The Literary Icebreaker Complex and Ben Lerner

Sometimes I think it would have been easier to live in a much earlier time. However, for the same reasons that living in an earlier time would have been simpler, it would also have been far more difficult. Before cell phones, the Internet, before I could address an international audience with the click of a button, the world was slower, less stressful maybe. However it was far more difficult to communicate and to travel and learning was not as convenient (though they probably had more time for reading since they did not have BuzzFeed). Additionally, there were far fewer works of great literature for people to read. Two hundred years ago I might conceivably have gotten through all of the books I would like to. I often find myself so caught up in the great works of the past that I forget there are great works of the present. When I happen upon these I worry for future generations who will have an astronomical amount of reading to undertake. It’s much like that icebreaker name-game during which each person has to say his name as well as the names of everyone who proceeded him: mildly anxiety inducing, but it forces you to pay attention.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that I have just begun reading a wonderful modern work that I cannot put down; it has astounded me. My english class this semester  is called “The American Novel: From Dreiser to the Present” with Philip Fisher. The reading list features headliners like Salinger, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cather, but there are several modern authors as well like Marilyn Robinson and Ben Lerner. It is Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station which has caught my full attention.

Set in Madrid, Leaving the Atocha Station, follows the narrator through his poetry fellowship and his struggle with barriers of many kinds. He relies on the language barrier to seem mysterious to his friends and to his girlfriend. He questions the power of art and his own competency as a writer. However, I am finding that in his efforts to seem genuine (rather than fraudulent, as he feels), he actually fabricates who he is. This corresponds with the larger idea of reinvention in an unfamiliar and temporary place, to which Professor Fisher drew our attention. Lerner’s narrator speaks to the uncertainty of identity that all people harbor, at some level, in addition to our curiosity about altering our identities. Half-way through this novel, the narrator is confronting the consequences of arbitrary reinvention. These human concepts are communicated with sentences like: “But most intensely love for that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance, although that’s not even close, the texture of et cetera itself” (16). There are these lovely synesthetic aspects to the text that draw the reader’s focus and force him to reflect and really consider what is going on.

Perhaps more to come on Lerner; he has also just published a second novel, 10:04, which has been on my bookshelf since the summer. It probably will not be there for very long.

Read on and happy Tuesday,
Kelsey

P.S. Shoutout to BB.

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4,279 Pages (10.7lb) later

Kelsey here,

For the last three months I have read the work David Foster Wallace almost exclusively. It began with little (ha) essays. And then longer essays, short stories, longer stories. Infinite Jest. Brief Interviews. And now I am finishing up Pale King. When I was organizing my schedule for this semester I essentially rearranged many things so that I could take this course and I’m glad that I did. Despite the insane number of pages and the new muscle in my shoulder from carrying IJ around for a month this has been a really great experience. I have never committed to reading the entire works of a single author at one time before. I wasn’t really sure how it would go, if I would get tired of him, or bored of him. But I found myself becoming more interested and honestly more attached to his work.

In September I knew that DFW had written Infinite Jest and that he had died tragically in the not too distant past. I also knew that I had identified with his speech “This is Water” more than I think I even understood. When I read the Editors’ Note at the beginning of Pale King, the work he was writing at the time of his death, and read Michael Pietsch’s reflection on the construction of Pale King I was very moved. Suddenly, Wallace was no longer an author about whom I had come to learn a great deal, he was a real person. He wrote notes and had half of this book ready to go. I thought about all of the letters we had read in class that he wrote to his friends about writing and about how difficult it had become for him. I remembered all of those interviews we watched and how it was so much easier to read his work when I heard him reading it out loud or when I read it in his voice. Reading Pietsch’s near-ode to Wallace put him in the context of the real world. Like, he left people behind too and not just this giant, beautiful mess that became Pale King.

While we were reading Infinite Jest, my professor took us on an Infinite Jest walking tour where we stopped at various landmarks in Boston/Cambridge that were mentioned in IJ. We went to DFW’s apartment, followed Joelle’s walk through Boston Common, the Father and Son Market and finally the locations of both Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House. That made it very real, too.

I know more about DFW than I know about any other author and that is pretty fun. There is obviously a lot more to know than I do, but following the trajectory of his work has been an engaging way to try and figure him out. Style things that seemed really cool and unique to me in September have become normal and almost jaded. So I understand what he meant when he wrote in a letter, “I am tired of myself, it seems: tired of my thoughts, associations, syntax, various verbal habits that have gone from discovery to technique to tic.” I am not tired of Wallace, but I can see the repetition and it feels less intentional, it’s less exciting in his later work.

“Good Old Neon,” Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and certain things from Girl With Curious Hair have been my favorite works. And whenever I push through the boredom in Pale King to get to a “golden nugget” of prose it is incredibly rewarding.

4,279 pages is a lot of pages. It’s been an adventure, and I don’t think its going to be over when I close Pale King. There are infinities in Wallace’s prose that could take a lifetime to understand.

Many thanks to Professor Warren, Will, and my fellow DFW ‘hideous people’ (just kidding you are all wonderful).

And now, another word:
Aha, I’m back! Just when you thought I had disappeared into the world that is college, I reappeared! If you are reading this, thank you, you are thee best. Stay tuned for more regular posts and potentially some videos. Yay :) “Pass it on.”

Kelsey


Read these: My favorite quotes from Wallace
“I’m trapped in the present. If I drank, for instance, some Tang, it wouldn’t remind me of anything—I’d just taste the Tang.” (PK 156)

“Every love story is a ghost story.” (PK 314)

“Little bits of Los Angeles wink on and off, as light gets in the way of other light.” (GWCH 4)

“In June, in a car without air-conditioning, I keep the windows rolled up for the sake of her photo. What more should anyone be required to say?” (GWCH 153).

“My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it.” (IJ 5)

“I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” (IJ 12)

“You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned over and over again.” (IJ 84)

I could go on.

The Darkest Minds Brightens My Outlook on Fantasy

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

It has been a long time since I’ve been this excited about a series, but here we are. Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds is fantastic. It has danger and romance and amazing characters, which is the winningest of combinations. Here’s the other thing, I am not usually into dystopian novels, but I could not put this one down. 

Set in a modern, yet seriously messed up, America the book tells a story of a world in an economic black hole, rampant with crime and devoid of children. For six years, the country has been tracking down and collecting all children who managed to survive the youth plague-thing called IAAN. All survivors were left with special abilities of varying degrees from exceptional memory to mind control. The government has been collecting the survivors in concentration camps designed to contain, control and even eliminate the threat of these exceptional kids. Our main character, Ruby, manages to escape. She then teams up with a group of rogue kids who travel together. What follows is a journey of learning to trust and to survive. It turns out that those two learned instincts might be the ones that get Ruby into the most trouble. 

I came across this book at BookExpo Bloggercon. Alexandra Bracken was on one of the panels I went to and a copy of her book was included in the gift bag. There was also a great book bag that says “Let’s carpe the hell out of this diem,” which I think is really funny and was one of the more notable lines in the book. 

What I liked about this book was that it was a new idea. It’s fantasy and dystopian society, but it was different from anything I’ve read recently in those categories. The characters are also detailed and not cliched. They are the mix of characters required for every group setting, but it didn’t seem like it. They are all very layered and have really great progression throughout the story. I also like how Bracken reveals information. She is good with timing. I really appreciated that I had an actual emotional reaction to some of the things the characters did. It’s been a while since I’ve been that invested in the story. 

While I’m on the subject of fantasy… I would also recommend The Name of the Star which is the first book in a series. The second one goes on sale in the fall, but I read the galley and it is quite good. These are both unique fantasy series that are super compelling. Christine (AKA PolandBananasBooks) has a really fun video about The Darkest Minds, go check it out! 

I am now embarking upon the journey (journey) that is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Maybe I will finish it before I go to school. 

Read on! 
Kelsey

Children’s Books and New Projects

I will be graduating in a few weeks. However, before I can graduate I have to (and am excited to) complete a “May Term” project. I have decided to make a video series about children’s books. Throughout the month of May you can look forward to videos from yours truly comparing modern and ‘classic’ children’s books. My definition of each is very broad and the lines are a bit blurred, so I am looking for your input! Chapter books, picture books, kids ages 0-12. If you have any favorite children’s books or know what kids like to read, please leave suggestions in the comments, email bookstomark@gmail.com or tweet @bookstomark!
A few examples:
Goodnight Moon
Junie B Jones
Polar Express
Walk Two Moons
The Giving Tree
Nancy Drew
A Wrinkle in Time

On another note, World Book Night is next week and I am so(oooo) excited. Tomorrow night I am going to a reception to pick up my books and then next Wednesday we will give them out and my library is having a small shindig to celebrate! I am giving away Hoot by Carl Hiaason.  More on that next week!

hoot

Read on,
Kelsey

What Are You Reading?: New Book Recs!

Quite a few people have asked me for book recommendations lately. So, for this week’s post I thought I would make a list of all of the books that have either been released recently or are coming-soon that I am looking forward to. Without further ado, here we go.

1. The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman My school librarian and another of my mentors, Ms. Maza, recommended this book to me and said it was for readers who liked The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I loved The Night Circus. This looks magical, intriguing and fun.

2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt There has been a lot of hype about The Goldfinch. Personally, I have heard mixed things. The description looks interesting, I always like a little mystery, a little intrigue and some missing artwork. It’s on my shelf, it’s coming soon.

3. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline I was fortunate to meet Ms. Kline when she came to speak to a few of us at my school last year. We had a very nice conversation and I have been meaning to read Orphan Train for some time. I am always amazed by the amount of research writers do to make their work great and Ms. Kline discussed the work that she did to prepare to write this story.

4. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton So, the description makes this seem like YA fantasy, but I have heard really great things about this.

5. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling, coming June 2014). So, I haven’t actually read The Cuckoo’s Calling yet, but I am excited to do so. This is the sequel, which comes out in June, so I thought I would link to it here. It will be interesting to read Jo when she isn’t writing as Jo.

6. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd I loved The Secret Life of Bees. Kidd’s new book (it came out in January) follows the journey of a young girl and the slave she is given for her tenth birthday. If anyone could do this type of story well I think it would be Sue Monk Kidd and I look forward to it.

7. Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira The premise of this book is intriguing. The main character learns about herself and the world around her by writing letters to dead people. Some of them are famous, some of them are not. I am interested to see how the writer treats the idea that I frequently play around with and the idea that I think is at the core of meaningful work; learning through writing.

8. The Storied Life of A.J. FIkry by Gabrielle Zevin It’s about a bookstore and bibliophiles. I don’t think I need to elaborate.

9. The Swan Gondola by Timorthy Schaffert I was attracted by the title and then by the words “reminiscent of The Night Circus.” A young romance in the midst of the Omaha World’s Fair? I will take it.

10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman I have heard nothing but good things about this and Neil Gaiman is a genius, so there’s that. The Amazon description is very short, so basically I am intrigued.

So, there you have it. New/coming soon books that I am looking forward to. I realize that this is historical fiction/mystery heavy, so I learned something here. If you have thoughts on any of these please leave them in comments!

Read on,
Kelsey

One More Thing: Thoughts and Other Thoughts

There has been a lot of hype recently about B.J. Novak’s One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. This book of fiction with a minimalist cover is described as entertaining and original. I have never seen The Office, so I was not familiar with Novak’s work prior to reading One More Thing. I was excited to read it because of the format in which it started . Novak originally told all of the stories in One More Thing to audiences around the world; he tried out the material on them. I had never heard of an author approaching his work in that way and, with my increasing interest in Slam/Spoken Word poetry, I was curious about what had passed the test. One More Thing is a series of short stories. And by short I mean really short. Most are four pages, but they range from three lines to 15 pages. It was great because every time I finished a story, I felt very accomplished. In fact, I read the whole book in two days. I have never read anything like it. It was refreshing.

While the humor Novak uses is not quite my style, I did find the stories somewhat humorous. The satire is really effective. In one story, the main character is on a museum tour and he wants to know what dark matter is. He goes so far as to physically threaten the tour guide afterwards into telling him what dark matter is. However, when the tour guide reveals that he is the only man in the world who knows and begins to explain it, all the main character can do is think about the texts his friends did not send and the party which they may or may not have excluded him from with good or bad intentions. It was a funny way to address the issue we have with being where we are and focusing on what is important. The stories are all unique and creative, but, perhaps more importantly, they were very purposeful. Each story had a distinct meaning that I think could have been meaningful in many ways to many different people. It’s a very accessible medium. It earns a Books to Mark Recommendation. 

Sidenote: There were two young girls in the cafe where I write my posts. They were a couple of tables away from me doing their homework. I was trying to write my blog post and I heard something familiar. Looking over, I saw them each with a copy of The Giver by Lois Lowry, reading it out loud and verbally recalling different aspects of the book. One girl struggled with a sentence and the other said it quickly, followed by “keep going.” When they stood up to leave a few minutes later I learned that knowing which One Direction heartthrob the other prefers is an essential characteristic of being BFFLs. I just really liked that they were reading The Giver aloud. It isn’t often that reading can be a communal experience, but it is very nice when it is.

Spring is really on its way (let’s hope!!), I can’t believe it is the end of February. I am four books into my 40-book 2014 Goodreads Challenge! I’d say that is a good start.

Read on,
Kelsey

Photo: http://heebmagazine.com

Literary Love

Hi friends,

Blind Date With a book!

Blind Date With a book!

Our library has been setting people up… with books! Our literary committee set up a display decked out in hearts and books wrapped in pink and purple paper and slightly ambiguos descriptions. Since we wrote the descriptions in about five minutes, they are pretty entertaining. We do this on Valentine’s Day because we have an excuse to call it “Blind Date With a Book,” but how cool would it be if this was constant? I think every library or bookstore should have a mystery/random book section. It would be an interesting experiment: How much do titles and covers affect our perceptions of books before and while we read them? Let’s start a movement. I have quoted some of our descriptions at the end… Can you guess what books they belong to?

On another note, I am really excited to road trip to a new old bookstore this weekend. That is, unless the snow thwarts our travel plans, which at the moment is quite possible (I was just informed of my school’s 5th snow day for tomorrow). It’s called Popek’s and it’s in Upstate New York. I was digging through Narratively (sidenote: this week’s topic is “Colorful Women”) and found a wonderful article about the proprietor Michael Popek. The title “The Bank of Bygone Bookmarks” grabbed my attention, but when I read the subtitle, I couldn’t click fast enough: “In a small New York town, a bookshop owner finds his calling among the love letters and photographs left in the pages of dusty old novels.” He has spent a good portion of his life finding and collecting the odds and ends that we leave tucked into the pages of our books. I am really interested in the stories of others and there is so much potential to find something really valuable in the things we leave behind. That is a long explanation of the fact that I am going to this book store this weekend, weather permitting. I will post some pictures from that event if it happens.

Sidenote #2: I cannot put Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore down. I am completely in love with this book. It is so funny, I find myself laughing out loud. It is also just brilliant. I tweeted at Mr. Sloan and the Penumbra account, but did not receive a reply, so maybe I’ll just flood them with tweets.

If you are in the North East, good luck, stay warm.

Read on,
Kelsey

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Descriptions: 

1. “This is a classic. If you are looking for a good romance, a strong, flawed heroine and a swoon-worthy love interest, check it out.”
2. “Wolves? Way better than Twilight. No vampires, good romance and adventure.”
3. “Whether you want to read about a human romance or one with books, you’ll love this. Romance, books and coding…need we say more?”
4. “Puppy love! (but it’s a tiger)”
5. “There is a beach involved- escape this winter insanity! A sweet romance that will warm your heart on February 14.”
6. “This book will be the ‘guy next to you’ on Valentine’s Day. Dogs, a veteran and the south– a passionate tale of love and loss.”
7. “Action and adventure, magic and love. A strong heroine and a dashing hero. Spend your Valentine’s Day captivated by the world!”

Leave your guesses in the comments!!