Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | January 14, 2020

Book Review: Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych

I bought this book because I got a good deal at the Brooklyn Book Festival (2019)—three novellas by classic, “canonized” authors for $10, sold at the booth of the publisher, Melville Press of Brooklyn. I picked novellas by George Eliot (The Lifted Veil), Melville (Bartleby the Scrivener), and Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilych)].

The-Death-of-Ivan-Ilych1-235x274Tolstoy, especially, is a daunting author for me (think War and Peace), but a novella—defined as a short novel or long short story—seemed like a less daunting way to approach such an author. I did read Anna Karenina many years back. It’s a fascinating and intricate story, but I have always objected to the first sentence of that book: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I know from experience that isn’t really true.

What is The Death of Ivan Ilych all about? It’s basically the story of the rise and fall of an upper level Russian bureaucrat, a judge, who prospers in pre-Revolutionary Russia.  But the focus on the rise is short, and the focus on the gradual decline and deterioration towards death is long, drawn out, and frankly rather grim. It is a “serious” novella. A man comes to terms with his imminent death. There is very little joy. It is told from a third person narrator point of view, and I don’t think the identity of the narrator is ever revealed. It could just as well be a movie script, one of those “serious” films with little dialogue that wins an award for its cinematography or best adaptation of a novella.

Tolstoy himself was from aristocracy—his mother was a princess, and he was born with the title “Count,” back in the days when Russia was still a monarchy, a pre-industrial country ruled by czars. You would think this upbringing might explain this seeming sneer at bureaucrats like Ivan Ilych. However, the flyleaf of my edition of the book notes that Ivan Ilych was written …

… eight years after the publication of Anna Karenina—a time during which, despite the global success of his novels, Leo Tolstoy renounced fiction in favor of religious and philosophical tracts—The Death of Ivan Ilych represents perhaps the most keenly realized melding of Tolstoy’s spirituality with his artistic skills.

During the writing of this book, one of Tolstoy’s 13 children died, which may have heightened his focus on death. However, he increasingly became an ascetic, renouncing the church, private property, and “the demands of the flesh.” Imagine how his wife, mother of his 13 children, felt about this royalty-to-rags trajectory! As Mary Boyd writes in the New Yorker (2013), Tolstoy died “from pneumonia, aged eighty-two, at the railway station of Astapovo, a remote Russian village, on November 7, 1910. He had left his family home on October 28, in the middle of the night, walking out on his wife of forty-eight years—the long-suffering and increasingly paranoid Sonya. Grim, right?

That said, I’m glad I read this book, this novella. Before this, I was in awe of Tolstoy as a writer. Now, I’m still in awe of his writing, but I have a better picture of where he was coming from, and where he was going with this.




Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | January 12, 2019

Autobiography or Memoir?

I’ve been asked by several writers what the difference is between autobiography and memoir, and there’s plenty of advice out there on the web to help you discern the difference.  Writer’s Digest notes that “ puts them in the same category. But there’s a key difference that publishers use to define each—the timeline covered in the writing. An autobiography focuses on the chronology of the writer’s entire life while a memoir covers one specific aspect of the writer’s life.”

Ian Jack, writing for The Guardian, also notes that “The two words are often used interchangeably and the boundary between the two forms is fuzzy,” and that “The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be” and therefore, the writing better be good!

Rebecca Hussey, writing on BookRiot, makes some excellent distinctions between the two, but notes that both are first-person accounts of the writer’s life. However, she says that in autobiographies, the writer is usually someone famous or important, whereas a memoirist could be anybody. People read memoirs not because they want to found out about the famous or important person, but because “they are interested in a certain subject or story and are drawn to the writer’s style or voice.” Another big difference is that “autobiography places greater emphasis on facts and how the writer fits into the historical records, while memoir emphasizes personal experience and interiority.”

the double life of lilianeHaving read several books in this genre recently, I wanted to re-visit these definitions, as one of the books—The Double Life of Liliane, by Lily Tuck (Grove Atlantic, 2015) didn’t seem to fit into either category. As Kirkus Reviews puts it, in this book “A ton of factual information complements the fiction …”  It is a “family history in mosaic form. Metafiction that pleases and frustrates in equal measure.”

Indeed, as I plowed through the fascinating descriptions of all the illustrious people in Tuck’s family (imagined family?), as well as descriptions of her own very international life, I found myself frequently wondering if what I was reading was fact or fiction. And yet, it was a compelling story nonetheless, and I was especially taken by the last page in the narrative, when the author describes a class she took with the famous literary critic Paul de Man at Harvard, who told his students that writing autobiography requires “exchanging the writing ‘I’ for the written ‘I’ — and this implies that both persons are at least as different as they are the same.”  “In this way,” deMan said (or author Tuck attributes to him), “I consider autobiography as an act of self-restoration in which the author recovers the fragments of his or her life into a coherent narrative.”

However, another excellent book I read recently—Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance hillbilly elegy(HarperCollins, 2016) was unmistakably factual and from the heart, and most likely fits into the category of memoir because before this book, we had no idea who J.D. Vance was or why we would want to read his story. And yet, I’ve found myself encouraging everyone I know to read this book. If nothing else, it helps to explain (to me, at least), why a certain socio-economic class voted for our current president, and why many of those same people cannot seem to rise up out of the circumstances that keep them in poverty, social chaos, and even addiction.

Vance traces his life’s path, and his family’s history, from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to the manufacturing towns of Ohio where many former “hillbillies” migrated to find work and a better life. In reading Vance’s story, I was reminded of something I learned in a grad school literature class on “working class literacy”—not everyone believes in the American Dream.  Instead, in many working class communities, there are those who resent their friends, neighbors and family members who attempt to rise up and out of poverty and the stagnation of aspirations. And yet Vance manages to do just that, going on to college and then Yale Law School, with the help of many mentors, including his very colorfully portrayed grandparents.  Though Hillbilly Elegy leaves off just as Vance is achieving the American Dream, and has figured out that he doesn’t need to continue pursuing achievements, accomplishments, and accolades the rest of his life, subsequent news says that he has returned to Ohio to help with the jobs and drug crisis there.

Roxanne Gay’s book, Hunger (HarperCollins, 2017) is also clearly a memoir, even though hungershe had already become rather famous for her best-seller, Bad Feminist. Her book entitled Hunger, however, deals with only one main part of the author’s life—why she is so enormously overweight. She is in fact, as she puts herself, obese, and this is something that she is both embarrassed and defensive about. This book is evidently her effort to come to terms with her weight and the reasons for it. It is heart-rending to read the part of the story when she reveals that she was gang-raped by a group of boys as a young adolescent, one of them being a boy she considered to be her “boyfriend,” who set the whole thing up.  Her weight, at least initially, then became a wall she built to protect herself from anyone else looking at her in a sexual way.

While the writing itself was a bit too casual for me—sometimes I got the impression that she sat down and told herself that she would simply write at least a chapter a day, whether it was a paragraph long or many — at the same time, I also felt that she was almost working out the origins of her weight problem as I was reading about it.  In other words, it was another compelling read.

And that’s what a memoir should be!

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | November 7, 2018

“Little” Bookstores and Libraries

I ♥ “little” bookstores – independent bookstores, mom and pop bookstores, specialty subject bookstores, used book bookstores, you name it.  No offense, Barnes & Noble.  I hope and pray you manage to survive, and continue to provide millions of us with places to purchase gifts, browse books and magazines, and get a Starbucks coffee to sip while we peruse your books and magazines for free or just borrow your wifi to get some work done. So, no offense, but just like everyone who has ever watched the movie, You’ve Got Mail, I was, and still am, rooting for the Little (Book) Shop Around the Corner.

God knows I buy enough of my books from Amazon (if not so many from B&N) and I thank them for their place in the marketplace of books, in which they have made it so easy – and cheap! – to get my hands on a particular volume that I need quickly. Or just make an impulse buy.

However, when I read articles like this one from the Observer, reporting on statistics showing that (as we all knew would happen at some point), e-book popularity seems to have reached a plateau, and independent bookstores are thriving, I can’t help but send out a big cheer.  Go, indies!

I ♥ libraries too. They elicit fond childhood memories, to begin with, of my many hours spent in the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana. The public libraries that we have here on Long Island have also provided fodder for many fond adult memories. These libraries are not just repositories of books and magazines, books on tape and DVDs, but they are also community centers which provide book clubs and classes for kids (free!) and adults; they have art showings; they provide an auditorium for the Chamber of Commerce and other organizations to hold meetings. They occasionally sell off some of their collection, and will take donations of (some of) your old books. They are the type of place you are always running into people you know.

My favorite library, however, is the “Little Free Library” — little mini-libraries that look like dollhouses on poles,

where you can leave a book you’ve read for someone else to enjoy, or select a book left by someone else for your own reading. Leave a book, share a book.

The Free Little Libraries were the brainchild of Todd Bol who, in 2009, decided to pay homage to his schoolteacher mother, a lover of books. He built a miniature schoolhouse, filled it with his mother’s books and put it out for his neighbors in Hudson, Wisconsin, as a book exchange. Today, there are  over 75,000 Free Little Libraries. They are in all 50 states, and 88 countries.

Full disclosure: I have never actually seen a Free Little Library myself, or used one as a book exchange, but my daughter discovered one near her apartment in Brooklyn several years ago, and was delighted with it!  I’ve been intrigued ever since. However, in checking the Free Little Library web site, which tracks where these mini-libraries are located, I found that there are none at all here on Long Island.  So, maybe it’s up to me to start one!

The Free Little Library web site provides complete instructions to take you through the process of setting up a library in your community, including registering your site so people will know where it is, because it’s not just a matter of building a cute little house on a pole and filling it with books. There’s the matter of finding a well-trafficked public location and getting permission to locate the Little Library there – and it will likely involve making sure your proposal is zoning compliant! It takes a commitment of someone or some group to be the on-going caretaker of the Little Library.

So, I’m now exploring it as a way to share my love of books and reading, and spreading my love of literacy, and my love of little bookstores and little libraries. As their motto says: Give a book, share a book.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | August 26, 2018

Is it a book, or an essay?

Cartoon New Yorker 2018.Aug

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | August 22, 2018

How do I promote my book?

9780692090961_COVERMy good friend, Jon Bunn, finished his first novel The West Bluff last spring. We had been working on that manuscript for about a year, although Jon had a full manuscript of the book when we started working on it. And he had been working on his story for about five years before that! Writing the book is the hard part, I always tell the authors I work with. In comparison, my job of editing it and helping to whip it into shape, and then shepherding it through the self-publication process is easy.

I could tell you what a wonderful book it is, and how you will get hooked into the story and won’t be able to put it down till you’re finished. But other reviewers say it just as well — “The West Bluff grabs the reader from the beginning with plausible plot twists and realistic characters who live in harmony with the swamp lands. The author succeeds in describing poignantly the challenges that catastrophic events as well as the passage of time have on the life of the story’s central character. I lived in South Louisiana for many years and have now moved away. Jon Bunn brought me back! – Melva Haggar Dye, author of the novel, All That Remains.

Yes, the story is set on the West Texas / East Louisiana borders in Cajun country, but even a reader from Africa found the story compelling, as his (her?) review on Amazon reveals: “The West Bluff was captivating from the start. Being from Africa not having ever experienced anything the swamp life has to offer, the gripping storytelling put me right in the middle of it all. Although not being there, it felt like I was. At one point I could taste the gumbo and smell the rising tides. What a tough yet simple life they led, heartfelt from the beginning.”

It’s published!  Now what?

Now that Jon Bunn has a self-published book (distributed through IngramSpark), he is faced with the next-hardest part that all self-published authors face — getting the word out, letting the world know his book is available (through Amazon and Barnes&Noble online and Powells, in paperback and e-book formats), and of course getting people to buy it and read it!

There are actually many ways, and Jon is following up on many of them like a true pro, including scheduling a book talk and signing in the city that figures prominently in the book, Orange, Texas. Jon had postcards made to promote the book (by book designer, Dawn Daisley) and he hands these out everywhere he goes. He stopped by an independent bookstore recently in his hometown, Houston, and they are considering carrying it, and he’s been approaching various local newspapers to carry the news about the “local author publishes book!” And of course, he has let every friend he knows, or ever knew, that he wrote this book, published it, and it is now available!

We have also been looking into the many prize competitions available specifically for independently published books — e.g., Publishers Weekly’s Book Life Awards, Writers’ Digest’s Self-Published Book Awards, Independent Publisher’s IPPY Awards. This is a subject for a whole other post, but in the meantime, here is a very well-researched list, published on the Self web site.

Most libraries have an acquisition librarian who is the one who makes decisions about which books to include in their collections — this is a project that one of my previous authors, Eric Forsyth, will be pursuing this fall, as there are almost 60 local libraries in his county alone on Long Island.

Many local independent bookstores, even if they won’t outright buy your books to sell in their stores, have consignment programs — you give them a half-dozen of your books, and split any sales with them.

And you can never get enough people reviewing your book!  If your friends are buying your book, do what you can to get them to post a review on Amazon (or Barnes&Noble or Powells or wherever they bought it). Does your book has a particular slant that would appeal to certain readers? Jon’s The West Bluff is set in the bayous along the Texas-Louisiana Gulf of Mexico border and is chock full of the history of that locale in the Post WWII era.  Eric’s An Inexplicable Attraction: My Fifty Years of Ocean Sailing is, as the title indicates, about sailing the seven seas.  There are always magazines and online media companies that cater to the special interests suggested in the book, and they always need “content”! However, if you approach these companies about reviewing your book, be sure to provide other reviews and materials for them to excerpt from.  Don’t forget — writing is hard, and you want to make their job easy for them!

People purchase books based on referrals from friends, and from the reviews they read online and in newspapers and magazines. In fact, literary agents and movie producers looking for new properties also read the reviews and follow the book awards winners and runners-up to see what’s new out there.

The key is to try many avenues, and to keep trying.  Jon likens it to fishing (a sport he is particularly fond of) — you have to have your hook in the water, or you aren’t even going to get a nibble, much less catch the big fish.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | January 25, 2018

Everyone has a story to tell …

Cover for Eric's book_Page_1I firmly believe that everyone has at least one major story to tell.  And some people have many stories to tell.  The last author I worked with, Eric Forsyth, compiled his stories of the many ocean voyages he’s taken over the last fifty years, into one large volume, An Inexplicable Attraction: My Fifty Years of Ocean Sailing, complete with photos, tables, and hand-drawn charts.  Many of the stories were posted on his web site, YachtFiona, over the years, but Eric finally decided to put them all together to try to explain WHY he makes these arduous trips, sailing to the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Northwest Passage, the North Sea, around all the big capes, through the big canals. By the end of the book, you will understand what the attraction is for someone like Eric, though even then, as he admits via the title, the attraction is still somewhat inexplicable.

Though I’m not a long-distance sailor myself, Eric’s descriptions, from a sailor’s perspective, of the places he visited around the globe — many of them obscure out-of-the-way ports — provide excellent armchair travel reading.  And as many times as I read through this book in the editing process, I still found myself riveted every time I came to  the chapter about his last attempt to sail around Antarctica. Spoiler alert: It was not only a failed attempt, but came close to being Eric’s last voyage ever, anywhere. Gulp!

Though in one sense, Eric’s book is like a series of short stories, as a collection they represent a cohesive narrative, beginning with how it all began — his passion for sailing the seven seas — and how he came to be the captain of his sturdy cutter, Fiona. For anyone who has had ocean cruising experience — and for those who have only dreamed of doing this type of sailing — this book is a must-read. And as far as I’m concerned An Inexplicable Attraction should become part of the canon of books that recount ocean sailing adventures.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | June 2, 2015

Survey in Progress!

WOMEN ONLY!  Because this survey is about HAIR, etc.

PhotosHave you ever noticed that you can’t get two women together without them eventually talking about their hair?  The color, their new cut, how it’s growing out, how they just can’t do anything with it.  Or is it just me?

I’d like to find out what you think about your HAIR – what’s the thing you like most or least about it?  When you talk about your hair to other women, what do you always wind up talking about? What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done with your hair?  Is there a famous person whose hairstyle you wish you had?

Please take our survey now by clicking here:

I’ll publish stories about the results later this summer.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | May 5, 2015

A fascination with ranking and measuring

IMG_2006 - CopyMy grand-daughter, Molly, now almost 5 years old, has recently become fascinated with being “First’ — first in line when her pre-school class is headed to the restroom, first in the door when we walk home from school, first to get her snack when we get there. We have no idea why, when, or how she even learned about the idea of being First, though the concept did seem to emerge just since she started pre-school. Why is she suddenly so focused on this type of measurement?  Of being ranked?

There must be something innate in human beings that makes us want to measure and compare. But sometimes, I think top-ten-headerour culture is list-mad. Yes, David Letterman’s nightly “Top 10” lists are nothing but fun. (We’re going to miss you and your lists, Dave!) But we devour rankings like candy, like junk food, like heroin. They’re addictive! Type “Top 10 …” into your search engine, and you will find everything from the top movies, books, videos and songs, to the “best” cities to live in, to retire in, to raise your kids in, to be an engineer in. You will find rankings of sports teams and athletes, web sites and world economies. Many lists rank by popularity or sales. Others rank by longevity or size. Any factor — or groups of factors – can be used to develop a ranking system.

The annual unveiling of the U.S. News & World Report’s Education Rankings, which has morphed since 1983 from just rankings colleges in general, to include hundreds of rankings of educational institutions — and not just graduate schools (law schools, business schools), but any kinds of schools (charter schools, magnet schools, religious schools, private schools). They also now have dozens of other categories of rankings (health, money, travel, cars), within which there are other categories (doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, health plans), all leading to rankings within rankings within rankings. Obviously, publishing rankings has been paying the bills at U.S. News & World Report.

2003.AmLaw 100-aWhen I first started working at The American Lawyer, I noticed that most of the editors and reporters absolutely hated having to compile and report on the magazine’s annual Am Law 200, the  “Fortune 500“-like list of the biggest and richest of firms in the U.S. Part of the problem was purely technical — in 1997-1998, they were just figuring out how to use a spreadsheet to capture and organize the information from this reporter-driven survey, which included a firm’s gross revenue, net operating income, profits per partner, revenue per lawyer, and numbers of equity partners, non-equity partners, and lawyers overall.

But many of the reporters had gone to Columbia Journalism School, or had worked their way up to join the staff of the prestigious American Lawyer by reporting on one of the company’s many local or regional newspapers (Legal Times in Washington, DC; Legal Intelligencer in Philadelphia; Daily Business Review in Miami; Fulton County Daily Report in Atlanta; Texas Lawyer; New Jersey Law Journal; and Connecticut Law Tribune.)  Many of these reporters had also gone to law school.

Brills THE TEAMSTERSTheir hero was the founder of The American Lawyer, Steven Brill, who had first made a name for himself by writing an expose of the Teamsters, and who also started Court TV just as the O.J. Simpson trial was becoming a national obsession.  Reporters at The American Lawyer were very keen to get “The Story,” to expose some wrong-doing within the ranks of American lawyers and American law firms. They wanted to be investigative reporters, like Brill. They didn’t want to have to report on no stinkin’ rankings!

The problem was that the readers were fascinated with the rankings that The American Lawyer cranked out every year.  And though the reporters hated having to write about these survey results, even they had to admit that, despite the magazine’s many journalism awards for its exemplary writing, the monthly issues that included survey results were the most widely read, and sold the most advertising.

As I was coming on board in the late 1990s, as Special Projects and then Research Editor, Elvis was leaving the building. Brill sold Court TV, and then shortly after that, he sold the print division, which included not only The American Lawyer, but several other publications and a budding book division. And then, under new management then the surveys began to multiply. Before long, the Am Law 100 became the Am Law 200, the associates surveys went from a dozen questions to 75, and new surveys were added — surveys of the technologies used in law firms, of the “diversity” of each firm, of the partners, of the law librarians, of the CMOs. The lateral moves of partners were tracked. Pro bono activities were itemized. Involvement in deals and suits were quantified.

e-As the millennium approached, the reorganized company, ALM Media, was entering the Information Age. Reporters still chaffed a bit at having to report on the latest survey results rather than the latest law firm scandal, but with the ascendancy of the practice of adding “e-” to every other word in the English language (e-business, e-commerce, e-courts, e-discovery, e-publishing) came the corresponding shrinking of the world of print journalism. Reporters — and editors — were glad to have jobs.

And gradually, data / numbers / information became an even more profitable business for the company. They started a new Legal Intelligence division, completely separate from the journalism side of the company, and sold the rankings in spreadsheet format. Law firms, corporate legal departments, and legal consultants and vendors purchased subscriptions to all the data that was compiled, and continues to be compiled, in a central password-protected database.

People can’t seem to get enough data. We are fascinated with the numbers. Especially when they are used to measure US versus all the rest of THEM out there. And especially when WE come out on top.

No use rebelling against these rankings no matter how frivolous or odd (e.g. Top 10 Modern Encounters with Mythological Creatures; Top 10 Weird Times that Animals Got a Taste for Human). They are here to stay. A fascination with ranking and measuring seems to be built into our chromosome structure.

1stAnd for my grand-daughter Molly, she will always be Number One in two areas: Firstborn, and first grandchild. No one can ever take that ranking away from her.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | April 1, 2015

The universe is made of atoms AND stories

I was in the middle of my grad school career and, although I was an English major with a focus in Composition & Rhetoric, I became involved in a research project that required a lot of information management. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Excel, much less databases, and so my co-researcher — Nick, a fellow grad student — and I compiled and analyzed our data by sorting piles and piles of responses (hard copies of questionnaires), and tallying results with a calculator. OMG.

AristotleAnd yet I was hooked. We had started with a fairly straightforward query. Rhetoric, the field we were studying, is basically about the effectiveness of communication between a speaker and his or her audience. We had been studying everyone from Aristotle and Plato to Kenneth Burke and Foucault. So, Nick and I decided, as a research project, we would look at a problem of rhetoric in a most simple and immediate forum.

We decided to examine the “rhetoric of grading.” In other words, when a teacher gives a student a grade of A, B, C, D or F, what is the meaning of that grade to that student? What was the teacher’s intention in assigning that grade? It was a case in which the rhetoric – the text – shared between the “speaker” (teacher) and “audience” (student) could be stripped down to one letter of the alphabet: A, B, C, D or F. What did that letter mean to the teacher? To the student?

We devised a questionnaire and enlisted about a dozen writing teachers and their students to participate in our survey. All, of course, were guaranteed anonymity. We got a ton of responses and were faced with a pile of work. Multiple choice, true/false, and Likert scale (“On a scale of 1 to 5 …”) questions result in data that’s easy enough to compile, crunch, and analyze, even without Survey Gizmo or Excel. But we were naïve and unseasoned and curious (and stupid) enough to ask a lot of open-ended questions, which of course resulted in people writing their thoughts in their own words. There was a lot of it was interesting anecdotes and opinions on the individual response level. But what did all these words mean, ultimately? Were there trends? Commonalities in their responses?

We examined this data from many different perspectives. We manually counted the frequency that certain words popped up in open-ended questions. We sorted through the questionnaires again and again. It became almost an obsession to try to get to the heart of these words, to understand the meaning of all this rhetoric, to try to categorize all those words, to find trends that pointed to a clear message to emerge from all these questionnaires.

MTA bus - 2It was about this time I happened to be riding a crosstown bus in NYC, heading home, our survey on the “rhetoric of grading” and our need to come to some conclusions weighing on my mind.

I looked around the slow-traveling bus at my fellow passengers, at the street scenes outside, and then scanned the advertising and public notice placards that formed a border of text and illustrations along the ceiling of the bus. One caught my eye — one of the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” posts. It was just a few lines from a poem, The Speed of Darkness, by Muriel Rukeyser. Those lines practically shouted at me:

Time comes into it.
Say it.        Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.
I felt rebuked, enlightened, and amused. Nick and I had focused so much up to this point in our research project on the small atoms of rhetoric delivered to us in that survey by students and teachers responding to questions about grades given and received, trying to classify and categorize and count and calculate the trends. But the time had come for us to step back and see the big picture, to understand the story that teachers and students were trying to tell in their responses.
We did, indeed, make sense of it all. Our most significant finding was that the meaning of the grade of “C” was pretty darn ambiguous, with the writing teachers, overall, claiming it meant one thing, but student writers describing it quite differently. Students also seemed to interpret the relationship of their efforts to their grade a bit differently than their teachers, especially as it figured in to the highest and lowest grades, A’s and F’s. The mechanics of the English language (grammar, punctuation, sentence and paragraph structure and so on) seemed to figure prominently in a teacher’s mind in delineating the difference between an A and a B, while a very large percentage of students firmly believed that some people are just naturally – genetically – good writers.
Theory & Practice of Grading WritingOur paper about the research project and our findings, “Grading as a Rhetorical Construct,” was published in an anthology, The Theory and Practice of Grading (SUNY Press, 1998), and is still available through
These days, when I’m in the middle of a research project, neck deep in data, trying to make sense of it all, those lines from that Poetry in Motion poem still come back to me:  “Say it! Say it!”
But I’ve revised the lines just slightly from the original “the universe is made of atoms not stories.” It’s pretty obvious that it’s made of both.
Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | March 1, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Saga: Is he the Norwegian Larry David?

There’s not a lot of us Norwegian-Americans, so when we see one of “our own” getting so much publicity in the U.S. press, especially for their writing, it’s hard to ignore. Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian writer, has been all over the book news for now because of his on-going memoirs entitled My Struggle. He’s on Part 6 or 7 now, I think, though only the first five volumes have been translated into English so far.  I haven’t read any of them yet. Well, I tried to — I checked Volume 1 out of the library, but then I lost it and had to purchase it.  I just rediscovered it the other day, tucked away in a corner of the living room in an unexpected hiding place where I had put it, in an attempt to establish some semblance of domestic order when friends came to visit last summer.

01cover-superJumbo-v5But now, thanks to the New York Times Sunday Magazine (3.1.15), I was able to read enough of Knausgaard’s prose to get a feeling for his style, for his voice, for the things that capture his attention while trying to follow the Viking trail through North America, on assignment for the New York Times. And despite the angst-filled, James Dean-like visage that appears on the magazine’s cover, I came away convinced that Karl Knausgaard is kind of like the Larry David of Norway, always curbing his enthusiasm. A never-ending patter of self-reflective discourse.

In his very long, long essay — which, by the way, doesn’t get him any farther west than Detroit (that is for Part 2, I assume) — Knausgaard manages to cover many personal facts and personal foibles. His whole essay seems to be more a recounting of his personal experiences than anything else. It’s much more introspection than observation. In fact, Katy Waldman of Slate, wrote a blog with the headline “Karl Ove Knausgaard is the World’s Worst Travel Writer,” in regard to the NYT Sunday magazine piece. “He appears flummoxed by everything that happens outside of his own brain,” Waldman writes. “Other people, unfamiliar spaces, complicated airports—he faces them all with equal bafflement.” She concludes: “Our great crumb-gatherer of small, subjective consciousness is too deep inside his own head to look around.”

Ouch!  A little harsh, I thought. Maybe I’m overly-sensitive because Norwegian blood courses through my veins. I feel as if Karl Ove and I might be distant cousins. OK, I’m only half Norwegian-American, but still, my father’s grandfather arrived sometime after the Civil War when land was, in fact, free for the homesteading. And like many of his countrymen, he headed for the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains, the part of the U.S. that Karl Ove Knausgaard was headed for as part of his assignment from the New York Times.

51jLlF0aN6L__AA160_Knausgaard was told by his editor to write about his travels in the manner of a “tongue-in-cheek de Toqueville.” I think he’s doing a good job of it, if you can close your eyes and shut out the rebel without a cause hipster, scatter-brained artiste image (the photographer plays a key role in this essay). If you shut out those images and listen to the voice of the writer, I swear you can hear Larry David, obsessively analyzing everything seen, felt, said, smelled, experienced, albeit in a very self-reflective way. Knausgaard obsesses about his lost driver’s license, his dislike of having to use telephones, his preference to travel by himself and not with the photographer, his poop clogging the motel toilet. The places he travels through and what he sees are both forlorn and mundane — a Viking outpost in Newfoundland where he is the only visitor; row after row of identical row houses in Cleveland; the nearly abandoned residential areas of Detroit, a bowling alley, a seedy motel, all in the middle of the winter. All that “Lake effect.” But he also reflects quite frequently upon literature that he is reminded of in his travels, and shares some of his own family’s story about emigrating to America.  

I don’t know if I can make it through six or seven volumes of that voice, obsessively self-reflecting on every detail external and internal, but I’ll at least attempt to read the volume I had to purchase from the library when I thought I had irretrievably lost it. And I am very much looking forward to reading Part 2 of Karl Ove’s “My Saga” in the March 15 issue of the Sunday NYT magazine.

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