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Why Does She Read?

April 17, 2014 by Reader's Connection

The Sportswriter

Oh, no! Wendy Lesser really likes Richard Ford, and recommends that I read all the Bascombe novels. I didn’t even get far in The Sportswriter, the first in the series; and I’ve read a half-dozen stories by Ford without believing a word of them. His male characters seem like models put together in somebody’s basement, glued with a hardware-store-brand testosterone putty.



And Ms. Lesser doesn’t think much of Ulysses. What are we going to do with this woman?


But wait a minute.


She loves Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer mysteries.

And in her list of 100 books that gave her pleasure, she includes the Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels. I wonder if, like me, she now enjoys the later Nachman stories more than those jagged works that I liked so much when I was younger.

So Long, See You Tomorrow


Also on her list is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. And Absalom, Absalom!



Why I Read : The Serious Pleasure of Books

Okay, I’m warming up, now. And since when do you read a book like this expecting to agree with everything the author says?


Why I Read : The Serious Pleasure of Books is a serious pleasure. Lesser focuses on a few central themes, such as: The importance of suspense in a story, even when we all know what’s going to happen. An extreme case is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written, or so Milton claimed, to “justify the ways of God to men.”

Paradise Lost

Nobody reads Paradise Lost for the plot, of course. But knowing what will happen lends an essential element to the experience of reading, in that it creates the exact tension between predestination and free will that Milton is attempting to explore in the poem. We know where these characters are headed and yet, minute by minute, we feel no sense of moral or epistemological superiority to them. On the contrary, we undergo their fates with them, as if in real time, or perhaps even a stretched-out version of real time, a version that mimics eternity. It takes forever for them to fall, and we hope for every moment of that forever that they will resist; then, when they have fallen, we hope they will get away with it. Our foreknowledge and our sympathies are completely at odds, just as God’s would have been (or ought to have been, if he was a good God). If this mixed reaction on our part doesn’t finally justify Him, it at any rate makes even His position more sympathetic.


I Will Bear Witness Later in the book, she writes about Victor Klemperer’s World War II diaries, which have been translated into English as I Will Bear Witness. Klemperer was a scholar and a Jew who didn’t want to leave Dresden.

Klemperer is not a brilliant writer, and in any case this is a diary, not necessarily meant for other eyes. His style is plodding; his concerns are often petty. But his story is gripping, in part because of the plodding and the pettiness. This is normal life, gradually becoming less normal as each year passes . . . For anyone who recalls the salient fact about Dresden’s twentieth-century history–the firebombing of 1945–the diary is like two competing stories racing toward each other at different speeds . . . Peering through the lens of history, we are enabled to be two sizes at once: the antlike creature blindly moving forward on the ground, and the godlike overseer waiting for the inevitable explosion. It is a remarkable experience, and I have rarely in my reading life felt such suspense.

As one of the dust jacket blurbs says, Wendy Lesser seems to have read everything. When I set down Why I Read, there are several books that I wanted to get my hands on. And even though I’ve read just a fraction of what she has, I imagine myself having the nerve to spray her with my own observations.

War and PeaceWhen she’s writing about grandeur vs. intimacy, for example–another of her themes–I collar her and squeal, “What about that party at the beginning of War and Peace? I remember that author John Jakes thought it was boring, a terrible way to start the novel. I thought he was nuts. The party was thrilling! Grandeur and intimacy in one yank of the tablecloth! In no way isolated from the rest of the epic.”

I haven’t gotten around to imagining Ms. Lesser’s reaction.


2014 Pulitzer Prizes

April 16, 2014 by Reader's Connection

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize winners were annouonced on Monday.

Here are some of the winners. Click here to see the finalists in the following categories, and the winners & finalists in other categories (Journalism, Music, etc.)


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchIn the wake of his nefarious father’s abandonment, Theo, a smart, 13-year-old Manhattanite, is extremely close to his vivacious mother–until an act of terrorism catapults him into a dizzying world bereft of gravity, certainty, or love. Tartt writes from Theo’s point of view with fierce exactitude and magnetic emotion as, stricken with grief and post-traumatic stress syndrome, he seeks sanctuary with a troubled Park Avenue family and, in Greenwich Village, with a kind and gifted restorer of antique furniture. Fate then delivers Theo to utterly alien Las Vegas, where he meets young outlaw Boris. As Theo becomes a complexly damaged adult, Tartt, in a boa constrictor-like plot, pulls him deeply into the shadow lands of art, lashed to seventeenth-century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius and his exquisite if sinister painting, The Goldfinch. Drenched in sensory detail, infused with Theo’s churning thoughts and feelings, sparked by nimble dialogue, and propelled by escalating cosmic angst and thriller action, Tartt’s trenchant, defiant, engrossing, and rocketing novel conducts a grand inquiry into the mystery and sorrow of survival, beauty and obsession, and the promise of art. — Booklist




The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832



I’m so happy that Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for history. I raved about it here a couple of months ago.







Biography or Autobiography

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life Marshall takes on the life of a lesser-known American writer in this biography of Margaret Fuller, whose book Women in the Nineteenth Century was merely the most successful among those she produced during a lifetime of impassioned intellectual discourse, both public and private . . . Though organized around places Fuller lived, the book’s real driving force is her relationships, from the perfectionist father who gave her a thirst for education early on to the circle of academics and radicals over whom Fuller exerted her influence, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson. Marshall can’t avoid the romantic scandal of Fuller’s life–her accidental pregnancy by and secret marriage to the noble-born Giovanni Ossoli. The couple died in a shipwreck along with their newborn son soon after. But this scandal isn’t the focus of the book. Instead, Marshall seeks to render the plight of a female intellectual struggling to balance societal expectations with her lofty ambitions and ideals. The book’s success comes from the way that Marshall allows the reader to understand and empathize with Fuller in her plight. — Publishers Weekly



3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri

3 SectionsDeft yet direct, often funny and yet alert to existential quandaries, this third outing from regular New Yorker contributor Seshadri (The Long Meadow) could be the most versatile, as well as one of the most successful, volumes this year. The fluid, disarming short poems take in modern consumer culture and age-old angst, Seshadri’s South Asian heritage, his contemporary New York (“the more punishing blocks of Park Avenue”), and our surveillance society, in which nobody really knows anyone, yet anybody can find out where you are: “Why I wanted to escape experience is nobody’s business but my own,/ but I always believed I could.” Long chatty lines sit beside tight rhymed stanzas, bleakness beside wit (“Purgatory, the Sequel”), and all of it introduces the two long works that comprise the other two sections of this three-part work. One contains Seshadri’s expansive prose essay about an Alaskan fishing boat, at “the great intersection of sea and sky… in the gloom at the edge of the world.” Even more remarkable is the lengthy “Personal Essay” in verse, a meditation on what it could mean to be personal, to be one person and not another, in this crowded age: Seshadri imagines himself as “the image of/ nothing, a face astonished by itself in the mirror/ (that couldn’t be me, could it?).” Some readers will praise him for his light touch; others, for the depth, and the literary history, that he brings to his present-day task–but praise him they should. — Publishers Weekly


General Nonfiction

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin

Toms River: A Story of Science and SalvationAn award-winning science journalist exposes how corporate interests and corrupt politicians almost turned a quiet, suburban New Jersey beach community into a toxic wasteland. Fagin reveals the complex motives that blinded residents of Toms River to the consequences of the practices of the town’s major employer, Ciba-Geigy, a chemical company based in Switzerland that produced dyes from coal tar. Since the early 1950s, the corporation “had produced about three billion pounds of dyes and plastics–along with perhaps forty billion gallons of wastewater and two hundred thousand drums of toxic waste,” which ultimately found its way into their drinking water. In 1986, after mounting pressure from environmentalists resulted in some remediation, Ciba-Geigy announced the plant’s imminent closure. They would be moving their operations to lower-wage areas with less regulation (in the U.S. and overseas to Asia). Despite increased environmental awareness over the years, the union (supported by residents who feared the loss of the high wages paid by the corporation) was complicit in a coverup of the extent of the contamination. While some people relied on backyard wells, the major drinking-water supplier in the town also had a vested interest in the coverup, and tourism was an economic consideration. Eventually, truth prevailed as parents became concerned by the number of children afflicted with cancer, and activists were supported by the local newspaper. A 2001 legal settlement was “one of the largest payouts ever, in a toxic-exposure case.” Fagin weaves fascinating background material on epidemiology, statistical analysis and more into this hard-hitting chronicle. A gripping environmental thriller. — Kirkus Reviews



The Flick by Annie Baker

The FlickIn a run-down movie theater in central Massachusetts, the tiny battles and not-so-tiny heartbreaks of three underpaid employees play out in the empty aisles, becoming more gripping than the lackluster, second-run movies on screen. With keen insight and a finely-tuned comic eye, The Flick is a hilarious and heart-rending cry for authenticity in a fast-changing world. — Perseus Publishing

Funny, heartbreaking, sly, and unblinking. . . . “The Flick” may be the best argument anyone has yet made for the continued necessity, and profound uniqueness, of theater.–New York

Hilarious and ineffably touching. . . . Ms. Baker’s peerless aptitude for exploring how people grope their way toward a sense of equanimity, even as they learn to accept disappointment, is among the things that make her such a gifted writer . . . this lovingly observed play will sink deep into your consciousness.–The New York Times


A Wild God?

April 16, 2014 by Reader's Connection

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything“And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language . . . The interesting thing, some might say alarming, was that when you take away all human attributions–the words, the names of species, the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and capillary action–that when you take all this away, there is still something left.

That’s Barbara Ehrenreich, describing the first of a series of experiences she had as a teenager. When this sort of thing happens to a Zen monk, it might be welcomed as a sought-after enlightenment. But Ehrenreich didn’t know what to make of it and kept it to herself. Her parents had raised her to be an atheist–she continues to be one, today–and she has always tried to view the world scientifically.

She seems to have been a pretty good scientist. As a college student, running experiments in a lab, she stumbled across what would later be known as “chaos theory,” but her professor ignored her findings. (“The universe does not reveal itself to undergraduates or fools. This is the entire premise of higher education.”) Her books and essays in the past have dealt for the most part with social and historical issues.

Now, in Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, she looks back on her upbringing, her challenging family, her search for the truth, and the experiences (she might sue me if I called them mystical) for which she had no frame of reference. I’m having trouble with the last chapter, in which she tries pull those experiences into some scientific, historical order. Ehrenreich’s life story interests me much more than her patchwork theorizing. But the book as a whole is a wonder, full of her characteristic wit and anger, and mercilessly honest about herself and her troubled parents.

And even if she believes that nothing is unknowable–another word that annoys her–she’s honest about how spotty her knowledge has been in the past.

” . . . I was . . . an empiricist, and empiricism is one of the great pillars of science. You can and should use logic and reason all you want. But it would be a great mistake to ignore the stray bit of data that doesn’t fit into your preconceived theories, that may even confound everything that you thought you were sure of. I had seen what I had seen–whatever it is that lies under the named world–and I was not going to deny its existence.”


Magna cum Murder XX

April 14, 2014 by Reader's Connection

Once again, this year, the Magna cum Murder Crime Writing Festival will transpire at the Columbia Club on Monument Circle.

October 24th through the 26th, MCM will celebrate its twentieth anniversary, in association with the British festival CRIMEFEST.

The combination of these two events should make for an exciting weekend of panels, programs, interviews, and book signings.


Damage Control

Guest of Honor John Gilstrap is The New York Times best‐selling author of ten thrillers, including Damage Control, Threat Warning, and Hostage Zero.

Capital PunishmentThe International Guest of Honor is British crime writer Robert Wilson. He’s the author of a number of different series, and he started a new one in 2013 with Capital Punishment, featuring Charles Boxer, a “homicide detective-turned-’kidnapping consultant’”


The program is sponsored by The E.B. & Bertha C. Ball Center of Ball State University.

Visit the Magna cum Murder website for more details, and in order to register.

“This is a gem of an event. Discover Indiana and its marvelous Mystery Festival – I did and enjoyed every moment.” ~ Alexander McCall Smith



On Lockerbie Street with James Whitcomb Riley

April 11, 2014 by Reader's Connection

It’s National Poetry Month and, more specifically, it seems to be James Whitcomb Riley Week on our website. A JWR post went up on the Kids’ Blog, this week, and Susanne had sent me this:

Click here to see a YouTube of Riley with the kids on Lockerbie Street.

“Bud” Riley, born in Greenfield, Indiana, wrote poetry in an early Hoosier dialect until he moved to the thriving metropolis of Indianapolis. Taking on his full name, James Whitcomb Riley, he graduated to more literary prose while living within the small Bohemian enclave of Lockerbie Square. Roughly bordered by Michigan Street, College Avenue, New York Street, and East Street, the Square was once, and is now once again, a breath away from busy city life, even though it is just a few blocks east of The Circle.


If you click on the picture, you’ll see an amazing film clip, circa 1909. Riley, who eventually became known as The Children’s Poet, is sitting in front of his home on Lockerbie Street, surrounded by adoring children.

If you go to the Lockerbie Square website, and choose the Walking Tour page, there’s a link for downloading a walking map of present-day Lockerbie Square.

The Best of James Whitcomb Riley
In celebration of National Poetry Month, the poem below was taken from The Best of James Whitcomb Riley.


Lockerbie Street

Such a dear little street it is, nestled away
From the noise of the city and the heat of the day,
In cool shady coverts of whispering trees,
With their leaves lifted up to shake hands with the breeze
Which in all its wide wanderings never may meet
With a resting-place fairer than Lockerbie Street!

There is such a relief from the clangor and din
Of the heart of the town, to go loitering in
Through the dim, narrow walks, with the sheltering shade
Of the trees waving over the long promenade,
And littering lightly the ways of our feet
With the gold of the sunshine down Lockerbie Street.

And the nights that come down the dark pathways of dusk,
With the stars in their tresses, and odors of musk
In their moon-woven raiments, bespangled with dews,
And looped up with the lilies for lovers to use
In the songs that they sing to the tinkle and beat
Of their sweet serenadings through Lockerbie Street.

O my Lockerbie Street! You are fair to be seen -
Be it noon of the day, or the rare and serene
Afternoon of the night – you are one to my heart,
And I love you above all the phrases of art,
For no language could frame and no lips could repeat
My rhyme-haunted raptures of Lockerbie Street.