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What to Read -- Archives

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    Sentimentality: The High Cost of Cheap Thrills, posted by Wallis Leslie

    Anyone remember The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller? At the time, I vowed never to abuse my own measly talents or the spirits and intelligence of readers by offering up such marketable falsity. What a crock that children would be thrilled to learn that their mother had a steamy Clint Eastwoodian fling in intervals between hanging out the laundry and rolling the pie dough. 

    Or perhaps readers have seen the 1940 Hollywood version of the perennially produced Our Town by Thornton Wilder? Not to be a spoiler (but the play was already spoiled by this filmed version), in the movie Emily doesn't "really" die but wakes from a "bad dream" that she had died. 

    Now I'd probably sell out, but I still question whether a book's apparent "happiness" is sentimental or genuine. As David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars came to an end, I found myself wishing intensely for goodness to prevail. I kept tell...

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    Posted by Ms. Wallis Leslie on Apr 17 2010 1:41PM | 1 comments

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    what does it mean to be intelligent?

    That's the central question in Blindsight, an unabashedly literary and unflinchingly dark novel of philosophy and first contact, by Peter Watts. You can read it for free, online here, perfect for downloading to your Kindle or iPad.

    It's hard to know where to start to talk about a book this complicated. A basic plot synopsis -- a group of 5 very different people are sent out to investigate an alien that appeared in the far reaches of our solar system, only to discover that the alien is extremely alien, and communication might not even be possible -- really doesn't tell you what reading this book is like.

    The narrator (Siri Keaton) has had major portions of his brain removed to cure epilepsy, and as a result doesn't experience empathy. His solution: figure out how everything works just by obs...

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    Posted by Mr. David Orr on Apr 15 2010 10:28PM | 2 comments

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    hello world (plus Blackout, by Connie Willis)

    I'm the newest contributor to this space; I suppose I was invited to bring a slightly different perspective to the blog. At least, I hope so, since I have read only one of the books discussed here by others, and that was  Oedipus Rexmentioned by Wallis, which I read for school nearly two decades ago.

    What I mostly read is science fiction (and certain kinds of nonfiction, about which more in a future post). What I plan to write about it good science fiction. Most genre fiction (maybe most fiction of any kind?) is pretty much garbage. Combine that with lurid covers and fairly lax publication standards, and the general low opinion of science fiction is pretty well justified.

    But a great science fiction novel tells a story that can't be told in any other...

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    Posted by Mr. David Orr on Apr 5 2010 9:36PM | 1 comments

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    Playing Catch-up: 2 Months of Nonfiction

    Since I posted my last entry my work life has been an unholy mess.  While I've cut back on writing, looking at the piles of books on my bedside bookcase I don't seem to have stopped reading.  Here's what I've read in the last 2 months (all nonfiction, natch):

    • Damp Squid by Jeremy Butterfield - A nice combination of linguistic flummery and scientific analysis, looking at the origins of some oddities and the continuous change in the English language.
    • Gallimaufry by Michael Quinlon - A deeper dive into the words, phrases and constructs the English language is losing or has lost as it changes into a global lingua franca.

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    Posted by Mr. Erik Wieland on Mar 28 2010 5:53PM | 0 comments

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    How Many Communists Can Fit Under One Bed? Reading Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna, submitted by Wallis Leslie

    Problematically dead, Arthur Koestler, international bad boy, political adventurer, intellectual, and sometime communist is in the news these days with a biography written by Michael Scammel.  Koestler’s book, Darkness at Noon, is voiced by Nicholas Rubashov, a once-powerful founder of an unnamed, but what readers must take to be the Communist, party in the U.S.S.R.

    Rubashov has been arrested at the behest of Number 1 (whom readers must take to be Stalin) and understands that he will be executed no matter what he does. His interrogators intend for him to sign a confession to multitudinous, preposterous crimes. Rubashov’s experience illustrates the infamous show trials that Stalin used to rid himself of any possible present impediments to his singular control of the party while terrorizing future competition. The book unfolds over the days that Rubashov recalls his career as a dedicated, single-minded executor of the communist plan to improve the ...

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    Posted by Ms. Wallis Leslie on Mar 21 2010 9:53AM | 0 comments

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    And What is Your Name? reading Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, submitted by Wallis Leslie

    Today many people question the very concept of selfhood, suggesting that each of us is an amorphous cloud of identities no more real or constant than maya.

    An older view of personal identity is told in the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke. When the younger son who had wheedled his share of inheritance from his indulgent father "came to himself," he decided to return to his wealthy father's estate and humbly begged to be taken on as a servant. The operative words here are "came to himself."

    How one manages to come to oneself and how long it takes is a story told and retold and told again compellingly in Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. In this novel, structured as a series of letters written from a self-made man to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, we take a journey of self discovery (with discovery of India as a bonus) in the company of a narrator who began life in an Indian village hut, sleeping in a tangle of relatives, identifie...

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    Posted by Ms. Wallis Leslie on Feb 12 2010 1:02PM | 0 comments

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    Clash of the Titans (of the 16th Century)

    Empires of the Sea - the Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

    Do you remember who the great powers were on August 31, 1939?  Does anyone remember the colonial scramble in Africa, the end of the British Raj, or the Boxer Rebellion? At the time these were world-shattering events, upsetting decades of status quo.  But a little thing called World War II came along, after which a new world order emerged.

    In the 16th century the world powers were Spain and the Ottoman Empire. They fought over the trade routes to the East and West Indies while carrying their religions' standards. While they were fighting over the Mediterranean, the powers of the next century ...

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    Posted by Mr. Erik Wieland on Jan 31 2010 4:52PM | 0 comments

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    Alone in a Crowd, reading Yiyun Li, submitted by Wallis Leslie 1-18-10

    Yiyun Li’s story “Alone” in the November 16, 2009 New Yorker was so haunting that it propelled me to her A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a book of ten short stories that are similarly terrifying and fascinating. The People’s Republic of China is a land of roughly one billion more people than the population of the United States of America. China recently surpassed Germany as the leading exporter of goods, and if I read world history correctly, China has every reason to show the western world a thing or two about being number one. 

    Here in the United States where growing numbers of our neighbors, co-workers, students, friends, and spouses are recently or not so recently from China, we might ask (along with Hamlet) what am I to China or China to me as we contemplate this land and its people.

    Yiyun Li shows us people who are up against relentless physical, emotional, economic, and political realities. These characters e...

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    Posted by Ms. Wallis Leslie on Jan 18 2010 6:22PM | 1 comments

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    Serving up Life by Wallis Leslie

    Flannery O’Connor remarked that great literature will hang on and expand in the mind. Robert Hass goes her one better in his poem “I am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name is Dmitri” that appears in Of Time and Materials.

    Hass reads the poem here at 45:47 

    In Hass’s poem, several characters from Dostoevsky’s novels have emigrated to America, lived and worked and produced offspring. The granddaughter of the oldest Karamazov brother and Grushenka blows out her knee dancing for the Cleveland Ballet.  Their great-grandson escapes the bloody contingency of military service by somehow being under contract to a John Ashbery poem while also serving the exquisitely described cuisine that ends the poem:         &nbs...

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    Posted by Ms. Wallis Leslie on Dec 31 2009 5:54PM | 1 comments

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    If only we understood each other there would be peace

    In the Land of Invented Languages:  Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers who tried to Build a Perfect Language

    I read a snarky little technology blog called Gizmodo.  Gizmodo, like other tech blogs, loves nothing more than making fun of people geekier than themselves (think back to 7th grade and you'll get the idea).  Recently they posted  an item about a man named d'Armand Speers who spoke only Klingon to his son for the first 3 years of his life (purportedly to study the language acquisition process). When I read this I was immediately filled with a combination of awe and revulsion.  I love linguistics, and have ever since I took 

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    Posted by Mr. Erik Wieland on Dec 14 2009 1:42PM | 0 comments

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    Zonie Toponymy, or How the West was Fun

    A book on place names? Really? Oh yes!  As the token nonfiction reader on this blog I thought I'd start by showing everyone how much history, drama and romance you can find in the pages of a reference book.

    Close your eyes and picture the Old West.  What do you see?

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    Posted by Mr. Erik Wieland on Nov 29 2009 2:28PM | 3 comments

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    The Plot to Save Socrates by Paul Levinson

    Since Wallis started us out harkening back to Sophocles, it's not unfitting for me to raise the spectre of Socrates. 

    Paul Levinson's The Plot to Save Socrates turns on its head Plato's report of Socrates' poisoning by hemlock at the hands of an Athenian judicial decree.  The story follows the chronological peregrinations of Sierra Waters, who starts out in the year 2042 as a grad student in ancient Greek at a New York City university.  She comes across a long-lost manuscript purporting to record a dialog between Socrates and someone named Andros.  We know that Crito had urged Socrates to allow him to ...

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    Posted by Mr. Gerry Jay Elman on Nov 26 2009 2:15AM | 1 comments

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    Oedipus and Mr. Ono do self-discovery

    What to Read - Oedipus Rex by Sophocles and An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

    (blog submitted by Wallis Leslie, 11-22-09)

         Among the Gnostic writings dug up in an urn buried in the Nag Hammadi desert was the injunction: "If you bring out that which is inside you, it will save you. If you fail to bring out that which is inside you, it will destroy you." 

         Oedipus Rex and An Artist of the Floating World are two works separated by millennia that both have something to say about this idea. Oedipus relentlessly pursues the knowledge of the killer of King Laios. He thinks he is acting forcefully to once again save the city of Thebes, and he is, but, as he nears the horror that is at the core of his being, he is also bringing out that which is inside him. Yes, he was a respected King, honored husband, beloved father, but he kn...

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    Posted by Ms. Wallis Leslie on Nov 23 2009 12:56PM | 0 comments

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