Book Review: Up Late with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things

Up Late with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things

So I still have that literary crush on Teju Cole, but it may have turned into full-blown fangirl status with his latest book, filled with brilliant essays, titled Known and Strange Things. I would argue Teju Cole’s work represents the voice of a generation–but more than that, the voice of our time, regardless of age.  His essays include personal narratives and travel writing and analysis of art and current issues and in each one I found myself scribbling notes furiously. Sometimes it was a turn of a phrase, somethings an insightful observation, and sometimes (most times) I found myself creating a list of authors, artists, and texts I needed to read/view/research immediately.

Teju Cole is like your super-smart well-read friend who always refers to books and ideas in a non-pretentious way and makes you wish you were as smart as they were. But you can’t be jealous of their brilliance, because without them, you wouldn’t know about all the interesting things they share with you.  Cole does not hold back on his criticism of those he finds lacking, but his work is fresh–unlike those he chastises here: “There are many standard formulations in our language, which stand in place of thought, but we proclaim them each time–due to laziness, prejudice, or hypocrisy–as though they were fresh insight.”

His credo is hard not to agree with: “What do I believe in? Imagination, gardens, science, poetry, love, and a variety of nonviolent consolations. I suspect that in aggregate all this isn’t enough, but it’s where I am for now.”

And his observations are compelling, and yet make sense–they are ideas we have not yet discovered we even had, until he utters them and makes us aware of our thoughts. For example, his comment that “All technology arises out of specific social circumstances” leads to his question “What is the fate of art in the age of metastasized mechanical reproduction?” And I want to know, what is the fate of art in this age?  You might find one answer by following Cole on twitter, which, I would argue is just as artistic as any of his full texts.  As he himself notes, “curation and juxtaposition are basic artistic gestures,” so the way he curates his social media is thus, by extension, a work of art. Sadly, he’s been on hiatus from twitter after his brilliant World Cup tweets in 2014.3e4c2106-58ef-11e6-89cf-11d50d057da5-300x464

You might find his thoughts about voting particularly important in this election year: “we participate in things not because they are ideal but because they are not,” or perhaps you might be transported by his idea that placing ourselves where our artistic forebears went before us can connect us in deep ways: “When I’m moved by something, I want to literally put myself in its place, the better to understand what was transformed.”

Finally, reading his writing was like immersing myself into deep water, trying to hold my breath longer in order to see the underwater delights: I had to keep surfacing, take a breath, take a break, take some notes, and then inhale deeply and dive back into the essays–which make this pausing a little easier than if this were a novel. Cole even writes about composing with a similar metaphor:”Writing as diving: an exhilaration, a compression, a depression.”

Reading this book, I found myself wanting to copy different essays to share with colleagues, students, and friends. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy to read immediately–you won’t regret it, and you’ll probably end up adding a bunch of books to your to-read list based on his recommendations.

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

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Book Review: Up Late with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things

Book Review: Up Late with The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

We’ve talked about Neil Gaiman before–in regard to his short stories and we mentioned he was married to Amanda Palmer when we reviewed her book, The Art of Asking.  But today what we review is a collection of non-fiction essays from the Great Gaiman, and this is unusual.  While he’s written a massive amount of non-fiction, this is the first collection of it in one place. The book is organized by topic (these are not the full section titles): Some Things I Believe; Some People I Have Known; Introductions; Films; On Comics; Music; Real Things.

What this book reads like is a conversation with your really smart friend who’s constantly recommending books and films and music and you wonder how in the world he knows all this stuff and you realize these are all the things he loves, the things he’s spent his lifetime with, and if you want something of quality, you should listen to his recommendations. While many of the authors and books he mentions I knew, there were plenty I didn’t and reading this helped me generate a reading list for multiple genres.

There are lovely passages readers and writers will underline, write down, turn back to for reassurance.  On why he left Journalism: “I wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts.” On why books are important: “Books are the way that the dead communicate with us.” On life: “Life does not obey genre rules.”

I found myself writing down much of what he wrote–not because it was so profound, but because it was so perfectly articulated.

  • “Our tales are always the fruit of our times.”
  • “I don’t write with answers in mind. I write to find out what I think about something.”
  • “The magic trick upon which all good fiction depends…there is room for things to mean more than they literally mean.”
  • “Most interesting art gets made by people who don’t know the rules, and have no idea that certain things simply aren’t done: so they do them. Transgress. Break things. Have too much fun.”
  • “Make mistakes. Make great mistakes, make wonderful mistakes, make glorious mistakes. Better to make a hundred mistakes than to stare at a blank piece of paper too scared to do anything wrong, too scared to do anything.”

If you’re looking for some useful short essays on writing, there are some gems in here you could use with your students. If you want a celebration of reading and writing to read for yourself, this volume is perfect. Also, if you come to our 2016 Conference in State College, PA on October 15 & 16, you will have a chance to win a copy of the book!

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Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

Book Review: Up Late with The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Up Late with Going Alone: Women’s Adventures in the Wild edited by Susan Fox Rogers

I was recently at my local independent bookstore, Webster’s, and checking out the outdoor adventure section to see what I could find to pair with Into the Wild, since I’ll be teaching it for the first time in 15 years.  I found this book of essays by women, compiled by the editor of the magazine SoloGoing Alone was a fabulous find for two reasons: 1. it reminded me how much I missed all my own outdoor adventures and 2.  I found some excellent essays to use in class.

The first reason I really enjoyed these essays was the overall concept: essays by women who liked to be outside alone. As a young woman, I hiked on the Appalachian Trail for 3 weeks solo, I snowboarded up in Vermont alone, and I would often go out on my mountain bike by myself.  In the last few years, my outdoor adventures have waned, so reading about women bicycling across France or fishing in the Alaskan wilds, or fixing up a dilapidated boat reminded me how much I savored that time alone in the natural world. I especially enjoyed Geneen Haugen’s essay “In the Tracks of the Old Ones” as she explored her relationship with the wild as she ages.  She says “A reasonable person knows that age means more, not less. At least the mind knows this. But how many carry the confidence or years gracefully, without apology or regret?” While I enjoyed this piece, and others, I realized my students may not find the same connections I might have.

There were, however, a number of essays I felt would work well with my students and offer a female perspective of being in the wild to compare to Christopher McCandless’s experiences.  The very first essay, “White Rabbit,” by Holly Keith, explores the beauty of snowshoeing alone up in the White Mountains and the satisfaction of being self-reliant. Also, since I’ll be starting my class with teaching Jack London’s “To Build A Fire,” I will follow that up with Barbara Euser’s “Unanticipated Snow Cave,” where she becomes stranded on a mountain and must dig a hole in the snow.  At one point she writes “I thought of Jack London’s story. Would the roof of my mini-cave collapse if I lit the candle?” This allusion will allow for a discussion of how literature impacts us and creates a certain mythos in our culture.

This collection of essays was refreshing to read–I am also reminded of how much I miss the elements of creative non-fiction, and I have resolved to read more collections of essays for the rest of the year.

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary

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Up Late with Going Alone: Women’s Adventures in the Wild edited by Susan Fox Rogers