a college campus (it is hard not to think, “This man read some articles about campus hook-up culture while he was writing”), but there’s something joyful to this novel’s taking in of every college experience it can. Wolfe’s characters and situations verge on caricature, but this is the pleasure in the book: Charlotte’s year at college is recognizable, but exaggerated enough that you want to read this novel in great gulps to find out just what the hell is going to happen to her and Wolfe’s cast next. I am Charlotte Simmons is the literary equivalent of a soap opera, and if you are like me you won’t have a hard time ignoring Wolfe’s underlying message about the perverted view of education many college students have in favor of this novel’s voyeuristic pleasures.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people have read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 28
August 29, 2011, 4:40 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , ,

Favorite title:

Oh my god, I don’t know. Clearly I didn’t look too closely at these prompts before I decided to devote the month to farting on about my favorite books. But I do remember thinking, at times while reading, that the title of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned was better than the rest of the book.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people have read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 27
August 28, 2011, 9:04 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , ,

The most surprising plot twist or ending:

I’d like you to all have an image of me spending hours a day struggling to think of what to write on this blog, so let me start by saying: man, I really struggled over this one. As I went about my day (killing mice, doing dishes, walking to the store with my host sister, coloring with my host sister, doing laundry, talking with my host sister about baklava [Bajram {best holiday ever, end of Ramadan, lots of coffee and baklava and “sugar money”} is the day after tomorrow], making falafel [falafel mix, whatever I want to think now that I live in a country without falafel, will never come close to real falafel {which I’m too lazy to attempt to make}], moving mouse traps, discussing potential Bajram outfits with my sister [just picture her going through my closet saying, “no, no, no”]) the question of my favorite plot twist was ever on my mind.

I couldn’t think of a thing, not a single answer. Do I read novels with “plot twists”? Am I ever surprised at the end of a book? Have I been surprised by the end of the novel since I was twelve-years-old reading a Nancy Drew mystery, or can I just write about a disappointing ending and return to Harry Potter to discuss the lame close to the series?

There are books with stunning ends. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Nabokov’s Ada, to name just a few that have been on my mind recently. None of them have surprised me, though, and I can’t think of a book I’ve read that closes with a plot twist. This isn’t a bad thing; I think it says something positive about the books I’ve been reading (Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane!) and the quality of the writing, because if you’re shocked by a plot twist at the end of a novel it’s probably more a sign that the author didn’t do his job when it came to characterization and not-ridiculous plotting. I swear, I can recall reading books and being surprised by the end – but there’s a reason I can’t remember what novels these were, because I’m always disappointed when the end is something so nuts that I had no chance of predicting it. Sometimes, it’s the feeling of being let down and realizing that the world you’ve been immersed in was nothing but the author toying with you for three hundred pages. What’s the fun of reading a novel, then learning it was a dream? What would be the fun in Harry Potter if we learned at the end that Harry had turned to the dark side? Do you ever want to read a mystery in which the least likely suspect turns out to have committed the crime, for the simple reason that he or she was the only character no reader could pin as the killer?

Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone has a pretty good twist, though the movie has probably crushed the “surprise” out of it for most of the American reading public. Can you forgive me for offering an answer after all that moaning about how I couldn’t give an answer?

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people have read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 26
August 27, 2011, 4:48 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , , ,

A book that changed your opinion about something:

My cooking used to be a sorry affair. When I first moved into a house, in college, I considered opening a jar of pasta sauce a major accomplishment, the result something that would impress any home cook. I ate cereal two meals a day and this seemed alright, since they were different types of cereal.

Then I became a vegetarian. (Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I read around this time, was a close contender for today’s book. Pollan lost out simply because his book didn’t change my views – it simply solidified them.) This meant, first, that I no longer had to prod fearfully at a piece of a chicken, debating if it were done, and second, that I had even less idea how to cook than I had had before.

Enter Mark Bittman and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. If you’re wondering how a cookbook can change your view on something, you’ve probably never been the sort of person who approaches the kitchen fearfully, skims past recipe after recipe because the spice list is too confusing or you’re not sure what a certain instruction means or you’re missing one ingredient. Bittman’s book isn’t just a great cookbook, though it is. It’s a book that changed the way I think about cooking: it woke me to the fact that if you’re missing ingredients or spices or don’t really know what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter. It taught me that if you put a bunch of delicious things in a pot together with some olive oil and some salt it will taste pretty good, and that if you make something that doesn’t taste good you don’t have to eat it – you just add stuff to the pot until it tastes better. The parts of my Peace Corps service that have been in a kitchen have built on Bittmann’s book, as I’ve realized it’s not just ingredients you can fudge but the tools. When recipes say you need a blender, an immersion blender, a mixer, a rolling pin, a whisk, you don’t need these things. Everything you make in the kitchen can be adjusted based on what you have, your skills, your tastes, and I owe Mark Bittman for helping me to realize that.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people have read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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