Characters—gotta love 'em. Or do we?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009 14:41

hero-villainDo we have a main character to love a book? 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. Yikes !

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, with one of the most dastardly heroes in 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?
 

Learn a Little Lit—characters who come alive

Friday, 03 April 2009 15:08

characters-come-aliveOne of the joys of reading is the people we meet within a book’s covers, literary creations who jump off the page and into our lives. How authors do it—how they make their characters come alive for us—is one of the great mysteries of art.

Authors invariably say their characters take on lives of their own. Here’s Stephen L. Carter (The Emperor of Ocean Park):

I was occasionally surprised by the messes my characters got themselves into, and the indignant, presumptuous way they demanded that I write a way for them to escape. Random House interview


And here’s Philip Roth
with NPR Fresh Air’s Terry Gross:

Some magic, some alchemy between knowing and intuiting takes over and our characters take on lives of their own. First time this happened to me I felt like a real writer…. Julia Cameron nailed it when she wrote, “It’s not about making things up but taking them down.”


Even playwright Edward Albee
(Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) when asked whether his characters control him suggested they were somehow alive:

I like to let them think they do. It’s a trick we play on ourselves. They don’t exist, and they can’t say anything unless we write it for them. But it makes them happy to think they’re independent. Boston Phoenix


All this isn’t to say
that writers don’t have to think, and think hard, about their characters. I’d like to continue a discussion of character—what goes into making a good one—in another post. Stay tuned.

Ideas for Book Clubs

  1. Take our free LitCourse 5—about characterization, how we talk about them and how author's develop them. It’s short and fun...and informative.
  2. Talk about some of your favorite characters in literature. Or some of literature’s most enduring characters.

 

Just ♥ Words—it's all well and good

Friday, 20 March 2009 11:22

good-vs-well3
English—what a great language to have fun with! Here’s a funny quirk that struck my husband Pete—a numbers guy, who gets a kick out of language.

Don’t You Just ♥ Words?

You can say
This is good eating.  —or—  This is eating well.

But not
 This is well eating.  —or—  This is eating good.

Why?


Answer:  The top two sentences seem similar in meaning; after all, we often use “good” and “well” interchangably ... but we shouldn’t.

Actually the sentences have slightly different meanings, which has to do with how the word “eating” functions and the difference between adjectives and adverbs.

This is good eating  =  the food is tasty.
  "Eating" is a noun.
   Good is an adjective and precedes a noun—as in good book.

This is eating well  =  the food is healthy … or expensive & posh.
  "Is eating" is the verb...as in "This—the thing I do—is eat well."
   Well is an adverb and follows a verb.


So much for
niggling rules of grammar.  Is it a wonder anyone ever learns?

 

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.

 

What Kind of Lover Are You? ♥ ♥ ♥

Sunday, 08 February 2009 10:53

betty-boopWe’re all bibliolatrous when it comes to books—otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this.  The question is, how do you love your books—not how much, but in what manner do you love them? For Valentine’s Day, I think it appropriate for us to consider the ways. 

You're a Courtly Lover if you . . .

Can't bear the thought of using an e-reader (a Kindle)
Use bookmarks; never leave an open book face down
Never write on or dog-ear the pages
Hate having to part with old books, even ones you dislike
Always remove the dust jacket while reading
Never read while eating
Never read in the tub or at the beach (especially with a
   hardcover)
Adore the smell and sound of opening a brand new book.

 For you ”a book’s physical self is sacrosanct . . . its form inseparable from its content.”  Your duty as a Platonic lover “is a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which the book left the bookseller.”

You're a Carnal Lover if you . . .

Love using an e-reader (a Kindle)
Leave the book splayed—even knowing it damages the spine
Write, circle underline, or dog-ear the pages
Pass on old books with eagerness
Use the dust jacket’s flap as a bookmark
Love to read while you eat, bathe, or go to the beach
Use books for doorjams, paperweights, drink coasters, or
   shims
Love used books because others have enjoyed what you’re
   enjoying

For you  ”a book’s words are holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contain them are merely vessels.”  You feel no remorse in treating them wantonly because “hard use is a not a sign of disrespect but of intimacy.”

Here are the two extremes.  Thanks to Anne Fadiman’s delightful book, Confessions of a Common Reader,  for these two distinctions.  Fadiman talks about her father, who when traveling would rip out pages he’d already read and toss them into the trash—it lightened his load—obviously a carnal lover.  At the other end of the spectrum is a friend of hers who buys two books, one to read . . . and the other to preserve in its pristine state on the bookshelf—courtly to the max.

A fun book club discussion:  which type of lover are you?

 

John Updike—man of letters (1931-2009)

Tuesday, 03 February 2009 11:01

john-updikeToo young to die.  John Updike was only 76 and, many suspect, still taking copious notes as he drew his last breath in hospice care in Massachusetts on January 27. 

His lifelong output was astonishing, not just in number but genre:  novels, short stories, verse, essays, and criticism.  On subject matter, he was equally wide-ranging, moving from literature and art to favorite subjects like golf and baseball.

Considered America’s preeminent recorder of the middle class, he gave “the mundane its beautiful hue,” as he himself put it.  Some critics believe his sentences—lyrical things of beauty in themselves—lack the heft to carry ideas, but others feel his writing is a polished reflection of the world.

Critics find themselves hardpressed to pinpoint a single masterpiece, but most mention the Rabbit Tetrology (from 1960-90)—Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest—chronicling the life of fictional Harry Angstrong. 

Other favorites include Couples, The Coup, The Witches of Eastwick and, recently, the Widows of Eastwick.  But that short list doesn’t begin to cover the body of his work.  My advice—get hold of an obituary in a major newspaper or national news magazine, where his oeuvre will be covered in depth.

Ideas for Book Clubs

  1. It would be fun to read Witches…then Widows of Eastwick.  You might attempt the Rabbit Tetrology, too, though it’s not my favorite. 
  2. For fun, read Updike's famous short story “A & P” in our free LitCourse 4. The story is a brilliant and funny, even bittersweet, coming of age story set in the 1950s. Also, take a look at the LitCourse Study Guide for for the story.
 

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