Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Daniel Desario is a brain

I have a soft spot for any Freaks and Geeks alum, so I was excited when James Franco wrote a short story for Esquire.

If you didn’t watch Freaks and Geeks (shame on you), you might know Franco as Willem Dafoe’s son in Spider-Man or the guy who common-law married his pillow on 30 Rock.

He won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of James Dean.

I love Franco — not in the same way legions of indie-film-watchin’, peasant-skirt-wearin’, living-with-my-parents-and-thinking-of-getting-a-doctorate twentysomething women do. I just think he’s talented and picks strong material. Y’know, not counting Pineapple Express.

But Franco’s short story has garnered mostly negative attention. Salon even declared its crush on Franco finished.

I think Entertainment Weekly, of all outlets, assesses Franco the most fairly. His story “Before the Black” is, in a word, unspectacular. It’s also overly familiar. If I had a dollar for every short story that ended with an ambiguous maybe suicide, I could afford to put a basketball court in my backyard. (OK, that’s an exaggeration; but I could at least buy a pair of new basketball shoes. Nice ones. The kind you got jumped for in middle school.)

Yes, Franco will get published more easily because he’s famous. (He has a book deal with Scribner.) Yes, there are unpublished, unknown writers who deserve it more. But Franco’s young and still searching for his voice. Maybe he’ll get there. Maybe he’ll spend the rest of his career writing unspectacular, overly familiar stories.

But can we blame a man for getting published just because he could?

At least he isn’t writing a memoir or a thinly veiled memoir under the guise of fiction.

So, no, Franco hasn’t eclipsed Steve Martin as my favorite actor/writer. (Does Vonnegut count?) But my (man-)crush is still going strong.

On a completely unrelated note, one of my favorite bloggers measures the merits of blogging as opposed to Tweeting or posting on Facebook.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Monday, March 29, 2010


Picoult, eh?

I like Jodi Picoult but...

High schoolers should read modern authors but...

You know what? Never mind. No “buts.” If students don’t read Picoult specifically, they should read someone like Picoult.

There are plenty of current authors who deserve study and discussion, and they would interest the students more than Crime and Punishment.

So while I might not include Picoult in my trio of books high schoolers should read before they graduate, I like the logic that lead you to include her.

My list offers no surprises:

1. Catcher in the Rye — I was not in the legion of students who considered Catcher their favorite book. (I think most of them like it because it’s the first book they’ll read with a specific curse in it.) I found Holden’s ranting tiresome instead of insightful, but I’d be foolish to deny the connection this book has with teenagers. I never related to Holden, but Catcher is still a rite of passage.

2. Macbeth — High school students should read Shakespeare before they graduate. The only problem is time has rendered Shakespearean prose ponderous. Fortunately, Macbeth has enough sex and violence to keep the groundlings engaged. It also helps that Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest play. It’s not Shakespeare’s best work (that’d probably be Hamlet) or even my favorite (either As You Like It or Taming of the Shrew;) but it is the play high schoolers are most likely to enjoy.

3. Pride and Prejudice — I wanted to include a translated title like One Hundred Years of Solitude or African staple Things Fall Apart. Y’know, something to let the kids know that non-English-speaking countries can write, also. I considered including a Thomas Hardy book just because he’s my favorite writer, but neither of those ideas work. I would have been bored by One Hundred Years of Solitude if I read it in high school, and Hardy’s themes are not universal enough to resonate with everyone. But Pride and Prejudice — it’s essentially the best book about dating ever. I don’t know if all the guys in the classroom would relate, but they should still have to read it.

On an unrelated note, Electric Literature is having a writing contest on its Twitter page. The best tweet with the #stuffmymusesays hashtag will win a Sony eReader. The contest lasts until Friday and will be judged by Colson Whitehead.

Some early entries —

@AndreaSeigel: Take off your pants. The ideas can’t get in.

@Vanessa_LW: It could be strep. It could also be leprosy. The internet makes self-diagnosis easy.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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3 books to read before graduation

Managing Editor Laura Kessel received a note in the mail recently that included a page from NEA Today. It listed an educator's pick of the three books students should read before graduating.

The Idaho man selected the J.D. Salinger classic "Catcher in the Rye," "Mountains Beyond Mountains," Tracy Kidder's inspirational book about a doctor who brings medical care to the poor around the world, and "Nectar in a Sieve," Kamala Markandaya's look at the power of family ties to overcome.

I'm not familiar with the latter two, but it's hard to argue with the inclusion of Salinger.

I have a hard time picking three. I think there's at least 10 times that number of works that should be read by students before they graduate high school.

That being said, my list would include:

"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, for its themes about sin and the effects of sin and its messages about perseverance and dignity in the face of adversity.

"Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott, for its characterizations of women and its family ties theme.

"My Sister's Keeper," by Jodi Picoult, for its provocative themes regarding medical decisions and family relationships, and as proof that good novels still are being written.

The letter writer's (retired Euclid educator Dan Maxson) list included:

" 'Old Man and the Sea' ... loved the perseverance of Santiago and the message/allegorical nature of the novella - have reread it many times over the years.

'Five People You Meet in Heaven' ... loved the premise and the fact that it was a topic that students never dealt with in other courses, books read - great possibilities for dialogue.

'The Giving Tree' by Shel Silverstein ... it's a great little allegory."

What books would you pick?

- Tricia Ambrose

Friday, March 26, 2010

News-Herald staff redaction

I’m practicing my redactive poetry:

Friday Welcome Melange

My talented coworkers have offered their own examples of redactive poetry today. The first comes from my nemesis and City Editor John Bertosa who used the Gettysburg Address to create a gothic riff on Jonathan Swift.

A new proposal –
We ground our poor
To add here for the living so nobly

It is the great task we take
That cause full of devotion, highly.
These shall not have died in vain.

Keeping with the theme of Illinois politicians, education reporter Sandra Klepach used Barack Obama’s victory speech. I like how she maintains the tone and adds a subtle twist.

Who doubts that America is the dream
Of our founders?
Answer this, nation. Thank the women
Young and old, rich and poor
We led cynical and fearful and doubtful
Hands of history
Working women, tonight we rode home
We will get there
This can change more

Copy editor Cheryl Sadler went the extra mile and turned my previous blog post into a haiku.

The whipping, I loved.
Dinosaur. Sculpting. Chisel.
Glenn Beck adventure.

Editorial Page Editor Michael C. Butz reworked Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break your Heart.”

An American assassin
hiding out in the big city
Let’s forget about the cross-eyed strangers
Stop smiling

I want to glide, dreaming
Baby, hold on tight
I’ve been drinking

I don’t believe I said hello
I’d always thought you’d love me
What was I thinking

I am trying to break your heart
Drinking down the avenue
I let go of
the man who loves you

Meanwhile, I tried to turn Finnegan’s Wake into a carefree sex romp:

Eve brings us by a short sea on this side the scraggy isthmus
all the time, bland old isaac had to be seen
What clashes here of wills
What chance, What true feeling
(O my shining stars and body!)
you will rise, you must
none so soon, toofar
he swiftly stook it out again
that ought to show you what a chap he was
Annie with goodly grasp and overalls
to rise in undress – eyeful, with a burning bush
the first was he to bare arms and His crest of huroldry, horrid, horned.
His archers strung, handling his hoe.
you’re going to be fined again!
this municipal sin business

Brandon Baker reworked The Roots' “The Good, the Bad and the Desolate” from the High School High Soundtrack. (I now have just cause to add an Okayplayer tag to the blog.)

Dedicated to the cats that vocalize
Try to rise
Speaking through the mic, wise, realize
Respond when I make use with Hip-Hop that’s authentic
I represent revolutionary masters of ceremonies
Enslaved by the soundwaves, skills amaze
Insight, analytic, ‘cause I live it: Lyricism
Keep your styles, dissect ‘em
Class is in session, I’ll have all you guessin
Begin with the pen, rhyme radioactive waves on Fridays
Your style’s older, you ain’t makin’ a quota
A rap you might not see again

Cassandra Shofar has repurposed a Thomas Merton quote about the cosmic dance.

When we alone, chance
We see migrating birds
Autumn descending
A grove of junipers

When we see, a moment
We know love
Our own hearts
The poet

When we hear, old land
A quiet pond
A solitary splash
Such times

The turning, inside
Values the newness
The emptiness
The purity

Themselves, evident
All these
A glimpse
The cosmic

Finally, Tricia Ambrose turned to her favorite children’s book, Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, for inspiration.


back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

quiet, crawled, sang

strange friends, strange clothes, strange music.

back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Son, mother, song

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. Please forgive the overwhelming use of italics in this post. I wanted to differentiate between poems and my interruptions.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sid Fleischman dies and the treachery of images

A few links today, none of them are related:

It’s old news by now, but Sid Fleischman died March 17 at the age of 90.

I cannot write a better eulogy than those that have already been written. I will only add this. The Whipping Boy was the third book I ever loved.

The first was a dinosaur dictionary; the second was Roald Dahl’s BFG. I did not have a fourth until high school.

On a completely unrelated subject, behold the magic of redactive poetry. It’s like sculpting for poets. They take another person’s writing and chisel away the unwanted words until they are left with a poem.

My favorite example is someone who used Glenn Beck as their source material.

Also unrelated — The New Yorker expounds upon the psychology of Choose Your Own Adventure stories. (I remember the CYOA books as the only stories where the author was allowed to kill the reader repeatedly and in gruesome fashion.)

Finally, I offer René Magritte’s not-a-pipe as a Magic card. (That makes two Magic card references this week, which is enough.)

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Another solid debut

I've read a lot of books centered around one event that changes the lives of those involved.

What set "Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter" apart is that that event takes place midway through the novel - not near its beginning.

Michael J. White's work focuses on George Flynn, a high school student newly arrived in Des Moines, and his relationship with his first love Emily and her sister Katie.

It's equal parts adolescent struggle and coping with tragedy. All told through the prism that is George.

"For better or worse," George ponders, "we stuck together, likely as a result of the exchanges relegated to the hours of our separation when we'd lie in our childhood beds with the lights out, whispering by radio with such tenderness and understanding that I was able to set out each morning optimistically indulgent in hope - that cruel crutch known as much for its trickery and ravage as its splendor."

He articulates a feeling many of us have shared, but not phrased so eloquently.

This is White's first novel. (I seem to be finding a lot of debut works lately!) I await more.

- Tricia Ambrose

P.S. I love the title suggestions, Jason!

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Title-ist

We complained about cliche book reviews Monday.

Today, we pick on cliche book titles.

Darragh McManus wrote a column deriding tiresome novel titles. I won’t copy an excerpt, because it’s worth reading in its entirety.

My favorite part is when McManus creates fake novel titles based upon their genres. (Example, Serial killer thriller type yoke: Blood on the Edge.)

I thought I’d give his game a try.

Harlequin romance: Brazen Hands.

Children’s adventure that will inevitably be optioned as a movie: Mitchell Stevens and the Rock of Ages.

Chick literature: Hippo Hips & the Lonely Tarts Club Band.

Vonnegut ripoff: Ragnarocket.

Sci-Fi: Till the End of Times.

Booker Award Winner: The Hindrance of Altruism.

Tricia Ambrose autobiography: Suffering the Insufferable. (That would also work as a Booker Award Winner.)

Book to purchase because it sounds interesting but never read: People, and How to Stop Hating Them. (That would also work as a Tricia Ambrose autobiography.)

Hipster favorite that will inevitably be optioned as a Wes Anderson-directed movie: The Whistler Sisters.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. My second favorite part of the column is the photo’s cut line. “A pile of books.” I wish all cutlines were as generic. “Man standing in front of podium.” “Image to break up block of text.”


Monday, March 22, 2010

We must create the book-review cliche drinking game

Are you tired of lazy critics calling books “timely,” a “tour de force” or “beautifully written?”

Do you wish reviewers would find a more creative way to express their pleasure or disappointment?

Don’t get mad. Play Bingo.

Michelle Kerns of The Examiner identified the most annoying book-review cliches and put them on bingo boards. Now, instead of rolling your eyes when someone calls a book “thought-provoking,” “powerful” or “readable,” you can cross off a square. After reading Kerns’s column, I found a pair of my old book reviews and saw if I reached Bingo. (Not quite, but I came close.)

I’ll make a deal with you readers. If I ever write a book review and you score a Bingo on any of the eight, supplied game cards. I’ll take you to the local bouquiniste and buy you something. (If you’re reading this from Colorado or Bratislava, I’ll have to mail your reward.)

Moving on, Matthew Simmons of HTMLGIANT uses Old Man and the Sea to teach how to write dialogue.

So, Hemingway wrote a book called The Old Man and the Sea. And in The Old Man and the Sea, an old man goes out to sea. And he fishes. And he hooks himself a big, big fish. And, for quite a lot of the rest of the book, the man and the fish pull at one another. For pages and pages they pull at one another. He—the old man—pulls at the fish. And it—the fish in the sea—pulls at the old man. They pull and pull and they fight and fight.

This is dialogue. This is how to approach dialogue...

When people communicate, they do so to reveal to the listener their wants and needs. I want to get away, says the fish. I want to reel you in and devour you, says the old man. I am pulling to get away, says the fish. You are pulling me further out to sea, and I will give you some line to tire you out, says the old man. Characters communicate with each other like this.

Simmons scores bonus points by attaching the image of an appropriately named Magic card to his column.

I would have appreciated if Simmons would have included examples of actual dialogue that he likes, but his point is still an interesting one.

Finally, I think this is saying the same thing as this.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nicholas Sparks is lying to himself

Who is Nicholas Sparks kidding?

During his co-interview with Miley Cyrus for USA Today, Sparks claims to be from the lineage of Ernest Hemingway and slams Cormac McCarthy.

He also says his favorite coming-of-age story is A Walk to Remember, which he wrote.

Let’s begin by noting what Sparks got right.

“I don’t write romance novels.” His preferred terminology: “Love stories — it’s a very different genre ... (Romances) are all essentially the same story: You’ve got a woman, she’s down on her luck, she meets the handsome stranger who falls desperately in love with her, but he’s got these quirks, she must change him, and they have their conflicts, and then they end up happily ever after.”

Sparks wants to differentiate himself from the writers of bodice rippers. Fair enough. Sparks doesn’t churn out almost identical variations on a single plot. Sure, he has key themes that he revisits — death, love — but all authors do.

OK, score one for Nicholas Sparks. But things soon veer off the rails. First, he compares himself to Hemingway.

A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway. Good stuff. That’s what I write,” (Sparks) says. “That’s what I write.”

Then, he takes a shot at McCarthy.

“Horrible,” he says, looking at Blood Meridian. “This is probably the most pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic cowboy vs. Indians story ever written.”

Finally, Sparks calls A Walk to Remember his favorite tale of youth, though he credits The Catcher in the Rye as “an all-time classic.” (Bonus fact: Miley Cyrus’s favorite book is Catcher. Vegas odds on that — 1.001:1. Just once I want to hear a 17-year-old say their favorite book is Tess of the d’Urbervilles.)

I’ve never read Blood Meridian, so I can’t criticize Sparks’s opinion. He may be right, and I wouldn’t defend McCarthy just because of his reputation. Writers are entitled to their opinions. If those opinion are iconoclastic, so be it. McCarthy previously criticized Henry James and Marcel Proust by saying, “To me, that’s not literature.”

However, I have read A Farewell to Arms. I’ve also read A Walk to Remember. And, no, Mr. Sparks, that is not what you do. That is what you try to do. I admire Gay Talese and aspire to write like him. That doesn’t mean we do the same thing.

If anything, Sparks seems resentful that his commercial success has cost him critical acceptance. If true, I understand the resentment. Sparks should not be lumped in with Harlequin novelists. But, if he wants critical accolades, he would be better off not insulting Pulitzer winners or writing Miley Cyrus vehicles.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Let the sunshine in

Daisy Goodwin was the chair of this year’s judging panel for the Orange Prize. She spent the last few months reading more than a hundred novels from women authors.

Her prognosis?

There is no joy in Mudville.

“There’s not been much wit and not much joy, there’s a lot of grimness out there,” Goodwin tells the Guardian. “There are a lot of books about Asian sisters. There are a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing.”

“I was surprised at how little I laughed,” she adds.

Goodwin has a good point, and it’s not limited to women’s fiction. Where is writing’s Stevie Wonder. Who is the author who derives their virtuosity from joy?

Writers have been wringing genius from tragedy since Sophocles; but, let’s be honest. Death is easy. Comedy is hard.

Goodwin says in her interview that the “misery memoir has had its day.” I only agree in part. There will always be room for sadness in literature, but there also needs to be joy and humor.

I wouldn’t necessarily blame publishers for the glut of misery on bookshelves either. Writing a book, any book, is a miserable experience. George Orwell compared it to a long bout with a painful illness. It’s natural for that misery to diffuse into the story.

Also, writers (and readers) have a habit of assuming misery is the most worthwhile subject. Despite Sydney Smith’s warning, we mistake graveness for wisdom and facetiousness for foolishness.

A sunny day is no less profound than a dark and stormy night.

Two final thoughts, then I’ll let you get back to your St. Patrick’s Day frivolity.

This is a clever idea but ultimately dishonest. Bill Geerhart may have had good intentions when he created an alter ego, 10-year-old Little Billy, to correspond with celebrities via mail. It’s funny when he consults Jim Baker and Henry Kissinger regarding a treehouse treaty with his sister “Connie.” It’s poignant when the Son of Sam instructs him not to do “self-destructive things.” It’s also relieving that Anheuser-Busch sent Little Billy’s “parents” a pamphlet on the dangers of alcohol when he asked if there was a beer for kids.

But this broaches a worthwhile topic. Is it OK for a reporter or author to lie about who they are to get information? Shouldn’t both an interviewer and interviewee be allowed to presume that the other party will be honest, at least, about who they are?

Maybe I’m naive... or overthinking this.

Finally, I read Upton Sinclair’s The Profits of Religion. Two of his statements struck me as anti-Semitic, which is weird because he (rightfully) criticized Henry Ford for the same prejudice.

First, he describes international financiers as “Catholics in Rome and Vienna, country gentleman in London, bon vivants in Paris, democrats in Chicago, Socialists in Petrograd, and Hebrews wherever they are.”

Then, Sinclair refers to “International Shylocks” who lust for South African diamond mines.

Am I being oversensitive or reading an additional meaning that was not intended?

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Don't want to turn the pages again

JLea and I had a forbidden conversation today. We were discussing books, off-blog.

The topic: re-reading books.

Neither one of us is a big re-reader.

In fact, I can count on my fingers the books I have deliberately read more than once.

Sadly, there are a number of books I have excitedly checked out of the library only to get a chapter in and realize I've already read them.

I really do have to start keeping better track.

Several broken New Year's resolutions involved notebooks listing book titles and ratings systems. But by about the third week of January I'd find myself returning books to the library without having noted them and then I'd chuck the concept as just too complicated.

My husband has the same mental block when it comes to movies. He'll settle in to watch of film on OnDemand only to be told by someone else in the house that we all watched that movie a week earlier. Sigh.

For some reason I enjoy rewatching movies though. I find it almost impossible to flip past "Dirty Dancing" or "Shawshank Redemption" no matter how many times I've seen them.

Guess it's just one more way the book experience differs from the film experience.

- Tricia Ambrose

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New and exciting reasons to hate Amazon

The publishing industry has portrayed Amazon as a villain for its e-book price bullying. (Click on the Everybody Hates Amazon label for background, if you need it.)

But Amazon has been giving people new and exciting reasons for people to hate it. The online shopping company has even drawn the ire of normally amicable Canadians.

To make a long story short, Amazon wants to establish a fulfillment centre in Canada. (I think “fulfillment centre” is French Canadian for “warehouse.”) However, Canada’s heritage ministry must approve of the warehouse, because booksellers are protected by Canada’s heritage laws. As thebookseller.com explains, bookselling is one of many cultural trades protected from foreign ownership so American influences do not overwhelm Canadian culture.

Amazon.ca bypasses heritage laws by distributing through a third party. For Amazon, the fulfillment centre would cut out the middle man.

Early indications hint that the government will side with Amazon, but Canadian booksellers have been riled.

Comic connoisseurs are also irritated with the Internet kingpin. A pricing glitch appeared on Amazon’s Web site that caused hardcover comic collections to be deeply discounted. I mean deep discounts. Books that would normally cost more than $100 were listed for less than $10.

Word of the accidental fire sale spread via the web until the Amazon top 10 was dominated by superheroes.

Once Amazon realized what was going on, they started fixing prices. Then, they removed buy buttons altogether.

While no one has said exactly what caused the snafu, the speculation is that it was caused by erroneous data entry by Diamond Book Distributors. Diamond distributes pretty much every comic you have ever heard of.

While some people received their omnibuses, many received cancellation notices, instead. An Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said those who don’t get their comics will get a $25 gift certificate for the inconvenience.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. I love that it’s a fulfillment centre, not a center.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

NBA finalist goes the Koch route

John Edgar Wideman has abandoned major publishers for the independent hustle.

Wideman has received the MacArthur Genius grant, two Pen/Faulkner awards and was a National Book Award finalist. He has written more than 20 books, both fiction and nonfiction, mostly for Houghton Mifflin.

His newest book, Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind, will be self-published through print-on-demand service Lulu.com.

This is a surprising move if it is about the money. Simply put, major publishers still offer the most returns. There is a growing self-publishing scene, and it may eventually become as lucrative as the majors (at least, for authors of Wideman’s caliber and cache.) But, right now, the major publishers are still your best bet to make money.

However, Wideman indicates this has more to do with him wanting control over marketing strategies.

“I’ve been thinking about alternatives for a long time. I like the idea of being in charge. I have more control over what happens to my book. And I have more control over whom I reach,” he said in an interview with Publishers Weekly.

There is a third possible explanation for Wideman’s decision. Briefs is, as its title implies, a collection of short stories. Those are difficult sales, even for a recognized author. It might be possible that Wideman had trouble placing it, so he went the POD route. (I want to clarify that I don’t have any evidence for this third hypothesis. I don’t know that Wideman had difficulty finding a publisher for Briefs. It’s just another possible reason for his partnership with Lulu.)

Either way, I don’t question the man. He’s a MacArthur-certified genius.

On to the next one: Peter Hedges, writer of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, listed his five favorite book-to-movie adaptations. (No, Tricia, Rebecca did not make the list.)

Next: I don’t follow college basketball, so this is my March Madness.

Finally: I received The Tao of Wu for Christmas but didn’t read it until yesterday.

“I believe death is the biggest hustle there is. It’s the biggest scam — because you can say what you want about it and nobody can prove you wrong.”

Thank you, Rza. I forgive you for Digi Snacks.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Do you ever want to walk away from your life?

Elizabeth Flock's "Me & Emma" is the kind of book that stays with you. It's the story of two sisters and the horrors of their childhood. It's the kind of novel that makes you want to go back and reread certain parts as soon as you finish it.

Tough to top, to say the least.

But, for me, Flock has done just that with "Sleepwalking in Daylight" (ISBN 978077832513)

In Sleepwalking we meet Samantha Friedman, a married mother who's questioning her marriage, her mothering skills, her very life, and her adopted daughter Cammy who's got her own struggles to handle and feels increasingly distanced from her mother.

Sam's dissatisfaction with her life leads her to honestly answer the stranger on a train who asks "Do you ever want to walk away from your life?"

Who hasn't asked themselves that question in a moment of stress? But for Sam it's much more than a moment.

As she says, "Cheating is a choice. ... Here is where I could turn things around and do the right thing. This is the moment I'll look back on as a defining one in my life. I should feel shaky or filled with fear and doubt and guilt. I should hesitate."

But, for Sam, her moment of clarity comes much later.

Flock has crafted a most believable cast of characters. Her dialogue reads like you're eavesdropping at a coffeehouse; it's that authentic.

If you're a fan of novels that provide a peek into the complicated world of mother-daughter and marital relationships, I highly recommend.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Of Naguib Mahfouz and Hey Arnold!

I never heard of Naguib Mahfouz before I saw his novel, Midaq Alley, on a crowded bookshelf two weeks ago.

That’s not Mahfouz’s fault. He did everything a writer can do to get my attention: win the Nobel Prize, survive an assassination attempt, write classics, and clash with members of the Egyptian government and Islamic fundamentalists.

Mahfouz was among the first generation of Arabic novelists. Novels and short stories are not traditional forms of writing in the Arabic world. He helped popularize the art form there. In the words of the New York Time Book Review, “Naguib Mahfouz virtually invented the novel as an Arab form.”

So, yeah, Mahfouz is a big deal. But enough about the man. Let’s talk about the book.

Midaq Alley is an ensemble story that focuses on the denizens of an alley in Cairo during World War II. Mahfouz juggles so many characters that he’s still introducing them for the first third of the book.

The alley houses more than a dozen characters who each receive their own narrative, however brief. (In that way, it sounds similar to Kent Meyers’s Twisted Tree; but it reminds me of Hey Arnold! with its attention to a neighborhood’s quirky inhabitants.)

With as few words as possible, Mahfouz gives each person a story and characteristics that differentiate him or her from the others.

You have Zaita the cripple-maker, which sounds like a nasty job, but he’s more of a theater coach than an orphan hobbler. He teaches beggars how to maximize their begging by faking an infirmity.

There’s Sheikh Darwish — a former English professor who forsook academic life to wander the street and offer unsolicited advice.

However, the main plot focuses on Abbas, an easily manipulated barber, who falls for Hamida. Hamida has an ego and temper to match her beauty. Meanwhile, Salim Alwan, the neighborhood mogul, also has an eye for her even though he is already married.

Stories dance along the periphery, none overstaying their welcome. Saniya Afify, a local landlord, wants to get married again even though she’s older than 50. She contracts with the local matchmaker, who intends to milk Afify for her last banknote. Kirsha, the cafe owner, and his wife keep arguing. Apparently, Kirsha has two addictions. His wife can forgive the hashish, but he needs to leave them young boys alone.

Sometimes, I’d lose track of a character but Mahfouz would gently remind me who was who with a few paragraphs.

The narrative maneuvers through some important subjects — love, death, money, politics — but doesn’t become mired in any of them. Mahfouz camouflages all the heaviness with a light hand and subtle humor. Someone could die and it would just be the evening’s gossip in Midaq Alley.

It’s humbling that I can read as much as I do, write for a literature blog and still know nothing about an author as talented and important as Mahfouz.

But neither you nor I have an excuse anymore. Find some Mahfouz, read it, and, then, let me borrow it.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. When I buy a round of shots (almost never,) I like to toast with a line from Dubliners.

“I wish you and yours every joy in life, and tons of money, and may you never die till I shoot you.”

Midaq Alley gave me a new toast.

“Life is much more bitter than this drink and its effects far worse.”

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Finnegans Wake, now with slightly more coherance

Textual scholars have compiled an amended version of Finnegans Wake.

Good, this will give Joycean scholars something to discuss and the rest of us something to ignore.

It’s Friday. Behold the melange.

Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon spent 30 years pouring over drafts of James Joyce’s least comprehensible work. Their research lead to 9,000 alterations in the amended Finnegans Wake.

In an interview, Rose said, “Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.”

No, he didn’t. But that would be awesome. What Rose actually said:

Because of the difficulty of the language of Finnegans Wake, the syntax is not immediately apparent and the syntaxical coherence of the book was effectively lost when it was brought into print. This coherence has been fully restored in the new edition and results in what can be called the first definitive edition of Joyce’s final masterpiece.

Actually, the syntaxical coherence was lost when Joyce wrote the book; and you couldn’t restore its coherence with a decoder ring and a babelfish.

Moving right along: We didn’t write anything about Dr. Seuss’s birthday this year. (It was Tuesday.) As consolation, I offer Shirley Hughes’s top 10 picture book characters. (No Dr. Seuss characters make the cut, but Babar does.)

I have nothing to say about Charles Pellegrino that hasn’t already been said. I will grit my teeth when he receives a six-figure advance for his next book.

Finally, The New York Times explains e-book pricing.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald

P.S. For the record, Tricia’s absolutely right. It was jarring to have to stop every few pages of Moby Dick and write my thoughts. By the second day, I decided to only blog between chapters. It felt like less of an interruption, then.

If anything, I underestimated the physical challenge of trying to read for 13 consecutive hours.

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Hello to this author of 'Good-bye'

I just love it when I'm reading a novel and come across a line that makes me stop and say, "I've felt that way, too (just not so eloquently phrased)."

I had that feeling a lot while reading "The Language of Good-bye," Maribeth Fischer's debut novel.

Good-bye focuses on three couples. There's Annie and Carter, Will and Kayla and Sungae and Keehwan. Annie and Will have left their spouses to pursue a relationship with each other. Sungae is both Kayla's bakery employee and Annie's English as a second language student. She and her husband have their own set of barriers to overcome.

Fischer manages to craft a story that leaves you liking all of them - or at least understanding situations from their perspective. When the spouses who left wonder what would have happened had they stayed, when the spouses who were left wonder if they should have fought for their relationship, when they each weigh duty and desire - the reader is with them all.

Fischer succeeds because none of her characters is one-dimensional. The good guys have some bad points, the bad guys have some good qualities. And they all struggle.

Just like us readers in our own lives.

This may have been Fischer's first work, but I hope it's not her last.

- Tricia Ambrose

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Kudos on completing your mission

Gotta give you props, JLea, for not only the detailed live book blogging but for making good on the promise to yourself to read "Moby Dick."

Though I confess I can't think of anything less conducive to getting wrapped up in a story than stopping every few chapters to write about what you've read. It reminded me a bit of teachers who'd advise us to take notes on things like theme and character and foreshadowing while we read. Ugh. Who wants to do that?

When I first read the novel a gazillion years ago in high school, I too wondered why the endless chapters on the whale and the gams, etc.

Now though I think that maybe Melville's obsession with detail in those chapters speaks to Ahab's obsession itself. Perhaps those sections are designed, not to bore the reader, but to manifest just how deeply Ahab has been overtaken by his quest for revenge.

- Tricia Ambrose


Monday, March 1, 2010

Me v. Moby Dick: The Epilogue

Well, it’s over.

In the last two days, I’ve spent about 19 hours reading and writing about Moby Dick.

I’m glad I read Moby Dick all at once. It’s a story that starts and stalls a lot. Reading it continuously prevented me from getting stuck in the stalls. If I were trying to read it four of five chapters at a time, I would have quit when I reached the sermon (which is what I’ve done before.)

To use a shallow analogy, Moby Dick is an attractive woman who would be gorgeous if she shed about 20 pounds (or 200 pages.) But I can’t say with certainty that Moby Dick would still be Moby Dick if it didn’t have its whale heads, migratory habits and cetological tangents.

There is too much good in Moby Dick for me to write it off as bloated or self-indulgent. But there are too many issues with pacing and focus for me to blanketly call it one of the greatest novels ever.

I had a writing professor in college who thought Moby Dick was the great American novel. (I argued for To Kill a Mockingbird.) I don’t think there is a great American novel. I don’t think any continent has a single novel that defines it. But Moby Dick addresses several themes that are especially pertinent to our country: faith, obsession, prejudice, friendship and greed.

I’m not sure I’ll ever re-read Moby Dick. I have a pretty long list to finish before I die, and it keeps getting longer. But, if I ever do revisit Moby Dick, I’ll try to read it on its own terms, instead of my own.

In case you’re just finding this blog now, feel free to follow the live blogging of Moby Dick from the beginning:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get my certification from powermobydick.com.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Me v. Moby: Part Eleven

7:10 p.m. Again, Ahab is confronted with another option. He confronts the blacksmith, Perth, who has lost everything—his wife, children, home and reputation—to alcoholism.

“Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad?” Ahab asks.

Perth tells Ahab that you cannot scorch a scar. Instead of going crazy, Perth became hard and unfeeling.

7:48 p.m. Starbuck offers Ahab his final option.

“God is against thee, old man,” he warns. “Let me … make a fair wind of it homewards, to go on a better voyage than this.”

Starbuck suggests Ahab return home. Ahab, like Starbuck, has a wife and child in Nantucket. Instead of looking for revenge on the ocean, he could find solace at home.

Of course, Ahab ignores him.

8:22 p.m. A brief summary: A typhoon strikes the Pequod. No one dies, but it convinces Starbuck that the voyage is doomed. He even considers killing Captain Ahab to escape his mad mandate.

The Pequod loses its life boat. Queequeg’s coffin is offered as a substitute.

8:33 p.m. Ahab has chewed the scenery for much of this book. He shouts and strikes his sailors. He rails against God and claims to be immortal. But he is never more chilling than when he refuses to look for another captain’s lost son because he finally has wind of Moby Dick.

There’s no shouting, no punching, just a cold-blooded refusal.

8:55 p.m. “From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.”

9:27 p.m. Starbuck, on the second day of chasing Moby Dick: “Never, never wilt thou capture him, old man—In Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than the devil’s madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone—all good angels mobbing thee with warnings—What more wouldst thou have?”

9:32 p.m. I hear my wife watching television downstairs. It’s a commercial.

“Give me that filet of fish! Give me that fish!”

9:52 p.m. “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

9:56 p.m. “The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? Because one did survive the wreck.”

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Me v. Moby: Part Ten

3:12 p.m. I don’t think I’ve seen Captain Ahab for about 80 pages. He hasn’t said anything since the Pequod met the Jeroboam. Since then, they’ve offed three other whales; and Ishmael discussed whale heads, spines and migratory groups.

I don’t miss Ahab like I did Ishmael and Queequeg earlier. This may be heresy, but there are four characters on the Pequod I prefer to him—Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck and Stubb. Ahab, by his nature, can only have a single facet. He’s obsessed with the whale. The other four have more layers.

But Ahab still drives the narrative (at least, when there is a narrative to drive.) I may think a car has a nice stereo system or paint job, but I still need the engine.

3:21 p.m. You want to snap on someone? Tell them they stink worse than an Assyrian city during a plague.

3:36 p.m. It only took 392 pages, but I’m glad Ishmael got around to defending the smell of a sperm whale. Next, he’s going to explain how they’re not fat, just big-boned.

3:51 p.m. OK, I know it’s immature, but I laughed aloud when I read, “Let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever!”

4:07 p.m. Nobody describes stink better than Melville. The scent of burning blubber: “It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment.”

4:20 p.m. Melville has spent more than 400 pages describing various aspects of the whaling industry; but he beautifully summates it in two sentences. “This is man-killing. Yet this is life.”

4:45 p.m. It’s been awhile since I summarized the plot. Allow me to rectify that:

The Pequod-ites go whaling, repeatedly. There are a few close calls. Tashtego nearly drowns while trapped in the head of a dead sperm whale. Pip, one of the youngest whalers, leaps into the sea to avoid a whale. When he’s recovered hours later, his sanity has left him.

Most importantly, the Pequod meets a British vessel with a captain that has a similar story to Captain Ahab. The British captain lost his hand while trying to harpoon Moby Dick. But, instead of turning into a monomaniac, the Brit has a sense of humor about it.

The captain claims to have seen the white whale twice since losing his hand. Naturally, Ahab wants to know if he tried to kill it again.

“Didn’t want to try to,” the captain replies. “Ain’t one limb enough?”

In this exchange, Melville illustrates the two ways in which people deal with trauma. You can accept it, move on and hopefully learn from it; or you can do what Captain Ahab does.

5:01 p.m. My Grampa Lea used to say, “If you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it.”

Now I know his source material.

5:17 p.m. “For the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outstretching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the circle of the sciences.”

This is an authorial admission.

5: 18 p.m. “To write a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”

So is this.

5:36 p.m. “Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.”

Wow, Melville sure got that wrong.

6:10 p.m. A final summary before dinner: Ahab cracks even further. (Farther? No, further.) He points a musket at Starbuck for suggesting they port. Queequeg gets sick, so the ship’s carpenter builds him a coffin. Then, Queequeg recovers from the illness.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Me v. Moby: Part Nine

11:15 a.m. I complained when subplots or tangents bored me, so I acknowledge that I enjoyed the Jeroboam’s story. In it, a crazy man who fancies himself an archangel hijacks a ship, the Jeroboam, which encounters the Pequod.

The subplot has a lot in common with the Town-Ho’s Story. Both link to the main plot through an encounter with Moby Dick. But the Jeroboam’s story is briefer and focuses more on the Pequod’s reaction than the relative strangers on the Jeroboam.

11:52 a.m. I suspect that Melville only wrote a chapter in which the Pequod’s whalers kill a right whale, so he could write two more in which he contrasts the physiology of sperm and right whale heads.

12:03 p.m. Excuse me, three chapters.

12:10 p.m. Lunch break.

12:30 p.m. Lunch break over.

12:34 p.m. Four chapters. Four chapters devoted to describing the head of a whale.

12:46 p.m. An intermission in which Queequeg saves Tashtego, another harpooner, from drowning; then, more description of the head.

12:51 p.m. “I believe that much of a man’s character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are.”

12:54 p.m. It’s always one extreme or the other. First, the Pequod encountered a boat called the Town-Ho. Now, it runs into one called the Virgin.

1:12 p.m. By now, some repetition has crept into my live blog. Anyone reading will have noticed that I like the sequences that focus on the story and characters and hate the exposition that often interrupts. But I can’t stress enough how good the actual story is—I just read an incredible chapter in which the Pequod-ites race a German whaler for the right to kill an ancient sperm whale—and how pointless most of Melville’s academic tangents are.

I don’t care about the shape of a sperm whale’s head. Maybe I should, but I don’t. I’m here for the story and I’ll take as much of it as Melville is willing to give.

2:05 p.m. For there is no folly of the beasts of earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”

And there you have it, the best line in Moby Dick.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Me v. Moby: Part Eight

9:34 a.m. Melville spends a trio of chapters explaining why most scientific pictures of whales are incorrect. That’s like Michael Crichton interrupting Jurassic Park to complain about Godzilla. (No, I’m not saying that Crichton is a better author than Melville.)

9:36 a.m. Melville’s description of Right Whales eating brit:

“As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea.”

Melville, I forgive you for the Town-Ho thing.

9:42 p.m. Melville revisits the analogy of land as the half-lived life; but, this time, he encourages people to stay aground.

“Consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”

9:55 p.m. “All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle ever-present perils of life. And, if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.”

And that’s how Melville turned a chapter about knot tying into a must read.

10:08 a.m. Would I love the whaling sequences as much if they did not have bouts of tedium in between?

10:22 a.m. There is a scene in which the Pequod’s cook, on Stubb’s order, asks the sharks to curb their voraciousness. It’s solid gold.

10:31 a.m. “Go to the meatmarket of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal?”

Hunters make the most sensible environmentalists.

10: 52 a.m. Let’s summarize: The Pequod goes on a pair of whale hunts. The first ends in soggy defeat. The second ends with a dead sperm whale. The sailors are then tasked with butchering the whale before the sharks eat it all.

The dead sperm whale brings out the joker in Stubb and the philosopher in Ahab.

Also, there was some stuff about whale drawings and knot tying.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Me v. Moby: Part Seven

6:28 a.m. No breakfast yet. First, book; then, breakfast.

6:46 a.m. Moby Dick is a bit like a dinosaur. It’s big, fascinating and beautiful, in its way. And these tangents—like The Affidavit, in which Melville lists 8 pages worth of historical Sperm Whale attacks—are its styracosaurus horns. Without it, the monster seems less bizarre and, thus, less fascinating. But, with it, the monster is incapable of surviving in a modern ecosystem.

In other words, Moby Dick couldn’t survive today. Editors would pare it 280 pages and pitch it as an action-adventure. But that’s no more of a criticism than to say I wouldn’t have done well in the Mesozoic.

Everything is a product of its times, doubly so for anything gigantic.

7:20 a.m. Finally, a whale hunt. It’s moments like this that make it impossible to hate Moby Dick. When Melville does stick to the story, it’s fantastic. It’s only when he indulges in the history of cetology that he loses me.

7:24 a.m. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

That’s the feeling I got when I tried to live blog Finnegans Wake.

8:28 a.m. I accept that Melville feels the need to splice the Pequod’s actions with side stories, but why does Ishmael have to narrate the overlong Ballad of Radney and Steelkilt to a bunch of phony-sounding Lima-ites?

Melville introduces these South American characters so they can function as a sort of Greek chorus for a single chapter. They prod Ishmael with their questions and observations. But every word they say makes me want to skip ahead a chapter.

A sample of their dialogue: “Senor, hereabouts in this dull, warm, most lazy and hereditary land, we know but little of your vigorous North.”

Melville wrote that with a tin ear, and it detracts from an already boring tangent. Why not have Ishmael just recount the story of Steelkilt to the reader as he’s been doing for most of the book?

This chapter, titled The Town-Ho’s Story, is so frustrating because it comes after the first whale hunt. The whale hunt is wonderful. There’s action, boats are overturned, Queequeg actually does something and Ahab plots his revenge.

Then, we get 19 pages of distraction.

I both love and hate Moby Dick.

I’m getting some breakfast.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. The Town-Ho is a boat, in case your mind slipped into the gutter.

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