Thursday, June 28, 2012

Taking the Plunge: My First Experience with Kindle

I admit, it felt almost miraculous.  There I was in the living room surfing the Internet.  I learned about a novel called The Golden Mean that sounded interesting (see last Tuesday’s post).  I looked it up in the library catalogue; I found that the library had it available in ebook form; and no more than two minutes later, I was reading it on my husband’s Kindle.  Bam!  The slowest part of the process was typing in my library card’s barcode.

I specify that the Kindle is my husband’s because I haven’t yet made that leap from books to ebooks (and because the Kindle was, after all, a 30th birthday gift to him from his parents).  A year ago, I asked for a Kindle for Christmas and then quickly unasked before it was too late.  No Kindle for me, and I felt relieved not to have caved.  But now, after several weeks of watching Nat with his nose in a Kindle, I wanted to try it too and see what the reading experience was like.

At first, the mere fact that I was reading on a Kindle was distracting.  I kept seeing the neat font of “kindle” at the top of the device and quickly looking away as if trying to avoid eye contact with an authority to whom I was betraying an innocent friend.  Okay, okay, I’m being melodramatic, but in case you couldn’t tell already, books hold such a deep, important, sentimental, and life-focusing significance to me that even the objects matter, not just their texts.  I can’t explain it, really, and in fact, I know it to be irrational—the cheap Bantam classics paperback is not what makes Jane Eyre great.  Maybe that’s part of why I resist e-readers: they just make too much sense.  Of course it would be wonderful to be liberated from the weight of traveling with too many books, which is invariably the case for me, thinking I can easily polish off five, seven, maybe more in a week’s vacation when in fact I’m lucky to get through one or two.  Of course books are horrendous to move and almost impossible to keep dusted.  But I digress. 

As I continued to read on the Kindle, I quickly got over the distracted feeling, although it was very strange not to know what page I was on, not to have a sense of the weight and heft in front of and behind where I was at any given moment.  Instead, I had to try to conceptualize where I was in the book based on the percentage the Kindle told me I had read.  Other than that, reading was, well, reading.  I also have to praise the highlighter feature: just put your finger on the screen, drag it across the text you want to highlight, and that’s it.  You can even type a note.

I’m sure I sound like a luddite.  I’m sure many of you already know what it’s like to read on a Kindle and are probably just humoring me if you’ve read this far.  I will extol one more virtue of the e-reader before I conclude, and that is how nice it is not to have to fight to hold a book open.  I like to read while eating lunch; no more balancing salt and pepper shakers on either page to get the thing to stay open.

So my first Kindle experience was, on the whole, a good one.  But am I a convert?  Let’s put it this way.  One night, while I was reading on the Kindle, Nat said he was going upstairs for awhile and, kissing my still-reading head, told me to enjoy my book.  “It’s not a book,” I replied without intentionally forming the response.  It just came to me.  True, it was probably the quick retort of my long-held and deeply entrenched love of Books and of Tradition.  But it might also have been something of the feeling I get when the writing group I left behind in Northern Virginia imports me to our monthly meetings via webcam.  I’m here in Ohio; they’re there in Alexandria, Virginia, but we can look at each other and talk to each other as good as if I were there.  And yet, I’m not there, and we know that, and not one of us would say we prefer the content of my thoughts and speech to the wonderful fact of being physically in one another’s presence.

I’d love to know what you all think.  Please post your e-reader or non-e-reader experiences in the comments section below…

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ancient Eyes: Reflections on Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean

“Scholars will note,” writes Annabel Lyon in the Acknowledgements section of her novel The Golden Mean, “that I have omitted the philosopher Theophrastus, a follower of Aristotle, who is thought to have accompanied him to Macedonia.”  She goes on, equally formal: “Scholars will note, too, that I have delayed Speusippus’s death for the sake of narrative convenience.”  And then: “Scholars will turn purple over my sending Aristotle to Chaeronea.”

As a novelist myself, I would probably be disappointed if a blogger quoted from my Acknowledgements page, but I started here because the tone is unmistakably Lyon—at once attentive to details of the ancient world but not without a humor that is often funny, frequently witty, and always indelibly in the voice.

The Golden Mean follows Aristotle’s years spent tutoring Alexander the Great.  The premise alone is delicious in the number of great historical figures it implicates.  But where many might shy away from humanizing such larger-than-life men, Lyon not only confidently and clearly re-imagines the ancients, but she does so in the first-person voice of Aristotle himself.  Aristotle comes across as earthy, curious, well-meaning, and plagued by a sadness the great philosopher himself doesn’t understand.  Lyon gives Aristotle these qualities with a light, confident touch that is truly appealing—facts are never belabored; the characters populating Aristotle’s life are vivid and varied; the audacity of going inside the mind of an ancient is never acknowledged but simply done and done well. 

Although I devoured historical fiction in my adolescence (Ann Rinaldi was my favorite), I rarely read it now.  I confess to a bias, inspired partially by the manifesto of the titular character in  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, that I distrust a writer who cannot see the nobleness of her own time and must instead turn to portraying other eras.  I suppose I’ll sound like a narcissist, and a rather pretentious one at that, when I say that I read literature to gaze in the mirror it holds up to life, but the books that feel like they truly matter, the ones with ballast, are those in a realist mode that treat the world contemporary to that book’s author.  While I can’t say The Golden Mean fits this bill, I nonetheless recommend it as a thoroughly and persuasively imagined romp that, at its best, contains a thought-provoking richness.  For example, the Golden Mean is Aristotle’s idea that perfection lies between extremes, and Lyon works this philosophy to good thematic effect. Above all, I didn’t sense that Lyon turned to the ancient world because she can’t see nobleness in our own time but because she sees in the ancients a vibrant humanity. 

If you read and enjoy The Golden Mean as I did, you may want to check out the novel Lyon herself calls “excellent”: Mary Renault’s novel Fire From Heaven, which takes the same premise of Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great but tells it from Alexander’s perspective.  I have yet to read it, but Lyon’s emphasis on the Golden Mean inspires me to want to read an imagined account from Alexander’s perspective so that I might find a Golden Mean of fictions that this famous mentorship has spawned.

Those of you following my preparatory reading for Squaw Valley may wonder why I chose a book by Annabel Lyon, who is not on the faculty of the impending workshop.  The answer lies in Lyon’s editor, Diana Coglianese, who is on the faculty and whose resume of working with literary fiction writers makes me eager to meet her. Less than two weeks left until the workshop starts!  Time to get back to my reading…

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Guilty Pleasure Without the Guilt: Reflections on Mark Childress's Georgia Bottoms

In my last blog post on Ron Carlson’s Five Skies, I talked about intentionally slow-paced novels, but for those of you hankering after, well, a change of pace, this week’s novel is for you: Georgia Bottoms by Mark Childress, a book that reads like a guilty pleasure and yet, from a craft standpoint, is not at all “guilty.”  In other words, if you want a fun book to read this summer that nevertheless stands well above mass-market beach reading, Georgia Bottoms is for you.

Primarily the charm of titular Georgia propels the reader through the book.  She is at once bold and lady-like, selfish and touchingly full of care for her disintegrating family.  But part of what Childress so skillfully pulls off is a kind of effortless narrative style that picks up Georgia’s own voice.  It isn’t exactly free indirect discourse, but it does have an intimate quality that puts you immediately on Georgia’s side, in Georgia’s head, and almost makes you feel as if you were chatting with her while lounging on a great Southern porch.  Here’s a perfect example from page one:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dude: Reflections on Ron Carlson's Five Skies

“In Chick Lit,” writes Laura Fraser, “women write about their emotions. In Dude Lit, men use rock ‘n’ roll songs as a stand-in for their feelings. The more complex the emotions, the more obscure the band.” 

I know, I know, I get sick of beating the gender drum too.  But Ron Carlson’s Five Skies has such a male quality to it that I can’t help but begin with gender.  And as you’ll see by the time I finish, it’s clear that he’s doing an interesting blend of “dude lit” and “chick lit” that ends up blurring labels the way all good books do.

Ron Carlson’s Five Skies does not follow the dude lit mold Fraser describes above.  Instead of using rock songs as emotional stand-ins, Carlson has created a book that recognizes how difficult it is for men to deal with emotions, even though the emotions are present and the men have a very real desire to deal with them.  The book operates on premise more than plot: three men work on a construction project in Idaho.  They do not previously know one another, but the two leads, Arthur Key and Darwin, are both freshly grieving personal tragedies.  The third man—who, at twenty, is just breaking into manhood—is troubled by his own ignominious history.  For me, the book was strongest 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Squaw Valley or Bust

A few weeks ago, I received some good news: I’ve been accepted to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and will be attending the fiction workshop in July.  I can’t wait!  Writers and conversation on the northern shore of Lake Tahoe, where I have never been—what could be better?

Me outside the old Borders store in Ann Arbor--
a tribute to yesterday's method of finding books.  
I’ll tell you: prep reading.  I treated myself to an afternoon at the library yesterday, trolling the shelves for books by Squaw Valley faculty and finding a stack so large it left red marks on my wrists even after I got home.  I knew that Squaw Valley faculty were worth their salt from my copyediting (three times!) the book WritersWorkshop in a Book, edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez.  The essays—all of them by Squaw Valley faculty—range from trying to start a novel that isn’t ready to be started (Lynn Freed’s essay) to knowing when a novel is done (Mark Childress).  There are essays on writing that appeals to the senses (Janet Fitch) and on details that bring the writing to life (Joanne Meschery).  It’s a great book on craft, varied and accessible and saturated with wisdom earned through experience.  But before I go to the workshop and get firsthand exposure to such advice, I want to take a look at the faculty not as craft advisors but as practitioners of their own art. 

So, from now until I leave for Squaw Valley in July, I plan to read as much as I can of the faculty I hope to meet.  This reading can’t be comprehensive—too many books, too little time—so be aware that my personal bias towards novels has already made me pass over some (no doubt) very fine nonfiction.  What I end up reading will be some combination of synopses that hooked me and the fate of which books fall into my hands.  First up is Ron Carlson’s Five Skies, which I read last week, followed by Mark Childress’s Georgia Bottoms, which I’m part way through.  Stay tuned to the blog for thoughts on each, and I hope you’ll keep reading as I report on my experience with the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.  It just might lead you to some great summer reading of your own.