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Original Essays | September 18, 2014

Lin Enger: IMG Knowing vs. Knowing

On a hot July evening years ago, my Toyota Tercel overheated on a flat stretch of highway north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A steam geyser shot up from... Continue »


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Joel Karpowitz has commented on (12) products.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Eminent Lives) by Bill Bryson
Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Eminent Lives)

Joel Karpowitz, April 14, 2014

If you're looking for a beginner's intro to Shakespeare's life, this is a great place to begin. Less "academic" than Greenblatt's also-fine Will in the World and anchored by Bryson's pleasant voice, this slim volume provides a just-the-facts approach to what we know (and don't know) about the most influential author to ever live. Bryson enjoys the "details"--how many signatures we have of Shakespeare's, where they can be found, what an appearance at court might or might not tell us--but he doesn't get bogged down in speculation, and he has a very low tolerance for those who want to spin out great biographies from making assumptions based on the content of the plays themselves. Bryson is instead content to point out where the plays seem to line up with what we know, and where perhaps they raise surprising questions. As with all his texts, he does not rely on histrionics or emotional appeals, but rather walks you through the author's life with a calm and slightly sardonic tone.

Incidentally, I was pleased that the last chapter is basically a pointed rejection of the "Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare" theories that seem to be so prominent these days. I have little interest in the snobbish arguments that the Oxfordians and others seem to make, and I appreciated Bryson's wry rejection of those pointless theories. There's enough in the historical record to make a man, and there's enough in the plays and poems themselves to make a living and thinking and feeling human. Getting caught up in the silliness of "yes, but which human" seems to miss the point of what makes the plays so powerful.
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Mama Day (Vintage Contemporaries) by Gloria Naylor
Mama Day (Vintage Contemporaries)

Joel Karpowitz, April 14, 2014

I was really pleased to fall in love with Gloria Naylor's Tempest-inspired masterpiece set just off the Georgia/South Carolina coast. It's close enough to home for me now to feel the rhythms and the lifestyle at play, and foreign enough to be full of the magic and fantasy of Shakespeare's play. It helps that Naylor has such a keen ear for dialogue (and dialect) and character to make it all ring with life and truth.

Naylor's tale alternates voices and narrators--mostly the first-person accounts of budding lovers Cocoa and George, but also a third-person narrator who tracks the mysterious Mama Day and the other characters wending their way through life in Willow Springs, an island that has its own roots in history and mystery--a no-man's land unclaimed by any state, a rich heritage of seventh-sons and seventh-sons, a strong rooting in magic. As Mama Day goes about her life and touches the lives of those around her, Cocoa (living her life in New York City) attempts to figure out what place her own individuality has with personalities as strong as Mama Day and the stiff and similarly-independence-minded George vying to influence her life.

The resulting story hits the rough outlines of the Tempest well enough that familiarity with the play will add richness to the story, but Naylor is such a powerful storyteller and writes with such a poetic and reflective voice that I would also recommend it to readers who have no knowledge of the play and just like a well-written text. Yes, it gets a little magical and "non-realistic" at some points, so if that bothers you, be prepared. But I found the story and the writing completely enriching and entertaining. A definite recommend for fans of Zora Neale Hurston or other writers in that vein.
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The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea by Adam Johnson
The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea

Joel Karpowitz, April 14, 2014

I absolutely loved this book.

Johnson's novel of North Korea presents the insular nation as almost comically ridiculous before veering into black and tragic territory. Pak Jun Do, the titular orphan master's son, serves as an almost picaresque hero in a world that is more 1984 than recognizable. In a country where lies become truth when they are agreed to, where identities can be erased with the nod of the Dear Leader's head, where not fitting into the system will almost certainly kill you, Pak Jun Do slips into experiences that should result in his obliteration with the silence of a fish. Survivor, kidnapper, spy, prisoner--he fills all these roles and more as he exposes the idiosyncrasies and insanities of North Korea under Kim Jong Il. Driven by his love for the famous North Korean actress Sun-moon, Pak Jun Do follows the passionate heart he keeps hidden under a stoic face.

Johnson won pretty much all the major awards last year, and it's easy to see why. He makes this world, so foreign to Western eyes, come alive in all its absurdity and horror. It's easy to love Pak Jun Do, whose inner torments and triumphs against all odds seem to have something profound to say about the human spirit and the drive for fulfillment and wholeness we all face, no matter the obstacles. The novel alternates between three separate voices--the propaganda announcer on the radio, a third person narrator following Pak Jun Do, and a first person interrogator who is attempting to learn the story of Commander Ga, husband of Sun-moon and rival of Kim Jung Il. As these stories intertwine around and through each other, journeying from the seas around the Korean peninsula to a Texas ranch, and from a prison camp to the shores of Japan, Johnson allows us to ask questions about truth, about love, about what makes us who we are, and about human nature. The plot barrels forward without ever becoming trite, and as Pak Jun Do's world becomes increasingly labyrinthine and complicated, it also becomes richer and more rewarding for the reader, culminating in a climax that I completely adored.

It's been a great reading year for me so far, but this is currently one of my front runners for my book of the year: just absolutely compelling and, despite those Orwellian tones, like nothing I've ever read. I'm guessing it's too complex (and maybe even dark) for my tenth grade students, but this is the kind of book I would love to teach in school if I can find a way to fit it in, simply to expose more people to it.
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(4 of 7 readers found this comment helpful)

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale for the Time Being

Joel Karpowitz, March 15, 2014

It's hard to say what I loved most in A Tale for the Time Being. Naoko's sense of humor? The spot-on descriptions of Japanese culture? The slow reveals of everyday tragedy? The blending of quantum physics and Zen buddhism? The idea of time as a being and a state and a flexible fabric that enfolds us all? Ozeki's voice is enthralling and invigorating, and her characters stayed with me long after I closed the cover. This is the kind of book I want to lend people--not everyone, just the people who will "get it"--to let them into the secrets of the lives of these two women. It all worked. Perhaps in a few years I will embrace my time-being-ness and travel back to read it again. And I never do that.
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(9 of 16 readers found this comment helpful)

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy D'Art by Christopher Moore
Sacre Bleu: A Comedy D'Art

Joel Karpowitz, February 4, 2014

I've been hoping for a while to find a Christopher Moore book that I loved as much as Lamb, and Sacre Bleu comes solidly into second place. Moore aims his typical sense of the absurd at the Impressionist painters gathered in Paris in the late nineteenth century, and the book works in some levels as a fascinating primer on art (if you can sift past all the Moore-ish silliness to find the kernals of reality), topped off by the inclusion of lovely color reproductions of many of the paintings discussed in the text. In addition, Moore does a nice job playing with the insanity and insatiability of some of the artists of the time, from Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to Renoir to Monet to Van Gogh to Pisarro. They are all here, united in a madcap fashion that only Moore could come up with, but as with his best work, the absurdity (donkey in a hat) is matched with a zest for life and an enthusiasm that is just plain fun to read.

I'll admit, I had no clue where he was going with the plot of the story (the ambiguous woman, the Colorman, the donkey with a hat) for a long time, and when he finally revealed what was happening it was a bit of a "Oh, duh" moment, but he had me hooked so early with his characters and his charm that I didn't really care.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)

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