Tag Archives: books

Bookshelf

I am not myself without my massive
collection, a tremendous selection
of history’s best books, as well as ones
that simply got me hooked, taught me how to
look at life differently, see the trees
not for the forest, but for the ink and
ideas that will one day be printed
within. I’ve felled a forest for my mind,
which in many respects is unkind, but
I’ve let it better me (allegedly),
and perhaps this devastation’s only
temporary, this century or so
of mahogany shelves as projections
of self so soon usurped digitally.

Burning Words

It was the first day back from winter break. As the first period bell rang, we begrudgingly sidled into Ms. Nitkin’s 11th grade double-period American Studies class. Nitkin was a feisty old Jewish lesbian from Cheshire, who had long since cemented her reputation as both the hardest and greatest teacher at the school. She didn’t take any bullshit (as she so eloquently told me when she handed back my very first essay with a big fat “D” sprawled across the page), but she made her teaching worthwhile, and always pushed you to your very best. She had given us the week between Christmas and New Years to read Huckleberry Finn, by native Nutmegger Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. Being assigned an entire novel to read over winter break always seemed cruel and unfair, but we did as we were told, and came to that first period class ready to discuss the book and bear Nitkin’s sardonic, witty wrath.

Once we’d all settled down — a good five minutes after the late bell rang — Ms. Nitkin stood up from her desk, hardly taller than she was when sitting down, and made her first declaration to the class: “Nigger. There, I said. Now that that’s out of the way, I hope you all read Huck Finn,” and proceeded with her usual four-question verbal quiz, just to make sure we actually read the book, instead of skimming SparkNotes.

After the quiz, Ms. Nitkin told us a bit of the history of the book’s censorship, as a means of launching us off into a class discussion. Almost immediately, and with much less arguing and shouting than was typically expected of us, the class came to several unanimous decisions: yes, the book uses the word “Nigger,” no, it’s not a very nice word to use, and yes, it was still historically accurate. This set us off on our debate — was Jim the true hero of the book, despite the fact that he was a “nigger?”

The lone black girl in the class — technically Jamaican-American, not African — raised her hand for the first time. Ms. Nitkin called on her to speak, and with seething vitriol she declared her disgust for that word and the shame it brought upon her people. Once again, the rest of the class agreed, and genuinely sympathized as best we could.

But she carried on, spewing vile about how terrible it was for Jim to be called such a thing. Still we all continued to agree, just as we had at the start of the class. She insulted Mark Twain’s worth as an author, and the educational and historical value of the book because of this. Ms. Nitkin tried several times to change the topic, re-iterating that, although the rest of us were white, we were still on her side.

The girl continued her rant, or argument, or declaration, or whatever else it may have been, well into the middle of the second period of the class, interfering with the instructional time allotted to another teacher. The next day, Ms. Nitkin brought in an entirely new book for us to read — this time with only three days to do it. In her final year as a teacher before retirement, Ms. Nitkin changed her curriculum for the first and only time, in effort to satiate the outraged student.

I can’t remember anything about that book we read next, but I sure as hell remember Huck Finn.

Books I’ve read so far this summer

People keep asking me, “B-rock, what should I read?  What are you reading?”

From here on out, I’m gonna direct ’em to this here blog post.

These are the books I’ve read since I got home to NY on May 15th or so.  A little blurb follows each; the ones I recommend get stars.

 They’re in chronological order, because that’s how I remember them.

T.C. Boyle: Budding Prospects.**  It’s a fun book about a couple of guys who go up NorCal way to grow a big bumper crop of weed.  Cheeky, smart.  Tons of fun.

Steve Lopez: The Sunday Macaroni Club.  Meh.  A fun read if you’re familiar with Philly; otherwise, it’s skippable.  The guy did write The Soloist, though.

Carson McCullers: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.  What’s all the fuss about?  It starts with a bang, ends with a whimper.  Like Steinbrenner used to say about Dave Winfield.

Sara Gruen: Water For Elephants.**  An oldster in a nursing home reminisces about his youth, which he spent working for a traveling circus.  Lots of tension.  Very fun.

Jason Epstein: Book Business: Publishing. Past, Present and Future.  Worth reading the first 50 pages if you want to learn about the book business.  After that, a not-too-engaging memoir emerges.

Denbeaux and Hafetz: Guantanamo Lawyers.**  A non-fic book that tells about not only the trials and tribulations of Gitmo detainees, but the life experiences of the lawyers who risked alienation and death threats in their efforts to defend those unseen men, declaimed by the US Gov’t as terrorists.  Amazing.

David Sedaris: Holidays on Ice.  A humorous holiday stories memoir collection.  At times it was grand.  Generally, it was fine – nothing better.

David Benioff: City of Thieves.**  A story about two nearly-dead men caught in the Nazi siege of St. Petersburg in the winter of 1942 and their incredible, farcical quest.  Best book of the summer.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451.  A story that reads less well than the promise of its premise.

Scott Snyder: Voodoo Heart.**  A short story collection by a young writer.  A little uneven at times (the lead story, for instance, is weak), but on the whole very, very good.

Dave Eggers: What is the What.  Good premise.  Very slow read.  A little less whimsical than I want my Eggers, when I want Eggers, though.  I am nonetheless excited for Away We Go.

Yvonne Thompson, MD: Ditchdigger’s Daughter.  A non-fic memoir about the six daughters of one black ditch-digger in the post-war era, and how they all worked hard to become successful.  Surprisingly, given the compelling subject, it’s a little dry.

David Foster Wallace: Consider the Lobster.  A series of essays.  Some good.  I kinda liked it.  But no more than kinda.

Andrew Gottlieb: Drink, Play, F@#k.  Uneven.  Funny at times.  Too bad that it’s fiction.  As a true memoir, would have been stronger.  For some, worth a read, but I wouldn’t go out on a limb for it.

William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying. Hard to follow at times, what with all the character-jumping and internal monologue, but still worth a read on a solitary sunny day.  Tells the tale of the death of a family matriarch in the poor, rural south.  I debated whether or not to give this one stars, as it’s a slog and I sometimes hate it.  But there’s value there, too.

Bernard Otterman: Black Grass.**  A collection of fictionalized Holocaust short stories, written by a Holocaust survivor.  Damn good.  Actually, 4 of the first 5 are damn good.  After that, the potency seeps out.  I nonetheless recommend this book.

John Knowles: A Separate Peace.**  Well, slap me around and call me Shirley.  One of the best books I’ve ever read to come out of the 50’s.  The light Catcher In The Rye shed on disaffected northeastern prep school kids one decade later, this book does for the WWII coming-of-agers.  Really, a masterful book.  I would happily praise it to anyone.

Damn.  Seventeen books in two months.  ….. I am a book nerd.

Read This Book, and other literary thoughts

So, this is interesting. It turns out that David Benioff has written one of the best novels of the last ten years.

Helly, maybe two of ’em.

David Benioff, if you’ve never heard of him before – I hadn’t – wrote the book The 25th Hour, which was turned into a movie starring Ed Norton Jr., Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tony Siragusa, Rosario Dawson, and a bunch of other folks about a white dude who gets busted for being a major heroin dealer and has one night out with his friends, father, and special lady before going up the river for the next ten years. Spike Lee directed it; it’s one of the better pictures of the winter ’02/’03 season and if you’ve not seen it, it’s worth renting. Or buying.

But I digress.

On a whim, I picked up his new book, City Of Thieves, at the Penn Station bookstore when I was coming back home from Philadelphia last Saturday. I started it Sunday aftenroon – on Father’s Day – and finished it that evening. Couldn’t put the gem down. It was that good.

What I’m saying is that the City Of Thieves is damn fine, and worth reading. It’s about a pair of convicts who have to finagle a dozen eggs in a war-ravaged St. Petersburg, or else be executed by the army. I’m not going to go into the details of the book, beyond that, save to say that it operates on a temporal twist: the story starts in the present, goes deeply into the past, and then at the very end, brings it all together and shows you how historical shaped the present into what it is.

I think that this literary technique – writing a book in which the meat of the story takes place in the past, and peppering it with the aha! sensibility afforded by first introducing the affected characters in the present – can actually work quite well. It can come off as trite, but in skilled hands, it works well. Water For Elephants does it, too; I just read that a few weeks ago and I loved that as well.

This back-to-the-future thing, it’s a neat technique. Something to think about.

Other things I like: setting protagonist and foil in opposition to each other. (duh). I am also finding that I enjoy the tool of a (necessary?) sacrifice of a compatriot character at the denoument to allow the protagonist the right/ability to change to be a useful one.