Thursday, November 29, 2007

Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas

This is my next book (picked from the ten notable books of 2007 list). Counting down the days to winter break so I can read read read all 400 pages of what sounds like a super new American novel. Here's its NY Times review: "An American Dream Deferred."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why we read

I'm such a Times junkie - I know this. Maybe I'll branch out in the new year. In the meantime, here is an interesting article from the weekend on why we read.

Monday, November 19, 2007

One for the road

Last night at a pre-Thanksgiving dinner party I fell into conversation with a couple who loves a good book on tape as much as I do. By the conversation's end I realized that I not only had the same taste in books on tape but also in vacation spots. This seemed like pretty legitimate criteria for vacationing together one of these days.

My last book on tape was David McCullough's 1776, which I listened to while driving home from Asheville. I didn't finish it all on the drive, and it was so good that I had to bring it inside to listen and find out how Washington got his army out of New York. This one I would highly recommend. What I forgot to mention last night was an favorite old standby: P. G. Wodehouse. I have listened to Jeeves in the Morning several times on long road trips, mainly because there is nothing else in my car. It never gets old. Never!

Audiobooks are a necessity for me, especially over T-giving and Christmas holidays when I get stuck for at least two hours in Knoxville traffic on the way to Virginia (someone better write in soon and tell me a reason to like Knoxville). I'm dreading the seven-hour drive ahead of me on Wednesday, but thinking about a good book on tape definitely makes it more palatable. I was so happy to find Dwight Garner's post on Papercuts addressing the very same issue. Sounds like we are going to be ships passing in the night on I-81. There are some GREAT b on t suggestions at the bottom of his post, so I am including the link here for the long ride home.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bridge of Sighs and the American Dream

I am way overdue on my Bridge of Sighs post. I just finished it today at my desk, but its the kind of novel that requires diligent notetaking all the way through in order to turn out a pithy thesis about it. Alas, no notes on my end, as I was reading the library's copy. Okay, where to begin? First, I desperately want to teach this novel. This, sadly, is out of the question; the novel is a whopping 527 pages. There is actually a character in the book who tries to get his 1500-page novel published to no avail, and it occurs to me that Russo must be poking a little bit of fun at himself here. I loved this book, but I know critics have noted that it needn't be so lengthy. Around page 483 I started to sweat it that he had gone off the deep end by adding yet another side story to an already intricate plot. Still, I am willing to overlook the length if that is its main flaw. And it is, I think, with one other exception.

Actually, if I had to guess, I'd say Russo wrote this novel to make it as teachable as possible, aside from the length. It is a great American Dream novel. Set in a small, largely working-class town in upstate New York, Bridge of Sighs follows the life of one family through two generations. Set initially in the 1960s, the novel explores issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender by dropping the microscope on one seemingly ordinary family in this town. The Lynch family, as we see them first, rents an apartment in the West End, an area populated by the poorest of the town's inhabitants. The East End, where they later move, buy a house, and open up a corner convenient store, is composed of mostly lower middle class families. The section of town called The Hill is where African-American families reside. The Borough, where the narrator ascends by the novel's end, is for the town's wealthiest. Of course, this does not mean he has necessarily achieved happiness. Russo seems to be asking (and he has his characters ask difficult questions of themselves throughout the novel): the American Dream at what price? Such precise geographical divisions, which are based on the town's socio-economic makeup, provide boundaries that demand to be pushed. Just how they are pushed and who does the pushing is partly what this novel is about.

Bridge of Sighs is a frame story, and within this larger American Dream schema is a study of the American Dream in one honors English class. Mr. Berg, the eccentric (abusive?) English teacher, decides he is going to push as many boundaries as he can in a town that is so stratified. He handpicks students based on his own personal criteria, which infuriates the parents of the "smartest" students. These A students inevitably end up in regular English classes, while some the school's oddest characters find themselves in the oversized janitorial closet that serves as Mr. Berg's honors classroom. As he teaches them great American works with the theme of the American Dream - Moby Dick, Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, Ethan Frome, poetry by Langston Hughes - he forces them to come to terms with their own complicity in a world that is unjust and intolerant. They are pushed to evaluate their own dreams or dreamlike views of the world in order to see harsher realities.

So why is it called the Bridge of Sighs? This question alone would require another full paragraph. Suffice it to say that if you look at the novel's cover, there are two bridges. The first is a bridge over the Cayoga River and the site of an important incident in the very beginning of the narrator's life. The Bridge of Sighs is of course in Venice, where the narrator's best friend has become an artist and an expatriate of sorts. Bridging between past and present is an essential part of the narrative scheme, and both bridges play a crucial role in the narrator's coming to terms with his obsession about the past and his fear of the present.

Just read the book. My rambling does not do it justice. I really loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that I plan to give out copies for holiday presents. Calling dibs on this now, so nobody else steal my thunder. :)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Coming attractions

Last night I officially crossed The Memory Keeper's Daughter off my list. Having read only 100 pages, I went to our book club meeting about it a little sheepishly. It was actually one of the best meetings I've ever been to, largely because I didn't read. Instead I got to ask all the "whodunnit" questions. This book was MUCH better hearing about it from someone else. So glad I didn't suffer through the pain and misery that I was apparently pages away from encountering and that would continue for the next two hundred.

Biggest coup of the week: I spotted Richard Russo's new Bridge of Sighs in hardback sitting on the "to shelve" stack in my school's library. It had just arrived. No more waiting for it to come out in paperback.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Favorite book?

Today I was asked by the librarians to have my picture taken with my favorite book. All teachers are participating; I think they are making posters for the library.

This question - the favorite book question - is impossible. Favorite in today? Yesterday? This month? Two years ago?

I started rereading Interpreter of Maladies last night by Jhumpa Lahiri and decided to give her my vote. I went with The Namesake for the poster.

Despite my fear of getting spammed again, I am interested to know how others would answer this question. If you can get through all the security measures I've now put in place, do post a favorite.