Article of the Day: “I Was a Teenage Illiterate”

I very much enjoyed (and sympathized with) this essay in the New York Times Book Review about having passed over the classics, only to pick them up in one’s mid-twenties.  This, of course, is my current quest.  I’m on a stop-start ride through Oliver Twist, which I love.  Dickens is incredibly dry and sarcastic, which I find enthralling in ways that would have only confused me as a seventeen-year-old.  I’m sure a lot of it would have flown over my head, especially if I had been in the midst of reading to a certain page for a class assignment.  The descriptions are nuanced and gritty; I’m grateful not to be a street vagabond in Victorian London.

The writer of “I was a Teenage Illiterate”, Cathleen Schine, comes by her “illiteracy” not by means of inability to read but rather a close-mindedness in her adolescence.  As she writes of her high school reading days,

I also wrote a paper on existential despair in “Crime and Punishment,” “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (assigned to the class) and (my one foray into contemporary American literature) “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Look, I didn’t say I wasn’t pretentious; I said I wasn’t well read.

It’s a fortunate thing indeed to pick up great literature when you’re in the mindset to value it for what it is, not for what you have to pick out in order to do well on a quiz or write a paper.  I’ll be back on Oliver once I’ve finished.  Right now, reader, I’m enchanted.


Article of the Day: Negative Numbers Elucidated

Maybe you don’t think about multiplying negative numbers because you are no longer in high school.  Lamentably, I do.  I teach high schoolers the finer aspects of the ACT and SAT, so negative numbers (along with square roots, the Pythagorean Theorem, and the circumference of a circle) are my purview.

I expect my students to grasp the concepts and not push the logic — why would two negative numbers multiplied by each other equal a positive?  But now I don’t have to avoid these logical discussions (I pass off why 1 isn’t a prime number with “look it up on Wikipedia”) anymore.  Read, and enjoy, as I did, the blog post “The Enemy of My Enemy” in yesterday’s NYT and behold the logic of mathematics, international relations alliances, and unbalanced triangles.  It’s actually fun and helpful.

Classic Book a Month — One Month Behind

Do you keep your New Year’s resolutions?  Clearly I don’t.  I was planning to read Emma in January but work and sleep got the best of me.  New goal: double-down on Emma and Oliver Twist in February, which unfortunately is the shortest month of the year.  I’ll consider it a victory if I can read one and start the other by the time the 28th rolls around.

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Michelle Obama is a very public first lady.  We follow her fashion choices, hairstyles, arm workouts.  She flaunts her organic vegetable garden, recently featured on a special episode of Iron Chef America.  Her predecessor, Laura Bush?  Not so much.   What do we know about her pet projects?  Literacy, for one — she was a librarian, after all.  But the American public, while it approved of Laura Bush at rates much higher than those of her husband’s, didn’t know how she stayed in shape, what designers she wore, or what she ate.  Laura Bush was a fairly enigmatic, “traditional” First Lady.  At least, she seemed that way until I read American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.

When I was in Washington, DC, last July, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which features the perennially popular First Ladies exhibit.  One of Laura Bush’s inaugural gowns, a long-sleeved sequined number, was on display.  I remember marveling at her tiny shoulders and narrow waist.  Obviously I’ve never seen the woman in person, nor been close enough to see the size of her figure.  But seeing her red gown hugging the mannequin made her seem a bit more approachable, though of course far removed from the actual museum display.

Reading American Wife is a bit like this — you catch a glimpse of what the woman is really like, as the novel is clearly modeled on Laura Bush, but so much of it is imagined that you can only confirm the outlines of the story.  The true woman is more mysterious and unknown.

In short, I loved American Wife. [Spoiler alert — plot points after the jump.] Continue reading

Article of the Day: The Ruse of the Creative Class

Today I bring you an article from The American Prospect, which is unusual because I mostly read NYT, Slate, and The New Yorker. I found the link, predictably enough, on a NYT blog.  But whatever.  Here we are, with a long but totally worthwhile read about Richard Florida, who is a “creative class” urban studies/sociologist guru.  He is famous for his book The Rise of the Creative Class, which has the premise that cities with tolerant atmospheres and hipster places/spaces will attract creative types and thus become cool and, by the way, huge economic engines.  Turns out, not so much.  But Florida made a killing on selling his premise to cities and states, including Iowa City, where I went to college and where his creative class theory was extremely faddish.

I’d like to share a few choice quotes from the article and then let you enjoy the rest.  First up, from Florida’s former publicist:

“There was a tremendous money-generating aspect to Richard’s work,” Frantz says. “We did it in a grand way. We traveled in style. We stayed in boutique hotels in most of the places we were working.” But it is wrong, he says, to see any conflict in Florida’s dire pronouncements on the places that bankrolled this success, because he hadn’t promised prosperity in the first place. “He wasn’t really making prescriptions,” Frantz says. “This wasn’t Jesus Christ throwing the money men out of the temple; this was an academic. He was a f***ing college professor, and you’re hoping to resurrect Canton, Ohio? Yeah, good luck with that.”

Next, for sheer absurdity, I bring you the mayor of Dayton, Ohio:

Across the country, the battle to attract the creative class carries on. In Dayton, Ohio, billboards and T-shirts carry a new Richard Florida-inspired logo: “Dayton patented. Originals wanted.” The city is building bikeways, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in 2007 to increase its score on Florida’s “tolerance index,” and has given a local group called DaytonCREATE the use of a vacant bank, now called “c{space,” “where they hang out and do a lot of their creativeness,” Mayor Rhine McLin says.

Oh, to do some creativeness.

So did Florida’s creative class theory catch on where you are?  Do you remain a devotee or skeptic?  I have a hard time imagining that his exhortation to move to already-creative places like, say, the Bay Area wouldn’t eventually overwhelm those places.  Wouldn’t they become ever-more-crowded and force more people out to suburbs, thus diminishing the creative returns?  How many converted lofts can you make and sell?  But I digress.  Read the article and come back to me.

Classic Book of the Month

I’ve written before about my attempts to make up for a lack of “classic” education in my literature background.  Last year I tackled Catch-22 (ugh) and a pair of Ernest Hemingway titles (A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises), and a couple years ago I read Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby, East of Eden, and Slaughterhouse-5.  Let 2010 be the year in which I read at least one classic per month.  By classic, I suppose I mean books that are traditionally taught in literature classes or those that are legendarily classic in the sense that people name-check them and they are still in print.  I won’t include those I’ve already read (although I could be persuaded to re-read Persuasion by Jane Austen).  So far I have a couple of books weighing down my shelves that are promising for this venture: Emma by Jane Austen and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

So help me out, now that I’m covered through February.  What else should be on my must-read list for 2010?  I’m thinking about The Grapes of Wrath and perhaps more Hemingway.  I haven’t read any of the big Russian books (Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov), so those are definite possibilities.  And as I go along, of course I welcome comments and guest posts on said classics.  Sometimes it helps to have a friend or two along on what might otherwise be a bit of a slog.

Guest Post from Flora: A Pole in Africa

Writing from the relative warmth of Boston (I’m in the Twin Cities, land of snow-crete), Flora returns with a blog post about Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński.  I have allowed her to keep her weirdo British spelling, even though she is technically American. Stay warm, blog friends!

So many dichotomies in the world. Type A’s and Type B’s.  Optimists and pessimists. Doers and dreamers. Those who fly into war zones, arc over burning roadblocks, slip through the jungle towards Stanleyville post-independence pre-Mobutu, stare into gun barrels; those whose days are spent in the swirl of “people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.” And those whose days simply- aren’t.  Or such is the ineluctable conclusion drawn after reading three of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński‘s books.

Just under a year ago I read the posthumously published Travels with Herodotus. I was new to Kapuściński‘s work, and his measured grace struck me. In truth, his world is not one that encourages dichotomies but instead subverts them, one in which a roaming journalist from a beleaguered nation-state, spectre of German and Soviet subjugation at his back, tries to wend his way through the polarizations – black and white, democracy and totalitarianism – that threaten to coopt day to day life. If only more people alighted on a Calcutta train station platform or waited days for transport in a Sudanese waypost, cross-fertilizing revelation if not understanding; then, he seems to promise, the madnesses of the world might settle into sense if not resolution. I used a passage from Travels for a volunteer orientation session on culture shock for (shameless promo) WorldTeach. I then rather foolishly traded my copy of Travels with Herodotus for an Indian buffet lunch. End Act One of my encounters with Kapuściński. Continue reading