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Five Five-Stars

October 11, 2007

October is turning into a crazy-busy month, and I’m not really sure why. I missed my Fast Food Nation Tuesday yesterday; sorry-look for it next week! In the meantime, my ‘to-be-discussed’ pile has gotten out of control. Looking at it depresses me, and I’ve decided that there’s only one way to feel in control again. Here’s a whirlwind tour of the books I’ve read recently that rated five stars. There’s a variety of genres here, so hopefully you’ll find something that sounds good!

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman
This is a true account of the author’s first year of teaching a creative writing course at a juvenile hall in LA. Included are many works by the kids, and for me this book really changed my perspective on somethings. Like the author, in the beginning I expected the kids in juve would be violent, bitter, and certainly not interested in creative writing. However, I quickly discovered that the kids were just that-kids, who had definitely gotten into the wrong crowd. Most of them knew it however, and they used the writing class as a way to try to figure out what they were going to do with their lives, either if they got out or if they were sentenced. Most of the kids Salzman taught were in for murder, so he sees several of them sent into the adult system. Salzman is a remarkable writer; he brings the reader along on his own journey, so that in the beginning, the reader sees the stereotypes of the inmates and the guards. Only through the evolution of the book does the reader realise that these stereotypes don’t really hold true. Salzman is also a very funny writer. The way he ended up teaching a class at juve was that his friend (Duane), who was already a teacher, invited him to come observe for a day. Salzman was unsure, so he listed the pros and cons.

Reasons Not to Visit Duane’s Writing Class at Juvenile Hall
-students all gangbangers; feel unqualified to evaluate poems about AK-47s
-still angry about getting mugged in 1978
-still angry about having my apartment robbed in 1986
-still angry about my wife’s car being stolen in 1992
-wish we could title L.A. County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean
-feel uncomfortable around teenagersReasons to Visit Duane’s Class at Juvenile Hall
-have never seen the inside of a jail
-pretended to be enthusiastic when Duane mentioned it

Salzman’s willingness to be completely honest makes for compulsive reading; I read this in two sittings. I’ll be looking for Iron and Silk, Salzman’s account of two years teaching English in China. I highly, highly recommend this book to everyone. I only have a couple of quotes here, but that’s because most of the books works as a whole, and it’d be silly to quote three pages. :)

Favourite Passages
Sister Janet Harris was nearly seventy years old but looked two or three decades younger. She had a lovely smile and a pleasing voice-I wanted to like her right away-but the fact that she was a nun and that she worked in a prison made me wary. I couldn’t help thinking of the film Dead Man Walking, which I disliked in spite of not having seen it. (22)I asked Patrick what made someone else an “enemy”; what were the gangs really fighting over?
“Nothing at all,” he answered immediately. “It’s exactly like a video game, where you’re just racking up points and trying to end up with a higher score than anybody else. That’s your rep. The fact that it’s dangerous only makes it a hundred times more fun. An enemy is anynoe who’s playing against you.” (111)

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Yep-I found my other Banned Books Read! Turns out I put it in the big bag that I keep all the library books I’ve already read in. I’m smart sometimes. I’m glad that I found it, though, because I definitely wanted to finish it. This is a short novel written as the diary or observations of eleven-year-old Esperanza (and don’t get her started on her name!). She discusses the people in her life, especially all of her nieghbours on Mango Street, as well as some key incidents. There isn’t much of a plot to this one, but I revelled in the writing style. There’s something very innocent in its straightforwardness that’s just addictive. Take a look:

Sally is the girl with eyes like Egypt and nylons the color of smoke. The boys at school think she’s beautiful because her hair is shiny black like raven feathers and when she laughs, she flicks her hair back like a satin shawl over her shoulders and laughs. Her father says to be this beautiful is trouble. They are very strict in his religion. They are not supposed to dance. He remembers his ssters and is sad. Then she can’t go out. Sally I mean.

I’m in awe of Cisnero’s ability; her prose has a startling, almost luminous quality to it. What a wonderful book to spend an afternoon getting lost in!

The Stolen Child by Keith Donahue
This book was everything I had hoped for and more. I read it for the Unread Author Challenge. It begins with a little boy in America being stolen; while a changeling takes his place in the real world, the boy becomes a faery in the forest. From then on, the chapters alternate as both the changeling and the boy react to new environments and begin to grow. The book spans between twenty and thirty years, and the story telling is breathtaking. I just wish that this wasn’t Donahue’s first novel; I want to be able to wrap myself up in his writing! In fact, I purposely slowed down my reading for this book to try to make it last. The very first page draws you in, and it doesn’t let up until the end!

Favourite Passages
Don’t call me a fairy. We don’t like to be called fairies anymore. Once upon a time, fairy was a perfectly acceptable catchall for a variety of creatures, but now it has taken on too many associations. Etymologically speaking, a fairy is something quite particular, related in kind to the naids, or water nymphs, and while of the genus, we are sui generis. The word fairy is drawn from fay (Old French fee), which itself comes from Latin Fata, the goddess of fate. The fay lived in groups called the faerie, between the heavenly and earthly realms. (1)Racking my brain to find a way to get through to them, I recalled other occasions when I had encountered something in the forest as helpless and dangerous as these two human children. (8)Speck lifted her head skyward to gather in the shadow of wings beating through the air. When they had all landed, the blackbirds fanned out their tails as they paraded to the wild raspberries, hopping to a tangle of shoots to gorge themselves. The glen echoed with their chatter. She reached around my back and put her hand on my far shoulder, then rested her head against mine. The sunlight danced in patterns on the grown thron by leaves blowing in the breeze. (186)“I wonder what it is like to hold a baby in my arms, feel like a grown-up woman instead of sticks and bones. I remember my mother, so soft in unexpected places-rounder, fuller, deeper. Stronger than you’d expect by looking.” (186)When the chance arose over those next few years, Speck and I would steal away to sleep in the relative peace and luxury beneath the library. We threw ourselves into our books and papers. We read the Greeks in translation, Clytemnestra in her grief, Antigone’s honor in a thing coating of earth. Grendel prowling the bleak Danish night. The pilgrims of Canterbury and lives on the road. Maxims of Pope, the rich clot of humanity in all Shakespeare, Milton’s angels and aurochs, Guliver big, little, wahoo. Wild ecstasies of Keats. Shelly’s Frankenstein. Rip Van Winkle sleeping it off. Speck insisted on Austen, Eliot, Emerson, Thoreau, the Brontes, Alcott, Nesbitt, Rossetti, both Brownings, and especially Alice down the rabiit hole. We worked our way right up to the present age, chewing through the books like a pair of silverfish. (205)

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde
This is the second book in the Thursday Next series (appropriate, since I read it for the 2nds Challenge., and I’m so glad that I gave The Eyre Affair (the first one) a second chance. This one is way, way better than The Eyre Affair! Thursday Next travels between even more books, Miss Havisham is a main character, and all of my favourites from the first book are back. :) This is the best kind of brain candy imaginable; it’s like eating candy that’s healthy for you! Everyone who enjoys books should give this series a try; if the first one scares you off, because it feels too sci-fi ish (that’s what happened to me), give this one a try before writing off the series. Fforde doesn’t have to spend as much time world building in this one, which gives him more time to create a ripping good read!

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
Imani recommended this one to me awhile ago, and I happened to have it on my shelves (I remember buying it for only a few bucks in a bargain pile). Manguel (who seems to have had a pretty cool life) traces reading through the ages, and touches on what many great Western thinkers had to say about the act. The book is a remarkable synthesis of personal anecdotes and extensive research (there’re quite a few endnotes). Chapters have names like “The Missing First Page,” “Being Read To,” “Reading within Walls,” and “The Translator as Reader.” It’s a pleasure to see someone who loves reading explore his passion. The other great thing about this book is that there are lots of pictures scattered throughout the text, which is unusual and neat. Also, the chapter lengths are just about perfect for leisurely reading; most of the chapters feel likes self-contained essays anyway. Oh, and my version (paperback, ISBN0670843024) came with a really neat little poster called “The Reader’s Timeline.” I think anyone who loves reading will love this book. If you don’t believe me, check out the massive amount of quotes below.

Favourite Passages
I also read according to what I thought a book was supposed to be (labelled by the author, by the publisher, by another reader). At twelve I read Chekhov’s The Hunt in a series of detective novels and, believing Chekhov to be a Russian thriller writer, then read “Lady with a Lapdog” as if it had been composed by a rival of Conan Doyle’s-and enjoyed it, even though I thought the mystery rather thin. (14)

In that sitting-room, under a Piranesi engraving of circular Roman ruins, I read Kipling, Stevenson, Henry James, several entries of the Brockhaus German encyclopedia, verses of Marino, of Enrique Banchs, of Beine…I had not read many of these authors before, so the ritual was a curious one. I would discover a text by reading it out loud, while borges used his ears as other readers use their eyes, to scan the page for a word, for a sentence, for a paragraph that would confirm a memory. (17)

Reading, then, is not an automatic process of capturing text in the way photosensitive paper captures light, but a bewildering, labyrinthine, common and yet personal process of reconstruction. Whether reading is independent from, for instance, listening, whether it is a single distinctive set of psychological processes or consists of a great variety of such processes, researchers don’t yet know, but many believe that its complexity may be as great as thinking itself. (39)

The medieval scholars relied on their own memory of books they had read, whose pages they could conjure up like living ghosts….Eventually the scholars of the Renaissance, improving on Aquinas’ method, suggested the mental construction of architectural models-palaces, theatres, cities, the realms of heaven and hall-in which to lodge whatever they wished to remember. These models were highly elaborate constructions, erected in the mind over time and made sturdy through use, and proved for centuries to be immensely efficient. (61)

I would settle down (at night, but also often during the day, since frequent bouts of asthma kept me trapped in my bed for weeks) and, propped up high against the pillows, listen to my nurse read Grimms’ terrifying fairy-tales. Sometimes her voice put me to sleep; sometimes, on the contrary, it made me feverish with excitement, and I urged her on ino rder to find out, more quickly than the author had intended, what happened in the story. But most of the time I simply enjoyed the luxurious sensation of being carried away by the words, and felt, in a very physical sense, that I was actually travelling somewhere wonderfully remote, to a place that I hardly dared glimpse on the secret last page of the book. (110)

[The creator of the Penguin book series] went to see the buyer for the vast Woolworth general store chain, a Mr. Clifford Prescott, who demured; the idea of selling books like any other merchandise, together with sets of socks and tins of tea, seemed to him somehow ludicrous. By chance, at that very moment Mrs. Prescott entered her husband’s office. Askw ath she thogh, she responded enthusiastically. Why not, she asked. Why should books not be treated as everyday objexts, as necessary and as available as socks and tea? (144)

Whether we first choose the book and then an appropriate corner, or first find the corner and then decide what book will fit the corner’s mood, there is no doubt that the act of reading in time requires a corresponding act of reading in place, and the relationship between the two is inextricable. There are books I read in armchairs, and there are books I read at desks; there are books I read in subways, on streetcars and on buses. I find that books read in trains have something of the quality of books read in armchairs, perhaps because in both I can easily abstract myself from my surroundings. (151)

Reading in bed is a self-centered act, immobile, free from ordinary social conventions, invisible to the world, and one that, because it takes place between the sheets, in the realm of lust and sinful idleness, has something of the thrill of things forbidden. (153)

Rooms, corridors, bookcases, shelves, filing cards and computerized catalogues assume that the subjects on which our thoughts dwell are actual entities, and through this assumption a certain book may be lent a particular tone and value. Filed under Fiction, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a humorous novel of adventure; under Sociology, a satirical study of England in the eighteenth century; under Children’s Literature, an entertaining fable about dwarfs and giants and talking horses; under Fantasy, a precursor of science fiction; under Travel, an imaginary voyage; under Classics, a part of the Western literary canon. Categories are exclusive; reading is not-or should not be. Whatever classifications have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader-the curious reader, the alert reader-to rescue the book from the category to which it has been condemned. (199)

A cousin of mine from Buenos Aires was deeply aware that books could function as a badge, a sign of alliance, and always chose a book to take on her travels with the same care with which she chose her handbag. (214)

But I know that the main reason I hold onto this ever-increasing hoard is a sort of voluptuous greed. I enjoy the sight of my crowded bookshelves, full of more or less familiary names. I delight in knowing that I’m surrounded by a sort of inventory of my life, with intimations of my future. I like discovering, in almost forgotten volumes, traces of the reader I once was-scribbles, bus tickets, scraps of paper with mysterious names and numbers, the occasional date and place on the book’s flyleaf which take me back to a certain cafe, a distant hotel room, a faraway summer so long ago. (238)

The act of reading establishes an intimate, physical relationship in which all the senses have a part: the eyes drawing the words from the page, the ears echoing the sounds og being read, the nose inhaling the familiar scent of paper, glue, ink, cardboard, or leather, the touch caressing the rough or soft page, the smooth or hard binding; even the taste, at times, when reader’s fingers are lifted to the tongue… (244)

We know that we are reading even while suspending disbelief; we know why we read even when we don’t know how, holding in our mind at the same time, as it were, the illusionary text and the act of reading. We read to find the end, for the story’s sake. We read not to reach it, for the sake of the reading itself. We read searchingly, like trackers, oblivious of our surroundings. We read distractedly, skipping pages. We read contemptuously, admiringly, negligently, angrily, passionalte, enviously, longingly. We read in gusts of sudden pleasure, without knowing that brought the pleasure along….We read in slow, long motions, as if drifting in space, weightless. We read full of prejudice, malignantly. We read generously, making excuses for the text, filling gaps, mending faults. Amd somewtimes, when the stars are kind, we read with an intake of breath, with a shudder, as if someone or something had “walked over our grave”, as if a memory had suddenly been rescued from a place deep within us-the recognition os something we never knew was there, or of something we vaguely falt as a licker or a shadow, whose ghostly form rises and passes back into us before we can see what it is, leaving us older and wiser. (303)

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Nymeth permalink
    October 11, 2007 9:19 am

    I have the impression that I heard about “The House on Mango Street” before, but I can’t remember where. Anyway… it really sounds like something I’d enjoy. I really like the passage you shared.

  2. verbivore permalink
    October 11, 2007 11:43 am

    The Salzman book sounds wonderful, I will definitely look for it!

  3. Sarah permalink
    October 11, 2007 3:30 pm

    I am definitely going to take a look at A History of Reading. Sounds fantabulous!

  4. Eloise permalink
    October 11, 2007 5:52 pm

    The House on Mango Street sounds lovely, why was it a Banned Book? A History of Reading is one I will definitely look out for – more for the wishlist, thanks!

  5. Andi permalink
    October 11, 2007 9:31 pm

    Mmm, The History of Reading looks especially tantalizing! And I’ve wanted to read The Stolen Child every since Heather interviewed the author for Estella’s Revenge. Great pile you have there.

  6. Imani permalink
    October 11, 2007 9:33 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the Manguel book — I thought it was perfectly splendid for readers as well. He has two other books that I’m must remember to get when next I book shop: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places which is precisely that, and The Library at Night which focuses on libraries and seems to only be available in Canada at the moment.

  7. Dorothy W. permalink
    October 11, 2007 11:27 pm

    I loved A History of Reading! It was such a pleasure to read.

  8. meli permalink
    October 12, 2007 7:01 am

    these all sound good – esp the salzman and the history of reading, i’ll keep my eyes open for them…

  9. Sam Houston permalink
    October 13, 2007 3:04 am

    Have to tell you that’s a great picture…so much more creative than the usual stack of books that most of us post. Cool idea.

  10. Eva permalink
    October 13, 2007 7:16 am

    Nymeth, I’d heard of The House on Mango Street before, but I didn’t realise it was YA and I thought it was about Indians, not a Hispanic girl. lol I have no idea where I got that impression-probably the mangoes!

    Verbivore, awesome! It’s not often that I read books that really challenge my beliefs, but this one definitely did.

    Sarah, have fun!

    Eloise, I’m not sure why it’s a banned book. There’s a little bit of sexuality, more racism, but I really can’t figure out what made people super upset. There’s no swearing at all.

    Andi, I’d been saving The Stolen Child for about three months, just knowing it was on my shelf waiting for me. :)

    Imani, ohh-those sound like fun! Thanks for the original suggestion. :)

    Dorothy, it really was!

    Meli, I get really excited when I read good non-fiction. I can’t wait to track down more by Salzman.

    Sam, thanks so much! I think I’m blushing!

  11. Joy permalink
    October 15, 2007 12:37 am

    It’s great to read about five 5-Star books! You should link it to Mister Linky on the 2nds Challenge. :)

    I’m considering reading True Notebooks for the In Their Shoes Challenge. It’s great to see another terrific review. Thanks!

  12. Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) permalink
    October 15, 2007 4:23 pm

    History of reading looks interesting! I’m glad you enjoyed The Stolen Child – it was one I enjoyed too.

  13. Lisa the Librarian permalink
    October 17, 2007 3:45 pm

    Glad to hear you ended up liking The Eyre Affair in the end. I loved the idea of this book, but I have had a hard time getting started in it. I’ve tried and put it down a couple times. I will persevere now and look forward to the next installment.

  14. Eva permalink
    October 18, 2007 3:26 am

    Joy, I will! And I highly rec True Notebooks.

    Heather, wasn’t it great?

    Lisa, I didn’t like it at all the first time, but the reread was great. Good luck with your attempts!

  15. Nyssaneala permalink
    October 22, 2007 3:59 pm

    House on Mango Street is a great book, I discovered it when a friend who teaches ESL classes loaned it to me, it’s very popular book to use in ESL classes as well!


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