• What a wonderful novel: Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”; UPDATED on the difference between American Hard-Boiled and English Whodunits

    Chandler is a superb writer, and his detective, Philip Marlowe, is the distilled essence of a hard-boiled cynic–with gut-level integrity.

    The plot is convoluted, but intelligible.

    Not so, the movie’s plot, which is famously incoherent but fun to watch, for all that.

    After all, Bogie and Bacall and director Howard Hawks suffuse it with noir atmosphere.

    After a while, you stop caring that it makes no sense. You just soak it up.

    Still, I knew Chandler’s novel was different. At least, that’s what I vaguely remembered from reading it years ago. So, I decided to revisit it.

    Good idea.

    It’s a great read, not only for Chandler’s prose style but for Marlowe’s interaction with tough guys, rich guys, sleaze balls, cops, crazy women, and shrewd women, all looking for an angle in 1930s LA. Marlowe knows how to play their games, but keeps his integrity (without being goody two-shoes) as he does it.

    What makes Chandler and Hammett’s work so different from the classic English whodunits?

    Here’s my take. In the hard-boiled American genre, the whole world is steeped in evil sharpies. We aren’t totally focused, as we are in classic English mysteries, in finding the single person who committed the murder (given that everyone in a small, well-defined group has a plausible motive–and perhaps some clues pointing in their direction).

    In the American genre, the whole underworld is implicated. Lots of them “done it.” The problem is not just finding one guy. It is unraveling the whole tangled mess of lies and crimes. Since the private eye must travel constantly in that underworld, his (or her) problem is maintaining a moral compass while all about him have none.

    Sleazy as that world is, what fun to be lost in it, guided by such capable hands as Chandler’s.


  • A Wonderful Way to Begin Reading Proust . . . or To Return

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    For many, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece of memories, In Search of Lost Time, is the greatest work of 20th century literature, ranking with the greatest of 19th century writers such as Tolstoy and Austen.

    True, Proust’s exquisite memories and interior monologues are not to everyone’s taste, but they carry you into a world of his own, amid the salons of fin de siècle Paris and the family’s country retreat at Combray.

    The main obstacle for most of us is the sheer length of the project, originally some seven volumes. I, for one, have only read the first volume, Swann’s Way.

    Recently, a friend told me that the first volume has now been produced as a graphic novel. Normally, that wouldn’t interest me–but, then, he explained that the translator is Arthur Goldhammer (who is always superb) and that the drawings by French illustrator Stéphane Heuet evoke the streets of Paris and Combray and the interiors and people Proust remembers.

    I was intrigued–and confident in my friend’s judgment–bought it and plunged ahead.

    Goldhammer likens the graphic novel to “a piano reduction of an orchestral score.” That’s too modest for such an achievement.

    I have just finished the book and hated to see it end. That’s always the best evidence the book was engaging.

    If you’ve always wanted to try reading Proust but hesitated because of the length and complexity, you might consider the graphic version of Swann’s Way (link to Amazon here).

    The NPR review by Glen Weldon captures my view:

    To be clear: this is a dense read. Yes, it’s a comic, but given that so much of it has to do with petty judgments and perceived slights among various levels of Parisian society, pages and pages are devoted to static conversations in well-appointed drawing rooms. But those drawing rooms are richly realized, which is another way the graphic novel brings an immediacy to the infrastructure of Proust’s story, which he set in real neighborhoods boasting recognizable landmarks, all reproduced here in exacting detail.

    Is it any real substitute for reading Proust’s prose, in French or in English? Of course not, and I don’t see anyone seriously suggesting it is.

    But it makes for an intriguing introduction to the novels, if you’ve never made the leap — a kind of literary gateway drug — and a tantalizing refresher course, if you have. –Glen Weldon for NPR

  • Best book title in a long time

    Our friend and neighbor, Lucy Biederman, now teaching at Case Western in Cleveland came up with an inspired titled:

    The Walmart Book of the Dead (Amazon link)

    She wrote most of it in Louisiana, while getting her doctorate in poetry. She explains the origins of the book in an interview with the Case Western Daily:

    Living on a graduate student stipend in the Deep South, writer Lucy Biederman had few shopping options—so she found herself frequenting a place at once mysterious and magical to her: Walmart….

    “The last thing you’d expect is for someone to not have an opinion about Walmart,” said Biederman, a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University, “but a lot of these opinions can be too easy.

    “The closer you get, the more complicated it gets,” she said. “It’s similar to death in that way.” –Case Western Daily

    Her observation about Walmart’s place in American culture–and its gaping cultural divide–is insightful:

    To some people, Walmart is so essential it’s more than a store—it’s the pulse of their existence.

    And to others, Walmart represents so much of what’s wrong with profit-seeking. I wanted to bridge that gap. –Lucy Biederman


    Comments: Statisticians are unable to calculate the number of expected jokes the author will have to endure about “future books dealing with Costco or Target?” (In rural Louisiana, the questions will be about “Dollar General.”)

    As for me, I still can’t believe Lucy is the first person to see the obvious connections between Walmart and ancient Egyptian religious practices.


  • Why Do People Love Detective Stories?

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    I certainly enjoy them, in print, on TV, and in movies.

    Many stories that are not framed specifically as detective stories really are. Perry Mason (the old black-and-white shows) are always “whodunnits.”

    It’s not surprising, then, that I enjoyed Marco den Ouden’s article about why people enjoy detective stories so much (Foundation for Econ. Ed.)

    Most of the article is about den Ouden’s love of Harry Bosch novels, written by Michael Connell, but he advances a general argument, too. Here’s the nub of it:

    That is the appeal of the crime novel, of the police detectives on television and in the movies. We see them as avenging angels, as heroic figures who will stop at nothing. We see them as empathetic warriors who, like Bosch, will not let politics or other impediments stop them.

    Whether it is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport or Owen Laukkanen’s duo of Windermere and Stevens, we find in these characters the relentless searcher for truth and justice. –Marco den Ouden for FEE

    The search for truth and justice are obviously central, but there are other attractions, too, I think.

    • The pleasure of discerning clues and piecing them together, best exemplified in Sherlock Holmes and the classic “closed room” crimes
    • Trying to understand the suspects’ motives, particularly how different motives might lead to the same deadly outcome
    • Uncovering a dark layer beneath the benign surface of social convention and
    • The chance to immerse yourself in varied social, physical, and historical environments, all while following a strong plot line.

    The weakness, typically, lies in the psychological development of characters (except, at times, the detective).

    So, what do you think?


  • After scandal, Cambridge University Press changes policy; will NOT censor articles to please Chinese government

    ZipDialog recently reported that Cambridge University Press had caved in to the Chinese government’s pressure and removed articles from its online journals that offended the Beijing government.

    The demand to remove the articles came from China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, which warned that if they were not removed the entire website would be made unavailable in China. –Washington Post

    CUP abject compliance was a serious breach of academic integrity.

    Fortunately, there was strong blowback from free-speech and human-rights advocates (including this blog), highlighting CUP’s disturbing appeasement. Lots of academics were involved–on the right side.

    Now, under this pressure, Cambridge has caved again, flipping its policy.

    In reversal, Cambridge University Press restores articles after China censorship row(Washington Post)

    The British-based publisher announced Friday it had removed 300 articles and book reviews from a version of the China Quarterly website available in China at the request of the government. But on Monday, it rescinded that decision after outrage from the international academic community.

    It said the original move had only been a “temporary decision” pending discussion with academic leadership of the University of Cambridge and a scheduled meeting with the Chinese importer in Beijing.

    “Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based,” it said in a statement. “Therefore, while this temporary decision was taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’s journal articles, the University’s academic leadership and the Press have agreed to reinstate the blocked content, with immediate effect, so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the University’s work is founded.” –Washington Post, quoting CUP


    Comment: This reversal is good news, despite the Press’s “cover your arse” language about this being temporary. It wasn’t. It was appeasement and it would have lasted if there had not been counter-pressure.

    Second, ask yourself whether this decision ever could have been made if, as the press says, “Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based.”

    Of course, it couldn’t.

    Clearly, that principle was not enough to convince CUP to do the right thing in the first place.

    Only the blowback convinced them.

    I assume that lots of academics were planning to resign from working with CUP or its journals, and I assume that some people higher up in the university got wind of this atrocious decision by the Press.

    People should be fired over this. They simply do not belong at an academic press.


    Thank you to Prof. Vincent Wang for this valuable update.

  • Good news story: A preschooler who loves reading–and has read 1,000 books

    Four-year-old Daliyah Marie Arana loves reading, especially about dinosaurs and adventure.  She loves it so much she has not only completed Georgia’s “1,000 books B4 Kindergarten” Program, she’s completed the reading before she starts pre-school.  And she’s eager to do much more. (Story here in the Gainesville Times.)

    The Librarian of Congress was so touched by the story, which Daliyah’s parents had mailed in, that the family was invited to Washington to tour our nation’s greatest library, which named the Daliyah “Librarian for a Day.” (AP story.)

    Here she is reading a speech on “The Pleasure of Books,” by William Lyon Phelps (one of historic Yale’s most beloved professors, after whom the entrance to campus is named, “Phelps Gate.”)

    Books are of the people, by the people, for the people. Literature is the immortal part of history; it is the best and most enduring part of personality. –Wm. Lyon Phelps 


  • A wonderful, steaming bio of actress Mary Astor, reviewed with zest by Woody Allen

    Woody’s review in the New York Times is here, and it’s a pleasure to read, much like his early writing.

    I loved Mary Astor as the femme fatale, played against Humphrey Bogart, in The Maltese Falcon.

    She is also remembered for Meet Me in St. Louis.

    Off-screen, it turns out, she loved rollin’ and tumblin’, as the blues songs put it.

    And, while blues men wrote songs, Mary wrote a diary. Alas for Mary, her husband discovered it.

    Woody loves the book and recounts the main themes with characteristic humor.

    The link to the book at Amazon, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary by Edward Sorel, is here, if you want to read the juicy details of Hollywood scandals in the golden years.

  • Continuing our Guest Author Forum on Teaching Reading in High School: What Should Students Read? Are the Readings Getting Easier? Does It Matter?

    Guest Author: Robyn G.

    ZipDialog is pleased to continue its forum on how reading is taught in high school, featuring Guest Authors with diverse experiences and perspectives. It gives us a window not only on reading but on the world of today’s high school students.

    Today’s forum features Robyn G., an experienced Middle School teacher. She often works individually with students in a prosperous Chicago suburb with strong public schools. She keeps in touch with her students as they continue through high school so she has a good sense of how their middle school experiences affect those in high school.

    After Robyn’s comments, I include links to the two previous posts and brief quotes from them. Again, many thanks for making this such an interesting back-and-forth.

    Challenging Middle School Students in a Prosperous Chicago Suburb . . by Robyn G.

    Since Robyn refers to her school and suburb several times, we’ll call them “Evergreen Middle School” in “Lakewood.”

    I could go on and on about the topic of reading lists, especially as I have grappled with these issues with my colleagues for 18 years at Evergreen Middle School. Here are just a few thoughts on the comparative reading lists 1922/today.

    house-on-mango-streetOur students read The House on Mango Street in 7th grade. It is quite easy, straightforward reading, with the added element for our students that it takes place in Chicago. Even factoring in that students in Lakewood are most likely at higher reading levels overall than the average San Antonian, I was surprised to see it on a high school list. To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand is (filching from The Wizard of Oz) a horse of a different color. Although I see that it is listed at a 5.6 reading level, it is far richer in syntax than The House…., and many times more sophisticated. In fact, my concern in teaching it to 8th graders is that they may never go back to it when they are at an age to truly appreciate Harper Lee’s wicked sense of humor. Thus, I think it is more appropriate on a high school reading list.

    By the same token, I am saddened that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has disappeared from so many reading lists around the country (for obvious….so disheartening….reasons).huck-finn-book-cover

    A curious omission on either of the required reading lists is Shakespeare. We alternate between Macbeth and A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream towards the end of 8th grade each year. The students initially are invariably intimidated by the seemingly convoluted language. So (with the help of Folger’s modern ‘translations’ in the margins), we approach it scene by scene. As we begin to read aloud and assign roles, the students become more and more engaged. They work on their assigned scenes for a couple of weeks and then perform them in class, by this time with glee and a much greater sense of comprehension. Of course, again this being Lakewood, the unit culminates with a field trip to Chicago Shakespeare and their performances with culled dialogue geared to students. Even without these field trips, I am a big believer in offering this kind of challenging reading early on. The kids end up feeling a sense of accomplishment. They are introduced to universal themes and the poetic magic of the bard. When they return to visit from Lakewood High School or whatever high school they are attending, they tell us how ‘easy’ it was reading Romeo & Juliet or Julius Caesar. In my one-dog study (me), I believe that challenging students early on improves both their verbal and writing abilities, launching them more successfully into the high school and college years ahead.midsummer_nights_dream

    One final thought. Comparing a reading list from 1922 to one almost 100 years later is a bit like mixing apples with oranges. The English language is fluid and constantly evolving (as Vernon Shelton pointed out); thus, the writing style of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic The Last of the Mohicans may have been a tad more accessible to early twentieth century readers than it is to millennials. That said, the issues of race are as relevant today as when Cooper wrote in the early 19th century, so the book remains a classic. One of our social studies teachers effectively has his 7th grade students read excerpts from the novel, along with clips from the 1992 Daniel Day-Lewis movie remake, to illustrate the time of the French & Indian War in the mid-eighteenth century. The key is to always provide context and relevancy, allowing the students to relate and engage.


    Previous Posts

    ⇒ Post #1 featured an article by Annie Holmqueist comparing reading lists in the 1920s and today    .texas-reading-levels

    Discussing that article, ZipDialog stressed four points:

    1. Today’s reading lists are more culturally- and ethnically-diverse.
    2. The 1922 readings were substantially more difficult.
    3. Reading and writing comprehension in later grades are lower today than previously
    4. It is unclear what causal relation, if any, connects these easier readings and poorer results in writing and comprehension.


    ⇒ Post #2 featured three guest authors, a high school English teacher (Vernon Shelton), a speechwriter (Bob Lehrman), and an education researcher who works closely with schools in poor neighborhoods (Dorene Ross). Here’s a flavor of their perspectives.

    Vernon Shelton, high school English teacher:

    Putting classic literature in terms that contemporary students understand may add to the burden that a teacher must carry, but I think that the benefits are worth the trouble.  –Vernon Shelton

    Bob Lehrman, speechwriter:

    Michele Obama’s Democratic convention speech. . . . clocks in at a 7.3 grade level. Do I think her speechwriter, Sarah Horowitz, deprives listeners by not writing denser prose? No. What she did was allow millions of Americans — who average a 7th grade reading level — to understand what the First Lady said.  –Bob Lehrman

    Dorene Ross, teaching educator and researcher:

    In 1922 the national high school graduation rate was around 17%; in 2014 the national graduation rate was 81%…. Of all the factors that correlate with achievement, poverty (not culture or race or language) is the strongest correlate…. We have a lot of knowledge about what would impact achievement in schools (e.g. Smaller classes, high quality teachers in every classroom, psychological services for children and families, quality summer programs for poverty youth, high quality early childhood education, treatment for vision and asthma problems) and very little national will to do it.  –Dorene Ross


    zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-150px-w-margin♥ Hat’s Off to Robyn G., Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, and Dorene Ross for their contributions and to Annie Holmquist for the article that prompted this forum.

    Your comments are welcome here or on Facebook, where this Forum will also be posted.