Posted by: Lizzie Ross | January 20, 2013


A final post, to let you know that I’m moving to a new blog: Lizzie Ross. Books I’m reading, books I’m writing, tweets, etc. It’ll all be there. Drop by often!

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | December 15, 2012

Time doesn’t just fly…

… it seems to go at the speed of light. Two months since my last post? Shocking.

I haven’t been slacking, I can assure you. I’ve read at least 20 novels since my last post, most of them YA, but some written for adults as well.

On my desk was a stack of books to post about here, but then I put them back in my shelf in a pre-NaNoWriMo cleaning binge. Now I can’t remember what they were. I suppose I could go through my shelves and try to recreate the stack, but that would be ridiculous.

262742I do remember re-reading Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, after hearing her daughter and some other writers speak in celebration of this great children’s author. My admiration for Dido and Is Twite was reaffirmed, and I found a new book in this series, The Whispering Mountain. Set in the counter-historical time of King James III of England, it puts Owen Hughes (whose father is sailing the 7 seas with Dido as passenger and unofficial factotum) in the midst of evil efforts to acquire a solid gold harp. There are magical beings who live underground, a villain to match some of Aiken’s most unrepentant evil-doers, and a village full of people speaking with Welsh accents that are almost — but not quite — caricatures.

If you don’t know Joan Aiken’s writing, this series is a great place to start. For sheer enjoyment, nothing beats Aiken’s plots and characters. See my earlier post for more on Dido and the Wolves Chronicles.

NB: I had started this year with a promise not to reread anything, and I kept that promise until Thanksgiving. Then, with winter and the holidays and end-of-term closing in, I wanted something comfortable. Aiken beckoned and satisfied. And now, with a new Middle Earth movie opening, I find myself once again immersed in Tolkien’s world. Ah well, good intentions.

open-city_medium_imageAs for a stand-out adult novel, I’d like to say something about Teju Cole’s Open City. This book has been in my to-read stack for a year, and I’ve started it at least 3 times. Finally, knowing it would be the only way to get me into it, I assigned for a class I was teaching and read it at the end of November. On page 6, I recognized the Sebaldian* technique. The narrator, a psychiatry intern named Julius, wanders through NYC’s post-9/11 streets, taking us on a journey that moves between personal encounters and meditations on history. Sometimes these overlap, as when Julius decides to have his shoes shined, and Pierre the boot-black’s autobiographical story time-warps to Haiti and New York City in the early 1800s, when slavery was still a legal institution.

Flâneur is an almost appropriate term for Julius, except that he is so detached from everything. There is no response to Pierre’s story of buying his wife out of slavery, nor to violence of which he is both victim and perpetrator. The irony of a psychiatrist being affectless, almost rootless, is heavy. But it’s the lack of roots and affect that make it possible for Julius to walk for miles with no sense of how far he has traveled, both physically and metaphorically. Much happens to him, yet he remains unchanged.

This isn’t an easy book for anyone who needs a plot. My students groaned about how hard it was to read, for it offers nothing on which to hook expectations. Anyone familiar with NYC might enjoy the detailed descriptions of neighborhoods. At one point, Julius describes walking along the street where I live, even mentioning the church opposite my apartment building. It would be easy to map, both geographically and otherwise, Julius’ path. He mentions art, music, historical figures, all easily found on the internet. My advice: if you do try this book, read it near your preferred online access point.

*After WG Sebald, author of Rings of SaturnAusterlitz, and other great works.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | October 3, 2012

Banned Books Week, part 2

Lois Lowry, Son (2012), 393 pp.

At B&N last night, Lois Lowry spoke about and read from her new novel, Son, the fourth and final book of the series that starts with The Giver. Before an audience comprising middle school students, teachers and adult fans, Lowry revealed much about herself, her relationship to her characters and books, and her respect for children’s abilities to grapple with difficult subjects.

It seems that a photo album was the spark that started this quartet, back in the early 1990s. While visiting her father in a nursing home, she found him able to recall the past when prompted by photos, including those of the family car (a 1954 Chrysler 300) and some of dogs (funny story here about children getting revenge, but I won’t go into that). But when looking at a picture of his eldest daughter, who had died young, Lowry’s father would say, “There’s your sister. I can’t remember her name. What happened to her?”

Lois began to wonder: Can we control human memory? Is it possible for a society to get rid of thoughts and memories that make people sad or scared. Would this be a good thing? Is there anything about it that could be bad?  [Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) addressed this, as did Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), dystopian bookends for Lowry’s masterpiece.]  One year later, The Giver was submitted to her publishers, and she thought she was done with that world.

The first sequel came in response to fans dissatisfied with The Giver‘s ambiguous ending, the next two in response to questions about what had happened to Characters X and Y. This is a phenomenon worth studying — the way characters come so alive that readers can’t imagine their lives ending with the book. Fan fiction grows out of this, as we extend the stories beyond “The End”. We will have to rely on fan fiction from now on, because Lowry’s promises that she will not write a fifth book for the series. She thinks of “four” as a perfect number, like a barbershop quartet. Exactly the right number to do what it aims to do.

An unexpected bonus came at the end of her talk, when one of the B&N hosts asked for Lowry’s understanding of why parents disapproved of The Giver. Lowry pointed out that the book had been frequently challenged but rarely banned.  In an interview* with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate, Lowry extended her comments, giving one reason for parents’ negative reactions to the book: it’s about children challenging authority.

At B&N, Lowry wondered if The Hunger Games, with all its violence, would receive similar attempts to remove it from curricula and school libraries. She should be satisfied, although not happy, to know that Collins’ series has joined hers on the list of Banned/Challenged books.

*Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read books 2 & 3 in the series, this interview reveals something that could ruin those for you.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 25, 2012

Banned Books Week: Part 1

Finished reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited last week (but still working my way through the TV series). Why did I wait so long to read that book? Lovely. Poor Charles Ryder, though. His relationship with Sebastian was doomed, the one with Julia fizzled out (oh, Catholic guilt has a lot to answer for), and his affair with the army simply sank in the mire of military bureaucracy and the boredom of no actual battles.

I know, I know. The book is all about the decline of the English aristocracy between the two wars. There’s a lot of decline in much of Waugh’s writing. He’s a sort of anti-Wodehouse. Where Bertie is a harmless nitwit, saved by Jeeves’s intelligence and pride (no proper butler would allow his employer to marry someone like Florence Craye), Sebastian Flyte is l’enfant terrible grown a bit long in the tooth. And his best friend, Charles, is at first bemused and then helplessly dismayed at Sebastian’s slow descent.

I’ve loved Waugh since reading Handful of Dust in college, and when the TV series exploded in the 1980s I bought a copy of the book. It has sat on my shelf for 30 years, an intermittent reminder of a gap in my education. Now that gap is filled. I’ll read it again in a few years, but I’ll need to revisit Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall, and a few other faves beforehand.

But even more beforehand — James Joyce’s Ulysses. I read it in college, nearly 40 years ago. I’ve started it several times since then. Now I’ll give it another go, with a solemn vow to finish it this time.

PS: Why Brideshead has been banned: the homosexual characters, obviously. Anthony Blanche flames through his scenes (a bit overdone, Evelyn?), but Sebastian is fairly tame, and there are no gay sex scenes (no straight ones either, for that matter) — so what’s the problem? Ah well.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 22, 2012

Another book list

Again with the lists, but this one is so much better than the recent “best ever teen lit” list that was authorial equivalent of an alpine white-out. For National Book Festival, the Library of Congress (my tax dollars are all earmarked to support this worthy institution) has posted a list of “Books that Shaped America“.

The list ranges from children’s lit (Alcott and Seuss), to great lit (Melville, Twain and Morrison), to non-fiction (Capote and Kinsey), even to cookbooks (Rombauer and Simmons). You can click on the different column titles to organize the list by authors’ last names, publication dates or book title. Ben Franklin isn’t just the earliest entry, he’s also the only author with multiple entries (now is that fair?). You could argue that the most recent entry, “The Words of Cesar Chavez”, hasn’t had time to shape America, but no one would deny that Chavez’s words have impacted how we view itinerant workers, immigrants from south of the border, crop harvesting and unionization.

I’m sorry Vonnegut isn’t there, but I get that none of his books actually changed America. Too bad. Slaughterhouse Five should have changed things, but clearly it didn’t.

Oh, well. Can’t have everything.

Get out and read. The mind you save may be your own.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | August 28, 2012

Prepping for 2012 Banned Books Week

Need suggestions for books to flaunt in the face of opprobrium? Want to focus just on 20th Century classics? Here’s a list from which to choose, from the ALA Banned Books site:

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
1984, by George Orwell
Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
Native Son, by Richard Wright
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence
The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser
Rabbit, Run, by John Updike

I think I’ll pick Brideshead, possibly Ulysses as well — it’s time I gave that one another read.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | July 10, 2012

Summer Reading List

Lists are such wonderful things. I like book lists, because it gives me great satisfaction to see where my likes and someone else’s overlap (or don’t, as the case may be). I can go superior (you could be reading much higher, you know), or inferior (OMG, I want to Dinner With Andre with this person!), or even high school snooty (that book? seriously? that is so gross).

I’m on vacation now: island, sunshine, beaches, shallow bays, great blue herons. Not the tropics, or even the Caribbean, but gorgeous and quiet. The loudest thing around is the nearly silent dishwasher.

So, what did I bring? I filled my e-reader with free books by E Nesbit, Charles Dickens, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and all sorts of other goodies, but I also came with analog books: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchett (good survivalist fare), Lily’s Crossing and Hollis Woods by P R Giff, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Teju Cole’s Open City (for a writing course I’ll be teaching soon). Also Becoming Jane Eyre and The Black Death — two books I picked up for a song. And finally David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which I started last winter and want to finish.

That’s a good range. It’ll keep me occupied for all those quiet afternoons and evenings. Something old, something new, something easy and something that’ll take my mind for a brisk run.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 14, 2012


The Tragedy of Arthur,  Arthur Phillips (2011), 368 pp.

Can a book be categorized as fantasy, history, memoir, historical fiction, counter-historical fiction, tragedy, and humor? Oh, and also mystery and adventure?

Let me back up. There are 5 “Arthur”s involved in this book: 1) Arthur Phillips, the author. 2) Arthur Phillips, aka Artie, the narrator. 3) Arthur Edward Harold Phillips, Artie’s father, aka Dad. 4) Arthur Donald “Don” Phillips, Artie’s grandfather. And 5) Arthur, King of Britain and tragic hero of Shakespeare’s latest play.

Shakespeare’s latest play? WTF?

The reason you’ve never heard of this play is not surprising: It wasn’t included in the First Folio, there are no records of its ever having been performed, no traces of it exist — except for the single version of it that has been waiting in a safe deposit box for 50 years. In Dad’s safe deposit box to be exact. He gives it to Artie and says “Tell the world about this lost masterpiece, and grow rich from the proceeds. You’re welcome.”

Ah, but here’s the rub: Artie’s Dad has spent decades in prison as a result of a series of cons, all based on his forgery skills. So, Artie has to ask himself: Is this play really by Shakespeare? or is it some sick joke of his father’s?

Arthur, King of Britain

The book has 2 sections. The second one is the play itself, in typical Shakespearean style/language/etc found in his early historical plays. Five acts, tough choices for the hero, bastard villain (although, in this case, it’s the hero who’s the literal bastard), battle scenes, murder and rapine, blah blah blah. As far as Shakespeare goes, it’s so-so.

The first section, however, is what you want to read this book for. Ostensibly, it’s Artie’s Introduction, penned for the first publication of this play, but it’s three times the length of the play itself. You see, Artie has to decide if this play really is by Shakespeare, or if it’s another of his father’s forgeries. So his introduction is the story of his life — we need this, in order to understand his evolving connections to Shakespeare, his father, his twin sister, and his own writing self, and to understand which Arthur is the true tragic hero of this story.

Artie is caught between so many dichotomies: needing to be close to his twin sister, yet understanding that the closeness is debilitating; hating Shakespeare’s works, yet feeling the playwright’s indelible influence on his life; wanting to create works of genius, yet not trusting the changing definitions of what makes anything worth the title “genius”; hating how Dad abandoned him, yet never ceasing to want to impress the man by doing something unimaginably original.

Take that relationship with Shakespeare, for starters. Artie had it force-fed to him too early, and he grew quickly to detest anything having to do with the man. Yet Shakespeare’s language, themes, and plots drive the novel. Artie has his Romeo and Juliet moment of love-at-a-glance. He plays Caesar (or Antony?) to an exotic (Egyptian?) beauty.  He is Edgar to his father’s Lear, Malvolio to his sister’s Viola. Phrases, even entire paragraphs, echo lines from the Bard. Here’s Phillips’ version of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy:

A child’s memory is poor because extraordinary events — I went to party! I tied my shoes! — occur in a world where Fridays are frequent but irregular, and hours swell and shrink. Older brains fritz because no event is sharp enough to trench into memory’s gravel. Eventually, little occurs that hasn’t occurred in a thousand identical yesterdays, yesterday and yesterday and yesterday sinking back and out of view behind you, and your neck is daily stiffer, resists turning to look.

It’s hard to say how much I loved this book, and moaned at every wrong step the hero takes. I wanted to climb into the pages and shake the poor man.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 10, 2012

Thanks! You’ve saved me a trip.

Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain, Jack Hitt (1994/2005), 255 pp.

For a few years I’ve been wondering if I could do a long walk, with the one across northern Spain (Camino de Santiago de Compostela) high on my list of options. Which may strike those who know me as strange, since I find a 30-minute stroll through a shopping center too tiresome for words. But there’s something idealistically appealing about setting off on foot, a small pack of essentials over my shoulder, a map in my hand, and a well-endowed credit card in my pocket.

Part of the appeal is in having the time to savor the scenery – mountains, valleys, trees of all shapes, clouds – vistas to make an artist plead for the ability to capture their essences.

Another part is in accomplishing something astounding. You walked how far? It took how long? So that’s how you lost all that weight!

A few weeks ago I watched The WayEmilio Estevez’s film about a man walking the Camino after his son dies on it. The film doesn’t sugar-coat the walk, but you have to admit that there’s no way to put all the hardships of a 60-day hike into a 90-minute film. Jack Hitt’s book, one of the sources for Estevez’s script, doesn’t sugar-coat either, and he draws a more thorough picture of what it’s like to walk 500 miles. Blisters. Lightning. Hunger. Filth. Stink. Other people. But also kindness, great food, generosity, self-understanding, and other people.

I’ve been a Hitt fan since hearing his story about a high school production of Peter Pan on This American Life way back in the 1990s (it was this story that made me a TAL fan). It was not long after that story aired that Hitt began his pilgrimage, and his book delivers history, culture, linguistics, and geography in prose that carries you along beside him, almost as if you were riding the mule that his group of travelers adopts. The Knights Templar, el Cid, Roland, Charlemagne, several popes, and even Shirley MacLaine (who claims to have known all the others) make their appearances.

The big issue for each traveler is two-fold: why they are doing this long walk, and what makes a “true” pilgrim. Hitt, appropriately for dramatic purposes, has an epiphany as he enters the cathedral at Santiago, and all he has written up to that point is evidence for his discovery. I won’t give it away here, but it does seem a bit stage-managed. Yet that doesn’t detract from his glorious writing.

And it’s with great relief that I realize this walk is not for me. Not just the length, but the crowds! As he neared the Camino’s terminus, Hitt found himself racing with dozens of other pilgrims for the few available beds each night, not to mention jockeying with them for safe passage across multi-lane highways. I imagine the trek is less populous between November and March, but winter weather could make the Camino impassible. My picture of the ideal hike includes solitude for good portions of each day, with quiet company in the evening to swap tales of the road with. I really don’t want to be elbowing people aside to get to the washing trough, only to find it muddied by many peoples’ worth of road dirt.

So thanks, Mr. Hitt, not just for the excellent read, but also for convincing me that I can skip the Camino and aim for something shorter. Or even just stick with my preferred long-distance transport: cycling.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 8, 2012

Need help deciding what to read?

Just discovered this and had to share it:


I love anything that helps me figure out what to read next.

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