Friday, January 30, 2009

There's always room for Porrello

It’s Friday and my attention span is shot. Welcome to the melange.

First, I have a bone to pick. I pick the tibia.

Second, I have a problem.

My co-blogger, Tricia, writes one post about “Seven Wheelchairs” and its author, Gary Presley; and, lo and behold, who should appear in the comments but Presley?

Yet, I direct — not one, but two — posts toward James Joyce, and does he emerge from the ethernet to respond? No.

Sure, Joyce died in 1941, but if Finnegan can rise from his casket — at least, I think that’s what happened — then, Zombie James Joyce can find an Internet cafe and snap off a couple of witty retorts.

Next, I’m halfway through a Rick Porrello kick. For those who read our newspaper, you may remember Porrello as the Lyndhurst Police Chief/Sammy Davis Jr. drummer/mafia legacy author.

Porrello has a homegrown interest in the mafia. His grandfather and three of his great-uncles were killed during the corn sugar wars in Cleveland. He’s written three books on organized crime in Cleveland so far: “The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia,” “To Kill the Irishman,” and “Superthief.”

Porrello flummoxes me. I spend all of my time trying to become a better writer and journalist. He’s already better than me and he does it part time. And he played drums for Sammy Davis Jr.

So he’s a better writer, better musician, and I’m going to assume he’s a better cop because he’s a police chief and I’m... not a police officer. So he thrice defeats me.

Nevertheless, I liked his “Irishman” and like-liked his “Rise and Fall.” Porrello has a knack for including the perfect detail.

For example, in “Irishman,” Porrello writes about how Butchie Cisternino and Allie Calabrese tried to kill notorious Irish mobster Danny Greene by blowing him up with a remote control bomb hidden in Greene’s car.

As Greene pulls away in the vehicle, Cisternino and Calabrese hit the button but are too far away from the car to set off the explosion. As they run closer, Greene pulls up to the parking lot attendant.

The attendant asks for seven dollars. Greene hands him $10 and says, “Keep the change.” Then, he drives away safely.

Keep the change.

Details make a scene, but the right detail makes a scene great.

--Jason Lea,

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

He dared to go it alone

Rabbit is finally at rest.

John Updike, 76, died Tuesday from lung cancer. The man wrote novels, nonfiction, literary critiques and magazine articles. He died with all-star statistics, two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards.

Updike balanced on the thin precipice between commercial and critical success, and he did it by being a working author. He was on the short list of authors from the United States who had a real crack at winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the bias of the board aside.

Like most prodigious authors, Updike’s output was vast and uneven. (If everything an author puts out is brilliant, then they probably wrote one thing and quit while they were ahead.) Critics occasionally accused him of valuing style over substance, but he tackled subjects—divorce, depression, sex, suburban women dabbling in the arcane—with equal aplomb.

His final novel, “The Widows of Eastwick,” was the sequel to his best-recognized work, the “Witches” from the same place. I say “best recognized” because I have not read all of Updike’s more than 50 books and cannot say it was his best.

He also created Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a character he followed through four books: “Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux,” “Rabbit is Rich,” and “Rabbit at Rest.” The Rabbit series garnered a pair of Pulitzers and a National Book Award. It also gave readers an icon, a man incapable of accepting his insignificance or, contrarily, accomplishing anything that mattered.

But when I think Updike, I won’t think “Eastwick” or even “Rabbit.” I’ll think of dinosaurs. In 2007, Updike scribed an article about unusual Mesozoic monsters for “The National Geographic.” He wrote about Mononykus’s smug dependence on a single clawed digit and the ungainly long arms of Deinocheirus, as if it were a high school basketball player.

I’d read Updike before, but I read him because I felt I should read him. I read him with the same compulsion with which we read Melville in high school, in case there might be a test. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy him, but it still felt mandatory.

Reading the article, I felt a kinship with Updike. Sure, Updike will probably win his third Pulitzer before I win my first; but this was a man who lived by the pen, not so far removed from blue-collar typists who must write for their supper. Updike wrote, and kept writing, because that was the best way he had to express himself, the best way he had to understand his surroundings.

I understand that.

So I returned to Updike—his reviews for “The New Yorker,” Angstrom, “The Centaur”—this time for me. I got a late start, so my reading may never catch Updike’s writing, but it will be worth the run.

--Jason Lea,


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tale of the tape

I’ve been a fan of Anita Shreve’s work since coming across “The Weight of Water”. I, along with legions of Oprah devotees, discussed “The Pilot’s Wife.” And I think “The Last Time They Met” is one of the most engrossing, well-constructed novels I’ve ever read.
Her latest creation “Testimony” (ISBN 9780316059862) cements her status in my book.
The story ostensibly revolves around a sex tape filmed at a private high school in small-town Vermont. But this is not the tale of that tape. It is instead a thoroughly fascinating examination of the effects our actions have — and just how far-reaching those ripples can be. It’s an idea that does give one pause.
I was somewhat reminded of Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” (ISBN 9780786868711) and its theme that those who have the greatest effect on our lives are not necessarily the ones you might think.

To Amanda D.: Thanks for the suggestions. I’m definitely going to look them up. My hope of engrossing nonfiction has been renewed. My previous foray out of the fiction stacks resulted in “The Woman Who Can’t Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science--a Memoir” (ISBN 9781416561767) by Jill Price. I wanted to understand what a burden that would be; I was disappointed. I wanted to care about her challenges; I didn’t. I wanted to be amazed by her “gift”; I wasn’t. While I appreciate her struggles, I found her story ultimately very forgettable.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

The downward spiral

6:23 a.m. I’m awake, and not at all pleased with myself. Wish I would have promised to eat a lot of waffles today instead of reading Finnegans Wake.

John Bishop’s introduction begins, “There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is ‘about’ anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, ‘readable.’”

Imagine being the publisher who receives a query letter from James Joyce’s hypothetical literary agent. What would it say? “Hey, I’ve got this book. I’m not sure what it’s about, or if it’s even readable, but it’s by the guy who wrote Ulysses. We can discuss movie rights later.”

6: 34 a.m. Sir Tristam, violer d’amores, fr’ over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war … What the hell is an isthmus?

6:41 a.m. Some of these coinages must have occurred when James Joyce passed out at his typewriter.

6:45 a.m. Caligulate is an incredible verb. If Tricia ever flips out, runs for empress and appoints her horse as a senator, I’m going to tell her to quit caligulating.

6:46 a.m. Great, now I lost my spot and need to start over.

6:54 a.m. Agog and Magog and the round of them agrog.

6:59 a.m. Beginning to suspect Finnegans Wake is the greatest practical joke ever conceived.

7:02 a.m. The jinnies is jillous agincourting all the lipoleums. And the lipoleums is gonn boycottoncrezy onto the one Willingdone … I’m not certain, but I think this might be pornographic.

7:19 a.m. These paxsealing buttonholes have quadrilled across the centuries and whiff now whafft to us, fresh and made-of-all-smiles as on the eve of Killallwho politic ditto, we can trade places get lifted in the staircases …

Fleppety! Flippety! Fleapow!

7: 25 a.m. First cup of coffee. If anyone ever tells you how good Finnegans Wake is, punch them in the throat.

7:28 a.m. Thank you, James Joyce, for supplying a word I so sorely needed. Henceforth, I will refer to all of Dave Jones’s columns as meandertales.

7:34 a.m. Did he just say “golden youths that wanted gelding?” That doesn’t make any sense. I mean, not in the same way that the rest of this doesn’t make sense; but what golden youth wants to be gelded?

Honestly, I’m just glad to have understood five consecutive words.

7:41 a.m. “And they all drank free” would be a wonderful way to end any story. It could replace “and they all lived happily ever after” as the standard closing line.

By the by, I’m on page 22. At this rate, it will take about 35 hours to finish Finnegans Wake.

7:45 a.m. With lipth she lithpeth to him all to time of thuch on thuch and thow on thow.

You know, that actually made sense. Maybe something’s kicking in.

7:47 a.m. Nevermind.

7:59 a.m. Coworker previously suggested reading the difficult passages aloud. Throat is now sore after reading aloud for 90 minutes.

8:04 a.m. When they make the inevitable Finnegans Wake movie, I bet Christopher Walken plays Humphrey Chimpden.

8:09 a.m. “A baser meaning has been read into these characters the literal sense of which decency can safely scarcely hint.”

This must be a metatextual comment. It is too coherent to be otherwise.

8: 13 a.m. If this reporting thing doesn’t work out, I’m becoming a lustsleuth. Doesn’t that sound cool, lustsleuth? I think that’s what Kenneth Starr should have been called.

8:45 a.m. Those many warts, those slummy patches, halfsinster wrinkles, shimmy shimmy ya shimmy yeh shimmy yay …

I can understand how some people become obsessed with this book, because it is not completely gibberish. There is a comprehensible nucleus. Of course, it’s smothered underneath a triple serving of style-over-substance. I can safely say that I will glean nothing more than some cool coinages from my one-day read-a-thon.

8:56 a.m. The next correction we print in The News-Herald should read, “Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.”

9:33 a.m. Lost some time because my wife made Frenchtoaststicks. LuvFrenchtoaststicks. Seckoned Cup of Cawfee.

A board of experts from the Modern Library ranked this book as the 77th greatest novel since 1900. This happened around the time when people felt compelled to make Top 100 lists for everything. (Top 100 movies, Top 100 songs, Top 100 things that make you go hmmmm…) Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” was ranked Number 78. I have read “Kim.” I enjoyed “Kim.” Though I am admittedly not even a sixth through Finnegans Wake, I feel comfortable saying that this is not better than “Kim.”

“Kim” had a plot. “Kim” had characters. “Kim” did not require a ouija board and a decoder ring to translate. “Finnegans Wake” certainly has poetry. It has language and style. What it does not have, however, is a reason for me to continue.

This verges on the emperor’s new clothes.

9:48 a.m. I’m telling my wife that we should name our first son Posidonius O’Fluctuary Lea.

10: 13 a.m. “Bladyughfoulmoecklenburgwhurawhorascortastrumpapapornanennykocksapastippatappatupperstrippuckputtanach, eh?”

OK. I give. Call it a third-round knockout. I made it to page 90 (of 628) before being struck a fatal blow.

Perhaps it is my inability to translate multilingual puns. Perhaps it is the amount of time it took me to decipher the portmanteaus. But I have failed, inexcusably failed. It took less than four hours and two cups of cawfee for me to surrender.

This is easily the most self-indulgent thing I have ever read. However, it is also a work of intelligence. I could be glib and say it is book of random words smashing together, like an omnilingual Jabberwocky forced into a blender, but it isn’t. Joyce is clearly trying to make, or obfuscate, a point. However, it is not compelling enough of a point for me to want to decipher it.

A book—actually, any story—is a symbiotic creature. It needs a teller and a listener. They are in it together. The storyteller must give something so the audience will follow. Likewise, the listener must be willing to sacrifice something if the story is of merit.

But Joyce asks too much. He wants readers to decode his cobbled language of the night, so they can hear a story with few decipherable characters or plot points. I respect, and even appreciate, some of the poetry here. (“The viability of vicinals if invisible is invincible.”) But the language does not overcome the detriments of this text.

Consequently, Joyce is alone.

--Jason Lea,

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Finnegans Wake-up Call

A couple of our readers — or a single reader with two e-mail addresses — called me on my no-person-in-the-history-of-the-universe-has-ever-read-Finnegans-Wake comment.

They claim to have finished the indecipherable prose. Even my co-blogger, Tricia Ambrose, said she waded through the monster. Her description: “He puts words together in a way that seems like they make sense, but they don’t,” which would make Joyce the Irish literary equivalent of Lil Wayne.

But I call shenanigans. To disprove them once and for all, I have purchased a copy of "Finnegans Wake" and will read it this Saturday in a cram session of Irish literature and whiskey.

And — because I do it for you, readers — I will blog the entire experience and provide it to you Monday, so you can read it while you should be working.

It’ll be like Bill Simmons blogging through the Super Bowl. That is, if the Super Bowl made absolutely no sense (like last year’s.)

Just purchasing “Finnegans Wake” was an ordeal. I went to five different bookstores in Lake County before I finally gave up and ordered it.

It was nowhere, not at big chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble or tiny secondhand dealers littered throughout the county.

I requested it at one store and the clerk responded with the seeming non sequitur, “So you like Chinese food?” Then, he checked the store’s stock and replied, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any copies of Finnegan’s Wok.”

At another, the clerk asked me who had written “Finnegans Wake.” By then, I had already been to four stores and was feeling snarky, so I said, “Shakespeare.”

She checked her computer and said, “I’m sorry, we don’t have it; but I can order a book with the same name by James Joyce. Maybe it’s a remake.”

I told her not to worry about it.

The utter absence of Finnegan was baffling to me. The Random House board rated the book as the 77th greatest English-language novel since 1900. (The list was rife with Joyce. “Ulysses” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” made the top five.)

I probably could’ve ordered it from a library but that would involve me paying my Brobdingnagian late fee. (It was cheaper for me to buy the book.)

So this Saturday, I go head to head with my nemesis and finally prove that Finnegan is a fraud. Just me, Joyce and, if necessary, a bottle of Jameson’s.

—Jason Lea,

PS I’m hoping this blog will get some cheap hits from people searching for “Bill Simmons” and “Lil Wayne.”

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A riveting account

I know they say it’s wrong, but I have to admit I do it. I often judge a book by its cover. Actually, its title.
How else to explain what prompts me to pick one book over another as I’m browsing among the stacks. If those words along the spine don’t contain “something” to appeal, I’ll never even see the cover, let alone read what’s on the inside.
So it was that I stumbled upon “Seven Wheelchairs, A Life Beyond Polio” by Gary Presley (ISBN 9781587296932).
I usually only look at fiction, but I was waiting for my son to finish his search and found myself standing in front of a display of nonfiction works.
And that title intrigued.
I was not disappointed.
Presley’s account of his experiences with polio was riveting. (I was 50 pages into it before we left the library!)
He holds nothing back as he describes his time in an iron lung and the decades that followed as he built a life far different from the one he had once imagined.
I think I’ll have to start checking out the nonfiction stacks more often.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jason Lea's Charm School: Better Wooing through Reading

My co-blogger’s husband proposed to her by quoting the opening passage of “A Tale of Two Cities.” I kid you not.

Normally, I’d dissuade referencing “the worst of times” while proposing, but it must have worked because Tricia accepted. They married and had four children: Lucie Manette, Nicholas Nickleby, Artful Dodger and Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come Ambrose. (I kid you a little.)

The moral, of course, is that women love a reader. So if your tongue is twisted, allow me to play Cyrano. (My advice is unisex. If women want to use my suggestions, I’m sure they will have just as much success as my male pupils. That is, to say, none.)

First, never push too hard while attempting to entice the object of your affection. It is better to bait the trap (preferably with money and expensive liquor) and let them come to you.

As Douglas Carlton Abrams put it: “Restraint is the defining strength of a true caballero, since any boor can thrust but only a skilled swordsman can parry.”

(A caballero is a duck dressed as a South American cowboy, in case you were wondering. In this context, it is a compliment.)

If you find yourself yoked to a talker and are desperate for a moment of silence, I offer two options. One, you can sprinkle some Lord Byron on them:

“Deceit the guilty lips impart
And hush the mandates of the heart
But soul’s interpreters, the eyes
Spurn such restraint and scorn disguise.”

If that doesn’t work, kiss them. People have trouble talking and kissing at the same time.

If your significant other bothers you while you’re watching TV, let him/her know W. Somerset Maugham-style, “Life isn’t long enough for love and art.”

Then, tell them you choose art, at least while “Scrubs” is on.

Perhaps, your woman (or man) might want to talk about your relationship. For this situation, I recommend the big gun, Jane Austen’s “Emma." Tell her (or him), “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

Finally, if your squeeze asks you one of those deathtrap questions like “Would you mind if my grandma spent the weekend?” or “Do you think I’ve put on weight?” fake a seizure.

What? Not everything can be solved with literature.

--Jason Lea,

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reading is about the journey

Reading, like life itself, is not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

It's one of the reasons why when I go to the library, I seldom know what I'm bringing home. For me, it's not about walking in with a list and walking out minutes later with what's on it - though it usually doesn't take very long to come out with an armful of surprises.

Some visits I focus solely on the new releases section; others I pick a letter and head to those stacks; other times I feel bad for authors whose books are on the ground-level shelves and only look there.

Because, for me, reading is not about completing a work so I can say I’ve read it. Life is too short for that. It’s about learning how the story unfolds, how the characters react, and maybe a little bit about myself along the way. It truly is about the journey.

And so despite the fact that you know from the get-go things aren’t going to end well, Elisa Albert’s “The Book of Dahlia” (ISBN 9780743291293) still gives the reader one heck of a ride.

When we meet Dahlia she is learning that she has an inoperable brain tumor. The not-terribly likable, neurotic 29-year-old lacks ambition and is content to live off her father.

But there’s something about her.

As Albert reveals more about Dahlia, we come to understand her strained relationship with her family, her feelings of uselessness, her inability to fit in anywhere. And while there's empathy for her plight, it is remarkably unsentimental.

Dahlia's journey is one I'm glad to have shared.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, January 19, 2009

In Defense of Díaz

My co-blogger said she disliked “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” last week because the footnotes distracted her. I think that’s like saying you dislike a portrait because of the frame.

“Oscar Wao,” written by Junot Díaz, tells the story of a young, awkward and corpulent man who wants to be the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. “Wao” touches on issues like predestination, racism and Trujillo’s tyranny, but these topics are window dressing. The focus is on Oscar, his family and the island from which they came.

There are a fistful of reasons to love “Wao.” Most of them are standard explanations—the characters, the unfamiliar take on familiar topics and the story. (Most reporters are storytellers and will forgive a lot for a compelling plot.) But the primary reason is the language.

Díaz’s voice is both natural and lyrical. He writes in the same voice in which my generation speaks … well, would speak, if we had his vocabulary. I felt reading him the same way, I imagine, the literate felt about “The Canterbury Tales” in the 14th century, or the beats and “On the Road,” or the groundlings and Shakespeare.

Finally, they thought, art that is in my vernacular.

I like Díaz for the same reason I prefer Public Enemy to The Beatles. I’d gladly concede The Beatles musical superiority. (Best I can tell, Public Enemy didn’t do very much with 13-chords and never used a 7/4 time signature.) But Public Enemy felt like they were talking to me.

I also like Díaz for the same reason I like Rudyard Kipling, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Khaled Hosseini. Every now and then, an author writes about a specific place so effectively that they become ambassadors for their subjects. Just like Marquez and Hosseini introduced me to Colombia and Afghanistan, respectively, Díaz introduced me to the Dominican Republic.

Pre- Díaz, if I ever though of the Dominican Republic, I thought of it as the half of the island that wasn’t Haiti. That may sound cruel or ignorant, but the headlines were usually dominated by Haiti, which stole my finite attention from its conjoined sibling. Now, post- Díaz, every time I hear about DR, my ears perk. I listen. Sometimes, I even understand.

I’m not the only one who looks at the Dominican Republic differently now because of Díaz. Our travel editor, Janet Podolak, who suggested the book to me, flew to the island after reading it.

Yes, the footnotes can be distracting. Yes, it would have been better to work them into the text instead of interrupting the plot; but the footnotes are merely exposition that adds to the final package.

Jason Lea,

P.S. Domini Canis, best pun ever.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies & Blog Comments

Considering the (relative) deluge of comments yesterday, it might be appropriate to respond to some of our readers’ thoughts. (Before yesterday, I wasn’t sure I could refer to our readers as plural.)

First, from ockopatrick:
However, Jason, the fact that you expertly know how to lie about books is very telling, and makes me question how you justify blogging about the topic.

I thought the topic would be funny. Granted, the subsequent comments were better than my post. This is also the first time I have been accused of expertly doing anything.

Ockopatrick continues:
First an attack on Dickens and now this? Are you next going to tell me that John Grisham is one of the nation’s great writers?

I have been playing the iconoclast lately. How about this? Next post, I actually write about something I like. (No, it won’t be Grisham.)

From Diplomat440V8:
Don’t disgrace your reputation by lying about what you read, Lea.

You mean my reputation as an overcompensating, libelous bourgeoisie?

Kyle writes:
He has a reputation to disgrace?????

This should be my tag line.

Harold asks:
What about reading makes us feel guilty for not having done it?

This is an excellent question that cuts all quips to the quick. Mildly amusing blogs aside, some people obviously do lie about what they read. I would posit that people are more likely to lie about what they read than what movies they see, songs they listen to or paintings they know.

Perhaps, this does go back to hubris. Or, as Diplomat so subtly put it, maybe they are overcompensating because they don’t want people to think they are stupid. Either way, it’s too bad that people book-bluff, because most of my favorite books were loaned to me after I told someone else that I had not read it.

--Jason Lea,

P.S. My review of "A Journal for Jordan" will be in the Sunday newspaper. Yes, I actually read it.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Everything you pretend to know is a lie

I will respond to my co-blogger’s slanderous opinion of “Oscar Wao” in due time. For now, I want to talk about a subject that is close to my heart: lying.

Everyone lies about books.

Everybody pretends to have read something they haven’t. We do it for a lot of reasons. No, wait, no we don’t. We only do it for one reason. We don’t want other people to think they are smarter than us.

Be honest. If your smarmy coworker asks you what you thought of Dave Eggers’ new book, do you say:

(A.) Oh, I haven’t read it yet. You must be my intellectual superior because you have. Feel free to bring that up whenever I try to make a cogent criticism of your work.

(B.) It was all right, but I don’t think he’ll ever top “A Heartbreaking Work.”

It’s a formal nicety. Your coworker probably gleaned all of his knowledge of James Fenimore Cooper from watching “Last of the Mohicans” on TBS, but he’ll still spend his coffee break discussing Cooper’s representation of Native Americans.

Book bluffs are simple maneuvers. They mix vague opinions and undetectable lies into an impermeable shield. For the rookies, here are some simple pieces of advice when lying to your literary frenemy.

1. Defer the subject to something else you have read.

A coworker may ask you about “Finnegan’s Wake.” This is a trap. No person in the history of the universe has ever read “Finnegan’s Wake.” In fact, James Joyce didn’t finish it. Its last 100 pages are blank, but nobody’s read far enough to notice yet. When your coworker asks what you thought of “Finnegan’s Wake,” simply say you liked it less than “Dubliners” or “Portrait of the Artist.” Then, start talking about either of them instead.

Warning: This strategy is less effective if you haven’t read “Dubliners” either.

2. Give a vague opinion.

No one will ever question a vague, middling opinion, as demonstrated by my Eggers’ example. If someone asks you about a book you haven’t read, shrug and say, “It was OK, not their best work.”

If you compliment the book too much, the person will ask what you liked about it. Similarly, they may ask what your objection is if you trash it. Keep it middle of the road and they can’t question you.

(If Mr. Know-It-All persists, tell him that all opinions are subjective and, thus, valid.)

3. The University Maneuver

If someone asks you about some classic, just reply, “I haven’t read that since college. I hardly remember it.”

If you’re feeling especially saucy say, “Oh, you’re just getting to that now. I read that as a freshman.”

Warning: Do not attempt the University Maneuver with any books that have been released since you graduated. You will only make yourself look stupid.

4. Watch the movie.

Most books have been turned into movies. (I learned this when I got lost in a Blockbuster while trying to find Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze.) Don’t feel like reading “Sense and Sensibility,” rent the movie. The same works for “Pride and Prejudice,” “Wuthering Heights,” or pretty much anything by Mark Twain.

If you can’t find a movie, don’t panic, there’s normally a BBC miniseries available on Netflix.

Warning: Doublecheck the movie’s fidelity to the source material before discussing the book. Otherwise, you'll find yourself saying, “I loved how ‘The Scarlet Letter’ took a serious issue and turned it into a carefree sex romp.”

These four tips should get you through any literary discussion with a know-it-all coworker. When in doubt, mention “Finnegan’s Wake.” It’s a guaranteed endgame maneuver… unless they counter with Tolstoy in the original Russian.

--Jason Lea,

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blame it on the footnotes

Maybe it was the hype.
I wanted to love “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz (ISBN 978-1-59448-958-7). After all, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. I’d read lots of glowing reviews. And a colleague told me it was the best book she’d ever read, prompting her to begin re-reading it as soon as she’d finished.
So it’s possible nothing could have measured up.
But I’m blaming the footnotes.
Diaz is a gifted storyteller, crafting fleshed-out characters that captivate. And then, just when I’m enthralled with the story of Oscar. Stop. A footnote detailing the history of the Dominican Republic. Just as I’m immersed in the travails of his sister Lola. Stop. A footnote explaining the atrocities of Trujillo. Just when I’m moved almost to tears by Diaz’ incredibly powerful usage of the understatement. Stop. A footnote on ... I don’t know what because I stopped reading them.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book. I appreciate the skill it takes to so seamlessly move from character to character and era to era without jarring the reader. I just wanted to get lost in this fascinating story, not be constantly interrupted.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What to say when there is nothing for me to say?

How do you criticize a book written for an infant who lost his father in the Iraq War?

No, seriously, how do you do it?

I’m supposed to review “A Journal for Jordan” for the Sunday paper and I have no idea what to write.

Dana Canedy wrote “Journal” using excerpts from, well, a journal that her fiancé kept for his son while he was serving in Iraq. First Sergeant Charles Monroe King sprinkled his notes with anecdotes about how it’s OK for men to cry, the proper way to treat a woman and how he met the mother of his child. Then, before he could show the journal to his son, an IED killed him.

So Canedy — a Pulitzer Prize winner, senior editor for the New York Times and a better reporter than I will ever be — used King’s words to tell the story of the war, King and her to their son.

I’m halfway through “Jordan” and I have no idea what I’m going to write Sunday, partly because I don’t think I’m the person who needs to read it.

Canedy said she wanted to put a face to the Iraq War. Fair enough. It is a horrible thing to die young and anonymous. But I already had a face for the war. Mark Smykowski is my youngest brother’s best friend’s oldest brother. When he died, I interviewed his parents and brothers. I remember each call. I remember being embarrassed to even have the nerve to ask them questions like, “How are you doing?” or “What will you remember most about Mark?” Meanwhile, they were going through the worst pain in their lives.

I hope it helped them to talk about Mark and to let everyone know the kind of person he was.

After Mark, there were more. Josh Harmon’s family was kind enough to let me be there when he was flown into Cleveland. When they unloaded the casket, I felt every limb in my body tremble. Complete silence fell over the airport hangar. It was eye-of-the-hurricane quiet, Alaskan-tundra quiet.

So I don’t need any more faces to the Iraq War. I already have a multi-headed hydra. Every soldier, every spouse, every parent, every sibling and every child reminds me that war is irrefutably hell.

And if this is how I feel just talking to the families, imagine how the families feel?

So, I guess, it makes me uncomfortable to read about one more person’s loss. It feels too much like work, except I can’t say anything to make her feel better. Then again, I’m not sure if there is anything I can say to make any of them feel better.

I still have no idea what to write. Maybe I’ll figure it out by Sunday.

-- Jason Lea,

By the way, Canedy will be appearing 7 p.m. Wednesday (1-14) at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 24519 Cedar Road in Lyndhurst. Ideally, I would have written the review in time to promote the in-store appearance, but that didn’t pan out.


Which would you choose?

What if the cause of your greatest suffering was also responsible for your greatest joy?
That’s the question at the heart of Mark Salzman’s “Lying Awake” (ISBN 0-375-40632-8).
And while many parents may say, Duh, of course that’s true, Salzman’s lead character is a cloistered nun whose profound spiritual visions are accompanied by severe migraines.
Should she undergo medical treatment to end the migraines and risk losing the visions that have brought her such peace?
It’s an intriguing dilemma.
I was fascinated by this glimpse into cloistered life — after listening to people in love with the sound of their own voices all day long, that vow of slience is mighty appealing — and drawn to Sister John of the Cross. The reasons for some of her decisions and her struggles with their consequences resonated with me despite my very different life choices.
It’s a quick read (just 181 pages) that left me wondering, which would I choose?

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, January 12, 2009

The War on Dickens

I dislike Charles Dickens.

No, that’s not quite right. Charles Dickens makes my stomach churn with rancor that’s neither defensible nor logical. I hate Charles Dickens like I hate the Yankees or my mother hates when someone mispronounces a French phrase.

That’s not Dickens’ fault. Like any other irrational hatred, I’m sure it stems from a deep-seated, repressed memory. Maybe a copy of “Hard Times” stole my fruit snacks in kindergarten. Maybe I got tired of my favorite cartoons being preempted in December for variations on “A Christmas Carol.”

Simply put, the man is a legend. He is one of the archangels of English writing along with Chaucer, Hardy, Shakespeare, Austen and the guy who wrote “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

But it makes no difference to me. I don’t like him. I’ve constructed a couple irrational excuses as to why, and now it’s on the World Wide Interweb for everyone to read.

Irrational reason one:

Dickens stuffs his stories with unnecessary, soap opera-plot twists. I understand that serial storytelling — he used to write fiction for newspapers — lends itself to cliffhangers and surprises; but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it. (For some reason, it bothers me less when Stan Lee does it. Maybe if Pip dressed like a spider and walloped super-villains with animal names I’d like him more.)

Reason two:

Dickens also must have had a compulsive hatred of concise storytelling. Take, for example, this passage from Great Expectations.

It was a rimy morning and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade.

I can say that in four words:

It was wet outside.

Final reason:

Every Dickens story comes with plot contrivances galore. Every poor street urchin must have a rich benefactor. If I were a Charles Dickens character, my name would be Jason Strappinglad. My boss, Laura Thundervox, would cruelly and obscenely abuse me (as opposed to simply abusing me,) but I would be rescued from her machinations by a henceforth unknown millionaire relation.

OK, I’ve exorcised the demon. I feel better, at least until next December when my Thundercats rerun is replaced with A Dora the Explorer Christmas Carol.

--Jason Lea

Not sure if we need ISBNs for Dickens' books (hint: they can be found at any bouqinistes) but because Jason loves both of his readers, here ya go:

Hard Times (Signet Classics): 978-0451530998
A Christmas Carol (The Heirloom Edition): 978-0762412990
Great Expectations (Penguin Classics): 978-0141439563

However, if you are interested in Dickens and have none of him on your bookshelf, I would suggest the collected novels of Charles Dickens, ISBN: 0760775001. You get Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist.

If that sounds like too much reading, I would suggest watching the Disney version of Oliver with Billy Joel as the Artful Dodger and the Muppets version of A Christmas Carol.


Friday, January 9, 2009

When behaving badly makes you feel so goodly

Normally, I don’t go for anything titled “_____ Behaving Badly.”

That includes the British sitcom “Men Behaving Badly,” its US version starring Rob Schneider or the hidden-camera comedy “Girls Behaving Badly,” which proved women can make lame hidden-camera comedies also.

However, I gave “Gods Behaving Badly” a shot; and, I have to admit, it’s sacrilicious.

The story, written by Marie Phillips, proposes a simple question. What would happen if the Greek pantheon existed now and lived a dingy, hermetic lifestyle in London?

Apollo would work as a lousy TV psychic and pine for the days when he had legions of groupie priestesses; Aphrodite would be a phone-sex operator who argues with her converted Christian son, Eros, and Artemis — the neglected goddess of the hunt and chastity — would walk dogs for a living and wonder why everyone gave up on abstinence.

The book earns its name. These gods act badly, not quite as badly as Rob Schneider; but by the second chapter, Apollo has already turned one woman into a tree for refusing to perform a sex act on him and consoled himself by shagging Aphrodite in the bathroom.

It’s vulgar but perfectly in character. Greek myths are rife with examples of grosser stuff than that. Zeus used to turn into animals to seduce women. (What kind of weird, bestial women would that attract anyhow? “Hey, honey, can I buy you a drink? No. What if I told you I could turn into an ungulate?”)

The gods combat the boredom that comes with immortality by playing nasty tricks on each other. The nastiness would continue indefinitely if a pair of mortals didn’t become involved in their tiffs.

The mortals — Neil and Alice — are very different than their Grecian neighbors. First, they have a basic sense of decency. Two, they are completely unspectacular. Alice’s lone skill involves Scrabble. Neil doesn’t even have that going for him.

Neil and Alice are also in love also, but too scared to say it.

The book’s first 150 pages consist of exposition. It’s amusing exposition and sometimes clever, but “Gods” didn’t grab my interest until a surprising plot twist halfway through. (I don’t believe in spoiling surprising plot twists. Suffice to say, it results in a trip to Hades.)

After Apollo does something especially stupid (even for him,) Neil and Alice have to prove themselves heroes of mythical proportions or everyone — including the gods — will die.

Phillips plays with some concepts we’ve seen before — gods in modern times, what happens to a god when nobody believes in him/her anymore. Some of Phillips’ ideas seem indebted to Neil Gaiman. (That’s not a knock. Every author is indebted to someone.) However, she has enough original ideas of her own to make “Gods” work.

So “Gods” is good enough to break the “_____ Behaving Badly” embargo, but I still wouldn’t recommend anything with “The World’s Most” or “Rob Schneider Presents” in the title.

(One exception: If Rob Schneider were ever to present a movie about Rick the Copy Guy, I would be there opening night with a tub of popcorn and flask filled with Scotch.)

--Jason Lea

Jason's coinage of the day:
Sacrilicious - Something that feels so good, it must be a sin.

Amended, per Harold's suggestion:
"Gods Behaving Badly" was written by Marie Phillips and released July 2008.
The ISBN 10: 0316067636. ISBN 13: 978-0316067638.
These ISBNs are for the paperback version because I am, above all things, cheap. However, a hardcover is available.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

'Funny' is a personal thing

I’ll admit it; I’m humorless. When it comes to books that is, though I’m sure there are those who would say I don’t limit that to my reading material of choice!
So, in part at least, I agree with Jason (there truly is a first time for everything).
I can’t recommend a “funny” book because I don’t read them. Other than a collection of Dave Barry’s columns, I doubt I’ve read anything classified as humor writing.
So while, when it comes to movies, I love the laugh-out-loud-ness of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Weekend at Bernie’s” and “Anger Management,” that’s not the kind of humor I’m looking for when I’m reading.
When I think of "funny" books, it isn't for their humor of the pratfall variety.
No, wWhat comes to mind are the smiles evoked by the foibles of Bridget in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” just about any lead character in a Jennifer Weiner novel, and, most recently, the two women in Lisa Gabriele’s “The Almost Archer Sisters.”
This is humor born of character.
It is their reaction to the curveballs life has thrown at them, their wry acceptance of a less than perfect life, their sometimes-all-you can-do-is-laugh attitudes that bring the smile to my face.
And keeps me turning the pages.

- Tricia Ambrose

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Common Mistakes, White People & Why I think Jane Austen is Funnier than Seinfeld

People sometimes mistake me for well read. This happens for two reasons.

Reason one: I’m a prolific quoter. If you tell me you just boxed a rhinoceros on pay-per-view, I’ll reply with an appropriate Oscar Wilde quote. This doesn’t mean I’ve read everything the man wrote. It just means I have an epithet for most moments. (My quotes also allow me to sound clever without being original.)

Reason two: I often bluff and pretend I’m better read than I am. (You’ve done it too, so stop judging. I’d guess 99.85 percent of you never read a Marcel Proust book; and, if you are one of the .15, then everyone you’ve ever discussed Proust with has been bluffing. The only exception is if you and your companion are English professors.)

Regardless, people sometimes ask me to recommend books because I am fake well read. More often than not, people ask me to suggest something funny.

I never have a good reply for a couple reasons. Reason one: Funny is malleable. What amuses me may have no affect on you. For example, I don’t find Seinfeld funny. If I wanted to hear a group of neurotic people talk about life’s inanities, I’d spend more time at work. (I say that with affection.)

Reason two: Literary humor is very different than most modern humor. If you ask me, I’ve never read a book funnier than “Pride and Prejudice.” Of course, I didn’t realize that until I read it for the third time.

But I don’t think people are looking for “Pride and Prejudice” when they ask for something funny.

However, I now have a proper response, thanks to my sister, Erin, who gave me “Stuff White People Like” by Christian Lander for my birthday.

“Stuff White People Like” — brought to you by the same people who operate the identically named Web site — catalogues, well, stuff white people like. (Apparently, making fun of white people is also something white people like.)

It takes a keen eye to notice “white people love ethnic diversity, but only as it relates to restaurants” or “white people love Wes Anderson movies more than they love their kids.”

Sure, he misses the mark a few times. (I’m pretty sure other racial populations also enjoy coffee, graduate school and Asian women.) But even when he’s wrong, he’s funny.

And I don’t need to worry about recommending this to someone one who won’t find it funny. Here’s an easy litmus test. Go to If you don’t find it funny, don’t buy the book. If you laugh so hard your coworkers think you’re finally having that meltdown, get a copy.

-- Jason Lea

As a bonus, here are some blog titles I suggested that my superiors rejected: Central Booking; Writers Block; and The Blogs of War.

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Meet the Book Club

Welcome to the Book Club where we discuss all things related, however tangentially, to the written word. But before we foist our unsolicited opinions upon you, we thought it would be best to introduce the co-bloggers hosting this soiree.

Who I am: Jason Lea. I spend my days writing about crime, fires and the other calamities that befall people. When somebody drowns, it’s my job to write about it. If someone murders their spouse, that’s me. If somebody loses everything they own in a fire, yeah, me. So I prefer to spend my nights reading something devoid of tragedy.

What I like to read: cereal boxes, comic books, Thomas Hardy.

What I’m reading right now: “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley. How come every author who writes scary future stories — Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Huxley — tries to take the fun out of sex? Isn’t the future bleak enough without monitoring our canoodling?

Something funny about my co-blogger: She’s my boss. Consequently, there is nothing funny about her.

Who I am: Tricia Ambrose. I manage the newsroom’s budget and its various departments, edit stories, design pages, write headlines.

What I like to read: fiction (what, no doubt, JLea would call “chick lit”). I like authors who hook you from the get-go, (Jodi Picoult, Elizabeth Berg, Amy Tan) I want to open that first page of the novel and not think about work, or laundry, or bills until I close it.

What I’m reading now: “ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz.

Something funny about my co-blogger: How much time do you have?

Come back every weekday, as we'll be updating the blog every day that doesn't start with a "Satur" or "Sun."