Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which are frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you...And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too.

-from If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

Monday, September 7, 2009

Weekly Geeks 2009-34: Reviews and Ratings

Shannon Hale (author of Austenland and The Actor and the Housewife, as well as many other books) recently posted on her blog about reviewing books. Take a moment to go read her post, in which she talks about going beyond saying simply whether or not you liked a book when writing a review.

It's funny, because the first thing that I thought of when I read Shannon's post was that line from Anton Ego's review in the film Ratatouille: "But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so." This really helps you keep your reviewing in perspective! Anyway, this is a great topic, so onto the questions.

Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing the book has changed your reading experience?

In a way, it has changed, but I'm not sure if that is due only to the fact that I am now reviewing books, or whether my maturing as a reader has also played a large role in it. I used to read for the story alone, not really paying attention to the various themes hidden within it. Now, I really try to focus not just on the plot itself, but also what the author is trying to say through the plot. This has helped me get so much more out of the books that I read.

Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up?

I have found that it is best to wait until you have finished a book before you make the final call. Some books like The Three Musketeers and Peace Like a River really have to be finished before you can fully appreciate them. There are even times when I wait a couple of days to rate a book so that I can mull it over and reflect.

Does knowing you'll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place?

No. I read what I want to read, I just happen to review them. Since I naturally lean towards the classics, that is what shows up on my blog.

Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book?

It doesn't necessarily change how I feel about the book, but it often helps me collect my thoughts and get a clear view of what exactly I did think about it. In fact, when I reviewed The Moviegoer, it wasn't until I actually sat down and wrote up the review that I really understood what the author had been trying to say.

What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world?

Though I love having readers on my blog, it is really for my personal benefit. It's a great way to look back and see how I have grown both as a reader and a reviewer. It's also a great outlet to simply write down my feelings about certain books. Also, I love discussing the books that I have read, so this is a great way to engage meaningful discussion about the different stories.

If you review a book but don't rate, why not? What do you feel is your role as reviewer?

I have chosen not to rate books here on my blog because I would hate to discourage someone from reading a book that they might actually enjoy (I do rate on but that is mainly for my reference). How often do you decide NOT to read something based on ratings when you might actually love it. I feel that my role as a reviewer is to give you the basics, tell you how I reacted to them, and let you decide from there whether or not it is something that you might be interested in. It is only if I REALLY like a book that I am going to tell you to definitely read it. I also hope to serve as a place for readers to discuss their favorite works.

The role of the reviewer is an important one. There are many books that I have read based on other peoples' reviews. But we should never say that ours is the final word. Our job is simply to say how we reacted to a work, not to tell others that they should or should not read it. There are probably many people out there who detest Jane Eyre just as I am sure that their are many who found The Moviegoer to be life changing. And that is what makes our beautiful literary world go round. Great topic WG!

Friday, September 4, 2009

As I Lay Dying

"As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades." -from The Odyssey by Homer

William Faulkner is considered by many to be one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, as well as one of the most important Southern writers along with Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, and Robert Penn Warren. His winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature brought him to the forefront of American literature, and his fifth novel As I Lay Dying consistently ranks high among the best American novels of all time.

The Plot:

Addie Bundren is dying. As she lays in her bed, her family and friends surround her, each with a different reaction to her passing. After her death, the family sets out to bury her with her kin in Jefferson. As they travel, many things impede their way from flash floods to a barn burning. The story is told through the eyes of the many characters who inhabit this novel, from the intellectual Darl to self-centered Anse to the deceased Addie herself. Will Addie ever be buried, and will it bring the family peace?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers!):

William Faulkner is one of those authors whom I have avoided out of sheer cowardice. Many critics say that he is one of the greatest American authors simply because the majority of readers have no clue what he is talking about. And at first, I was ready to agree with them.

The way the story is told takes a lot of getting used to. Like James Joyce, Faulkner is one of the pioneers of "stream of consciousness" writing. Basically, we are reading each character's thoughts as they are thinking them. This can make it very hard to follow at times, especially since many of the characters thoughts seem to have no connection to each other. But after awhile, Faulkner's writing grows on you. They cease to be random words and instead take on a beauty and flow of their own.

Basically, it isn't that the average reader is incapable of understanding, its just that Faulkner is not going to serve the meanings to you on a silver platter. You have to work for it. There is a story that a reader once approached Faulkner and said "I have read this particular novel of your three times and I still don't get it!" Faulkner's reply was "Read it a fourth time."

What struck me the most was how you could really tell that Flannery O'Connor read a lot of Faulkner's works. The style of writing, the portrayal of poor white Southerners, the grotesqueness, and the dark humor all appear in O'Connor's writing much as it does in Faulkner's.

Now, for all of the seriousness and character studies, this novel is also very funny. Not witty ala Jane Austen, but darkly humorous. Really, the whole thing is just so absurd that you can't help but laugh hysterically. The fact that Anse won't work because he believes that he'll die if he breaks a sweat? Hilarious! Addie having to be buried in her coffin upside-down to accommodate her wedding dress? Brilliant! The family traveling nine days to bury Addie only to find out that they had forgotten the shovel? I think I just squirted drink out my nose! It's moments like these that keep the work from sinking into complete darkness.

All in all, I think that I have gained a healthy respect for Falkner, though the novel did leave me with many questions. Is Darl really crazy, or is he the most sane one in the bunch? What really causes Vardaman to connect his mother with a dead fish? When is someone going to punch Anse's lights out like he deserves? I guess the only solution is to do what Faulkner himself suggested: read it again.

If you're putting off Faulkner because you are scared like I was, don't. You may like it, you might not, but it is definitely worth finding out.