Tag Archives: literature

Taking Brown University Lit Courses – For Free

29 May

At the dawn of the commercial internet, way back in ’95 or ’96, I remember turning around to one of my colleagues and saying: “Our kids are going to be so smart.”

My job, at the time, was competitive intelligence of online services. The words “online” and “search,” which had meaning to me as early as the mid-80s, were only just gaining mass understanding.

The genesis of my comment was the newly  launched Library of Congress website, and I’d been tooling around it for the last two or three hours (one of the benefits of my job was that I could waste time on the Web – and get paid for it). As one of the two largest libraries in the world, the LOC is truly a national treasure for knowledge seekers. But since it’s located in Washington, D.C., and most people aren’t able to check out books, for much of its history it has been a walled garden.

The Web changed that. Almost overnight, many of its collections were digitized and made available – for free – to anyone with a computer and dial-up connection. I was fully aware of the implications of “online” long before beginning my career in digital media in 1985, but the rollout of the National Digital Library and its contents truly astonished me.

It wasn’t the last time that I felt that way. In fact, there have been numerous occasions over the last 30 years in which technology and media have intersected to pleasantly surprise me. And it has never been the outcome, but the speed at which we reach that development that astounds me.

And last night, it happened again. The rush of adrenaline was enough to keep me awake through the night, too excited to sleep.

A few weeks ago, I began exploring MOOC’s (massive open online courses) on Udacity and Coursera. I also looked at fee-based online courses at Lynda.com. I’ve always attended Webinars or used YouTube to pick up skills here and there, but Udacity and Coursera were different. Top universities, 6-12 week intensive courses on complicated subjects. It was too good to pass up – and yes, this is truly disruptive to the current status quo.

So, I enrolled in a couple, and yesterday I received an email for my first class to start on Monday. It’s a Brown University course taught by a well-regarded professor of comparative literature, Arnold Weinstein. It’s called “The Fiction of Relationship.”

The requirements to earn a Statement of Distinction (it’s free, so no Brown credits awarded) are still tough: read 12 works of literature, write five short papers (about 2 pages apiece), one longer paper, attend 2 hours of lectures, and grade and review three works of your peers nearly every week.

I know, right? This is going to be so much fun. And I mean that.

To have access to such amazing knowledge – for free and at my own leisure – is a slice of heaven.

The Internet: Greatest. Invention. Ever.

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Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

11 Feb
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Photo credit: bubbletea1)

“There is no ‘great’ literature being written today.”

I was having dinner with a few of my husband’s colleagues, and I must admit that I was ready to pounce on this statement. My dining companion and I had discovered common ground: We both majored in English and were passionate readers.

He was a little disillusioned with the current literary landscape. In an era where a book like “Fifty Shades” gets an entire publishing house an extra year-end bonus, I could understand why. But no great literature? No, that couldn’t be true.

Or was it? In the heat of the moment, I found I couldn’t come up with a single example that I’d be ready to defend.

Is this so surprising? We live in a country that hasn’t won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 20 years. It has been said that we’re too insular, too narcissistic, and incapable of producing writers who can write about larger, more worldly themes.

In a way, it’s a strong argument. The literary trend for more than 30 years has been “realism” – as Alexander Nazaryan put it in an essay for Salon.com a couple of years ago, the MFA way of “writing what you know.” If you really think about it, it’s rather limiting advice.

Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly frustrating with American literature, particularly the much-hyped “greats” such as Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen, neither of whom I suspect have ventured – in person – into the real world at all. At an earlier age, I did enjoy John Updike’s Rabbit novels, but Roth’s American Pastoral nearly killed me in the reading.

A couple of years ago, I saw with utter clarity the problem in contemporary American literature. I read a book weeping with self-indulgence on the heels of a book about greater societal issues: Franzen’s Freedom was opened just as I’d closed the bookjacket on Sapphire’s Push. I’m sorry, but the whinging of an upper-class (not, as Franzen inaccurately described them, middle class) couple doesn’t compare to the desperation of a wounded, underprivileged and abused teenager – and the societal forces that fostered her situation.

It’s ironic, actually, that Franzen has complained about America’s solipsistic culture and lamented that today’s fiction is one-dimensional, since he and his novels are of a feather. I suppose it’s possible that I’m not “reading the text intellectually,” but I doubt it. Freedom is an insipid novel and emblematic of American literature’s current state.

Anyway, this isn’t about Franzen, necessarily, or Roth or even Updike. It’s also not only about these “great white male narcissists” as David Foster Wallace once called them. There are women narcissists as well (Elizabeth Gilbert comes to mind, as does Lena Dunham).

We are, in fact, an entire culture of narcissists. But is this a bad thing? We’re Americans after all, and this country, in its own way, has been created and propelled forward by a unrestrained sense of self. Our literature – at least some of it – should represent both the spiritual and physical journeys we make.

Which brings me to this week’s review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The 52 Books Project: Book #1

Wild is a memoir; so by definition, it’s egocentric. Strayed is a broken woman at the age of 26. She mourns her mother, who recently died; she has cheated on her husband and destroyed their marriage; she has dabbled in heroin. Her life is a mess. Then she has an idea: she’ll hike the Pacific Crest Trail for 1,100 miles – from Southern California to Oregon – alone. It’s a journey of self-reliance, self-discovery and physical rejuvenation.

Many of the reader reviews were critical of Strayed, saying that she was stupidly underprepared for her journey, foolish and very full of herself. These criticisms are valid, and yet, I’m inclined to be more forgiving.

Strayed doesn’t shrink from assigning herself blame. She’s a mess, it’s her own fault, and she knows it. She doesn’t ask for sympathy.

Raw is the word that comes to mind when I think of the book. Strayed’s pain is stripped to the bone. Her fears and doubts keep rising to the surface, and over the long hard miles of the trail, she slowly sheds them just as she sheds most of her toenails. But it isn’t an easy task.

“How fabulous down was for those first minutes! Down, down, down I’d go until down too became impossible and punishing and so relentless that I’d pray for the trail to go back up. Going down, I realized was like taking hold of the loose strand of yarn on a sweater you’d just spent hours knitting and pulling it until the entire sweater unraveled into a pile of string. Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost.”

You may read Wild and question Strayed’s life, her decisions and her journey, but she is a talented storyteller. The story had momentum. I read well past my bedtime, and at the end, well – I just wanted to flip the book back over and start again immediately.

It’s a rewarding story, as worthy of the word “inspirational” as Eat, Pray, Love is not. Is it “great literature?” No. It’s too introspective, and Strayed is a fluid writer but not a great one.

Still, I’d recommend it. It’s a keeper.

Next week’s review: What in God’s Name, by Simon Rich

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The 52 Books Project

3 Feb

Each time I pick up a book, I make a journey into someone else’s imagination, memory, analysis or perspective. It’s why I love to read, why I buy so many books (Frankly, it puzzles me that Barnes & Nobles isn’t doing well. How could that be? It’s my primary bookstore!), and why I don’t hear people when they try to talk to me.

I’ve no idea how many books I read in a given year, but in January, I decided to keep track. That’s when I came up with the idea of the 52 Book Project: read and review – here in this blog – 52 books in 2013.

With all due respect to B&N and every other book retailer, I’ve added a wrinkle. The books must be borrowed. It doesn’t matter from where or from whom, but I’ll certainly make many trips to my public library.

If this project accomplishes anything beyond my reading, I hope it raises awareness of the amazing value that public libraries offer. While taxes vary from town to town, my public library costs my family $187.64 in taxes each year – or about $3.61 per book for this project. That’s if I don’t incur late fees. A pretty good deal, really.

This project actually kicked off on Jan. 2, when I stopped at my local public library to select my first choices. The book club is reading The New Republic by Lionel Shriver. Snapped that up. On a whim, I grabbed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail for my second book.

Not content to leave this project to my own whims, I also asked Facebook friends for book recommendations. One of my personal goals for this project is to read outside my comfort zone: absorbing opposing views and exploring topics not normally within my interests.

I’ve always enjoyed biography, history, science and other nonfiction, but my friends suggested quite a few titles I may never have looked at. You can find what’s upcoming by looking at the Nightstand. When I finish a book and its review, you can find it on my Bookshelf.

I should also take a moment to explain my quirky reading style. I read up to 4 or 5 books at a time. Longer bios, nonfiction and novels over 600 or so pages will take longer than a week, so they’ll be spread out over a period of weeks or months (so mid-read reviews won’t be out of the question).

Also, I have this funny (endearing? irritating?) habit of reading the first 100 pages of a book, and then skipping to the last 20 or 30 pages before heading back to the middle. To borrow a line from Harry, I do this so that if I die before I finish, I’ll know how the story ends.

Finally, I reserve the right to scan or abandon a book midway through. Life’s too short to read stuff that sucks.

Anyway, I finished three books in January, and I’ve just picked up four more from the library. Technically, I’m a bit behind, but January was an unusual month for personal reasons. I expect to be back to normal reading – and writing – levels now.

First up for review: Strayed’s Wild. Check back in a couple of days to read what I have to say.

Book of the Month, Week, Day?

25 May

I always tell people that reading is like breathing to me; I simply can’t live without it. Ask my sister, and she’ll tell you how unreachable I can be when I’m deep in a book. My husband has suffered through countless irritated looks as he attempts to draw me away from a news article. My boys will laugh as they describe my predilection for bringing novels to major league ballparks.

While I read every chance I get, I have a daily ritual that is absolutely sacrosanct: The last half hour of every day is set aside to read for pleasure.

Thanks to this addiction, I tend to burn through a lot of books. Here’s what I’ve read just in the last few months.

  • The Millenium series (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Girl who Played with Fire, Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) by Stieg Larsson. Yes, that’s right, I’ve read them all, even Hornet, which hit the US just today. I got lucky there, as I was able to buy it last month on a trip to the UK. What do I like best about this series? Intelligent, independent and courageous female characters. Erika Berger, Annika Giannini and Monica Figuerola should inspire legions of young women to begin careers in journalism, law and criminal justice. And what to say about Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo? Sheer ingenuity coupled with deft computer and nail gun skills. Yep, I want to be just like her.
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. OK, so the narrator is a dog and car racing is essential to plot. I’m not really interested in either. Yet…yet… I loved this book; it’s arguably my favorite of the year. Enzo’s obsessions with TV, racing, and thumbs bring this canine character to life. His watchfulness allows him to correctly assess the nuanced changes that will impact his human family. I cheered at the finish line.
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This was practically a thriller. Would Skeeter, Abileen and Minny get caught? And I kept wondering: what was in that pie that made Hilly so mad?
  • Every Last One by Anna Quindlen. I usually love Anna, but I’m a bit lukewarm about this one. It takes half the book to set up the story, and when the big event is dropped on us, it feels a little contrived. Quindlen’s better when she digs deep into her characters.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. A well-drawn character will rivet me to a storyline. I simply fell in love with the sardonic Major Pettigrew. Somehow, I didn’t feel the chemistry between him and Jasmine though, which made the ending little more than a shrug.

So, there it is: the highlights of this year’s fiction reading list. I’ll leave the rest and those on the nonfiction list for another time. I’m coming up on that magical half hour of the night, and I don’t want to miss it.

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