Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Boo by Pat Conroy

The Boo
Pat Conroy
New York: Open Road, 2010
eBook edition
ISBN: 9781453206409

My life as a PatConroy fan is complete, or at least up to date. I can now say I've read everything that the man has published.  I've know about  The Boo for some time, but I've never found a copy in a bookstore or library.  I stumbled upon the book ebook on Kobo.com and decided to go for it. It's the first book Conroy published. He self-published it and the proceeds went into a gift fund for Citadel graduates killed in Vietnam.

The Boo, written in 1969, ten years before The Lords of Discipline, is a tribute to Lt. Colonel Thomas Nugent Courvoisie of The Citadel.  The Boo is a nickname given to  Courvoisie by a cadet.  The Boo served The Citadel as Assistant Commandant of Cadets from 1961 to 1968 and later in a less glamorous position as the Supply and Property Officer. Courvoisie's demotion from his prominent position  to working in supply was the impetus for Conroy's writing the tribute.

1st edition cover
Courvoisie entered The Citadel as a cadet in 1934 and was honorably discharged after three years. He returned in 1950 as a veteran student and graduated with the class of 1952. After his retirement from the Army in 1961, Courvoisie was appointed to the post of Assistant Commandant of Cadets. He became a favorite among the cadets, a man not to be trifled with but who had a knack for understanding the needs of young men enduring the rigors of military school.  The cadets feared and loved him, but when newer leadership arrived at the school they wanted him gone. He was too popular, too well-loved, and threatened the less creative thinkers in "leadership" positions. 

Conroy wrote The Boo to right a wrong, as he says, to try to get Courvoisie's job back, to show The Citadel the  egregious nature of its mistake in demoting The Boo. In an introduction that he wrote for the second edition of the book, Conroy says that The Boo is The Lords of Discipline in embryo and that it "represents the best instincts of the boy I once was" (13). There's no doubt about that. You hear a young man with a profound sense of justice trying to understand abusive situations that defy reason. 

The Citadel, founded in 1842, is also known as The Military College of South Carolina. Conroy writes in his preface that, 
"The Citadel was very comfortable with the nineteenth century but has had some trouble adjusting to the twentieth. . . . The Citadel prides itself on being one of the last protectorates of right-wing conservatism in the country. Its proudest moment occurred when two cadets from the school fired a cannon at the Star of the West, a Union ship trying to relieve the Northern garrison in Fort Sumter. This was the opening shot of the War Between the States and The Citadel's transcendent moment of historical definition. The Citadel was occupied by Union troops after the War and was not allowed to reopen until 1882. It is still one of the last places in America where a Brooklyn boy can learn to become a southerner and where a southerner can learn to become a Confederate" (13). 

Conroy and The Boo in 2000
Its writing things like the above and The Boo and The Lords of Discipline that has not endeared Conroy to The Citadel. Indeed, The Boo was banned at the college and Conroy's name was mud for decades, but the rift was mended in recent years.  I read The Lords of Discipline while in high school 25+ years ago and saw the movie, too, and although I understood the repulsion toward the school and its traditions,  I also felt the attraction.  Conroy is a master at conveying the love-hate relationship, be it between a father and a son or an institution and an individual.

Some descriptions of The Boo make it sound like a novel or a bit of non-fiction narrative about one boy with an abusive father caught up in the drama of The Citadel who finds a tough mentor in Courvoisie, but it is not.  The book is a collection of anecdotes and reports about cadet life along with some pleas for fathers to drop their anger and violence toward their sons and instead to give those sons the love they crave from their fathers.  There's some Great Santini embryo cells in here, too.

Apparently there were thoughts of Conroy rewriting the book for the paperback edition--jazz it up, smooth it out--but he decided not to. He says, "I owe the boy who wrote this book the kindness of not condescending to the best he could do at that time. And it would take too long, and there are other things I want to write about now" (16). I like that about Conroy, that he respects who he was and is living in the present.

The Boo will  be of interest to hardcore Conroy fans or those with an interest in the military in general or The Citadel in particular.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Historic Desecration or Necessary Infrastructure Update?

As regular readers of WildmooBooks know, Willa Cather is my favorite author. I'm a card-carrying-member of the Willa Cather Foundation* and I have a Google alert set up for her name so that I can keep up-to-date on Cather news as it happens.

A news story arrived in my in-box today that the Nebraska Department of Roads wants to pave-over the historic red brick roads of Red Cloud with concrete. 

There are some smooth, groved "dips" in these brick roads (I was just there in March), but I've seen deeper dips or even hazardous, lumpy historic roads that are much, much worse. We've all probably seen deeper dips in roads that are much, much newer (albeit, usually with much, much heavier traffic). I understand that responsible state planners have to try to stay in-front of the curve when it comes to infrastructure maintenance, but in this case I wonder whether the scale should tip toward historic preservation rather than infrastructure enhancement. And perhaps it makes me sound cynical, but I also can't help but wonder who will benefit economically from the project.


Historic, literary tourism is one of the main attractions of Red Cloud, so to take away such an integral part of the historic ambiance would seem to have a potentially negative impact on the economic vitality of the town. 

Looks beautiful to me

Below is the text of the news article and you can click here to watch the video.

"Historic red brick roads in Red Cloud could be paved over"

By Rachel Lake

From the Willa Cather Foundation to historic downtown, visiting Red Cloud is like stepping back in time.
But could infrastructure improvements threaten the historical ambiance?

At a Red Cloud council meeting last week, Nebraska Department of Roads proposed a plan that would replace downtown's brick roads with concrete. A plan many merchants and residents call a bad idea.
 
You can pass through Red Cloud in the blink of an eye, but if you decide to stop and take a look around, you'll notice historic downtown with its streetlamps, awning and red brick streets.

It's part of the heritage of Red Cloud.

Editor and Manager of The Red Cloud Chief Harriett Zade couldn't agree more.

"I can't imagine Red Cloud without the brick streets," she said. This is something I grew up with and this is part of our history."

But, Nebraska Department of Roads can.

Built in 1917, Webster Street used to support horse and buggy. Almost 100 years later, it now supports large semis and farm equipment as part of Highway 281.

"It's kind of sad there's no alternative way so the big trucks don't have to go through because I know that does take a toll on the road," said resident Candy Bell.

The NDOR wants to replace the bricks with concrete.

"I think they should leave them alone, it's historical," said Kim Shannon, Red Cloud resident. "It goes with our buildings and truly how long do these highways last. These have been here for 80 years you go down the highways they deteriorate after six or seven years.

Zade adds, "You can go to the city and see cement streets and I think in a rural area it's really unique to come to a small town and see the original brick streets that were in the past."

But some wonder how much longer these streets will last.

The Department of Roads plan would be implemented in 2017.

City council stresses nothing is set in stone. But, committee has been formed to come up with an alternative to the plan.

###


Call me a romantic, but when my tires hit brick roads, I get all tingly inside. It's almost like a magical transformation back into time.

*They don't really give you a membership card, but if you're a fan of Willa Cather, I encourage you to become a member and support the cause.

Friday, June 17, 2011

One L by Scott Turow

One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School
Scott Turow
Penguin, December 2010
First published in 1978
ISBN13: 9780143119029
288 pages

I never, ever had a desire to go to law school, but for some reason this book called to me. Recently, and I don't remember where, it was recommended as a good memoir. And then I kept running into it at the bookstore where I work. It was on sale for $3.99, so how could I resist? I haven't read any of Turow's legal thrillers, yet, but I may now.

One L is the story of Turow's first year at Harvard Law School in 1977. He covers the emotional ups and downs of that first year and how and why he and his peers changed for the better or became jaded. Turow had a contract to write the book before he started his first year and kept a journal in which he wrote several times a week throughout that first year.

This is not a straightforward how-to-make-it-through-law-school book. Its more about the emotional roller coaster ride that people experience when being initiated into a new system. For me, it read like a mash-up between my experience of Marine Corps boot camp and graduate school in literature. The one direct bit of advice Turow offers to those considering law school is to study economics before you get there.

Although the book, written in the late 70s, doesn't seem dated in any way that hampers the reading of it (there are a few "old fashioned" things that will make you smile if you're of a certain age, such as Turow's use of an electric typewriter when writing exams), it does seem a little dated in that I think first year law students--first year anythings--are better prepared now for such endeavors as law school than people were in the 1970s and earlier. Or at least they have a better chance of being prepared, intellectually, emotionally, and physically.

Why? Because it seems like people talk more about the emotional aspects of their experiences and there are many more resources out there that are accessible to more people, particularly mega bookstores with large reference sections and the internet. And these days you can find a memoir on just about anything. Granted it's one person's experience, but sometimes even that can be helpful, take the edge off one's anxiety, or lead to more resources. My sister has two teenage kids and we have been struck by the difference in approach from how she and her peers in high school thought about college and went about applying to college in the 1970s and how her eldest child is currently being groomed by teachers for college as a sophomore in high school. I couldn't help think of this difference while reading One L and thinking that people now entering Harvard Law cannot possibly be as naive as Turow and his group were. Turow was even from a rather privileged lot, as he says: New Trier High School, Amherst College, then the Stanford University Creative Writing Center after that.

Still, what keeps this book fresh is its emphasis on the emotional experience of going through such an intense initiation into a new language, a new way of thinking, and a new profession. I image that even if today's One Ls aren't as naive, they still experience the same mind-fuck that comes with indoctrination into a highly competitive and relatively closed society.  And I suppose the bottom line is that although listening to others' experiences and reading about what to expect might help prepare people for the work load and confusion headed their way, no amount of reading or advice can ever truly take the place of the reality of going through such an intense experience.


I recommend this book to anyone interested in law school, of course, but also to those who are interested in the legal system, American higher education in the 1970s, or memoir in general.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The library copy I read
The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson is a wonderfully creepy story. Are houses haunted by nature or nurture? In the case of Hill House, it just might be both. Add some human psyches and you're in for a ride. This is one of those books that is so well written that it took me awhile to pick up another novel--my mind needed time to digest the story before taking in more food.

I've been checking out books at the same library for five years now. I know the circulation librarian by name and we chat, but he's never before remarked on any book I've checked out. He gushed over The Haunting of Hill House. He told me that Jackson's We Have Always Lived In a Castle is also an excellent read. Other than her short story "The Lottery" I don't recall reading anything else by Jackson. I definitely plan to read more of her now.

My motivation for reading Hill House was Stephen King. After recently re-reading Carrie I was reading about King on the internet and saw somewhere that he was greatly influenced by The Haunting of Hill House, which some consider the greatest horror story of the twentieth century. [Two movies have been made based on the story, one in 1963 and one in 1999. Netflix has both.] There are some direct connections between The Haunting of Hill House and some of King's stories--stones falling on a house (Carrie), twin girls (The Shining)--and probably more subtle ones, too.

What I loved about this book is the subtle psychological manipulation of the reader that makes the story feel so alive. Its that visceral reaction that you have when being swept up in haunted house story to the point where you think the walls of the room you're sitting in are moving. Or you think you hear something shuffling through your house and you're home alone, with the dog or cat lying next to you on the couch. And there's the confusion of the reader's shifting loyalties: at first I was rooting for the doctor and his helpers, then for the house, and in the end I was rooting for both at the same time. Weird.

Hill House has a reputation for being haunted. Dr. Montague rents the house for the summer in order to study it, scientifically. He's invited people to join him who have been receptive to paranormal activity in the past. Only two women accept. The forth member of the group is the nephew of the owner of the home who is to eventually inherit the house.

I won't say more than that. I recommend you not read any plot summaries. Just pick up the book, start reading, and experience it for yourself. Its only 246 pages. Here's the first paragraph to whet your appetite:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it has stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Still Life by Louise Penny


Still Life
Minotaur Books
ISBN: 978-0-312-94855-9
$7.99
293 pages

Have you heard of Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny? If you haven’t, you will, because not only are her books gathering awards, her reputation is growing through that most coveted of traditions, word of mouth.

I have a few friends that are huge Penny fans. They've been encouraging me to read her, saying they love her characters & plots and that her writing style is just delicious. Plus the setting is in Canada, which is a bit off the beaten path for American mystery readers who have tended to lean toward British and American series (perhaps because that’s what’s been offered us, until recently).  When readers at the bookstore where I work are looking for a new author I’ve been suggesting Louise Penny and hand-selling Still Life based on the recommendation of my friends. Recently I've bumped into two of these customers and they asked if I’ve started reading Penny yet. So, between friends and now customers telling me to read Penny, I decided it was time for me to get it in gear.

I've done some traveling this spring and looked for Still Life in used bookstores in Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. Would you believe none of them had Still Life? Apparently people aren’t willing to give it up. So, I bought a new copy at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. My friend Missy, Louise Penny's number one fan in the US, had a huge smile on her face when she put it in my hands.

Still Life was a little hard for me to get into, I admit, but thankfully Missy gave me a heads-up about that.  I don't know if it was the French words that threw me off or just the pacing that made it initially challenging or what. I am more of a thriller type mystery reader than a traditional who-done-it or cozy type reader and, really, there aren't all that many French words.

What kept me reading, initially, is the last paragraph of Penny's acknowledgements. Yes, I'm one of those weirdos who actually reads the acknowledgements page. Here is how Penny ends her two page acknowledgement section:
I went through a period of my life when I had no friends, when the phone never rang, when I thought I would die from loneliness. I know that the real blessing here isn't that I have a book published, but that I have so many people to thank (x).
It made my heart ache to read those words because I've been there.  I think I fell a little in love with Louise Penny for having written such a truth.

What finally drew me in and then kept me reading were Inspector Gamache’s and other character's psychological insights. For example, in the scene at the murdered woman's funeral where Gamache is observing people, the murdered woman’s niece, who nobody likes, is “jockeying for position as chief mourner.”  Here’s the full quote:
Gamache suddenly felt deeply sorry for her. She was dressed head to toe in black and seemed to be waging an internal battle between being weak with grief, and the need to claim ownership of this tragedy. He’d seen it many times, people jockeying for position as chief mourner. It was always human and never pleasant and often misleading. Aid workers, when handing out food to starving people, quickly learn that the people fighting for it at the front are the people who need it least. It’s the people sitting quietly at the back, too weak to fight, who need it the most. And so too with tragedy. The people who don’t insist on their sorrow can often be the ones who feel it most strongly (91).
That resonated with me because I’ve seen such horrible situations and have heard stories from friends about “chief mourners,” people who actually told others that they don't have as much to mourn or didn’t love the deceased as much as they. Can you imagine?  But it happens, it happens.

There were other really good scenes or lines about human behavior or mental health that appealed to me and kept me reading. One of the characters that I enjoyed is Myrna, a former psychologist from Montreal who now owns the local bookshop. She gave up practicing psychology because she realized that too many people love their problems and simply don't want to change. They'd rather sit and complain, whereas those who want to change do the work (131). Or this bit of wisdom from the elderly character Ruth: "They say time heals. I think that's bullshit, I think time does nothing. It only heals if the person wants it to. I've seen time, in the hands of a sick person, make situations worse. They ruminate and brood and turn a minor event into a catastrophe, given enough time" (224). And then there's the issue of giving people's words more weight than their actions (287), which is certainly something mystery readers should avoid doing if they want to have a shot at solving the mystery before the author tells them who done it.

Still Life is a sophisticated mystery with a diverse cast of characters in a traditional, quaint, small town setting. Jane Neal, an elderly, beloved former school teacher, is found dead in the woods during deer hunting season. It was a hunting accident, right?  But it is a bit harder to accidentally kill someone with a bow & arrow rather than a gun. Isn't it? Who could possibly want to kill Jane?
I plan on reading the whole Chief Inspector GamacheHmm, but I do have enough time to read them all before the next one comes out in August. Decisions, decisions.

Here's a list of the Chief Inspector Gamache series in chronological order:
  • Still Life, 2005
  • A Fatal Grace (US title) / Dead Cold, 2007
  • The Cruelest Month, 2008
  • A Rule Against Murder (US title) / The Murder Stone, 2009
  • The Brutal Telling, 2009
  • Bury Your Dead, 2010
  • A Trick of Light, forthcoming, August 30, 2011
If you're interested, check out Louise Penny's rather cool website. She even has a pronunciation guide for those of us who don't know French.

Related post: event recap of Penny's signing at The Book Stall on September 8, 2011.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
Erik Larson
Crown Books, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-40884-6
464 pages
[FTC disclosure: I read an uncorrected proof that I requested from the publisher]

Like millions of other readers out there, I LOVED Larson's The Devil in the White City. I was fortunate to hear him give a talk about that book and his research for it at Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago the year it was released. When I heard Larson was coming out with a book about Nazi Germany, I knew I'd read it. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend any of his events in Chicago this time around.

Although I can't stomach much reading about the Nazis, I'm draw to understanding how Hitler came to power and what life was like for those who lived in Nazi Germany. By piecing together the story of what life was like in Berlin for American Ambassador Dodd and his family from 1933-1937, Larson shows how Hitler was able to gain power by political maneuvering and the repetition of blatant lies. The fact that none of the major world powers condemned the atrocities he committed against German citizens also enabled his drive to seize power.

As an outsider who lived in Germany, Dodd was able to see and feel the changes happening that casual visitors could not. However, it took a while. Dodd and most educated men of his class and time period were trained to see western humanity as making a steady march toward higher levels of reason. They assumed that men who rise to positions of political power are men of reason, "men you could do business with." [I am not sure how WWI fits into this line of thinking; perhaps they blamed it on the various monarchies.] Those who were watching the political situation unfold from the distance of America couldn't see through the propaganda of Goebbels and the lies of Hitler and they weren't present to sense the level of fear and terror that was growing. To the average traveler, things looked fine in Germany, but they were anything but for those who lived there. Hence there were lots of conflicting reports in America about what was actually going on in Germany: one report says everything is great and another says violence is increasing as rights and respect for human life are decreasing. No one was sure what to believe, but everyone wanted to believe that Hitler was a man of reason, a man they could do business with.

Eventually Dodd starts to see the light, as does his adult daughter Martha, who hob-knobbed with some of the higher ranking men of the Nazi power structure as well as the left leaning literary crowd. It is Martha's story that brings the most life to Larson's book. She was a wild child with literary ambitions who had friends (and possibly lovers) that were not only high ranking Nazis, but German Jews and Soviet Communists as well. Socializing with people in these divergent groups and seeing the strain of life under Hitler on all of them allowed Martha to eventually understand the power keg that was set to ignite.

Dodd didn't have many fans back home in the State Department. For one, he tried to live frugally as an Ambassador out of respect for his fellow Americans suffering during the Great Depression. He was also not impressed with the elitist attitudes and poor work-ethic of his colleagues. These two things did not mesh well with the boys back home in the State Department. Some considered his reports and speculations ridiculous, yet with the benefit of hindsight his concern about Hitler's true intention (to plunge the world it war) was right on the mark. In many ways, the tradition of diplomacy and the mindset of seeing other men in positions of power as reasonable prevented other world leaders from at least speaking out against Hitler until it was too late. Two of the biggest reasons that the American government didn't protest against Hitler was that it wanted the money owed by Germany from WWI and there was a strong public desire to remain isolationist, to stay out of other country's issues. America also had its share of antisemitism and political power games which inhibited official outcry against Hitler's early violence and oppression.

In the Garden of Beasts is a quick read, a perfect summer history book. We all know how the story ends, but you still feel the tension as you read along. I think it might even be a more engaging read than The Devil in the White City. I highly recommend this book to those interested in the rise of Hitler or in the 1930s in general. This book is just as much about American politics of the 1930s as it is about Hitler's seizing of power.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Nothing New Under the Sun: Books, Gender, and Haters


Theroux on Naipaul: “a grouch...tantrum-prone"
Have you heard the latest, shocking literary news? A well known, highly esteemed, award winning male writer recently claimed that no women writer is his equal, nor could one ever be, because women are just not capable. The male writer in question? V.S. Naipaul who is known to court controversy.

Some media outlets report the controversy as if Naipaul simply "proclaimed" this statement out of the blue. As if he called a press conference to make an announcement. In reality, he was asked a question in an interview at the Royal Geographic Society.  According to the Guardian article that I read Naipaul was asked, "if he considered any woman writer his literary match."  In a nutshell, Naipaul says that no woman can touch him because women are never the masters of their homes and so end up writing "feminine tosh."

There's a wonderful reply by writer Diana Abu-Jaber that takes Naipaul to task for the implications behind his use of the word 'master' that you can read here. Diana Athill, Naipaul's former editor, had this to say

I am not saying that Naipaul was "set up," by any means, but the interviewer who asked this question knew it was loaded, perhaps wanted to spark controversy. Surely the interviewer knew he was talking to Naipaul and not to a more amiable writer, say, Pat Conroy? So why not take the questioner to task as well? Why even consider Naipaul's comments "newsworthy?"

Cummins
All of this talk about Naipaul made me think of Nathanial Hawthorne. His quote about the "damned mob of scribbling women" has been making the rounds for decades now. Sometimes it seems like people think its a cute quote, a harmless quote, captured in a moment in time when Hawthorne was frustrated by the success of popular writers like Susan Warner (The Wide, Wide World), Maria Susanna Cummins (The Lamplighter), and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom's Cabin).

The Wide, Wide World, published in 1850, and Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, saw phenomenal sales their first year in print: at least 300,000 copies. The Lamplighter, published in 1854, was an immediate hit, too, selling 20,000 copies in 20 days, 40,000 copies in eight weeks, and 65,000 copies in five months. Those are great numbers for today, let alone the mid-nineteenth century.

Hawthorne
Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter was published in 1850. How many copies did it sell in its first year on the market? Only 7,000, with 2,500 of those in the first ten days. A nice showing, but nowhere near the blockbuster success of the popular writers of the day.

So you can see why Hawthorne might be a tad upset and ask in an 1855 letter to his publisher, William D. Ticknor, “What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse?” He answers himself, saying, “America is now wholly given over to a d—d mob of scribbling women."

But there are two other sentences by Hawthorne, also in a letter to Ticknor, that are less well known.  In 1852, two years after The Scarlett Letter came out, Hawthorne wrote, "All women, as authors, are feeble and tiresome. I wish they were forbidden to write, on pain of having their faces deeply scarified with an oyster shell." 

What? One of America's literary giants wants to carve up the faces of women who write? I was stunned when I first came across the quote and had to read it several times to make sure I was understanding it correctly.

Hawthorne was a 48 year old man when he wrote those words. Not that it would be more acceptable coming from an angry adolescent, but at least you could excuse it as teenage melodrama and hormonal overkill. But a middle aged man of letters?  Who is going to do this scarification?  Whoever does it, Hawthorne wants it done deeply, apparently to insure there is a permanence to this punishment, no chance of the scars fading over time.

It could be argued that for Hawthorne, such a punishment is akin to a death sentence. I can't help but think of his short story "The Birth-Mark" (1843) about a scientist who inadvertently kills his wife by trying to remove a birth-mark on her cheek that others find charming. It pretty much establishes that Hawthorne knew the implications that an "imperfection" on a woman's face could have.

Julia Ward Howe got off much easier.  The woman who wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," according to Hawthorne, "ought to have been soundly whipt" for publishing Passion Flowers (1854).

Don't get me wrong, I "love" Hawthorne and even considered writing my dissertation on him, but I have to wonder about a guy who can write such sentiments. His anger and desire for physical violence seems to go beyond the need for selling more of his own books or keeping women and men in their separate spheres.

Coming about 160 years after Hawthorne's rants, Naipaul's remarks seem beyond outdated and rather pathetic. You'd think the man who has been referred to as "the greatest living writer of English prose" had a bit more heart & soul, but apparently they were eaten by his ego.

But before I read about the latest Naipaul scandal this morning, I read a reaction to The Library Journal's summer reading lists--one for men and one for women. Men read "action/adventure" novels written by men and women get "the usual romance and fun" books written by women. The list for men was written by a man and the list for women was written by a woman. It seems like they were just adding filler because neither list is all that hot. I didn't find either list compelling, but if I had to choose, I'd be a man for the summer.

It seems to me that the danger here is not sexism in literary history or in one award winning author's opinion, although both can be harmful to the psyche of others, be they budding young readers or older scholars. What I find most alarming is when people in the book industry--publishers, librarians, etc--claim that only men write great literature (for a recent example of the feud, click here) or that men only read men and women only read women.  

After working in a bookstore for over ten years, I've seen first hand that men tend to read books by men (except for Doris Kearns Goodwin) and women tend to read books by women and men, but perhaps if the industry wasn't quite so heavy handed about pigeon-holing books and readers there would be more cross-pollination and more openness as to what constitutes a good read. I'm not totally naive, I know that marketing has its good points, too: helping people find what they want. I'm mainly thinking about gender segregated recommended reading lists for something as genderless as a season, cover design, displays, where ads are placed, etc.

Personally, I consider genre before gender when choosing what to read next. But gender does matter to me: I enjoy a good mystery written by a woman writer with strong female characters. I also enjoy war novels and memoirs which are mainly written by men at this time.

What I want to say is that reading around in a variety of genres written by both women and men is what has made reading so fascinating for me. I feel like I truly get to enter different worlds when I want to. Although I've tried to be 'balanced' in my reading selections, I have often found myself going through periods of reading mainly women or mainly men.

Gender and writing, gender and reading. Do you think about the gender of the writer when you pick up a book?  If so, why?  If you hear about a great read from a friend does the gender influence your decision to read or not read it?

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