Learn a Little Lit — Oh, the irony!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008 14:06

seagull-ironyIt’s said we live in an age of irony—irony is in; sincerity is out. It’s the importance of NOT being earnest that matters. 

What is irony?  Think Seinfeld—”Whatever…,”  “Duh…,”  “Yeah, riiiight”—all said with an arched eyebrow, a knowing wink.  The “ironic stance” is detachment.

When it comes to fiction, writers, critics, and readers adore irony—most recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones.  Even classics like Pride and Prejudice are plumbed for their irony.

Jane Austen’s brand of irony derives from her subversive wit, which undercuts class structure and decorum.  It’s a type of irony in vogue today:  one that exposes hypocrisy and punctures holes in pretensions, beliefs and institutions that no longer stand for truth or meaning.

But literary irony is far more complex. It’s been around since Oedipus—he who unwittingly marries his mother; who searches for a king’s murderer, only to find himself; and who attains inner “sight” only when blind.

Writers from Sophoclese on down have used irony because it mimics life.  Though irony takes numerous forms, the most common definition is an opposite reality from what is intended or expected:  the king brought low; the underdog raised up; best-laid plans gone awry. 

To learn more about irony, see LitCourse 8—based on Edith Wharton’s wonderful short story “Roman Fever.” The courses are short, free, and fun!  (And that’s not ironic.)

 

Book Club Blues—common aches & pains

Saturday, 13 December 2008 14:50

bcblues-5aThis article in the New York Times dishes out some pretty good gossip on book clubs—it turns out, not everyone’s thrilled about the club they belong to. No! Really? 

Come on—didn’t we learn way back in childhood the maxim, ”you can’t please all the people all the time”?  Why would book clubs be an exception? —

Common complaints 

Book Selections. Not everyone likes the reading list.  Some like classics, some chick-lit; others nonfiction or sci-fi.  It’s not easy to satisfy divergent tastes.  

Discussions Problems. Some members complain about too much socializing or a lack of substance; others feel the discussions are too academic, taking the fun out the whole exercise.

Hosting Competition. Hosting can become a game of one-upmanship—so much so that some members put hosting right at the top of their stress index.  Where’s the fun in that?

Some advice

If you’re starting a club, set some guidelines at the outset about the types of books you want to read and the nature of discussions.  (See LitLovers tips on How to Start a Book Club.)

If you’re in an existing club, conduct a survey, formal or informal, to find out if your club is meeting members’ expectations.  What types of books do members like?  What kind of discussions?  How much time devoted to social vs. book talk?  What kind of food and who cooks? 

If you’re one of the unhappy ones, feel free to move on without too much guilt…and without too many hurt feelings. You might simply tell your members that you want to try a different approach.  Nonetheless, no matter how diplomatic everyone is, leaving is always hard.  But be brave. 

 

     

    Echo Chambers—are we all reading the same books?

    Saturday, 22 November 2008 12:49

    echo-chamberHello…ello…lo……..  Are book clubs like echo chambers—reading and talking about the same books?  Joshua Henkin (Matrimony) worries that we are: you know, books like Water for Elephants; Eat, Pray, LoveKite Runner. We’re all reading them and reviewing the same ones.

    Here’s how Henkin puts it:

    There are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about . . . . [At the same time] fewer books have more and more readers. . . .  For that reason, it has become harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.   
                                            —Books on the Brain, 4/29/08 

    Henkin makes a strong case. Pity new authors trying to get their books noticed. It’s got to be disheartening.

    Nonetheless, there’s something delightful that so many of us are on the same page. The book club movement is like the city that promotes a single book for its residents to read. Meet someone at the water cooler, at the mall, on the bus…and a conversation gets started. “Hey, how do you like Eat, Pray, Love? Have you read such & such yet?” It’s suddenly easy to find commonality, even with total strangers.

    And while Henkin is right—many more authors deserve our attention—perhaps book club lists have more variety than expected.

    Take a look at the list below. It’s a sampling of titles that have cropped up recently on LitLovers website—some are mentioned by our featured book clubs, others come from people who email me to request a reader’s guide. It’s an interesting list.

    Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie — Half of a Yellow Sun
    Murray Bail — Eucalyptus
    Lynne Cox — Grayson
    Ivan Doig — Whistling Season; the McCaskill trilogy
    Jennifer Cody Epstein — The Painter from Shanghai
    Dorothea Benton Frank — Sullivan’s Island
    Victor Fankl — Man’s Search for Meaning
    Tana French — In the Woods
    Beth Gutcheon — Good-bye and Amen; Leeway Cottage
    Jim Harrison — Returning to Earth
    Kent Haruf — Plainsong; Eventide   
    Robert Hicks — Widow of the South
    Paulette Jiles — Enemy Women
    Lesley Kagen — Whistling in the Dark
    Aryn Kyle — The God of Animals
    Sinclair Lewis — Main Street
    J. Nozipo Maraire – Zenzele: Letter for My Daughter
    Roland Merullo — Breakfast with Buddha
    David Mitchell — Ghostwritten
    John O’Hara — Appointment in Samarra
    Tom Perotta —  Little Children; The Abstinence Teacher
    Nancy Pickard — The Virgin of Small Plains
    Anthony Powell — Dance to the Music of Time
    Richard Powers — The Echo Maker
    Reynolds Price — Kate Vaiden
    Tatiana de Rosnay — Sarah’s Key
    Mary Doria Russell — The Sparrow
    Helen Santmyer — And Ladies of the Club
    Carol Shields — Stone Diaries; Unless
    Ahdaf Soueif — The Map of Love
    Nancy Turner — These Is My Words
    Larry Watson — Sundown, Yellow Moon; Montana 1948 

    See all posts on Joshua Henkin’s book club essay.

     

    Just ♥ Words—tutu

    Monday, 17 November 2008 11:42

    tutu-too-toEnglish—what a great language to have fun with! Below are homophones, words that sound alike but have different meanings.  (I’ve taken a few liberties here.)  My thanks to Gordon Higgins.  He’s too, too clever.

    Don’t You Just ♥ Words?

    to  |  too |  tutu  |  two

    It's what I do for a living. Too, too sad. Anyway, hope you’ll join in the fun. These are mine. Can you find others . . . or come up with your own.  It’s good exercise for the brain—honest.

     

    I Have a Kindle!!!

    Friday, 14 November 2008 13:28

    kindle2Let me tell you how easy it is to get over your attachment to books—the kind with paper pages?  Once you hold this gorgeous book-machine (yes, machine) in your hand, you won’t want to let go.  Ever.

    It’s surprisingly easy on the eye—so you can read for hours, even even bump up the type size. It’s easy to flip from page to page and back again.  You can bookmark pages, highlight passages, even make notes!  You’re automatically connected to Amazon, so with a click of a button, you buy your books—and they’re downloaded within a minute.  Ooooooooh… I’m in love!

    But dear librarians, here’s the question: what will you do? If our books become electronic, what’s the future for libraries? I know librarians all over the country are asking this very question—I read your blogs. (Wow, do you guys blog!) And what will become of bricks-and-mortar book stores? 

    Oh, how did I get my Kindle?  After all, they’re not cheap.  Well, my dear friend Lynne presented it to me as a gift!  Give her a call.  Maybe she’ll take a liking to you and get you one, too.  Here’s her number: 202-555-1234.  Good luck.

     

    Do REAL MEN join book clubs?

    Friday, 07 November 2008 13:31

    real-menCheap shot, that title. I suspect there are a healthy number of men who do join book clubs — in fact I read about one just recently. 

    The Second Monday Men’s Book Group in Melbourne, Florida, is featured in the Nov-Dec ’08 issue of Bookmarks magazine.  Funny story—before they formed their group, they thought they’d see if they could join one of their wives’ book clubs. Here’s what happened:

    We brought it up.  They shot it down.  We’d change their dynamics by merely being present—and what would happen if we opened our mouths?

    Which brings to mind the joke: If a man is alone in the forest and he speaks ... is he still wrong? Apparently so. Anyway, the guys decided to form their own club, now numbering around 7.

    In an earlier post, I wondered what kind of books men read.  Well here’s how the Second Monday group weighs in:

    Nonfiction

    Tuxedo Park (radar)  |  Cadillac Desert (dam-building)  |  Soul of a New Machine (computers)  |  Jungle (meat packing)  |  Washington’s Crossing (history)  |  American Theocracy (politics)  |  Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (physicist’s memoir)  |  Everglades, River of Grass (history)  |  West With the Night (female aviator’s memoir)  |  Why Americans Hate Politics (politics).  


    Fiction

    Amsterdam by Ian McEwan  |  Saturday by McEwan  |  Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brien  |  My Antonia by Willa Cather  |  Foundation by Isaac Asimov (sci-fi)  |  Maltese Falcom by Dashiell Hammett  |  Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler  |  Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon  |  Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky  |  The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

    Observations? 

    1. Heavy on non-fiction—50%. 
    2. Preponderance of male writers—80%. 
    3. Similar novel choices to female clubs—along with sci-fi (Asimov) and action-adventure /historical fiction (O'Brien).  

    Question:  Is this a typical list for men’s book clubs—with 50% of the books nonfiction and 80% of the writers male?

    Also, see So…Where Are the Guys? — an earlier post about men and book clubs.

     

    Audio Books—as good as reading?

    Sunday, 26 October 2008 13:46

    audio-books

    Question:  Can you really say you’ve “read” a book when you’ve listened to it?   Does listenting count as “reading”—and does it work for a book club discussion?

    Answer:  Well, at least we get through the book!  In a busy life, that counts for something.

    On the other hand. . .we’re usually multi-tasking when listening, which means the book doesn’t have our full attention.  Second, we read at our own pace:  pause, ponder, re-read, or jot a note.  Hard to do with audio while driving.  Third, in a book discussion, it’s easy for everyone to turn to a particular passage on a particular page.  Not so easy with audio.

    Two other considerations:  purists say a narrator’s voice can unfairly influence how we experience a work.  And finally, it turns out our memories work better when reading rather than listening.  That’s especially true for adults and older students (though the research isn’t definitive).

    So not being a purist, my advice is to enjoy audio books whenever you feel like it—but read the printed version when it comes to your book club selection.  (See LitLovers Discussion Tips.)  

     

    Learn a Little Lit—what’s in a rose?

    Monday, 20 October 2008 14:30

    rosesWhen is a rose not a rose? When it’s a symbol. Do authors create literary symbols on purpose? Or are symbols just something English teachers invent to torment students. Could be . . . but here’s a little story.

    —A Little Story—

    I once wrote a poem for my English class about the beauty of a single rose. Understand when I tell you it was insipid.

    But the teacher singled it out! It was, she said, a fine example of symbolism: the beauty of the single rose was how she viewed her students. In the collective we had little distinction, but individually we attained a singular beauty. Friends, I’d written a masterpiece . . . and I hadn’t a clue.

    My grand inspiration had come from a cheap plastic rose stuck in my pencil holder, and I just happened to hit on the thing as my eye wandered around the room. The beauty of individualism wasn’t anywhere on the radar.

    Yet that's exactly what author William J. Kennedy (Ironweed, 1983) was getting at when he wrote in a New York Times piece that the source of a writer's creativity doesn't . . .

    rise up from his notepad but up from the deepest part of his unconscious, which knows everything everywhere and always: that secret archive stored in the soul at birth, enhanced by every moment of life….
                        —William Kennedy, “Why It Took So Long,”
                           New York Times, 5/20/1990

    Writing is a mysterious process, and symbols often spring from the unconscious, relfecting something embedded within an author’s psyche.

    In other words, that single rose of mine could just as easily have seemed lonely and forlorn. Or I might have written that its fragrance would gain potency as part of a bouquet. But it turns out I enjoy being alone or with friends one-on-one. And I avoid large groups. So perhaps even as a teen that rose had subconscious resonance.

    So, no, authors don’t always intend their symbols; symbols often reflect something deep within. And readers? Our own insights into a work spring up from deep within us, as well.

    If you want to learn more about symbolism—why authors use them, how they contribute to a work of fiction—take our LitCourse 9. It’s short, free, and a lot of fun.

     

    Daughters, Daughters Everywhere

    Friday, 10 October 2008 13:51

    daughter-novelsA little fun:  have you noticed—pretty hard not to—all the books entitled Somebody’s Daughter?  Recognize any of these?   

    The Abortionist’s Daughter          The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
    The Bonesetter’s Daughter          The Optimist’s Daughter
    The Courtesan's Daughter           The Pirate’s Daughter
    Galileo’s Daughter                       Vermeer’s Daughter

    Just how many daughterly titles are out there?  Turns out, about 360—titles like “Somebody’s Daughter” or “Daughter(s) of the Something-or-Other.”  Here's the full list.

    So why this fixation on female offspring—a marketing scheme to appeal to women?  But one title is nearly 200 years old.  It also turns out that Balzac, Dumas, Hawthorne, D.H. Lawrence, Orwell, Walter Scott, and Zola were in on it, too. Did they even have marketing firms back then?

    D.H. Lawrence’s short story, “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” suggests the young woman of the title inherited her father’s personality and will dominate her fiance as her father did his horses—a title that suggests a belief in familial determinism.  (See LitCourse 9.) 

    Okay, one down, but that leaves 359 titles unexplained. Any theories?

     

    Brideshead Revisited…and revisited and revisited

    Monday, 06 October 2008 14:14

    bridesheadI revisited Brideshead again last week—rereading the book after 25 years—because something about the newest film didn't sit right. 

    There’s also the 1981 version with Jeremy Irons, the sumputuous mini-series that clocks in at 11 hours.  Why remake a perfectly fine wheel?  Well, after my marathon reread, I’m even more curious.

    I actually like the new 2008 version, primarily because of the performances.  They’re terrific!  But the two-hour format distorts the storyline and the work’s ultimate meaning. 

    The biggest problem is the timing of Julia and Charles’s love affair.  In the book,  the two don’t fall in love until they meet onboard the ship—10 years after they first met at Brideshead.  The new film has them fall in love early on—at Brideshead.  It’s a serious misreading because it leads to the premise that Sebastian’s unrequited love for Charles is what sucks him into a self-destructive vortex.  His decline is far more complicated—and goes to the heart of the book.

    The story appears, on the surface at least, to be critical of religion, certainly Catholicism.  But the book’s chapter titles provide a real tip-off:  “Et In Arcadia Ego” and “The Twitch Upon the Thread.”  The novel has to do with the operation of divine grace in the world: 

    an invisible line which is long enough to let [ the unrepentant ] wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.  

    Willful disobedience gets both Charles and Sebastian thrown out of Arcadia—the paradise / Eden that was Brideshead during the summer of 1923. Only after suffering and disillusionment do the two feel the “twitch upon the thread”—even Charles does at the novel’s end, though it’s unclear whether he’s actually reeled in. 

    For Book Clubs
    Why not revisit Brideshead by reading Waugh...then seeing the 2008 film version?  Or for real die-hards watch the 11-hour 1981 version! Choose a weekend—and pack a sleeping bag and pillow! Invite me, too.

     

    Page 12 of 14

    Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

    LitLovers © 2014