Sunday Salon

TSS: Reality versus the Grand Plan

sunsalon1Today everyone seems to be posting their top 10 books and/or their reading stats for the year. I just realized, much to my chagrin, that I only read 34 books in 2012. Oh well. It was a pretty bad year for reading, and it was a pretty bad year in general. I don’t think I’m alone in encouraging 2012 to make haste. Nobody seems unhappy to see it go.

The turn of a calendar page feels more important to me this year than it has in a long time. While I am making a few (very simple) personal goals around fitness and career for 2013, I’ve decided not to plan too much when it comes to reading. Not striving for a number–although I certainly hope to do better than 34, but my reading seems to have slowed to a crawl. I may simply aim to read 52 books, one per week, and then again, I might not. I have a few other guidelines: reading from my own stacks, re-reading some old favorites. I’m not going to make any lists of what I think I’d like to re-read most, or which books from my stacks are calling me now. Instead, I’ll most likely follow my mood. I just bought myself a nice big batch of books, and I still have plenty of tempting titles on my shelves. There’s a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction for me to read as well. I will commit only to one thing: In 2013, I WILL read Wolf Hall.

As far as blogging goes, my two goals are primarily to comment more and to post more frequently. As I said above, I’ve become a terribly slow reader, and especially in the first few months of the year, all the books I have to read are chunksters all over 600 pages. But just because I don’t have anything to review doesn’t mean I can’t get out there and visit. As for posting, I may simply post more about reading and fewer reviews. I’ve never tried talking about a book while I’m reading it, at least not here on the blog, but the more I think about it, the idea appeals to me much more than writing a review that sums everything up. Instead, I might discuss as I go, and then do something like a quarterly review. (Wait–that sound suspiciously like a plan, doesn’t it?) I also hope to continue my album project, and to reorganize the blog a bit.

How about you out there? Any grand reading plans?

I’ll be back on New Year’s Day with the first of several posts to share my new books. I hope all of you have a happy and safe New Year. Here’s to 2013!

TSS: Link Love 11/18/12

sunsalon1Happy Sunday! I hope everyone’s day is going well. Around here we have some shopping and housework to do to get ready for family visiting for the American Thanksgiving holiday later this week. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to squeeze in some time to read my new copy of Alice Munro’s latest story collection, Dear Life. Last week was busy work-wise and I didn’t collect as many links as I would have liked, but here are a few things of interest I found. Enjoy!

  • Some book reviews make me want to read the book, and some book reviews make me want to follow the reviewer. If I didn’t already follow Teresa at Shelf Love, then her review of Swimming Home would certainly make me want to start doing so.
  • The Cue Card reviews Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. Based on this review, I am putting this in line right behind Bob Dylan’s Chronicles.
  • It’s difficult for me now to imagine a time, as little as five or six years ago, when I didn’t read any mysteries. The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul, reviewed over at Alex in Leeds, sounds right up my alley: “From the very beginning you need to unpick the story and look beyond what the characters are saying. Everything is ambiguous.”
  • This story collection, An End to All Things, by Jared Yates Sexton, sounds unusual and intriguing, based on the review over at The Literary Man blog: “Despite his direct address to the reader, Sexton doesn’t have an arrogant tone. He doesn’t believe that his authorial insight is any more important than the reader’s. What he does have, however, is the desire to start a conversation with his audience, and to open their minds to the reality that everyone either fears the end of things, or is numb to this fear.”
  • I don’t know about you, but I spend so much time typing these days that my handwriting has gotten pretty atrocious. This book—Whither Handwriting?—explores the loss of the art of handwriting.
  • Have you checked out Bloom Site? Created by The Millions contributor Sonya Chung, it’s a site dedicated to authors over 40. I was especially interested in the Q&A with Donald Ray Pollack, who I heard in this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air earlier this year and whose books Knockemstiff and The Devil All the Time are on my wishlist.
  • Here’s a short but terrific interview on writing fiction about the Iraq War with two 2012 National Book Award finalists, Ben Fountain and Kevin Powers.  (Shameless self-promotion: You can read my thoughts on Fountains’ Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk here.)
  • Finally, from Bourbon & Pearls, a little non-bookish but quirky something to make you smile.

The Album Project

Not exactly going strong, but still committed! I listened to:

  • Aladdin Sane, David Bowie. Favorite tracks: “Drive-In Saturday” and “Panic in Detroit”
  • Almost Famous, soundtrack. I love this movie for many reasons, which I’ll share in a forthcoming post.
  • American Beauty, The Grateful Dead. Favorite track: “Box of Rain,” which is why I bought the album. I was never a Deadhead, but watching Lindsay Weir dance alone to it in her bedroom on the sadly short-lived Freaks and Geeks drove me to buy the whole album.

Books purchased:

None, nada, zilch, zero.

Books added to wishlist:

All right folks, that’s all I’ve got. Have a great day!

TSS: Link Love 11/11/12

sunsalon1Happy Sunday everyone! I hope you’ve all had a great day today. For your evening reading pleasure, here are links to some bookish (and not so bookish) things I read this week:

Roberta at Books to the Ceiling reviews Midnight in Peking. This book piqued my interest after I read The People Who Eat Darkness this past summer. Looks like another chilling, interesting read.

With the National Book Awards coming up on November 14, Slate talks about the scandal in 1962 when the award went to first-time author Walker Percy for The Moviegoer. (Confession: I have this book, but I still haven’t read it. Ahem.)

Flavorwire lists 10 great authors we should all stop pigeonholing. The list includes Ursula K. LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, and Jack London, just to name a few. Who would you add to the list?

As a distraction from all the election stuff this past week, the L.A. Times posted some of the most interesting book covers of 2012.

Pencils out, people! The Guardian posted this quiz on great American novels. You have five minutes–and no looking at each other’s answers!

What book do you think is the greatest teen novel? Flavorwire lists 10 novels to replace The Catcher in the Rye as the greatest teen novel.

I want to go to there.

Book Riot lists bookish conversations they never want to have again. Topics include e-readers versus books, book critics versus bloggers, and genre discussions. I nodded so vigorously in agreement with this post that I think I pulled a muscle in my neck.

In a weekly Huffington Post series, authors discuss places they like to read.

Interested in making a mixtape (er–playlist) for someone? All Songs Considered tells you how to put songs together without looking like a creepy stalker.

This is just funny. Go ahead and click. I promise, no tricks. Just funny.

Long-Awaited reads month buttonAna and Iris are declaring January 2013 “Long-Awaited Reads” month. I don’t know about you but I have a stack of long-awaited reads to choose from, so I’ll definitely be joining in the fun. This isn’t a challenge, just a fun way to brighten up January and get some books off the TBR pile.

If you’re like me and your working space is covered with notebooks, sticky notes, and other bits of paper with phrases and lists all over them, you’ll appreciate this article in The New York Times about seminars that cover the history of note-taking.

I loved watching this video of Cheryl Strayed interviewing Anne Lamott. Strayed is clearly a super Anne Lamott fangirl–she actually gushes, which is actually what I would do if I were anywhere near either one of them!

Do you keep a notebook or journal? Take a glimpse into this 16-year-old girl’s world. If you stopped writing down those fleeting thoughts and inspirations, this may encourage you to start again. (Just do everyone a favor and do NOT refer to it as “journaling,” okay?)

The Album Project

Things got off to a rocky start with Abbey Road, but I pushed ahead:

  • Achtung Baby, U2-  My favorite U2 album. Favorite song: “The Fly.”
  • After the Gold Rush, Neil Young –  Favorite song(s): “Tell Me Why,” “When You Dance I can Really Love,” “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
  • Aftermath, The Rolling Stones – Favorite songs: “Paint It Black,” “I Am Waiting”
  • Al Green’s Greatest Hits, Al Green – Favorite songs: “Here I Am,” “Love and Happiness”

(What? You didn’t think I was going to subject you to reading my thoughts on every single album? Oh, no.)

Books purchased:

A Naked Singularity, Sergio De La Pava (One of The Millions top 10 books for October 2012)

Books added to wishlist:

I added a lot of books this week, so I’m only sharing a few. I can only remember sources for some of them, but if you’ve read/reviewed any of these and do (or don’t) recommend them, please share in the comments.

Have a great week!

TSS: Link Love 11/04/12

sunsalon1For today’s Sunday Salon post, I’ve decided to jump on the bandwagon with Teresa and Ana (and many others) and share some fun links I’ve found throughout the week. To me, the best part of blogging is having a community, however large or small, with whom to share things. Let the sharing begin!

I’ve been a big fan of Richard Russo ever since I read Straight Man back in 1996 or so. He has a new memoir about his mother, Elsewhere, which sounds terrific.

Many, many people are fans of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and many, many people are fans of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and her “Dear Sugar” column. Read Rubin’s interview with Strayed about happiness.

Iris has a great review of my second-favorite Nick Hornby novel, Juliet, Naked.

In Joe Queenan’s interview with NPR, he talks about his new book One for the Books, reading 125 books a year, and still having time to write his own.

Vasilly asks, “How soon is to soon?” when it comes to compiling “Best of” lists for the year…and the Publisher’s Weekly list that prompted her question.

Dennis Lehane talks to The New York Times about what he’s reading.

Teresa over at Shelf Love reviews what looks to be an interesting read about the struggle to control Central Asia.

Finally, Book Riot lists its readers Top 50 Favorite Novels. Some surprises on there!

And just for fun, my bookish activity for the week:

Books purchased:

Alice Munro, Dear Life: Stories

Dan Chaon, Stay Awake: Stories

Books added to my wish list:

Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth: A Novel (Also read his thoughts on the novella as form in The New Yorker)

Dennis Lehane, Live by Night

Edwin O’Connor, The Edge of Sadness (Recommended in the Lehane interview with The New York Times)

Jami Attenberg, The Middlesteins

Have a wonderful Sunday!

TSS: Small Island, Small World

sunsalon1This has been a strange year so far. Not only have I not had much time to post here, I have not had much time to read. Most days I get only about 20 minutes or so before bed, and that’s only if I can keep my eyes open that long. I did manage to finish a couple of books in the last two weeks, though, so that’s something…but not really given that one of them, Shanghai Girls, I started sometime last December. Ahem. And now I am trying desperately to finish C.J. Box’s Blue Heaven, which I actually started last summer. Anything to squeeze in a few more books before the end of March to at least attempt to meet my goal for the TBR Double Dare. Of course, this pressure is all internal. I’m happy about it actually, because it makes me focus where I should focus: on my own books.

As far as Shanghai Girls and Small Island, I can easily recommend both; however, Shanghai Girls is incredibly sad, and Small Island…well, racism is never an easy subject, ever. Both books actually deal with racism, and it’s ugly in both cases. And interestingly enough, although both books are set around the time of World War II, they both deal with subjects that are lately in the news every night: immigration and racism. It’s a pitiful fact that this is the case. While I realize we have progressed some, sometimes I wonder if the progression is real, or if people have just gotten better at hiding their prejudice. Or perhaps I should say, I wonder if people HAD gotten better at hiding their prejudice, because it seems to suddenly raising its ugly head in ways I could not have imagined a decade ago.

Shanghai Girls deals with the racism Chinese immigrants faced in this country in the mid-Twentieth century. Many Chinese came here looking for opportunities to help their families in China, and after the Japanese invaded China in 1937, many people came here to escape the war, only to find that 12 years later they would be unable to return to China under the Communists–and face suspicion here of being Communist spies. Hailing from Texas, I grew up around Mexicans my whole life. I moved to Georgia over a decade ago. As you might know, Georgia does not share any borders with Mexico. In 2010, someone running for state office promised to “protect our borders.” Protect them from what? Immigrants from Alabama? All those crazy South Carolinians? Perhaps they forgot, as well, that so much of our economy depends on people crossing the border to find a better life. They pick the fruit and vegetables sitting your fridge (or at least they did–Georgia farmers are now regretting their support of conservative candidates who promised to pass strict immigration laws, because they can’t find anyone to pick their crops). But fear is a powerful thing. Make people believe they are under a vast threat and promise you can protect them…like, say, telling the Germans that the Jews wanted to take all of their jobs, so that soon no Germans would be able to find work.

I bring this up because it illustrates a relevant point, both in the two books and in what’s happening in our country right now: people are driven and easily manipulated by fear. By fear of what, I do not know. I hear a lot of blathering about Christians losing their rights and being oppressed, when everywhere there’s evidence of the contrary. The white, Christian man seems to be having a heyday. If not, then how could laws be passed forcing women to have transvaginal ultrasounds? If not, then how could this bumper sticker be proudly displayed on people’s cars? If not, why do people want to build fences along the Mexican border? If not, why are there people who still insist that President Obama is a Muslim? (And so what if he was? What happened to religious freedom? If you’re so threatened by someone else’s religious beliefs, perhaps you should question what makes your own faith so shaky and threatened by the idea of beliefs that are different from yours.) If not, why did a white man in Florida shoot a young black man for walking down the street with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea? (And I promise you, if the shooter had been black or Hispanic, he would have had cuffs slapped on him faster than you can say “hoodie.”)

I tend not to talk politics with people in person, and I generally don’t say anything about it here on the blog either. But I am simply appalled, and I cannot sit still and pretend nothing is happening. I’m not interested in starting arguments or attacking parties (I believe there are racist liberals and progressive conservatives). I’m simply saying, by themselves, both of these books made me cringe. Given the parallels between what happens in these books set in the 1930s and 1940s and what I see on the news today…it made me want to crawl under the bed and not come out.

I’ll simply close with the wise words of Airman Gilbert Joseph, RAF in Small Island, and leave it at that:

‘You know what your trouble is, man?’ he said. ‘Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it give you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. No better, no worse than me–just white.’

TSS: Schedules, challenges, and so forth

sunsalon1Hello! My poor blog has been gathering dust and cobwebs the last week and a half while I try to catch up with work. Every time I think I am getting close, something comes along to throw me off track again, even if for a good reason. Last weekend I was supposed to work, but we ended up selling all of our bedroom furniture on Craig’s List. We have had it listed for months, and the Friday night before we got an email from someone asking if he could come see it at 9:00 the following morning. We said sure, thinking that he likely would either not show up or would show up and say he needed to think about it. Imagine our surprise when he looked at it and said he’d take it. He didn’t even haggle over price. An hour and a half later, he drove away with the bed we had woken up in that very same morning. Luckily we had our replacement furniture picked out, because we have a guest coming in a few weeks so we needed to get everything purchased and set up. By 9:00 Sunday night, we had all our new stuff in place. I still need to do a bit of decorating and we need something for the walls, but other than that we are set. But I didn’t get a lick of work done, so that put me several more days behind.

The point of this story: no blogging, no commenting, and not much reading, which isn’t good for a book blogger. I’m way behind on my TBR Double Dare reading list, and I’m not sure I am going to read 8 books by April 1. I’ll be lucky to finish Small Island and maybe read one or two more. I’m a short way into Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, and I’m still reading The Night Circus, which I have out on two-week loan from the library. It has to go back Wednesday and I can’t renew it, so I’ll probably end up paying late fees. All of the other library books that I’d had out from my hold list went back to the library with spines uncracked (by me, anyway). I’ll just have to read them later. I do think I’m going to make a better go of just sticking to books I have in my possession for a while. I really do have a lot of good books just sitting on my shelves, something I noticed when we were moving things around last week.

Today it’s beautiful outside, and I would rather be running, but I am sneaking in this quick blog post before I start working. I guess I should have said, “I would rather be reading” or “I would rather be blogging,” but it just wouldn’t be true. It’s perfect running weather out there. Anyway, work it is today, and then tonight the Academy Awards. I haven’t seen half the films, especially the ones likely to win, The Descendants and The Artist. We did watch Hugo last night, and even though we liked it and thought it was well done, we agreed it’s not necessarily award-worthy, at least outside the special effects department. A sweet story, though, and well done. If I had my way, Midnight in Paris would win everything it’s nominated for, die-hard Woody Allen fan that I am. I really do think it was terrific, although can somebody tell me why Rachel McAdams doesn’t fire her agent? She was great in Midnight in Paris; I think she’s hiding some real talent behind all the other dreck she chooses. Maybe she just has terrible taste? If she’s not careful, she’ll end up as one of those actresses who only does Lifetime movies.

Happy Sunday everyone! I hope you all have a terrific week. Do something crazy on Leap Day, but don’t do this:

TSS: Plagiarism

sunsalon1Happy Sunday everyone! I hope you all had a great week. I actually managed to get one book post in this week, for The Postmistress, so now I’ve only got two more to write this week and then I’ll be back on track. Work is still super busy, but I feel like I have a better pace and more focus. The biggest challenge this week will be getting back to the gym, something I haven’t been super regular about since, oh, September? I am lucky to get three days in lately…hopefully going at a scheduled time will help.

I’ve been thinking about writing about plagiarism for a while. A few years ago at the start of my extended blogging break, several bloggers were locked in a heated argument over whether one blogger had plagiarized the review of another blogger. I’m not trying to be mysterious by not naming names–I wasn’t involved in any way, the argument didn’t involve bloggers I read regularly. I wonder, do you look for other reviews of books you have read and reviewed on your blog, to see if anyone’s “stolen” your content? I admit, I do not. But honestly, that’s not the sort of plagiarism I had in mind, anyway.

When I decided to start the blog again, I took a look at my dashboard and noticed that two posts of mine in particular got a lot of hits. Both were about short stories; one was about “Tandolfo the Great” by Richard Bausch, and the other was about “The Harvest” by Amy Hempel. In fact, I would sometimes get up to 20 hits a day on the Amy Hempel post. As a former college instructor, I started to wonder about this. I don’t think either of these authors enjoy widespread popularity, except among fans of the short story and aspiring writers…and college instructors, especially those teaching creative writing or Twentieth century American fiction.

The fact the Hempel post got so many hits bothered me so much that I took it down, and I’ve considered taking down the Bausch post as well because it still is one of my top posts. I certainly can’t prove that anyone has plagiarized what I’ve said in either post–nor do I believe anything I’ve said might be worth plagiarizing. But I cannot help but worry, and this whole thing just made me think of blogging on a whole new level. Maybe some of you have already considered this, but given that I write mostly about contemporary fiction that’s not taught in schools, I hadn’t ever given it much thought.

The other thing that made me think about this was a Tweet I saw a few weeks back (From Iris, perhaps? I apologize for not remembering exactly who it was.) about a commenter who had read a review of a book, but then wanted to know, could the blogger explain the book’s theme? This set off all sorts of red flags for me. Here’s what I pictured: student in front of the computer, trying desperately to write a paper that’s due now about a book that he or she hasn’t even bothered to crack the spine on. It made me wonder, are blogs the new CliffsNotes?

A lot of the bloggers I follow read classic literature, and many of them write thoughtful, insightful reviews of the books they read. And I wonder, do any of them (of you, actually) worry that their posts are being fashioned into papers for English (or American) Literature 101? Of course, if it’s happening, I suppose there’s nothing anyone can do. But it still gives me pause.

TSS: Running, Reading, and Blogging

sunsalon1Happy Sunday, everyone. Today is going to be the start of a long week, because I am traveling to Seattle on Tuesday for work. I’ve never been to Seattle before, and I’m excited to see the city, but I admit that I’d rather stay home. I’ve yet to get back into a routine after the holidays, and almost a week away doesn’t help matters much.

Last week I started The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, but I realized that I was picking it up and setting it down too much, and it seems to me like a book that needs a longer attention span. Also, it’s a physical book, and I’m planning to take only my Kindle on this trip (plenty of TBR titles on that bad boy), so I decided to hold off on that one until I get home.

Instead, I started Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I wanted to read it mainly because I’ve mostly recovered from the problem I had last year (plantar fasciitis, which is essentially just severe heel pain–and a real pain in the butt to boot) and I thought it might motivate me to get back into a routine. So far so good: I ran (a very slow) four miles this afternoon. Probably it’s not fair to call it running—it was more like jogging, really—but I did it.

This morning, I came across this passage:

Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel he’s accomplished what he set out to do, and if he can’t, then he’ll feel he hasn’t. Even if he doesn’t break the time he hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction at having done his very best—and possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process—then that in itself is an accomplishment, a positive feeling he can carry over to the next race.

[...]

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.

What does any of this have to do with reading, you might be wondering? For me, it relates in a couple of ways. First was simply that much of last year was not a good running year for me–and when I wasn’t running, my reading tapered off as well. I think I set more books aside last year than I ever have, and even the ones I made it through often didn’t satisfy me. This was troubling to me because a big part of my identity is “reader.” Another big part of my identity was starting to become “runner.” Neither of those things were going well, and I was unable to reach the bar I had set for myself in either area. It wasn’t pretty.

The other reason the passage struck me was that since I started blogging again, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my goals are as a blogger. When I first started this blog in 2009, I joined all kinds of challenges and set all kinds of goals for myself: to read a certain number of books, to read certain kinds of books, to attract some number of readers, to attract publishers so I could read the latest and greatest releases, to join read-alongs, and so forth. All of my goals were driven by what I imagined I should be doing with a blog, rather than what I really wanted to do.

Even when I decided to start blogging again a few months ago, I thought about what I should do. For example, I should have a ratings system of some sort, so that people know what I think. The problem for me was: I couldn’t think of a ratings system I felt comfortable using. Should I give stars? Should I rate books on a scale of 1 to 5? 1 to 10? Should I rank things with simple terms such as “Recommended” or “Highly recommended”?

I thought about it for a long while, and I could not decide. Then one day, it hit me: I am not at all interested in ranking books for people. I have no problem with other people doing it; many of the blogs I follow have some sort of at-a-glance system, and I appreciate it as a time saver, especially if I know I can trust the person’s opinion (Jackie at Farm Lane Books and Matt at A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook come to mind). But for myself, for what I want to get out of blogging, a ranking system won’t work, because ultimately, I’m not really interested in reviewing books. I’m interested in having a conversation about books here on this blog, and to me, when I think of giving something a rank, I worry it closes the door. If I give something two stars, it might keep someone from commenting who really thought a book was four or five stars. (More likely, it would be the opposite: I’d give something four stars, and I’d get the inevitable, “You liked that? Hm” kind of comment that drives me insane.)

To bring it all home, because this post is longer than I planned and getting a bit out of control, I suppose what I’m saying is, I might be a very slow runner, but I’m only worried about improving my own time, not in beating anyone else. I read a lot of running blogs, and many of those people are faster than I could ever hope to be. Reading is not only something I enjoy, but in many ways it’s something I have trained—both as an “amateur” and professionally—to do. But the only goals that matter are my own. Nobody has to read or like the books I recommend here. I am not trying to be a taste-maker. Quite honestly, if I had only two or three readers who got something out of the conversation, I would be happy, because what ultimately matters to me is reading, in and of itself. I perform the act for the sheer joy of it, and nothing else.

TSS: DNF, or DNWF?

sunsalon1I was looking through my books earlier this week, taking inventory for my TBR list, and I noticed something: I have a number of books in my TBR pile with bookmarks in them. I typically count these as part of my TBR, because to me, the fact that I deliberately left the bookmark in place means I clearly intended to return to the book at some point in the near or distant future.

This got me thinking: is there a difference between books one didn’t finish (DNF), and books one didn’t want to finish (DNWF)? For me, at least, the answer is yes. I’ve set down books and vowed to return to them later for any number of reasons: I was too busy with other things; a book I wanted to read more became available at the library; the book was fine but not matching my my mood.

Special Topics in Calamity PhysicsFor example, I remember the first time I read (or tried to read) Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I abandoned it maybe a quarter of the way through, but I left the bookmark in place. I think a number of reviews had compared it to The Secret History, which is a favorite book of mine, so the book wasn’t matching my expectations. It sat on the shelf for about a year, bookmark in place, and then one day I thought: I want to give that book another go. I plucked it from the shelf and started reading, not from the beginning but from where I had previously stopped. I read the whole thing quickly in a few days. When I got to the end of the book, I turned back to the beginning and read it again. Today I count it among my favorites.

We Need to Talk about KevinThat story isn’t typical for me–the books I pick up again and finish don’t generally strike such a chord–but it does make me think about all those other books on my shelf that I gave up on at some point. Not everything was abandoned with the best of intentions. Sometimes I simply dislike a book but feel I should finish it because I paid for it, or because the book is relevant to bloggers or the culture in some way and I don’t feel right joining a discussion when I haven’t read the book. For me, the prime example of such a book is We Need to Talk About Kevin. I’m not offended by the subject matter; I’m not even offended by the mother, as I know a lot of people have been. It’s an award-winner (Orange Prize); it’s an Important Book about Important Issues; it’s well-written; and now it’s a movie with Tilda Swinton. But I hated it. I hated it while I was reading it. As much as I love Tilda Swinton, I’m not sure I can bring myself to see the movie. But there it sits, with the bookmark at page 136. And so the question I face is this: is this book a DNF, or is it really a DNWF?

I still haven’t decided about that particular book, to tell you the truth. But with so many books on my TBR to get through, I think I need to be honest with myself in terms of the difference between books I set aside for later and books I was really kidding myself about because I felt guilty or because I felt I “should” read them. How about you: do you distinguish between books you plan to pick up again and books you know you’ll never finish?

Happy Sunday, everyone!

TSS: The Great American Novel

sunsalon1Please forgive me for posting my Sunday Salon post on a Monday. I was busy and sick, sick and busy all weekend. If I wasn’t doing laundry, taking down the tree, or cleaning house, then I was sitting in a stupor most of the weekend. I finished The Art of Fielding Friday evening, and a post about that will be forthcoming this week, but first I wanted to talk about The Great American Novel.

I’d planned to write a Sunday Salon post about something else entirely, but when I saw this article in The Guardian (thanks, Largehearted Boy), I decided to switch topics. Essentially, the article is about all the hype The Art of Fielding is receiving. Neither The Guardian nor I believe that The Art of Fielding–as wonderful as it is–is The Great American Novel, mind you. But the article considers just exactly what The Great American Novel is, and how that concept has changed over the last four or five decades:

The Art of Fielding certainly cements the idea that a powerful new group of writers has emerged in America in the wake of Franzen’s success with his novels The Corrections and Freedom. The big beasts of US literature – Mailer, Updike, Bellow, Roth – who fought their battles, sometimes physically (“Lost for words again, Norman?” Gore Vidal said after being punched by Mailer) but more usually in intense, convoluted, poetic sentences, are mostly gone now.

Now, in the first place, for my part it’s a bit early to start including anything written in the last decade (or two–or three?) in the category of The Great American Novel. In this case, I side firmly with Matt Damon, who suggested that movies be shelved for about ten years before they are nominated for awards, because time tells us more than anything about what is possibly great enough to endure or deserve an award. That Jonathan Franzen is a pretty good writer and a media darling, I’ll grant you (and full disclosure: although I liked The Corrections, I don’t really get the hype). But it seems a bit early to say that he or Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace or any of our most of-the-moment literary darlings have ushered in a new era.

Of course, all of this begs the question: What is The Great American Novel? I don’t mean, what specific novel is The Great American Novel (although if you have one in mind, feel free to share your opinion); I mean, what qualities exactly does this mythical tome possess? What makes it so great? American themes? (And what are those, anyway? Striving? Pioneer spirit? God? War? Money? Baseball? Football?) Just to keep it simple, here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representative of the zeitgeist in the United States at the time of its writing. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

The national epic, in case you weren’t sure or didn’t click that link, is an epic poem, such as The Odyssey or The Aeneid. Interesting that the Wikipedia article also has a picture of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as the first visual representation of such a book in its article.

Given that definition…First, it raises the temporal issue I brought up earlier: while we may think a novel is great and an accurate portrayal of our world at the time it’s published, how will we really know, without the passage of time? Second, I don’t believe a “common American citizen” exists. (God help us if someone is writing a novel with Joe Sixpack as the main character, although then again…) We certainly have common American archetypes, and I suppose a great novel can treat those archetypes in interesting ways.  Or does a great novel actually define those archetypes, make us aware of them, bring them to bear on our literary culture?

Or does The Great American Novel these days mean the biggest book deal? The most references to things like iPod and Facebook and PowerPoint? Does it mean the movie rights sell early to someone like Aaron Sorkin or Sofia Coppola? Does it mean they have to teach the novel in school? Who decides?

Most of the novels whose names I hear thrown around as contenders–Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Rabbit, Run, Portnoy’s Complaint (or any other Roth novel), White Noise, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I guess, now, The Corrections–are all written by men. White men. Some of them Jewish. And while I’m not about to argue that any of those authors get it wrong or that those are not all what I think of as works of classic American literature, where is Ralph Ellison? Where is Toni Morrison? Where is Leslie Marmon Silko? Yeah, okay, I am getting into a canon discussion here, but I think you see my point.

Finally (for this post, anyway–I could chew on this topic forever), and perhaps most importantly, I wonder this: once something has become a thing (The Great American Novel) and someone can consciously set out to achieve that thing (write The Great American Novel), does it actually cancel out the whole idea of greatness? Does it mean a writer gives up something else, something perhaps more interesting, to follow a standard? I don’t have an answer for this one, but I’m inclined to think it does. I’m inclined to believe that a writer can only write The Great American Novel in response to all the other Great American Novels that have gone before it, so in fact it is a novel of type, but not necessarily great beyond being of that type. (I think I just broke a sweat.)

So what do you think about The Great American Novel? Does it exist? Should it exist? What book(s) would you choose?