Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Oh right, blogging....

The past 3 Weeks:

What I meant to be doing:
  • Revising my thesis (ew, gross, barf)
  • Reading my R.I.P book list
  • Finishing up the last couple titles on my Margaret Atwood list
  • Writing Reviews
What I actually ended up doing:
  • Driving a bazillion miles around New England
  • Interviewing for jobs
  • Not hearing back from those interviews
  • Applying to new jobs
  • Fussing about unemployment!
  • Avoiding my thesis
So, needless to say, the job search and-- to a unproductively lesser degree-- the thesis project have taken over my life and my well-intentioned effort to re-start my blog kind of fizzled right off the bat... Bad Ali!

I am going to try to balance my life a bit better now. In theory I'm going to use reading and reviewing as rewards for "good behavior." If I write a thesis chapter, I get to go through the blog roll and comment. If I apply to 2 new jobs, I get to post a review... etc. etc. 

We'll see how well it works...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VI

There's something about the fall that just calls out for a cup of cocoa, a guttering candle, and a wicked spooky  paperback (e-books just don't do it for me in this situation...no atmosphere I suppose?). In response to that 'call of the creepy' comes the annual R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (RIP) challenge hosted by Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings. The challenge asks readers to pick up new reads that could be classified as mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror, or supernatural and to report back about their experiences. I've decided to go for the Peril the First category (4 reviewed books) because I have quite the horror TBR pile going on and I need the incentive to make inroads.  

My projected reading list (subject to change of course!) is as follows:

1. The Stand by Stephen King
2. The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson
3. Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
4. Koko by Peter Straub
5. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

I've heard great stuff about all of these and I'm excited to start digging in to them! 

What's your favorite fall/Halloween read (or movie!? I'm always game for a good scream-at-the-tv marathon)

Review-- Ape House by Sara Gruen

Title: Ape House
Author: Sara Gruen
Published: 2010

Why I picked it up: I was a big fan of Gruen's Water For Elephants so when I stumbled across this one in the library I knew I had to pick it up. The back cover features positive reviews from authors and big name researchers of primate socialization and I thought that was an interesting combination. Factually accurate AND an entertaining piece of fiction? Innnnteresting.

What it's about:  Part mystery, part critique of American fascination with reality television, part Discovery Channel special, Ape House is the story of six bonobos (a species of high-functioning great apes) who have developed the ability to communicate with humans through sign language and a complex pictographic system as a result of their time at the Great Ape Language Lab. The apes, along with their human trainer/researcher Isabel Duncan, are breaking boundaries of inter-species communication and Philadelphia Inquirer reporter John Thigpen can't wait to dig deeper into their incredible story. Shortly after John's interview with Isabel and the apes, however, the Language Lab falls victim to a horrific bombing and the story takes a more sinister turn. An Animal Rights group claims responsibility for the act and for subsequent acts of domestic terrorism with the aim of shutting down the Language Lab and 'liberating' the bonobos. With Isabel in the hospital recovering from the bombing and John halfway across the country, the Language Lab is shut down and the apes are sold off to a mysterious bidder. A few weeks later the bonobos resurface as the stars of a new reality tv show (the Ape House) that promises to push the boundaries of taste and figure out how far, exactly people will go in their drive to consume all things unscripted. With the entrance  of a teenaged green haired militant who may or may not have ties to John's past, a group of unruly strippers, a television producer with no morals, and a drooling pit bull named Booger, Isabel and John soon find that their quest to free the bonobos will take them down paths they'd never expected.

What I thought: I'm really torn about this book. On the one hand, the bonobos made for fabulously engaging characters. Each ape had a unique and developed personality (Mbongo-- the prototypical 'middle child'/sulking adolescent-- was particularly well drawn. I wanted to give him a hug and a cheeseburger (his favorite food) every time he showed up. The majority of the apes' dialogue came directly from transcripts of Gruen's visits to the Great Ape Trust complex in Iowa so I was fascinated by the complex thoughts and logic systems they demonstrated. The ape's characterization raised some great questions about Animal Rights and capabilities (one of the most interesting questions came up when the senior male ape-- Sam-- identifies the bombing culprit. Could Sam testify in court? He has the ability to communicate and he was an eye witness to the crime... can we call him to the stand?).
I was less impressed with the human characters as they're considerably more two dimensional than their bonobo partners. I was also turned off by the pacing of the second half of the book. Once John and Isabel arrive at the set of the reality tv show things start happening really really quickly and the narrative gets choppy and overworked. Too many dramatic plot elements (a random exploding meth lab? What?!)  and not enough reflection for my taste.

I'd give the book a 3/5, but would recommend it whole-heartedly if you're looking for an entertaining but educational look at the social lives of great apes and their uncanny similarities to those of their human cousins

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Top Ten on my TBR this Fall

I was a frequent Top Ten Tuesday participant on my last blog and, I must confess, getting back into that habit was one of the things that I was most excited about when I started thinking about getting a new site going. The meme-- run by the great crew at The Broke and the Bookish-- encourages book bloggers to share, compare and generally gush about a select list of books or characters that they have some kind of passionate response to (or expect to have that kind of response to in this week's case...)

The list this week is the Top 10 Books on your To Be Read Pile for this fall. My TBR list isn't a nice neat stack with any sort of strict order to it, so who knows if I'll actually read any of these books this fall or if I'll run off and read whatever strikes my fancy at a given moment... but these are books that I absolutely, positively (Absotively! in the words of Grahame Coats from Anansi Boys) want to read in the near future.

1. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch.  I love the idea of this book-- reading as therapy that deepens our understanding and appreciation of our connection to the world around us.

2. Graceland by Chris Abani  I first came across Abani's work in a graduate seminar on West African fiction and have been absolutely hooked ever since. He's an incredible man who has been through some horrible things but who still manages to love, laugh, and forgive. If you haven't already, please please please check out his TED Talk! Author-crush aside... I'm excited to read Graceland because it deals with the real issues of globalization and cultural identity from a child's perspective. Also, the child protagonist is a precocious Elvis Presley impersonator... What's not to love there?

3. The Marriage Plot by Geoffrey Eugenides This one is pretty straightforward. Middlesex= Incredible, The Marriage Plot= Eugenides next book, Ali = sooooo pumped to read.

4. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan  I'm a bit behind the crowd in reading this one but since it's received such strong reviews I think I'm obligated to give it a try. I'm also drawn to the term "Goon Squad." Why don't we use that any more?

5. American Gods/Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman I read my first Gaiman last week (review is here) and really enjoyed it. American Gods seems to be the big kahuna of his work so I plan to start there and then work my way up to his newer short fictions

6. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak *What? You haven't read this?! And you call yourself a bookie?!* I know, I know, there is no excuse here. I have it queued up in my Kindle ready to go as soon as I can find the motivation to start

7. Zone One by Colson Whitehead Due out in mid-October. If you haven't read Whitehead's John Henry Days or The Intuitionist I highly recommend you do! JHD is one of my all time favorites. Zone One, Whitehead's latest book, is a it of a departure from his earlier work-- it's a post-apocalyptic zombie novel, for one thing-- but I've heard that his dense, playful approach to language is the same so I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do with the horror genre.

8. The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje I had the incredible privilege of sitting down with Ondaatje last spring to talk about his poetry, his upcoming work, and (oddly enough) his connection to the African American author and social activist James Baldwin. He mentioned that the protagonist of his latest novel was one of his favorites to write because the character-- a young boy whose adventures are limited to the decks of a small ship travelling from Colombo to London in the 1950s-- relies so heavily on his own imagination and childlike logic to make sense of the world around him. Ondaatje is a poet at heart so I'm looking forward to the imagery and lyricism that characterizes much of his work.

9. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi A lecturer at my school gave a great talk last fall about the symbolic use of traditional Islamic dress in recent Middle Eastern fiction and it occurred to me that I've never really engaged with authors of the Islamic faith. I went up to the speaker afterwards and asked for some recommendations and she immediately suggested I check out El Saadawi. I picked up the book that afternoon but it has been languishing on my shelf ever since.

10. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka I taught Otsuka's previous book, When the Emperor Was Divine, to some of my multicultural lit classes last spring and they (and I!) were enthralled by the narrative voice and the heart-rendingly powerful story. Buddha continues that tale of Japanese mail-order brides sent to America in the 1920s by laying out the challenging, but poetically beautiful struggles those women undergo as they settle into new lives in a new country. 

What are you excited about this fall? Anything I need to add to my list?

P.S. How had I not heard about this?! MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman. A look inside the creative process behind the Maus graphic novels

Monday, August 29, 2011

Review-- Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys

Title: Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman

Where I got it: Library (in a side note... I went to the library riiiight before Hurricane Irene was projected to hit my area and was tickled pink to see that the parking lot was more crowded than the local grocery store. There were wicked lines of people stocking up on books to help them ride out the storm :)

Why I picked it up: I'm almost ashamed to say that this is my first experience with Gaiman... People I respect have been blogging and talking about him for years now, and I've had him on my TBR wishlist for months and months, but I never felt in the mood. When his name came up (about a bazillion times) on the NPR Top 100 Science Fiction/Fantasy Books List, however, I knew I had to get cracking.

What It's About: I'm not entirely sure how to characterize Anansi Boys (I'm told that's a frequent problem for readers of Gaiman's work...); it's part myth-based fantasy, part family drama, part absurdist comedy, and part romance. Set within the complex world mythology developed in the critically and publicly acclaimed 2003 novel American Gods, the plot of Anansi Boys focuses on the clash of personalities and agendas that occurs when an extremely dysfunctional family is reunited after the death of its patriarch. Given the traumatically embarrassing nature of most of his childhood interactions with his father, Charles "Fat Charlie" Nancy almost feels relieved that his father has died and therefore will not be able to attend Charlie's upcoming wedding. His plan to get through the funeral and return to his practical, responsible life in London is set wildly off-track, however, when he learns that his father was not simply an eccentric gadfly, but rather the trickster god Anansi. Shortly following this discovery, the passive, self-effacing Fat Charlie is saddled with a previously unknown brother named Spider who has the enviable and incredibly irritating power of bending the universe to his will. The drama set-off by Anansi's death sends the brothers off on a spiraling adventure through personal, professional and fantastical mishaps as they struggle to negotiate their relationship to one another and to the godly lineage they've inherited. They face danger from enemies of both the human and the other-than-fully-human variety and-- along with a crew of entertaining (if slightly 2-dimensional) supporting characters-- try to bring stability back to the world(s) their father loved to disrupt. Things get very weird, very quickly.

What I Thought: Whoa, Nelly! I felt like I was on a roller coaster while reading this book. Events, relationships, mythological references and mystical abilities seemed to come out of the woodwork every time I turned a page, and I often found myself saying "Wait... What just happened?" and flipping back a couple pages to make sure I actually knew what was going on.  The world mythology structuring the book is incredibly dense, but Gaiman prefers to skate across the surface of that world and allow the reader only occasional glimpses into its depths. This approach--while frustrating at times-- allows readers to piece together their own understanding of the god world and its relationship to the human world while simultaneously ensuring that the plot stays fast-paced and largely character-driven

Speaking of characters... I was shocked that I liked Fat Charlie, Spider and the odd grab-bag of characters they encounter. Fat Charlie begins the book as a spineless, self-effacing little wimp, and Spider is a selfish, inconsiderate jerk.. but somehow (magically?) they grew on me as they grew on each other, and I began to actively root for their success over the forces of evil (and the less malevolent but equally powerful forces of a coven of meddling little old women). It doesn't hurt that the brothers and the unnamed narrator are prone to delivering both hilarious one-liners and beautifully poetic ruminations on the power of stories to structure the universe.

In a way, the book reminded me of a more literary Stephen King story-- it had a similar "epic journey of discovery through a threatening world structured by a complex and contradictory mythology" thing going on. I'd compare it to the early books in King's Dark Tower series (and that's high praise considering how much I love the first four books in that group!).

Select quotes: "Stories are like spiders, with all they long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look so pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each."

"Charlie filled his lungs and he began to sing. 'I am Charlie," he sang. "I am Anansi's son. Listen as I sing my song. Listen to my life.'
He sang them the song of a boy who was half a god, and who was broken into two by an old woman with a grudge. He sang of his father, and he sang of his mother.
He sang of names and words, of the building blocks beneath the real, the worlds that make worlds, the truths beneath the way things are; he sang of appropriate ends and just conclusions for those who would hurt him and his.
He sang the world."

Recommendation: 4/5 I would recommend this book to anyone interested in world mythologies, fantasy-based adventures and dark humor.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review-- Bloodlines Collection

Title: Bloodlines: Tales from the African Diaspora

Editor: Veronica Henry

Presented by MyAfricanDiaspora.com

This collection of short stories was inspired by the silences many members of the African diaspora face when they try to trace their genealogies back past the time of slavery. In 2007 the editors-- Veronica Henry and her partner, Eric Deal-- took the dramatic step of sending DNA samples to the genetic-testing site AfricanAncestry.com in hopes of shining a light back through their shadowed histories. The website offered to certify* DNA strains as stemming from particular regions, nations, or even cultural groups on the African mainland (*literally-- you get a formal certificate of ancestry at the end of the process.. with a seal and everything!). When Henry's results drew a direct "bloodline" back to the Mende people of Sierra Leone, and Deal was linked to the Kru people of Liberia (amongst others) the couple immediately began researching their respective cultural groups and reaching out to the communities to which they suddenly seemed to belong.

Henry and Deal soon discovered that they were not alone in their project-- this type of genetic testing has become quite a business in African American and Afro-Carribbean communities-- and started up a web community to facilitate and promote international communication and to give members a space to finally say "This is where I'm from. These were my people." The website, MyAfricanDiaspora.com, quickly attracted new and established authors who were looking for an opportunity to "write themselves back into history" by spelling out their ancestral bloodlines. The collection is the result of this effort.

I spend so much time explaining the history of the collection because it is this contextualization that makes Bloodlines such a special work. While there are some superior efforts ("No World Order" by Jeff Carroll, "Near But Far" by Boureima Soumana and Henry's own "My Soul to Free" in particular), many of the pieces in the collection fall a bit flat when taken purely on their own merit as literature: some of the dialogue is stiff and unnatural; many of the plots are a bit obvious and cliche; few characters approach three-dimensionality. If, however, you read the book as a sociological effort of a community to negotiate their way into historical understandings of self that were denied to them by the disruptive trauma of slavery... the collection becomes pure magic.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Depth vs. Breadth Debate

I'm in the process of creating mock syllabi to take with me to job talks and prep school interviews and have run into the (neverending!) argument with myself over who and what to include in the reading list! In my last post I talked a little bit about my discomfort with the practice of one-of-eachism prevalent in Western approaches to Global Literature, but (as I discover EVERY year) this issue of text discrimination goes far beyond the boundaries of so-called "Multicultural Lit." There are just so many wonderful, thought-provoking, challenging books out there... how can I possibly winnow them down to a manageable list for my students? I feel guilty leaving texts out-- like I'm saying "Well this one just isn't important enough for y'all to read..." But at the same time, trying to cram too many things into one year, or worse, one semester, essentially guarantees that my students will only come to the most cursory and superficial appreciation of the themes and complexity of the works. An over-stuffed syllabus forces me and my class to merely "cover" a text-- and that term grates on me painfully because it implies a shutting down, closing off, "covering up" of exploration, questioning, and challenging. Reading to cover suggests that you're only reading the cover and ignoring all the messy details within.

The anxiety that I always face with this tension was spelled out wonderfully in Mark Sample's post to ProfHacker today. In the post he teases out his argument for a pedagogy of "uncoverage" rather than "coverage"-- one that supports a process of conscious "unearthing" and exploration instead of surveying and sampling.  I'm not sure that I buy Sample's assertion 100%; a sense of the broad, longitudinal "survey" course is necessary, afterall, in order to give a particular work or author appropriate context (also, I find his last name ironically amusing given the drive of his argument away from one-of-eachism and causal "sampling"...). But, at the same time, I can't help agreeing with his statement (paraphrased from Wiggins and McTighe’s book Understanding by Design) that " in the race to cover more ground—more history, more literature, more formulas, more physics—we can end up actually covering or hiding the underlying principles that make those subjects important in the first place". In an ironic way, I think literature classes-- particularly at the advanced high school and undergraduate levels-- are particularly guilty of this blind consumerist approach. It makes me wonder, Do I dislike Renaissance and Victorian lit because I actually find it dry and too distanced from contemporary life? Or do I dislike it because the survey courses I suffered through in college did not allow me the time to reflect, build connections and find a personal relationship with the texts? I was asked to consume large amounts of material and to build a capacity for spitting back quotes and theoretical frames to form cogent critical arguments, but I don't feel as though I was ever asked to really live with the texts and get to know them on their own terms. 

Wiggen and McTigue offer a 5 Step program for reading/learning that might have helped me "dig deeper" into the literature that I merely "covered": 
  1. Unearth it
  2. Analyze it
  3. Question it
  4. Prove it
  5. Generalize it
I like this deep dig philosophy towards understanding and I've used a similar model to teach argumentation and critical thinking skills in the past, but I can't help dwelling on the practical implications here... it's so time consuming! Think of all the stories and experiences I'd have to leave out if I asked students to "live" with each piece we read? Couldn't the unearthing process go on ad finitum? And how do I balance the needs for breadth and coverage demanded by departmental, institutional or national standards (especially in a NCLB era?) with a desire to give students the opportunity to find their own paths through the course materials (or beyond them if a particular student's unearthing process leads them in directions I may not have anticipated?).

Long story short-- Syllabi construction= STRESS! 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Salman Rushdie and the Ethics of Multiculturalism

A couple of days ago I stumbled across an article in Jadalliyya (a phenomenal ezine run by the Arab Studies Institute) celebrating the 30 year anniversary of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. The article was half critical reading of the book/exploration of its varied themes and devices, and half reflection on the impact that Rushdie's work has had on the way Western academics, teachers and general readers view multicultural lit. While applauding the 'cultural turn' in academia, the author, Anthony Alessandrini, worries that the commendable Western drive toward 'inclusivity' actually encourages teachers and students of non-Western literature to read in less-than-ethical ways. The pressure to fairly and equally represent cultures not one's own can cause real anxiety for those readers determined to create a 'multicultural' TBR list or syllabus. I ran into this problem last winter when asked to put together a reading list for an "Introduction to Multicultual Literature" course for first year students-- what writers and texts do I include? Do I try to take a longitudinal study that covers as many areas of the globe/cultural experience as possible? Or do I try for more depth and read multiple works from one or two areas? Am I doing violence to groups that I 'leave out'? How do I fit 'World Literature' into one semester?!

Alessandrini argues in his article that the anxiety I faced last year is the result of an insidious reading practice that he calls "one-of-eachism." He describes the practice as follows:

This is a way of reading in which an individual book is given a sort of representational status, asked to stand in for a particular country or culture or group. One-of-eachism, in other words, is the process by which an individual novel, in any of the limiting contexts I’ve described above, comes to be considered not as a novel from India but as the novel from India — or, in other cases, the novel from the Caribbean, or the novel from Africa, or the novel from “the Islamic World,” and so on. This is rarely a conscious or premeditated move, but rather a process that evolves through the actions of various publishing, translating, reviewing, and teaching institutions (not to mention the literary award circuit).

Alessandrini's major concern with this practice (one that I 120% share with him) is that it dangerously misrepresents the relationship between literature-- particularly fiction!-- and history. Literature is not intended (I believe) to give a reader "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" about the people, cultures, geographies and eras it discusses, rather literature is a vehicle for exploring possibilities and for opening up histories and futures that may or may not have any place in the cut-and-dry truth of the world's experience. Literature gives us an opportunity to interrupt and interrogate history-- to play with its vagaries and its boundaries. Mistaking a novel for a (or, worse, as the) reference book for a region or people is a dangerous and, I'd argue, an unethical act.  

I'm reminded at this point of a humorous anecdote Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie often tells about the dangers of "Single Stories." She recalls that at a book signing for her first novel-- Purple Hibiscus-- a young Mid-Western American girl comes up to her and gushes about how much she loved the book before leaning in close, dropping her voice, and commenting that it was "so sad to hear that Nigerian men beat their wives." It was true that there was a wife-beating Nigerian man in the novel, but Adichie was surprised and concerned by the girl's movement from specific literary example to broad historical  generality. To counter this, Adichie responded that she had just finished reading American Psycho and that it was such a shame that all American young men were blood-thirsty serial killers. The American girl had a single story of Nigerian life (Purple Hibiscus, for her, was the Nigerian novel/history) but-- luckily!-- American Psycho was not the only narrative of American life available to Adichie!

In his article Alessandrini argues that Rushdie's Midnight's Children offers a reading practice that may help us avoid falling into the narrow traps of "one-of-eachism" and "literature-as-historical-referenceism." He sums up his argument by drawing on the language of Rushdie's narrator:

Early on, Saleem tries to prepare us for what is to come in his tale: “there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumors, so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane!” “I have been a swallower of lives,” he warns us, “and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow the lot as well.” This call to multiplicity, the demand to attend to the many stories inside each individual story (especially the stories of those who have been dispossessed and forgotten), can, I think, provide a potent antidote to a pervasive way of reading non-Western literature

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back to the Blogosphere!

A year and a half ago I created a book-blog (http://fictionflirt.blogspot.com/) in hopes of joining the (hyper?)active community of reviewers and recommenders flourishing on the internet. I was in the middle of my first year of graduate school for English Lit and while I loved the deep, academic discussions in my seminar classes, I felt as though the joy and sheer pleasure of reading was being a bit beaten down by the serious, theory-driven approach dominant in the classroom. Book blogging gave me a chance to connect with readers who turned to books not because they needed source material for a publication or a term paper, but because reading made them happy, made them think differently about their own lives, or made them stretch their imaginations to explore new worlds and new ways of thinking.  The recommendations and reviews offered by the blogging community guided my pleasure-reading and introduced me to some of new favorite escapist literature. Blogging was my release valve from the 'heaviness' of grad school and kept me in touch with the reasons I loved reading in the first place.

Unfortunately, after only 6 or 7 months of semi-regular reviewing and commenting I found the combined demands of coursework and teaching (and of an anemic but determined social life...) to be too much and my poor little book blog faltered and gradually faded out from neglect. For the past year and half I've been running myself ragged finishing up classes and slaving away as a graduate instructor of First-Year Composition and Introduction to Literature classes at a large public University and the idea of "pleasure reading" seemed a mere pipe dream. Now that I'm entering my last semester of Thesis writing and venturing out into the academic job market, however, I'm hoping that I'll have the time (and energy) to start tackling my absurd TBR pile and to rejoin the conversations online :)

This blog is intended to be a record and a review of my reading, a space for reflection about bookish concerns, and an outlet for the ranting and raving that often comes with being an English teacher. I plan to approach the blog as I do many of my classrooms; to see it as a space where I send my research, opinions, questions, concerns out into the community and hope that others will receive, consider, complicate or even combat my reflections. I believe that the blogosphere, like the classroom, is a community that must be built, respected, and carefully nourished. I hope to do it more justice this time around :)