Thursday, May 31, 2007


OMG, I don't think it's ever taken me so long to read a book in my life. Five months, people. FIVE. MONTHS! But, it was all worth it. Actually, sometimes when I read a great book and I finish it in a week, I get a little sad, because it's over too fast. So, it's nice, every once in a while, to really sink into a book for long time.

Middlemarch is on a bunch of Top 100 Books (of all time!) lists, which is one of the reasons I wanted to read it, but also I love George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). What I love about Eliot is the complexity of her characters. My impression of a lot of pre-20th century lit. is that the characters are frequently one dimensional. Evans' not afraid to give her characters flaws. But what I really love is her persistent focus on gender and social issues, which (unfortunately!) remain as relevant today as they were in 1871.

I don't think I'll ruin it for you by discussing the epilogue. Evans includes a clearly self-referential passage at once humorous and a bitter nod toward the necessity of her nom de plum:
But when Mary wrote a little book for her boys, called "Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch," and had it printed and published by Gripp & Co., Middlemarch, every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred, observing that he had been to the University, "where the ancients were studied," and might have been a clergyman if he had chosen.

In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book, since it was always done by somebody else.

Evans continues to break out of the third person narrative as she does throughout the book, to speak not only of herself, but, surprisingly, beautifully, of the reader. It reminded me of Dave Eggars/Valentino Achak Deng's brilliant What is the What, and this sentence:
How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.

Evans writes:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

This acknowledgement is so generous, drawing the reader (Me! You!) into the trust of the writer, including them in the process of stories being told, and, as a result, change being made, encouraging all of us to strive toward a better world.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Wright 3

I'm a big fan of YA fiction, and this little series by Blue Balliett, The Wright 3, the follow-up to Chasing Vermeer. The stories feature two Chicago kids who solve mysteries - in Chasing Vermeer they, I forget, solve some mystery involving a Vermeer painting, and in this one, they “save” the Robie House (by Frank Lloyd Wright) from destruction. Both scenarios are fictional, which Balliett is careful to point out in the extensive reader's guide in the back. She does not explain that her name and the illustrator's name (Brett Helquist) are also fictional, though they clearly are.

The characters are charming, the themes are interesting, and, most of all, I love that they are placed in Chicago, around one of the city's most beautiful neighborhoods, Hyde Park. Sure, there are some lame aspects, like a heavy focus on the theme of coincidence (huh?) but, come on, it's YA fiction. Both of the books, despite being written for kids, have introduced me to some mathematical-type concepts, like pentominoes and Fibonacci numbers (although, she explains that the interval for each number is 1 to 1.618 [the golden ratio, which I am familiar with] and that doesn't make any sense, right?*)

If I were a kid, I know I'd be inspired by the ideas presented in these books - especially regarding art. They remind me of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, not just one of my favorite kids books, probably one of my favorite books, period. I don't know of these Balliett books have the staying-power of E.L. Konigsburg's 1967 Newbery winner, but they're written in the same spirit, and likely to please readers both young and old.

* Because the sequence goes like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on, but the ratio between 1 and 1 is nothing, right? And the ratio between 2 and 1 is 50, right? So, I don't get it, but who cares?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Kansas City Man Burns Books

Just read this story about a man who had about 20,000 books he tried to give away, but when he was turned away from "libraries and thrift stores" (according to the article) he decided to burn them.

His website tells a slightly different story - there it says the book burning was performance art, in response to decreasing sales in his used book store. Two quotes seem to indicate that he's waggling his finger (as well as burning his books) at non-readers.
There are worse crimes than burning books, one is not reading them. ~ Joseph Brodskey

The individual who won’t read has nothing over the individual who cannot read. ~ Mark Twain

I've had trouble donating my books before too - when we moved I had a lot of books to give away - about 20 - and when I called the library, they said they were so stocked up that they wouldn't be accepting books any time in the foreseeable future (If I'm remembering correctly, that was for at least the entire north-side of Chicago.) Kudos to the library for having all the books they can handle (although, wouldn't it be great if they had so much space they could just keep taking more and more books?). But, it didn't take me long to find someone who would take the books (women's prisons!) and I'm a big fan of Book Crossing, so, it's easy enough to leave a stack of books on a park bench. I find it hard to believe a real Book Lover could ever burn a book.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Field Guide to Sprawl

Went to the Strand, my perhaps favorite bookstore In The World, over the weekend. Picked up some interesting looking fiction for myself and M. bought a book called A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden. At first I thought it was really stupid, but then I couldn't put it down. It describes architectural terms for urban sprawl (some terms we all know, like "big box" or "gridlock", then there's "duck: a building that replicates and serves as an advertisement for the product sold within it.") Each term is accompanied by a horrifying picture of, say, a trashland of cars or tires, or, just miles and miles of concrete earth ("Impervious Surface".) We read it together as we flew home, and had perhaps the most enlightened landing I've ever experienced ("Oh, look at all the pods! There's a pork chop lot! That looks like a streetcar buildout!"

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hanwell Senior

I read a great short story by Zadie Smith in the May 14th New Yorker called Hanwell Senior. It's available online if you don't get the magazine (it might not be available long). She references Middlemarch, which I'm currently obsessed with, so I was pretty excited about that. She also uses this really interesting narrative devise where she breaks out of the 3rd person and refers to herself, and to the process of writing.
Here's a section to illustrate:
In the novel “Middlemarch,” we find the old adage of a man’s charity growing in direct proportion to its distance from his own door. This is reminiscent of all the dutiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren lingering over deathbeds with digital recorders, or else manically pursuing their ancestors through the online genealogy sites at three in the morning, so very eager to reconstitute the lives and thoughts of dead and soon-to-be-dead men, though they may regularly screen the phone calls of their own mothers. I am of that generation. I will do anything for my family except see them.

I thought the story was so moving - hope you have a chance to read it! (Let me know if you do.)