Tag Archives: reading

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

3 May

I’m happy to present another post by Sam Glass, on a book that, though I may never have heard of it, it has since won a spot on my ever growing summer reading list.

A few weeks ago, I realized that all of my favorite writers were men. This was pretty embarrassing. After soliciting recommendations via Facebook status update, I’m equipped with a comprehensive and rather intimidating list of female authors to explore. It’s important for everyone, but particularly heterosexual men in their early 20’s (yours truly), to be cognizant of how gender is privileged in the literary canon. To that end, I’ve begun an eight-week regimen in which my reading will be limited to books and short stories authored by women. The Dud Avocado was first.


The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Quick Read: Yes.

Difficulty: Not difficult, very funny!

Synopsis: Sally Jay Gorce, fresh out of Sweet Briar College, is living in Paris with the intent to see new things, meet new people, and have new experiences—“hell-bent on living” is her phrase. The first chapter introduces her with pink hair, an evening dress (her other clothing is at the cleaners), a luxurious Italian lover, and a sharp, intelligent voice. Living on money from a wealthy Uncle who’s decided to give her two years of no-strings-attached adventure, Sally Jay careens about France like some sassy knight-errant—there’s little rhyme or reason to her actions beyond the aforementioned desire to “live.” She makes some sensible decisions but many foolish ones, and her native intelligence and charm is often put at odds against the typical foibles of the young: naiveté, credulousness, irritability, and ennui. Sally’s story dips and crescendos with a rotating cast of characters, and eventually culminates in rather beautiful realization from which the novel derives its title. It is a very good story.

What makes this book awesome? 

The voice. Seriously. Sally Jay’s narration is the lynchpin of the novel, and it transmutes the interesting-but-not-incredible events of the story in pure gold. Wry observations are peppered throughout but the tone is never strained; Elaine Dundy’s command is pretty impressive for a first-time novelist. Comparisons to Salinger and Mary McCarthy spring to mind. There’s the same assuredness in her prose, and the same delightful abnegation of post-modern conventions in favor of telling a damn good story—reading The Dud Avocado feels like spending an afternoon in the presence of a particularly magnetic stranger. This isn’t to say The Dud Avocado never delves into deeper territory: amid the jokes, many considerations of what it means to be a young girl in a strange land evolve against the events that play out in the story. One of my favorite lines is spoken by Sally Jay after she realizes her Italian lover is only after her family’s money. Laughing, she says, “Oh thank you, Teddy. Thank you for restoring my cynicism. I was far too young to lose it!” The Dud Avocado is a good book in any case, but it’s especially pertinent to the young, smart, and unwise.

Elaine Dundy, seen here looking as though maybe she's got a good joke for Groucho Marx.

Some neat-o facts:

  • Groucho Marx loved the book so much he wrote Elaine Dundy a letter: “I had to tell someone (and it might as well be you since you’re the author) how much I enjoyed The Dud Avocado. It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm).”
  • The Dud Avocado is semi-autobiographical. Dundy once said of Sally Jay: “”all the impulsive, outrageous things my heroine does, I did. All the sensible things she did, I made up.
  • The rest of Dundy’s life was pretty crazy as well. She married a British dramatist and began to hang out with Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and Laurence Olivier. She also wrote a biography of Elvis Presley that Kirkus Reviews called “the most fine-grained Elvis bio ever.”

If you like this, try: The Group, Mary McCarthy; Bonjour Tristise, Francoise Sagan; Daisy Miller, Henry James



The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

28 Apr

I’d like to believe I’m not the only one who gets restless around this time of year. It’s time for something new. Time to go on some sort of vacation, some small adventure. So far, that adventure for me has been to places like the greek yogurt aisle at the supermarket, but with graduation in sight, I (hope to) dream big. This being said, summer reading deserves to be a little adventurous, and it deserves to be fun. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain isn’t all fun and games by any means, but it’s not a boring read by any means. So don’t finalize your summer reading list just yet.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Published: 1884

Quick Read?: Eh. Kind of.

Difficulty: A bit more difficult until you get the hang of Twain’s use of South colloquial language. The book is known for it’s difficult language at times, but don’t despair. It’s got a certain rhythm to it.

Synopsis: Huckleberry Finn isn’t just any rough and tumble Mississippi boy. He’s a young man who prefers adventure to being “civilized,” which is what his guardian, the Widow Douglas, wants him to be. Huck has a considerable amount of money thanks to his adventures with Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (the prequel to this volume, though this can totally be read on its own), but a quiet life is not the life for him. After sneaking out of the Widow’s house, Tom Sawyer and Huck meet up with real life “robbers” who inspire them for a life of even more adventure. But this new fun life is cut short when Huck’s mean, drunk father reappears in his life trying to steal his money. An elaborate plot to fake Huck’s own death is established, and after he escapes down the Mississippi River. He comes across a floating house along the river, and the Widow Douglas’s runaway slave Jim, who was accused of murdered the not-so-dead Huck. Together, the two band together for adventure after adventure, including Huck’s cross-dressing, freeing slaves, family feuds, and the “Royal Nonesuch.” It’s an American story of adventures in the Deep, Deep South.

What makes this book so cool?: It probably sounds cliche to say this book is “classic Americana,” but it really is. After all, it was published just after the Civil War, and it encapsulates a time of both Southern pride and shame as America teetered (just as Huck teeters) between being “civilized” and adventurous, quiet and wild, somber and adventurous as they moved westward and attempted to be a “whole” nation with regional pride. And that’s just how this book is. It’s on the cusp of youth and adulthood, responsibility and freedom, ethical rights and wrongs. Don’t believe me? It’s still a controversial book to teach, especially in the South due to its use of the “n” word, with one publishing company going so far as to use the word “slave” instead. It’s not a time period we Americans are always proud of, but even today, no matter what your opinion, it’s a time period worth reflecting on.

And as I said earlier, don’t we all want some adventure right about now? This book is full of adventures both small and big, comedic and violent, enthralling and sometimes a little bit tragic. Even if you’ve read it before, sometimes an exciting ride can do us a lot of good.

Some neat-o facts:

Mark Twain: beloved writer, steamboat captain, cigar lover, connected to the cosmos and causing all kinds of trouble.

  • The book was controversial from the time it was first published. What is most controversial today about the book is it’s use of the “n” word as mentioned above. One publishing company recently went so far as to replace every instance of the word with the word “slave.” What do you think?
  • Both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer take place in Hannibal Missouri, Twain’s hometown. I’d say that’s pretty convenient when you don’t feel like creating a whole new town.
  • Twain was born during the passing of Halley’s Comet, and died during the next passing of said comet. Talk about about arriving and leaving with some flair.

If you like this, try: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Twain; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Aspern Papers by Henry James; A Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.


“The Stones” by Sylvia Plath

25 Apr

This is Sylvia Plath reading her poem “The Stones” in 1962. Because sometimes on Wednesdays you need to hear some beautiful poetry.

Calling all Better Know a Book readers! Let’s talk themes.

22 Apr

So I’ve been thinking about how to plan the next few months (and, of course, the rest of the future), and thought it might be interesting to do a couple of theme months. I’d thought of doing a Young Adult fiction month that featured famous, classic Young Adult books (no, not Twilight, don’t even ask about Twilight), but what about a Mystery month? A sci-fi month? A theater month? An existential month?

The point of this post being I’d love your feedback as to what you, my wonderful readers, would want to see. And hey, I’d love your help with any “theme” month, in both general ideas and blog posts themselves. So please. Do leave comments.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

18 Apr

Ladies and gentleman who read my blog, I would like to introduce another guest blog post, done by Sam Glass. I hope you enjoy his take on The Great Gatsby as much I do!

The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, and one of the seminal works of American literature. You’ve read it before. Probably in high school. Read it again. In a world where the relevance of the novel is questioned with increasing persistence and aggression, The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of how literature can act as a unique mirror for the complexity of our individual and collective character. Plus, it’s a genuine pleasure to read, and at times very humorous! Nothing tickles your funny bone quite like disillusionment.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Published: 1925

Quick Read? Yep—it’s less than 200 pages.

Difficulty: Surprisingly approachable! But the thematic subtlety allows for many enjoyable and revelatory re-readings.

Synopsis: Nick Carraway, a recent Midwestern transplant to an affluent New York suburb, quickly finds himself embroiled in the strange culture of his neighbors—among them Tom, an old college buddy; Daisy, Nick’s cousin; and Jordan, Daisy’s sardonic friend. People in East and West Egg spend a lot of time consuming, conversing, and enjoying the trappings of their wealth. About a quarter of the way through the book, however, Nick meets the titular Gatsby. We learn about Gatsby in bits and pieces—he throws lavish parties, cultivates an air of mystery, and enjoys referring to friends as “old sport.” His wealth is the subject of not-entirely-unfounded suspicion. Though Nick is able to make small motions toward an independent arc, the majority of his narrative focuses on his friendship with Gatsby, and Gatsby’s attempt to woo Daisy—his adolescent sweetheart—away from her husband Tom.

What makes this book awesome?: In the future, when homo robotus or the aliens or whomever study the ancient United States of America, The Great Gatsby will prove exemplary of how American culture informed universal human wants and fears. Beyond the beauty and fluency of the prose—which is some of the most beautiful and fluent ever produced—Gatsby is a hard, poignant look at what it means to desire, and what happens when that desire is sated (sort of).

Jay Gatsby has been called “America’s First Antihero.” The charge is not without merit. He’s shady, annoyingly colloquial, and sometimes rather pathetic. But Gatsby’s fervid wish to escape a past he finds shameful and his powerful belief in the attainability of dreams make him a horribly relatable character as well. America has long been a haven for those unable to bridle their ambition, and the novel’s grisly conclusion belies the purported “success” that Gatsby experiences before and during the action of the book.

The Great Gatsby penetrates America’s most pervasive mythos, the rags-to-riches success story. In the end, Gatsby’s desires let him down because they’re seeded in fantasy. His idealism, his optimism, and his ambition—because they service a specious goal—result in an unreal and untenable kind of happiness (and eventually, his downfall). The Great Gatsby is an awesome, frightening book because it perfectly dispels a very appealing notion: that achieving our desires will consequently make us happy.

If only it were that simple.

Some neat-o facts:

F. Scott Fitzgerald was the man you wanted at all your raging parties during the 1920s. This guy, right here.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald is certainly famous for heavily influencing the American 1920s “Jazz Age,” but he was also famous for his zany wife Zelda Fitzgerald. In fact, she was so crazy that Fitzgerald’s best buddy Hemingway encouraged her to drink heavily in order to be able to tolerate her better. Classy advice, Hemingway.
  • Unfortunately this heavy drinking that was so encouraged meant that Fitzgerald’s health was poor, causing him to pass away in 1944, a sad fact that means his prolific career was cut short far too soon.
  • The Great Gatsby has been hailed as “The Great American Novel,” and Modern Library cites it as one of the best novels written in English in the 20th century. So really, if you haven’t read it yet, it truly is the paragon for all 20th century American novels after it.
  • While Fitzgerald was alive, his other books sold better than The Great Gatsby. Its literary genius was not recognized until after Fitzgerald’s death.
  • You can play an 8 bit video game version of the book here. Yes, it exists. Thank you Japanese video game company, for making all of our literary dreams come true!

Sam Glass loves reading books, talking about books, writing about books, and perusing artsy pictures of books on book-enthusiast blogs. Unsurprisingly, he works for the Great Books Summer Program. Sam also enjoys writing, television, England, cheese, and hypothetical scenarios. He graduated from Tulane University in 2011, and is thinking about returning to school to pursue a higher degree in literature. At present, however, he is preoccupied with a more immediate goal: moving out of his parents’ house. Some of his favorite authors are David Foster Wallace, J.D. Salinger, Nick Hornby, W.H. Auden, and George Orwell. He hypothesizes that J.K. Rowling will be as critically acclaimed as Charles Dickens in thirty years, give or take.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

14 Apr

My attempt to grapple with large, looming life decisions as I enter (or maybe just continue upon) the end-of-college-stress-craze has meant a lot of nostalgia recently. That’s good for this blog (which has sometimes been left by the wayside) especially when looking to my young adult years to figure out how exactly I got to where I am. And recently, I’ve been revisiting the always lovely and fascinating Madeleine L’Engle, especially A Wrinkle in Time. It’s a near-perfect science fiction/fantasy in my mind: fun, mysterious, a little bit romantic, setting up a world that’s easy to step inside. I remember being so very taken by this book, and truly being breathless at certain passages.

The book is also totally underrated, especially given the “Doctor Who,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and other sci-fi crazes that’ve been around lately. If you haven’t delved into L’Engle, you should. She truly is amazing.


A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Quick Read?: Yes.

Difficulty: Not very difficult, though it does take place in (an)other dimension(s), so there can be a lot of detail to pick up on.

Synopsis: This book quite literally begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Our heroine Meg can’t sleep because of it, and neither can her brother Charles Wallace, her mother, or her strange neighbor, Mrs Whatsit. As they sit around drinking hot chocolate, Mrs Whatsit tells Meg’s mother “there is such thing as a tesseract,” causing Meg’s mother to faint. It turns out Meg’s father, a scientist who went missing, disappeared while trying to find this tesseract. The next day Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s friend-turned-love-interest decide they must go to try and rescue her father with the help of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, who teach them that a tesseract is a fifth-dimensional way of folding space and time in order to visit different planets and worlds (the “wrinkling” of time). As the children travel with Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, they learn that the universe is slowly being taken over by The Black Thing, and that they must try to stop it to not only save their planet, but each other as well.

What makes this book awesome?: I’ve always thought A Wrinkle in Time is a perfect marriage of science fiction, fantasy, and actual science. I can’t speak for “real science,” being that science is not one of my strong suits, but the idea of the tesseract comes from principles around “wormholes,” an actual idea in physics. Then there were the elements of science woven into the story, as well as alien planets and societies (I still get nightmares about Camazotz, the last place they visit in the book. It’s incredibly spooky and scary) that feel real, especially given the science L’Engle is working with even though this is primarily fiction. All of this is combined with fantasy too–Charles Wallace has some almost psychic abilities, their absent father becomes a mysterious background figure, and what saves them all in the end (not really a spoiler) is done with the power of love. Sci-fi/fantasy can be tough to differentiate, but L’Engle weaves them all together beautifully.

Similar to other science fiction/fairy tales that were aimed at children, the journey these children take is one that is universal–it’s a quest to see how far love can really go, whether or not love can really conquer all. This can be seen in the Harry Potter series, perhaps even in The Lord of the Rings series, yet there is something about L’Engle where it hits home even harder for me. I’m sure you could chalk this up to my own personal affection for the book, but still. Perhaps fantasy and science fiction is more about where science and emotion meet, and how far they can run together or apart.

Mrs Madeleine "I will write what I please" L'Engle

Some neat-o facts:

  • As I stated above, the idea of the tesseract is based on wormholes as they are known in physics. Maybe if the tesseracts were a little more whimsical, like the TARDIS in “Doctor Who,” people would be as excited about them as they are about traveling through time in a TARDIS.
  • Apparently characters on the TV show “Lost” were seen reading A Wrinkle in Time, prompting a group of avid “Lost” fans to read it. They even got L’Engle to have a discussion with them about the show and the book. Who said being an avid TV fan meant you didn’t read?
  • L’Engle has made it clear that her books are based on her interest in her own Christian faith and modern scientific knowledge. Interestingly, some Christian bookstores felt her books were not “suitable” to be sold and refused to stock them, and the books were even banned in some schools and libraries. Secular readers often panned her works for being “too religious.” I suppose you can’t please everyone.

If you like this, try: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, or Many Waters by L’Engle; the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling; War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

11 Apr

If you missed this past weekend’s big event, it was the 50th anniversary of the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. And in her second guest post, Izzy Long will be giving us a review of this classic American book. This book is a personal favorite of mine (also, Atticus Finch is my favorite literary crush), and hopefully, if you haven’t read it, it’ll be a new favorite for you too.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful story set in 1950s Alabama in Deep South America, where clear lines are drawn between white and black communities. Themes of prejudice and racism run throughout the plot, along with issues of class, loneliness, courage and a growing understanding of other people’s points of view. It is told through the eyes of seven-year-old Scout; the spirited daughter of lawyer, Atticus Finch, who takes on the defence of an innocent black labourer accused of raping a white girl.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Published: 1960

Quick read? While the plot ticks by at a lively rate, the underlying themes deserve proper concentration and time spent unravelling what the author wanted to get across to her readers. Take the time to understand the novel’s powerful messages.

Difficulty: The plot is action-packed with more than one tense moment, yet it is fairly straightforward and easy to read. The themes of prejudice, racism, loneliness and the loss of innocence add a deeper element that is well worth exploring.

Synopsis: The story follows town lawyer, Atticus Finch and his children: ten-year-old Jem and seven-year-old Jean-Louise (Scout) who live in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The central plot of the novel is when Atticus defends a black man, Tom Robinson against the charge of raping a young white girl.

Scout tells the story from her point of view, starting from when she and her brother, Jem, together with their friend Dill, become interested in the myth of local recluse Boo Radley during their school summer holidays. Although scared of Boo, Dill encourages the others to join him in trying to make him come out of his imposing house.

Back at school once again, Scout finds herself missing the freedom granted to her over the summer by her father. As she and Jem walk home past Boo Radley’s house one afternoon, they discover gifts left apparently for them in the knothole of a tree. They try to write Boo a note of thanks, but are stopped by Atticus who urges them to consider Boo’s feelings and to think of things from another person’s point of view.

A year later, Atticus has taken on the defence of Tom Robinson, a black labourer accused of raping a white girl. Scout is teased about this at school, but her admiration for her father returns when he shoots a dangerous mad dog in the street with just one shot. Later, Atticus leaves town on business and his stern sister, Alexandra comes to look after the children. Their black nursemaid, Calpurnia takes the children to her black church, but when Alexandra finds out, she bans them from visiting Calpurnia again.

When Atticus returns to Maycomb, a group of local men try to persuade him outside the jail to drop Tom’s defence on the eve of his trial. As more men turn up, intending to lynch Tom, things start to turn nasty, Scout unwittingly diffuses the situation by recognising one of the men as the father of her school friend and asking innocently after his son.

Tom’s trial begins, with the whole town present in the courthouse. As Atticus’ cross examination gets underway, it becomes clear that the girl, and her father, Bob Ewell, are lying and that Tom is innocent. Despite that, he is found guilty by the all-white jury. After the trial, Bob Ewell, knowing that he was badly shown up by Atticus, spits at him, vowing revenge. Later, the news comes that Tom was shot dead by guards as he tried to escape prison.

Back at school, Scout is taught about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and cannot understand how her fellow townspeople cannot connect that with the racism present in the town. Walking home from a Hallowe’en pageant a few weeks later, Scout and Jem realise they are being followed. Someone tries to squash Scout inside her padded fancy dress costume and breaks Jem’s arm. The children manage to escape and get safely home, thanks to a mystery rescuer dressed in dark clothing. Bob Ewell is found dead with a kitchen knife in his ribs.

At home, Scout tells her story. Slowly, she realises that the person who helped her and Jem must have been Boo Radley, who is now standing shyly in the corner of the room. Atticus realises that Boo must have killed Bob Ewell, but persuades the townspeople to say that Ewell fell on the knife himself to protect the reclusive Boo. Scout leads Boo home, but she never sees him again after that. She finally realises what life must be like for him, putting herself in his shoes and thinking for the first time from other people’s points of view as Atticus had once urged her to do.

Why this book? Harper Lee chose the title of her book as a metaphor for human justice. Mockingbirds do no harm to anyone, so it could be said to be a very great sin to kill one. The long-held attitudes and prejudice held by the various characters in Maycomb are challenged as the plot unfolds, leading to a fascinating exploration of human courage. Racial tensions and prejudices still exist to this day, making To Kill a Mockingbird as relevant to the twenty-first century as it was when it was published in 1960.

Some neat-o facts:

Harper Lee (or perhaps Scout?), all grown up.

  • This was Harper Lee’s first and only book, which won the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1961. It was adapted into both a stage play and a film, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout.
  • The plot was constructed in the context of US race relations, following a long period of slavery, when black people were considered as much of a commodity as USA parcels by the white community. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, black people were still, by and large, powerless as white people fought to retain their advantages through the difficult period of the Great Depression and beyond, often through segregation and injustice.

If you like this, try: ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, about a young African American woman living in rural Georgia in the 1930s. Or ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ – the 1969 autobiography of black writer and poet, Maya Angelou.

Review by Izzy Long. She is a freelance writer, and she can be contacted here.