A book is a literary compass that has the potential to direct our thoughts and actions:
"Everything we read stimulates our mind to think, and what we think determines what we desire, and desires are the seedbed of our actions. Given this iron law of human nature--from reading to thinking, to desiring, to acting--we are shaping our destiny by the ideas we choose to have enter our minds through print." - Fr. John Hardon, S.J.,
The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan
Welcome to my own personal exploration of life through reading the great books of the world.
Literary Compass is a year old today! It's been 365 days since I first began blogging with this overlong post about Tolkien's influence on my life. In the past year I've learned a lot about myself, about writing, and about books. I appreciate everyone who's supported Literary Compass by subscribing, commenting and linking back. Your support keeps me writing on those days when I don't quite feel like it.
To mark today's occasion, I've put together two lists. First, a list of the most popular posts of the past year, and second, a list of posts that I think were overlooked the first time through and which might deserve a second chance. Enjoy!
Most popular posts of the past year (in descending order):
The books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes--Don Quixote. I read that every year, as some do the Bible....I've read these books so often that I don't always begin at page one and read on to the end. I just read one scene, or about one character just as you'd meet and talk to a friend for a few minutes.
I never really enjoyed the Faulkner I read in college, probably because I didn't really understand it. But anyone who read Don Quixote every year is worth a second chance. I'll have to put The Sound and the Fury or Go Down, Moses on my "to read" list.
Lord Darcy: Sherlock Holmes Meets Jonathan Strange
If you, like me, find the Harry Dresden series not to your taste, but like the idea of a magic-wielding detective, you might enjoy the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett. Mix together Sherlock Holmes and Jonathan Strange, and add in a little alternate history, and you have an idea of what the Lord Darcy stories are all about.
What if Richard Lionheart didn't die, and what if the Protestant Reformation never happened? Garrett imagines an alternate history where in the twentieth century the Plantagenet dynasty still rules, and where magic works. Lord Darcy is the Chief Investigator for the Duke of Normandy, and along with his assistant, Master Sorcerer Sean O'Lochlainn, he deals with locked-room mysteries, espionage and murder. And if you like CSI, you'll enjoy reading how forensic sorcerer Sean O'Lochlainn applies the science of magic to crime scenes.
These stories are humorous, historically interesting, and extremely well plotted. There's a strong Catholic element present as well. They're a perfect next step for teenagers who like Harry Potter, and Lord Darcy's exploits would appeal to anyone who likes mysteries, alternate universes or contemporary fantasies.
The stories were all written between 1964 and 1979, but were not collected in one volume until 2002. As editor Eric Flint points out, they're filled with allusions to many of the famous detective stories of the 1960s and 1970s: Nero Wolfe, the Pink Pather and the Man from U.N.C.L.E., to name a a few. I highly recommend them, especially the full-length novel at the heart of the collection, Too Many Magicians.
What makes fiction so powerful and so poignant? Thornton Wilder sums it up in one of the most moving quotes I have ever read:
If Queen Elizabeth or Frederick the Great or Ernest Hemingway were to read their biographies, they would exclaim, "Ah, my secret is still safe." But if Natasha Rostov were to read War and Peace she would cry out as she covered her face with her hands: "How did he know, how did he know?"
Is this what the pain of Purgatory might be like: reading the story of our life as seen by God, and finally understanding that He sees and knows all? Will we, like Natasha, cover our faces and say, "How did He know, how did He know?"
Death is the moment when we realize that none of our secrets were safe.
The setting: I particularly liked Harry's house and office, and his idea about magic affecting complex machines
The film noir elements combined with traditional wizard-lore
Butcher's conception of magic and how it works: a little Latin, a staff, some magical symbols, all the things traditionally associated with users of magic
The action scenes
What I didn't like:
The brutal and explicit plot elements, which, while mostly necessary to the story, were not really to my taste; I've never enjoyed reading about the seedy side of life in works of literature, and I like it even less in popular fiction; this is most definitely not a book for kids
The demon/vampire characters: Even in shows like The X-Files I didn't like the stories that revolved around these kinds of characters
The characterizations of the female characters: most of them were one-dimensional and not very complimentary
The mob angle: For some reason, shows like The Sopranos or Once Upon a Time in America have never appealed to me, though there are some that I've really liked (i.e., The Godfather, Some Like it Hot); the gangsters in Storm Front seemed almost like Dick Tracy villains
The mystery plot: If Butcher was aiming at a traditional mystery plot, he violated one of the rules of the game in not introducing a key character until very late in the story
The writing style: I liked the first person viewpoint, but sometimes it was a bit over the top. I remember the end of one chapter when Harry, battered and bruised, said to the reader, "Do I have a great job, or what?"
As you've probably noticed, most of my complaints against the book have more to do with my own tastes rather than with Butcher's writing. And I have to say that it's significant that I finished the book, so it's definitely not awful. Far from it. It's just not a series that I'm going to be continuing with.
My next book is going to be Declare by Tim Powers. I loved his story The Anubis Gates and I have high expectations for Declare, based on reviews I've read online.
Rereading can be...a humility-inducing activity, when, on rereading, one learns that the first time around with a book, one's politics or fantasies or personal anxieties were in fact doing most of the work. Rereading books first read when young, one is inclined to weep for the naif one not so long ago was. And while at it one discovers, if one gets to reread the same book twenty years hence, one is even one now.
I can think of several books that I thought were true masterpieces when I read them twenty-five years ago that almost embarrass me now. For instance, if you can believe it, I once thought Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara was better than Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
I wonder if young readers of today will have the same experience with the Harry Potter books when they get older...
How to Adjust the Audiobook Narrator's Speed on Your iPod
I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and occasionally the narrator speaks a little too fast or a little too slow for my taste. I don't have an iPod for my audiobooks (I use the Creative Zen Nano because it's cheaper and remembers where I left off), but I know many of you do. Here's a nice little video tutorial that shows you how to adjust the narrator's speed on an iPod:
If you haven't been keeping up with That Catholic Show, then you've missed some great content. Greg and Jennifer Willits have a real online hit on their hands. That Catholic Show is perfect for new members of the Catholic Church, young members of the Catholic Church, or anyone wanting to increase their knowledge and faith.
In 1995, to commemorate 100 years of film-making, the Vatican made a list of what it called "Some Important Films." The list was divided into three areas--Religion, Values and Art. I've been gradually acquiring them and watching them. What I particularly like about the list are the international titles.
Here's the list with a few comments of my own thrown in:
Here's a homegrown story for your reading pleasure:
Black by Nick Senger
Johnny wore black to school every day. Black pants, black t-shirt, long black trenchcoat.
"You're a nice boy, Johnny," his teacher would say. "Why do you always wear black?"
"It suits me, Mrs. Parker," Johnny always replied. "I'm nobody."
"No one's nobody, dear," she said. "God has plans for everyone."
As Johnny went through junior high Mrs. Parker would see him on the playground or in the detention room, always wearing the black pants, the black t-shirt and the long black trenchcoat.
One day she saw his picture in the paper. He had been caught trying to steal a car. She visited him in jail.
"You're a nice boy, Johnny," she said. "Why do you always wear black?"
"It suits me. I'm nobody."
"No one's nobody, dear. God has plans for everyone."
A few more years went by, and Mrs. Parker heard about Johnny occasionally: two more stints in jail, then he was in the hospital, after he'd been injured in a drive-by shooting.
She stood beside the hospital bed. He was in a white gown under white linen sheets.
"You're not wearing black, Johnny."
He frowned. "I know, Mrs. Parker. I feel naked."
"You still want to wear black, Johnny? Why?"
"You know why," he replied. "It suits me."
"I have something for you." She opened up a box and took out a pair of blue jeans and a white t-shirt. "These are for you."
He frowned again. "Mrs. Parker--"
"Don't talk," she interrupted. "Just promise me you'll wear these when you get out of the hospital. Will you promise me that, Johnny?"
He looked away and said nothing.
She left before he could see the tears in the corners of her eyes.
That was the last time she saw him. He disappeared from her life.
Years went by and Mrs. Parker got old. She got sick. She got admitted to the hospital.
When Johnny came through the door she almost cried. He was still wearing black. Black pants, black trenchcoat buttoned to the chin.
"Oh, Johnny," she cried, "you're still wearing black. Why?"
He smiled and put his hand on hers. "I tried the blue jeans and the white t-shirt, and I wore them for awhile. But I had to go back to black."
"But why, Johnny, why? God has a purpose for everyone."
"You're right, Mrs. Parker. And thanks to you I found my purpose." He opened up his trenchcoat so she could see the white collar around his neck. "You saved me, Mrs. Parker."
He took out the sacred oil and annointed her forehead. "May God bless you, Mrs. Parker," he said, and he made the sign of the cross, smiling again. "I hope you don't mind that I'll be wearing black for the rest of my life."
Julie of Happy Catholic has a new podcast called Forgotten Classics that you should definitely check out. Everyone's looking for something good to read, and Forgotten Classics helps to uncover great stories that have been overshadowed by more well-known authors. Julie reads portions of copyrighted stories and plans on reading public domain titles in their entirety.
She has a clear, comfortable voice, and a lot of personality comes across in the podcast. As with any podcast, you can listen on your computer or download episodes to your mp3 player and take them with you.
Thanks to everyone who has visited and subscribed to my new project, Teen Literacy Tips. Each day more and more people read the blog and download resources. I'm hoping to provide as much valuable information as possible to those who teach literature to teens.
The Knight of the Sorrowful Face Will Put a Smile on Yours
I finally finished listening to the Don Quixote audiobook narrated by George Guidall, and it remains my favorite book of all time. It took almost five months to listen to (I have a very short commute to work), but it was worth the time. Guidall is deservedly known as the king of audiobooks, and his reading was masterful. In a book full of dozens of characters, he managed to give each one a separate personality and voice.
I don't want to say too much about the story itself, since the people at Tilting at Windmills are reading Don Quixote right now. One thing I will say, however, is that the second half of Don Quixote is far superior to the first half. I enjoyed the first half, but most of my fond memories come from the second half. It's funnier, more interesting from a literary point of view, and really develops the character of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
It's important to know that the second half was written some fifteen years after the first half as a reaction to unauthorized sequels that were circulating through Spain at the time, making Don Quixote possibly the first book in recorded history to have fan fiction. Cervantes did not like others messing with Don Quixote, so he really had no choice but to write his own sequel. Thank goodness he did!
Finally, the Edith Grossman translation that was used for Guidall's audio recording is marvelous. It's easy to read or listen to without sounding too modern.
Every reader of literature should get to know Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, so let Edith Grossman and George Guidall introduce you to them. You will come to love the Knight of the Sorrowful Face and his trusty squire, and they will entertain you for hours on end.
The Book-Lender's Soliloquy by Nick Senger (with apologies to Shakespeare)
To lend or not to lend, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of a book lost forever, Or to hoard books against a sea of troubles, And by keeping them hide them? To read: to lend; No more. And by hoarding to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That the librarian is heir to, 'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To read, to lend; To lend, perchance to lose. Ay, there's the rub. For in that loss of books what dreams may come.
I give hearty and humble thanks for the safe return of this book, which having endured the peril's of my friend's bookcase and the bookcases of my friend's friends, now returns to me in reasonably good condition. I give hearty and humble thanks that my friend did not see fit to give this book to his infant for a plaything, nor use it as an ashtray for his burning cigar, nor as a teething-ring for his mastiff. When I loaned this book I deemed it as lost; I was resigned to the business of the long parting. But now that my book has come back to me, I rejoice and am exceedingly glad! Bring hither the fatted morocco and let us rebind the volume and set it on the shelf of honor, for this my book was lent and is returned again. Presently, therefore, I may return some of the books I myself have borrowed.
Speed Racer and the Mach 5 Come to the Big Screen in Live Action
One of my favorite shows when I was younger was Speed Racer, and today, thanks to Gizmodo, I learned the Wachowski Brothers are turning it into a movie starring Matthew Fox and Susan Sarandon. When I was a kid, everyone on my block including my two brothers and me wanted to drive Speed Racer's Mach 5 convertible. I even had a Mach 5 Hot Wheels car. I can't wait to see it on the big screen.
Here's hoping the movie turns out exciting and family friendly.
I'm about a quarter of the way into Storm Front, book one of the Harry Dresden Files, and I wanted to answer a question posed by Maureen, who wants to know about its suitability for junior high/high school readers.
It didn't take long to get the answer to that question. Keep in mind that I believe in each parent deciding what their kids can read or watch, so don't take my comments as gospel truth on this. Here we go:
I'm really enjoying the book so far as a light, entertaining read. But I wouldn't be able to read this book to my eighth grade class because of some pretty graphic crime scene details that occur early in the book. It's graphic not only in its description of the state of the murder victims, but also in what the victims were doing when they died. In other words, if this book were made into a movie, this crime scene alone would give the movie an "R" rating.
That doesn't mean teens shouldn't read it. I think the story is just the kind of thing a teenager would enjoy. But a parent should probably read it first to see if their teen could handle it. I'm not going to give it to my seventh grade boy to read, and I'm not even sure if I would give to my freshman. I have to wait until I get finished with the book to know for sure.
Sometimes a book has a such a great message and is so deep that graphic violence or sexual content can be tolerated, if it's an integral part of the story. Storm Front doesn't strike me as that kind of book yet, but as I said earlier, I'm only a fourth of the way through it.
There's a bit of rough language, but so far nothing you wouldn't hear in a PG-13 movie, and the plot is engaging. Storm Front has been described as Philip Marlowe meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I think of it more as Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell meets The X-Files. And maybe that's a good comparison for its suitability for teens: if you let your teens watch The X-Files, you would probably be ok with them reading Storm Front.
I'll write more about Harry after I've finished the book.
I am very pleased to announce the launch of my major web project, Teen Literacy Tips. If you are a junior or senior high teacher or administrator, a homeschooling parent, or a parent who wants to enrich your teen's classroom education, Teen Literacy Tips is designed for you. Please tell as many people as you can about it. Here's an excerpt from the introductory page:
This site will help you turn each of your students into the elusive Literate Teenager -- spontaneous yet intelligent, energetic yet thoughtful, the despair of nutritionists and the hope of the world. If you're a junior or senior high teacher, a concerned parent, or a school administrator, the materials you find here will help you teach teens to be more human, to be more intelligent, and to be more analytical. Using the skills and resources on this site, you'll become the reading mentor students need: the Gandalf to their Frodo, the Good Witch to their Dorothy, the Socrates to their Plato.
The discussion forums give you a chance to connect with other teachers and parents who face the same challenges you do when it comes to teaching teens to improve their reading habits and skills.
And one of the most exciting areas is the resources section, where you will find lessons, book lists, articles, and much more, including audio and video files that you can download. This area will be expanding greatly during the coming months, so be sure to visit it frequently.
I've even partnered with Simply Hired to provide job listings for those of you that might be fresh out of college and looking for work, or for those of you looking for a change of scene.
My wife and I celebrated our seventeenth anniversary two nights ago by attending the Spokane Civic Theater's performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. The show was fantastic--elaborate sets, wonderful singing--a real treat. There were even a couple of songs that we had never heard before. It was also very special to see one of my former students in the role of Louisa Von Trapp.
My wife loves The Sound of Music, so one Christmas I bought her the movie, the soundtrack and the original book. Now I see that there's a cd of music by the Original Trapp Family Singers available, as well as a book about the making of The Sound of Music. The Sound of Music is great family entertainment, and for Catholic families there's the added bonus of being able to use the movie to talk about our faith.
As much as I enjoyed the performance on Saturday, I was more excited by the news that the Spokane Civic Theater was going to be staging a performance of Man of La Mancha next year! If you're a regular reader of Literary Compass, you know how much I love Don Quixote, so this is great news for me. I've already put it on my calendar for May 2008. My wife and I are almost done listening to the audiobook of Don Quixote, and we plan to watch the film version of Man of La Manchawhen we finish, even though we've been told it's a subpar movie. I've never seen it and I'm curious.
Musical theater, The Sound of Music and Don Quixote: these are a few of my favorite things.