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on May 24, 2009
I am still on the fence about this book. Having read his prior guide, "How to Read Literature...", I was looking very forward to this work as well. Having finished, I am not exactly sure where I stand. To be honest, I was looking forward to something a bit more similar to his first book. This guide has a roughly similar idea, but it really did not do anything for me as far as learning how to read a novel. It was more of a study in novel history, styles, and techniques. It did offer some wonderful insight in why authors do what they do, the choices they make, and experiments they take. The problem is that Foster did not offer much in how to interpret this. It was like a study in the various ways writers craft their technique and how it differs between them (and time). Which leads me to the next thing...

This book, perhaps, should have been titled, "How to Craft Novels Like a Writer", or some other similar idea. There is a lot in here for an aspiring writer, examples of different techniques, character studies, writing styles, plot, theme, and so forth. I got much more out of this book on a writing level than on a reading level. He even references his creative writing classes several times as examples. All of the examples used to try and illustrate how to `read' a passage was much better used as a writing guideline / example. So, in other words, the book makes a great guide for aspiring writers and for those who want some history and aspects of the novel as a form of lit. If you are looking for something as straightforward as his first book, this does not come close. I know some people had an issue with his `cookie-cutter' approach in his first work, but that is exactly why it is now being used in the classroom by many teachers, including myself. It offered some very straight forward approaches in how to look at, scrutinize, and analyze literature. It is also not as exciting or as humorous as his first work either; this book comes off a bit more dry at parts. I found myself skimming and skipping through a few areas. Don't get me wrong, this is a good book and it offered some really great information, but when compared to "How to Read Lit..." it is average at best. Three stars on a reading level, four, if not five, on a study in writing & technique.
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on October 31, 2009
As a high school English teacher, I thoroughly enjoyed Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Our school's AP program uses the book and I've shared select chapters with my underclassmen. I picked up How to Read Novels Like a Professor with high hopes that I would be able to use it in my classroom. Like many sequels, this book does not live up to the promise of its predecessor.

My first concern as a classroom teacher is that my students have not yet encountered a majority of the texts Foster references. The reader who needs a book titled How to Read Novels like a Professor is unlikely to be fluent in Joyce. Foster relies on examples to clarify his points, but the use of oblique references to texts his potential readers are unfamiliar with undermines the clarity of his text. Joyce and Faulkner may act as common ground for those of us with degrees in literature, for those still in training Salinger and Twain would be more effective.

I appreciate Foster's wit and voice, but that is because I know the material he is discussing well enough to differentiate between zingers and revelations. The voice that makes his work approachable to me, is the same voice that would utterly confuse my students. In my experience, high school readers take flip comments literally when they are not fluent in the subject matter. While I may chuckle at Foster's humor or find his comments unnecessarily distracting, my students would be lost.

The chapters in this book lack the tight focus of How to Read Literature; Foster wanders aimlessly at times as though the purpose of the chapter is to fill space. Had the book been shorter and the focus tighter, this would have been a better book.
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on June 4, 2010
I loved Professor Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, but this second installment feels more like a sequel than a standalone guide. The chapters here read like "leftovers" for what he didn't cover in the previous work. For instance, an entire chapter is dedicated to the literary importance of chapter breaks in reading novels--not exactly groundbreaking stuff.

Further, the information in the book could be presented in about 30 pages. The information is presented in the first paragraph of each chapter, propped up with about 9 pages of fluff and discussion of specific novels, then summarized in the concluding paragraph. Highlighting the key points and skipping the fluff, I made it through this book in about two hours.

Do yourself a favor and pick up How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines if you really want to learn a thing or two about reading literature.
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on August 4, 2008
As a high school English teacher with two small children, I rarely get a chance to read a book for pleasure--let alone finish one. Amazingly, I read both of Foster's guides this summer. Each was a palatable presentation of issues surrounding literature in general and the novel in particular. He has a clear "voice" allowing me to imagine being back at a university lecture again--one of my favorite places to be! While other texts may seem more "scholaraly" (i.e. "dry"), Foster has a really accessible style for high school students, undergrads, and the interested public at large.
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on April 29, 2012
As a parent I've had to deal severally with my children, sometimes in tears, as they've struggled with the question as to what their teacher wants in their analysis of a novel. Having determined that "magic realism" was a term that entered the high school system after I graduated, probably by a year or two, and having been taught that all stories have a beginning, middle and a end, I turned here to Prof. Foster to get a sense of what is au current.

Turns out I was right and I was wrong. According to the author there is only One Story, that of the human condition. There are just a very large numbers of ways to tell it. And the style of telling it will change according to the mood of the times and the cultural milieu. Context is important, not only that of the society in which it is written, but also, and Foster believes very strongly in this, in terms of the context that the reader brings. Readers are not passive receptacles rather they are and should be active participants in the creation of story and character.

One wonders what Foster might say about fan fiction. Not only are the fans participants - they cannot leave the author's universe behind!

The first chapter, "Pickup Lines and Open(ing) Seductions", Foster trumpets the value of the first 18 pages of the novel, even the first page, paragraph or sentence, simply because these are what the browser at the bookstore looks at first. Style, tone, mood, diction, POV, narrative presence, narrative attitude, time frame, time management, place/setting, motif, theme, sense of irony (or not), rhythm, pace, expectation, character, instructions on how to read the book - these are the hooks that sell the book, and by covering these points no doubt more than half an essay can be made, in case one is wondering where to start. Foster practices what he preaches - as self reference, his non-fictional opening is what drew me in.

The book makes two major points. The first is that without us the reader both character and place are literally paper thin. Most novels devote few words to the physical description of a person, rather they daub impressions based on a few keys - a turn of phrase, a peripheral object such as a walking stick, a sense of mood, a set of green gables, but most of the details are interpolated by us. Pick those up and you score at least a B for analysis. The second is that the fondly regarded traditional structure that I alluded to in my first paragraph was a fashion trend of the 19th century when novels were often serialized and the reader needed, nay demanded guideposts. Interesting idea, literature as fashion.

Overall an enjoyable read, conversational in tone, with insights ranging from Hanna Barbera cartoons are simply successful revisitations of the quintessential buddy novel Don Quixote to speculations on the stylistic origins of scream of consciousness. The book we used in high school was a different Fo(r)ster and I appreciate the update. As is the case with this kind of book one also gets a number of seminal recommendations of good and not so good reads. And, as a parent, I'm glad to report that Professor Foster's ideas have proven to be helpful. Recommended!
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on June 30, 2014
There are piles and piles of books about being a writer. It's refreshing to find one about being a reader. Thomas C. Foster, a literature professor, employs a fun, breezy style to teach people how to get the most out of their reading. Chapter by chapter he takes readers through the major aspects that comprise "the novel"--quite a trick considering what a slippery creature it has shown itself since its debut back in the 1700s.

Here's a quick sample of some chapter headings. They give a good sense of the Foster's friendly, approachable style.

--Pick Up Lines and Open(ing) Seductions or Why Novels Have First Pages.
--Never Trust a Narrator with a Speaking Part.
--When Very Bad People Happen to Good Novels
--Everywhere is Just One Place
--Who Broke My Novel?
--Untidy Endings

Within each chapter, Forster uses pointed examples from both classic and contemporary fiction. I'm glad I have a habit of reading with a pen in hand, because I ended up with quite a reading list by the time I finished this book. The basic "lesson" of each chapter is summed up by a general (and pretty tongue-in-cheek) rule. Below is a sample of Foster's useful little nuggets.

--The Law of Getting Started: The opening is the first lesson in how to read a book.
--The Law of Narrative Unreliability: Stop believing the narrator when you see the word "I."
--The Law of People and Things: Characters are revealed not only by their actions and their words, but also by the items that surround them.
--The Law of Crowded Desks: When a novelist sits down to begin a novel, there are a thousand other writers in the room. Minimum.

If you are a writer, this book is doubly useful. It's chapters provide a neat checklist of thing to look for in your own work. Foster manages to provide lots of good direction without hampering individual style. His whole philosophy is based on the flexibility of the novel as a literary form. One that can accommodate sensibilities as wide ranging as stalwart Victorian Charles Dickens, noir writer Raymond Chandler, and contemporary novelists like Barbara Kingsolver.

Foster emphasizes that, in all literature, there is only ONE story. And yet it's also true that we can't read the same book twice. We've changed and therefore so has the book. It's his treatment of books as living, evolving entities that makes it likely his own HOW TO READ NOVELS LIKE A PROFESSOR will stand up to multiple readings.The discussions and theories he presents seemed designed to support a literary taste that grows and changes.
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VINE VOICEon July 30, 2010
Thomas C Foster's previous book How to Read Literature Like a Professor changed my view of books. Therefore, I looked forward to his second book, How to Read NOVELS Like a Professor. The second book is pretty good, but does not measure up to the first.

The first half of the book was great. Foster discusses what readers can learn from a book's first pages, the ways authors use emblems to define characters, and how a character's desires are also revealing.

Foster lost me in the second half. My big complaint is that he focuses on experimental literature and esoteric literary theory that do not interest me. The book slogs to a finish and I was glad to put it down.

Foster stresses that there is no single interpretation of any work. OK - here's my opinion: as a reader, I served my sentence by reading Joyce, Beckett, and others while in school. I appreciate that they were immensely talented and that they extended our ideas of what counts as literature. But I don't want to read them - ever. For me, part of what defines greatness in a novel is that I want to read it.

In the end, a readers' enjoyment of this book will vary in direct proportion to how much he or she enjoys experimental literature and the various ideas about literary criticism that have arisen in the last 50 years. (Foster, of course, would say that my opinion reveals more about me than it does about literature - and he'd be right).
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on September 4, 2012
Foster's earlier book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, was a favorite. I think I like this one even better. From his thoughts on what constitutes a novel to the discussion of the evolution of the novel, Foster is entertaining, thought-provoking, literate, engaging. More than anything else, I am inspired to re-examine some novels (100 Years of Solitude, A Plague of Doves, Flaubert's Parrot) that I found too daunting, but now seem slightly more accessible. I would love it if everyone in my book club read How to Read Novels....I think it would help our discussions move beyond "I liked it" or "I hated it".
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on February 4, 2009
I'm only 2/3 of the way through the book so I'm not conversant with the last few chapters. However, I intend to finish it, and I must say I'm enjoying this very much, and not just as a serious reader of novels, but as an aspiring writer. Foster gives me a lot of new considerations and since he's not telling me how to write, or giving me writing lessons, I can just enjoy his very readable style and gather what insights come my way. I don't think his levity is a handicap. I've read a number of academic dissections of fiction, and I had to yawn my way through most of them. What Foster points out as characteristics of a good novel are subjects of great interest to any writer wannabe, of which there seems to be plenty, judging from the many "How-to" books in publication today. His suggestion that the first page CAN reveal "18 things" about the book, and his delineation of same, can only make for a better reader or writer. And while his coverage of POV is not exhaustive, I did find it helpful. We need more books of this tenor, not fewer. I've also read Francine Prose's excellent book on reading suggestions for a writer, and enjoyed it, but I don't think it takes anything away from Foster's book. With literacy so much threatened today, a book this instructive and enjoyable should be applauded. And it is well to remember that his target audience is composed of readers, not writers, but since good reading encourages good writing, I would consider it a welcome addition to a writer's library.
(PS I've now finished the book, and I still enjoyed it. I defy anyone to read this book and not learn something from it. Anyone who can make that claim should be writing their own book of this type. Very few readers or writers would come up with all of the insights and perspectives the author has on a wide variety of fiction. Still a good read, but not if you're impatient and just seek a magic formula for writing block-buster novels.)
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on December 26, 2010
Two stars for the conversational tone and for the occasional humorous bits, but truth be told, this book drove me crazy. I expected a "How To" (as the title explicitly suggests). Instead, it was an agonizing, self-important collection of mini literary analyses. In each chapter, Foster makes a blanket, generalized statement, and then spends the next ten pages listing various novels which utilize said statement. I've read most of the literature he discusses, but in a few cases he actually gives away the premise -- or worse, the climax! -- of some books I'd been wanting to read. Infuriating.

Not only that, but who cares? I don't want to read a bunch of novel-specific mini essays -- I already have enough of those to grade. This is not at all what it purports to be. A lengthy list of everything Foster has ever read, sure; an instruction manual it is not.
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