In which a goofy trivia book leads to serious discussion topics

Well it has been a little while since I checked in here. Both the holidays and the flu intervened with my best-laid plans. You’d think by now my family (kids aged 8, 12, 15) would be able to do stuff without me constantly directing traffic <eyeroll>, but it turns out the older they get the more I am needed.

Anyway, while I was sick my husband made one of his massive trips to the library. My dear hubby has (undiagnosed) ADD which means, among other things, that he is quite an impulse shopper. I dread his trips to the grocery store because he always goes over budget and, what’s worse, comes home with all kinds of strange crap that we will never eat. Like powdered gravy mixes. Or weird tropical fruits. However, for the same reason I love it when he goes to the library because he always comes home loaded down with all kinds of strange books that I will happily consume. Books that — like powdered gravy mix — shouldn’t even exist. Ha ha, maybe I should do Library Loot posts about his hauls.

Anyway, one of the books he came home with was this unauthorized book about the New York Times bestseller lists, published in 1994 and now, not surprisingly, out of print. So no indiebound link for this one, alas. However, if your library has it, you can find out fascinating facts like what author had the shortest name (Amy Tan — only six letters total!), or that the only authors with the name Smith were Betty (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and Lillian (Strange Fruit), and they were consecutive #1s in 1944.

When I first flipped open the book I landed on page 154 and learned something that I actually do find fascinating. Are you old enough to remember the book Gnomes? I was in junior high when that book came out and ohhhhhhhh did I love it. Like all the other pre-teen girls I pored over that book, admiring the charming illustrations and straight-faced encyclopedia-style presentation. I didn’t really believe it, but it was so close to believable that it made my heart ache a little.

Anyway, page 154 of this goofy trivia book has something very interesting to say about Gnomes, which hit #1 in December of 1979. It turns out Gnomes didn’t just hit the #1 spot — it hit the #1 spot for nonfiction. That’s right, I said NONFICTION. The book explains:

As Ian Ballantine tells the story, when Gnomes made the list, the Times called him up to ask if it was fiction or nonfiction. He thought they were putting him on, so he said, “If it’s all true, then of course it’s nonfiction. And if it isn’t true, then it’s satire, which is also nonfiction.” The Times agreed, and Gnomes is officially nonfiction.

Is that not absolutely priceless?

So I have two discussion questions.

1. Is it true that satire is considered nonfiction? Should it be?

2. Should reference works about fictional topics be considered nonfiction?

What do you think?

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“Little did he know” – thoughts on third person omniscient narrators

I am remembering the scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction where Will Ferrell meets Dustin Hoffman. That is the movie where Will Ferrell is convinced that he is not a real person but just a character in someone else’s novel. He hears a voice in his head which narrates everything he does. All the doctors think he is simply crazy, having auditory hallucinations. Finally he visits an English professor (Hoffman) who dismisses him also… until Ferrell starts to repeat aloud some of what he is hearing. I’m sorry I couldn’t find a clip on youtube because it is brillliant. “Little did he know,” Ferrell begins, and Hoffman instantly snaps to attention. This phrase — little did he know — changes everything. I wish I could remember the exact line, but basically the English prof says that no mere crazy person would hear voices narrated in the third person omniscient; this proves beyond all doubt that the voice Ferrell hears is truly the author’s.

Stranger Than Fiction was an otherwise humdrum movie, but that one scene was absolutely marvelous and I think about it quite often. Because I just love “little did he know.” I would much rather read third person omniscient than any other. First person narration, particularly in the present tense, is a huge turn-off for me. Unreliable first person narration, even more so. Not saying I won’t read it, but it better be really good, ya know? I can forgive a lot more if a book is written in the TPO.

I imagine the reason why TPO narration is so fun to read is because in reality we are all stuck in our own first-person heads. We can never know someone else’s perspective. We can never know consequences in advance. There is no “little did he know” in real life. The best we can do is dip into a book.

The reason I am thinking about this right now is that A Visit from the Goon Squad is unfolding in a very interesting manner. I started it with some trepidation. The back of the book says it is about an “aging punk rocker and record executive” and “the passionate, troubled young woman he employs,” and it has “music pulsing on every page.” This is not subject matter I would normally gravitate towards. But guess what. Each chapter (so far — I am only on p. 89) is told from a different character’s point of view, and takes place in a different time. An adult character that is not much more than a cameo in one chapter may be the teenage protagonist in the next. Part of the fun of reading this is wondering who the next chapter will focus on. AND there is plenty of little did he know. Example:

Lou and [23-year-old] Mindy dance close together, their whole bodies touching, but Mindy is thinking of Albert, as she will periodically after marrying Lou and having two daughters, his fifth and sixth children, in quick succession, as if sprinting against the inevitable drift of his attention. On paper he’ll be penniless, and Mindy will end up working as a travel agent to support her little girls. For a time her life will be joyless; the girls will seem to cry too much, and she’ll think longingly of this trip to Africa as the last happy moment of her life, when she still had a choice, when she was free and unencumbered. She’ll dream senselessly, futilely, of Albert, wondering what he might be doing at particular times, how her life would have turned out if she’d run away with him as he’d suggested, half joking, when she visited him in room number three. Later, of course, she’ll recognize “Albert” as nothing more than a focus of regret for her own immaturity and disastrous choices. When both her children are in high school, she’ll finally resume her studies, complete her Ph.D. at UCLA, and begin an academic career at forty-five, spending long periods of the next thirty years doing social structures fieldwork in the Brazilian rain forest. Her youngest daughter will go to work for Lou, become his protégée, and inherit his business.

I love this passage for a number of reasons. One, it sheds light on Mindy’s current situation and gives us a window into her personality. Yes, she’s young and dumb, but she’s not a total idiot. Lurking within her now is the responsible introspective adult she will become and that changes the way we feel about her now. Two, it demonstrates the painful results of not being able to see the consequences of our choices, of not having TPO narration available to us. And three, it gives us, the readers, the satisfaction of “little did he know” — of being able to see what’s going to happen to someone else.

What’s your favorite narrative mode?

Library Loot, and a moratorium

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

I have a pretty big stack of unread library books right now. I just picked up three more that I’d had on hold, and I hereby declare that I will not go to the library or put anything on hold until the books I have now are read and/or returned.

Today’s haul:

Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad. My book club is reading this. I have read mixed reviews. The woman in my club who picked it is head over heels in love with it. She is an English prof who has been teaching the book at the community college. Hope I like it; hope I can think of something interesting to say about it when the time comes.

Michael Crummy: Galore. My best friend has been raving about this book for weeks. I have a feeling I’m in for quite a ride. Magical realism, set in Newfoundland!?!?

Brigid Pasulka: A Long Long Time Ago & Essentially True. This is a nice surprise. I don’t really remember placing a hold on this, but it looks great. One of the blurbs calls it a “great literary love story.” Great cover, too. All righty then!

Library Loot: a small haul

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

I still have two and a half books left over from last week’s haul so I didn’t do any browsing this time. Just picked up the two books I already had on hold:

Oh *giggle* I am excited for this one. I had completely forgotten that I ordered it. It was an interlibrary loan, which meant that the email notice didn’t list the title, just that the ILL had come in. When the librarian handed it to me I took one look, burst out laughing, and had to tell her all about it. :-) This series is classic sci-fi at its finest and most fun. I read one of these many years ago and always remembered it. Here’s the blurb: “Sector General: A massive deep-space hospital station on the Galactic Rim, where human and alien medicine meet. Its 384 levels and thousands of staff members are supposedly able to meet the needs of any conceivable alien patient–though that capacity is always being strained as more (and stranger) alien races turn up to join the galactic community. Sentient viruses, interspecies romances, undreamed-of institutional catering problems–it all lands on Sector General’s doorstep. And the only thing weirder than a hitherto unknown alien species is having a member of that species turn up in your Emergency Room.” Hoo boy!!!

I learned about this book from Alex at The Sleepless Reader. Southern fiction, which should be a nice change after The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, which is extremely… northern. Here’s the blurb: “Marvelously funny, bittersweet, and beautifully evocative, the original publication of A Short History of a Small Place announced the arrival of one of our great Southern voices. Although T. R. Pearson’s Neely, North Carolina, doesn’t appear on any map of the state, it has already earned a secure place on the literary landscape of the South. In this introduction to Neely, the young narrator, Louis Benfield, recounts the tragic last days of Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, a local spinster and former town belle who, after years of total seclusion, returns flamboyantly to public view-with her pet monkey, Mr. Britches. Here is a teeming human comedy inhabited by some of the most eccentric and endearing characters ever encountered in literature.”

Teeming human comedy… eccentric and endearing characters… I’ll take it!

Is that a challenge???

I’ve been checking out all these reading challenges. I like the idea of theme reads & reading projects, but as I have mentioned previously, I also really really love to browse and choose books at random. Also I am not super keen on being told what to read, even if it is I myself who is doing the telling, ya know?

On the other hand, lately I have not been doing a very good job of setting aside time for myself to read. Between work, family, and other obligations my “free” time is quite limited, and it’s all too easy to let the hours slip away while engaged in the vitally important work of stalking people on facebook. Reading in bed for 5 minutes before falling asleep is just not enough. Perhaps if I take up the gauntlet I’ll be able to stay more focused on the really important things in life, i.e. books. Plus this seems like a great way to meet other bloggers.

So, I’m going to try it out. I’ve decided on two: Back to the Classics and Mount TBR. This will amount to at most two books per month of “required” reading — enough to keep me focused but not enough to preclude spontaneous trips to the library.

Mount TBR

This challenge, issued by Bev at My Reader’s Block, specifies: “Books must be owned by you prior to January 1, 2012. No ARCs (none), no library books. No rereads. . . . The intention is to reduce the stack of books that you have bought for yourself or received as presents. . . . Books may be used to count for other challenges as well.”

I actually don’t have a towering TBR stack. I get the vast majority of my books from the public library. Still, there are a few. Mostly gifts — some off my wishlist, others chosen by people who know me well. And there are a few that I have bought for myself, usually on a whim. Oh yes, and there are some lingering volumes from about twenty years ago when I belonged to one of those book-of-the-month clubs.

I think for now I’ll declare myself at the lowest level, Pike’s Peak. That’s twelve books over the course of 2012. I can do that! I’m not going to declare them in advance; I’ll just list them as I read them.

Back to the Classics

This challenge comes from Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much. It’s a good one for me because many of the books in my TBR pile also happen to be classics. The goal is to read one book from each of the following categories during 2012. The first thing I thought when I saw this was, well how exactly do you define classic? Not to worry. Sarah defines a classic as “any book that has left its mark on the world. I want to say ‘literary world,’ but that is not always exactly the case, is it? It is a book that is remembered, or can conjure an image in anyone’s mind whether they have read it or not. In most cases, these books are old. But I also believe that some more recent works could be considered classics.”

Fair enough! So, here are my picks:

Any 19th century classic — Anthony Trollope: The American Senator

Any 20th century classic — Saul Bellow: Herzog

Reread a classic of your choice — Louisa May Alcott: Little Women

A classic play — Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler

Classic mystery/horror/crime fiction — Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

Classic romance — D.H. Lawrence: The Fox

A classic in translation — Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma

Classic award winner — Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses

A classic set in a country that you (realistically speaking) will not visit during your lifetime — Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Cathedral Lit

A cathedral I'd love to visit: Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The Guardian lists ten of the best cathedrals in literature and I have read none of them. I love churches and cathedrals and I love Church Lit (as distinct from Christian Lit), especially if it involves different factions of Anglicans or Protestants. All the better if beadles, vergers, rectors, vicars, etc. are involved. However, I’m hard-pressed to think of books I have read that specifically involve cathedrals. Let’s see. There is Cathedral by David Macauley — not a novel but a fascinating book to pore over on a rainy afternoon. The Young Unicorns by Madeleine L’Engle, if I recall correctly, is set in a cathedral. And perhaps The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers would count? I think that is more of a church than a cathedral, but of course it does have a belfry. Which makes me wonder: at what point does a church become a cathedral?

I’ve been looking over various reading challenges to try next year. I have kind of mixed feelings about declaring in advance what I am going to read because it rules out browsing. On the other hand, something like the Read Your Own Books challenge would help take care of some of that nagging guilt, ya know? I say this because of course it did occur to me to give myself a Cathedral Lit challenge and just drill right down the list. Eh, maybe not. I’m bookmarking it though.

What Cathedral Lit have you read?

Library Loot, and the pleasures of browsing

Library Loot… what a nice idea for a meme! This is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

I snuck off to the library all by myself yesterday. What a treat! It seems like I almost always have a kid or two in tow, which is great in some ways, but it does make it hard to browse.

I reeeeeeeeallly love to browse. No question that reading book reviews and getting recommendations from friends is a great way to find good books, but browsing is the very best. For one thing, the design and, well, heft of the book are very important to me. Too-tiny margins or covers that won’t open flat (say) are a huge deterrent even if the book is otherwise awesome. Picking up a book and holding it in my hand is an important part of deciding whether to read it. For another thing, there is something very special and satisfying about stumbling across a book you’ve never heard of and discovering that it’s your own private treasure. Standing there in the library, thumbing through an intriguing-looking volume, perhaps reading page 69, wondering whether this one might be the next treasure — what could be nicer?

That said… when I went to the library yesterday I had a specific book in mind <grin>, The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julevits, which had been recommended to me by a friend <grin>. It wasn’t on the shelf however, so browse I did! As you can see, I didn’t get very far from my starting point: everything here is by authors whose names fall between I–K.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, by Beverly Jensen. Sisters in the title is what caught my eye. I myself am the older of two girls; my sissy and I are very tight and sister is a big part of my self-identity. Anyway, this a historical novel about these two sisters growing up in New Brunswick and Maine and it looks right up my alley. I’m afraid it’s going to be a sad read though. The author died young, of pancreatic cancer, and this was published posthumously. It will be hard to forget that fact while reading.

Another intriguing title: Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. Don’t you just love the word chronicles? This was described on the back as being Uganda’s answer to Midnight’s Children. Well, Midnight’s Children is one of my all-time favorite novels. If this is half as good, it’s sure to be awesome. Plus I know nothing at all about Uganda. Yet…

Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid. This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years and just never got around to. And speaking of look and feel, this is one beautifully-designed little book. Really looking forward to reading it.

The Bridegroom, a collection of short stories by my newly-discovered favorite author, Ha Jin. When I googled him after reading Waiting I learned that many of his stories take place in the same fictional city, Muji. That is one of my favorite literary devices. I love love love it when authors write about different characters in the same fictional setting. Wendell Berry’s Port Williams stories are a prime example. Ray Bradbury’s Green Town stories are another. (This is quite distinct from series, by the way. I am talking about groups of stories that feature different characters, different perspectives, possibly even different times, but in the same town. Best of all is when the protagonist from one story makes a cameo appearance in another. It’s like making eye contact with the author.)

A nice haul this weekend!

All Hallow’s Read

What a charming idea, yes? Neil Gaiman proposes that we give away scary books for Halloween.

I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween. I don’t like wearing costumes myself; I don’t like doing crafty things like making costumes; I don’t like spending money to buy them; I don’t like having all that candy in the house; and orange and black is just about the ugliest color scheme I can think of. But, wow! The idea of giving away books… that changes everything!

Soooooo, here are my picks:

For Littler Kids

The Tailypo, by Joanna & Paul Galdone. I used to read this book to my son Jake when he was still at the read-aloud age (he’s going on 16 now). He still remembers this story vividly — it terrified him but he couldn’t resist it and we checked it out from the library again and again. It’s a classic bit of Americana: old geezer in the woods is cold and hungry and goes out hunting with his dogs. He shoots the tail off a creepy little beast, cooks and eats it, and the beast comes back in the night, scratching at the door… peering over the foot of his bed… repeating over and over again, give me back my tailypo! Which, incidentally, makes it very fun to read aloud!

As an aside, I think Paul Galdone is one of the best children’s book illustrators ever. We read so many of his books when my kids were young: The Little Red Hen, Puss in Boots, The Gingerbread Man. So delightful, all of them. And needless to say, his scribbly style suits this scary story perfectly.

For Bigger Kids

I believe I was in sixth grade when I stumbled across Lois Duncan’s Down A Dark Hall in the school library. It was the first gothic horror story I ever read and it set me on a binge that lasted for about two years (until I discovered sci-fi, topic for a different post).

Down A Dark Hall is a spooky boarding school story. The boarding school is so spooky, in fact, that only four students are talented enough to gain admission. But what, you may well ask, is the nature of these girls’ very special talent? Well you’ll just have to read the book to find out, bwa ha ha ha ha ha! And if you are an impressionable twelve-year-old, don’t start it on a school night. I promise you, you will be reading under the covers into the wee hours because you will not be able to put it down until it’s done…

For Grownups

The scariest thing I’ve ever read is “The Colour Out of Space,” a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. I wish I could give you a detailed plot synopsis but the fact is, I haven’t read it in 30 years and I’m too scared to go back and reread it. I don’t even want to google it! But the gist of it is, an indescribable color appears on a farm in New England. And the color is, I guess, sentient. It spreads all over the farm and beyond, blighting everything it touches. And that’s it. I don’t know why I find that so freaky, the idea of a color outside the spectrum as we know it, and the idea that a color could be a sentient evil being from outer space. Maybe because I am a very visual person to begin with, and colors have always been extremely salient for me. Or maybe it was the writing style, which as I recall was quite dry and matter of fact. The descriptions of the crops withering and turning that color, livestock dying from eating the grass, the village becoming a ghost town, oy! Truly, the stuff of nightmares.

Happy Halloween, and Happy Reading!

Hello world!

Well I think I’m going to give book blogging a try. My real-life book group isn’t very satisfying, so hopefully this will be a good outlet for me to talk about what I’m reading and hear about what others are reading as well. My goal is to post two book reviews per week.