Friday, July 30, 2010

Hop on the bus, Gus

Ah ... who doesn't love Simon & Garfunkel ... or at least Simon?  There are very few types of music that I can listen to while reading, and even fewer bands, but Simon & Garfunkel slides right on by beneath my conscious mind like the river flows beneath an inner tube on a lazy, summer Sunday afternoon.  It's just so ... groovy.

Anyhow, it's Friday and that means that Jennifer over at Crazy for Books is hosting her weekly blogger coffee klatch, known as the Book Blogger Hop.  It's a great way to check out the old and the new of blogs practicing or otherwise related to the sacred occupation of the literary critic.  It's definitely worth your time.  And if you find a new blog that you like, leave a comment and let them know.  After all, we're all in this together.

And ... if you've stumbled on The Literate Man as a result of  the Book Blogger Hop, well then, welcome!  Feel free to take a look around.  We have some great sales going on at the moment.  Might I suggest you take a gander at The Spy Who Came In from the Cold?  Or perhaps you'd like to try on our all time favorite, Sometimes A Great Notion?  Well, I'll leave you to it, then. I 'll be at the register if you need a fitting room or have any other questions.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dubliners (James Joyce) (8.9/10.0)

DublinersI have a confession to make ... I don’t really like short stories. I mean, I see their utility for teaching the elements of story structure and characterization, and I appreciate the odd twist that makes for a memorable story scene, but I never find them really fulfilling. And I generally forget them very quickly. They are, I would contend, the rice cakes of the literary scene ... universally respected as the most healthy of literary treats, but consistently failing to deliver any actual nutrition to their hungry readers. I find it hard to believe that I am alone in this. Come on, be honest. Have you really gone out of your way to read short stories since you were ten and forced to read The Lottery?

Now, when I state a dislike of short stories in the context of a review of James Joyce, I feel guilty ... and I mean seriously guilty. Even the mention of Joyce conjures for me images of the staunch Irish Catholicism that I endured as a child and have been running from ever since. It’s enough to make me want to confess.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned ... it has been more than three years since my last short story.”

Fortunately for me, Dubliners is a bit different. First published in 1914, Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories (okay, it’s really 14 short stories and one novella) that depict middle class life in Dublin just after the turn of the twentieth century. The stories revolve primarily around topics that are near and dear to the Irish heart: death (The Sisters, A Painful Case, and (of course) The Dead), poverty (After the Race, The Boarding House, and Clay), alcohol (Counterparts and Grace), and politics (Ivy Day in the Committee Room). Now, even as I write it, that depiction sounds downright drab, but Joyce’s lyrical skills are at their peak in these stories, and every single one manages to warm your heart just as if you yourself were standing next to a peat fire in some country pub out on the cliffs of the old sod ordering a round of pints for the lads.

Between the consistency of the Dublin scene that it paints and the beautiful effect of Joyce’s lyrical prose, Dubliners is a very enjoyable read. In fact, though it was written by the same Joyce that we love and hate for Ulysses and (ugh) Finnegans Wake, Dubliners is even completely understandable! It makes me wonder what Joyce might have produced if he hadn’t grown so enamored of experimenting with form and language. Not that what he wrote wasn’t good ... I mean, the best ... oh there I go feeling guilty again. That’s what happens when you criticize the master. Does anyone have a rosary?

Monday, July 19, 2010

An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser) (8.7/10.0)

An American TragedyDon’t you all miss the days when it seemed that every great artist was an unabashed socialist? Ok, so maybe I don’t actually remember those days at all, but I sometimes feel like I lived for brief periods in the dark worlds of corrupt American capitalism painted by Dreiser, Steinbeck, and even Hemingway (oh, heck, let’s through Kerouac in there too), among many others. Don’t you? I have this purely romanticized vision of the turn of the twentieth century and the years that followed as a battleground of ideologies when it seemed like a system that valued human relationships (as opposed to supply and demand) might actually raise the human race to another evolutionary level. Of course, the intervening years have largely proven that dream to be just that—a dream—devoid of any grounding in human nature. But I like to reminisce in any case. Ah, those were the (completely nonexistent) days ...

No one, and I mean no one, is better at painting a straightforward tale of the evil influences of American capitalism than Theodore Dreiser. He’s like the Brothers Grimm of the American working classes or like the Dr. Suess of anti-capitalist ideology—except that the Cat in the Hat wears a bushy mustache and carries a hammer and sickle. Though 25 years separate them, Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) are almost mirror images of each other as they treat the effect of unbridled American ambition on first women and then men, who grow up in Darwinistic America devoid (individually or collectively) of any strong moral compass. The fact that Dreiser’s novels continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century is a testament to his ability to find universal and enduring themes.

An American Tragedy was based upon well-publicized actual events in upstate New York in 1906. Here’s the short, short version of the story: upwardly-mobile boy from a solid family takes advantage of country girl; aristocratic third-party female then expresses interest in boy; boy dumps country girl for a chance at the good life; but country girl is pregnant; boy thinks, “what to do ... I know ... murder,” or is it? Maybe it was just an accident.  I will say that in the actual events, the boy was convicted of murder and executed by electric chair. But you’ll have to read the book itself to find out what happens to his on-page persona, Clyde Griffiths.

This is one of a very few books that I have re-read over the course of my life. And usually I find that my understanding of the story has changed in the interim. Not so here. Dreiser is forever an idealist and an advocate for the redemptive power of empathy. Though his dream seems further away now than ever, it is still undeniably enjoyable to inhabit that world for a week or two. Give it a shot ...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Some Folks Like to Get Away, Take a Holiday from the Neighborhood, HOP a Flight to Miami Beach or to Hollywood ...

Ok.  That was a stretch, but it's slim pickins on the hop-related puns this morning.  It was either Billy Joel or Cyndi Lauper (I hop, you hop, we hop ...).  I do live in Miami Beach, and I think we can all agree that Billy Joel was the better choice in any case.

It's Friday again (where does the time go?  No, seriously, where does it go?  I only managed one measly post again this week--though it WAS a juicy addition), and that means that Crazy for Books is doing the book blogger hop all weekend long.  The cover is only $10 (send c/o The Literate Man in Miami), and I've been told that the band comes on at around 10.  So dive right in, check out all the excellent work being done around the world by your fellow lit-bloggers and leave a comment here and there to give them the attention that they so desperately crave props that they all deserve.

Jennifer's question this week is what book are you dying to get your hands on.  I'm going with that Book of Kells that sits in Trinity College in Dublin - that's got to be worth a pretty penny, right?  If anyone wants to send it along, I will happily split the cover money that I receive from this week's Hop.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (John le Carré) (8.5/10.0)

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
You’d have to be a product of Generation Y not to love a good old Cold War spy story. No matter how many times I see or hear or read it, the ideological conflict as presented in the form of a dour-faced, steroid-pumping, muscle-bound Russki versus a hard-scrabble, street-smart, freedom-loving American is enough to bring back memories of bomb drills at school, a vision of Reagan declaring the Great Satan, and those epic Celtics/Lakers battles that defined a decade. All of us here at The Literate Man freely admit that we still pause in our channel surfing to watch long scenes (which we all know by heart) of Rocky IV, Red October, and Red Dawn, among others. Ah ... those were the days when gas was cheap and you knew who your enemies were or, more importantly, where your enemies were. It seems so long ago now.

What was I talking about again? Oh right, the novel. Sorry about that, I got lost in Cold War reverie.

So, I picked up my first le Carré novel, Absolute Friends, in the Frankfurt Airport on return from a visit to the former East Germany and the Czech Republic in, oh say, 2004. The novel chronicles the Cold War relationship of Mundy and Sasha, who work together to help MI6 bring down East Germany and eventually find themselves betrayed by the forces of globalization, which (as products of the Cold War, like me) they never fully understand. It was a very enjoyable book, and I made a mental note to pick up more le Carré as I was able. I saw the film adaptation of The Constant Gardner and I read Mission Song, both of which I enjoyed, though neither as much as Absolute Friends. And so, when my mother sent along a copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (thanks, Mom!), I thought it would be an enjoyable read and a trip down memory lane along the lines of what occurs when I watch any of the aforementioned Cold War movies.

I. WAS. BLOWN. AWAY. It was like I was that high-tech PPSI punch-measuring machine at the end of the Ivan Drago training montage in Rocky IV. This is—bar none—the best Cold War spy story we have ever heard, seen, or read. And I now understand why it was named one of Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels. Ok, so about the story. It’s dark ... and I mean depths-of-the-human-soul dark, German winter solstice dark, Vito Corleone’s office dark, well ... you get the idea. Alec Leamas heads up the West Berlin office of the British Secret Service (known as the Circus), until his best double agent is killed, his leadership comes under severe scrutiny, and he is recalled to London. Then, in the Cold War espionage equivalent of a last-second, Hail Mary pass into the end zone, Leamas is fired, sent to jail, and hung out for defection like a slab of beef set dangling from the roof of a den of wolves (sound familiar, The Departed?). Anyway, the bait is taken, the trap sprung, and Leamas goes over the wall to East Germany, leaving the lovely (love interest) Liz behind with instructions not to try to follow him. His mission? To frame his counterpart, the East German Muntz, as a double-agent for the British.

I’d give you the rest of the story, but then there’d be no point in you reading it. And you need to read it. The plot is exquisitely crafted, with twists and turns aplenty, but it is the psychological realism in the context of counter-espionage that sets the book apart from anything I have ever read on the subject. Le Carré does an excellent job of describing the amorality practiced on both sides of the Berlin Wall (and the English Channel) in the name of idealism. My advice? Turn off that rerun of The Hunt for Red October (as good as it is—I love Sean Connery as a Russki, I don’t care what his accent is) and get your hands on a copy of this book. Do it now, comrade.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I Hop (Lawyer's Note: The Literate Man has no affiliation direct or otherwise with the International House of Pancakes)

Is it Friday already?  So it is, which means that the Book Blogger Hop is goin' on over at Crazy for Books.  There's an astonishing number of great book-related blogs out there.  So head on over to the site, take a look around, do the hop, and help get the word out about The Literate Man.

A brief note to all the Literati--apologies for the lack of quantity this week.  My caseload has me seriously underwater at the moment.  But what we lack in numbers, we more than made up for in quality.  Read Sometimes a Great Notion ... seriously ... you'll thank me for it.

Also, while potentially anti-literary, you're all invited to stay with me in South Beach to experience the Miami Heat taking the next five NBA Finals in a row. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sometimes a Great Notion (Ken Kesey) (10.0/10.0)

Sometimes a Great Notion (Penguin Classics)That this greatest work of iconic, if underappreciated, American author Ken Kesey is not more widely read is, we consider, one of the great tragedies of modern American literary culture. Kesey is generally best known for his groundbreaking 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and his role as the leader of the cross country- and LSD-tripping Merry Pranksters, whose exploits were famously chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Both are excellent works and well worth a read, especially if you have interest in either the Beat Generation (whose individualistic ideals and perspective Kesey largely inherited) or the drug-fueled love-fest of West Coast America in the 1960’s and 70’s. But any lover of great literature, particularly great American literature, and particularly particularly great male American literature, is doing himself a serious disservice by ignoring what is undoubtedly Kesey’s greatest work, Sometimes a Great Notion.

The novel chronicles the Stamper family of Oregon, whose fiercely-independent and hard-scrabble life is played out among the teeming, danger-filled forests that they log and on the banks of the Wakonda River, whose waters have eroded the land about the Stamper family home to the point that the live on a virtual island. Like the setting, the characters are well-drawn and endlessly interesting, from the half-crazed patriarch, Henry Stamper, to the physically brutal but dependable eldest son, Hank Stamper, to the patient loyalty and creeping desire of Hank’s wife, Vivian Stamper, to the softer intellectual person of Leland Stamper, the estranged half-brother of Hank who returns to the family logging business just as the Stampers stand off against powerful union interests, which demand that the family shut down operations to support an ongoing loggers strike.

But it is not just the compelling story of rugged individualism and fierce family loyalty that makes this perhaps the greatest novel ever written in American Literature (and we say perhaps only because we have not read them all). Kesey also innovates in style, using a technique of multiple first-person, stream of consciousness accounts of thought and action to bring the gritty characters to life. The points of view move from person to person furiously over the course of a single page and the reader can imagine the 72-hour amphetamine-fueled stints that Kesey admitted to in his writing of it. Whatever your criticisms of his technique, the effect is pure artistry—a symphony of action and emotion that builds to a crescendo that pits the Stamper family against all the arrayed forces of man and nature.

We have no problem placing this book at the top of our list of books for men and recommend it above all others for its incredible story and innovative style.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Doin' the Hop

It's time for the Book Blogger Hop once again.  This time, Jennifer over at Crazy for Books has asked all of us bloggers to give our names and explain a little about how we got started in the biz.  Ok, so I'm Patrick and I'm addicted to books (Hi, Patrick).  As for how we got started, I'm reposting from an interview that we did over at Australian book blog Page Turners not so long ago. 

"We’re new kids on the block, having started this past March, but we’re in it for the long haul. As for the reason why, a National Public Radio story some years back determined that only 20% of fiction readers (in the US, UK, and Canada) were men. I’d be shocked if the number were higher in Australia. Not only do I think that this is a tragedy for men on an individual level (as I said above, I think fiction allows us to understand ourselves and one another), but it is a tragedy for society at large where a little empathy and understanding can sometimes make all the difference between uninformed violence and informed compassion. There is a real debate over whether the fiction-reading gap is due to a genuine lack of interest in reading on the part of men or a result of the heavy marketing dollars that are poured into romance and young adult novels based around female characters (the so-called “chick lit”). I tend to think that it’s is a combination of the two, but I do think that the publishing industry bears some responsibility for the actual state of affairs. Hopefully, with the continued development of reading technologies (an area in which men are definitely interested), that will begin to change. In any case, we at 'The Literate Man' want to do our small part to get men reading again."

And that's us in a nutshell.  Come on in, take a look around, take off your coat (it's summer down here in Miami, after all), have a seat, put your feet up, and settle in for a good read.  Oh yeah--and leave a comment--we want to hear from you!