Posts Tagged With: books

Professor Porn: Dan Brown

So you call yourself well-read? That’s okay. I do, too. Then I talk to people who write or work in academia or pretty much anyone, and I realize that I am not even close to well-read, despite the fact that I read all the time. I am a glimmer of well-read.

Part of writing is not just reading, but what you read. Books you’ve never heard of are being buzzed about in the literary journals and websites. Never mind that you can’t buy them anywhere in your West Texas town (but you can buy every celebrity book known to man). And so you track down those books online, trying to purchase them from independent book sellers so as not to feed to corporate machine. They arrive. They are wondrous. You journal about them. You makes notes. You write an entire story inspired by a single sentence.

When I follow this process, I find the reward of reading to be exceptional. Words like craft, voice, and style resonate.

That being said, sometimes I just want to a one-night stand, junk food pig-out reading experience. One that, when I reach the end, I am fine that I’m done and fine that I read it, but not much more. There is a fix for this type of craving. And his name is Dan Brown.

Yes, folks, I read Dan Brown. Or, to be more precise, I read Robert Langdon.

Whatever controversies Brown’s work may cause, whatever backlash he may get from the literary community, Dan Brown knows how to throw down his story. Sure, his characters are so flat that Flat Stanley looks well-developed, and fact-checking things about works of art and buildings isn’t always his strong point. But his pacing and ability suck the reader in to the conflicting worlds of science and religion through the lens of art is impressive. Having just finished Inferno, I can’t say that the story was my favorite (Angels and Demons still holds that honor), but it was fine and it gave me the fix I needed. See, it’s not the conspiracy theories and secret societies I come for: it’s the professor as hero fantasy of Robert Langdon.

Robert Langdon, my friends, is not just A professor. He is THE professor in an epic sense of the word. A lecturer from Harvard who famously wears tweed and loafers, he’s like a casting notice for a Harvard-set movie. He writes books on obscure topics yet still manages to have fans. His renown is, in fact, so great that not only do museum curators metaphorically drop their panties when he turns up, showering him with VIP tours and private access, freaking governments call him up because the world will end if someone doesn’t look at this painting.

If Fifty Shades of Grey is mommy porn, then Dan Brown is professor porn.

I can’t speak for people who work on the academic side of science or math, but I would guess that they have this life-saving feeling. They are experts on subjects that directly impact life. For us English folks, passionate as we are, there isn’t much of a chance the government is going to pull us in for a top secret think tank on “The Wasteland,” (we wouldn’t be able to agree on anything anyway). Robert Langdon is the fantasy that being an expert in a humanities/fine arts topic can be important in life or death situations.

Let’s look at his strengths, shall we? He’s a master on symbols in religion, history, and literature. He can recall details without notes or outlines. Most important, due to his swimming I would guess, he has the impressive ability to impart his vast array of knowledge while running for his life (or it least walking at a brisk pace). These are not super powers. No, no. These are super PROFESSOR powers. Good professors can quote without books, be specific with few notes. They can prowl the classroom or even answer in depth questions while walking to class.

Robert Langdon is our Superman.

And his weakness? Claustrophobia from a childhood accident similar to the one that left Bruce Wayne with a fear of bats. Granted, usually there is some sort of scientific thing involved in Langdon’s race to decode, but most of the time there is an attractive woman or convenient expert nearby to explain.

The fantasy of his type of knowledge saving the world is tempting. Who knows? Perhaps someday I will get a call that begins,

“Is this Professor Amber Kelly-Anderson? The president needs you to explain Beowulf using a video game boss fight analogy. But you must hurry! The fate of the world is in your hands!”



Categories: Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, Objects de Art | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Great Gatsby Illusion

When I list books that changed my life, The Great Gatsby tops the list. By the time I read it in high school, I already knew I wanted to be a writer and had since third grade when I tried to write my first novel (it was about horses because my best friend drew crazy good horses). But I remember the exact line in Fitzgerald’s novel when I fell in love with words in a different way:

“The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean.”

It’s a simple sentence, yet so much happens: simile and metaphor, color symbolism, and his implied time element (isn’t the story, after all, about what can happen for just a moment?). It’s a glorious piece of writing.

And so it is with great trepidation that I anticipate Baz Luhrmann’s anachronistic adaptation. I admit I have not seen the movie and I am trying to refrain from judging before I do; that being said, I have a feeling they picked the wrong guy to bring this once more to the screen.

A few years ago I was reading an interview with Jack Nicholson where they asked him what role he missed out on that he regretted. His answer was losing out on Jay Gatsby to Robert Redford. Just reading the sentence, I cringed. Nicholson as Gatsby? Granted this was before he became a caricature of himself, back when he was doing Reds and China Town. Still–Nicholson? Then I read his reasoning. He explained that the problem with Redford was that he was Jay Gatsby, but he was not James Gatz. Robert Redford represented the illusion of what Jay Gatsby should be without being the man James Gatz actually was. He saw himself as James Gatz.

I’d never thought about it that way, but for some reason the idea resonated with me. The book is about illusion, deceit, and identity. Based on the previews, Luhrmann has taken the illusion part of the story to eleven. My concern is that as a director he is one who favors style over substance. His movies explode visually in a chaos of color and sound; however, he seems to fear silence and stillness. Flappers swirling on trapezes, a Jay-Z soundtrack, fireworks–this is the illusion of Gatsby. Does Luhrmann have the self-control and temperance to tell the story behind the illusion without making the film about the very things Fitzgerald attempted to critique? I’m not sure.

On one hand I’m excited for the visual escapism of it; on the other, I have a feeling that I should not view the film as a representation of the spirit of the book lest I be disappointed. But isn’t that usually the rule with adaptations?



Categories: Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Write on Wednesday: U is for Unfinished

The Casual Vacancy.jpgA few months ago I finally bought a used copy of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I was excited to finally have in my possession and dove in with abandon. After the first chapter, I put it down for what I thought would be a day; it turned into a week as I read another book. Following the completion of that book, I tried it again. This cycle of read a chapter, read a different book has continued until now, almost five months later, the books remains unfinished. Last night I picked it up and thought about trying to finish it before realizing that I don’t really care. Not about the story or the characters. If I do ever finish it, the reason will be wanting to avoid giving up.

I rarely walk away from books. Out of principle, I trudge through even the worst ones. However, there are a few that I just can’t ever seem to finish. And as a writer, I think there is something to be learned with every reading experience, even if it is just what not to do. I keep them in the back of my mind like badges of failure that I must conquer someday. Here are a few of my unfinished reading projects:

  1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert–Just ugh. I love women’s travel writing, but I cannot finish this. It’s so self-indulgent and borderline Orientalist.
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens–Some Dickens sweeps me in. This one makes me tired.
  3. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon–I actually do not think I am smart enough for this book.
  4. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner–Faulkner is usually hit or miss for me. Either I love it or it drives me crazy. This definitely falls in the crazy spectrum.
  5. Dune by Frank Herbert. Apologies, Sci-Fi lovers. I just can’t get into this one.

What about you, dear readers? What books remain unfinished in your world?



Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

R is for Rock On (Five Things That Rocked)

Not to make light of the tragedies that have unfolded by understatement, but it’s been a rough week. Sometimes reading, watching, and listening to the news has been frustrating in that I miss the days when there was a filter and we weren’t overwhelmed with unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. It’s the nature of the new raw news age. Many times I found myself reading unrelated articles to pass the time until more solid stories could be read. Here’s some of those time passers that I enjoyed:

  1. I actually stumbled onto this topic by reading a male blogger’s argument as to why The Women’s Fiction Prize is stupid. His thesis was basically women get enough praise; men are the real suffering minority (I wonder if he is familiar with the VIDA report). In the comments someone posted a link to “My So-Called ‘Post Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters” by Women’s Prize Nominee Deborah Copaken Kogan. Comments in response to that? She’s just whiny. Slow motion lame. Thus I am featuring only Kogan’s article which is an insightful look at the publishing world, slut-shaming, and why sometimes we still need praise.
  2. Anna Lea West is judging you and your grammar. It’s awesome. Check it out.
  3. “15 Things We Always Forget Are Privileges.” Just to keep things in perspective.
  4. My second favorite bookstore in the world (The Strand is still number 1), Austin’s BookPeople, posted this list of Wonderfully Weird Books for Kids. With their delightful and inspiring children’s section, it’s no surprise that the list is filled with wondrous surprises.
  5. The weekly recap of the televised train-wreck that is Celebrity Apprentice. Dalton Ross embraces the ludicrous nature of this venture and makes me feel less nuts for enjoying it.



Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

L is for Love It

This would normally be my day for Five Things that Rocked this Week. Keeping in the spirit of A to Z, instead I present my list of things I loved this week.

  1. Discovering the Dog Shaming website from a colleague. Seriously, this made my week a little brighter.
  2. Buzzfeed usually gives me something to delight in: this week it is 20 Literary Facts to Impress Your Friends. (Add to number 6 that he also believed in spontaneous composition. See Bleak House.)
  3. Calves’ Feet and Cake: Adventures in 100 Year Old Recipes. Try it in case you might like it (the post, not necessarily the calves’ foot jelly).
  4. For writers, check out this post about submitting. It makes some interesting points.
  5. Finally, my husband is being inducted into Phi Theta Kappa today for his excellent work in academia since leaving his job a year ago. I’m terribly proud of him. Well done, Kitten.
Categories: Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

My World in Words

It has become the norm that I round up all my writing in various places and favorite developments in writing on the Saturday Things that Rocked This Week Post; however, the world has smiled on me this week and there are two many to be contained in five short shout outs.

For instance, Margaret Atwood announced the completion of her MaddAddam trilogy, just titled MaddAddam, will be published in the US on September 3. Be still my heart. After Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are my favorite of her books. Seeing her speak in May could cause me to go into cardiac arrest from glee and expectation. I kid not; when I think too much about it, I have trouble sitting still.

While nothing can eclipse that, there were a number of great articles for writers both on Ploughshares and other places. Kate Flaherty’s cerebral look at The Who coupled with The Reenactments gives new context for both the album of her youth and Nick Flynn’s recently released memoir. David Sedaris and Dave Eggers both wrote books on Anthropomorphism. Not sure how to feel about that? Let Ali Shapiro talk you through it and you’ll be feeling intrigued (as I was). And although it’s an older post, as both an essay writer and a professor who is often asked to help with college admission essays, I found Phillip Lopate’s NYT Draft essay thought provoking.

Earlier this week I was interviewed by Glen Aaron for my local newspaper about my work with Ploughshares. While the article is forthcoming, Aaron profiled me on his blog (and treated me to a wonderful Cafe Americano). Wednesday as I was talking about rejection here, I was giving a crash course in writing tips over on The Baraza. Yesterday, I received word that an essay of mine will be in a forthcoming book, although I am unable to give full-details at this point.

Finally, this morning I returned to Ploughshares with the second part of my cowboy seriesStop by to see how Owen Wister created cowboys and why I won’t mess with Larry McMurtry (and neither should you).

My spring break has been wonderfully lush with words. How about yours?



Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bedside Companions

When people find out that I am an English teacher, they generally ask me one of two things. The first involves telling me that my field is becoming obsolete because no one reads, no writes, no one cares, and there is no career or purpose in the study of literature. The question here is basically, “Don’t you agree that your life’s passion is useless?” Depending on the asker and the company, I have several answers to that, none of which are relevant to today’s topic.

The other question I get, usually from older people, is: “I would like to encourage my child/teenager to read. What do you suggest? What do you read?” My response is always the same: “Well, what do you read?” The majority of the time the parent just looks sheepishly at the ground and admits they aren’t much of a reader. Some are bolder and just tell me point blank they don’t care or don’t like to read. But they want their kids to? This is a point I could argue for hours, but instead, I start by saying, “I read everything I can.”

This is the truth. I read novels, I read non-fiction, I read plays, I read newspapers, I read magazines . . . generally if it’s in print, I give it a whirl. That being said, I am still not as well-read as I would like to be. I have friends who rush out the day a book is released and buy it. It usually takes me a few months to get to something, unless it is a work I have been anticipating. But whether or not I’m not reading a new release, I am always reading. Reviewing the pile on my nightstand at the moment, a series of categories emerge that I find to be highly indicative of my reading style and tastes.

Something New This represents the intellectual category–books that I have never read before that actually require me to pay attention. Sometimes, they are just works of well-crafted fiction, sometimes they are more challenging reads. Most of the time they aren’t even particularly new works–they are just new to me. These more challenging reads I have to save for summer because I can’t focus enough during the semester to really process the work.

Fluff My fluff readings are also books I haven’t read yet, but tend to be paperbacks or commercial genre fiction that require little to no concentration. I don’t just deal with chick-lit (in fact, I rarely read chick-lit unless I hear good things from other people); this category also includes light-weight thrillers (such as Dan Brown or James Patterson) and the YA fiction which is often times better than adult level works.

Reruns Very rarely do I get rid of a book when I am finished reading it. Even if I hated it, I generally will keep it to go back later and reread. It’s funny how tastes can change. For example, I was in college when I read Bridget Jones Diary and I thought it was utter self-indulgent crap. Five years later I picked it up again and was surprised that once I wasn’t in a shroud of undergrad pretension, I actually enjoyed the unique nature of the character Fielding had created, along with her sly little winks at Austen’s prototype. (I still, however, think the second one is crap.) In this category, I seem to cycle through books that I have read before. Sometimes I will read something that I have only read once. But more frequently, I reread the same roughly twenty works, most of which have been read at least five times.

School Related or Non-Fiction This tends to change depending on my academic status. When I was a student (I like to take graduate classes when I can to get hours above my masters and improve my overall knowledge. Plus, it keeps my brain from getting soggy). During that time this space was occupied by things like Renaissance Drama: An Anthology and an overload of philosophical texts on the role of ‘other’ and Aristotle in justification of native treatment during the Spanish colonization of Latin America (and most of those were even less interesting than that description, save the one on Native witchcraft). This spring I gave myself a pass on school and instead read a variety of non-fiction works, most about WWII from my grandfather’s collection.

Magazines This is probably the most random pile of them all because magazines are my short handed way of indulging all of my vices and virtues. The top of the pile is Entertainment Weekly, a magazine I have gotten since junior high. It’s on top because it’s the only weekly one. It’s also the only one I tend to read cover to cover. Then there’s Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. I try to read as much of these as I can, but anyone who has cracked the cover of either one can tell you that some of those articles need their own zip codes. National Geographic is a family tradition and I generally read all its articles as they are concise and enlightening. But lest you think I am too scholarly in my magazines, the pile also contains Better Homes and Gardens, Elle, InStyle, and at the moment FitPregnancy and Pregnancy and Newborn.

In general, I read roughly four books and a slew of magazines simultaneously. What I pick up on any given day depends on my mood, level of focus, and time constraints. On a day when my daughter is at school, I am more likely to pick up one of the more challenging works. If I’m reading with Monsters, Inc. or Up playing in the background while confirming to my daughter that, yes, those are balloons, it’s more of a fluff day.

I could give a long list of books I suggest for every occasion, but I think I will save that for another day. My main plea, no matter your age, is to read anything you can, even if it’s just an article about how to make the perfect chicken nugget. And for those who complain of being slow readers, reading is like running–the more you do it, the stronger you get.

Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Write On Wednesday: Portraits of Artists

Previously I shared my fascination with black and white artistic author photos, highlighting images of Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter, Virginia Woolf, Colette, and Margaret Atwood.

Finding images of male writers that compare to the women is difficult for me–most of them lack the intensity or are off in some way (Hemingway’s tendency to be photographed with guns, the obvious way Fitzgerald pandered).

Samuel Beckett. The Irish playwright has a fantastic face and there are a number of striking shots of him looking directly into the camera. The almost goofy nature of this image, his glasses on his forehead, shows that he is not all intensity. The Irish sense of humor is evident.

John Fowles. I happen to love pictures of Fowles because he, like me, always has crooked glasses. The rocky seashore, the isolation: he might have just stepped out of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Even though the photo is certainly posed, it looks almost as if Fowles was stopping to say something when the photographer snapped it.

Jack Kerouac. In pictures, Kerouac tends to read as an aspiring method actor–all intensity and stray locks of hair. Photos like this one are striking to me in that I can see the author caught unaware, working, as opposed to posing. His eyes are closed as if he is away from the physical world. Thinking? Listening? Creating?

Haruki Murakami. The Japanese writer is often photographed in guarded positions. His go-to pose is to lean his head on his hands. Sometimes he’ll cross his arms over his chest. In this image, the photographer either wisely gave him something to keep his hands occupied, or Murakami used the kitten as a crutch. Note the hand placement and the way he is holding it–is he protecting the kitten or the other way around? They seem somehow ostracized from the viewer, isolated. Thematically, the photo seems deeply connected to Murakami’s own writings.

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