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Blogging & Musing...

Lost Mothers—Why novels bump off moms

Saturday, 02 May 2009 14:16

mothersIf you're a mom in a novel, look out—the author may bump you off. You simply can't be around if your daughter is bound for adventure and has plans to become a true fictional heroine.

Think about it: literature’s most spunky, independent heriones? No moms. As far back as the infamous Fanny Hill (1749) or Jane Austen's Emma (1815) up through Nancy Drew to Ahab’s Wife, and most recently Amy Bloom’s Away...mothers are absent, gone, kaput.

Traditionally, a mother's role is to instill proper behavor and correct waywardness, especially in daughters. They're also fierce protectors of their offspring, not just in nature but in human domestic life as well. And speaking of "domestic," the very word is tied to mother's apron strings.

But girls and women, the ones who have adventures, who throw themselves in harm's way, aren't exactly "domesticated"—nor attached to anyone's apron strings. Females who go against the cultural grain are the ones who show up as heroines in novels; they have adventures and get into trouble. It doesn't work to have someone who insists on using inside voices.

Nothing against Moms. I'm one myself. But I'm not so sure I'd want my daughter sneaking aboard a 19th-century whaling ship or working in a brothel. The author would just have to write me out.

Ideas for book clubs

  1. Think of other books featuring independent heroines in which mothers are done away or are simply never present.
  2. Think of books with father-and-son or father-and-daughter adventures.
  3. Prove my theory wrong: come up with some mother-daughter adventure stories.(Okay...Little Women. Any others?)
 

Characters—gotta love 'em. Or do we?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009 14:41

hero-villainDo we have to love a book's main character? What happens if we despise the hero/heroine?

I just read a blurb for Zoe Heller's new book, Believers. Critics are praising it up and down, though some find the characters unlikable ... can’t relate to them ... even find them NASTY!

So, back to my question. Can we enjoy a book without liking its characters? Love the book, hate her—as in Serena, another recent book with a heroine no one can stand.

How about Emma—Jane Austen’s masterpiece? Even Austen knew her dear readers would have trouble liking her control-freak-of-a-heroine. Then there's Lolita, featuring one of the most dastardly heroes in all of literature? Humbert Humbert is surely enduring if not endearing—and the book is considered one of the great works of the 20th century.

Still ... it’s hard to get into a book when characters are unlikable. Am I alone? Probably not.

Questions for Book Clubs

  1. Can a bad character ruin a good book? 
  2. How do you begin most of your book discussions—by talking about the characters?  And if you don’t like the main character...where does the discussion go? Does it peter out?
  3. If a character is unlikable, is it intentional on the part of the author? To what end?
 

The Liberal Arts—down the tubes?

Saturday, 11 April 2009 14:57

ivory-towerA NY Times article (2/25/09) pondered whether a Liberal Arts education will be around much longer. Recent trends suggest maybe not. 

When I taught English, a number of students resented the time my class took from their studies in science & technology or business & finance. Those are the disciplines that would pay them good money . . . and pay off their tuition loans. But English? What good is it?

You can talk till you’re blue in the face—and I didabout the power of language, about the importance of clear thinking and coherent, persuasive writingthe things liberal arts teach us. 

After all, it was Bethany McClean, a former English major who first cracked the Enron scandal—because, as she said, she knew the right questions to ask.  There are lots of stories like that.

And I talked about how the humanities explore the important questions of life—

How does one lead a good life in a not-so-good world?
What does it mean to be human?
  

But, honestly?  $20,000 a year is a lot money to spend on trying to figure out what your humanity’s about. 

So maybe the pursuit of liberal arts is a luxury we can no longer afford. That’s what more than a few in the ivory towers are suggesting.

Questions for Book Clubs

  1. If college humanities courses fall off a cliff . . . will book clubs pick up the slack?  After all, to read and discuss books is to engage the very questions posed by humanities.
  2. But then who said book clubs are supposed to solve society’s problems?  Isn’t our roll simply to enjoy reading and sharing ideas, large or small?
 

See my guest post—Books on the Brain.com

Friday, 13 March 2009 15:49

books-on-brainBooks on the Brain.com  Check out my guest column on one of the best book blogs on the Net. I talk about the fact that book clubs are saving the world for democracy!

Had you any idea how important you were?

 

LitLovers is Downunder...in New Zealand

Sunday, 08 March 2009 16:00

new-zeland-fansGotta toot my own horn. When I started my LitLovers website, I’d no idea how it might be used . . . or that readers around the globe would tune in.

A library site in Auckland, New Zealand, uses LitLovers as part of their web 2.0 training exercise—and what a cool site to be listed on. Take a look.

Lots of libraries have training blogs to teach staff how to maneuvre the new world wide web (web 2.0)—which refers to the new level of interactivity on the Net—sites like Del.ic.ious, StumbleUpon, GoodReads, FaceBook, Wikipedia, LibraryThing, and personal blogs.  

LitLovers has been used on a number of library training sites in the US, but the New Zealand one is a particularly gratifying! Spend some time on it yourself—we can all learn more about this new web environment.

 

The Great Works—should book clubs tackle them?

Monday, 23 February 2009 16:37

great-book-coinOccasionally, I get emails from readers troubled by how hard of some of the older works are to read—18th and 19th century novels. I feel their pain.

Great works are rarely easy breezy reads—think Dostoevsky, Melville, Hawthorne, Eliot, Faulkner, James, Conrad. These aren't the authors we lug to the beach. They all write books that are challenging  for a host of reasons, not least of which is length. Their books also involve complex language and diction, arcane allusions and metaphors, and heady philosophical issues.

Even authors of a more recent vintage can be tough to tackle—Vladamir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon—especially because of their post-modernist bent...which, among other things, means they constantly undercut their own meaings.

Here's the question: Should book clubs tackle the “great works” of literature?  Does doing so make a club more "legitimate"? If so, in whose eyes?

Or is this a non-issue, completely irrelevant to the purpose of our book clubs...and especially to the pleasure we derive from them? Still...it's interesting to ponder.

Questions for Book Clubs:

  1. Is it enjoyable to read the "great works"?  Which ones? Are they challenging in a good way—or too challenging to enjoy? 
  2. Does reading critically acclaimed books, contemporary or classic, make us "better people"... or just give us bragging rights?
  3. If we choose not to read the "big" authors, are we missing out on something? If so...what?
 

Ending a book...and starting over

Wednesday, 18 February 2009 17:56

good-by-to-booksDo you ever find yourself mourning the end of a book—you finish the last sentence, and it's like saying goodbye to a dear friend?

I’d been reading Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land. By the time I reached the end, I’d become so caught up in Frank Bascombe’s mind—his life and his ideas about life—that it was hard to leave him.

Then I turned around to start a new book, and I found it hard. Like making new friends—it required energy and commitment.

Do I even like these people? Do I really want to spend time with them?  Do I want to make the effort to learn all about them? Hopefully, we stick with the book, to the point where the story sucks us in—and we beoome engaged once again. Of course...then it's eventually goodbye.

Questions for Book Clubs

1.  Which books have been hard ones for you to end—it feels like saying goodbye to dear friends?  

2.  Which books have you had difficulty getting caught up in?  You’re not sure you’ve got the energy or interest to invest in getting to know a new group of people.

 

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