Friday, March 22, 2013

Rambles from a Reader's Life: Intro and Early Memories


Inspired by essays in William Dean Howells' My Literary Passions I decided to write about my own reading life.  Serious readers, those who spend an inordinate amount of time reading for pleasure, are a distinct set of people.  In that group of people are various subsets depending mainly on the content of what is read (fiction, short fiction, poetry, philosophy, history, etc.).  I read from a wide range of subjects but tend to read stuff that is old.  I hope to describe my own life as framed by my own "literary passions."  Maybe it will be fruitful or enjoyable for others or possibly it can start interesting conversations.  (Besides, like all writers I'm a great egotist and enjoy talking about myself!)


According to my mother it was my dad who took a great interest in teaching me how to read.  He himself loved to read about American history and the history of Nazi Germany (interests I inherited).  Growing up I remember some of the books he left behind: William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; Peter Benchley's The Deep (although I could've sworn it was called "Overboard" until I looked it up on Google); and James Clavell's Shogun.  There were other books but those stick in my mind the most.  I never was interested in reading Peter Benchley's book and only managed to get through about half of Shogun.

His interests in history left a lasting passion for me.  Unfortunately, he died when I was 4 years old and I don't know what other influences he might've left if he had been alive to shape my tastes and character.  (Considering his cheesy taste for fiction it can be seen as a good thing that I didn't get that predilection).  And in my small, immediate family I was the only one left to carry on any kind of literary legacy.  My mother was not very interested in reading and my brother never got much of a taste for it either.  When my stepfather came into the picture his main influence was in bringing his Bible to our home.

At around 6 or 7 years old my family and I moved to El Paso, Texas to be nearer my mother's family (both in Mexico across the border and in the United States).  Growing up a bookish, chubby, introverted boy in the midst of a working-class Mexican-American neighborhood is quite an experience.  For various reasons other than my literary aspirations I was a bit of an outcast.  But being the type of person drawn to books did not help my social situation either.

In my experience many in my neighborhood did not encourage intellectual pursuits unless they could see some utility in them.  Parents were glad to have honor student kids as long as they had some goal towards a career like being a doctor or a lawyer.  There were some parents who didn't seem to care about education at all.  I remember one boy who stopped going to school altogether and I later saw him working behind the counter at his father's used car lot (we must've been about 11 or 12 years old).  I suppose in my own family I felt a little isolated since there weren't too many (other than my grandfather) who seemed very interested in books.  There's a scene in the film Quiz Show where Rob Morrow's character, Dick Goodwin, looks longingly and enviously at the Van Doren family as they talk with each other about intellectual pursuits.  I identified with that when I saw it.

This is not to say I had no support.  I always remember having books.  Even though my mother did not like to read she always encouraged my interests.  She was proud, as was my stepfather, of having a little nerdy kid.  When we would go on camping trips or to exhibits I was always given the job of reading out loud the pamphlets explaining the history of the place or the descriptions of the animals who lived there.  My knowledge of grammar was strengthened by playing Mad Libs with my parents.  They would even ask me about the Greek gods I was learning about. 

Back before the era of big bookstores like Barnes & Noble or Borders it was not easy to have access to a large and varied stock of books in cities like El Paso.  We had to make do with going to the library.  My school library in elementary school was quaint like most childhood libraries.  But I remember it as a place to hide and discover something new.  I would frequent the sections that had books by Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss.  Children's books on Greek mythology and Curious George I remember fondly.  And I must've read and re-read The Five Chinese Brothers.  When I visit the Los Angeles Public Library and go to the children's section with my own child now I get a melancholy nostalgia and a sense of joy at the same time.  There's something about all the different sizes of books and really low (to adults) bookshelves.

The first "novel" I can remember reading was a story about living on a houseboat.  I have no idea who the author is anymore.  It must've been about 100 or so pages in that large print common to children's books.  I thought it was so long back then (3rd grade?) and felt it an accomplishment to read.  I think I enjoyed the escapist element in it.  It is curious that introverted people feel alienated and retreat into books and other such quiet and lonely pursuits which consequently alienates them further from the world.  But I suppose you would try other more social activities if that's what you truly wanted.

Another fond memory is receiving the Scholastic Book Club catalog at school periodically.  I invariably got my mom to buy me some books: Encyclopedia Brown books, the aforementioned Mad Libs, and classics like Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Shelley's Frankenstein.  I vaguely remember having to do something like sell chocolate bars for the school but my large extended family inevitably bought most of that.

Some of these books I remember well.  Some I barely remember.  A few I've re-read (Dickens and Shelley).  But what I remember most is the places where I found these books, where I read them, what I was doing around that time, what school I attended, my dog, food I ate, etc., etc., etc...  There is an emotional attachment to books at that age that is not the same in later life.  I now read an average of 1 or 2 books a week and most I'll probably forget.  But when a child reads there is more of an urgency.  They could be the most banal, puerile books but they spark the imagination, provide solace, show a world before undreamed of.  It's almost like making a new friend when you open up a book.  I still get a little emotional to think of my cherubic, ungainly little-boy body perusing a new volume from the school library in my sun-drenched room. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

Wow.  All I can say  Not to be too puerile, but you 

The Pickwick Papers was filled with broad humor, a narrative that went all over the map, several characters, and tons of unrelated or semi-related incidents.  In short, a picaresque novelOliver Twist is much more concentrated.  The focus is on the main character, Oliver Twist, and the narrative sticks to a tight, chronological portrayal of his adventures.

The melodrama is tempered by a mocking, ironic tone.  The humor in this novel has a sharp edge.  And, while there are decent characters living in good neighborhoods, the main impression is of unrepentant evil and squalor.  There are filthy streets and hovels aplenty.  The villains, ruffians, criminals, and/or hypocrites make one feel queasy.  And, while the behavior they engage in and the attitudes they have are bad enough, I felt there was an undertone of even worse behavior and violence and degradation.

This novel is definitely a page-turner.  The pace is relentless and there's never any sense of irrelevant story (except maybe the epilogue--where irrelevance traditionally resides).  As far as plot, this was tightly plotted and made perfect sense.  Coincidences?--Maybe.  But not enough to overwhelm plausibility.

There's not much else to say besides, read it!  It's worth your attention.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Charles Dickens - The Pickwick Papers

It is humbling for any reviewer to read G.K. Chesterton's thoughts on The Pickwick Papers.  If you would like a really good review of this book I suggest you read that.  I won't presume to do anymore than provide my own two cents:

First, a little background on my relationship to Dickens.  I remember reading A Christmas Carol very early on.  I must've been about 8 or 9 years old.  And although I know I was a little confused about some of the language, I loved the book.  There is a fairy tale quality about it that obviously still appeals to readers. 

Sometime in high school I was assigned to read Hard Times.  I hated that book.  Every criticism I've heard bandied about Dickens seems to be contained in that book.  It is excessively maudlin, trite, and immensely melodramatic.  Or so I thought at the time.  Luckily, it is also one of his shorter novels. 

My third essay at Dickens was Great Expectations.  I was in college at the time but the book was not assigned reading.  I had seen the film adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, and Robert De Niro.  The film piqued my interest and I thought I'd give Dickens another try.  So I began Great Expectations, was surprised at how compelling the story was, found myself intrigued by the characters, then began to feel progressively bogged down at the midway point.  I was sure I was finished with trying to read Charles Dickens.

I'm not sure why or what re-sparked my interest.  But, in the past few months, I felt a desire to attempt yet again to read Dickens.  I did a little research and realized The Pickwick Papers is what put him on the map.  I figured there must be a reason people initially fell in love with him.  So I chose this book as my attempt to understand why he is considered such a great writer of the English language and why his books are still so famous.

I'm very glad I chose this book to try to understand the allure of Dickens.  This is definitely a great book.  It is in the picaresque style.  And, like most picaresques, it begins with an almost absurdist, nonchalant attitude.  There are the usual droll observations.  There is little in the way of characterization--there are more archetypes than characters as the book opens.  But something seems to just happen in the course of the narrative.  These characters become human.  They open up and develop.  It's not even  perfectly done: it almost seems haphazard.  But it works remarkably well.

Samuel Pickwick goes from being that silly, eccentric uncle you have to a humane, decent gentlemen who is a friend to all and sundry.  Sam Weller, his manservant, starts off as a comic foil and becomes a friend you wish you had.  While the incidents in the book begin as excuses for comic adventure and become intrinsic to the life of the characters.

I read much of this book on the bus and/or train to and from work.  There were plenty of times I had to suppress some laughter to not disturb my fellow passengers.  Every now and then a chuckle would arise, sometimes a guffaw, oftentimes a mere smile filled with the warmth of pure joy. 

I think a reader falls in love with the characters because of their decency and humanity.  While the comedy in the book is suffused with the same qualities.  You can almost feel the reality of the characters and situations (most of them).  Like Ulysses this is a very humane book.   

Now, I'm reading Oliver Twist.  I might actually like this Dickens fellow.  Who knows?  I might even read Hard Times again.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Stephen King's "The Stand"

Be warned!: if you value your time and sanity, do not read this book!

I've often wondered about abandoning books. As a youth I thought it was almost criminal to stop reading a book in mid-read. I figured everyone had something worthwhile to say and, besides, the book might get better. My best example is Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. The first seventy pages or so are tedious but after that it becomes a great historical adventure/romance.

But as I get older I find I no longer have the patience or the time to spend with a book that just doesn't interest me that much. Some books are just so awfully bad it's hard to justify spending so much time with them (Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard springs to mind). Some books I feel I'm not prepared for yet. Some books just seem to have a lot of promise and eventually go straight downhill. The Stand by Stephen King is one such book.

Let me give you a description of my experience so you'll understand my revulsion:

First, the book opens with a scene describing some awful/weird happening going on. The opening is full of action. It is kind of disorienting. You're not sure who these characters are or why they are going through what they're going through. It is a great opening scene. It is intriguing and makes you want to keep reading to understand what is going on here.

Then the characters are introduced. Background is given on each character while sections are interspersed explaining the larger story concerning the epidemic. You get to learn about the characters, believe in them, understand them, care for them, and worry about what will happen to them when the epidemic hits them. By the time the epidemic starts affecting all the characters Stephen King has got you where every author wants you, a rapt listener to his tale.

So the second part begins--a major event has occurred and you want to know how these characters will deal with it. But a nagging voice inside your head keeps wondering when this story will pick up steam. There is plenty to see and experience but you start to wonder if maybe it isn't just a bit too much. There are so many characters to deal with and you start wishing that Stephen King didn't feel the need to go into minute detail about each characters' idiosyncracies and thoughts and lives. When every character is important, none of them are. But the story is so strong at this point that you let that voice subside for awhile.

Now you find yourself at page 300 or 400 and you're still not exactly sure where this story is going. A story concerning an epidemic hitting the world, decimating 75 or 80% of the population, and the consequent anarchy and loss experienced is a gripping tale. But Stephen King keeps inserting these annoying glimpses about something supernatural. By page 200 or 300 you don't need something completely new inserted. The story was interesting just as a tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Why do we need some pabulum about prescience and good vs. evil now? You start to feel tricked by the author. It's almost as if he had this idea about writing some grand epic on good vs. evil, chose a vehicle (the epidemic) to tell that tale, and when the background tale was better than his original conception he refused to let go of his original idea.

But, like a Scientologist who figures, "I've spent a lot of time and money believing this, I might as well keep on going," you read on.

I've got a pretty good memory and I think I'm an attentive reader. But after awhile you either start to forget the characters or you just don't care. When that happens, reading becomes a chore, not a pleasure. I would read The Stand right before going to bed and it would truly help in putting me to sleep. I wanted to scream at Stephen King to bring back the good story he had going, not this cosmic good vs. evil stuff. I was interested in how people could live after such a disaster (a great, human story) not some banal metaphysical rubbish. Now there's some evil man trying to conquer the world with cosmic powers and some annoying, saintly woman who is somehow going to stop all this because of her faith in God.

Stephen King, you robbed me of several hours where I could've been sleeping or farting or reading a better book. Needless to say, I abandoned the book. I couldn't go on. Around page 700 I gave up. The story wasn't interesting anymore. The characters became flat and mere vehicles to further the cosmic agenda. You fooled me again, Stephen King.

Stephen King is not a bad writer. People who refuse to read him or disdain him because he writes horror are snobs. But he is far from being a great writer. Some of his worst qualities are abundantly in evidence in this novel: prolixity (get an editor once in a while, please?); lack of discipline (stories told not because they need to be told, but because they can be told); and an obsession with the minutiae of everything to the point where the story becomes obscured. But the worst sin Stephen King commits in this novel is abandoning a good story for a poor one. He should've let his muse take him where she would and not allow his own internal editor try to make this into something it was not.

If you like Stephen King read The Shining or Four Past Midnight. He has done some good work in the past. But this horrible, tedious, pointless novel should be left for future literary critics to disembowel.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Ascendancy of Europe by M.S. Anderson

How does one review a historical book? I suppose it depends on what you're looking for when you read a history book: information, a basic understanding of the period and events, maybe a cohesive vision or story (maybe not).

Let's start with what this book is about. This book concerns itself with what happened in European history during 1815-1914. 1815 was the year Napoleon was defeated and 1914 was the beginning of World War I. Consequently, much is said about the rise of nationalism, the balance of power in European politics, the growing economies and the innovations in technology.

As far as information is concerned, this book gives much information. Unfortunately, I wish there were more about Eastern and Central Europe. Being a "survey" book the focus is on the "great powers" of Europe at the time: Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia. The author uses a pretty straightforward method--he uses a topical approach. There is a section on the political history, a history of how the economies changed, colonial history, intellectual history, etc. Each section tackles that particular slice and shows how it is reflected in Great Britain, France, etc. There is space provided for "minor" players like Italy and Spain but it would be interesting to know a little more.

The main thrust of the book is the rise of nationalism. From the interest in folk cultures to the growing rhetoric about the German people's mission, or the French people's mission, nationalism pretty much informs the entire book. And, at the end of each section, the author shows how that led into the conflicts and alliances that gave rise to the first world war.

Any good historian knows a little something about historiography. In other words, what is this particular source's biases and/or prejudices? I thought he (she?) was a breath of fresh air in this perspective. I am sick of hearing from the academically inclined about the glories of Marxism and the evils of imperialism. This historian seems to be a little more objective in showing some of the wholly dogmatic and impractical aspects of Marxism and some of the benefits of imperialism. (But M.S. Anderson isn't so dogmatic either by also concluding that imperialism had its own grave errors and arrogance).

All in all it is not a bad book. It didn't thrill me (and I'm not kidding when I say some history books do thrill me), but it does have a certain charm in its approach. I would say it's a useful introduction to 19th century (Western) European history.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

(orig. posted on Jan. 6 2006:

I just finished Richard Dawkins' now classic The Blind Watchmaker. Not a bad book at all. But before I tell you about it I should provide some background.

I have a degree in English and American Literature and my minor was in History. In other words, I'm not great at science or math. But I've always been interested in some aspects of science and biology and evolution happen to be subjects I like. I'm not a complete moron when it comes to scientific subjects but I'm sure any 8th grade science geek could probably run rings around me.

Consequently, this book by Richard Dawkins is made for me. The way I understood it it was written with a general reader in mind. The book is well written and plausibly argued. And as long as you pay attention and follow the logic of the author's arguments it's not that hard to follow.

The basic premise of the book is to show how life could appear in the universe without a creator or any pre-conceived notion of design (the whole "Intelligent Design" argument now being debated across the U.S.). Dawkins obviously loves Darwin and bases his argument on cumulative evolution over billions of years (the age of the Earth [and please shut-up you stupid creationists trying to argue that the Earth is only 6,000 years old!]). Dawkins patiently explains how such a slow and random process like natural selection could evolve our life-forms over vast amounts of time. Like I said, I'm no great scientist, but the argument makes perfect sense and I still fail to see why anyone tries to argue otherwise (except, of course, for religious reasons, but those are very silly reasons).

Overall, this is a good way to try to understand evolution in more depth than the few words hopefully given to you in high school and college. There are a few parts which I found to be boring (like the taxonomy debates and different schools of thought in taxonomy) but I think this book is an important read--especially now that religious nuts are trying to dumb people down.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Review: Heart of Aztlan

I just finished reading Heart of Aztlan by Rudolfo Anaya. It sucks. But before you think I have some kind of bias let me tell you why.

I've read two other books by Rudolfo Anaya: Bless Me, Ultima and Alburquerque. I read the first one because I'd always heard it was good so I checked it out. And I read the other for a paper I did in college. I thought they were both good. Bless Me, Ultima, especially, has a very dreamy, poetic feel to it. It is a basic "boy grows up" novel told from a Chicano perspective. On the other hand, Alburquerque is more contemporary in setting and tone. It is a pretty straightforward novel with a protagonist who is a writer in Albuquerque, NM.

Both those novels have something to recommend them. So I have nothing against Rudolfo Anaya. But Heart of Aztlan has some big problems. I found myself constantly wishing it would end.

Quick plot summary: the story is about a Hispanic family who move from the rural areas into the barrio in Albuquerque. The time is the 1950s or early 60s. The main character is a young boy learning how to live life on the streets in the barrios and his dad is also a major character who becomes emasculated, so to speak, by his new environment.

First problem: the characters engage in dialogue which is unrealistic. If Anaya had written a masque or an epic he might've been able to get away with the really cheesy, stiff language some of his characters speak. It seems to me, the author had a socio-political agenda in writing this novel. Consequently, he makes the characters oftentimes speak set-pieces, not realistic dialogue. It's fine to have any kind of agenda you'd like but a novel or short story require verisimilitude. This is one of the major flaws in the novel.

Also, I had a problem with the cheesy "mythological" passages. Throughout the novel Anaya refers to an ersatz, Aztec-like mythology which is supposed to give some of the characters spiritual depth. For one thing, I think it would've made more sense to have them inspired by Catholic dogma and ritual. Considering the time, place, and culture it would make more sense to have people in the barrio seeking spiritual answers in the church, or even curandera-like superstitions, if you're going to write a realistic novel. But also, I just find that whole "Aztlan" mythology/ideology espoused by many in the Chicano movement very silly. But that could just be my own personal taste.

I felt like Anaya was trying to get some political/social/cultural ideas across in this novel. I say, write an essay. It is hard to incorporate political ideas in a work of fiction without immediately sounding foolish. But there are good writers out there who have done it: George Orwell (of course!), Jonathan Swift, etc. Anaya doesn't seem to be the kind of writer who can successfully incorporate political ideas into his fiction. He is trying too hard to make us think about political issues and not trying hard enough to get us involved in his story.

Now I think I'll have to go back and read the other two books of his I've read to see if I was in error in thinking them any good.