Book Review: Unless It Moves the Human Heart by Roger Rosenblatt

It's a good thing I read this book in addition to all the others I've been reading lately, or you were all going to start thinking I'm incapable of doing anything but gush when writing about a book I read and then why would you bother to trust my opinion? And that's really what book recommendations are all about, trust, so without that, I wouldn't blame you for flitting away into the blogosphere to find some other bookworm to follow. Sad thought.

That is me trying to be positive about being so greatly disappointed by this book. Unless It Moves the Human Heart is a slim volume on the craft and art of writing, as the subtitle explains, written as an account of one semester of a writing class taught by the author, Roger Rosenblatt. I think perhaps it would have been best for Rosenblatt to stick with fiction, which I'm sure he knows well.

Although there were interesting ideas scattered throughout these pages, ultimately, the book felt forced and uncomfortable. Rosenblatt was not writing from an audio recording of the semester, so naturally he substituted conversation as necessary to represent their actual discussions. This conversation, though, bore little to no resemblance to any conversation I've ever heard, be it in class or out of it:
"What is a paragraph, anyway?" asks Suzanne.
[Ok, odd question, but I'm willing to see where this goes.]
"Damned if I know. I used to think I knew what a paragraph was until a few months ago, when I did a piece for the New Yorker. My editor, Dorothy Wickenden, changed my entire view of a paragraph simply by editing the piece in a certain way. I wrote three paragraphs, and Dorothy would yoke them into one. And it read much better."
[Oooh, the New Yorker, ain't you a fancy one.]
"But a paragraph is just an idea, one complete movement," Ana says. "You write one movement. Then you go on to the next."
[Clearly it is not that simple, and this continues for approximately two more pages.]
Or, a longer passage but an even better example:
"Okay, Robert." I point to him. "You started all this. What do you think the connection between reading and writing is?"
[Ok, I'm really excited about this, because I am fascinated by the connection between the two. Personally, I don't believe they can be separated.]
"Oh," he says, "I just wanted to hear from the others."
"No, you don't. Spill."
[Excellent! Here we go! Discourse! Dialog!]
"Well," he says, "since I labor in both the dungeon of daily restaurant drudgery and the mines of weekly journalism...
[Oh, dear, people don't really talk like that. Do they? Poor listeners...]
"I was a precocious reader as a child, urged on by the intellectual aspirations of my college-educated mother, and the severe rule...of the Little Dominican Sisters, who lacked charity... When I was in the seventh grade, test results showed I read like a twelfth-grader...
[Real impressive, son.]
"I wrote poetry as a kid, probably because it seemed easier than fiction. The nuns were delighted, and this only served to solidify my reputation as a sensitive child."
"Which you still are," says George.
"Maybe," says Robert...
Kristie looks at me. "What about you? Was there an author or book that got you going?"
"Not a book. But a moment."
Come oooon, people. We don't talk like that in the real world. Maybe writing students do, I suppose, but in that case... well, I'll skip it, at any rate. Ignoring the fact that every person "says" something, when word variation is rumored to be a critical part of creative writing, this is just cliché.

Which is not to say it is all bad. There are definitely interesting ideas here, masked beneath awkward and bulky dialogue. And it's a quick read, so it could be worth it if you're looking for some interesting thinking about writing and the act of writing. But be prepared for some grimacing, and possibly out-loud groaning, and sadly, not all that much moving of your writer's heart.


Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

When Work Takes Over (A Week in Reading)

Hoooo boy. Is it Sunday already? Damn. That means I have to go back to work tomorrow. Luckily I'll have a dozen bagels from Brooklyn Bagel in tow after my fly-by trip to NYC. If you have never had a Brooklyn Bagel, drop everything you are doing and start traveling. These are the best bagels in New York City, and everyone knows NYC has the best bagels in the world. We're talking bacon scallion cream cheese, bookworms. HELLO.

There's a distinct lack of bagel offerings down in suburban Maryland. It's not even that they aren't good bagels (because I am a bagel snob); there just aren't bagels (except the ones at the grocery store, but screw that). I'd like to try making my own someday - anyone know how? Any good recipes? Tips? Thoughts? Must start planning before the next round of severe bagel withdrawal.

It's been a crazy week for me with work again (still?), so my apologies for being scarce out there. I'm looking forward to taking some time today to catch up on comments and other posts and some general bookish news. I'm also hoping to have at least a few minutes to get further into The Memory Palace. It's taken the place of Homer and Langley on my shelf - as much as I love Doctorow and want to read this one, it just wasn't working at the moment. Presto! New book selected. I'm also listening to The Help during my commutes, which is excellent thus far. Remind me again why I've waited so long to finally get to this one?

Despite the chaos, I did manage to catch up on a few reviews: Great House (which had been lingering on the shelf, waiting to be reviewed since I read it in November) and The Great Typo Hunt. Sadly, I found neither to be great, per se, although I wasn't completely against either, either.

Monday sparked quite the debate on whether or not it is acceptable or even encouraged to write in books. Me? I write in them. All the time. I open a book with pen in hand, and start the trend by writing my name and the date on the first page. Join the discussion and let us know what your thoughts are. And if you're interested in marginalia (or avidly against it), this New York Times article on the decline of margin notes is well worth the read (thanks to Ellen at Fat Books & Thin Women and Steph at Bella's Bookshelves for pointing out the link).

Here's to another great week of reading and writing. Happy almost-March!

Paradise Will Be a Kind of Library (Quote of the Day)

"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." -Jorge Luis Borges

Book Review: The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck & Benjamin D. Herson

Dear friends, I am one of those people that so many booklovers loathe: I write in my books. I wrote about this in more detail last week, so if you want to join the do-you-write-in-books-debate, click on over and check it out. I love click-throughs. But here, I just wanted to mention that even when I am not taking notes in my books, underlining and marking passages to revisit later on, I mark the typos.

And there are inevitably typos, people. You know that.

Which is why I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Great Typo Hunt for Christmas this year. Two friends changing the world one correction at a time? Sign. Me. Up. I want to go back in time and roadtrip with them, actually. Can we make that happen?

Seems the best we can do is a recap of that very trip, which is exactly what The Great Typo Hunt is. Only with more pontificating.

This pseudo-memoir, pseudo-case-against-mistakes-in-the-English-language covers the epic three-month roadtrip in which Jeff Deck drove all the way around the country - not just across it, but around it - with various friends in tow, correcting the inevitable typos of the world.

Though I myself am obsessed with typos and grammar mistakes (and I love to correct them, and - god forbid! - be corrected should I make one), this book fell a little flat for me. Though I understand that the obnoxious, overstated manner in which it is written was intentional hyperbole, it was grating at first, and only bearable by the end.
"I shall skip describing the scene at the Minneapolis airport, where Jane [his girlfriend] and I bade each other farewell, lest the upwelling of your tears streak the ink of these pages and damage this highly collectible book." (159)
I get it. Really, I do. It's supposed to be funny overstatement, grandiose claims on the importance of this journey and this book to account for the importance of speaking and writing correctly. But really, get over it and just tell me about the typos.

Luckily, in that regard, the book did not disappoint. Typos abound - mostly in stories and pictures of those they spotted and corrected across the nation, but also one on page 99 where a space is missing between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. See? I told you I spot them. And circle them, too.

Deck's and Herborn's account of correcting typos is often humorous, sometimes laugh-out-loud so, and occasionally disheartening, as we come across people who just can't seem to care. Grammar is important, people! Spelling, too! And punctuation changes the meaning of a sentence. Really, it does.

Not everyone sees it like that, of course, which accounts for the artist who didn't mind selling "art" that read "Bon Appetite" or the court case filed against Deck and Herborn for changing a National Park sign without permission. Yes, an actual court case. In a real court. This is what the National Park Service is doing with their limited budgets.

Deck and Herborn often descend into the trap that is pontification (I just can't resist using that word), which, though dragging at times, is somewhat inspiring, too.
"We speak, and write, in one of the most diverse, gloriously ecumenical tongues on the planet. In English, there is a word or phrase for pretty much anything we want to say, and if there isn't, we make it up, and it is welcomed into the family. We can express ourselves as complexly or simply as we like. We can be magniloquent didacts, or we can talk plain." (156)
Bottom line: Us bookworms love our language, and, like Deck and Herson, strive to see it used correctly. That means you. That means spelling, grammar, and punctuation. That means correcting errors and learning why they were wrong in the first place. Though at times subjective, there are rules to language for a reason - to allow us to communicate clearly. In the end, Deck and Herson realize that this is their ultimate goal - to improve communication. And this end goal, though worthwhile and important, is bogged down in overwritten passages and standoffish text. The concept is a good one, but the book fails to stand up to its potential. That, and it has a typo in it.


As an afterthought, I would also mention that the book has a not-so-useful appendix in the back, detailing various grammar rules, how to spot them, and how to use that particular device correctly (apostrophes, commas, etc). I question whether or not Deck and Herson - and their publisher, for that matter - really understood their readers on this point. After all, wouldn't someone drawn to reading a book about typos not being interested in a bare-bones how-to guide? One can safely assume we already know where to place apostrophes, and a part of us gets off on telling other people where they go. We don't need step-by-step instructions here.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

Citizen Reader, Not so great

In place of this, you might like:

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

The Advantage of Authors

One day when Franklin was dining out in Paris with some friends, one of the diners posed the question, "What condition of man most deserves pity?" Each guest proposed an example and Benjamin Franklin said, "A lonesome man on a rainy day who does not know how to read."

And he said, "I should have no objection to go over the same life from its beginning to the end: requesting only the advantage authors have, of correcting in a second edition the faults of the first."

From the Jan 17th issue of Writer's Alamanac

Bookworm Stool

I'm not convinced that a cardboard stool would actually make a very sturdy seat, but I love this anyway.

Book Review: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Ok, bookworms. I read Great House on my honeymoon - that was the first week of November - and I'm only now figuring out what to say about it. Still figuring, even as I write this. Do the math: that's four months later, people, which does not bode well for my thoughts. I usually finish a book and immediately start singing its praises (or problems, even) to the world, whether they want to listen or not.

But this book took some mulling. Not necessarily a get-under-your-skin and stay-with-you kind of mulling, but an I-really-don't-know-how-I-felt-about-that kind of mulling.

As expected, Krauss' writing style is strong. As with History of Love, there are passages here that leap off the page and stand alone, beautiful in their own right:
"No, I don't harbor any mystical idea about writing, Your Honor, it's work like any other kind of craft; the power of literature, I've always thought, lies in how willful the act of making it is." (p. 18)

"But don't you feel, deep down, that there's something special about you? he asked me, carelessly swinging his legs while down below us swimmers, or perhaps dogs, tried to make their way against the current. No, I whispered, trying to hold back tears, No, I don't, while Daniel Varsky looked at me with a mixture of bewilderment and pity." (p.205)
The characters here, all tied loosely together by their association with an antique writing desk composed of drawers of various sizes, struggle with their human condition: they are imperfect, they are unsure, they are growing old, and dying, and losing their families. These emotions are familiar, and thus, I found that I identified, in some way, with nearly every one of the many characters littering the pages of Great House.

Despite this, however, the novel as a whole lacked the substance to hold it together. Though the lessons to be learned on aging, family, and acceptance are powerful ones, the tie of the desk was not nearly as alluring as I had hoped it might be. I turned the last page of the book expecting more, still waiting for the story to end.

Bottom line: Perhaps the muddled nature of Great House was intentional, for even though this book ranks low for me, I do not doubt Krauss' skill. Maybe I missed something, or maybe I wasn't in the right mindset, or maybe my expectations were just too high after falling head-over-heels for History of Love. But ultimately, Krauss' most recent novel left me slightly confused, waiting for resolution, and still unsure of what I'd read.

True Confession: I Write in My Books

That's a page from Among Others. It's my book. It's underlined.

Confession time: I write in my books. I correct typos. I take notes. I underline, star, bracket, and otherwise mark up the pages of my most-loved books. Galleys, hardcovers, used books, anything. Well, obviously not borrowed books, whether it be from the library or another reader. That's just plain rude.

Half of you will probably stop reading at this point. That or start steaming out the ears. Any booklover can tell you that writing in books is a polarizing topic. It's like Catcher in the Rye and Miracle Whip: love it or hate it. Do it or disdain those who do.

I'd argue, though, that my notes and marginalia are a sign of love. The more I like a book, the more marks it carries. Each mark is a passage I want to remember, a sentence I want to quote, an idea I want to revisit. Books are meant to be opened, read, shared, thought about and commented on. Why not start with the pages themselves?

I mentioned this habit in passing to a co-worker and friend when he offered to lend me a book, and I replied that I preferred to purchase my own copy so I could take notes in it as I read. I was met with an incredulous stare. "You write in your books?" It was more than incredulous. It was outraged. Polarization in action.

Naturally I took the question to Twitter, where responses varied from "Yes, absolutely!" to "Only my textbooks and reading for a class or work" to "It's the most annoying thing about a used book to me, to find comments from past readers in the margins."

So now I pose the question to you: Love it or hate it? Notes or no notes? Underlines or highlighter? Pen or pencil?


Thoughts from other bookworms:

Book Reviews by Bobbie

The Zen Leaf
Stuck in a Book
Literary Musings


Underlined passage from Among Others:
"There are some awful things in the world, it's true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn't all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head." (p. 52)

Love and Books (A Week in Reading)

I don't believe it was because Valentine's Day started off the week, but I a lot of my reading this week centered around the all-important question of love. Perhaps that's just because it's nearly impossible to write about the human condition without at least touching on love and relationships, or perhaps I was subconsciously looking for some insight. That subconscious is a trickster, I tell you.

I kicked the week off with some thoughts on the compatibility of two bookworms: my husband and I share a common love of books, and I give great weight to that shared interest and the ways in which it brought us together. I then wrapped up the week with a link out to a wonderful piece in Thought Catalog on dating a girl who reads. If you haven't already checked it out, be sure to do so. It's a quick read, but as some commenters suggested, one that every literary girl - and every literary girl's significant other - should be sure to check out.

Between these two posts came some love-laden reading. This week marked the completion of Enough About Love, which I mentioned last week was the first book I've completed on my Sony Reader. I also finished Age of Innocence, which amounted to a witty and engaging commentary on marriage and happiness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wharton, you and your continued relevance amaze me. The 19th century is so similar to the 21st, I see. Men and women still do not understand each other, whatever we like to think about progress. Sneaky, sneaky, that commentary is. I'll get around to posting my thoughts on the bok as a whole, but in the meantime, check out my thoughts on Part I, which I posted on Wednesday as part of the read-a-long hosted by bookworm meets bookworm.

And lazy-ol'-me finally got around to posting my review of The Magicians, and was surprised to find from the comments that I was among the minority of people who liked it. Seems the biggest complaint is that it is too similar to Harry Potter AND Narnia. But I thought it was fun. Have you read it? Thoughts?

In case you live under a rock, Borders filed Chapter 11 this week, and is closing tons of stores. In the name of brick-and-mortar stores everywhere, go buy a book today. It's a lovely sunny Sunday. It's perfect bookshopping weather. Me, I'll be searching for a copy of Room, which I've been dying to read, and a copy of Getting Things Done. GTD is totally not my cup of tea, but after Jessica at The Bluestocking Society posted such a rave review, I'm tempted. I need me some more organization in my life. Let's see if this clever David Allen can help me get some.

A Good Book is Awaiting at the End of a Long Day (Quote of the Day)

“Just the knowledge that a good book is awaiting one at the end of a long day makes that day happier.” - Kathleen Norris

Don't Marry a Girl Who Reads

If you haven't already seen it, this article from Thought Catalog is not to be missed: You Should Date an Illiterate Girl. A well-written and thought-provoking article on the impact of reading on our lives, our love lives, and our outlooks.
"Don’t date a girl who reads because girls who read are the storytellers. You with the Joyce, you with the Nabokov, you with the Woolf. You there in the library, on the platform of the metro, you in the corner of the café, you in the window of your room. You, who make my life so god damned difficult. The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life and it is bursting with meaning..."

Reflections: Age of Innocence (Part I), by Edith Wharton

I'm reading Age of Innocence for the Age of Innocence Read-a-Long, hosted by bookworm meets bookworm. See other participants' thoughts on Part I listed here.

Twenty pages into Age of Innocence, I found myself thankful to be married in the 21st century rather than the 19th. Wharton's account of marital expectations in the 1870s leaves much to be desired - by both husband and wife.

This is the environment in which we meet Newton Archer, a Societyman to the core, related to any number of other high-Society figures that would require a complex and confusing family tree to keep track of, as they all insist on marrying their cousins and/or have the same last names as a family from some other high-Society city. Enter May Welland, his lovely fiancée. Enter malaise, uncertainty, boredom, and - gasp! - the unhappiness that these ingredients create and yet no one is willing to talk about.

Most striking to me about Wharton's novel (thus far, at any rate) is the extent to which the situations she writes about then are still applicable now. Newton Archer suffers the same boredom and lack of fulfillment we dedicate enter self-help sections to today. I could see him browsing the aisles of the Union Square Barnes & Noble (as an decent Society-man knows one never ventures above 40th St), picking up Midlife Crisis Come Early? and How to Find Fulfillment, Meet Your True Soulmate and Live a Really Happy Live and even the non-made-up title, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

It seems Wharton's 19th-century characters struggled as much with the definition of happiness as we do today. And though their mores are more stringent than current society's might be, the Society (capital S) of New York City is a society (lowercase s) of rules, norms, and definite ideas of decency. We might allow Skins to air on MTV during primetime, but we're still a pretty norm-based society, folks. Just look at what happens when a politician gets caught cheating on his wife. Just like the Societymen of Archer's time, it is not that men are expected to be loyal to their wives, just that they are expected to be discreet about it.

Archer, a rather likeable guy, sees the hypocrisy in this, but in the face of Society and its damn norms, what can he do?
"'Women ought to be free--as free as we are.' struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. 'Nice' women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore-in the heat of the argument-the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern." (p. 37)
Against the power of Society, one man cannot stand alone: "It's all stupid and narrow and unjust-but one can't make over society," he argues later. (p. 92)

I suppose it's up to Part II to see how true that really is.


All page numbers from the Barnes & Noble Classics Edition.

Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Hoo boy. I read this book back in 2010, can you believe that? And can you believe that that was nearly two months ago? Anyway, I held off reviewing because this book was the subject of my very first ever bookclub meeting. But we've met, had coffee, lunch and chats, and now the book is free to be reviewed. That, and I have to take it back to the library by Friday because I'm out of renewals on this one.

But I ramble. The Magicians is a sneaky little book in that it is not so little and actually more like two books in one. Really. It's even divided into Book I and Book II, which, to this bookworm at least, read like two volumes in a series, not two parts in one book.

That's a minor drawback, though. Book I introduces both Quentin (our handy protagonist) and the reader (that's you and me) to the world of magic and life at Brakebills, a school for young witches and wizards... Sound familiar? It is, a bit, but not to the point of distraction. Harry Potter has cornered the market on wizarding schools, to be fair, and Grossman does an excellent job of making his different from Hogwarts. First, it's more like college than high school. Second, parents do not know where their children go. Third, magic is dependent on high intelligence, not innate skill.

Book II takes both Quentin and his friends and his lovely readers away from Brakebills and into an adventure in Fillory, which quite familiarly is the subject of Quentin's favorite books, in which a group of children all find their way into a magical land through the back of a wardrobe. It's not quite that blatant, but Book II is almost annoyingly similar to some well-known adventures in Narnia.

Almost. Again, Grossman avoids the trap of the too-familiar with just enough touches of his own making and a decent helping of teenage angst and sexual tension. This is definitely more grown-up than Narnia, more serious than Harry Potter, and more accessible for non-pre-teen readers.

Bottom line: All in all, The Magicians is a fun book for those looking to graduate from Harry Potter without stepping foot out of the fantasy worlds we all know and love. While not entirely original, Grossman's forceful prose moves the story (or stories, if you will) along at a steady clip, pulling readers into a magical world at once familiar and completely unexpected for what promises to be a wonderful series. The sequel is planned for a Fall 2011 release. Get reading and you'll have plenty of time to catch up.

On the Compatibility of Bookworms (Because It Is Valentine's Day, After All)

Love it or hate it, today is all about love.

So what better time to talk about the role of books in relationships?

When I first met the man who is now Mr. Bookworm, I despised him. No, really. I believe the adjective I used to describe him was "frat-tastic" (which, to be fair, he was), while I prided myself in thinking I was anti-establishment and therefore anti-Greeks. Then he lent me his well-loved copy of Love in the Time of Cholera. I have it on my shelf still (well, I suppose they are our shelves, but I have a hard time relinquishing possession), complete with the scrap of purple cardboard he'd been using as a bookmark when he finished it and passed it my way. Though it is probably an overstatement, I'll refuse to budge on my claim that this book is what turned our uneasy friendship into a relationship.

And look, five years later (has it really been that long?), we're married.

Is it too much to contribute our entire relationship to one book? Probably. I'll admit I no longer despised him by the time he lent me the book; I'll also insist that knowing that he'd spent his summer reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez painted an entirely different picture of him in my mind. But even more than that, this book provided a starting point, a launching pad, if you will: we both loved books, and we both loved talking about books. From Love in the Time of Cholera to the Wheel of Time series, we'd found a common ground.

One of our very first dates - you know, the all-day kind spent with no true plan in mind - was spent at the Strand, which was a major test for me. I hate to be crowded in a bookstore, followed, hurried, or generally interrupted in anyway. In hindsight, it was probably a stupid place to go on a date. But realistically, I could not spend my life with someone who did not know and appreciate my bookish habits, whether it be the books I read or the way I pass the time in a bookstore.

I lucked out: we were (and still are) compatible bookworms. He even took me to see the original manuscript of A Christmas Carol right before he proposed. Outside of classics and science fiction, our reading tastes vary greatly: he reads science books, fantasy novels, and casually flips the pages of Milton on the beach, I read primarily literary fiction with a smattering of memoirs and historical novels here and there. But when our reading does overlap - whether because I've begged him to read something new or by pure chance - we slip right back into the conversation we had that first summer in Washington Square Park.

Ok, enough sappy stories about me and my booklovin' husband. What about you? Could you or do you maintain a steady relationship without some common interest? Without a common interest in books? Is there one book that has such strong memories associated with it for you?

A Linkful Week, but Plenty of Books (A Week in Reading)

It's been one of those weeks where the workload just continues to pile on with no end in sight. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing - I'd certainly rather be busy than bored - but it's left me a little braindead in the evenings, with not much energy for thinking, writing, or staring at a computer screen. But I do like what I do, so even when it takes over a week or two, it's not so bad, after all.

Because of this, though, this week featured a lot of link action and not a lot of original thought. On Monday, I featured Newsweek's article on that subject that just won't die: how e-books are changing the nature of reading. After an exhausting day at work on Tuesday, I spent far too long laughing away time on Tuesday evening while browsing Reasoning with Vampires, originally featured on The Book Lady's Blog, in which one intrepid blogger (who has actually read all of the Twilight books) parses out each book sentence by sentence, trying to make sense of the horrid writing that somehow went viral. I don't understand the popularity of the series (or certain other authors, either, for that matter), but the site is well worth a visit).

I'm always intrigued by books adapted for the big screen (and I always read the book first), so the wealth of Grimm Fairy Tales hitting theaters this year and next caught my eye. Red Riding Hood and not one but two Snow White adaptations? Sign me up. But first, I have to check out the highly-recommended Maria Tatar editions of the original tales, according to commenters. Just more proof that despite our laments, movies really aren't ruining the books (as this t-shirt proclaims).

I did get one review up this week: Bending Toward the Sun, a mother-daughter memoir about a Holocaust survivor and the inheritance of trauma. Not my standard reading material, but it was good to get out of my comfort zone a bit. Stay tuned for a review of 13 Rue Therese this week, and a recap of the first e-book I'll ever finish on my Sony Reader: Enough About Love. Both novels are very French, very Parisian, full of adultery, and make me very glad I have the husband I have. More to come on those.

And lastly, my brand-spankin' new edition of War and Peace came in the mail this week, marking my official start of the War and Peace read-a-long (only a few weeks late). I'm hoping to finish Volume I by the end of February in order to catch up. So... we'll see how that goes. The challenge goes until the end of 2011. I just keep repeating "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can..." I'm the little bookworm that could. I can do this.

Ok, with that daunting task hanging over my head, I'm off to the National Zoo to see these guys come out and play:

Books are Dangerous (Quote of the Day)

"Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled 'This could change your life.'" - Helen Exley

Movies: Ruining the Book Since 1920

Ignoring the questionable hairdo and odd little smirk this guy is sporting, I love this:

Good to see the book is still alive, even in the face of radio, television, movies, and (gasp!) the internet. Pesky little devils, they are, hanging on for dear life.

Order one for yourself at Threadless for a mere $10.

The Brothers Grimm Come to the Big Screen: Again and Again and Again...

Has anyone besides Shelf Awareness pieced together all of the Brothers Grimm movies coming to the big screen? Today's issue featured a story on the casting of Julie Roberts as the Evil Queen in Tarsem Singh's The Brothers Grimm: Snow White (2012). This version of Snow White is apparently due out 6 months before the Universal Studios version, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) starring Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.

And that's just Snow White. Shelf Awareness reports that Paramount Pictures is working on Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2012). And have you seen the previews for Red Riding Hood (2011), starring that girl with the big eyes whose name I can never remember?

So what's with all the fairy tales? These aren't the first - remember when Matt Damon and Heath Ledger paired up to play the brothers themselves in The Brothers Grimm (2005)? I haven't seen it, but it looks intriguing. And I'm interested in the new Snow White movies. Nothing like some live action to combat the standard 2D Disney flick we all grew up with. Maybe I need to finally read the actual fairy tales to see what all the fuss is about. I hear they're pretty gruesome. Thoughts?

As if you needed more proof that Twilight really does suck...

I'm swamped with work this week, and not really into spending my 8-6s staring at a computer screen only to come home and stare at a computer screen some more. Not to mention I'm pretty much brain-dead, so rather than bother you with incomprehensible drivel, I thought I'd steer you in the direction of someone else's incomprehensible drivel: Stephanie Meyer's.

Illustration from Reasoning with Vampires

As if you needed more proof that Twilight really does suck, check out Reasoning with Vampires, an illustrated and annotated guide to how much Twilight really does suck. Sentence by sentence. All from someone who has actually read all of the books. And the novella.*


Thanks to Rebecca at The Book Lady's Blog for posting this link in her own anti-Twilight post. For more mocking of sparkly vampires, be sure to check out her other links.


* I should note that I have not actually read Twilight, and generally don't judge books I haven't read, no matter how tempting it is to make fun of the latest book on a suburban housewife-turned-spy-turned-vampire-killer who also sells drugs on the side to support her family and makes an excellent breakfast protein shake every day and eats a salad every day for lunch and that's how she lost 97 pounds in just TWO WEEKS. I make an exception for the following:
  • anything related to Twilight and/or sparkly vampires
  • anything by Nicholas Sparks, because the man actually thinks he doesn't write romance novels, and that his writing is worthy of Sparks Notes
  • anything by James Patterson, because one of those was enough for me to determine that they are all atrocious
  • anything by Nora Roberts, because I said so, and because no one can put out that many books in one year and still have any hope of them being any good

Book Review: Bending Toward the Sun by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, with Rita Lurie

Bending Toward the Sun, billed as "a mother and daughter memoir" on the front cover, is the memoir and history of Rita Lurie, a Holocaust survivor, and her daughter Leslie. Though not the next Night, the book is captivating and intriguing, detailing the horrors of the Holocaust, the traumas inflicted upon its survivors, and how these traumas are carried from one generation to the next.

To call this purely the story of a Holocaust survived is to oversimplify the history contained in these pages. In chronicling her history, Rita Lurie comes to the end of World War II on page 52 of this 350+ page book. Rather, the focus here is on the aftermath of the war, the impact it had on those who survived. It is a family history, detailing strife between father and daughter, sister and brother, uncle and niece. It is an account of the depression that many trauma survivors must learn to live with. It is an account of a family's attempts to understand each other, communicate, and ultimately survive.

Flawed editing throughout the book required occasional re-reads of sentences or even paragraphs, with misplaced pronouns often confusing the subject of any given action. Though sloppy, these are rare enough that they fall into the category of "minor annoyance" rather than "hindrance to story flow."

Bottom Line: Photographs and first-hand accounts throughout the memoir bring the experiences of the Gamss (Lurie's maiden name) family to life. This story of Holocaust survival goes beyond the war, however, and its emphasis on post-war impact makes the story personally relevant even to those who do not have a similar family history. Any readers with a relative struggling with depression will understand the emotions of both Rita and her daughters. Any readers struggling with depression or guilt themselves will understand. In this, as much as in the history it holds, Bending Toward the Sun is a story of resilience, relevant to understanding 20th-century experience and in forging ahead in the 21st.


Note: Many thanks to Julie Harabedian at FSB Associates for providing a review copy.

Newsweek Questions the Future of Reading: "Big Brains on e-Books"

The last few weeks have been good to bookworms, with one rich and though-provoking article following the last. Last week I featured HuffPost's discussion of how to keep book reviews relevant. Today, Shelf Awareness excerpted a quote from Newsweek's article on the future of reading, Big Brains on e-Books.

The article kicks of with the oft-repeated and still-unintelligible-to-me claim that Amazon's e-books now outsell paperbacks before polling some well-known bookworms on their thoughts on e-books and e-readers and the future of reading:
"Not to diminish the value of a paperback, when it comes to somebody investing in a hardcover, it’s something you want to keep. Everything from a cloth-case wrap to a leatherette to a foil-stamped cover, heavier paper, better binding, innovative cover design. You have to give readers a choice, between a richer experience with paper and board and cloth, and a more sterile experience through an electronic reader. We just try to make every aspect of the physical book as good as it can possibly be, because that’s our greatest hedge against the dominance of e-books." -Dave Eggers
I've written before about the power of a paper book (whether paperback or hardcover) over an e-book, particularly in the arena of smell. Eggers, like so many other bookworms, is acutely aware of the power of a physical book to captivate and spellbind readers, and despite the convenience of e-books, we have yet to see them figure out that part of the industry.
"How you read is not as important as: will you read? And will you read something that’s a book—the sustained train of thought of one person speaking to another? Search techniques are embedded in e-books that invite people to dabble rather than follow a full train of thought. This is part of a general cultural problem." - James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress (this passage also quoted in today's Shelf Awareness)
This is why Billington is the Librarian of Congress and I am not: he's managed to put into words my own problem with e-books and the concept of enhanced e-books (which Ron Charles also touched on in one of his Totally Hip Book Reviews). E-books, and particularly enhanced e-books, are designed to give readers more options, more content, more information. But when reading a book, do we really need all that? Do we even want it? The book itself should shine through on its own, without the aid of author interviews, blurbs from famous people, or embedded video.

Personally, I avoid reading editorial introductions to any book I have not yet read. I tend to skim the back-cover summary to see what a book is about, but avoid learning much more about it so I can form my own opinion. The book is a standalone item, and if it fails to succeed without the noise that surrounds it... well, then it's failed to succeed.

So. I have an e-reader, though I have yet to complete an entire book on it. I am intrigued by the convenience of an e-reader, and the options for enhanced e-books. There are some titles - like War in the Pacific - which cry out for an enhanced e-book, but I believe this is an area in which authors, publishers and editors should tread lightly. It's just one quick slip to fall into the imagined world of Ron Charles, after all. What about you? Thoughts? Do you have an e-reader? Do you read enhanced e-books?

The sun has finally returned... (A Week in Reading)

I think today is the first day I've seen real sunshine in two or three weeks. After days of mist, drizzle, fog, and weather I would generally associate with the words "grey," "England" and "miserable," I'm thrilled to have this peek at a blue sky. I'm hoping it lasts throughout the week.

Despite the crappy weather, it was a good week for this bookworm. I finished two books (The Great Typo Hunt and Bending Toward the Sun), and while neither of them were as lovely as Among Others, which I read the week before in abandonment of my 2011 reading guidelines, I still enjoyed both. I'm now diving into Age of Innocence, for the read-along-hosted by bookworm meets bookworm, and my initial thoughts amounted to an appreciation of my 21st-century marriage in place of a 19th-century marriage. I'm also just starting 13 rue Thérese, from Amy Einhorn. So far, so good.

In the spirit of reading more classics this year (I'd like to prove Twain's comment about classics wrong, if that is even possible) , I reflected on the experience of reading Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone in January, and asked for feedback on my "reflections" approach to writing about classics. After all, with the daunting canon of criticism written about anything termed a "classic," who am I to judge?

This past week also saw a fascinating article in The Huffington Post on book reviews and the struggle to keep them relevant and accessible. I recapped with a selection of my favorite passages here, and a lively discussion continues in the comments section. Thoughts? How do you keep your reviews relevant (if you review), or what do you look for in reviews (as a reader)?

I'm wrapping up my weekend with a Superbowl viewing (I'm rooting for the Packers, but only because I detest the Steelers, which is my right as a Ravens fan) and a dip further into 13 rue Thérese, complete with far too much food and beer for one day.

Here's hoping for a good Monday, and a week full of reading, writing, and discussion.

Mark Twain Defines Classics (Quote of the Day)

" 'Classic.' A book which people praise and don't read." - Mark Twain
I'm trying to remedy that problem in my own reading habits this year. What about you? Do classics decorate your shelves? Do you read them, or just think about reading them?

Totally Hip Book Reviews!

Whoa, bookworms. Have you seen this? Ron Charles, fiction critic at The Washington Post, has transformed himself from stuffy, over-educated book critic (those are all stereotypes, I know nothing about the man) to the (drum roll, please) TOTALLY HIP BOOK REVIEWER.

And despite the fact that it's kind of strange, and completely unexpected, the commentary here is excellent. (Note: If viewing in a Reader, the embedded video does not appear to work. Click through to the post to watch the clip.)

In this particular clip, Charles goes off on book apps and their amazing potential. To his point, publishing has gone ga-ga for the potential of book-related apps, but realistically, what do they accomplish? The idea of a book is entertainment and education, most would say, but "enhanced e-books" can easily slip into "distraction from original content."

Other clips include Charles' picks for the top 10 books of 2010, a review of Moby Dick, and a recap of the 2010 Booker Prize winners (which also goes into several of the bookish technologies we bookworms devour alongside our pages of ink on paper).

Earlier this week, I featured an article from HuffPost in which major book critics discussed how to keep book reviews relevant. Ron Charles was the second critic quoted:
"I love the optimistic premise of this question! Book reviewers who hope to be relevant to a new generation of readers will have to: 1. Review books that young people want to read. This will require us to drop our "Eat your peas" attitude and stop concentrating on books about the morose musings of middle-age. 2. Publish reviews that are shorter, punchier, and less self-indulgent. Does that mean we have to dumb down review coverage? The opposite: We have to be smarter, sharper, wittier, and more efficient. 3. Put those reviews in places where young people are looking. Get over it: They don't subscribe to newspapers, and they're not going to. Aggregate book reviews with other entertainment news that young people are interested in and make those reviews accessible on mobile devices. Find ways to blend book reviews with social media that young people are using. None of this will work, of course, but it may keep us employed till we can all get jobs as SEO content managers." -Ron Charles
At least we can see that Charles is following his own advice. This is no "eat your peas" attitude, and his reviews are short, punchy, and available online, which, realistically, is where most young people turn for any kind of content these days. We'll just have to see if this kind of forward thinking can keep book critics employed.

I'm glad this isn't what my vows were like...

Yesterday marked the kick-off of the Age of Innocence Read-a-long, hosted by bookworm meets bookworm, and this dutiful little bookworm started a-readin'. A mere 20 pages in, I stumbled across this passage that defines the roles and expectations of husband and wife in the late 19th century.
"The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained the servants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hothouse flowers to grow for the dinner-table and the drawing rooms, selected the guests, brewed the after-dinner punch and dictated little notes his wife wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing room with the detachment of an invited guest, and saying: 'My wife's gloxinias are a marvel, aren't they? I believe she gets them out from Kew.'"
I'm going to like this book, I can already tell, but I sure am glad that isn't what I was signing up for when I said "I will.*"


*They don't say "I do" in most traditional wedding vows. The things you learn.

Wrap You Head Around These Number, Will You?: Amazon's e-Books Outsell Paperbacks

Last week, Amazon announced that its goal of selling more e-books than paperbacks has come early, based on fourth-quarter earning statements from 2010. According to this ComputerWorld report, Amazon reports that in 2010, it sold 15% more e-books than paperbacks, and 3 times as many e-books as hardcovers. As for Kindles themselves, we only know that Amazon has sold "millions," making it the single bestselling product in Amazon history. But no solid numbers have been released.

What I can't wrap my head around is the fact that in the very same article, analyst Allan Weiner is cited as claiming that e-books still make up only 10% of overall book sales. But if e-books are selling more than paperbacks or hardcovers on Amazon, and no one is buying books from Borders (it is out of money, after all), and the independents are struggling to keep up with Amazon... well, where are we buying those 90% paper books?

Furthermore, we know that e-books sold on Amazon are only compatible with the Kindle(s) or with a Kindle app on an Android device, iPod, iPhone or iPad. Can you read Amazon books on a Kobo? Or a Sony Reader? I don't think you can, but if anyone thinks different, please let me know. I'd be interested to know the statistics for where non-Kindle readers buy their e-books.

Note that none of the Amazon figures include free e-books, of which there are plenty.

So, does anyone have any further insight here? If Amazon's e-books are outselling their paperback or hardcover companions, but e-books are still only 10% of the market, I just have a hard time making the logic work. Maybe I'm missing something, or maybe this is just why I wasn't destined to study economics. Thoughts?

How to Keep Book Reviews Relevant

It doesn't take a genius to look at the current state of affairs and see that book reviews are transforming. Newspaper book sections are not-so-slowly disappearing, but a wealth of book bloggers are popping up on a daily basis, offering their own niche community thoughts on any given title. But in the face of this transformation, how can we - all of us, I mean - keep book reviews relevant?

A Huffington Post article yesterday asked this question of 18 major American critics and reviewers: "How can book reviewing be relevant to the new generation of readers?"

The answers vary greatly, from lamenting the decline of reviews written by authors themselves to praising new technology and efforts to move book reviews to new devices. Some thoughts that stood out to me, and why:

" should be at least as gracefully written as what they describe." - Steven G. Kellman
Does anyone else find that when writing a review, your voice changes depending on what you are reviewing? This was never a conscious effort for me before, but I think Kellman makes an excellent point - our reviews must mirror what we are reviewing. No highfalutin praise for Patterson; no sparse, phrase-like sentences for Marquez; no flowery, descriptive language for Hemingway. Right?

The real question is whether Internet reviewing will be insightful and well written, though one might also ask whether Internet reviews can command an audience large enough to prove significant for authors and publishers. The Internet is commodious but for that very reason tends to collapse into fiefdoms." - Kelly Cherry
As one who writes for the Internet, perhaps I am biased on this point, but I don't doubt for a second that Internet reviewing can - and will - be insightful and well-written. But as for the second part of the question, regarding audience, I'm not so sure. I have over 100 followers on this blog, but do you all read each word I write and take it to heart? If I recommend a book, do you rush out and buy it? Do you value my opinion the way you would a NYTimes reviewer's?

Don't worry, I won't be offended when you answer "no" to all of those questions. But am I an accurate representation of the potential of the internet? Probably not. Blogs like The Book Lady's Blog have more followers than this little bookworm can dream of, and podcasts like Books on the Nightstand have audience participation at an all-time high. But even with my meager following, I like to think that because we form a kind of community around each blog we follow, these "fiefdoms" have more influence than one might guess at first glance.

First is voice. No matter what the platform--print, online, podcast, video--an engaging, witty, passionate, knowledgeable and distinctive voice is crucial. This may be why there is such a rage for the hybrid personal essay/criticism form." -Jane Ciabattari
I couldn't have said it better myself. And I think that is why these "fiefdoms" of book blogs do have such potential - we are, in effect, embodying that hybrid personal essay/criticism form. You'd be hard-pressed to find a book blogger who reviews a book without using the word "I," after all.

"How easy it is for a reviewer to just say some observant things about a work and leave it at that, and how hard to take the next step, which is to discuss it with reference to the culture." -Sven Birkerts
As much as I love the personal essay/criticism form discussed by Jane Ciabattari, I think that this important reference to culture, tradition and continuity is where it is most prone to fall short. I struggle to find the right words to relate a book to both current times and future needs when writing a review; far from mastering this approach, I believe I am just beginning to even understand the need for it. But I'm glad to see it included in thoughts on how to keep review relevant, because the reviews that most turn me off when reading them are those that say "I really liked this book because it was funny," and leave it at that.

What about you? What tenets do you hold dear when writing (or reading) reviews? Did any of the other HuffPost entries stand out?