Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pride and Prejudice at The Jersey Shore (and, Oh Yeah, The Daily Beast Calls Fiction Readers Stupid)

We try to stay above the fray here at TLM.  Really.  We rarely comment on headlines, except when they relate directly to the literary scene, which (it seems to us) happens less and less frequently.  And when I refer to the literary scene, I generally mean well-recognized prizes for established literary genius (see our recycled review of Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa's work, Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras here).  See how I did that?  I just recycled Vargas Llosa for the third time.  Priceless.

Pride And PrejudiceAs for the would-be literary trolls, we try not to feed them.  I mean, have you heard so much as a peep from us about toddler Justin Bieber's upcoming memoir?  Not a one.  How about Snooki's pending contribution to the world's literary heritage?  Nada.  Though, I do fully expect that it will have all the girlish intrigue of Emma and the social commentary of a modern-day Pride and Prejudice.  Oh, I shouldn't have written that ... temptation too great ... but no ... I can't ... I shouldn't ... I can't help it .. oh what the hell? 

"All round chicks?" interjected Mr. The Situation laying aside his teacup.  "Yeah, I know a few.  But those bitties gots ta have skills in tequila slammin, booty bumpin and grindin, Jersey hairspray art, ID'n muscle cars, patchin up old wife beaters, mixin' protein shakes, and they gotta have a nose to avoid that gold-plating that leaves your neck green to be tagged all round in The Situation's book."

"Right on, brotha" agreed his faithful companion, Mr. Pauly D, most enthusiastically "And she gotta have a sweet booty to be tagged at all ... that goes without sayin'."

"Get lost," said Ms. Snooki, gently disagreeing with her companions, as she picked at a ribbon on her dress that had come unraveled.  "You two losers ain't know no chicks like that."     

Oh, I think I've got a best seller on my hands ... Pride and Prejudice at the Jersey Shore.  It would be like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but a little less believable. 

Anyhow ... before I was so rudely taken on that Jersey Shore tangent, I sat down to tell our faithful readers that The Daily Beast (my favorite news aggregator and my home page) thinks that we and they are stoo-pid.  How so, you ask?  Well, in compiling its annual list of America's Smartest (and Dumbest) Cities, the editors at The Daily Beast took four factors into account as follows:

1.  The ratio of those holding undergraduate and advanced degrees to overall population (over 25);

2.  The ratio of institutions of higher education to overall population;

3.  The ratio of public libraries to overall population; and

4.  Population-adjusted figures for the purchase of non-fiction book titles.

Now, I have no real problem with the first three factors, though I have to say that public library figures seem outdated in the Digital Age.  But I have to seriously question the wisdom of focusing on non-fiction book sales at a time when many (if not most) of those titles are being put out by political pundits and (I kid you not) two of the top ten non-fiction best sellers this past week were "A**holes Finish First" by Tucker Max (if you do not know who this is, be thankful and let it go) and "Sh** My Dad Says" by Justin Halpern.

Does reading non-fiction make you smarter than reading fiction?  I ask not only because I think the answer is obvious, but because I fear that this is the decided point of view of most male readers ... and we're a small group as it is.  Why this bias against fiction, which at least at the higher echelons seems to be much more widely recognized, appreciated, and enduring than non-fiction?  Is it just another symptom of a global culture with ADD (seeking the sound bytes that non-fiction titles seem to provide) or is it something more deep-seated and sinister?

Please discuss.  Meanwhile, I'm going to get started on Pride and Prejudice at the Jersey Shore.

N.B. The Daily Beast's faux pas is compounded by the fact that its very name comes from the fictional newspaper in Evelyn Waugh's novel, Scoop.  Assuming that someone at The Daily Beast has actually read the novel and that the founders did not simply pick the name off of a Wikipedia entry, they too would appear to be among the stupid.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ulysses at the Halfway Point, or Who's Buying the Next Round of Guinness? (No Seriously, Who?)

UlyssesI suspect that my prior view of the work of James Joyce was very similar to most people's conception.  I remember picking up a copy of Finnegan's Wake from the public library in Dubuque, Iowa, where I was studying for the LSATs at the time, thinking that it was the perfect opportunity to delve into a literary classic and, perhaps, to learn a bit about my own Irish heritage beyond the holy and hereditary trinity that is the love of the drink, the written word, and all things green.  I remember just as clearly returning that volume only a week later, confused, dejected, and certain that its "classic" status depended entirely upon its impenetrability, coupled with the very human tendency to judge as genius anything that we feel that we cannot fully understand.  In short, I judged it as a complete fraud somewhat-lyrical, stream of consciousness relic of an age long past that had little to no applicability to my life.  I viewed anything written by Joyce with the same colored lens.

Then, earlier this year, my wife and I planned a trip to Ireland (my first, though I dare say not my last).  I generally endeavor to read some classic piece of literature from or about the region while I'm there, if only to pass myself off as intelligent while I'm getting sauced at the bar get a flavor for the local literary history.  And so, I decided to take another crack at Joyce.  But I hedged my bet by choosing Dubliners, a series of completely non-stream-of-consciousness short stories that depict the lives of ordinary people in and around Dublin at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  While I generally do not enjoy reading short story collections, I loved Dubliners and reviewed it in glowing terms here.  More importantly, I felt like I understood every word.  And, though I stepped away from Joyce for a bit, I vowed to return to his more complex works and give them another shot.

And so, about two months ago, I began reading Ulysses, Joyce's classic tale of everyday life in Dublin as superimposed on the wandering plot of Homer's epic, The Odyssey, which Joyce himself held in the highest esteem.  I tried hard to focus on the lyrical value of Joyce's prose, though I was often lost in its meaning, and I managed to follow the action through several chapters before I began to feel the old frustration starting to build.  It was at that point that I began to drink heavily and it all made sense began looking for outside help.  Now, I really do not like to make a habit of this.  Like many of you, I suspect, I like a classic work of literature to stand on its own.  If I have to go searching for meaning and enjoyment, then I begin to suspect that neither are truly there to begin with.  But I also hate to put down a classic once I've begun, and Google is just so damned convenient, and so I began to look a bit further afield.  The Internet alone sustained me through several more chapters, and I felt like I had an understanding of the structure of the work and its characters, if nothing else; but it still was not enjoyable.

Then I stumbled on a downloadable, college-level course on Ulysses by Princeton Professor James A.W. Heffernan.  I have listened to a few of these courses now on topics as diverse as classical music to Buddhism to anthropological study of the modern Maya, all of which have been produced and distributed by The Teaching Company.  To be perfectly honest, I find them somewhat hit and miss (though, to be fair, they are more than hit than miss).  If you are truly interested in a particular subject matter, they can be, not only worthwhile, but very entertaining.  Be forewarned, however: there is no getting around the dork factor, and you have to be willing to be labeled as such if and when you are caught listening by your friends and family.

Anyhow, the Ulysses course has changed my perspective on the work entirely.  I now recognize that without a working knowledge of either Anglo-Irish history or Homer's Odyssey and preferably both, no one is likely to take much away from the work other than its quirky characters and its lyrical prose, which is truly only scratching the surface.  I won't bore you with what I've learned--suffice it to say that the characters and the story have come alive on both a human and a mythic level.  Only approximately a third of the way through the course materials, I now not only look forward to reading the balance of Ulysses, but I want to return to the beginning to reread the tremendous amount of material that passed through my mind wholly unappreciated.

My question for all of you is this: is this a legitimate practice in the appreciation of works of literature?  Does the fact that a particular work requires explication make it more or less of a great work in your eyes?  And, finally, who's buying that next round?  Seriously, I'm all tapped out ...   

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Shameless (but Timely) Recycling: Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras by Mario Vargas Llosa

Pantaleon Y Las Visitadoras (Narrativa (Punto de Lectura)) (Spanish Edition)Mario Vargas Llosa is, hands down, my favorite Latin American author, and I'm not just saying that because he won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.  We here at TLM roundly praised his work earlier this year in a review of Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras--a tale of the efficient introduction of prostitution services into the Peruvian army.  He tells a good story, so I'm certain that his books may be appreciated in translation, but there is something about the rhythm and beautiful formalism of the language that makes him an especially enjoyable read in the original Spanish.  Both La Ciudad y Los Perros and La Fiesta del Chivo stand out in my memory as fantastic reads.  Congratulations to a true master and to all our Peruvian friends.  Pisco para todos!