Content Tagged ‘Lanie Tankard’

What has gone missing?

May 25, 2016 | 14 Comments

Booking passage out

March 9, 2016 | 8 Comments

Between the World and Me has reaped a lot of well-deserved attention since it came out last year. It’s a heartfelt letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son, Samori. Toward the end of this slim volume, Coates poses a question to the world at large: “Is that what we wish civilization to be?”

In the 130 pages leading up to this beseeching question, Coates points out the barriers Samori will encounter because of his skin’s darker color. He attempts to define racism in various ways—personal experience, observation, examples from the news, the linguistics behind “naming,” and memories.

Throughout, Coates uses lines drawn from two black writers as a refrain. They become staccato drumbeats to hammer home his leitmotif. The watchwords act as Velcro to which observations adhere, thus pulling disparate impressions together into a distinct thought. The first phrase emanates from a poem by Richard Wright (“Between the World and Me,” found in White Man Listen!). The second is from a letter by James Baldwin to his nephew (“because they think they are white,” found in The Fire Next Time).

In his acceptance speech for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Coates explained the motivation for his manuscript. He began writing it when his friend Prince Jones “was killed because he was mistaken for a criminal” by a police officer due to the “presumption that black people somehow have a predisposition to criminality.” When Prince Jones died, Coates noted, “there were no cameras.” He went on to say: “I’m a black man in America….I can’t secure the safety of my son. What I do have the power to do is to say you won’t enroll me in this lie, you won’t make me part of it. That was what we did with Between the World and Me.”

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The complexity of purity

February 4, 2016 | 11 Comments

The question is not whether to read Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity if you haven’t by now. Rather, the question is when. This latest novel from one of America’s finest writers appeared September 1, 2015. Now we’re at the midpoint between last fall’s published hardback and this fall’s anticipated paper, which won’t come out until September 6. And that creates a small dilemma—which version to select? Grab what’s available now and delve right in? Or hold back another six months and snag the US trade paperback edition with a yet-to-be-revealed mystery cover?

Franzen’s an artist who mixes an era’s most salient ideas on his palette to paint the spirit of the times in the novels on his easel. In contrast to his earlier novel, Freedom, he’s opened himself up in far more personal and vulnerable ways, which is rare for a writer.

With certain characters, Franzen creates a fictional pastiche of actual people. The tension buildup in several sections made my heart race. His timing is impeccable. I noticed I was holding my breath as I read lines such as “Everyone thinks they have strict limits…until they cross them.” Franzen subtly primes his canvas with a layer of deep questions as if he were applying gesso, building it up in a leisurely manner with wit and wisdom combined. Readers hardly realize the plotline they’re following is tossing out reflections: Is madness inherited? Can we be sure there’s not a god? They anchor the surrounding action.

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A Mexican bard

January 6, 2016 | 8 Comments

Mexico’s acclaimed writer Daniel Sada, who died in 2011, wrote nine novels in Spanish. One Out of Two is the second to be translated to English, both by Katherine Silver. William Shakespeare would have applauded this story, which can be viewed as a marvelous mashup of two plays: The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado About Nothing.

The Gamal sisters, twin seamstresses, enjoy confusing people about their identities. Their small world in Ocampo, Chihuahua (Mexico), is upended one day when a suitor named Oscar Segura enters the picture—but exactly which sister is he courting, Gloria or Constitución? Using this mixed-up charade as a springboard, Sada spins a yarn that weaves in zingers about love, lust, sex, identity, profession, gender roles, weddings, marriages, funerals, ancestors, truth, deception, forgetting, and the passage of time. Ingenious metaphors explore broader themes: individualism, collectivism, symbiosis, codes of honor, and values. The storyteller’s clear distinctive voice spinning this comical tale is compelling. One can practically visualize the narrator’s arms waving dramatically, eyes rolling in exasperation and widening in anticipation, while the plot advances.

One method Sada used involves unique punctuation such as repeated colons—often two, three, or four in the same sentence—to give the narrator’s delivery an attitude. Sada also applied quite liberally the one-em dash for emphasis and ellipses for pauses. Toying with these marks allows a skilled author to develop an almost audible speech pattern by pushing readers to hear words on the page differently. In a similar vein, Norwegian writer Per Petterson totally shunned question marks in his recent novel I Refuse (reviewed), constructing a particular voice that slowly ratcheted up the tension, impelling readers to listen.

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Guides to craft & style

September 23, 2015 | 2 Comments

Autumn is a good time to put pen to paper, when one season restructures itself into another. Several respected writing guides have also emerged in altered forms this month. What both have in common is a recognized concept, outlined so clearly by Truman Capote in the quote above: Learn the rules before you break them.

The most well-known rules have been found in Strunk & White’s classic, The Elements of Style. The fourth edition came out in 1999. Maira Kalman also illustrated a lovely version.

Ursula K. Le Guin and Steven Pinker compose words at far ends of the spectrum in their individual work, but both do it extremely well. In their guides discussed here, they each refer to Strunk & White. Le Guin says it’s the grammar manual she uses, calling it “honest, clear, funny, and useful,” but notes “an opposition movement” has arisen due to Strunk & White’s “implacable” views. Pinker claims a sense of “unease” and “discomfort” with such “immortal” rules that won’t bend, while acknowledging that much of Strunk & White is “as timeless as it is charming.”

The new second edition of Le Guin’s Steering the Craft embodies Strunk & White’s well-known maxim of omitting needless words. She completes this voyage in approximately 150 pages, trimming at least thirty from the first edition while shrinking the page size as well. It’s lighter, too, by seven ounces, and also available for Kindles.

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Tiny libraries

May 6, 2015 | 6 Comments

Margret Aldrich loves books, and she loves to share them—so much so that she wrote a book about it: The Little Free Library Book: Take a Book, Return a Book. This volume tells the inspiring tale of a growing movement to unite people through the sharing of books in neighborhoods. The motto: “Always a gift. Never for Sale.”

The Little Free Library (LFL) concept was the brainchild of Todd Bol of Minneapolis, who explained in a 2013 TED Talk how he and cofounder Rick Brooks began this program in 2009. Editor/writer Margaret Aldrich was taken by the idea, so she “planted” her own LFL in front of her Minneapolis home.

Aldrich’s new book probes the how and why of this program, with chapters about community building, literacy, creativity, overcoming challenges, the humanitarian “good deed” characteristics, global reach, and even yarn bombing—with a Foreword written by Bol. Aldrich enlarges these basic concepts with headings such as “Come Together,” “Celebrate Reading,” “Kickstart Creativity,” and “Pay It Forward.” She includes interviews with a selection of LFL stewards.

NooX, an ongoing study begun in 2012 by Canadian researchers, examines how neighborhood book exchanges relate to theories of information practices. Investigators identified four main goals in 2014—neighborhood destinations, interactive spaces, gathering spaces, and sharing books—emphasizing the wide divergence in these goals from steward to steward.

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Excavating the margins

February 16, 2015 | 7 Comments

Ander Monson has written a book that’s still got me contemplating. He’s an intriguing thinker and he displays his pondering prowess to good effect in his latest work, Letters to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries.

In this collection of literary essays, Monson frames books as repositories of both past and future history—not via their printed content but rather through the traces of former readers and librarians left within when they interacted with the volumes. Much like an excited archaeologist embarking on a dig, Monson gleefully examines even the most minute scribblings and materials deposited by past lovers of the books he encounters in various libraries.

As he inspects, he uses each occasion as a springboard for his thoughts—one minute he’s deep into a soliloquy about a note he found written in a book margin and before you know it, he’s segued almost imperceptibly into human loss of a heartbreaking magnitude. Monson fuses Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin, Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, or Julio Cortázar into his musings with the same ease as he brings in gaming consoles such as Atari Jaguar, TI–99/4A, or Vectrex Arcade System.

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