The True Deceiver
by Tove Jansson
(New York Review of Books, 2009)

I love stories of hermits and outcasts.  I think it dates back to my first exposure to Heidi and her hermit grandfather.  From the minute Heidi appeared on his doorstep, I knew his hermit days were over, but I never tire of his journey.  This weakness of mine made me particularly vulnerable to the charms of The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson.  The Summer Book had well-prepared me for Jansson's lovely-in-their-oddness characters.  Yet Katri's journey in The True Deceiver, still surprised me by the degree to which she was left broken by her decision to abandon her independence to help her brother Mats build the boat of his dreams.  The brittle dance between Katri and her co-conspirator Anna (a children's book author and illustrator ) seems to have all the steps carefully choreographed, but  just when you think Katri is doing all the leading in this Tango, Anna takes over the lead and turns the story in unusual ways.  Additionally, having read as many Russian novels I have, I thought I was used to snowy tales, but The True Deceiver's remote wintry Swedish setting made me yearn for the snow in the same way I did when I read Smilla's Sense of Snow many years ago.  Jansson is gifted at making both characters and setting crackle with life's hardness and fleeting moments of warmth.  Don't less this book pass you by!  

Here's a sample to savor:

"Serenity returned to the rabbit house.  Mats moved as quietly as his sister, and Anna was never sure if he was at home.  When they happened to meet in the house, Mats would stop, pause for a moment, smile, and bow his head before waling on -- his own chivalrous gesture.  Anna experienced some of the same shyness that Katri felt toward him.  She never thought of anything to say at these encounters, and anyway she thought it unnecessary to bother him with the conventional greetings that people exchange on a staircase simply because they happen to be passing.  Mats and Anna were together only in their books, everything else was an accepted no-man's land."

Dystopia, Russian-Style

by Olga Slavnikova

A brief follow-up post to my earlier blog entry on 2017 ... 

Just after I posted my entry, I reached the part in this book where Slavnikova unwinds a retro-revolution in 2017.  Originating more from crowd chaos than political intent in Red Square the fallout is all style and little substance; well-healed Moscovites go on a spending spree so they can purchase and wear Soviet era military and revolutionary garb.  I can't help but love this not-so-subtle dig at Russians love affair with shopping.  

Additionally, I'd be remiss not to mention that Keith Gessen (my least-favorite author, but a fine essayist on all things Russian) has an article on Dystopian fiction in the June/July/Aug edition of Bookforum in which he mentions 2017 and where it fits into a mini-trend in Russian literature.  Gessen attributes his trend to Putin's revival of authoritarianism, an assertion that makes sense.  Additionally, his intelligent article contrasts this with an opposite trend in American fiction towards the counterhistorical (he cites Chabon, Roth, Englander and oddly Diaz -- whose book is more historical than counter, imho).  He then draws an interesting distinction between dystopian novels, where the future is altered in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, such as Brave New World, 1984, Never Let Me Go and postapocalyptic novels, such as McCarthy's The Road where the world has been all-but destroyed.  His distinction made me re-categorize some of the many novels I've read that could fall into these two categories and I believe another distinction between dystopian versus postapocalyptic can be made -- the wielding of power.  Postapocalyptic novels are more man vs. his environment or man vs. man based in conflict.  In this category is Jim Crace's The Pesthouse, the first book I reviewed for Open Letters three years ago.  While another book I reviewed for Open Letters, Jeannette's Winterson's The Stone Gods would fall into the dystopian category.  



July in Frankenville


I'm teaching a summer course in critical reading and, sadly, had no control over the curriculum.  Hence, I was forced to read and teach Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  It was truly painful to wrap my head around this book -- Dr. Frankenstein is an abhorrent character.  Not only does he abandon his monster/creation, but he lets everyone he loves become the monster's victim rather than confess to the crime of creation.  Yes, he was the true monster of this novel.  End of story, and I wish I could have all those hours back.  At least I'm being compensated for the hours I have to teach this novel and feign interest in Shelley's anything-but-subtle writing.  (Oh no, another storm -- the monster must be coming!)  Rarely am I so crabby about reading a classic, but I've had so little time to read lately that having to read a horrid classic seems like a huge waste of time.  At least I can identify with my students when they moan about the book and can model how to find redeeming lessons in a dull novel (like what not to do when writing and how to dissect sentences that are 20 lines long).  Sadly, it gets worse.  When this novel is finished, I'm being forced to teach The Road by mysoginist Cormac McCarthy.  I guess this has become my summer of monsters.  

Department of Self-Promotion: Open Letters Anthology

Open Letters Monthly: an anthology, 2007-2010
John Cotter, editor
(Lulu, 2010)

As an indication of just how distracted I was this past spring, I neglected to publicize the fact that my review of From Newbury  with Love appears in the recently published Open Letters Monthly Anthology.   A review of this anthology was just posted by Daniel Pritchard here in the latest edition of The Critical Flame.  Also, Mark Athitakis, NBCC Board Member, just posted an interview with Steve Donoghue, one of my Open Letters editors, in the Critical Mass blog.  It's quite thrilling to have all this attention paid to Open Letters Monthly.  I'm proud to be associated with this fine journal and honored to have my work included in its anthology.  If you're interested in supporting Open Letters, or just interested in reading some damn-fine reviews, you can pop on over to Lulu and pick up a copy of this anthology.  Thanks! 



by Olga Slavnikova 
translated by Marian Schwartz
(The Overlook Press, 2010)


It wouldn't be summer if I didn't pick up a Russian novel.  Though I received my review copy of 2017 by Olga Slavnikova back in March, I decided to save it for summer.  Instead of dipping my brain into Lit  Light, I prefer the dark, soulfulness of Russian Lit during the blazing heat (or cool fog) of summer. (There must be a support group for people like me).  

My favorite Russian translator, Marian Schwartz, did the translation for this 2006 Book prize winning novel.  True to form, she lets the Russian language penetrate each English line.  This leads to moments of intense lyricism ...

"He remembered both the reseved seats on the train, which was permeated throughout with sadness of the long sunset lying low over the steppe, and the unfamiliar taste of crooked green apples bought at the station -- a taste like cotton wool and medicine from the pharmacy."

... and occasionally, when the lyricism takes over, makes one abandon the need to make sense of what one's reading.  

"Krylov saw a petrified cinema that demonstrated the struggle between the oriented field of the crystal, its unimaginably slow rocket launch, accomplished in its own time, into space, and the chaos of horizontal events and ordinary time crumbled into small coarse bits."

2017 true to its Russian roots, is not easy to wrestle into submission.  The story alternates between Krylov, a gemcutter looking for love,  and his mentor Professor Anfilogov, looking for gems in the wilds of the Riphean Mountains (a region loosely based on the Ural Mountains).  In 2017, earth spirits as devious as Puck and as beautiful as Titania intervene in the quests of both Krylov and Anfilogov.  Those looking for the remnants of the Communist Revolution of 1917 will find its echos in this novel's  class distinctions and the determination of each character to  pursue their individual (rather than communal) passions with greed and determination.  While reading this book leaves me weary, it's a good weary -- the kind you feel after an intense workout.  

Only the Great Ones, Please...




One Hundred Great Essays (Fourth Edition)
Robert Diyanni, ed. 
(Penguin Academics, 2010)
In the two years I've been teaching essay writing to high school students, my personal volumes of essays have sprouted a garden of post-it strips and my copier has worked overtime.  I usually avoid books with "great" in the title (except for Great Expectations, that is), but for some reason, I picked up One Hundred Great Essays, edited by Robert Diyanni.  Reading in the preface that there are two other volumes with equally "great" names (Fifty Great Essays and Twenty-Five Great Essays), I was not encouraged.  However, one look at the table of contents convinced me that this book truly offered a one-stop shopping experience for essay readers and writers.   While the book's introduction is long-winded and by no means an example of great writing (especially the page that rambles on about what good writing is and starts each of six paragraphs with the phrase "Good writing is..."), the essays selected for this volume made me forgive its first 29 pages:  two drafts of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Plato, Anna Quindlen, Susan Sontag, EB White, Sigmund Freud, Ralph Ellison, Henry David Thoreau ... 92 more. If nothing else, this books exemplifies what a robust and flexible form the essay truly is.  As with short stories and poems, the compactness of the essay's size demands a precision in language.  But while we will permit short stories and poems to use literary devices which often obscure rather than clarify their themes, essays demand clarity.  The brilliance of great essays comes when clarity and art marry.  In addition to this collection's artful selections, it's nice to see brief bio's of the essays' authors included with each selection.  When analyzing the content of essays, students frequently fail to take the context of the piece into account.  Unfortunately, scholarly-sounding summaries are included after each bio and before the start of each essay.  These summaries are great for students who don't want to read the essay but want to sound like they did when called on in class; I will be whiting-out these summaries for my students.  It's critical that students learn how to think about essays for themselves and not be spoon-fed the English Department "line" on each essay.  And finally, the typical "questions for thought" are tacked on at the end of each essay.  Even as a student,  I resented these questions because they scream, "Think this way, not that!"  Today, I'll be using Annie Dillard's "Living Like Weasels" essay from this collection to teach my students how to use language vividly to hook their readers.  Even though a Google search will turn up countless student papers on this essay with these lines quoted, I'll include them here for your reading convenience. 

"A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?  He sleeps in his underground den his tail draped over his nose.  Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving.  Outside, he stalks rabbits, mice, muskrats, and birds, killing more bodies than he can eat warm, and often dragging the carcasses home.  Obedient to instinct, he bites hie prey at the neck, either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull, and he does not let go."

Who Knew Commas Could be Funny?

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves
by Lynne Truss
(Gotham Books, 2003)

What do two English teachers do on summer vacation?  Head to the bookstore and talk grammar.  Sounds like a serious cliche, but yes this is what I did last week.  I found a tidy little used copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves and devoured it just in time to cram grammar into the summer-dazed heads of high school students.  I love tutoring and especially love the idea of teaching students how to slay the SAT, but grammar instruction drives me more than a little looney.  But what fun I had last night opening the class with the panda story that inspired the title of this book.  And the look on my students' faces was priceless!  They truly looked ill-at-ease about laughing at a story about comma placement gone nasty: "Are we really allowed to laugh during a grammar lesson?"  I will never again teach punctuation without this book by my side to quote from and to inspire me to, if nothing else, make 'em laugh.  

Here's some of Truss' closing advice on commas:

"The big final rule for the comma is one that you won't find in any books by grammarians.  It is quite easy to remember, however.  The rule is: don't use commas like a stupid person.  I mean it.  More than any other mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity. For example:
1   Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual.
2  The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank and swam to the river-bank.
3  Don't guess, use a timer or watch.
4  The convict said the judge is mad.

In the first example, of course, the comma has been misplaced and belongs after "on." The second example suggests that the vehicle swam to the river bank, rather than the passenger.  It requires a comma after "sank."  The third is pretty interesting, since it actually conveys the opposite of its intended meaning. What it appears to say is, "Don't guess, or use a timer or a watch," when in fact it only wants to tell you not to guess.  It therefore requires a semicolon or even a full stop after "guess," rather than a comma.  The fourth makes perfect sense, of course -- unless what's intended is: "The convict, said the judge, is mad."  

While I found myself having to explain these ambiguities to the students, I think it was well worth the effort to get them to think deeply and reach those ah-ha moments.  


Dear Dorothy, Dear Pooh


 Dorothy Parker: Complete Poems
(Penguin Classics, 2010)

Just finished my tutoring year with a dear student who loves poetry and has a great sense of humor.  While browsing the meager aisle of poetry in a local bookstore, found the perfect gift for her (and me).  A volume of Parker's poetry.  What a delight it was to spend our last session together relishing Parker's wit and woes!  

I couldn't resist picking up the volume for another peak today and found a little ditty that harkens back to her review of House at Pooh Corner.  I think I'm completely done in on Pooh now --- I will never be able to see that bear without hearing Parker's voice.  

When We Were Very Sore
(Lines on Discovering That You Have Been Advertised as America's A.A.Milne)

Dotty had
Great Big Visions of
Dotty saw an 
Ad, and it
Left her
Dotty had a
Great Big
Snifter of 
And that (said Dotty)
Is that.


Groucho Meets Eliot

Pen America: A Journal for Writers and Readers
#12 Correspondences

I love this latest issue of Pen America, devoted to correspondences of all kinds.  From telegrams from the likes of Faulkner, Churchill, and my eternal favorite Dorothy Parker, to Rick Moody's Twitter experiment, this issue is a delight.  But best of all ... the letters I've re-read at least three times since receiving this issue, are a small collection of letters exchanged between Groucho Marx and TS Eliot from 1961 to 1964. Their correspondence begins with TS Eliot thanking Groucho for his portrait.  It's hard to imagine Groucho hanging between Yeats and Valery, but that's exactly where Eliot put him.  The image of Eliot laughing at Groucho's on-screen antics and requesting a portrait of him is appealing and disturbing all at the same time.  In any case, what begins as a polite "thank you" correspondence with greetings of "Dear Groucho Marx" and "Dear T.S." progresses to "Dear Groucho" and "Yours, Tom."  The whole exchange is delightful, but I especially love the last letter, sent by Eliot on the eve of Groucho's visit to London to, among other things, finally meet Eliot.  Eliot ends his letter saying, "The picture of you in the newspapers saying that, amongst other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighborhood and particularly with the greengrocer across the street.  Obviously I am now someone of importance.  Ever yours, Tom."  Groucho ... the movie star who made Eliot a fleeting poet star in his neighborhood.  Love that!  


Friends and their Books


If You Follow Me                         Gutshot Straight                  
                 by Malena Watrous                        by Lou Berney                                         
(Harper Perennial, 2010)                (William Morrow, 2010)

While I was on my blog-break, I had the pleasure of attending local readings by two former teachers/now friends of mine. Both their books would make great additions to your summer reading list, especially if you, like me, like to travel vicariously through your books.  

When I think of Lou, I picture him seated within our circle of MFA hopefuls as we discussed the craft of writing by reading really good.  No matter how heated the debate between who was a better writer -- Rushdie vs. McCarthy -- Lou maintained his equanimity and good humor.  Best of all, he introduced me to Lessons Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, for which I will forever be grateful.  And now, with Gutshot Straight, I can have Lou's humor whenever I need it.  But humor isn't the only tool in Lou's thriller shed.  He balances fear and burning desires against  high stakes and suspense, and adds the perfect exotic location -- Panama.   Following the adventures of Shake and Gina in Gutshot Straight will surely add some hot to summer your reading!  

It feels more than a bit odd to write about Malena's book, If You Follow Me, since she was the Stanford instructor who got me started on book reviewing.  What started out as a strictly online teacher-student relationship has turned into a professional friendship.  When I received an invitation to go to her book reading at Kepler's, I found a wedge of time in my school-work schedule and I'm so glad I did!  It's diminishing to this novel to slot it into the coming-of-age genre because of the protagonist is in her early 20's and happens to have traveled to Japan to spend a year teaching and recovering from her father's suicide.  Malena's wit, intelligence, and passion infuse this story and make one want to turn the page to see how Marina stumbles and picks herself time and again.  Especially delightful is the examination of the challenges of communication -- how sometimes sharing a language is no guarantee that you can understand the person sharing your bed, or how not sharing a language can sometimes lead to unexpected intimacies.  Travel to Japan with Marina this summer.  You'll enjoy the trip!