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A Must-Read Essay

Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at University of Virginia, recently published an essay entitled “The Ideal English Major.”

I strongly urge you to read it, whether you’re an English major or just an avid reader and writer. It is wonderful in many ways, and — without hyperbole — one of the best explanations I’ve ever read of what I do and why I love what I do. You can read the full essay here: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553/

Some highlights:

Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.

***

The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?

***

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. […] Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.”

***

The English major at her best isn’t used by language; she uses it. She bends it, inflects it with irony, and lets hyperbole bloom like a firework flower when the time’s right. She knows that language isn’t there merely to represent the world but to interpret it. Language lets her say how she feels. The English major believes in talk and writing and knows that any worthwhile event in life requires commentary and analysis in giant proportion. She believes that the uncommented-on life is not worth living. Then, of course, there is the commentary on the comments. There must be, as Eliot says, a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of the toast and tea—and a few after as well. But I sometimes think that the English major’s most habitual feeling about the linguistic solution in which she swims isn’t practical at all. What she feels about language most of the time is wonder and gratitude. For language is a stupendous gift. It’s been bequeathed to us by all of the foregoing generations.

***

The English major: in love with language and in love with life—or at least hungry for as much life as he can hold. But there’s something else, too. The English major immerses himself in books and revels in language for a purpose. You might even call it a high purpose, if you’re disposed to such talk.

***

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person.

Edmundson has captured the essence of my love of language, reading, and writing beautifully and simply. Well done!

Happy reading!

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Review: The Cabinet of Curiosities

I picked up The Cabinet of Curiosities, co-authored by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, for two reasons: The Cabinet of Curiosities

1. This past semester, I took an archival literature class that focused for some time on the phenomena of cabinets of curiosity, and how the form and function translated to literature. Hence, the title caught my eye.

2. I am incapable of leaving a bookstore — especially Bookmans — without buying something.

The novel opens with the discovery of an underground tunnel beneath a construction site in New York City, in which the bones of 36 murder victims are found stuffed into bricked-over alcoves. The charnel immediately catches the attention of FBI Special Agent Pendergast, who enlists the help of Nora Kelly, an archaeologist working at the Museum of Natural History. Nora in turn engages her boyfriend, reporter William Smithback, to help delve into the mystery. One note on the characters and their back-stories; this novel seems to be one of a series, since it refers to past events that the authors seemed to think I should be familiar with, but reading it on its own was generally not a problem. More than anything, it was just vaguely bothersome in those moments when previous events were referred to without explanation.

The investigation into the 36 century-old murders takes on a new urgency when new victims displaying the same kill signature begin to show up around the city. It seems that their is a copy-cat killer on the loose, but why? And what drove the original killings in the first place? The investigation takes place both on the streets of New York, as well as in the sprawling archives of the Museum of Natural History. The archives hold an astonishing amount of material, from artifacts to personal correspondence between scholars to known frauds. Among all of it, Nora and Pendergast find clues to the hows and whys of the killings of the original victims, as well as hints to why it might be happening again.

This novel is interesting, with a significant number of unexpected plot twists. However, I feel that the dual authorship had one major pitfall: it made The Cabinet of Curiosities significantly longer than it probably should have been. The novel is 629 pages, and it drags in some sections. Everything does build toward the final unveiling, but I think some sections could have been tightened up, shortened, or dropped entirely. For example, while I understand making a reader want to care about the victims, I don’t feel the need to have an entire chapter devoted to introducing that character solely so they can be found dead ten pages later. Maybe this is just me being crotchety, but I kept feeling like the novel needed to be more streamlined. This, really, is my main gripe with the otherwise solidly decent mystery. It’s good summer reading, though. I myself read much of it by the pool, and I can’t recommend that methodology (read, swim break, read, read in the pool, nap, read, swim…) enough.

While this was a unique novel, especially given the lens through which I was reading, thanks to my recent coursework, I wouldn’t put it at the top of my to-read list. It’s good, not great. I’ve recently read multiple books that I enjoyed more, including other  mysteries. I think I’m going to step away from mysteries — especially murder mysteries — for a while, since I don’t want to burn myself out on them. Let’s see about queuing up a lighter read next.

Happy Reading!

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Review: The Last Child

The Last ChildJohn Hart is a great author, and his style is bitingly realistic and engaging. Now… having said that, I have to say that reading The Last Child was not a particularly pleasant experience for me. In fact, it literally made my chest hurt at times. While this can be attributed to strong writing, it can also be due to the content and plot of this novel.

The plot focuses on thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon’s search for his twin sister, who was kidnapped one year before the opening of the novel. In that year, Johnny’s father abandoned Johnny and his mother, Katherine, and in his absence she has taken up with a drug-addicted, power-hungry abuser. This man sexually and emotionally abuses Katherine, gets her addicted to pills, physically abuses Johnny. Through all of this, Johnny refuses to give up his search for answers in his sister’s disappearance. It’s a tough read, no question.

I have trouble recommending this novel solely because of the emotional toll it took on me. Bleakness and violence saturate the story, and I’m the type of reader that feels that sort of thing very deeply. It’s made worse by knowing the sorts of things that are described in this book, though fictional, happen in real life, every day, to many people around the world. Kidnappings, broken families, murder, and abuse. Families that never get answers, or get answers they wish they’d never heard. That, really, is what became almost too much for me. The reality behind The Last Child is even more depressing than the novel itself.

While it’s hard to handle emotionally, the mystery aspect of The Last Child is strong. Johnny’s search is mirrored by a detective’s more official investigation; Detective Hunt is invested in the case to the point of obsession. While he publicly rebukes Johnny for skipping school and endangering himself in his investigations, Hunt secretly is rooting for the boy. The reader is put in a similar position. I felt myself holding my breath, willing Johnny to succeed, heart racing in the most harrowing scenes. I wanted to grab on to this young boy and keep him safe, yet I had to keep watching him plunge further down his path to the truth.

This novel, if you can stomach it, is certainly worth your time. (HALFSIES SPOILER!!!) Don’t hope for any happy endings, though. I held on to hope for nearly the whole novel, only to have it dashed near the end. There is closure and resolution, but much of it is still achingly sad. While there is some measure of peace, and the ability to look forward, it’s hard to imagine the characters fully leaving behind all that has happened. As a reader, I know I’m still having trouble doing so.

While this one wasn’t, I wish you, as always, happy reading.

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Review: Dead Ever After

(NOTE: No spoilers for this novel, but there will be spoilers for books #1-12.)

After fourteen years, Sookie Stackhouse’s adventures are over. Charlaine Harris’ thirteenth Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire novel is the last, as the title — Dead Ever After — indicates. I’m sad the series is over, but I think Harris was right to end it on her terms, the way she always envisioned, rather than dragging it out simply for the sake of producing more novels.

Dead Ever AfterThe novel begins at a crossroads, where two men are meeting a devil. The men, who remain nameless for some time, wait in the French Quarter of New Orleans to sell their souls, each for a distinct price.

The action then jumps to Mexico, where two men — also nameless — collaborate in a scheme to exact revenge against Sookie Stackhouse for some unknown reasons.

Harris, as you can see, starts the action immediately, but the reader is left in the dark about who these men are or what motivates them. Though Sookie is mentioned, we don’t get to her familiar narration and storyline until roughly twenty pages in. Sookie’s narrative begins the morning after [*MAJOR SPOILER FOR BOOK #12!!!*] she uses the cluviel dor, a magical relic from her fairy relatives that has the power to grant one wish, to raise Sam from the dead.  Somewhat unsurprisingly, Sam is stunned and overwhelmed by the experience, and is acting like a totally different person, especially  around Sookie. Meanwhile, Eric, Sookie’s vampire boyfriend, is furious at her for not using the cluviel dor to benefit him. Eric is still bound up in the negotiations for the marriage contract for his impending nuptials with Freyda, the Queen of Oklahoma, a process that hurts and humiliates Sookie every step of the way.

With all of this already straining her sanity, Sookie’s life gets immeasurably worse when her former friend Arlene shows back up. Arlene, though never a good friend to Sookie, broke all bonds when she tried to help her new anti-vampire/were/magic friends crucify Sookie. Luckily, Sookie evaded their cruel plan and Arlene and her accomplices all went to prison for attempted murder. Now, though, she was bailed out for reasons unbeknownst to her or Sookie; they quickly become apparent, however, when Arlene turns up murdered, with evidence planted on her body that points to Sookie as the perpetrator.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Sookie’s attempts to exonerate herself, alongside a group of her friends, including Amelia, Bob, Mr. Cataliades, Diantha, Quinn, and Barry. I really enjoyed this book; I flew through it under two days. The one facet that surprised me somewhat is how small a role the vampires played in this novel. Bill, Eric, Pam, and the usual assortment are present, but remain mostly in the background. Even the shifters take a notably smaller role. Unlike the previous installments in the series, this book is not about a vampire and/or shifter mystery adventure that spills over into Sookie’s life, but rather entirely Sookie-centric in both the focus and scope.

Without going into any spoilers, I will say that it ended the way I pretty much always expected it would. I was pleased with this ending, because I really do feel like Harris hinted in this direction throughout the dozen books leading up to this one. I wouldn’t say things were completely tied up or closed off, but it’s very clear how things will play out in Sookie’s future.

I’ll miss looking forward to a new Sookie Stackhouse novel every summer, but I’m sure I’ll find another series that will hook me in no time. (Plus, there’s still the bulk of my Masters’ Exam reading list to work through…)

Happy Reading!

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Review: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls

I just finished my first year of graduate school, and in celebration, I am treating myself to a week of pure pleasure reading. My first book is David Sedaris’ newest collection of stories and essays, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: Essays, etc. The book contains twenty or so short stories from Sedaris himself, and six short monologues meant for students doing “Forensics” exercises, which apparently are a form of competitive speech-giving. (I personally had never heard of this until Sedaris brought it up at his reading back in November.)

Let's Explore Diabetes with OwlsMy initial response to the essays and monologues is this: Sedaris’ essays are as wonderful and hilarious as always, while the monologues meant for forensics are amusing, but not nearly as good as his memoirs. In the author’s note preceding the text, Sedaris explains the monologues and points out that they are easily distinguishable from his other stories.  I definitely agree; especially after the first couple monologues, they become readily apparent as different from his other stories.

I absolutely loved so many of the stories in this volume, it’s incredibly hard to pick a favorite. My least favorite of the stories is easy, though: “Loggerheads.” I’ll come back to the high notes in a moment, but the one sour note is the story that I just couldn’t like. “Loggerheads” is generally about Sedaris’ childhood attempts to keep wild animals as pets, though it meanders on to other related subjects, as so many of his stories do. Sedaris is upfront about the fact that his attempts to “save” wild animals invariably killed them, and so from the outset of this story my animal-loving heart was uneasy. When he gets to the episode in which he took five baby sea turtles from the beach, my stomach sank to somewhere around my ankles. I know he was just a child, but I felt irrationally angry at his choices — as well as the fact that none of the adults stopped him. I was rather depressed and sickened by this story, and I all I can really say is that, in hindsight, Sedaris does recognize how awful his actions were.

Apart from this story, I uniformly loved the stories. Some of my favorites included one that he read when I saw him, “The Happy Place”, as well as “Easy, Tiger”, “Author, Author”, and “Standing By.” There were many other great stories, but I think these were some of the best. “Standing By” is about delays and mishaps traveling, and how strangers are thrown together into brief communities. I could absolutely relate to Sedaris’ feelings of wanting to scream at fellow passengers, as well as being casually judgmental of just about everyone you see in the airport.

I really love Sedaris’ books, as every one feels like a privileged peek into the life of someone with whom I’d love to be friends. The stories about traveling with Hugh, living in the countryside, and even getting a colonoscopy all are laughingly confidential, as if being shared over a cup of coffee. I love Sedaris’ writing style, and the way he can wring humor out of just about every situation, as well as transition from bitingly sarcastic to heartfelt and vulnerable and back again. Even in outlandish situations, Sedaris manages to seem absolutely relatable.

For more hilarity, watch the video of David Sedaris on The Daily Show the other night, which you can see here. He literally has Jon Stewart laughing so hard he can’t talk at one point. (Also, Sedaris makes fun of people who come to his readings in shabby clothing, which makes me preen even more over the fact that he complimented my dress and thanked me for dressing nicely when I saw him!)

I cannot recommend this book enough!

Happy reading!

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Tucson Festival of Books 2013

The Tucson Festival of Books was this past weekend, and it was once again a great success. The weather wasn’t as nice as I had hoped, as Saturday was cold and rainy, but there was still a strong turnout. The attendance was once again on track to be well over 100,000, though I haven’t seen a final figure anywhere.

The Author’s Table Dinner

On Friday, I was once again lucky enough to attend the kickoff dinner for the festival. It was wonderful!

The ballroom where the Author's Table dinner was held

The ballroom where the Author’s Table dinner was held

Lights projected letters onto the ceiling of the ballroom

Lights projected letters onto the ceiling of the ballroom

J.A. Jance, a graduate of the University of Arizona, was the emcee this year. She is the author of dozens of thrillers and mystery novels, some of which are even set in Arizona.

J.A. Jance opening the festivities

J.A. Jance opening the festivities

Both of my parents have read nearly all of her novels, and I’ve read quite a few myself. I definitely recommend them!

R.L. Stine receiving the Founders' Award

R.L. Stine receiving the Founders’ Award

R.L. Stine received the Founders’ Award, and gave a lovely speech. He was quite funny and self-effacing, including when he read some of his fan mail; one of the letters, in its entirety, read: “Dear R.L. Stine, You are my second-favorite author.” That was it. Another letter informed R.L. Stine that the writer had read 40 of his novels, and found them boring. Stine went on to discuss how he had gotten into written scary books (Goosebumps, Fear Street, etc.) and how grateful he was for his career and all the young readers that propelled him to success. Once again, I was impressed by his kindness, humility, and humor.

R.L. Stine

R.L. Stine

The keynote speaker was Alan Zweibel. Zweibel was one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live, along with many other television shows such as Monk and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He has written books and plays as well, and has won many awards for his work. As might have been expected, Zweibel’s speech was laugh-out-loud funny. He talked about how he got started as a comedy writer, selling jokes for $7 apiece to stand-up comics, and how he used to have to haggle with comedians who only wanted to pay him based off how much of a laugh his jokes got.

Alan Zweibel

Alan Zweibel

Zweibel went on to explain how Lorne Michaels found him in a comedy club, and hired him to write for SNL. Zweibel wrote for the show from 1975 through 1980. On his first day, Zweibel was so intimidated by all the comedy greats that he met in the studio for SNL that he panicked and hid behind a potted plant. A young woman named Gilda Radner saw him behind the plant and crouched down to speak to him, forming an immediate friendship that lasted until her death in 1989.

One of the funniest parts of Zweibel’s speech was when he talked about arguing with the woman who worked as the network’s censor, telling them what they could and couldn’t say on the air. Zweibel even talked her into allowing them to say “bitch” on air, after successfully convincing her that they were using the word as an adverb, rather than calling someone a bitch. He wasn’t sure if she believed him, or just couldn’t figure out how to debate him, but “bitch” stayed in the sketch. Zweibel also won debates by telling her she was being sexist when she tried to block “blue balls” shortly after allowing “pussy whip” — though both terms were masked in jokes that referred to blue cheese and cats, respectively.

After coming offstage, Zweibel shook hands, spoke with people, and took photos. He was charming, and just as funny offstage as on. The entire night was light-hearted and fun, with both speakers telling lots of jokes and amusing anecdotes. It was a wonderful evening, and got everyone very excited for the festival the next day.

"Book & Glasses"

“Book & Glasses”

"Read" installation

“Read” installation

The Festival of Books

I just about had a temper tantrum when I woke up to clouds and gusting winds on Saturday morning. When a drizzle kicked him, I actually started pouting and flopped on my bed very dramatically.

I was determined to go to the festival regardless, though, so I donned my raincoat, grabbed a plastic bag to protect any books I bought from the rain, and headed over the University of Arizona campus. Despite the nasty weather (it rained off and on the whole five hours I was there), many people still came to enjoy the events. Many of the same vendors were there, including Bookmans and Steam Crow. (Lots of literary love to them!) I especially like the Bookmans tote this year; it has an illustration of a Lucha Libre fighter with a “Reader 4 Life” tattoo, and in big pink letters says “Vivan los Libros”.

TFOB & RenFest 2013 024 TFOB & RenFest 2013 025The Literacy Connects tent was beautiful again this year. It had two giant white boards where people could write and draw about why reading was important, or what books they liked and why. Photos can do justice much better than my descriptions:

Literacy Connects

Literacy Connects

the link between literacy and poverty/crime

the link between literacy and poverty/crime

Books rule!

Books rule!

Reading connects people to their dreams

Reading connects people to their dreams

reading together makes families stronger

reading together makes families stronger

Myles adding to the wall

Myles adding to the wall

I love books! (Also, in the corner: "I love reading like Snape loves Lily.")

I love books! (Also, in the corner: “I love reading like Snape loves Lily.”)

Myles' drawing of Cthulhu

Myles’ drawing of Cthulhu

my friend Erin with her Cat in the Hat illustration

my friend Erin with her Cat in the Hat illustration

The range of events was astounding. There were readings, book signings, writing seminars, question-and-answer sessions, and so much more. On top of all the strictly literary events, there were musical performances, food vendors, science experiments, games, characters in costume, and art of all kinds. The festival is truly a little bit of everything, bound together by a common love of books and passion for literacy. After wandering happily around the tents and events, it was time for me to report for my volunteer shift at the English Department tent. I was working the table to both give information about the fabulous English department, as well as to sell raffle tickets for a print from an 1870 magazine depicting the all of the characters from Charles Dickens’ novels.

Despite the crummy weather, I had a blast. The weather on Sunday was much better, though, and so I’m sure many people had an absolutely perfect day.

Until next year — happy reading!

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Review: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, by Tiffany Baker, is an interesting novel. I can’t quite remember why I picked it up at the bookstore, but once I had it, it languished, unread, on my bookshelf for about two years. I opened it once, but for some reason or other I never made it past the first page. My second stab at it was (obviously) more successful.

The novel opens at a funeral, narrated by the main character, Truly. Truly is a an immense woman, the titular giant of her county. The story then jumps back in time from the funeral scene to before Truly’s birth; the main narrative then traces her life from infancy through her troubled childhood through her even more troubled adulthood. Eventually, the storyline loops back to the same funeral, and then progresses on from there. Truly is the type of flawed heroine whose burdens and difficulties in life are painfully real, relatable even when her size and specific situations are not.

Truly is born big and continues to grow throughout her life. She towers over everyone else in Aberdeen, though she finds her place — after several tragedies — at a farm on the outskirts of town. Truly loves her makeshift family and her life on their farm, especially the work with her horses. However, her happiness is never complete, as her splintered family and dismal past never quite relinquish their grasp. The family secrets are dark and frigid, with far-reaching consequences. The tangled web of secrets and hidden agendas ensnares many characters, affecting them across the years in the narrative. Without giving away any spoilers, let me just say this: it’s hard to say who’s right or wrong in many of the situations, and Baker pushes the reader to consider the choices and how they might act in the same circumstances.

One of the few constants in the novel is the insidious and icy Robert Morgan. There are several Robert Morgans — a veritable lineage of them — but one in particular acts as the anchor that not only holds Truly in place, but very nearly drags her under. Truly makes a serious sacrifice for this awful man, who thanks her for her pains by tormenting her for years without mercy. His demeanor is hardly better toward his own son; the family dysfunction is the driving force of the latter part of the novel.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is a heavy read, but manages to tug your heartstrings and be dramatic without verging into hackneyed melodrama. Baker mostly avoids bogging her characters down with the many tragedies, large and small, that they face, focusing rather on the way they change the lives in the wake of the events. It’s remarkably fast-paced for a novel of its breadth, and kept my attention well (something family dramas have occasionally failed to do in the past). The three main characters are endearing in their own ways, while the villains are unrelenting in their machinations. Baker presents a small-town world of the past, self-contained and content to stay that way, even as she reminds the reader that the life in such a town was in no way as idyllic as we like to imagine.

I liked The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, but I don’t know that it’s a book I’ll reread in the future. The dramatic pull of the novel kept me engaged, and the conflicts still have me thinking and considering, but I don’t think it’s quite enough to merit a permanent spot on my bookshelf.

Happy reading, and Happy holidays!

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