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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Changing Scope and End of the Year

I finished reading Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer." It was really a pleasant surprise to see her quoting Zbigniew Hebert at the end. Hebert is a Polish writer I discovered in 1996 when I purchased "Still Life with a Bridle" at an old bookstore in Georgetown right before I began graduate school. Prose's book was a nice way of ending the year, as I realize I have to change my presently passive mode of just reading and absorbing and take the more active approach of thinking like a writer. I have debated for years what it takes to be a writer, even after two degrees in writing. There's always some insecurity that makes me believe I am more of a poser than an actual writer. But there's quite a bit of blogging to prove otherwise. I mean, blogging should be categorize as a writing activity as well. And what about my Moleskine notebooks? That's a lot of writing indeed!

So I have changed the mode of this blog to include my ideas about writing and teaching as well. I believe this will add to the blog a more active approach, reflecting more of my daily ideas and thoughts. Since I am teaching all history the second semester, the blog might reflect quite a bit of my additional readings in history. I am looking forward to this new scope.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Reading Like a Writer

I've been hitting "Reading Like a Writer" pretty hard these last two days. I am on page 168. Francine Prose's eloquent writing is a testimony to her generous artistic gift. The book is more like a massive lecture on reading closely. She goes to great lengths analyzing long passages of dialogue, as well as specific sentences and paragraph structure in fiction. Her examples are broad and reflect an ample stable of literary heavyweights. The only one thing that I found a little off putting was her inclusion of one Henry Green, an author who no doubt has an incredible handle on dialogue. The problem is that the examples from Green's novel, "Loving" are way too long and while Prose does a good job of detailing the passages, the reader might lose interest half-way through. Other than that, this is an interesting reading for anyone who wishes to learn to read like a writer. Who needs that MFA program after all?

I am also happy to announce my inclusion of a book I got in Japan this past summer, "Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words" to my 2007 reading list. I got this book one day I went out with my brother-in-law and I was looking for something to take back home as I usually do when I visit Japan. Jay Rubin has been Murakami's translator for years and as a critic may have some interesting things to say. He confesses right away that he is a fan of Murakami's writing, so with that out of the way we might know what the book has to offer to Murakami lovers like myself. I probably won't be getting to read the book until the late spring, but until then keep checking the blog because I am reading "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" in the next few weeks.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Two books...

I read two books between the 19th and the 24th exceeding what I originally intended to do. "Vintage Murakami," an anthology of Haruki Murakami's work went down in almost exactly 24 hours. The other book was a book I had listed for 2007 but once I started I couldn't put it down. It was non-fiction. "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison is a memoir about dealing with manic depressive illness. I had read "Night Falls Fast," also by her (I think it was last year or the year before). She is a great writer and the subject matter very serious.

So, I am right on track to read "Reading like a Writer" by Francine Prose starting tomorrow.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

And the envelope please....


I chose neither one of the options I listed yesterday for books to read between today and the 25th. I selected instead "Vintage Murakami," which is an anthology of his works. I like the idea of squeezing one of my top writers in for a day or two (it's only 179 pages long).

The anthology also includes the famous chapter from "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" of the story told by Lieutenant Mamiya, one of my all-time favorites. Things I will be looking for this time around: 1) description and setting in both "Norwegian Wood" and "Lieutenant Mamiya," 2) characterization and plot from the chapter of "Norwegian Wood." This will be part of my effort to start reading like a writer, complete with underlining passages :-) I am hoping that the fact that I have read most of these before doesn't spoil the process for me.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Where to be happiest...

After finishing "Lolita," I find myself questioning which book to read before the 25th. The reason for the indecision is that I have 2 books I want to read between the 25th and the 3rd of January. Why the schedule? Because I suspect that once school starts up again I will have little time to do anything else. At any rate, the two books are "Reading Like a Writer" and "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" both by authors I really like. I am also in the plans of listing the books for 2007. Although the list usually changes during the course of the year, most of the titles stick and I do enjoy posting the progress on my website. But for now, the trick is deciding on a book that will take me from December 19th through the 25th. Candidates are 1) a volume from a series introducing philosophers, and 2) a book of essays by William Gass. Of course I will continue to read the fascinating letters of James Wright. Which reminds me... thanks to a healthy gift by a literary benefactor I will be able to acquire my first books of poems by James Wright this Christmas. Again, like the title of this post: my only problem right now is where to be happiest! Happy Christmas and Merry New Year!

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Monday, December 18, 2006

The End of Lolita...

The end came suddenly, the way it does in high-tension filled movies. Humbert Humbert finally meets face to face with his rival and ends his miserable and horrific life. The scene didn't take long, although they had comparatively quite a bit to say to each other. The whole affair seems anti-climatic due to the fact that the reader already knows Humbert's mind is made up. At the moment when he is about to leave Lolita, Humbert surrenders himself to fate; a life without Lolita is no life to him. I am not quite sure why he didn't kill himself instead, although I suspect there was a quite a bit of satisfaction to gain. He, nevertheless, states that instead of a weight being lifted from him he feels more pressure on top of him after the murder. Strange, really, because it has little to do with his sense of guilt--either for having murder Quilty or for robbing Lolita of her childhood. Since there is really no redeeming quality for Humbert at the end, the reader is left with a sense of void that is not representative of whatever other emotions are evoked by the announcement of Lolita's own death at child-birth. Quilty's death seems like an endless puppet show, really, compared to other parts of the book. Everything seems like one of those special lens effects that make everything blurry and dream-like. The culmination is no end at all. One feels the books is quite a literary masterpiece and the disgressions of the narrator are all but forgotten by the end of the story. All in all, I have to recommend this book highly for its literary value and its highly experimental use of language, allusion, and stream of consciousness.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Reading Lolita in Westlake #005-A

I didn't get a chance to finish "Lolita" last night due to a Christmas concert I was scheduled to perform in. I simply got home to late for reading. Nevertheless, I wanted to write some today dealing with the language of the novel. As I said before, "Lolita" is full of stream of consciousness, puns and other tricks of lingustic style. One critic observed that "Lolita" is not for "passive readers who resist being drawn into linguistic games." I have enjoyed the novel a great deal, and, despite its controversial topic, I feel the novel has gotten a bad rap by the literature police. The fact is inarguable, really, that one could defend the novel's basic content; there is no amount of psychology that can justify a relationship between an adult and a mere child of twelve. What is perhaps Nabokov's greatest social commentary in the work is that of the narrator living a life full of consequences. He loses his young love to typhus and as a result sees the girl transmutated into Lolita. The narrator also pays for disrrupting Lolita's life. His soul is tortured, scarred. Even though I haven't finished reading it, I can sense that Humbert Humbert's decision to kill his rival stems from the fact that he has given hope of recovering his Lolita. I keep wanting to bring the book to work and read in my prep block, but I can imagine what the reaction of people I work with would be. That's the image of "Lolita" that most people have--not the grand masterpiece of literature it really is.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Reading Lolita in Westlake #004

"Lolita" is a book about cruelty, I am now convinced. While it didn't take me long to see that, I had to over-step the depravity of the book before I recognized its true deviance. Last night I read the scene where Humbert Humbert visits the pregnant Lolita and her "lamb of a husband" Schiller. The devastation is total as the narrator realizes how far he is from his bliss. His act of giving Lolita money becomes a delayed act of reversed prostitution; the narrator not paying for the services but the other way around... him paying for his role as seducer and child molester. Martin Amis explains the cruelty of the late part of the novel this way: "Humbert is surpassingly cruel in using Lolita for the play of his wit and the play of his prose--his prose, which sometimes resembles the 'sweat-drenched finery' that 'a brute of forty' may casually and legally shed (in both hemispheres, as a scandalized Humbert notes) before thrusting 'himself up to the hilt into his youthful bride'". The cruelty of his act is then felt through the stylistic language the child-girl cannot understand. He is a manipulator, an executor. And just when things cannot get worst (or so it seems) the 'executioner' decides to kill his rival and in a way kill himself (cruelty towards self using a vehicle from without). I can't wait to see where the book might turn next. Reading "Lolita" has been an academic exercise of sorts, but it has also been an enjoyable trip through a real gem of modernist/postmodernist literature. The last installment to come soon!

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Reading Lolita in Westlake #003

I continue to plunge forward with "Lolita." What still strikes me is its use of language and the avid depiction of the narrator's mind by use of stream of consciousness. The parenthesis indicating internal thought also add to the equation. Last night, as I was entering page 200 something, the scene where Lolita gets sick drew a barrage of disgust from me, but I continued reading. The reason I thought it was bad was that Humbert states that he "gives up all hope for intercourse" as Lolita burns up with a high fever in bed. I hate the degenerate selfishness. My only sympathies come when he is finally alone (before he meets up with Rita), as he bounces from one corner to the other not knowing what to do. This scene is the only place in the book where the narrator becomes human, or more than human, the quintessential heart-broken lover left to pick up the pieces of his life. The sense of alienation is terribly painful to any reader who has experienced the desolation of being abandoned by a loved one. It is only then when one feels some association to him.

I have been reading some critical analysis of the novel and I am in agreement with those that feel the ugliness of the book is necessary to counter what is otherwise a blissful use of language. Humbert speaks with a refreshing command of English and French, and this only goes a long way to make the reader appreciate Nabokov's ideas and use of language. This is not to justify the book or its subject matter. As one critic observes: "The moral structure of "Lolita" is surely strong enough to support and contain the anti-moral material the novel permits itself. A novel is not pornographic (except in the case that it can be used as pornography)when its interest in sexual excitement is a necessary part of such large and serious interests. It is not anti-cultural when its cynicism (Humbert's cynicism) dramatizes an alienation which is so moving, though unobtrusively, placed and judged." I have to agree with this assessment. Compared to "Memoirs of a Beatnik," "Lolita" is a school primer.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Travels in the Scriptorium

Paul Auster's new novel "Travels in the Scriptorium" is an intricate story which questions the power of authorship. Auster is simply a magician that can command not only the reader's attention, but also immerse the reader into the thin line between fiction and meta-fiction. The protagonist is an old man that sits in a room receiving the visits of people he does not remember. The story itself is brought into question when the reader discovers that the people who come visit the old man are old characters in previous Auster novels. They claim that they are the creation of the old man, thus leaving us to believe that the old man is Auster himself now being held to account on his creation and "manipulation" of these same characters. The novel does not suffer lineal breaks despite being experimental (not so much a la Joyce, but in a more post-modern way). As I was reading the novel the question of "what is" became more and more demanding of me. I was quick to turn to Heidegger and his concept of "what is is." If Auster is the old man--which is a conclusion too easy to accept--then what consequence does the author has in producing yet another character which he controls (the old man never leaves the room). Auster runs the risk of being held accountable by the old man in the not-so-distant future. I realize this may all sound like mumbo-jumbo, but the novel itself is a tour through the surreal. I love all of Paul Auster's novels and this one is no exception.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Frankenstein is Dead

We've all been there. Or have we? At least I can count myself of those who have experienced a classroom full of 11th graders trying to get excited about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Confessionally I may add that it is my first time reading the story. It was hard--it still remains hard--to find a student whose idea of Frankenstein has not been polluted by popular culture images of the creature. I understood from the beginning that what we were reading was literature, not entertainment. They, unfortunately, did not. During discussion students still aim to give their comments the "I-saw-the-movie-once" twist. I made the decision not to show the film once we are done with the book. Why? Because despite the fact that with every other book I do show the film as an enrichment activity, this one has already been accessed so much by their imaginations, recollections, delusions, etc., it is not worth watching and hear them complain it was not entertaining enough. What about the intricate value of the story itself... the higher art of it all, the ethical questions that arise from the experiment, the relationship between Elizabeth and Victor, the humanity of the creature (which by the way it is much more than that of his creator)? What about all these things? They would simply vanished if I showed the film. I don't want to sound like a prude but something is going to have to give when it comes to a generation who is totally averse to reading to enrich their lives. Those who do nowadays are in the simple minority.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

The Perversity of the Perverse

It seems to me (while reading "Lolita") that this country has a fascination with kicking people when they are down. In no way would I say that what the narrator has done is justifiable, but at the same time we "pious" ones tend to vilify a bit too fast. Case in point: NBC has a new series on "Dateline" entitled "To Catch a Predator." This is a worthwhile program, and it does a great deal to protect children in the United States. The problem with the program is that since it is televised, and the directors and powers that be need to produce "good television," the entire show has turned into televised lynching. For example, they go to great lengths to depict the alleged predators as the most evil of evil beings. I am in no way supporting what these men have done, but there is a problem when we turn the entire endeavor into "entertainment." And that is what NBC has done. The viewer WANTS to see the people get caught, and they want to see it in all its "gotcha" sort of distorted perversity. How does this tie to "Lolita?" Very simple. We want the narrator, Humbert Humbert, to get caught, to suffer, to pay for the damages he has caused. Our inclination to such sentiments stems perhaps from the deep ingrained idea that we would never--on any account--do something similar. But the truth is deeper than appears. We enjoy vilifying others and watching them be choked and be humiliated and shamed. Their perversity gives way to a more complex one--our own unwillingness to recognize and forgive human fault and folly.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Reading Lolita in Westlake #002

I haven't written anything down about "Travels in the Scriptorium" because I really didn't give too much thought to writing about it. I was primarily engaged in getting the links up for the Paul Auster website, etc. I did enjoy the book a great deal and found it incredibly brilliant and experimental.

About "Lolita..." Last night I read a bit more than I originally expected. I started early, as soon as I got back from work. The narrator is disturbing in his description of Lolita, but there's something complex and totally human about his attraction. In my opinion, his attraction to the "nymphets" stems from his early failed experience at the beach. He tells of this experience and his frustration early on the narrative. The more indepth the reader gets into the narrative, the more experimental language Nabokov uses. The stream of consciousness is aptly used during his journal writing. The scenes leading to the visit to the lake is full of Joycean streams. It is particularly sensory, following the lineal and bordering on the hyper. There some confusing parts. The narrator daydreams of having contact with Lolita and the way he describes is so real that the reader might get confused about whether or not it has taken place. There's no real validation or justification for his pedophiliac inclinations, but there is something deeply human about his distorted views.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Reading Lolita in Westlake

You would think that after my experience with "Memoirs of a Beatnik" I would not venture to read another book dealing with extreme intimacy. Wrong. I have decided that after owning the book for a long time (five years) it is time I finally pick up "Lolita" and make an attempt at getting through it. What strikes me as I read the first few chapters last night was the Joycean style. Although more cohesive and lineal, "Lolita" offers some of the same experimentation with language that made me read "Ulysses" twice (yes, that was a task). From what I read so far, "Lolita" is a precursor to the postmodernist movement. The many allusions and literary references even at the very opening of the novel is enough to tantalize the academic in most of us. The little that I know of the narrator already sheds light into the complexity of his character. I have heard that one cannot hate this narrator for what he does even if one tries. That to me is the sign of a "human" character, a character the reader identifies with and from whom he can accept a little (or a big) imperfection. So, I'll be updating on and off about "Lolita." If you've read it and want to comment, please do so.

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Commentary

Today in my British literature class, a group of actors from the Great Lakes Theater Company came to do some exercises on Macbeth. Two weeks before, I had a difficult time getting 28 teenage girls to consider Macbeth a masterpiece. After the actors left class this morning I thought how much more difficult it might be for them to begin anew with these very same teenagers. Moreover, these actors really go into what they were doing. I suppose you would have to, I mean, play the part to the utmost of your ability. Somehow it all seemed surreal to me. I don't think I could've been so enthusiastic if placed in the same position. I do have a passion for teaching, and I do the best I can to make all of this material relevant, but it is hard to compete with popular culture; a culture that is only driven by the given pleasure and immediate gratification and entertainment. Frankly, as I watched this morning proceedings I felt a bit of panic. Some of the girls made faces as if to say, "how uncool," while others just stood there with a fake blase of interest. And imagine, these actors will be here all week! Hope it gets better.

So I read more from "The Letters of James Wright." Marvelous how some people have such an incredible gift to be so communicative using letters. I wonder if he worked off drafts. I used to write regular letters to a friend in NYC and I remember jotting little things on margins of books, things I wanted to mention to my friend, which is kind of a draft for a letter, no? At any rate, Wright mentions something about his love for books and how little money he had to indulge in the luxury of purchasing books (especially a collection of poems by Swift). Reminded me of my old college days. I enjoy reading these letters, little by little. I am learning a great deal about poetry from this book.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Di Prima #002

I finished reading "Memoirs of a Beatnik" last night. The book really was a disappointment. The New York Times offered the following line: "A rare opportunity to view the Beat Generation... through a woman's eyes." Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg make a brief appearance, which is written in such questionable way it is hard to believe it really happened. The scene? A sex scene, of course! Allen Ginsberg has sex with two other men while Di Prima and Jack do it on the floor. This book never lets up... it's one sex scene after another. My disappointment stems from the basic fact that the book could have been about much more. The author's obssession with depicting her sexual encounters--as if it was really that cool to do so--borders on the manic. She mentions her writing but never develops it further than a couple of sentences so the reader never really understands what her writing is about or what her creative process is like. I don't fancy myself a book reviewer or a critic but this is one book I wouldn't recommend to take to a deserted island.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

Memoirs of a Beatnik

I picked up a copy of "Memoirs of a Beatnik." It mainly aroused my curiosity because it said the novel was a chronicle of the Beat movement, and the title was inviting enough (also the price: $4.95 used). The novel is closely based on the actual events of one Diane Di Prima. Well, the book begins with highly detailed sexual encounter and becomes an avalanche of youthful experimentation, not always positive or clear. And here I was expecting Kerouac and Cassidy to make a glorious appearance! So far (I haven't finished reading it, I am about half way through) none of the great Beats have appeared and the story line has been little short of soft porn. From lesbian encounters to the author's brief career as a model for pornographic still pictures, the book reads like a piece right off an underground magazine. One chapter deals with the narrator's visit to a college friend out in the "country," and becomes an Elizabethan drama complete with incest and a "rape" scene. The entire account is written in fiction form but the fact that it is admittedly biographical and also the fact that she doesn't change the name of the narrator leads one to believe the author is the narrator. There are some fine characters that cross paths with the narrator, but none of them stick long enough to make an impact (even the really interesting ones). I am sure the book made an impact when it was first published, for the cover includes a dazzling one-liner from "The New York Times." There are some bright points to it so far but I am still waiting for the main guns to show up. I was expecting something like "On the Road," or "Dharma Bums." We'll see if my opinion changes by the time I finish reading it. Which reminds me to stop writing blog entries for books I haven't finished reading.

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