Biography, Criticism, Essay, Irving Stone

Author Spotlight: Irving Stone

Every so often, a Twitter thread or Facebook meme or “Top Ten Tuesday” type survey will come around, asking people to share “a book you think everyone should read” or an “under-rated author people should try.” And every time this happens, I almost always recommend the same writer, Irving Stone, and one of two of his books, which happen to be personal favorites, LUST FOR LIFE and THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY.

So, when a Twitter thread recently posed the question a bit differently (“which book/author have you stopped recommending?”) It gave me pause. I realized that, yes, I have slowly but surely begun to recommend Irving Stone less and less because, for some reason, people just refuse to read him.

To counteract my negligence, I have decided to put together a spotlight piece on Irving Stone. I hope that you will get to know him, a bit, and begin to understand why I think he’s worth reading. Maybe some of you will even give him a try!

IRVING STONE (1903-1986)

Irving Stone was a California writer best known for his biographical novels, a genre which owes its contemporary form largely to Stone’s first novel of “bio-history,” Lust for Life (Evory, 642). In these works, Stone would “novelize accounts of real people, based on meticulous research” (NNDB). His first biographical novel, a great success, was followed by other notable works in the same genre, including Love is Eternal: A Novel of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln (1954) and The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo (1961).

Stone was born Irving Tennenbaum on July 14, 1903, in San Francisco, California. In 1934 he married his long-time editor, Jean Factor, and they had two children together. According to Stone, he began reading at a very early age, and onward through life, which caused him to be given the nickname “bookworm” (Sarkissian, 361). As a boy growing up in San Francisco in the early 1900s, Stone bore witness to many momentous events, including the great earthquake of 1906, the World’s Fair of 1914, and the implementation of Prohibition in 1919 (Sarkissian, 362-4). When Stone was not yet in high school, his mother (who was uneducated but who “craved books and knowledge”) brought him to the University of California at Berkeley and demanded with “a burning intensity” that he promise “that no matter what happens” he attend that school (364).

Stone kept that promise, thanks in large part to several fortuitous instances of luck (and evasion). For example, when he moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the registrar at his new school, Manual Arts High School, mistook “English and Composition” for two separate courses; this led to young Irving – a not great student in general—being awarded not eight units of As in “English and Composition” but sixteen units of As, eight each for the two separate subjects, which were not actually separate. The registrar asked Stone to confirm this, and he did. It was only much later in life that he admitted the deception (Sarkissian, 366).

Another fortunate event took place after his first semester at the University of Southern California (USC), where Stone enrolled because he had missed the deadline for Berkeley’s spring registration. Stone, quite sure of his inability to successfully complete courses in mathematics and the sciences, learned upon enrolling at Berkeley that they had enacted a new policy requiring two years of study in these very subjects (he had gotten through them in high school only because he had friends and classmates willing to do his work for him). Luckily for Stone, an exception was written into the rules whereby any incoming student with at least 14 credits of university coursework could waive the math and science requirements. Stone had completed exactly that many hours at USC, in anticipation of his eventual transfer to Berkeley (366).

So, Stone’s rise out of the lower classes and through academia is, by his own admission, largely due to certain circumstances of fortune, but also to his own abilities as a writer. Ultimately, honored his mother’s wishes by studying Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his B.A. in 1923. He then earned his M.A. from the University of Southern California in 1924 (Evory, 641).

From boyhood and through his university years, Stone worked odd jobs, including as a vaudeville musician, a milk depot employee, a delivery boy, and an usher (Sarkissian, 364-5). According to Stone, even before his fifteenth birthday he was working up to thirty-five hours a week, while going to school (365). This would have been possible –even probable—considering Stone’s family’s lack of income as well as the fact that child labor laws in the United States were not yet in effect until 1938. It is possible that much of this early experience would feed his later academic and professional interests, including his search for “the wellsprings of human conduct” and his particular interest in “social economics” including “labor relations, poverty controls, slum clearance, and the like” (Sarkissian, 368). In college, Stone “supported himself by playing saxophone in a dance band” (Krebs) and was also granted teaching fellowships at USC and at Berkeley (Sarkissian, 368).

After finishing college and graduate studies, Stone “supported himself by writing detective stories” and a few plays. It was only after being rejected 17 times that Lust for Life, his first success, was finally accepted for publication (Britannica). Stone was particularly interested in representing, honestly, the overlooked or the misunderstood – the underdogs of history. As Albin Krebs puts it, “what aroused Mr. Stone’s curiosity was the suspicion that a character had been misunderstood or unfairly misrepresented by previous studies” (para. 15). For this reason, he often wrote about “totally unimportant figures” (Sarkissian, 370) such as Clarence Darrow, or misunderstood (particularly by the American audience) personalities, such as Vincent van Gogh and Michelangelo. In addition, Stone –again possibly due to the influence of his childhood, and especially the formative influence of his mother – “was also intrigued by how the women in the lives of men in the public eye influenced them” (Krebs, para. 15). This interest resulted in a tetralogy of popular novels, three of which, according to Stone, were about “women [who] had been traduced and vilified by history” (Sarkissian, 370).

In crafting his novels, what was most important to Stone was that the history informing his stories be as factually accurate and as detailed as possible, which takes a great amount of time and effort when one is writing about actual, historical figures. In his prologue to The Irving Stone Reader, he writes, “the biographical novelist must be the master of his material; the craftsman who is not in control of his tools will have his story run away with him” (19). Stone’s extensive and exhaustive research into his subjects led him and his wife to numerous countries, including a lengthy stay in Italy, where Stone spent years researching the life of Michelangelo. In addition to this, the pair spent two years living in Vienna, researching Sigmund Freud, and later moved to Greece to research the lives of Henry and Sophia Schliemann (Sarkissian 376).

Stone’s research did not simply lead to the completion of his novels, however; indeed, much of his work on these historical figures often resulted in other contributions to academia, such as bringing “much previously unpublished and important information into print,” including Freud’s papers and Michelangelo’s and Van Gogh’s letters (Evory, 643). Stone has also received numerous awards, including the Christopher Award and Silver Spur Award (1957), the Golden Lily of Florence, Rupert Hughes Award, Gold Medal from Council of American Artist Societies, Gold Trophy from American Women in Radio, Corpus Litterarum Award from Friends of the Libraries, University of California, Irvine (Evory, 641), and the John P. McGovern Award (NNDB). He also founded the Academy of American Poets in 1962 (Britannica).

Finally, although Stone withdrew from his Ph.D. program at Berkeley prior to completing his dissertation, he did eventually receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Berkeley, as well as honorary doctorates from A&H University, California State Colleges, Coe College, Hebrew Union College, and the University of Southern California (OAC).

Works Cited

  • Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series. Vol. 3. Ed. Adele Sarkissian. Detroit: Gale, 1986.
  • Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series. Vol. 1. Ed. Ann Evory. Detroit: Gale, 1981.
  • “Finding Aid to the Irving Stone Papers.” Online Archive of California. The Regents of the
  • University of California, 2009.
  • “Irving Stone.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” Fantastic Fiction. Fantastic Fiction, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” NNDB. Soylent Communications, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone, Author of ‘Lust for Life,’ Dies at 86.” Obituaries. New York Times, 2013.
  • Stone, Irving. The Irving Stone Reader. Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1963.

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Criticism, Essay, Jane Austen

Considering the Secret of Northanger Abbey

Although I’m not hosting Austen in August this year, I did want to dip my toes into something Austen-related, at least. Old habits die heard! As many of you know, my favorite Austen novel is Northanger Abbey. It is not her best, but I have a special affinity for it, for a few reasons. I recently read an article that takes a different view on its characters, so I thought I would consider it and respond here.

Edward Neill’s “The Secret of Northanger Abbey”is largely a critique on the “imbecility” of the characters in Jane Austen’s novel. Neill refers to each character individually, pointing out their less admirable traits, without paying much attention to what positivity or sensibility the characters might actually bring to the story. The article revolves around negativity, and does not take into consideration multiple-motives or interpretations.

For instance, when discussing an argument between Catherine and Henry Tilney, over Fred Tilney’s actions with Isabella Thorpe, Neill writes, “Catherine’s condemnation of [Fred’s] caddishness seems more accurate than Henry’s blustering indulgence” (Neill 23). However, Neill only allows for Catherine’s behavior as proper in this circumstance, refusing to acknowledge the fact that Henry must first (especially in the time this novel is written, when familial ties are of the utmost importance) align himself with his brother; furthermore, if we look at the novel itself, it is clear that Henry Tilney understands Isabella’s character, as well as his brothers, and he finds them both equally at fault. Henry touches on this sentiment when he responds to Catherine’s one-sided assault against his brother, essentially stating that, in order for one to fret over Captain Tilney’s treatment of Isabella, one would need “first suppose Isabella to have had a heart to lose, – consequently to have been a very different creature; and in that case, she would have met with very different treatment” (Austen 150-51). Thus, Henry does not disagree that the Captain’s behavior leaves much to be desired, but also that one such as Isabella need not expect, nor deserve, any better.

The character “flaws,” as Neill understands them, are not the only aspects of Austen’s novel with which Neill finds fault. He goes on to examine Catherine’s growth as a character, and rather than applauding Austen for allowing Catherine to develop over the course of the narrative, Neill states that the character growth from “imbecility sprouts at an alarming” rate (Neill 24). I would argue, however, the old adage that one cannot truly grow, or appreciate one’s own self-worth, without first making mistakes (or, “it is better to learn from your mistakes, than to be doomed to repeat them.”) Why does Neill find such fault in a character’s ability to learn and to grow – as Catherine does – with each new experience? It is also clear that her most important life experience to-date is happening at this moment in narrative time, when Catherine is visiting Bath and largely responsible for herself for the first time, so it seems natural that this is a time when she would obtain a great deal of self-awareness (as well as social, political, economic, etc.), even rapidly.

The third issue I take with Neill’s reading of Northanger Abbey comes by way of his deconstruction of an interaction between Catherine and Henry. As the two characters discuss their reading of The Mysteries of Udolpho, Neill labels Henry’s irony “self-reproachful,” then goes on to state that Catherine misunderstands Henry’s intention with his statement that he has read the book and thus, must “gain points” with her (Neill 25). Neill seems to think that Henry is mocking her, and, though Tilney does use sarcasm often enough to get his point across, as when he says, in jest, that “nature has given [women] so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half,” it is also made clear, early in the story, that he does read and enjoy novels (Austen 79). Therefore, I would argue, this scene is not meant to diminish Henry’s nor Catherine’s character; instead, it is Austen’s way of bringing the general popularity and importance of the novel to the forefront.

Neill’s essay is an interesting piece of criticism, and it does have its value. It offers one way of reading the characters in the novel and leaves room for argument and further consideration. Further, it concludes that “Northanger Abbey contains the meaning of Northanger Abbey” which Catherine, mostly by accident, discovers (Neill 29). The article opened up my own reading of the text by making me look more closely at the way Catherine’s character develops throughout the novel, and how it is her stumbling and misinterpretations of situations, or perhaps more generously, her intuition which allows her to become the true heroine of the novel. What does it mean, for instance, that “not only is she not absolutely wrong, she ends by seeming closer to being right than anyone else?” (Neill 28) Neill is correct that Catherine somehow interprets the natures of John Thorpe, General Tilney, and Captain Tilney; however, I would have to argue that, even though she does not, at first, understand the reason for her “gut feelings” about these people, she is the only person to recognize that there is something wrong. Thus, in my opinion, Catherine is no “imbecile.”

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Neill, Edward. “The Secret of Northanger Abbey.” Essays in Criticism 47.1 (1997): 13-32.


All work found on roofbeamreader.com is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.


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Blog Post, Criticism, Culture, Essay, writing

The Dystopic Villainy of Book Clubs

I was recently informed that someone out there on the interwebs has a serious problem with the “Classics Club Spin.” Now, normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t phase me. Different people like and appreciate different things. So it goes and who cares? But then I visited said blog and read the post, a self-congratulatory and sweeping criticism of modern-day “book clubs.” The most intense criticism is saved for the joyful little spin, however, and the rationale is beyond bizarre.

The blog post begins thus: “But there is a strange new trend, a marketing plan for glamorous curators of books. Publishers can now con readers into subscribing to book clubs where the “editors” choose the monthly books for the customers.”

That’s a pretty reasonable critique, save the part of this being anything new.  In a way, this trend has been around at least as long as Dickens, who—along with other serial writers—created the market for subscriber-based fiction. That said, the idea that there is a “great con” in a book club is simplistic and dishonest. Do subscribers really not know that editors will be choosing each month’s selection for them? Do they not sign up for the program themselves, and continue it month-to-month so long as they are satisfied? Can they not choose to return the book, or “DNF” it, or read it, love it, and rate it on Goodreads, if they want? Where, exactly, is the con?

But it gets worse.

At this point, the writer goes on to criticize specific clubs.

First is the NYRB Classics Book Club, which she thinks is too expensive. In this, I probably agree, but again, where is the con? Don’t have the money? Don’t join the club. In most cases, these clubs also post their reading selection(s), so guess what? A person could join along as they see fit or not, with different editions and even electronic copies, if they want to save money or choose to avoid certain selections.

Then, The Art of the Novella Subscription Series from Melville House is called out for choosing books that do not count as novellas. The criticism here is that the book club facilitators do not know what a novella is. She indicates that books such as The Awakening and Jacob’s Room are novels, not novellas, and so these editors need to learn what is what before they can earn her loyalty (though at this point, I’m beginning to doubt they would receive it regardless). The intense scorn, based only on two examples, seems inappropriate at best, especially considering the fact that The Awakening and Jacob’s Room certainly come close enough to being novellas. Merriam-Webster defines a novella as “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.” Most dictionaries of literary terms further limit the novella to between 17,000 and 40,000 words. Well, The Awakening surpasses the limit by about 6,000 words (45,965) and Jacob’s Room comes in at about 54,000 words. So, in the strictest sense, are they novellas? Perhaps not, but I think more than enough readers and scholars alike would accept that they come close enough and that the reader of short fiction/novellas would receive more benefit than harm from their inclusion, particularly if they are aspiring writers. Maybe I’m just missing the “con” again.

Next on the chopping block is Asymptote Book Club which the author says she has “never heard of” and thereby sarcastically dismisses its claim that it is “the premier site for world literature in translation.” I’m not sure what sort of argument, “it can’t be true because I’ve never heard of it” falls into, but it seems to fit our times. To be fair, though, she’s also not a fan that the choices are “surprises” and that they are selected by an “award-winning team” (“who are they?” she asks. That’s a fair question, but did she bother to read the “about” section, or send an email? “Reader beware” is a nice catch-phrase, but doing a tiny bit of work is also acceptable, especially for someone who finds personal choice and responsibility such a virtue, as will be demonstrated below.) As it turns out, this Asymptote club works with independent publishers with similar missions. I for one can support that.

The final club to be critiqued is the good old-fashioned Book of the Month Club, which has narrowed its monthly offerings down to five (from a previous “catalogue” of options). This club receives the least amount of scrutiny, for whatever reason, but it also serves as the set-up for what the writer introduces next: an incomprehensible and frightfully misinformed view of The Classics Club’s “Classics Spin,”which the blogger deems “horrifying.”

The writer begins by suggesting that participants in the spin “have a problem with choice” and that she herself only bothered to look into it because “some very good bloggers participated in this:  otherwise, I’d never have heard of it” (so, again, if this person does not know about it, it must not be important or substantial – what a healthy opinion to have of one’s self).

Ultimately, we arrive at the strangest and most harrowing critique of the entire piece, reserved not for a corporate book club out to make money, but for our small, independent, volunteer-based little club:

Why are people ceding their choices to curators and chance? My husband speculates that people no longer want responsibility. If they do not choose their own books, or if they merely draw a number in a lottery, they have less commitment to the book. If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it. My own theory is that “they” are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse. Soft addiction to tweeting? Good. Choices? What choices? It’s going to be really, really terrible.

Where to begin? “Ceding choice?” Perhaps, because this writer is only interested in what she already knows, she did not bother to read anything about the Club. You see, Clubbers choose all of their own books, and the spin itself is a self-selected list from one’s own previously compiled list. That means “Spinners” have literally made their own choice twice.

Avoiding “responsibility”? What sort of responsibility would that be? The responsibility we have to ourselves to choose our own books? The responsibility to choose to finish or not finish the book? The responsibility to choose to write about or not write about it? The responsibility to decide whether or not we join the club or participate in any/all of the spins? I suppose each of these things is, yes, a personal responsibility and choice. I’m happy to say, all of these choices are in fact the responsibility of each club member, which is what makes it such a compelling, eclectic, and lively group to be a part of: no one “Clubs” the same way.

“If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it.” Once again, the writer seems misinformed about the nature of the list and the club. The clubber/spinner does choose to put that book on their list, so whether or not they read it is “their fault,” as she writes. How to classify a reading choice as a “fault” or not, though, is beyond me. If someone dislikes a book, they dislike it. There can be any number of reasons why, but in six years I can share this much: no one has ever blamed the fact that they didn’t like a particular book they read for their Classics Club list on the fact that they read it because it was a spin selection. What flawed logic that would be; fortunately, we have escaped it thus far.

But if all of that wasn’t strange enough, her final lines turn out to be the most ridiculous and shameful of all: “My own theory is that ‘they’ are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse.” So, this writer actually thinks that The Classics Club, which has existed for six years simply because people love to read and write about classic literature, is a kind of totalitarian groupthink in disguise? It takes something beyond a stretch of the imagination to conclude this way, and it starts with total ignorance of the club and its purpose and methods.

To be clear: members of the Classics Club choose their own list of books and set their own pace. They can modify their lists at any time. They also choose their own Spin lists and can join or not, at any time. Members come from all over the world and the moderators are volunteers who spend their own time and resources keeping up the website, social media accounts, etc. The entire purpose is to read, with added encouragement on review and discussion. Anyone who thinks the Classics Club is “facilitat[ing] the despotic politicians of the dystopian future” needs to go back to class.

How does one develop such a strange antipathy for something so simple? I’m not sure, but my grandfather had a favorite saying that comes to mind now: “Any club in which [s]he’s a member is not a club I want to join.” Perhaps these book clubs should consider it a blessing that they do not count “mirabile dictu” among their ranks. And perhaps, if she first became familiar with the things she critiques, she might develop a different perspective on them.


You can read the original post here: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/02/the-glamour-of-book-club-curators/

Edit: She appears to have removed the original post. A new post is here, for those who care: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/06/the-missing-bbc-adaptations-of-george-gissing/

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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Aristotle, Classics, Criticism, Essay, Philosophy

Aristotle’s Poetics

What can I say about Aristotle’s Poetics that has not already been said, and by those much more capable? Certainly, despite being just a collection of drafts and journal entries, this is one of the most significant, relevant, and pervasive pieces of literary criticism in the western tradition. It continues to influence readers and scholars alike. While some have said the work is difficult to read and understand, I thought the Malcolm Heath translation (Penguin Classics 1996) was excellent, and the Introduction even better.

Heath takes Aristotle’s Poetics chapter-by-chapter, explaining what each of the core concepts is in any given part of the text, then elaborating with details, explanations, and contemporary context, which makes the original text much more readable. It was particularly helpful to read the introduction because the translation itself dropped some of the original language, without reference. For example, mimesis, hamartia, and katharsis, three incredibly important terms in literary criticism (including the study of rhetoric, drama, and narrative), are addressed by descriptions of their functions, only, and the translated terms (imitation, error, and purification) are what is given in the text itself. This is one of the few flaws I found in the translation because, presumably, anyone reading this text is doing so for edification on the topics of literary study and should hopefully be aware of the Greek terms that we continue to use in conversation of these topics, even 2,000-plus years later.  

That slight blip aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Aristotle’s Poetics. The majority of his musings are about dramatic tragedy, particularly in comparison to dramatic comedy, which he finds a lesser art form. That said, much of what he describes also applies to the study of narrative fiction and storytelling more generally. His methods of analysis, too, are fascinating in that they illustrate how one might go about “doing” the work of literary criticism, not to mention that his insights provide excellent food for thought regarding the dramas he analyzes himself (such as works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer). Of the utmost interest is the idea that readers (more appropriately: audiences) derive pleasure from what are often painful emotions related to tragedies: fear, anger, loss, disappointment, etc. This, of course, leads to Aristotle’s explanation of catharsis and supports his argument that the cathartic experience of reading emotional works or witnessing an emotional play (of a specific type, at a specific sophistication, and for a certain privileged kind of audience) is the reason why storytelling is so powerful and effective.

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of Aristotle’s analysis, for me, has to do with the study of character, and what makes a “good” character. Aristotle claims that the character needs to be moral, but not perfect. He should be believable in his purposes and his struggles, but should also be “better” than we are, so that we can look to him as one to admire and so that we react rightly when said character falls. I think of the kinds of books I most often respond to, and they do indeed tend to have characters that are flawed but noble, that often fail but do great good (either actually or didactically/philosophically). In treating my thoughts on characterization in book reviews, I will try to consider Aristotle’s perspectives a bit more closely.

Aristotle also explains the function of plot and describes which are better or worse, depending on their constructions and outcomes. He describes “ordered structure” for example, and the idea that even in chaos, there must be some kind of realistic expectation for the events that are occurring. In other words, a character/reader/audience might be surprised by something that happens, but whatever it is that happens must be probable to the situation at hand. This is somehow both an obvious observation but also a profound one: how many plots have run afoul because the author seemed to throw in some plot device or tangent that made no sense and that could have been removed without influencing the story whatsoever? Everything must have a purpose. Whereas I found the exploration on character interesting from my perspective as a reader, I find this analysis of effective plots invaluable when thinking about my work as a writer.

The last element I found most fascinating, though I am skipping plenty that is interesting for the sake of brevity and because I simply did not conduct an academic reading on this text, is the idea of language. Aristotle criticizes some of his contemporaries who balked at the fact that some poets were using colloquial language. He writes that “the most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity” and adds that “the clearest diction is that based on current words” (36). He argues that the best language is that which is “some kind of mixture” of diction that is both clear and out of the ordinary, traditional and inventive. In many ways, I think this argument presages what Shakespeare would do in retelling familiar stories but couching it in the language of the people, even going so far as to invent much of the language he needed because it simply didn’t exist yet (or didn’t fit into his rhyme scheme). It is heartening to think that Aristotle, one of the foremost minds in all of western philosophy and an authority on language, was not an old fuddy-duddy.  

Aristotle’s Poetics is book 2 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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Biography, Criticism, David Shields, E.M. Forster, Essay, J.D. Salinger, Literary Theory, Mini-reviews, Non-Fiction, Shane Salerno, Terry Eagleton, Theory

Mini-Reviews: Salinger, Forster, and Eagleton

Hi, folks!  I have been pressed for time, lately (lately? Please. This is nothing new, and we all know it) and I am way behind on reviews.  I “definitely” have four book reviews outstanding and “technically” have another three as well (texts I assigned to my composition students, which I have naturally read and should review at some point…).  Anyway, the only way for me to get to them, at this point, is with some mini-reviews or less-than-organized thoughts.  I recently read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, too, for which I do hope to provide a full review (because it is on multiple of my challenge lists for 2013).

The following three are all works of non-fiction (one biography and two literary theory type texts) so I feel it is somewhat appropriate to present them together.  Here we go!

1. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno — 4.0 out of 4.0

This is perhaps one of the best biographies that I have ever read.  No, in fact, it is probably the best biography I have ever read, as the other works which come close, in my mind, are actually autobiographies (Mark Twain’s, for instance).  The authors spent eight years researching Salinger’s life and works in order to get at the truth behind this brilliant but troubled writer, and their exhaustive studies have resulted in a masterful portrait and new understanding of the man who was Holden Caulfield.

The book is divided into four parts, and these four parts directly correspond to the four steps of Advaida Vedanta Hinduism.  These four steps included “Apprenticeship” (Brahmacharya); “Householder Duties” (Garhasthya); “Withdrawal from Society” (Vanaprasthya); and “Renunciation of the World” (Sanyasa).  Separating the biography into these sections, which clearly, then, correspond to chronological portions of Salinger’s life (personal and writing lives), helps the reader to make sense out of the mystery that was J.D. Salinger.  Why did he retreat from society?  But, more than this, Shields and Salerno dig deeper and expose the sometimes hypocrisy of Salinger’s self-exile – including the ways he would stay in touch with the world, though on the fringes, and the moments when he would reappear for just long enough, and in only the “necessary” ways, in order to refuel the flame of public interest.

What is truly wonderful, too, about this biography is that it is not titled too far toward fanatic praise (such as the Paul Alexander biography) nor toward outright personal animosity (such as the works of Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, as well as the Ian Hamilton biography).  Ultimately, the two biographers, here, present a notably balanced picture of the man and writer.  Much of Salinger’s history and personal relationships are either related for the first time in this work or presented with corroborating evidence such as has been missing in previous works, due to the fact that no one would speak about Salinger while he was alive.

Some have experienced mixed feelings about whether or not to read this biography, as it seems to be an invasion of the privacy Salinger held so dear.  I would argue, however, and I think the two authors of this work would agree, that Salinger did not intend or expect his life and work to go unexamined forever – just while he was alive.  Part of his religious teachings included the commitment to one’s art, without the fame or fortune which might come with it.  Evidence suggests that he did continue writing, and likely very much, over a long period of time, but he chose not to publish that writing for  variety of reasons, most of which had to do with his religious beliefs (though there are other elements to this decision, as Shields and Salerno mention).  Ultimately, it seems Salinger left instructions for many works to be published following a certain posthumous waiting period.  Since this is the case, one can, I believe, feel comfortable reading this intimate, sometimes expose, knowing that Salinger was likely perfectly aware that, following his death, his secret world would come out.

The structure of the work might work more for some than for others, as it is set up similar to a screenplay (which is perhaps appropriate, considering the documentary and the book were planned together and developed together, as a kind of single entity).  It worked well for me in certain parts, but at other times I found myself wishing for a traditional narrative form.  Ultimately, though, I find myself with very little to criticize. As a fan of Salinger (so much so that this very blog’s name is inspired by his work), I can and do highly recommend it.


157995922. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster — 3.75 out of 4.0

E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel heralded the now enormous scholarship on theory and criticism of the novel and the writing process. In this work, which, like Virginia Woolf’s incredible A Room of One’s Own is actually a series of lectures, Forster lays out his now infamous set of seven elements of the novel: Story, Plot, Fantasy, Prophecy, Pattern, and Rhythm.  This is also the work responsible for bringing to readers and writers the idea of “flat” versus “round” characters — yes, those terms, unlike many, are actually traceable to a source!

In his lectures, Forster discusses in length, and from many perspectives, the differences between readers and critics, including their different purposes, the approaches they do (and should?) take, and also their abilities.  He says, for instance:

“The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events i the life of its author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency” (13-14).

This passage, I think, captures the essence of what Forster is trying to do, which is to separate the critic and the artist – to acknowledge the importance of a more artistic approach to reading, rather than a technical or historical one – to validate, in fact, the personal relationship a reader has with individual texts.

He does much more than this, of course.  He is teaching writers how to write, without having them write a word.  He gives numerous examples, from Dickens to Proust, from Woolf to DeFoe, to explain how and why certain writers do certain things.  He examines beauty and fantasy – he explains, like none other have been able to, how Virginia Woolf is indeed a “fantasist” who writes with “deliberate bewilderment” (19).  Why was the world of beauty closed to Dickens?  Why is it so hard to define the term “story” and, upon defining it, what is its importance?  Why do we tell stories and how are we more truthful, more connected, in fiction than in real life?

Some of Forster’s greatest insights, I think, come in the section on “People.”  He says that “a character in a book is real when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not choose to tell us all he knows – many of the facts, even of the kind we call obvious, may be hidden” (63).  From here, he explains why this is and how it both strengthens a work and benefits the reader’s experience with it.  “A novel is a work of art,” after all, “with its own laws, which are not those of daily life.”  Whether we are reading a work of fantasy or realism, naturalism or postmodernism, what we should be looking for is the rules of the particular world at hand, and how are those rules governed, followed, or broken?  For me, this approach has opened a number of doors – has made it much easier for me to accept the unacceptable (except, of course, in stories which are just downright bad).

In addition to specific evaluations like the one above, Forster also discusses elements such as allegory, mysticism, and symbolism, among others, with direct references to works and writers who employ them well.  He even compares to writers or works who might both be mystics, for instance, and talks about how they do what they do – how it is different, perhaps, but equally effective.  For a student of literature, the approach is, I think, wonderful and helpful.

Some of the references are outdated, and some of the language, too, but though these lectures happened decades ago, one can understand why they were the foundation for schools of thought which have cropped up and built upon them ever since.  For any serious reader, Aspects of the Novel is a must.


160732983. How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton — 3.5 out of 4.0

I just love Terry Eagleton.  He certainly will not appeal to everyone (in many of his works he is overtly political, which some readers will find put-offish, even if they agree with his politics, but especially if they don’t.  I do happen to agree with most of his politics, and I think the guy is hilarious.  And also a damn good writer – engaging, entertaining, and yet seriously knowledgeable.

This particular work, his most recent, is like a user-friendly introduction to literature and to many of his other works.  He, like Forster, separates his text into themes: Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value.  Within each section, he elaborates on how to effectively read and understand certain aspects of these themes by giving great examples of writers doing it well.

Of particular interest, to me, were his explorations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (found in the section on Interpretation) and also his exploration of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (found in the section on Character).  In both cases, his examination of the texts and how they work added much to what I had already taken away from them in my original readings (or to what I understood about the writer’s particular talents).  In fact, it made me want to re-read both right away – which, sadly, I haven’t found the time to do!

Eagleton also gives some helpful, if not overly academic distinctions between “a book” and “a text,” for instance.  Those who have traveled far in their literary education may find this book somewhat superficial; however, for those who are newly interested in literary studies or who are avid readers but do not necessarily know how to “talk the talk” – how to dissect a work of fiction, this could be a wonderful place to start.  And, honestly, even for those with decades of experience, many of Eagleton’s examples are witty and transferable (I am using some in my own classes in the future, for instance) and his dissections of classic novels are always, always worth the ride.


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Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Criticism, Historical, Jacqueline Susan, Metaphysical, Milan Kundera, Theory, Thomas Pynchon, Tim O'Brien

More Earlier Reads & Light Reviews

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The Crying of Lot 49 is an apocalyptic narrative which deals with the thermodynamic concept of entropy. Pynchon prophecies the technological age and the lack of genuine communication/conversation between humans will result in the slowing down and eventually destruction of civilization.

Very interesting read, probably one of Pynchon’s more “accessible” novels, though I had to pop on the web a few times to get a better grasp of the thermodynamic concepts.

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism by Vincent Leitch (Editor)

This is the graduate student in literature’s bible. No joke. The pages are even as thin, or thinner, than those in my Bible. It’s heavy, too. Literally and metaphorically. Essential. Also, probably the reason I now have hunched shoulders.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Incredible work of creative memoir and meta-fiction. Worth the read to anyone, especially those interested in war fiction (“non-fiction”). However, in response to reviews which state that this novel “takes no sides,” I am befuddled. The Things They Carried is every bit the anti-war novel. O’Brien implies and states pointedly that he was entirely against the war. On page 61 he even states that he was a coward for going to the war, because it meant choosing what was forced upon him rather than what he knew to be right.

In any case, great read. Eerily playful and profound.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Very interesting but not very entertaining. This is more a philosophical work than a piece of literature, but it is excellent for what it is. Those who read the back and become interested in the “love story” it touts might walk away a bit confused, if they finish the book at all. However, the very last section, “Karenin’s Smile,” is absolutely breath-taking.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Excellent read. Entertaining, sad, sexy. Great summertime, beach book.

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African-American, Alex Sanchez, Book Review, Criticism, Ernest Hemingway, Feminism, Gay Lit, J.T. Leroy, K.M. Soehlein, Literature, Margaret Fuller, Zora Neale Hurston

Reviews: The Earlies Part 4

So Hard to Say by Alex Sanchez

Meh. Sanchez’s novels are okay for pre-teen/teen readers, I guess. They’re simple and generally truthful. But, if you or someone you know is interested in really good, moving young adult fiction involving gay characters or themes, check out Boy Meets Boy by Levithan or The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Chbosky.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller

A critical work about the “feminist” movement, though Fuller’s idea of feminism leaves much to be desired. She is, I suppose, a voice for change in her time, but she seems to have been locked in that need to balance even the feminist movement with the needs of males. Perhaps this was a necessary concession for publication in such a patriarchal time and profession – but she (and Wollstonecraft, to be honest), while heralded as a liberating mother-figure, seems more of a moderate than a liberal.

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

Heartbreaking.

The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein

It’s forgettable but it’s god for what it is… an easy read on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A quick but worthwhile read. I think what most interests me, though, is Hurstons own story – and the study which Alice Walker did into Hurstons life, the revival.. the reclaiming of Hurston into literary prominence, etc. A discussion of this is included in this edition of the novel.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

For some reason, I thought I didn’t like Hemingway much. I enjoyed Old Man and the Sea.. plus some of Hemingway’s short stoires. But I still dreaded reading a full-length novel. I’m not sure why. After reading A Farewell to Arms, I know how ridiculous I was being. Absolutely lovely – and easy to get through.

Sarah: A Novel by J.T. Leroy

Hm. Interesting – lacking in lucid detail, but that’s probably a good thing, considering the subject matter.

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