I’ve read 100-page books which had 99 wasted pages of meandering bloat, and I’ve also read 1000-page epics that raced by in such a passionate flash that I wished they were ten times longer.
One of my favorite essays is Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 personal reflection “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.”
It’s rightly honored as a classic for many reasons, but one thing about it that doesn’t get enough attention is its humor. Hurston has so much confidence and clarity that she’s empowered to laugh at aspects of life that depress others. Parts of this serious social criticism essay are really quite funny.
That clarity and confidence in her outlook on life present a powerful challenge to the prevailing attitudes today, and offer a very positive role model for all of us. But I digress; this isn’t a political post.
As literature, her writing is just superb. Consider the eleventh paragraph in the essay (the linked version is numbered). It crafts an extended metaphor that viscerally builds a sense of dizzying, pulse-pounding abandon. The style perfectly matches the topic.
But then check out the contrast between that sprawling rave of a paragraph with the short punch of paragraph twelve. The stylistic difference there highlights the difference between her reaction to music and her friend’s reaction. It’s glorious.
There are plenty of other reasons to love this essay, besides those three. Just to give one more great thing about Hurston, though, is this: if you merely remove one little letter “r” from her last name, it becomes even better ! :)
I just found this great video that narrates and illustrates Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Joyce said of it: “He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’?…It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written…” I agree.
I’m not a big video game guy, but I really love Bookworm Adventures. It’s a cartoony, Scarbble-esque game where you combat literary-themed enemies (Cyclops, Dracula, etc.) by making words out of random letters. The better the word, the more powerful the attack.
A few nights ago I played a bit with some of my kids gathered around me, and we made quite a team. Fun fr the whole family!
There’s plenty of humor in the game, and there’s even a sequel that’s heavy on science fiction.
Totally worth it, especially if you live around here, where the library has it for free!
I think I’ve found a new favorite science fiction novel. Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, is “set in a grim and decaying New York City in the 25th century. The population is declining, no one can read, and robots rule over the drugged, illiterate humans. With the birth rate dropping, the end of the species seems a possibility.”
The most amazing thing about this story is just how uncanny its dystopian vision is. Combine the most prescient parts of Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World and you have this. Actually, it mostly reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, but where that was just a skeleton of a fable, this is fully fleshed out.
I marked a couple of dozen passages about stupified dependency, obsession with self-fulfillment, and the joys of rediscovering civilization; there are just too many to quote. Instead, here is a picture of one page, where the hero shares a passage from a history book that explains how the world fell. I got chills. This was published in 1980. He saw where things were going perfectly.
It’s not just a simple tale of society falling apart, though. There’s genuine love and adventure and sadness. Part of it is a Shawshank Redemption-like prison story. Part is wilderness survival. And there’s even more than that.
Just as with another great dystopian sci-fi classic, The Children of Men (which was also about the decline of the human family), there is one f-bomb, powerful for its lone status. At one point, a suicidal robot tells a pregnant woman that she should have an abortion. Let’s just say that I wholeheartedly approve of her response.
The word, of course, not the celebrity. It’s become appallingly clear that we can no longer use the verb “trump” literally, as in “My evidence trumps yours,” because of the taint associated with the name now. A sad loss. It was a great word.
I don’t expect it to be resurrected any time soon. Several years later, I still can’t refer to that darkening period at the end of the day–“twilight”–without students giggling. And don’t even try to address an issue by suggesting that it has “shades of gray.”
Miramax recently put online their “Shakespeare in the Classroom” feature, produced as part of the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. This is great news for teachers whose VHS copies died long ago. The 45-minute intro to the Bard has the cast doing the heavy lifting, with enough scenes from the film that it’s especially useful for illustrating Romeo and Juliet, though any Shakespeare unit benefits from it. Also, check out how stupid young Ben Affleck looks with that goatee.
Sadly, just the opposite has happened to the great four-hour documentary In Search of Shakespeare (really, four episodes of an hour each). Any copy of it on YouTube is being deleted. It’s worth your time to track down a copy.
One major strain of thought in it is an attempt to show that Will was a closet Catholic, and I have to admit, they marshal quite an impressive bit of evidence for it. I also enjoyed the host–his boyish enthusiasm for every scene really kept me drawn in. In between scenes, too, this film has more beautiful, lush shots of the English countryside than you’d expect from an actual documentary about the English countryside. Just a gorgeous work.
It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.
What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.
What is worth dying for is barely noticed.
–Laura McBride, We Are Called to Rise
From this book’s Amazon description: “A funny and uplifting story of how a Mormon kid with Tourette’s found salvation in books and weight lifting.” What’s not to like? Here’s what appealed to me about each part of that summary:
FUNNY: Josh Hanagarne is a natural comedian. His panache for characterization and anecdote are evident on nearly every page, and his memoir is filled with plenty of amusing characters and anecdotes–most chapters start with stories about his work in libraries, which reminded me of the McSweeney’s feature “Dispatches From a Public Librarian,” which I also loved.
UPLIFTING: This is no Hallmark movie. There’s an unvarnished–but still generally lighthearted–feel to this story that does leave you feeling positive about things.
MORMON: Spoiler: Josh ends the book not active in the church, but he is never bitter about it; there’s no axe to grind here. Instead, all of his descriptions of Mormons are positive. He even relates a couple of earlier spiritual experiences and doesn’t try to downplay them–they’re still very real to him. That’s rare and wonderful. Alas, his only references to the Book of Mormon are to lament how boring it is, though.
TOURETTE’S: Josh handles the telling of his experiences with Tourette’s with the same deft narrating that strengthens his humor as well.
BOOKS: I’ll love most anything that name drops as many great titles as lovingly as this book does. Josh has some great taste. I also loved his ecstatic passion for libraries.
WEIGHT LIFTING: Just as with the humor, religion, and Tourette’s, his stories of working out are enthusiastically entertaining, especially the segments towards the end of the book with his main trainer, a perfectly amusing, realistic, and inspiring character.
This is also a fine memoir about a young man starting a family, and loving every tedious and frustrating moment that entails. So really, this book has it all.
This was a series of books produced in the 70’s by Pendulum Press. They were comic book versions of classics, done in the style that I always think of as soap opera-serious: severe black and white line drawings meant to communicate reality, accompanied by typed, not printed, dialogue.
In 1984, their parent company Academic Industries released the whole collection–including a sub-series of biographies–as a giant 100-volume or so set of tiny paperbacks.
My older brother got it for me, and that was my introduction to the world of literature. (In fact, I remember him keeping the Beatles biography for himself, and it was searching for that part of the set that finally led me to finding this info online now–so thanks!) Man, I loved those books. Many of them I read until they literally fell apart (the glue in their small spines, alas, was not strong).
These little comics were not dumbed down “Classics Illustrated” titles–they were mature and serious (or at least they felt so to elementary me). I feel like reading them legitimately prepared me to understand the original classics as I got older. Believe it or not, they truly were educational and fun.
At some point, I felt that such a set was childish and they were given away, but I’d love to have them again now. I wish my own children had access to these. I’ve checked, and nobody seems to have a set of them, not eBay, not any vendor–no more than just a handful at a time. It was a beautiful set, but it wasn’t built to last, I guess.
Isn’t this what Google Books is for? Where are they?
Around the middle of this book, Cadwallader writes, “The silence that grew between them seemed like a third person” (148). Near the end, we get this similarly poetic description of the same thing: “The silence began as a small and frightened thing, perched on the ledge of the window, but as Ranaulf sat in stillness, it grew, very slowly, and filled up the parlor, wrapped itself around his neck and warmed his back, curled under his knees and around his feet, floated along the walls, tucked into the corners, nestled in the crevices of stone” (263).
This is decent writing, but as these examples suggest, The Anchoress tends to be desperate and pretentious.
That’s true of the book and of the titular character. The anchoress is a young woman in 13th century England who has volunteered to be shut in a small cell to spend the rest of her life meditating and praying in isolation for her village.
That’s great fodder for an original and introspective tale, but the book is held back by more than just repetitive figures of speech.
Though Cadwallader drops in plenty of period vocabulary every now and then, the dialogue is usually so modern that it’s distracting. A lot of this book’s 13th century speech might as well use “like” and “dude,” for all the accuracy it conveys.
Not my favorite books by Nibley, but his favorites. I remembered seeing this list a long time ago, and finally tracked it down. Here it is in the Deseret News, October 31, 1980. (Thanks, Google. It’s also in one of the newer volumes of the Collected Works, but not one that’s online yet.) Chronicles and Satyricon are both on hold at my library now…
Near the end of this collection of short essays, Dirda says that his goal with the original weekly columns was “to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.”
Dirda is a book reviewer–a professional book nerd–and his infectious passion for all things bookish is on full display here. It’s hard not to get caught up in the joy of his love for books, though search me for why anyone would try to resist.
His voice in these essays is kind and witty, his boyish enthusiasm rattling off each page like any kid geeking out about a new obsession. Some of the casual chattiness comes off as a bit contrived, but never distractingly so. Dirda is the essayist that Nora Ephron wanted to be.
I’ve been reading a great collection of writings by Christian leaders from just after New Testament times. I’ve largely enjoyed it, but as I get into the second half, I’m stalling out–my enthusiasm for this one is just winding down, so I’m putting it back on the shelf for now (sorry, Justin Martyr).
The Ensign had a great article about these writings in the August 1976 issue.
Of the documents I’ve read so far, all were at least good, and some were really great. The four marked with an A+ I highly recommend to everybody. Here are my notes and quotes:
This one comes from a bishop who knew and was mentored by the Apostles, and his letter is amazing. It’s actually from within the first century, making it contemporary with the New Testament, and was even included in some early versions of the New Testament. It isn’t canonized scripture for us, but it isn’t far off…the Spirit is there in this one.
35 How blessed and amazing are God’s gifts, dear friends! 2Life with immortality, splendor with righteousness, truth with confidence, faith with assurance, self-control with holiness! And all these things are within our comprehension. 3What, then, is being prepared for those who wait for him? The Creator and Father of eternity, the all-holy, himself knows how great and wonderful it is. 4We, then, should make every effort to be found in the number of those who are patiently looking for him, so that we may share in the gifts he has promised. 5And how shall this be, dear friends? If our mind is faithfully fixed on God; if we seek out what pleases and delights him; if we do what is in accord with his pure will, and follow in the way of truth. If we rid ourselves of all wickedness, evil, avarice, contentiousness, malice, fraud, gossip, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, pretension, conceit, and inhospitality.
There are seven of these letters–as a whole, I give them an A-, but his letters to the Romans and to the Philadelphians each get a solid A, and my favorite, to the Ephesians, gets an A+. A quote:
9 I have heard that some strangers came your way with a wicked teaching. But you did not let them sow it among you. You stopped up your ears to prevent admitting what they disseminated. Like stones of God’s Temple, ready for a building of God the Father, you are being hoisted up by Jesus Christ, as with a crane (that’s the cross!), while the rope you use is the Holy Spirit. Your faith is what lifts you up, while love is the way you ascend to God.
You are all taking part in a religious procession,185 carrying along with you your God, shrine, Christ, and your holy objects, and decked out from tip to toe in the commandments of Jesus Christ. I too am enjoying it all, because I can talk with you in a letter, and congratulate you on changing your old way of life and setting your love on God alone.
The world waited ten years for a follow-up to the amazing novel The Rule of Four, and last year we finally got it. One of the co-authors of The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell, published The Fifth Gospel, a dense and literary murder mystery set entirely in the Vatican.
It’s a worthy second work, though not quite as gripping and fast-paced as his previous book. In fact, it’s quite slow at times–there’s not much action here. It’s more Agatha Christie than Dan Brown.
But it wasn’t the plot that kept me going. It was the narrator. The Rule of Four was about college students, written by two guys in that phase of life themselves. Ten years later, Caldwell is a husband and the father of three small children, a young professional settling into the life he’s established. Again, this is all reflected in the narrator.
Caldwell loves the family that are his characters and he wants us to, also. And we do.
Even better, the narrator is a religious scholar and a priest. I don’t know if Caldwell is religious or not, but his book is. It doesn’t aim to be faith promoting, but it takes religion seriously. In the eyes of the narrator and the world around him, faith is a valuable, respectable thing that has real heft in our minds and spirits. I was immediately comfortable reading this book in a way that I haven’t been with a novel in a long time.
The worldview of the novel is mature and realistic in a way that most of our society has forgotten is even possible.
Caldwell’s writing is skilled, and yes, there’s plenty of intriguing trivia here to keep the da Vinci Code crowd interested. Like The Rule of Four, The Fifth Gospel largely revolves around reverence for a historical and rare ancient text, another huge plus in its favor.
As soon as I finished it, I realized that I liked it enough that I’ll read whatever Caldwell writes next, whatever it is and whenever it comes out. Hopefully it won’t take another ten years. What better recommendation can a reviewer give?