Monthly Archives: July 2012

On Graphic Novels

Persepolis

This argument begins about two years ago while in my Senior Literature course at Rowan University. My beloved professor assigned Persepolis and I think he still regrets it many years later. We were all graduating senior literature students so we were supposed to be able to control the conversation ourselves and focus it on parsing every sentence for meaning. It did not take long for the debate to just deteriorate into half the class decrying the use of graphic novels as legitimate literature. The other half unabashedly defending them as equally important to the literary world just in a new and different way. They seem to forget that the novel was only recently embraced as the primary mode of philosophizing. It was merely mindless medieval romances but grew to importance and slowly became included in serious academic studies. My comrades and I were arguing that soon graphic novels would have to be included.

I studied art before I became a literature major. I understand how powerful an image can be. In Persepolis there is a particularly moving image that is so simple but Satrapi conveys a variety of emotions with just one simple blacked out box. It comes after the discussion of her favorite uncle being taken away by the government never to return. Sometimes words can diminish a moment and that little black box said more than pages of sentimental words could ever attempt. The other students did not see it that way. They claimed that using cartoons to express an emotion is dumbing down literature and therefore ruining us as a culture. All I have to say is: “That’s ignorant.”  Visual art existed long before the written word as art. I just do not understand how you can separate the two mediums just because they are using cartoons instead of realistic renderings. How is it any different than the works of modern artists like Keith Haring or even Andy Warhol. Both of whom use very simple images to convey deeper messages. Did these two artists dumb down art? Or did they take in a new and necessary direction? I think the better argument is made for the latter.

So, how do you feel about graphic novels? Are they important to the literary lexicon or just childish rubbish best left to super heroes? For me, they are an important step in both art and literature. I hope that they can be added to a curriculum soon. And thank you Professor Plourde for including a graphic novel and allowing us to yell and stamp our feet without interruption. I will always be indebted to you for not admonishing me for calling that girl that I could not stand narrow minded. It felt so great.

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84, CHARING CROSS ROAD and Strangers

Penguin 1990

“I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book” (pg.54) 

I love books. So books on books are just like having hot fudge poured over chocolate ice cream. It is so satisfying. This is a short book – a mere 97 pages- so it takes just a few minutes to devour. But it will leave both bookseller as well as booklover satiated for days. I found myself daydreaming about having a relationship like this with some far off fellow book devotee while at the bookshop today. I imagined what it would be like to find the letters in the mail and begin searching for a book for many months, even years at one point. We do have a box of requests from people at the shop but it does not cultivate quite the relationship that Helene created with Mark’s and Co. Booksellers. Occasionally, I sift through the box and make a few phone calls. Those may yield a sale if I am lucky. Normally I just wind up returning the books to the shelf and ripping up the card. However, those rare occasions when I phone someone who has been looking for a book for a very long time and explain that I have located a copy are so much fun. We have a small connection for those brief moments when I am the bearer of wonderful news. There is usually disbelief followed by giddy laughter and a promise to stop by soon. Then, when I am lucky, I will see the person when they make it to the shop and we will be giddy again. I love it. It makes my job so enjoyable. I could relate to the staff as they wrote to Helene individually throughout the years. You love to get beautiful books into the hands of people that will treasure them. Certainly, Helene is one of those kind.

As a bookseller I am a bibliophile- obviously! You have to love books to do a proper job of selling books to people. It is just a requirement, end of story. So Helene’s constant search for books is so familiar. I sift through stacks of books every day at Bogart’s but there are still many holes in my collection. On many of my days off, I scour other used bookshops or consignment shops for the missing books from my shelves. I am now contemplating with which shop I will begin a long, romantic relationship sustained by intermittent letters requesting books. It seems like the dream situation for any serious reader. Also, I hereby encourage anyone to begin one with Bogart’s. Our address is 210 N. High St. Millville, NJ 08332. Seriously. Do it. We would all be so excited and honored to search out books for someone. 

In the end, I just really liked all the people as well. There are not many words exchanged but so much is revealed anyway. The fact that Helene sends gifts throughout is so sweet. She really helps these strangers though a tough time right after World War II because they were so kind to ship books to her. She felt a camaraderie from a shared love of books and they help each other for more than 2 decades. It did break my heart that they never met in person. But their connection was deeper than many people who see each other daily. Helene was just lovely. I felt I had so much in common with her. I quote a passage that I took great delight in writing “me too!” in the margins:

I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I love the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.) (pg.27)

Reading this post probably took about the same time as it does to read this tiny tome. Not really but sometimes hyperbole is necessary to make a point. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go to your nearest (preferably independently owned) neighborhood bookshop and find this book. Then, share it with others. It reminds me why I like books in the first place. They remind us that strangers just need find common ground to become friends.

If you liked this, then you may like…

Alice Calaprice

If you enjoyed reading charming letters from charming people then you should pick up Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letter to and from ChildrenThis is the second post in a row that I mention Einstein so it should come as no surprise that in high school I was enamored by him. I still think he is the most enigmatic and complex celebrity of all time. And quite a celebrity he was. You might have thought only movie stars could command the amount of attention that Einstein received in the beginning of the 20th century. The people loved him, especially the children. This book collects the most memorable of his letters throughout the years. It is wonderful if you are already interested in Einstein but it reads just as entertaining if you know nothing of the man either. Einstein was a prolific letter writer so also search out any collection of his letters if you are interested in learning more about him.

John Dunning

I’ve gushed about John Dunning quite a few times (I swear this is the last time I’m going to recommend him so write his name down now. Go ahead. I’ll give you a minute… ok? Good.) You know that I love him. If you liked the discussion of rare or antique books then you will love the Cliff Janeway series of books that start with Booked to DieIt allows you to fantasize about being a bookseller with the extra enticement of danger. Everything is well researched so it educates you on the field as well as entertains you. Fantastic series.

See you later, see you soon.

On “Someday Books”

A Rage to Live looking gigantic among other books

What exactly is a “someday book”? For the purposes of this article, it means a book that is so overwhelming in size and content that it sits on a very high shelf and waits. It is the book that has to wait for your life to slow down. It is the book that you just do not have the time in your life to commit to reading it. Sometimes it is something that has been on your To Be Read list for a long time and you finally managed to find it in a bookstore. Or, it is a suggested read from a friend or another book. Now, it just sits in your To Be Read pile, patiently.

That book for me is A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton by Mary S. Lovell. Even the title is a mouthful. It came on a recommended reading list at the end of The Bookman’s Promise by one of  my favorite mystery writers, John Dunning. I had only recently discovered Dunning at Bogart’s and was reading his books at a record pace. I read all 5 Cliff Janeway novels that are currently out in a mere handful of days. I was enthralled. In this particular adventure, he discusses at length some fictional lost diaries of Richard Burton that are so intriguing. By the end I was desperate to learn more about this fascinating historical figure. I am an avid biography reader so when I saw the title that also included his lovely wife that he was madly in love with, I knew I had to get it. Imagine my surprise when not 3 days later it was sitting on a pile of recently donated books when I opened the bookstore one morning. I nearly cried. It was fate! It was destiny! It was the biggest book I’ve ever seen that was not textbook related! So, I took my prize home and set it on the shelf. There it remains for some long distant time when I have the energy and time to devote to it.

There are many other “someday books” in my head but this one stares at me from its shelf, mocking my flighty attention. I will get to it eventually. I know I will. I have managed to get through some very dense biographies including Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe and a cultural biography on Walt Whitman by David S. Reynolds called Walt Whitman’s America. Each was intense and very long but I enjoyed them immensely. I know I will feel the same about A Rage to Live in the end but the size has intimidated me into placing it in that unknown “someday” category. What books do you add to your “someday” book list? Are they thick like mine? Or are they just too philosophically hermetic? What makes us put these books on a far off timeline? Let’s discuss!

See you later, see you soon.

HERLAND and Feminism

“Herland” Pantheon 1979

We were not in the least “advanced” on the woman question, any of us, then.” (pg.9)

I had the pleasure of discovering this book by accident. As one of the many books that get donated to Bogart’s every day, I recognized the name Charlotte Perkins Gilman right away. In college I was lucky enough to read (and, thanks to the Gutenberg website, you can too ) “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a few times. Each reading left me with a new insight about the story and its writer. It’s a complicated short story written in a time when women’s health was left to doctors who, it seemed anyway, had never spoken to a woman about her health. Consequently, ridiculous “cures” were prescribed for quite a number of mental health issues that we have a somewhat better grasp on today. The fact that the main theme is sanity means that the story reads very jumbled and I believe many readings are necessary to get a grasp on what Gilman was really talking about. I also think she felt restrained by society on what she could really discuss about women and childbirth. No one was allowed to say that they were depressed by the arrival of a child. Motherhood was a joy alone. Certainly postpartum depression is only recently being studied and diagnosed. 

At the time of publication of Herland (1915) the discussion of “the women question” was still at its height. And let’s face it, the fact that there was even a “question” is so disturbing. Women in America had yet to get the vote and were still expected to stay happily indoors and never complain. This tiny novel, in no uncertain terms, bashed the idea that this is acceptable for all women. In fact, throughout the novel Gilman put a strong emphasis on vigorous outdoor living. Many of the similes and metaphors are nature related. For example, many of the young women are compared to a variety of wild birds, from parrots to hawks. And these attributes were mentioned with a positive connotation. Her position was that the realm of the household did not satisfy the needs of every woman. They needed more than the “social duties” and “hospitality, entertainment and various interests” (pg.97) that the men describe as the expectations for a woman of wealth. While she damns so many aspects of female roles, it is interesting that she still put such a significance on motherhood. A lot of her contemporaries were working to also remove motherhood from the definition of female and femininity. 

However, I do not think women were the only portion of the population that she was trying to improve the world for. She was trying to change all of society, from the education system to the prison systems. She wanted to do a total overhaul of the way that the States operated. Unfortunately, no one was willing to listen to a woman because her ideas were amazing. A lot of the points that she raised almost 100 years ago still ring true for the world that we live in today. Her diagnosis of the education especially intrigued me. The school system we have now is severely flawed as it works to punish children instead of helping them discover their own intelligence. We have forced them to believe that if one way of learning does not work that they are stupid and therefore incapable of learning. It is so absurd. Gilman presents a way of teaching that works with each child individually to create an open environment for asking questions and learning from mistakes.  If you are interested in teaching, or have a friend that is, I highly suggest reading this for the education theories, even if you can’t necessarily employ them in a normal academic setting just yet. In fact, many of the ideas presented are completely ridiculous and would never work in a real world setting. But exaggeration is necessary to make a valid point sometimes.

I really enjoyed the book, though, I’m not sure how successful I believe the novel is on just a literary basis. It is a little too overt for my taste. And most of the characters are only basic stereotypes as there was both a man that revered women and the kind that demean women. Of course, the narrator is *just* right, as if they were bowls of porridge before a little blonde girl. But the ideas are so interesting that I am willing to overlook the technical failure. If people are willing to discuss important subjects after reading this book then I think Gilman achieved the goal for which she was aiming. I appreciated that I was made to think about the greater world around me after I finished. 

If you liked this, then you might like…

Edith Wharton

Lily Bart from The House of Mirth is one of my favorite characters of all time. If Gilman’s novel fall short on a technical level then this novel will far exceed any expectations. It is beautifully crafted; every character is purposeful and complex. Lily exemplifies the idea that not every woman has to have a child to be fulfilled in life but the society around her would not allow that to happen. Most of Wharton’s novels deal with a similar theme but I feel that The House of Mirth is the most successful at exploring that particular issue. You’ll probably need a dictionary for most of her works because she’s totally brilliant and great at showing that off. But get through the difficult vocabulary and you’ll be rewarded with a moving portrait of the struggle against “the woman question.”

Laurie R. King

If you’re in the mood for something not so heavy handed try a little Mary Russell on for size. She’s the strong female hero in King’s series that continues the Sherlock Holmes saga. She’s young, feisty, naturally brilliant and can match wits with the great Sherlock. It wonderfully written by a talented mystery writer and I was hooked from book one, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Mary makes you proud to be a part of the female sex as the other writers are far more bleak. They are filled with characters that can not really change their destinies while Mary would never dream of doing so. I really love how powerful she is portrayed even if the story is set in the same era as the other novels. 

Tell me your favorite feminine heroes! 

See you later, see you soon.

On Current Literature

I have only recently gotten back into reading current literature. I spent so many of my college years reading the classics that I failed to pick up the new releases. I dubbed them beneath me since I was reading the truly great works of art. I filled my head with all the “important” writers from the Western and American canon, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf. I was living and breathing classics. I turned my nose up at all the contemporary authors- believing them to be redundant since all the great themes of life had been so thoroughly explored by the greats. What a snob, I know. I am so glad I came back to them.

When I was a teenager I soaked up what would be considered current at the time. I remember going to the bookstore and buying The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I fell in love with that cast of characters because I felt like they mirrored my life. That’s what I missed the most in reading the classics because they were from a different time. No amount of footnotes or time lines could truly sum up a moment in history. There are just some phrases that we can’t understand because the minutiae of life gets lost from generation to generation. I am currently reading Middlemarch for the book club that I run and, trust me, it gets lost in translation sometimes. I am pretty certain that I miss some of the satire because the lives of these 19th century is so different from my 21st century existence. The larger themes remain intact but the small attacks on the daily lives of people does not hold up across time and we should not expect it to.

The first current, or relatively current, author that I picked up in recent years is John Dunning. I was drawn in by the title of the first book, Booked to Die. His mysteries are so intriguing and exciting. The first was published in 1992 and have come out every few years since. I read the first and consequently bought out the rest of the collection. They deal with an ex-cop-turned-rare-book-dealer, Cliff Janeway and I can read them in a few short hours. But the twist is shocking and the crimes updated. While I love Edgar Allan Poe some of his crimes are quite out of date. I mean, an orangutan? Forensic science has made most of his “crimes” a little absurd. Oh, who am I kidding? They’re totally absurd.

Another author who saved me is John Green. I just finished The Fault in Our Stars a few weeks ago and I loved every word of it. It was as beautiful as anything written by Marquez or Fitzgerald. I was as moved by its tale of loss and love as any Shakespearean drama. However, it affected me in a different way since the language and setting were so realistic to me. I feel very removed from some of the tragedy in the classics because I could never live them. The world that Green creates is filled with technology and slang that I am very connected to. While I love Marquez or Fitzgerald, the love stories that they describe never feel tangible in the way that the story of Hazel and Augustus felt, even if I have never been sick or loved someone that was. Though, I suspect much of that success is due to the nearly flawless prose of John Green, but that is a post for another day.

So, I will always read the classics. I will always love the writers that created them. When I make suggestions a lot will still be classics. However, do not be surprised if a lot of what I review is more current. I am just getting back to my time period and it feels so good.

Tell me how you feel the classics fit into your life in the comments below. Maybe I’m alone in this but I suspect many feel the same way about our beloved classic writers.

See you later, see you soon.

AMERICAN GODS and Magic

HarperTorch May 2002

“Then the lights went out, and Shadow saw the gods.”(pg.129)

Let me start out with that fact that my introduction to Neil Gaiman was going to see Coraline in 3D when it came out in 2009. I was amazed. I was enthralled. I put Gaiman at the top if my “Authors To Be Read” list. Alas, I did not get around to actually reading him until this year. (I know, I know but I just never got to him. Don’t judge!) I picked up a couple of his titles from Bogart’s. One was American Gods. I was amazed. I was enthralled. I loved every page of this book. I thought it was smart and funny. It was endearing and occasionally disgusting. Everything that a great mystery should be.

Gaiman’s style is just so cool. It reads much like a graphic novel in the sense that I feel his paragraphs would resemble a storyboard. Every line works toward giving you a total sense of not just the setting, but the overall tone as well. I could see each place that we found Shadow as a fully realized place in reality. I swear I could hear the breezes and feel the moon shining as I read. However, this does not lead to the book feeling drawn out like a Thomas Hardy novel, whose landscape descriptions could take an entire chapter and make the reader want to pull their hair out. Instead, it creates tension and intrigue. I also loved the small breaks in time and space with the additions of other voices from the American Experience. I capitalize that because each vignette seems to make up a separate essay on just that subject. They are just representations of the kind of lives that make up America. Most of the time they pertain to the story line, but others help define America. It never confuses you, just increases your understanding of what I believe Gaiman hopes to achieve with this novel.

The use of “magic” throughout the book is fun, but is also a rather subtle way at poking fun at religion. Shadow does slight of hand from the beginning and lots of the gods have a variety of powers from super strength to morphing their appearance. It helps that wonderful tension and intrigue grow since you never know what any character is capable of at any time. It also helps Gaiman with an easy way out of some sticky situations, but is still very believable. I love the use of magic in books, as long as it is woven throughout the story and doesn’t just pop up when it is convenient for the author. Gaiman does this brilliantly.

I also liked that Gaiman never has to explain the gods to you outright. Usually he just lets their personality within the confines of the narrative give you a context for the type of god that they are. There are no wordy explanations of where the god is from or what civilization worshiped them. A prior knowledge of the large pantheon of worldly god is helpful, but is not necessary. In fact, I learned a lot about gods that I only knew by name while reading this book. I felt educated by the end. Is that not what we want from any novel?  I liked so damn much about Gaiman’s novel that I have to stop myself from gushing any further. Read this when you get the chance. The size of it may intimidate, but please don’t let it. I promise it goes down easier than most.

If you liked this book, also check out…

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

If you like magic then you’ll love the concept of magical realism. And nobody does it better than Marquez. He may not have created it, but he certainly perfected it. There is any number of fabulous novels that I love of his. You can read the classic, Love in the Time of Cholera, which is beautiful and epic. Or you can also check out his last published novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, which is just a slim volume of beautifully written prose. I also loved his short story, “Man with Enormous Wings,” which was my first taste of Marquez . I went on to read so many others after that.

Thomas Pynchon

On the other hand, if you liked the mystery and absurdity of Gaiman then you’ll totally dig The Crying of Lot 49. It’s funny and smart and short. Most of Pynchon is like a million pages long, where Lot 49 is a much easier to digest. I read it in college and fell in love with Pynchon, only to realize that the rest of his publications were far more complicated and less accessible. So, Gravity’s Rainbow sits on my shelf and I can’t really say if you’ll like that one. However, read this one. You’ll enjoy the journey with Oedipa Maas just as much as Shadow, I think.

See you later, see you soon.

GLACIERS and the Quotidian

“There’s not a thing in the world that will not change, including you.” (Pg.69)

Strange that the most defining line from this novella comes from Isabel’s mother – a character that even the narrator does not understand. She is absent for most of Isabel’s life, and from most of the book. Yet, this line seems to define my interpretation of the story. Just as glaciers morph through stages of existence so too do human beings. There is much change and unrest in this story. From the life of Isabel as a child to her relationship with Thomas “Spoke,” so many small moments transform Isabel.

The first big transition for Isabel comes as a child when her father brings her into her first junk shop. The purchase of some old photographs impress upon her a love for the antique and worn down. This distinguishing trait moves through her whole life causing her to choose things from another era time and again. Even her job as a book conservator displays this quirk perfectly. It may even explain her attraction to Spoke. She says of him, “Everything slightly out of style, as if he had been away for awhile.” (pg.44) And an attraction she certainly has, hard. One of my favorite things about this story is the sexual tension that is threaded throughout. But Smith is careful to never tread into overtly graphic. Though, by the end, she wonders, “If I send him a pair of my panties, could he trade them for booze and M&M’s?” (pg.153)

Another thing I appreciate about this book is how I can truly relate to Isabel. She’s a girl about my age with extremely similar interests and beliefs. Smith makes a great effort to have the novel seem classic and yet she refers to New Kids on the Block and playing games like MASH. I was reminded of my own childhood often, which made me root for Isabel all the more. Smith says of her at one point, “Before Isabel could read, she loved books.” (pg.49) In the margin of the book I couldn’t resist writing “me too!” as if she could hear me across the pages. Even her tenuous relationship with her older sister has a realistic note to it, as we all have struggled with how to define our familial relationships at times. Their shared reaction to meeting their aunt and learning about the family was so familiar. 

This book really moved me. I felt it was well-written from start to finish, and it dealt with the small moments in life. It shows a moment in a character’s life so beautifully. The story only really takes place during one day, but we learn about Isabel as a whole person through a variety of flashbacks and shared memories with other characters. Storytelling is at its best for me when it is this fluid. Each part seemed to move the story forward and each detail important to the main theme. Even at the end, when Isabel finds out that Spoke has a secret, her reaction is so indicative of her character, “Isabel could implode.” (pg.119) Implosion means no harm to others. Even at her lowest she does not want to hurt the things around her. That’s why she saves antique items and why she is vegetarian–no harm to others. The thing I love most about this book are the great characters. Each one is interesting and dynamic, despite the modest length of this tome.

If you liked this book, also check out…

Raymond Carver

If the discussion of the quotidian aspects of a life really fascinate you then please read “Cathedral.” To put it in its most basic terms, it is the story of a husband and wife that host a blind man for dinner. However, it reveals more about the human condition than many long-winded novels. After reading you will find yourself staring at other people as they enjoy a meal. You will never look at a church or any impressive architecture quite the same either. I love all of his works, but this one has stuck with me for a long time.

JD Salinger

Let’s read a classic, too. Any of Salinger’s short stories are so good at making a really important statement with really fantastic characters in a short amount of time. His story “A Perfect Day for a Bananafish” endears the audience to its main character, Seymour Glass, in just a few pages. Even the little girl, Sybil Carpenter, is a fully-realized character and she only has a few lines. Read all of Nine Stories. In fact, read all of Salinger’s short fiction. It is infinitely better than Catcher in the Rye and you’ll find many more relatable characters than Holden Caulfield.

Thank you for joining our discussion! Let me know how you feel about any of these books or authors. If you have any personal recommendations please leave them in the comments.

See you later, see you soon.