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Thursday, September 30, 2010

East of Eden V (the Rest of Chapter 3): The Fall of Gods

"When a child first catches adults out--when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just--his world falls into panic desolation.  The gods are fallen and all safety gone.  And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter and sink deeply into the green muck.  It is a tedious job to build them up again;  they never quite shine.  And the child's world is never quite whole again.  It is an aching kind of growing" (East of Eden, chapter 3.2, 1, emphasis added).

I remember when my dad fell from grace.  It wasn't a far fall, thankfully; I think anything drastic might have destroyed me.  I worshiped my dad.  Now, though he's certainly still one of my heroes (and hanging out around the top of the list), I have the benefit of disillusionment, which, wonderfully, makes it possible for him to be my friend.  The moment my dad fell--well, no, stepped--from his pedestal was during a drive out into the Ohio countryside to visit some people from church.  I'd just returned home for a break from college, and we were talking about work.  I complained about the annoyances of dealing with people--customers--and he said, likewise, that that was the hardest part of being a veterinarian.  More than that, I asked directly, "Dad, do you even like being a vet?"  He hesitated a moment, took a deep preparatory breath--sort of one of those, ah, what the heck kind of breaths--and said--  and I'm going to interrupt just a moment to say that my father's use of vulgarity of any sort, or words spoken in even the greatest anger, extends merely to the words bananas and nuts.  That's it.  He doesn't yell.  He doesn't swear.  He is mild.  (back to the story now.)  He looked at me and said, "You know, Joe, I'm just really tired of cutting the balls off dogs."

Secondly, and I think this is actually pertinent at an interpretive level, I can't help but remember the moment in the last Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows, when Hagrid and Harry crash the motorcycle after their little tussle with the Death Eaters.  There's Hagrid, a mighty giant, spread-eagle and face-down in a grimy green pond.

Yesterday, I challenged readers to describe Cyrus in a sentence.  Steinbeck has done it for us, via the boy, Adam:

"...[he] was not a great man, ...he was, indeed, a very strong-willed and concentrated little man wearing a huge busby."

However, this portion of the chapter makes it possible for us to actually look at the mand with a modicum of respect.  Is he really so bad?  After all, he loves Adam better?

There aren't going to be tons of questions here, though I could certainly ask them all that come to me as I read, but there's really no point.  The deep issues here--the relationships between brothers and sons/fathers--repeat and repeat.  Rather than disecting, perhaps we can connect.  What in your lives has been like whatever aspect(s) of Adam's--or anyone else's--experience?  The majority of the stuff here is going to be quotations.  Relate to them.  Connect them to yourself, other literature, other people.

Reading Questions 4
Chapter 3.2

  1. Is it true that there is some violence in everyone?
  2. In childhood, how well did Charles know his older brother?  Was he aware of the "rich full life that went on" behind Adam's "quiet eyes?"  Was Adam indeed a helpless thing, like "a puppy or a new baby?"
  3. "Adam was glad of Charles the way a woman is glad of a fat diamond."  How does this (together with what Steinbeck actually writes of it) speak of the emotions between the boys--"love, affection, empathy...."
  4. "For Alice had been naked--she had been smiling."
  5. Review and explain: What are Adam's tunnels?

Chapter 3.3

  1. The beating of Adam by Charles, and Charles's utter lack of remorse or, much less, apology, which, according to Adam (or narrator?), was Charles's "one great quality," and the contrast of all this against Alice's seeming tenderness, which was somehow echoed by a softening also of old Cyrus.
  2. How does Charles feel about the exclusion from certain conversations between Adam and Cyrus?  Use this as an explanation of some sort--rationalization--for the beating.  What danger does Adam pose to Charles by beating him at his own game?  Or is it something totally simple like the childish need for everything to stay the same, the violation of which easily insights insecurity and violence?
  3. "You can drive a human too far.  ...  Always you must leave a man one escape before death."
  4. Justify the benefits of permitting yourself to hit bottom, which, according to Cyrus, seems to be the soul's panacea!
  5. The requirement for Adam's enlistment is as dire as that of keeping Charles home.  Will this bring them closer together, narrowing the gap of their differences?
  6. "I love you better.  Else why would I have given myself the trouble of hurting you?"

Chapter 3.4

  1. We see the obviousness of Cain and Abel.  Anticipate the murder, but don't expect it to be literal.  If it was literal, after all, the malice, jealousy, and love (all simultaneously present) culminating in some sort of violence couldn't perpetuate itself, thereby robbing us of, 1, the rest of the novel, and 2, one of the great themes of the book, to be seen later.
  2. Did God love Abel better?
  3. What is it like to go blind--literally, morally, whatever-ly--with rage?  Is this what Charles experiences when violence surfaces?
  4. Is Charles evil?
  5. "Doppelganger" is often slightly misinterpreted.  How does it apply here?
  6. Cyrus tells Adam, "...you're always protecting him!  Don't you think I know that?"  Discuss the irony.
  7. Does anyone KNOW Charles?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

East of Eden IV: Cyrus, the Trasks, and Sexism

I apologize.  This entry won't even be representative of an entire chapter.  It's late, and there's just no way I'm going to get all the way through chapter 3, so here's 3.1 and nothing more until tomorrow.

I can't say this about all authors, but it would appear likely that most ascribe meaning and history, for the sake of connotation and allusion, to their characters' names.  Steinbeck says he based this book on the story of Cain and Abel.  While he takes mild liberty with the names, contrasted against those of the Old Testament, it is nonetheless--and maybe because of this--interesting to see where his names may have come from.

Before we get much more into that, however, I want to look at the first issue of the chapter.


Reading Questions 3
chapter 3.1

  1. "It was quite normal in that day for a man to use up three or four wives in a normal lifetime."  While it's of a different nature now-a-days (yes, I just wrote "now-a-days"), this is without a doubt an objectification of women, and there are a couple questions that follow (the simpler of the two first):
  2. Is Steinbeck sexist, or is he just reporting?  If the former, dig in and find some evidence that it's true of the author, rather than just the times.
  3. The situation of the novel demands that we compare, side-by-side, the two patriarchs introduced thus far.  So take it a step further: post them up aside each other in terms of their spouses.  My tendency in past readings (unconscious tendency) has been to regard Cyrus's treatment of his wives very negatively, as I regard Cyrus negatively; on the other hand, I've tended to regard Samuel's treatment of Liza as relatively positive, because I regard Samuel positively.  I believe I've been mistaken (to what degree??).  Is there a practical difference between the proffered spousal treatment of the two patriarchs, or does the apparently acceptable (for the period) treatment of women at Cyrus's hand support James's thoughts on the matter from the previous post?
  4. "...she never said anything unless she was asked.  From Cyrus's point of view this was possibly the greatest of her virtues.  She never offered any opinion or statement, and when a man was talking she gave a vague impression of listening while she went about doing the housework."  So, does this quotation speak more of Alice or of Cyrus?  I don't mean that Cyrus was such a jerk that he pushed her to this extreme (there's potential evidence that this was just her nature, after all), but that he accepted it--that he needed no more complete feedback on his exploits and lies as justification to keep them up!
  5. Along these lines, how common a thing is it for someone to talk himself into the truth of his lies?  How complete a conviction can this actually become, or does the liar always know, somehow in the back of his mind, that he's a liar?  I can't help but consider my freshman English teacher, back in 1991, Mr. Buchanan.  We called him Bucky, of course, and he was one kookie dude.  Among his various eccentricities and stories were fidgeting with a lighter in his pocket (which he always claimed was kept for the purpose of thawing the lock on his car door in the winter, and NOT to light ANYTHING like a cigarette!) during class and lighting his pants on fire; and wandering, as usual, around the classroom one day, backing up toward the chalkboard while haranguing the class on some point or another and backing into the trashcan, upon which he tripped, then stood, and brought the can up with him, firmly attached to his--as he said--buttocks.  While the latter of these two stories was corroborated by former students before my time, the first is a mystery.  While I can easily believe such an amazing claim of dufusness, his track record for honesty brought even this into question.  While I can't remember for sure what conflict he was supposedly involved in--he was old enough for Korea, but I'm not sure--he, by his own and numerous accounts, was amazingly well-traveled during his time in the service.  As a class, we tracked his various whens and wheres and, like Cyrus, he was in multiple places across the globe at the same time.  He loved to tell these stories, and we heard them repeatedly.  Now, Bucky was a pretty nice guy--seemed always innocent--insouciant, even....  He didn't seem the type to be really even capable of a lie.  Could he really believe all the ridiculous stories he told of himself?
  6. Challenge:  Write a complete description of Cyrus, as a character, in one sentence.  Keep it no longer than a tweet.
  7. A favorite image of mine, though cruel, is that of Cyrus beating his wooden leg with a stick to keep time for his sons' drilling practice.
  8. Lastly and most importantly:  and back to the name thing.  If Adam Trask is a correlative to Adam, of Adam and Eve fame, then Cyrus, indeed and to extend the metaphor, would be Jehovah, of Old Testament fame.  What conclusions might you draw about Steinbeck's views of God (at least within context of the novel) by this extension?  Consider any knowledge or lingering impressions you have of the Old Testament.  Consider the following:
    1. Jehovah's presence in Isrealitish battles;
    2. Jehovah's scribing (albeit via his prophets) and  the qualities of these prophets' commentaries;
    3. Jehovah's oft-described indifference/ambivalence regarding the well-being of his people.
    4. The nature of a wife: if she, Alice, is indeed a representation of something actually present in the Old Testament, as is practically everyone else in the book, what might she be?  Perhaps the Earth itself--she is taciturn, direct, submissive....
    5. Consider the ultimate benefit of Cyrus's lies.  Without them, he would not have been awarded his secretaryship.  Is there a correlative between this and something regarding Jehovah?
    6. Finally, check out the definition/history of the name, Cyrus.

More tomorrow.  Hopefully the rest of chapter 3, but considering the length of this post and the shortness of the section it draws from, let's just hope I can be a bit more succinct.

Until then.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

East of Eden III: Introducing the Hamiltons and Our Gods (not exactly the same people)

It is said (and if someone can find the reference, I would appreciate it (Freud?? --or is that just pathetic ignorance and stereotyping?)) that our fathers are our models for God.  East of Eden provides us with several fathers, two of whom are introduced (the second only in name) in chapter 2: Sam Hamilton and Adam Trask, respectively.  As this book is such a spiritual endeavor--whether religious or not--for John Steinbeck, I think it's very pertinent to maintain our views in this general direction.

Something most deists don't permit themselves for their gods, however, which the book explicates at great length, is the "better half" of these clannish demigods, Sam and Adam (not the beer--though that could lead to an interesting alternative reading).  While I, personally, don't find a great deal of benefit, and would prefer not to discuss it here, in speculating on the nature or existence of "God the Father's" wife, the women married to these two men, as well as those of successive generations, offer continual and dramatic counterpoint to their mates. 


Reading Questions 2
chapter 2.1

  1. Be the Judge, If You Please: Did Samuel, or did he not, love his wife, and to what degree?  The narrator goes to some length talking about this and what in the world could possibly bring such a man as Sam Hamilton to the Salinas Valley, and he mentions the two possible types of love, offering no third alternate reason for the uprooting.  At this point in the book, we don't know the identity of the narrator.  However, any narrator who is not omniscient (and we know this from the the very first line of this chapter that he is not all-knowing) is not entirely reliable and depends, wittingly or no, on his interpretation of events.  He can only see any issue or event through the subjectivity of his own limited eyes.  Consider the seeming--or so it seems to me--conflict between the character of the man, Samuel Hamilton, he's is detailing against the supposition of his marital fidelity.  Whom does Samuel love and to what degree?
  2. Be an Aanthropologist: Consider the Hamiltons' copy of Dr. Gunn's Family Medicine.  What do we leave behind by which one may know our history?  What might they learn from what is missing (consider the un-opened pages of the book and the narrator's judgment on the Hamiltons' morality or luck), as well as what is there.  Now, more than just by artifact, what trace to we leave on, or record into, the land--such as the Salinas Valley for the Trasks and Hamiltons--by our existence upon it?  (You may want to take a look at the first two comments posted on EoE: Part II.) 
  3. "...and while he had no brogue there was a rise and a lilt and a cadence to his talk that made it sound sweet in the ears of the taciturn farmers...."  There was an invitation just in the accent and voice and cadence of Samuel Hamilton.  Please take a moment and read this entry from the following blog (which I follow faithfully and highly recommend): "Sentence First"  While this isn't exactly a question, consider the power not just of words, but how these words are spoken.  When have you judged someone by their accent and been surprised that you were wrong?
chapter 2.2

beware: long quotation ahead --
  1. "But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units--because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back.  Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to d angle from his coattails" (emphasis added).  This sentence is MAJOR foreshadowing.  STOW IT AWAY FOR FUTURE REFERENCE!  Now, as the final sentence of this chapter reads, "Such a man was Adam Trask," if we were to add a parallel sentence to the end of the "coattails" quotation, it would be, "Such a man was Samuel Hamilton," but he is not the only one.  As we continue reading, who else (and maybe even Adam Trask) fits this description of a strong man, even though he may be wrong?
  2. Note on Style: Chapter 1 ended with what I call a "springboard" into the next chapter--that is a word or phrase which narratively propels you, sometimes against your will (its rhetorical manipulation, dang it!), into the next chapter.  The last line of chapter 2 is also a successful springboard, because, after all this beautiful description and dwelling on the Hamiltons, we don't see Sam's name in the last line like we might expect, but someone whose name we haven't seen yet!  How in the world does this dude fit with it all, and who is he?  Now think about this, because it has a lot to do with first (though less importantly) Steinbeck's genius, and second (more importantly) the immediacy and intimacy--the stuff that makes this book and its characters actually feel like family and your own personal family history--of the story.  If you don't know what "stream of consciousness" is, as a literary term, look it up.  What's amazing here, is that this massive book (and it is MASSIVE) is written as if the entire story is present in the narrator's mind at once and he has only to get it out onto paper.  There is no sense of time/space wasted, though, as is often the case with true stream of consciousness, while he finds his voice or necessary details.  These details--all of them pertinent, even crucial--are ready, existent, and waiting to be plucked from the proverbial tree and laid to paper in whatever order it happens to occur to him.  Steinbeck FAKES stream of consciousness, directly, rhetorically affecting you emotionally and sucking you in, while clearly it is calculated.  Or is it calculated?  Steinbeck didn't write a draft and then a second draft and so on.  He wrote the book.  It was edited.  He made minor adjustments.  The freaking thing was published.  Period.  That's it.  We don't have record of how much of this story was envisioned before he put pencil to paper.  Thoughts?

Monday, September 27, 2010

East of Eden II: The Salinas Valley

I apologize to anyone who is really chomping at the bit for chapter after chapter.  We had unexpected company stop by, and I didn't get nearly the amount of reading done that I'd have liked.  There will be days like this, and there will be days where there's just no realistic way for you to keep up with me.  Hopefully it all balances out in the end.  We'll learn as we go.  Please don't hesitate to comment and make suggestions just about the management of this project.  Cheers!



I read the first paragraph of chapter one, and thought I should find some good pictures to paste into the blog--maybe a map--to illustrate what we're about to read.  But here's the thing, and see if you agree: just as the same story read by two people (or, in the potentially applicable case of movies, viewed by two people--and I can't help by think of Doubt, in this case) is different for each experience, so this description is so much more personal if left un-objectified by a photograph.  A map, perhaps, wouldn't be so bad.  Besides, isn't the Salinas Valley and Monterey Bay from Steinbeck's time just a little different than what we might see were we to drive through it?  (And those of you who've read other Steinbeck, permit yourself an amalgam survey of the land--I love Tortilla Flat for this comparison.)


Reading Questions 1
chapter 1.1

  1. In the opening paragraphs, Steinbeck seems very nostalgic, especially in describing the land as the lap of a mother.  Name and briefly describe a physical location where you feel such safety, nostalgia, and--perhaps inexplicable or irrational--beauty.
  2. One of my very favorite aspects of Steinbeck's writing is the level of characterization he ascribes the setting.  If you were to compare the land to a person--even a specific person (please, no names, unless the person is so generic simply by dint of supremely elevated social status, like a movie star, politician, hotel heiress that there's nothing personal to it) or an archetype--who embodies the same, well, character as the Salinas Valley.  More simply, what is the personality, as depicted here, of this land?  (Think also: is this one "person," or more--a family, clan, community; is it over a moment in the life of so-and-so, or across his/her/their collected life?)
  3. "You can boast about anything if it's all you have.  Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast."
  4. "Once a woman told me that colored flowers would seem more bright if you added a few white flowers to give the colors definition."
  5. I have been reading recently a book called The Hero and the Crown, a Newberry winner no less, by Robin McKinley.  Perhaps it's good this is through the veil of the internet and I can't be shot, but I'm having a devil of time enjoying this book (so why am I still reading?).  The story is fine, the characters are good, but the writing is infuriating!  And not because the writing is bad (it isn't), but because it is so distant.  I feel entirely disconnected from the events and characters (I don't care!), like I'm reading the story of a story of a story (which, somehow, Borges does to great effect and success, but that's another time).  Here, Steinbeck, giving extremely detailed description of THE LAND, which should be utter drudgery, somehow, miraculously, makes it interesting, engaging, and so dag-gone personal!  How does he accomplish this?  (Or am I delusional and alone?)  Where else have you seen/experienced something like this?
  6. "...the land would shout with grass."
  7. "And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich year, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years.  It was always that way."

chapter 1.2

  1. "Periodically the owners killed the cattle for their hides and tallow and left the meat to the vultures and coyotes."
  2. Consider the names.  Wherever you may come from, there are place names that really mean something.  You have no idea what they mean, but the sense of meaning is there--thickly there.  There is a buzz of folklore and superstition about it--not negative, just present and alive.  Please list some of those names.
  3. What does Steinbeck tell us about the subject/theme of the book to follow by this first chapter?  What, narratively speaking, IS the land of the Salinas Valley?
And the springboard of the final sentence!  Oh, what a thing that cannot be appreciated without knowing what's coming!  I've known and I know this story well, and that sentence means more now--particularly now that I love the Hamiltons et al and everyone else like I love my family--than it ever has.  This book is that truly great epic, somehow deepening with each read, that never leaves, and you forget how great it was and affecting until you crack it again and re-visit its places and people.


NOTE and REQUEST: When making you comments or answering questions (and yes, the un-question-marked quotations are indeed questions), please include the number of the question at the top of your comment.

East of Eden I: Introduction

Normally, I would have a much longer introduction and author's bio prepared.  I'm not going to do that.  I'm sure that a portion of this omission may be attributed to sloth, but, really, an author's bio is unnecessary here, as this, more than any other piece Steinbeck wrote, is autobiography, if not in information, date, and detail, certainly in between the lines.  We will examine that closely as we go.  In support of the text's autobiographical nature, here is the note left by Steinbeck to his publisher, Pascal (Pat) Covici, with the manuscript for East of Eden:

Dear Pat,

You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, "Why don't you make something for me?"

I asked you what you wanted, and you said, "A box."

"What for?"

"To put things in."

"What things?"

"Whatever you have," you said.

Well, here's your box.  Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full.  Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts--the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.

And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.

And still the box is not full.


As a mere point of interest, Steinbeck did all of his writing by hand, in pencil, on 10 3/4" x 14" paper.  As I mentioned earlier, I happen to have--thanks to my wonderful sister, Katie--a copy of Journal of a Novel, which is the journal Steinbeck kept (which usually amounted to letters sent to Pat) from conception through completion of East of Eden.  I will attempt to reference this as much as possible through the reading of the novel.  Others who have read the journal--on my recommendation or otherwise--are welcome to correct and direct me and fellow discussers to points of interest.

Yet to come, later today: OPENING CHAPTERS and READING QUESTIONS 1

In the meantime:

What expectations do you have for this novel and our discussion, so that I may adequately focus my further preparation?

Oulipo Sample

taken from McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, issue 22

"Thirty-Five Variations on a Theme from Shakespeare," by Harry Matthews

2.   Anagram:  Note at his behest: bet on toot or quit
5.   Lipogram in I:  To be or not to be: that's the problem
6.   Lipogram in E:  Almost nothing: or nothing: but which?
7.   Transposition (W+7):  To beckon or not to beckon: that is the quinsy
22.  Reductive: One or the other--who knows?
31.  Homophony:  Two-beer naughty beat shatters equation
33.  Heterosyntaxism:  I ask myself: is it worth it, or isn't it?
34.  In Another Meter:  So should I be, or should I not? / This question keep me on the trot.
35.  Interrogative Mode:  Do I really care whether I exist or not?

Obviously, I didn't quote all of them, and there are a variety of other limiting approaches to different genre.  I just don't feel like typing them all up.

But here's something extra:

Today I was Mr. Andreason, a 6th grade teacher. Well, I was his sub. One of the many times for which he had inadequate material for me and the students, some of the kids took to writing each other codes. I had a thought: Suppose a computer could figure out what a coded message says--a cypher--without knowing the cypher, simply by recognizing the patterns of letters and punctuation plus the number of letters in a word and the relationship of word lengths in context (like, there are only so many three-letter words with potential context as frequent as "the").... Anyway, that got me thinking about the Oulipo and their seemingly random restrictions.

Here's what I'm thinking: what if we took a piece of literature--a short piece, in this case--and represented it exclusively with dashes, like a hangman puzzle. Then, what if the writer replaced those blanks with letters to form words in grammatically correct syntax to form a new piece of writing?

Here's an example, and we'll even call it a contest (I have no idea what the prize would be--fear not, it won't be an old pair of my shoes like what Tobin took once for a prize), to the first person to create a new piece from Hulme's "Above the Dock:"

----- --- ----
----- --- ----- ---- -- --------,
------- -- --- ---- ----‘- ------ ------,
----- --- ----. ---- ------ -- --- ----
-- --- - -----‘- -------, --------- ----- ----.

You can fill in the blanks anyway you like, so long as every blank is used and the result makes sense, grammatically and poetically.

(If anyone has the guts to even attempt this, comment or email your results!)

"The Time Has Come," The Walrus Said

Today's the day, and I'm jumping the gun by something like fifteen hours or so.  East of Eden has won.  I've got some work to take care of, and I'm sure all of you do to.  If you haven't got your copies of the book yet, pick one up, or find it pirated on the WWW, because you're getting your first reading assignment tonight.

Cheers.  Good luck.  Ask questions.  Convince more to join us!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tomorrow, We Begin: a Brief Note and Question #1

Hello, good morning, on this Sunday morning.  The weather is typical, clear, and boring here in Utah. 

Tomorrow is the day.  If you're book isn't in the lead (East of Eden is the clear leader), get other people involved.  Of course, I understand the difficulty of this for most of you; how many people does anyone know, after all, who actually wants to take an extra English class? 

This isn't an English class.  Call it Book Club.  "Come join the book club!" you might say.



Is it possible for an author to dissociate himself (excuse, please, the generic masculine (women, consider the respect I offer by not so vainly using your gender)) from his writing?  Consider extremes: something so simple as "In a Station of the Metro," by Ezra Pound, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, by Tolkein.  Why would an author attempt to remove himself from his writing, or, on the other hand, is there benefit to permitting his blood to flow across the page?  Please provide examples from your own reading experiences that may apply.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Social Network

Some movies are as good as books.  Some previews--the anticipation--are as good as waiting for the next Chabon, HP, or (for me and my periodic, requisite popcorn fix) Lincoln/Child-Pendergast.

With the possible exception (though only in certain aspects) of Panic Room, David Fincher hasn't made a bad movie.  Some of his movies are revelations, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of my all-time favorites.  How could I not be excited about his new one, The Social Network.

Check out THE review:

Check out the trailers:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Recommendation #1

I hope to make many such recommendations as time goes on, and here is the first.

In a recent facebook post (within five minutes of writing these very words, as it so happens), I used the phrase "beat around the bush."  Just as I find etymology intriguing, so I find the derivation of common phrases (is there a word for that? --Devin?).  So I googled it.  Pshaw.  A million listings (well, 81300).

Then I remembered a truly excellent book given me by my father for my birthday this past summer:

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

The name alone should indicate this thing should be great, and I refer you to www.bn.com to check it out:

The only problem so far, is that I'm not used to having this wonderful resource, but I'm getting there.  Each time I use it, I'm more grateful I've got it, and, hopefully, that much more likely to remember it the next time I think I need to google something.

So back to the phrase.  This is Brewer's description under the heading "Beat," subheading, "Beat about the bush, to:"

Beat (Old English beatan).  The first sense of the word was that of striking.  That of overcoming or defeating developed from this.  As a noun, a beat is a track, range or walk, trodden or beaten by the feet, as the 'beat of a policeman'.

Beat about the bush, To.  To approach a matter cautiously, in a roundabout way; to SHILLY-SHALLY.  The reference is probably to the hunting of birds by night when they are resting or roosting.  The bushes are beaten, the birds are disturbed and fly out, and they are then netted or stunned as they try to escape.

What I love is how concise it is, and that you can look up practically anything.  While someone who is particular about what they find, the book might prove disappointing.  It doesn't have "practically" everything.  I lied.  Practically speaking, it has a wide assortment, but this actually acts to improve its value.  While you sit there and twiddle through the pages wondering if they must have put your chosen word, phrase, or fable in the wrong spot (as you've all done with a dictionary at least once in your lives), you will find three, four, or fifteen items that you were definitely not looking for but you're glad you found.  Brilliant!

To give you an idea, here is a list (without accompanying descriptions/definitions) of the other words just under the main heading "beat:"

Beat about, To; Beat about the bush, To; Beat an alarm, To; Beat a retreat, To; Beat down, to; Beaten at the post; Beat Generation, The; Beat it, To; Beat one's breast, To; Beat retreat, To; Beat someone hollow, To; Beat someone's brains out, To; Beat the air, To; Beat the band, To; Beat the bounds, To; Beat the bush while another takes the bird, To; Beat the clock, To; Beat the Devil's tattoo, To; Beat the drum for, To; Beat the Dutch, to; Beat time, To; Beat up, To; Can you beat it? Dead beat; It beats me; Not in my beat; That beats Banagher

If you've got an ounce of curiosity in you, you've got to be wondering what in the world could possibly be said about some of these.  I am!  What in the world does "That beats Banagher" mean?  (You might like to know--and this actually explains a lot--that this is a Brittish publication.)

So check it out.  Get a used copy at amazon or something.  This is the most fun I've had with a book since....  Well, I don't know.  This is a fun book.

Challenge in Persuasion

Okay, so I'm ready to get this thing started, even though the timer on the survey still lists, like, four more days to go.  If you've been keeping track, though, the tally hasn't changed much, except to lean more heavily in Eden's direction, so I'm posting a challenge regarding your votes (I voted for Queen Loana, by the way):

for those thinking, "East of Eden again?"
1. Why should I bother waiting for more votes to come in?

2. And even if I do wait, I'm pretty sure East of Eden is going to win anyway!  Give me at least one [well-written] good reason to ditch the survey and just do whatever the heck I want--or what you want.

for those supporting Steinbeck
3. Why should we do this again?  Most of you have (based on the those I see who've signed in as followers here) have read it.  Support your cause!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Little More about the Books on the Survey

When it comes to it, I'm a selfish man.  While I love teaching, I love (almost as much) the fact that I learn so much more teaching something than just reading it.  Even if no one else reads a thing on this to-be "blog," I'm gonna do it anyway.  Each of these books has changed my life.  Some of these books have done so over and over again.  They can do this for anyone.  Cheers.

The Inferno of Dante by Dante Alighieri: Book CoverL'Inferno, by Dante Alighieri

Dante's descent into Hell, and the beginnings of his quest to find his soul mate, Beatrice.  While we will indeed look at all the "episodes" through the circles and bolgie, we will also examine the underlining plot and character development of Dante.  We will also look at issues of translation, and work back and forth between the Longfellow and Pinski.  If you don't want to buy the book to keep up, you can go here-- http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/d#a507 --and download it for nothing.  I can't help you with the Pinsky.  It is my favorite translation, though.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: Book CoverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

I'm sure you all think you know a whole bunch about Alice.  Well, unless you took the books from me in the first place or have otherwise really dug into it, you're probably missing a few things.  These are together--and yes, I mean it--one of the most beautiful stories ever told.  If this ends up a selection, we'll look thoroughly first at the author before getting into the stories, because, though he never shows up in any of the movies, Lewis Carroll himself is the second and unsung protagonist.  Get the text for these two, as well as for some of the other Carroll works we'll look at, here: http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/c#a7

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Book Cover
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

If I had to choose on single book to put at the very top of my list of favorites, this is the one.  This book, much like the grandfather says to the kid in The Princess Bride, has it all: "fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...."  Okay, so there's no fencing and only a figurative monster, unless you count deformity.  Based generally on the Cain and Abel story from Genesis, this book takes you through three generations and lets you watch, practically forcing you to pray (as if it would make a difference) that these people won't choose what you know they're going to choose anyway.  We will also examine this in light of a new discovery my sister made: the journal and letters Steinbeck wrote while writing his own favorite of his works.

the Imagist Poets

Okay, this is a pet project for me.  I'm interested in going back and really looking again at the likes of Hulme, Pound, Williams, and so on.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour by J. D. Salinger: Book CoverRaise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters, by J.D. Salinger

I love this book, because Seymour Glass is one of my very favorite characters.  I'm debating about changing this to another from Salinger's list.  Thoughts, anyone? 

Blindness by José Saramago: Book CoverBlindness, by Jose Saramago

I only got to teach this once.  I know I'm missing something.  Everything (that I've found) of Saramago's is allegoric.  I know I'm missing at least something.  I didn't see the movie that came out a couple years ago, and I'm not going to bother.  It's a movie about Blindness--a freaking epidemic of blindness--isn't a movie, in all its visual "glory" kind of the wrong direction for this particular story?  Anyway, this book is gorgeous, shocking, and satisfying.  Even if we don't read it here, don't miss it!

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco: Book CoverThe Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco

Okay.  Umberto Eco.  While I've known about him for some time, he is quickly becoming one of my very favorites.  While the majority of his work is in literary theory and a little thing called "semiotics," he also dabbles in novel writing.  Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, Baudolino, to name a few, but I'm partial to Loanna.  It's more readable than some of his other stuff, and it also offers the opportunity to examine the semiotic issues at work in all of his stuff.  If you like literary deconstruction, this should be a lot of fun.

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Download Cover
Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel

The Life of Pi man's newest iteration, and, though flawed, absolutely brilliant.  It's a book that's about the author, but not about the author; about the Holocaust, but not about the Holocaust; about a taxidermist, and very much about the taxidermist. 


Learn more.  Ask questions.  I'm excited to get started.  SO VOTE!

Monday, September 20, 2010


Hello, everyone, and welcome to my Wall. 

I've got a lot of great ideas for what to do with this place, but I need your input to get started. 

Ideally, and as I kind of mentioned in the little blurb, this is really just my classroom (selfishly so and, hopefully, even if just a little, altruistically).  I want to do here the same stuff I did as an English teacher, particularly now that I'm no longer teaching.  I'll put up new posts a couple times a week, discussing the previous "assignments" and giving a preview of what's coming next.  I'll answer questions, either in direct response to posted comments or questions, or, if I need the extra space, as a full entry all by itself.

Your part is simple: DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WITH THIS!  If you want to read and write and participate, awesome.  If you just want to stop by every once in a while and check things out--see if there's something you're actually interested in--that's just as well. 

If you don't mind, please take a moment to do the SURVEY ON YOUR RIGHT.

Additional comments or questions?  POST 'EM!

This could be a lot of fun.

(It could also totally flop.  If that happens, well, I don't know....)
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