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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

September 26, 2012

Book Review: Judging a Book by Its Lover

Judging a Book by Its Lover

The press release billed Lauren Leto's latest book Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere (Publisher: Harper Perennial; On Sale: October 2, 2012; Cost: $14.99) as a "hilarious and insightful take on contemporary book culture that both celebrates and mock's literature's biggest names and the people who read them." Not being one too shy to mock the inane, I couldn't help having my interest piqued by Ms. Leto's work. 

The only problem was that I had never heard of Lauren Leto.

A search of the interwebs revealed that she is the co-founder of a website called http://www.textsfromlastnight.com/, which (surprise!) publishes the unfortunate text you wish you had never sent. Besides this, it is worth noting that Leto is also a recovering law student, having dropped out of Wayne State Law School to launch her much more successful ventures on the web. Given this background I couldn't fault Leto for her life choices but I still didn't understand what made her particularly qualified to offer "snarky but spot-on observations about books and the passionate conversations they generate," let alone why the "memorable moments from her own adventures in reading" should be interesting enough to merit a book deal.

Alas, the press release and author bio offered no answers to my questions. Still, I soldiered on. Intrepid.

Judging a Book by Its Lover reads like a book title in want of content. To fill the void, Ms. Leto's every musing about the world of books seems to make it into the text. Early in the book, Leto inevitably describes readers of Ayn Rand novels as "old-money preps" (p.17), while reducing readers of Che Guevara biographies as "quirky hipsters" (which actually sounds about right). I suppose this is an example of Leto's "distinctive voice" and "sparkling wit" but really it seemed more like an exercise in cliché. Similar misfortunes occur in the chapters titled "Fan Letters" (p.66), where Leto "berates" fans of various authors for their fandom, and "Stereotyping People by Favorite Author" (p.112), where Leto describes, quite pithily, the type of people who read the authors she lists.

The remainder of the text includes cheeky vignettes on everything from the influence of children's books on childhood development (Reading Green Eggs and Ham = awesome kids) (p.106), to the surprisingly moving account of the relationship Leto developed with her grandmother, which centered on a common love of the written word (p.262).  

Despite the relative non-sequitur nature of the essays, the best chapter of the book also comes from its longest chapter titled "How to Fake It." Readers can be forgiven if the provocative title disappoints. The chapter actually outlines how to "casually discuss some of the most well-known classic and contemporary authors" without having read them (p.127).

For each author discussed, Leto provides a brief summary of the author's life and influence, a description of the author's major works, and a few points of detail about the author's themes, writing style, etc. Of Dostoyevsky, Leto notes, "Dostoyevsky was exiled to Siberia by the czar because he's a badass motherfucker." She then recounts how Dostoyevsky was famously, nearly put to death by firing squad, only to receive a commuted sentence just before the execution was carried out. 

While I don't think it's possible to actually pull off the fake Leto describes, this chapter is interesting because it outlines the style, plots, influences and legacy of a number of well-known authors. Leto's author summaries, list of major works, and details are all extremely useful for anyone looking to begin exploring a new author, or for anyone in need of a quick-and-dirty book summary. And in all due credit, the sheer number of authors Leto discusses is fairly exhaustive, certifying her as either a true bibliophile or a demented mooch of Wikipedia.

In fact, Leto's summaries created a bit of a "To Be Read" (p.259) list for yours truly. Her descriptions of Charles Bukowski's work sound tempting, particularly when she notes early on that "drinking while reading Bukowski is actually a requirement." (p.33). Also, her chapter "Infinite Lies" (p.91) actually sparked an interest for me in the works of David Foster Wallace, specifically his book Infinite Jest. This is admittedly, in part, because Leto did not finish it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.  

It's not lost on me that I am being a bit hard on Lauren Leto, though no harder than she was on fans of Ayn Rand (p.66). But to set the record straight, Leto states forthrightly from the very beginning of the book, her admiration for the authors mentioned, and I have to return the same admiration for her. It's easy to heckle creators from the cheap seats. It's much more difficult to actually create something that others will want to read. 

It's also not lost on me that I'm cracking wise about Leto in much the same way that she snarks about the authors discussed in her book. Of course, I do so with much less panache, much less fame, and a much smaller book deal (viz. none). Though I questioned her authority to opine, I can't help but admit that I'm in a similar place - with even less authority to criticize books seeing as I've never written one. 

But as Leto notes, this is the essence of what reading inspires. We read to discuss, to connect with others, and to engage those who have read the same story, chapter and words as us. And once we begin this process we all become critics. Some readers are simply better at making their criticisms witty, and compiling enough of them together to make a book. And with that, here's a hearty congrats to Lauren Leto. 

Judging a Book by Its Lover will be available to the public beginning October 2, 2012. Pre-order on Amazon here

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September 17, 2012

Book Review: The Song of Achilles

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While I have not read The Iliad, I would like to think that Madeline Miller has done a great service to those like me, yearning for culture on a time crunch. Miller's New York Times bestseller The Song of Achilles, recounts the tale of the Trojan Wars from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles' closest friend, rumored lover, perhaps both. Miller's work has been praised as "wildly romantic," "timeless," and simply "beautiful," among many other accolades. Not a bad go of things for a first novel.

When I began Ms. Miller's work, I was skeptical at best. My studies of classical works were more or less relegated to the Bible as authorized by God and King James himself. The only classical literature I encountered during my college days was the Cohen brothers retelling of The Odyssey via the bard George Clooney.

My relative ignorance notwithstanding, I came away from Ms. Miller's novel with a new appreciation for the ancient themes that make the novel an enduring part of our artistic and cultural fabric. In particular, Miller's skillful treatment of love and loyalty both merit a brief mention, for these are the things that make merely another retelling of the Iliad a truly memorable event. 

The key theme that makes the novel work is the relationship Ms. Miller develops between Achilles and Patroclus. From the press release and a few of Patroclus' descriptions early in the work, it was clear that the relationship would be a sexual one, rather than simply a deep platonic friendship. Typically, I recoil against such reinterpretations of ancient tales. Of late, society's joie de vivre is to reinterpret nearly every literary relationships between men as gay. From David and Jonathan, to Achilles and Patroclus, to poor Bert and Ernie, men cannot simply be good friends these days. 

But in The Song of Achilles, Miller makes the schtick work. In fact, were it not for the same-sex relationship, the novel would lose a part of what makes it so compelling - the theme of love. Miller develops the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus quite true to life, in a way that any adolescent relationship develops, awkwardly. From Patroclus' somewhat creepy leering at Achilles early in the novel (p.26), to the gratuitous comparisons that boys sometimes make in assessing how they have grown (p.94), to the couple's clumsy first kiss (p.63), Miller finds a way to turn youthful innocence into budding desire without sacrificing the story's progression.

To be clear, this is not an easy task. Contrast Miller's skill with E.I. James's Fifty Shades of Grey, which is so outlandishly sensual that it makes the plot almost moot. Ms. Miller's same-sex relationship works, because the novel is about much more than a physical relationship between two men. But the relationship is still essential because it establishes why these two characters' devotion to one another seems to transcend the rational. 

In this way, the relationship in the novel must be sexual because love makes us do strange things out of loyalty toward those we love. We see this theme in the novel again and again. The first instance is actually a stirring example of disloyalty on the part of Patroclus' father. Early in the novel, Patroclus accidentally kills a bully resulting in his prompt exile to Achilles' Phthia. What's telling about the father's act of disloyalty is that rather than explore the facts of his son's transgression, ensure him a fair trial, let alone show his son any compassion, Patroclus' father sends him away without a thought. 

The second important act of loyalty comes when Achilles is sent on a sort of exile himself to train in the arts of war and life with the Centaur King Chiron (p.65). Despite the consequences of leaving the place of his exile, lacking in athletic prowess, and without appropriate equipment for the long trek to Mount Pelion, Patroclus departs the relative comforts of Phthia to join Achilles (p.68). Miller describes Patroclus' devotion to Achilles as follows:

I could leave. The thought was sudden, arresting. I had come to the road meaning only to escape to the sea. But the path lay before me, and the mountains. And Achilles. My chest rose and fell rapidly, as if trying to keep pace with my thoughts. I had nothing that belonged to me, not a tunic, not a sandal; they were Peleus' [Achilles' father] all. I do not need to pack, even. (p.68).

And so, Patroclus leaves to find Achilles in the mountains without even a walking stick. I love my wife. I'm devoted and loyal to her. But given my penchant for climate control and wi-fi, I've never left our abode to go backpacking in the wilderness on her behalf. The simple lesson of Patroclus' devotion is that Love begets loyalty and loyalty makes us do strange things. 

There are, of course, many more examples, but I would rather not spoil Ms. Miller's retelling of them. The novel reads well, as all good novels should, and these two, enormous themes anchor the book in innumerable, infinitesimal ways, helping to bring the Greek myth back to the present.

It's easy to think of acts of love. It is easy to think of acts of loyalty and disloyalty and to recall these thoughts from the annals of our mind. The memories are not always pleasant but they are there. What Ms. Miller does is to help us recall these themes that have helped to forge a civilization, thereby allowing us to reinterpret them in a manner that is as diverse and as subjective as the reader. A tremendous accomplishment. 

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September 14, 2012

The Fall

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Today was the first day of fall here in Tucson. I'm not sure what the calendar actually marks as the first day of fall but it was the first day where a distinct northerly breeze came rolling off the Catalina Mountains with a hint of crispness to it. 

I'm sure everyone has their favorite season. But as a Scorpio I have always been partial to the turning of leaves and weather just cold enough to require a sweater.

It's interesting to think that my son will be here in a few weeks and the he too will be a son of the fall. I wonder if he will enjoy tossing around the football during these months, and whether he will prefer a light jacket over the hot sun of summer.

I wonder about a lot of things as his due date approaches. Mostly, I question how in the world I can share with him everything I want for him in a single lifetime.

Does the wisdom of the ages come in a Reader's Digest version?

Funny how these timeless questions seem to flow with the cold air of a new season.


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

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