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Margaret Atwood bases her novel Alias Grace on the historical records of Grace Marks, an immigrant to Canada from Ireland in the early 1800's. These records are equivocal and enigmatic, reflecting public sensationalizing of a case where two servants were convicted of murdering a gentleman and his mistress/housekeeper. Atwood puts readers into the social world of servants and gentlefolk, doctors, prison guards, farmers, drunkards, and horny landladies. Much is revealed of class and gender conditions and restrictions in Canadian society of the time with an occasional nod to the democratic shenanigans taking place in the recently independent United States of America.
What is most fascinating is the experience of the thirty years perspective given by Grace Marks, the fifteen year old girl convicted of murder, whose unique voice attracts and charms the reader but remains elusive. It suggests how willing we are to hear what we want to hear and to say wha...
Revolutionary times—France and Italy and America in the late 18th and in the early 19th centuries: These were" the best of times"; these were" the worst of times." Or were they like all the other times of beauty and horror and how good it is to be young and energetic?
Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard and Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America: the first is set in Sicily beginning with Garibaldi's entrance into Sicily in 1860; the second is set earlier in France and England, when Napoleon is driven out of France, returns, and is driven out again after Waterloo, and later in America.
The protagonist of The Leopard is middle-aged aristocrat Prince Fabrizio Salina who sees that some concession to revolutionary ferment is necessary to preserve his family's shaky ascendancy. As Lampedusa's poetically and profoun...
“It was so, it was not, in a time long forgot” is the stock opening of Arabic folktales and recurs throughout the pyrotechnically intriguing yet perplexing production of Salman Rushdie in Satanic Verses. How can listeners tell what is so or what is not? Should they even try? (Remember John Keats’ theory of negative capability that posits all creativity stems from the ability to tolerate not knowing an answer, not forcing uncertainty into a box of certainty).
In Rushdie’s novel, many stories are told, some of them called “satanic verses.” These verses would be statements of “truths” purporting to come from God or from well-meaning people, but possibly coming from Satan or from people with evil intent. If even a revered prophet could be (temporarily) persuaded to accept false testaments out of practical rather than divine...
I recently read the Iain Banks novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale. It’s the story of a wealthy British family thinking of selling the family company to an American firm, but it’s more the story of the forbidden romance and coming-of-age of two of its young scions. As we learn more about the family and the history of the protagonists, we discover, via flashback, a pair of dark secrets festering in the heart of the family.
I was thinking about the structure of the story – it’s a combination of present-day action and flashbacks, with the latter building to a dark revelation or two. And I realized that many of the books that really stayed with me had a very similar structure. My favorite Iain Banks novel (actually he’s probably my favorite writer; he also writes top-notch liter...
Much ink and cybertext has been devoted of late to lamenting, deploring, celebrating, and generally wondering about the value of various media for the delivery of words. Each medium has advantages.
In the case of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, the author reads his own novel for the audible version of the text. Since the narrator is a poet who is putting together an anthology of contemporary rhymed and metered verse, the delivery of the sounds and rhythms of the words and lines he contemplates is wonderfully delightful and instructive.
Baker takes readers on a quirky tour of trends in poetry through the point of view of narrator Paul Chowder, a somewhat hapless and almost hopeless procrastinator, who finds the writing of an introduction to his anthology a nearly insurmountable task. Chowder's efforts to win the return of his sweetheart Roz, to tend to his dog Smacko, and to keep body and soul together without cutting his finger off musicall...
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Ian McEwan’s Solar
Both novels combine the personal lives of characters involved with current environmental concerns: global warming, sustainable energy, population control, species extinction. Both novels contrast the personal limitations of the characters to the monumental problems facing homo, presumably, sapiens.
Franzen shows how painfully and pitiably freedom is misused whether it involves free market capitalism or freedom to take advantage of or to betray our nearest and dearest. McEwan shows how we can’t even manage to put on our own snow boots, much less manage the forestallment of environmental catastrophe.
Where are we to find the strength and inspiration to confront and to solve the problems we now face?
How besides the morning news reports of the numbers of schoolchildren and shoppers blown up in Baghdad does awareness of the Muslim world enter our imaginations? Who are the people we see taking to the streets shouting “Death to Satan America," the people estimated to be nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, the people living in countries in every continent of the globe, the people who seem to be particularly enraged by the policies of the United States? With the understanding that such a vast population cannot be represented by generalizations, but with the hope that a deeper insight into Muslim perspectives might be helpful to western readers, here are some books to consider:
Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi—Professor Nafisi, after political developments in Tehran drive her from her University classroom, arranges for a group of female students to surreptitiously come to her home to read and discuss canonical works of E...
It's a wonder that Spain ever had an empire. Driven by court politics and class rivalries, only a lucky few (Cortés, Pizarro) found fame and fortune. This is not their story. This is the story of th...
Keats' poem "When I have fears that I may cease to be" poignantly expresses the way that obsessing about the end of life can lead to nihilism. Keats’ fear that he might cease to be seems more like a certainty than a possibility, but the fear proves incapacitating to many people as Dr. Irwin Yalom explains and attempts to ameliorate in his book Staring at the Sun.
Yalom uses his many years as a psychiatrist working with patients as well as his personal intimations of mortality and his lifelong contemplation of the works of Epicurus, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer and many other philosophers and psychoanalysts to elucidate the subject of human mortality.
As the population of the United States trends more and more to the geriatric, one would think that death and dying would be in the forefront of the public imagination, especially since the preponderance...
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Some critics have called Calculating God Sawyer's best book to date.
I have recently had occasion to refer to it in footnote 11 to an article I wrote about New York City federal district Judge Sweet's holding on March 26, 2010, that isolated genes (polynucleotides) are not patentable subject matter.
I've said in this space that I mostly read science fiction. The rest of what I read is generally nonfiction, with a smattering of mainstream fiction in there for leavening. These days, with a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old, a lot of what I'm reading is parenting books.
Most of them aren't really of interest unless you have a baby who suddenly decided that the five o'clock hour is the perfect time to wake up, or a toddler in need of some entertainment of the non-destructive sort.
I'm a huge fan of young-adult books. My favorite category: books about the end of the end of the world as we know it. Among the scenarios: no more gas, no more water, viruses run amok, genetic manipulation gone awry, reality TV gone too far, and so on. These tales sound gloomy--but they're not! They actually help kids deal with their fears in a post-9/11, post-Katrina world. Unlike adult "dystopian" novels such as "The Road," these stories give kids hope. The child heroes and heroines figure out how to cope with disasters. My favorites: "The Hunger Games" and "Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins and "Life As We Knew It" by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Check out my publishers weekly story about the trend if you'd like even more titles:)
The ability to distinguish what is in front of our faces from what we wish to have or imagine to see in front of our faces is a crucial life skill, one that may be less dangerously honed in reading literature than in navigating daily life.
Chinua Achebe calls Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" a racist text while I see it as exposing contemptible racist attitudes. Bob Poole’s Los Angeles Times article quotes UCLA Prof. Tom Wortham who labels Mark Twain a racist and advises, "Let's not try to see it [Huckleberry Finn] in terms of what we wish Mark Twain had written. Go back and look at the text." When I go back and look at the text, I see a young boy who chooses to damn his soul to hell rather...
Gabrielle Burton has been thinking about Tamsen Donner, the wife of leader of the doomed pioneer party, for more than 25 years.
She and her family – her husband and three daughters – retraced Tamsen’s journey across the United States in a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. Burton recounted that 1970s journey in a memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, published in 2009 by University of Nebraska Press.
But writing a memoir didn’t get Tamsen Donner out of Burton’s system. She still heard Tamsen’s insistent voice inside her head. Why, Burton wondered, had Tamsen sent her small children to s...
I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I want to be your Class President - Josh Lieb
When I was 4 years old I was convinced that the world centered on me. I didn't just suspect it; I knew it. But I wasn't supposed to know, so every once in a while there were little setbacks, just to keep it "real." I loved being in charge, and having everything go my way. My worldview changed when the setbacks started to outnumber the triumphs, but I still had fantasies of having super powers or secret knowledge all through my childhood.
Oliver Watson lives the life I fantasized about. He has secret knowledge, untold wealth, and unimaginable riches, and it's all he can do to keep his secret under wraps. Even when he...
David R. Dow is an attorney living in Texas and he has a job that most Texans don’t respect: defending death row inmates.
Texas is the kind of state that kills its criminals with regularity and doesn’t think twice. Unlike other states, such as California or Illinois, that have wrestled with the legality and methods associated with the death penalty, the majority of Texans seem to consider putting someone to death no big deal.
Dow is not one of them. As a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal aid corporation that represents death-row inmates, Dow has served as the attorney for 100 men on death row.
For dozens of years, Dow has fought to stop his clients from being put to deat...
David's mention of Blindsight reminds me to tell you how much I enjoyed the first book of Robert J. Sawyer's WWW trilogy. Wake, now available in text and audiobook forms, follows the parallel stories of a blind teenage girl and of the Internet. It was serialized in Analog magazine starting in the issue of November 2008, (where it accompanied an epilogue to Paul Levinson's novel The Plot to Save Socrates which I've previously mentioned).
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