Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Literary Perspective

Roger Cohen, Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, always comes across as a kindred spirit in his articles. He loves a good narrative structure and doesn't miss a beat in his own pieces. Here he is today on "The Inner Life."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Editor's note: The Great Gatsby

I just finished rereading Gatsby and was struck once again by the publisher's 1992 Afterword. Excerpted is a letter by Maxwell Perkins to F. Scott Fitzgerald with the slimmest of suggestions for improving what Perkins knew right away was a masterpiece. Though the book did not gain critical acclaim in Fitzgerald's lifetime, Perkins offered the following comfort: "One thing I think we can be sure of: that when the tumult and shouting of the rabble of reviewers and gossipers dies, The Great Gatsby will stand out as a very extraordinary book" (204).

But there is more to share. Here is Perkins upon reading the manuscript -- and this is what I have been trying to impart to my students for most of February:

"The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary. The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life. If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness of pictures your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way. It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think would require a book of three times its length" (201).

Today in class we read aloud gorgeous passages from chapter 8 and discussed their significance. I can think of many novels that would crumble under this exercise, but Gatsby was made for it. Here you go:

"For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the "Beale Street Blues" while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor" (158).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Patchett on reading and readers

Thanks to Twilight, Harry Potter, and a massive number of imaginative teens, the number of people reading has increased. No one has had anything good to say about reading numbers in ages, hence Ann Patchett's ecstatic article in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Triumph of the Readers." Read this! She is wonderful, as always.
Happy reading...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"The Writer" by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

My Book Hangover

I haven't had one of these in ages. Not since my stint with the Harry Potter series. But last night I stayed up until 1:34 a.m. just so that I could find out what happened next in Marisa De Los Santos's Love Walked In. My friend Courtney, who has impeccable book taste, sent me this one in the fall and said that I absolutely had to read it. That I would love it. My only excuse for not staying up reading it at all hours sooner is that there is a devastating scene in one of the early chapters. The book has two narrators: thirty-one year old Cornelia who drops out of her PhD English program (hello, can I relate or what?) and finds herself at loose ends, and eleven-year-old Clare, who watches her beautiful and once highly capable mother, Viviana, spin out of control in a very scary way. The latter is the reason I could not get into the book at first, but things have shifted for me over the last few months. For instance, I am totally engrossed in HBO's "The Wire," and if I can watch that scary show, I guess I can handle just about anything in fiction. So I returned to the book last night and exhausted myself in order to finish 3/4s of it. I still have 30 pages left which I plan on savoring this morning.
Reasons to read this book? Beautiful, witty people with lovely vocabularies populate it. Tons of references to old movies and movie stars and good literature. Unconventional love stories aplenty. I haven't read a book this fresh in awhile. Reminds me of "The Gilmore Girls," actually. The fun in that show was trying to keep up with all the literary references and witty banter, and so, too, with this book.

I am so tired I can barely string a sentence together about this one, but if I've turned you off with the Gilmore Girls references, I suppose I ought to mention that Cornelia also reminds me a little bit of Jay Gatsby, She is a fantastic dreamer. I need to get back to the book so that I can keep cheering her on.