Andrew Smith, Austen in August, Blog Post, David Levithan, David Shields, Helene Wecker, J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen, Nancy Sommers, Personal, Shane Salerno, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Year In Review

Roof Beam Reader’s Best of 2013

Hello, Readers!

Since I surpassed my 2013 goal of 60 books read (I’m up around 64, right now, with 2 books in progress and likely at least 1 more to go) before year’s end, I thought I would take a cue from some of my favorite bloggers who are posting a “Best of 2013” list.

The list below includes a small selection of categories from which I’ve read this year, with one “favorite” spotlighted for each category.  These are books I’ve read in 2013, not necessarily books that were published in 2013.  I hope you enjoy!

Best Academic Text

15793484From Queer Theory and Feminism, to Linguistics, Rhetoric, and Film Studies, this was a year of heavily theory-based, academic reading, for me.  I read some incredibly interesting texts on the history of sexuality, the French Revolution, bibliographical and textual studies, and the creative writing process.  Of all of these academic texts, though, I think my vote goes to a short little book called Responding to Student Writers, written by Harvard Professor Nancy Sommers, whom I had the honor to meet and work with this summer.  As an English instructor (and, more specifically, a teacher of first year college composition), I found the suggestions, tips, tools, and resources in this booklet to be helpful, as was the CD of student interviews that came with it.  Nancy Sommers is a well-respected expert in the field, and for good reason.  If you are a teacher who often assigns essays/research papers, analyses, etc., then Sommers’ work shouldn’t be missed.

Best Book on Writing / Literary Theory

340793I read a number of books this year which would fall into the category of literary theory and/or “on writing.”  I thought it prudent, then, to mention some of these and to pick a “favorite” amongst a group of rather good texts.  These include, for instance. E.M. Forster’s groundbreaking Aspects of the Novel, Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Novel, Jim Powell’s graphic guide Postmodernism for Beginners, Judith Mayne’s brilliant collection of essays on feminist film studies, The Woman at the Keyhole, and Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird by Bird.  Of all the books that fit this category, though, my favorite overall has to be Virginia Woolf’s lecture series, A Room of One’s Own.  Anyone interested in writing, and particularly the historical connection of women and/or socioeconomic status to the process, should definitely check this one out.

Best Contemporary Fiction

13596166I did not read all that much contemporary fiction this year, which is not unusual (I tend to lean towards classics and/or academic texts).  Still, there were enough to be considered and I believe this is a popular category for many of my readers, so I thought I should name a few standouts. First is a wonderful collection of short stories by E.J. Runyon called Claiming One.  Another was the highly controversial but interesting Tampa by Alissa Nutting.   My favorite, though, had to be Stephen King’s Joyland.  Normally, King would probably be the stand-out in the horror/mystery/paranormal genre, and he certainly nailed it with Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining, but Joyland was much more akin to some of his earlier stories, such as “The Body.”  There was some suspense, some magical realism, and a bit of crime-thriller to it, but mostly it was a book about summertime, coming-of-age, and living life. I absolutely loved it.

Best Genre Fiction Book

15819028I read much more genre fiction this year than I did general fiction (other than classics, which will be addressed below), so I am excluding a general fiction category and simply focusing on those books which might be considered fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.  Of these, I have read a number of works, including The Gunslinger and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, both of which I highly recommend.  Also,  Inferno by Dan Brown, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Although Shirley Jackson’s book came close to taking the title, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by The Golem and the Jinni.  I finished it recently and have not had time, yet, to write & post a review, but it was a stunning piece of work.  There’s something of the old-fashioned Romantic wonder and awe of nature in this one – it is bits and pieces of Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson fused with contemporary narrative style. Loved it.

Best LGBT Book

17237214This is an important category for me.  As most of you know, I’m currently in my second year of Ph.D. studies in English, but I’m also about to finish my graduate certificate in LGBT studies.  That said, I have not limited this category to works “of literary merit.”  In this category, I considered books on theory, books which would be called “classics,” and also contemporary fiction, young adult, and whatever else. This made it a bit tough, as I had to choose from a range which included Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram (fantastic), Sexuality in Europe by Dagmar Herzog (fascinating), and Shine by Lauren Myracle (touching).  Others that deserve mention include Sodom on the Thames by Morris Kaplan, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.  It was such a great pleasure to read so many awesome LGBT works of fiction and nonfiction this year.  The ultimate prize, though, has to go to the incredible Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan. This book touched my soul – it is a book that I felt had been missing from the conversation for far too long, and Levithan delivered it to us beautifully.

Best Nonfiction Book

18238043This is probably the largest category that I had to consider this year, with texts ranging from biography and autobiography to cultural studies, gender and sexuality, literary theory and criticism, and so much more.  It almost had to become separate categories, almost. Some of my favorites of the year included How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, Queer Theory by Annamarie Jagose, Vive la Revolution by Mark Steel, and Colonialism and Homosexuality by Robert Aldrich.  One of the books that I found most helpful, interesting, and readable was Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters.  When all is said and done, though, my absolute favorite nonfiction read this year was Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno.  If you settled for watching the documentary, then you are missing out on so much.  This biography, unlike others on Salinger, was in-depth, unbiased, well-researched, and revelatory in many ways.  Anyone interested in the life and works of J.D. Salinger should put this at the top of their list.

Best Work of Classic Literature

46133This was my second largest category to consider, and this final call was so difficult!  I love classic literature, so picking one book from such an incredible list of authors, periods, and subjects is almost impossible.  Some of the best of the year include O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, which shouldn’t be missed, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, which was a difficult but rewarding read, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams which was stunning, The Adventures of Don Quixote which was hilarious and which I enjoyed far more than I had anticipated. My favorite, though, goes to one of the first books I read this year and one which has stuck with me throughout 2013 – Orlando by Virginia Woolf.  It is poetic justice for Woolf, perhaps, that she has landed on this “best of” list twice, considering I used to vehemently refuse to read her books (I had one bad experience with her many years ago, and swore never to return!).  But Orlando is a stunning, daring epic.  She was disappointed with it (or, more accurately, with the supposed lack of focused attention she paid to it), but it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Best Young Adult Book

11861815Winger by Andrew Smith.  Not only was this the best Young Adult book that I read in 2013, but it was one of the best books I read this year, period.  The competition for this category was stiff, with books by Veronica Roth, Rick Riordan, David Levithan, Benjamin Saenz, Rick Yancey, Cassandra Clare, and Michael Scott to be considered. All of these books were enjoyable and some of them were downright incredible, but Smith’s Winger is a force to be reckoned with.  If you haven’t yet read this book, I would encourage you to read my review and see if it’s for you. Odds are, it is. I also highly recommend his other works, especially Stick, and I look forward to his next publication, Grasshopper Jungle, which is due out early in 2014.

Other Favorite Things

My favorite post of the year: On Horrors and Heroes

My favorite event of the year: Austen In August

My favorite review of the year: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

One blogger I couldn’t get enough of this year:  O of Behold the Stars

So, those were my favorites of 2013.  I am currently reading Ulysses by James Joyce and On What Grounds (Coffeehouse Mysteries #1) by Cleo Coyle, both of which I’m enjoying, for different reasons.  I plan to read one more this year – so that’s a possible three books I could add to this list of “favorites,” but let’s just leave them here as honorable year-end mentions, shall we?

What were YOUR favorite books this year?

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.

Blog Post, Blog Tour, Epistolary, GLBT, J.D. Salinger, Lee Bantle

Dear Jerome: A Letter to J.D. Salinger

Dear Jerome,

Mr. Salinger.  J.D.  How would you like to be addressed, I wonder?  Of course, it’s impossible to really ask, now, so I think I’ll just go with “Jerome.”  It seems real and logical.  And you seem real and logical.   Do you want to know what’s illogical?

I was discussing with someone this letter that I meant to write to you, and the things I wanted to say.  I was explaining how it’s a letter that has been a long time coming, but that I’m nervous about writing it – maybe even a little bit afraid.  How will you react? I mean, you might think this is silly, absurd, or a waste of time (for both of us), right?  But, you’re dead.  I mean, you’re dead and you will have absolutely no opinion about or reaction to this letter whatsoever.  So, why do I still worry about it?  That’s illogical.

I think, too, you would find it funny that the inspiration for this idea comes from the story elements of another book, one in which the main characters write letters to their favorite romance authors.  Can you imagine yourself a romance author?  It’s too funny.  You’re probably the least romantic writer imaginable – except that there is a certain something about your style and your messages that are a bit amorous.  They’re romantic in some way that is almost, I don’t know, an Americanized new-Gothic, maybe?  You tell it like it is, ya know?  You look life right in the face and take its measure, and that’s romantic (even when your response to life is to spit in its eye).

So, why am I writing to you, anyway?  I guess there’s been a lot on my mind lately – a lot that you have to do with.  Some juvenile side of me always hoped to meet you one day, even though I knew you were a recluse, a famous recluse, and I was a Nobody from nowhere, with absolutely no resources.  How our meeting was to happen, I can’t figure, but I did hope for it – if only for a five minute chat about absolutely nothing, over some really bad coffee somewhere.  We wouldn’t even have to talk about your books or your “secret” writings or anything like that.  What I would really love to talk about with you is just, life.  I want to know the man that created these stories – I’ve read them, I don’t need to analyze them with you, and I know you’d hate that.

You should know, though, that in all your books – all these sad stories about seclusion, isolation, and the misunderstood genius- I get that the point was that nobody could really be connected to anyone else.  We go through life looking for these connections: true love, soul mates, relatives, partners, friendships, mentors.  The truth is, though, that you’re born cold, wet, and alone and, aside from maybe the wet part, you die the same way.  Your Seymour and Teddy and Holden, they seemed to understand this, and they seemed to be different aspects of yourself – you who surely must have realized this truth about life and reality, to be able to write about it so bare-knuckled, so sadly.

You know what, though?  We are capable of connections, Jerome.  Maybe they’re not the kind we’re raised to crave or expect.  Maybe I’ll never truly be spiritually interwoven with another human soul, because that’s physically impossible.  But, so what if we can’t make these tangible connections?  We have the ethereal ones.  Your writing, Jerome, it connected me to myself – and that’s the most important connection of all.  I grew up a boy, very different from anyone else I knew.  I was not like my family, or my friends.  I was not like the people in the movies or on those teeny-bopper TV shows that everyone loved.  I was just me, and for the longest time I was fooled into believing there was something wrong with that: we were all supposed to be alike.

Your stories showed me something else.  All these things about myself that I never understood, this overwhelming sadness and melancholy, this complete infatuation with the potential beauty of life and the world, and the despair over all its (and our) failings – feeling this on a psychologically amplified level, and being frustrated that none of the cell phone-wielding, fast-car-driving, Starbucks-drinking teenage friends of mine seemed to have a clue.  You and I, we were from very different generations, but despite yourself, I think, we connected.  You might find that funny or ironic – I guess I do too, in a way.  But, I wanted to let you know that it’s possible, after all.  Meaningful connections.

Tell Seymour for me, if you see him around.

With Love & Kindness,


Blog Post, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Howard Zinn, J.D. Salinger, Monthly Review, RIP

A Dark Day, Remembered: 1/27/2010

This particular blog entry has been months in the making. The literary world lost two giants on Wednesday, January 27th 2010.

J.D. Salinger

I had to stifle a gut-reaction blog entry on J.D. Salinger after first hearing he had died. He was, to me, as he was to so many professional readers and writers, an inspiration and an example. J.D. Salinger is the man who got a reluctant high school boy to pick up another book, and another, and then another after that. Aside from Goosebumps books by young horror writer, R.L Stine, The Catcher in the Rye was the only book I had read multiple times as a youth and enjoyed. Unlike the Goosebumps books, though, I actually connected with Salinger’s works. I learned something and this was an absolute revolution for fourteen-year-old me. Learn something from books? You’re kidding me!

I recently got into a heated discussion with someone close to me about the value of The Catcher in the Rye. He was adamant that the novel was out-dated and pointless. That Holden Caulfiled represented nothing but juvenile angst and whiny, bratty self-indulgence. I disagreed. To me, Holden Caulfiled and his disgruntled anti-fascination with everyone and everything “phony” was a direct indicator of what was happening in America at the time. People were terrified to be themselves, so they became someone else. They put on masks and poses, especially in mixed company. They appeared “tough” and “relaxed.” They did all they could to appear whole-heartedly American, as if there’s any one thing that could represent what it means to be American or not. This was, let us not forget, the time of the great Communism scare (and hoax, really). Neighbors were turning in neighbors over simple disagreements. Teachers were brought in front of inquisitorial panels for teaching “subversive” materials. Scientists, philosophers, and even actors were grilled, black-listed, subpoenaed to testify in court against themselves, against their spouses, their friends, their relatives.

American culture was simultaneously being attacked, subverted, and preparing to explode. The Stonewall riots were around the corner. The independent literary and music scenes were beginning to grow in numbers and in influence. Artists and Hollywood were gaining power, threatening the iron-clad control of government over it’s people. False idols. (“Thought police” as Burroughs might phrase it).

Salinger was quite obviously terribly disturbed by the disillusionment of “American” ideals. He was concerned that children were growing up too fast. That the advent of media sources, exposé literature, radio, faster transportation – was all contributing to a loss of innocence for American youth. Franny and Zooey and the other Glass Family stories, for instance, are concerned with a type of perfect child – more intelligent and civil than adults, but less capable. Strained to the breaking point between the inability to grow up, and the necessity to grow up too fast – to be too responsible, too young. Too soon. Where were the good old days, when children could be children? Where adults could be counted on to be responsible, reliable, to make the right decisions and to protect and guide their children? Why are children being left to make these choices on their own? To grow up without role models?

In one of my favorite Salinger stories “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” found in the Nine Stories collection, one of the Glass children, Seymour (whose story is also told in the novella Seymour: An Introduction) commits suicide. The reason is still debated, but it seems to me to have a particular relationship to Seymour’s encounter with a young, innocent girl on the beach, whom he can’t help but compare to his wife – a superficial, shallow, insubstantial woman, mainly concerned with fashion and stature. Like Holden Caulfiled, who goes apparently insane at the thought of losing his sister to adulthood, Seymour cannot cope with the idea that this young girl may soon grow up to be just like his wife, or his wife’s mother, or any other adult American woman, so preoccupied with absolutely nothing important.

I’ve somehow detoured from the path, here. Salinger was my first literary influence and inspiration. I enjoy his writing for the very reasons I began to get so distracted above. The honesty, the pain, the confusion, and the fear for the future. I also appreciate that Salinger was disturbed that people found his writing so important. It must have terrified him to think that his worst fears for America were being popularly devoured by American (and foreign) critics as art, as literature. Certainly, he knew he was a writer. Still, I think it hurt Salinger to be so painfully honest with the public about his fears, only to be received in such a populist, star-studded fashion (Salinger was no fan of Hollywood stardom, after all). I’m not sure what he was hoping for. Perhaps an awakening, a renaissance in America. A realization that we were headed down a destructive path, where all our children were ultimately doomed to become mindless drones. Instead, he became his own worst nightmare – an idol to people.

Of course, Salinger would likely despise this and any other commemorative writing about him. He would say it’s just another representation of the kind of nonsense he was trying to escape, avoid, destroy. Another reason why he disappeared from the world, stopped publishing, etc. And I get that. I think a lot of us who really get Salinger understand that, ironically, our very adoration for this man and his writing is what Salinger would find most troubling about us. Still, I for one can’t help it. I will continue to read his works, to write about him and about his stories. I hope that more of his writing will be released, someday. I dream of the day I can visit private collections, like the ones at Princeton University, and spend hours devouring more Salinger.

There are many ways I could end my reflection on Salinger, but – oddly enough, I think I will go with a quote, not from The Catcher in the Rye or “Teddy” or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters but from the above-named “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” This quote, I think, encompasses what Salinger was saying to his audience, about himself. You want to read my works? Fine, read them – just don’t pretend that they’re anything other than words on paper, or that I’m anything other than a man and a writer. I’m no prophet, and my writing is no gospel:

“If you want to look at my feet, say so,” said the young man. “But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.” – J.D. Salinger


Howard Zinn

The second literary and cultural giant we lost that day, Howard Zinn, was author of A People’s History of the United States. He was a liberal progressive, whose goal was to educate people about the often altered or ignored United States history. I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Zinn, nor to hear him speak, nor even to read much of his work. I admit, I only ordered his A People’s History after hearing of his passing. Still, the loss is felt. Honesty and “alternative” views of history are rare indeed, especially when that alternative view (counter to schoolbook textbooks, that is) is closer to the hardened, factual truth of what is American history. From Christopher Columbus and the native Americans – the “Trail of Tears” and the “Gold Rush”. McCarthyism, the “Red Scare”, and Women’s Suffrage. All of our American history is told in a certain, tending-to-be sugar-coated manner. We refuse to remember the realities, the tragedies, the truly awful things we’ve put ourselves and fellow citizens through (Japanese Concentration Camps, anyone?) and, instead, focus only on the great American dream – and it is a great dream. It’s just important to also remember the truth – the mistakes. The who, what, where, when, and, most importantly why of American history. These realities are what make up America as we know it now, and as we will shape it in the future.

I’m eager to read more about Zinn, and to read his best known work, his opus of American history. I wish I had more knowledge of the man before he passed on. I wish I could have seen him, spoken to him, read his works before he was gone. But if historians have taught us anything about history, it’s that it’s never too late. Regrets are pointless, really, because there’s always something that can be learned and a change that can be made.

“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” – H. Zinn

J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) and Howard Zinn (1922-2010).
African-American, Andy Behrman, Book Review, Drama, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay Lit, J.D. Salinger, Langston Hughes, Rick Riordan, Scott Heim, Shakespeare, Short Story

Review: Previously Read, Briefly Reviewed

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

This collection of short stories has been sitting on my shelf for about a year. I love J.D. Salinger, but I suppose I was a bit leery of reading his short stories, as I’ve only read his novel The Catcher in the Rye and his dual-novella Franny and Zooey (Both of which I highly recommend). I had nothing to worry about, though. These short stories – admittedly, some more effective than others – are pure Salinger. They’re witty, sarcastic, sad, entertaining, and original. I particularly enjoyed the elliptical stories (the first and last stories in the collection) “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Teddy.” They were incredibly moving and fantastically written. I will definitely read most of these stories, if not the whole collection, many times over.

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Probably one of the best gay fiction(?) novels of all time. Painful, funny, dangerous, sexy, mature, and playful. Fantastic read.

Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania by Andy Behrman

Nothing special. Behrman tries too hard to be psychotic.

The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes

Absolutely beautiful collection of short stories, chronicling race relations in the American Jazz Age. Hughes writes a stunning anthropological study of the white race, in response to Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk.

The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson & The Olympians #3) by Rick Riordan

Just another fantastic installment of the great “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series. Each new story is better than the last – the action is getting more intense, the danger more real and more powerful. Plus, Riordan’s knowledge of Classical Greek Mythology is superb. He turns that knowledge into something both useful and entertaining – education can be fun! I would recommend this series to anyone who enjoyed Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or similar fantasy genre series’. It’s not nearly as sophisticated as Lord of the Rings and the narrative construction doesn’t “progress” through time the way that the Harry Potter novels do, but it’s still a worthy, exciting read. Light but fruitful. Can’t wait to get number four!

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s exploration of the human conscience – the meaning of “madness” – is what made this play so revolutionary and it is what has kept the play so popular for over 300 years. Hamlet breaks tradition from previous revenge tragedies of the Jacobean, Elizabethan, and classical tragedies in that Shakespeare provides a “method” for the madness. The purpose of the “ghost” of Hamlet’s father remains debated today. The discussion of protestant vs catholic vs pagan beliefs is exciting.

The Arden edition is especially beneficial to students of literature or of Shakespeare because it provides excellent explanatory notes, appendices, introductions, etc.

A.S. Byatt, Book Review, Dennis Cooper, E.M. Forster, Fantasy, Fiction, Franz Kafka, Gay Lit, George Miles Cycle, J.D. Salinger, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.T. Leroy, Jane Yolen, Virginia Axline

Review: Briefer Reviews of Past Reads

Closer by Dennis Cooper

I always promise myself that Dennis Cooper will not be able to shock me again; yet, he somehow manages to do so. For most readers, the majority of this book -start to finish- will be quite shocking, especially to those unfamiliar with Cooper’s work. I was appropriately mortified along the way, but it wasn’t until near the end, in the last chapter, when I was genuinely surprised and disgusted. The story is about a boy, George, who bounces from lover to lover, being used to fulfill others’ needs. Even the “love” that he finds in the end is getting his rocks off on the side, and this, beyond any scatological or blood play, is what disgusted me most.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Very interesting. My first journey into the world of Kafka. He takes the metaphor and turns it into reality. Gregor, described as “verminlike” actually becomes a vermin, something similar to a cockroach. I’m not sure, however, what the point is supposed to be, and like many critics, I am left with more questions than answers. Why does Kafka hate Gregor so much in the first place? Granted, he is just a traveling salesmen – but he is working for a slimy manager in order to pay back his parents’ debts, and he plans on sending his sister to a music school. I found little so “cockroach-esque” or unappealing about Gregor – but he is forced into this vermin body and his family turns away from him. I’m not sure. I suppose I’ll have to read more about Kafka’s intentions and theorists’ interpretations before I settle on one feeling about this novel, if that’s even possible at all. It was good, though. Philosophically interesting – I just wonder why Kafka inserted such an average, generally decent and well-meaning guy to play the role of the vermin. Seems the manager would be more suited for that role.

Maurice by E.M. Forster

This is the first Forster novel I’ve read, but it certainly will not be the last.  Maurice is a painfully real tale about a man torn and despairing over his sexuality. Perhaps only a gay man can relate completely to this novel. Perhaps only a gay man who has attempted to deny his sexuality and “reform,” to become “normal,” can fully understand what Forster has attempted (with great success) in this novel. And, perhaps, only a gay man who has struggled painfully with his own desires, battled for acceptance, and finally found peace with himself and a lover to call his own can absolutely appreciate this beautiful story.

I believe, though, that Forster has written a touching love story, which will be accessible to anyone with an open mind and a caring, seasoned heart. The story of Maurice and Clive has been lived, in one form or another, by every one of us. The victory of Maurice and Alec is almost shout-out-loud joyous.

I have much more to say about this novel, but I suppose the only real suggestion I can make is this: read it.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction by J.D. Salinger

Broke my heart. Salinger stuns me. I wish more than anything that I could find him and spend a day just chatting with him. No interviews. No prying. Just talking about the weather.

Raise High and Seymour my not be my favorite “stories,” but I think these two installments of the Glass family literary legend are wholly necessary, especially Seymour. There is something incredibly moving and almost intolerably painful about Seymour’s story and about Buddy’s inability to concretely express the unique love that these two brothers share.

Salinger just seeps right into my bone marrow, and I can’t ever seem to kick the habit.

The Young Merlin Trilogy (Passager, Hobby, and Merlin) by Jane Yolen

Very interesting re-working of the tale of Merlin’s boyhood. The stories are interesting, exciting, and enjoyable – but they’re so short and fast-paced, it really leaves me craving more. This is good and bad. Good, because the stories obviously have something attractive and engaging about them. Bad, because there’s not enough there to leave me feeling satisfied. I want more! (I will probably end up researching the stories of Merlin for months to come, thanks to this series).

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

I fear the title, “Possession: A Romance,” might attract a broad audience, one which will likely be unable to process all that goes on in this incredibly complex novel. No doubt, Byatt has created a masterpiece with this work. She weaves creative poetry, prose, essay, and literary scholarship with near flawless precision. Yet, and intentionally so, the novel will successfully serve only a small group of readers – those who are not just literature lovers, but readers with a substantial working understanding of literary theory and criticism. The pace is slow, and the references (both real and imaginary) to literary personages and works are difficult to wade through for a typical reader. As a literature scholar, however, I can honestly say that this is a work of epic proportion. Byatt leaves me stunned and envious.

Harold’s End by J.T. Leroy

Lot’s of editing/surface error problems which can be a bit distracting but, overall, the story is good. I don’t personally find it as disturbing as many reviewers seem to – not as much as, say, Sarah. (For really disturbing and experimental gay fiction, look up Dennis Cooper). However, in spite of myself, Harold’s End moved me quite a bit. More so after I sat down to think about the story and what it meant. A boy hustler, trying to make it on his own, meets one seemingly decent man who weans him from drugs and never forces him into anything. Even gives him a pet, Harold, to love and care for – then suddenly and without warning, he throws the boy back out into the streets. Really quite beautiful.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien has created an incredible universe, with which all future fantasy writers are doomed to compete. Though the dense description and Bible-like lineage lists can get dreary and overwhelming, the overall story, especially its imagery and themes, more than make up for it.

Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia M. Axline

Touching and fascinating story about a young boy whose behaviour is quite unusual. He appears to be intelligent, but he never communicates with anyone – his frustrated parents have given up hope on him but his teachers and one psychologist dare to hope for more. And their hopes possibly save this incredible boy’s life. The editing/proofreading of this printing isn’t exactly up to par, but the story (a true one) is definitely worth reading through the textual errors. Really enjoyed it.

My Loose Thread by Dennis Cooper

One of Dennis Cooper’s most incredible works. Two gay brothers (one who accepts what he is, the other denies it) both fall in love with the same boy – a depressed teenager with no real capacity for love. The boys’ rejection sends them into the arms of one another, fulfilling the sexual/physical desires they imagine having with their disturbed friend. The teen kills himself, which sends the brothers into confusion and insanity. Unbelievably sad, scary, and painful. Cooper is brutally honest in his depiction of gay teenage life, desire, and rejection – and all the psychological turmoil that

Book Review, Drama, Fiction, Herman Melville, J.D. Salinger, John Irving, Literature, Orson Scott Card, Virginia Woolf

Reviews: The Earlies, Part 6

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

My first Woolf novel, and I’m a bit disappointed. The language is too flower, the characters undeveloped. It seems Woolf attempts to evoke feelings from her readers without providing the necessary information – she glazes over deaths and wars as if they’re quite inconsequential. The prose is confusingly liquid – dialogue and narration are often indistinguishable. I’m not sorry I read it, but I think it will be quite a long time before I pick up another Woolf novel, especially if this is the one which was supposed to have “defined Woolf as a major novelist.”

The World According to Garp by John Irving

Absolutely wonderful as far as meta-fiction goes. Brilliant in the structure and style. I was personally put off by the seemingly overly-sexual interest the father has with his youngest son, and by the rape and adultery scenes. Also, the rapid succession of deaths are a little hard to believe but maybe that’s the point? All in all, I would recommend it to those who like creative story-telling and who may have fantasies of writing their own novel one day.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Beautiful book. Reminded me why I love Salinger. This will probably be one of few books which I read multiple times.

Songmaster by Orson Scott Card

Not my favorite of Card’s works, but that’s not exactly dismissive, considering Orson Scott Card is a Fantastic writer. I did enjoy this book, and it was a quick read… very creative and different (in a good way). It was also nice to see some homosexuality in a sci-fi book, though it wasn’t really portrayed in the best light. Overall, though.. I’m glad I read it.

The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville

This is probably Melville’s best work – and one of the best to come out of the American “renaissance” era, though it was dismissed at first, and for a long while, most likely due to the fact that no one understood what was going on (a problem which seems to still inhibit readings of this book). The novel is incredible – rife with Biblical, classical, historical, political, and social allusions. The story is, indeed, quite complicated and difficult to follow or figure out, but the message is worth the effort. The devil is in the details.

Equus by Peter Shaffer

Fascinating. Wild. Intriguing. Disturbing. Just wonderful.