Saturday, June 30, 2012

What Should Kester Read? July Edition

What Should Kester Read?
  • A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley
  • The Porcine Canticles by David Lee
  • The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death by Daniel Pinkwater
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
  • Stoner by John Williams
What else is Kester reading?
  • The Daily Bible: NIV Version (daily devotional)
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Required Reading Revisited book club)
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (New and Noteworthy book club)

Sunday, June 24, 2012


What Kester's reading
  • The Daily Bible: NIV Version (daily devotional)
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Required Reading Revisited book club)

Saturday, June 23, 2012


    Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille; about the grandfather who died with hundreds of other passengers aboard a train that slipped into a lake; about the mother, Helen, who drove her car into that same lake and drowned; about the grandmother who cared for them until she also died; about the befuddled great-aunts who stepped in for a brief time; about Helen's eccentric sister, Sylvie, who eventually takes charge of the girls. 
    Housekeeping is referenced throughout Housekeeping, both directly and indirectly, literally and figuratively. Robinson has said that her debut novel was initially nothing more than a series of metaphors that she had written. It was only after she gathered them together that she recognized some cohesion that developed into characters and plot. That plot is simple, the characters complex, and the metaphor hold up and is never heavy-handed. 
    This is a story about "home is where the heart is" and "getting your house in order" and "this world is not my home." This is a story about  the ways in which we make ourselves at home; the things said and done and stored up and collected and cast away and destroyed. This is a novel about those who cannot seem to make themselves at home or do not wish to. This is a novel about connections made and broken; about love and loss and loneliness.
    There is a passage towards the end of Robinson's novel that is less a concise summation of the plot so much as a clear expression of the theme. It is, perhaps, my favorite passage in a book full of stunning passages. It reads:
    Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job's children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory... 

Monday, June 18, 2012


What Should Kester Read?
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
What else is Kester reading?
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • The Daily Bible: NIV Version (daily devotional)
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Required Reading Revisited book club)
  • Redshirts by John Scalzi
  • A Stranger In Olondria by Sofia Samatar


    Long before people referred to everything from a Taco Bell taco salad to the latest Katy Perry song as "epic" there were certain creations actually worthy of that description. Great works of art, masterfully crafted symphonies, challenging pieces of literature. Don DeLillo's Underworld can be rightfully described as epic.
    It's size alone is daunting. Weighing in at around five pounds (give or take) and at nearly 1000 pages, Underworld is a lot to take on. It's subject is equally grand, the latter half of the 20th century in the United States of America. This is "great American novel" kinds of stuff. It begins with baseball (and how American is that) and then expands itself from the 50s into the 90s, but in reverse; constantly looking back to yesteryear. The approach itself is just one more way that DeLillo brilliantly addresses the very 20th century American themes of nostalgia and regret.
    Nick Shay is our protagonist (of a sort) and his wife and brother and mother and lover all have their roles to play. But so do Frank Sinatra and Lenny Bruce and Jackie Gleason. So do the Dodgers and the Giants. So does the city of New York. This is about actors and artists and aspirations, it's about heartache and fallen heroes. It's about the Cold War and the American family. And it's about trash. Literal trash (Shay works in waste management) and trash as metaphor for all the waste that can pile up in our lives and all the wasted time and effort we can spend on acquiring it. This book is about so much, that it's a wonder that DeLillo could fit it all in. It is sweeping in its scope; a grand vision. It is one amazing piece of work.
    So, why (according to Goodreads) would I only give this book 4 stars instead of 5? Because this is also a long and rambling read. Make no mistake, it is intentionally done; DeLillo accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do. But that doesn't mean it doesn't bog down a bit. I've read big books before; Wallace's Infinite Jest and Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov are among my favorites. But those books have a lot to say about a few things and a specific set of people, and so they draw me in with the details. DeLillo does that (most of the time) as well, but he also wants to talk about everything and in his attempt to leave nothing out, he occasionally makes you wish he had. In order to communicate the sheer mass of all their is, DeLillo often seems as if he's attempting to bury his readers in it. It can be a bit overwhelming.
    But, for the most part, this was well worth the work. DeLillo is a master at cutting to the heart of the American psyche and psychosis and much of his best work can be found in this book. When you have the time, I highly recommend spending it on this book. It will certainly not be time wasted.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


    Danny Dragonbreath is, you guessed it, a dragon. Not a komodo dragon like Big Eddy, the bully. He's a real dragon, like the stuff of legends. But real dragons breathe fire. And Danny hasn't quite mastered that. In fact, Danny is a kid who has quite a bit left to master. His at the last minute written report on the ocean received a grade of F and his potato salad tried to stab him with a fork. If it weren't for the encouragement of his parents and best friend, Wendell (an iguana), he might just give up hope.
    Written as half comic strip and half straight prose, Dragonbreath is a funny enough little story, though that's about as much as I can say for it. The comic strip bits are sort of like a less funny Calvin & Hobbes and the undersea adventure that ends up being most of the story (Danny goes to visit his cousin Edward, a sea monster, when he's ordered to rewrite his report on the ocean) is like an educational episode of SpongeBob Squarepants.
    Harrison preferred the comic book parts of the book, as did I. The written parts feel like they were written by someone Harrison's age and not just for someone Harrison's age. Ursula Vernon would be better off writing a straight up Dragonbreath comic book or even comic strip. In fact, the jokes and storyline read very much like a weekly comic strip.
    Harrison's favorite character was the fun-loving and goofy Danny, while I thought the cautious and nerdy sidekick, Wendell, to be more interesting. Unfortunately, there's not enough done with either character, and the story has less plot development than most picture books. Still, it's a harmless bit of fun and an easy read for kids looking for something light. And a living potato salad is kind of funny, though not as funny as when Calvin makes his oatmeal into a monster. 
    Dragonbreath is the first in a series and a good way for early readers to get engaged with reading. Harrison thought it was kind of funny and finished it in about half an hour. I thought it was less funny and finished it in about 10 minutes. So, for the amount of effort it takes, the payoff is acceptable. Still, you get what you pay for. This one didn't cost us much in the way if effort and didn't get us much in the way of enjoyment. Neither Harrison nor I are particularly interested in reading further in this series ("Are you sure? I might want to read further in the series." says Harrison, looking over my shoulder as I write), but both of us "liked it pretty much" as Harrison says. If "liked it pretty much" seems like a less than thrilling endorsement, you're getting the picture. Your kid will like it, but probably not love it. They certainly won't remember it fondly years from now. But then, not every book needs to be that kind of memorable. Some books are just there to be enjoyed in the moment and then we move on to what's next. In this case, what's next is probably Shakespeare's Secret, a book Harrison and I are both enjoying far more.

What's Harrison (and Kester) Reading?: Harrison's Summer Reading Selections

What's Harrison reading?
  • The Bible
  • The Chronicles of Prydain, Book One: The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
  • Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon
  • Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach
  • The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, June 11, 2012


What Should Kester Read?
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo
What else is Kester reading?
  • The Daily Bible: NIV Version (daily devotional)
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Required Reading Revisited book club)
  • Redshirts by John Scalzi

Wittgenstein's Mistress

    Rene Descartes famously wrote cogito ergo sum; translated "I think, therefore I am."
    I often don't know what I think until I've written it down or said it aloud.
    A wise old professor of mine once told us young bucks that "you don't have to say everything you think."
    I'm often driven half crazy by the fact that it seems like everyone feels the need to write down every thought they have and post it online. Because you don't have to (and often shouldn't) say everything you think.
    But we often don't know what we think until we've written it down or said it aloud.
    Which means we don't know who we are.

    Kate isn't sure who she is and we aren't so sure either. She may be the last person left on earth. She may be crazy. She may be both. So she's writing notes and leaving them around. "In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street." So begins David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, Kate's message to us/herself/nobody; her working out of what she's thinking and who she is. Wary as I normally am of experimental fiction, it would quickly become my favorite genre if it were always this good. In the hands of a Jonathan Safran Foer, this would have been nothing more than adorable ramblings packaged as deep. In the hands of a master craftsman like Markson, it is philosophy of mathematics/the mind/language wrapped up deceptively as adorable ramblings.

    Part of me wishes I had read this entire book is one sitting. Part of me is glad that I only took it 2 and 3 pages at a time. All of me knows that this won't be my last interaction with Markson's book. It helps me understand what I'm thinking. It helps me understand who I am.

The City In Which I Love You

    For whatever reason, I find it next to impossible to review poetry. I know what I like, but find that my best case I can make for liking it is simply reading it aloud to others. I liked Li-Young Lee's The City In Which I Love You a lot. And the best case I can make for it is this:
    Choose a quiet
    place, a ruins, a house no more
    a house,
    under whose stone archway I stood
    one day to duck the rain.

    The roofless floor, vertical
    studs, eight wood columns
    supporting nothing,
    two staircases careening to nowhere, all
    make it seem

    a sketch, notes to a house, a three-
    dimensional grid negotiating
    an idea
    receding into indefinite rain,

    or else that idea
    emerging, skeletal
    against the hammered sky, a
    human thing, scoured, seen clean
    through from here to an iron heaven.

    A place where things
    were said and done,
    there you can remember
    what you need to
    remember. Melancholy is useful. Bring yours.

    There are no neighbors to wonder
    who you are,
    what you might be doing
    walking there,
    stopping now and then

    to touch a crumbling brick
    or stand in a doorway
    framed by the day.
    No one has to know you
    think of another doorway

    that framed the rain or news of war
    depending on which way you faced.
    You think of sea-roads and earth-roads
    you traveled once, and always
    in the same direction: away.

    You think
    of a woman, a favorite
    dress, your father's old breasts
    the last time you saw him, his breath,
    brief, the leaf

    you've torn from a vine and which you hold now
    to your cheek like a train ticket
    or a piece of cloth, a little hand or blade-
    it all depends
    on the course of your memory.

    It's a place
    for those who own no place
    to correspond to ruins in the soul.
    It's mine.
    It's all yours.

The Oresteia

    For the first time since What Should Kester Read? first started, I have been assigned a collection of plays (and of poetry, but that's another blog post). The collection of plays; Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides is, in fact, a trilogy of Greek tragedies known as The Oresteia. Written by the deeply religious thinker Aeschylus, the story focuses on the House of Atreus and the curse upon it. 
    It seems almost silly for me to refer to such a classic work as brilliant, but brilliant is what it is. It was once written (though, Google be damned, I cannot seem to find the source) that "justice without mercy is tyranny and mercy without justice is sentimentality." The Oresteia addresses these themes of justice and mercy with great thoughtfulness and care. In brief, the story goes that Agamemnon sacrifices he and his wife, Clytemnestra's, daughter, Iphigenia to the gods. Upon his return from Troy, Clytemnestra takes revenge upon Agamemnon and kills him and his concubine, Cassandra. Agamemnon and Clyemnestra's son, Orestes, then kills Clyemnestra, seeking justice for the death of his father. Clyemnestra's ghost then urges the Furies to torment Orestes, who seeks refuge from Apollo and then Athena.
    What makes the play so compelling is the delicate balance it strikes between the themes of justice and mercy. Each of these killings is, in some sense, justified, and yet each killing leads only to more killing. And so, Orestes ultimately appeals for mercy. And, in light of where all these justice killings have gotten us, mercy seems the prudent response.
    What follows then is a warning from the Furies of what will be wrought upon mankind should justice be too quickly dismissed. Without a healthy fear and awe for justice, there will be more killing, but of an increased senselessness.
    In the end, the play is a reminder that justice and mercy must act within and alongside one another; that too err to firmly on one side is to, in fact, undermine both sides. 

Joan Didion

    While usually I am assigned five books for any given month's What Should Kester Read?, this month I was assigned four books and then one author whose work I was free to choose from. That author was Joan Didion. Having never read Didion, I opted for non-fiction and eventually narrowed my choices down to The White Album or The Year of Magical Thinking. Unable to choose between the two, I decided that I would begin both and then finish one. In the end, I finished both. And so, this review is of both books and their one author.
    First of all, based upon these two books alone, I would count myself a fan of Joan Didion's work. Didion is critical in the classic sense of reporting; offering an involved analysis of a subject and not in the new news sense of simply naysaying louder than the competition. Whether she is focused on politics or religion or the more personal story of the loss of her husband, her eye is keen and her insights are sharp. The White Album is neither an apologetic for the 1960s nor a condemnation, it is an honest look and the ups and downs and ins and outs of a turbulent and conflicted decade. The Year of Magical Thinking isn't simply heartfelt, but also heady; approaching the topic of death and loss as both reporter and subject. Her willingness to place herself within her assigned essays of The White Album never undermine her work as subjective reporting often can. When she takes on her own loss as the reporter she is, it is never so objective as to leave the reader cold. The stories Didion tells, in either case, are enhanced and deepened by her being part of them and yet also by her ability to stand outside of them. It's a fine line to walk for any writer and Didion handles it deftly. She is a gifted writer, to be sure, and I would be curious to get her take on almost any topic. I am certainly excited to begin reading more.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


What Should Kester Read?
  • The City In Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo
  • Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson
What else is Kester reading?
  • The Daily Bible: NIV Version (daily devotional)
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Required Reading Revisited book club)

Monday, June 4, 2012


What Should Kester Read?
  • Averno by Louise Gluck
  • The City In Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee
  • The Oresteia by Aeschylus
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo
  • Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
What else is Kester reading?
  • The Daily Bible: NIV Version (daily devotional)
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Required Reading Revisited book club)