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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Yoko Tawada

The novella "The Bridegroom was a Dog" borders on the surrealist. Just like Haruki Murakami books, this story plays with the unimaginable making it digestible and readable. Case in point: The featured story "The Bridegroom was a Dog" tells the story of Mitsuko Kitamura, a Japanese school teacher (a sorts of cram school), and a mysterious visitor who comes to visit one day and stays for good. What is so surreal about the story is what this visitor (his name is Taro Iinuma) does with the teacher when the mood strikes him. The story is far from pornographic, but it is graphic enough to make you think twice about what it is they are doing and why. The unbelievable/believable aspect of the story is that everyone else involved (minor characters, etc.) seem to act so normal despite the abnormal. Since I am about one third into the story I really can't write much more, but there's a mystery to Taro's character and the author is pulling the right strings to keep the reader hooked on the story. So far this has been a surprisingly interesting read.

I have rehearsals for the concert tonight, tomorrow and Friday. An additional rehearsal is schedule for Saturday during the day.

Classes are going great. I am so happy this semester that it seems I have forgotten what a hard time I had last semester. It all evens out, I guess. Today, my students will be taking their first examination on Chapter 22 of "The American Pageant." Wish them luck :-)

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Monday, January 29, 2007

The Politics of Ruining a Book

Manguel ruins his book in the end with a manifesto of political proclamations against the United States and its allies. The book was written in the year the Iraq war began, so I can see how he might include some criticism, but to ruin such a potentially great book to make a political statement or to bash George Bush is simply ridiculous and irresponsible. The last third of the book is injected with a leftist diatribe that Manguel intends to forcefully link to the books he read throughout the year. I am disappointed. I wonder how books like these fall through editorial nets (perhaps they don't). I am not writing this from either side of the political spectrum; I would still hold right-conservatives to the same scrutiny. Manguel simply ruins the book and there's no excuse for it.

I am reading "Writers on Writing," a collection of the essays that appeared in "The New York Times" over a couple of years. There are two volumes of this collection so I'll be writing on individual essays and hoping to apply some of the advice to my own writing. Also, I think I am (for the first time) reading two books at the same time. The other books is a collection of short stories by Yoko Tawada, "The Bridegroom was a Dog." Most of the reading for the Tawada volume I will be doing between the hours of 11:30 and 12:10, since that is the time that I'll be most likely to be able to read without interruptions. I am really sorry for the Manguel book, really, it just doesn't make any sense to me.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Art of 1600s Books...

Alberto Manguel's reading list for the book "A Reading Diary" includes Cervantes' "Don Quixote." Manguel quotes extensively from "Don Quixote" and the reader walks away with a great deal of the story. It must be an art to summarize entire sections of books this way. What to keep and what not to include? It is definitely a tough call. What I remember the most about "Don Quixote" are the times when my sisters and I would watch the old Mexican produced film version in Spanish and laugh at the absurdity of Sancho Pansa. It was a lovingly made film and I still remember some of its scenes. Some people theorize that Don Quixote is mentally ill because he read too much--spent too much time in his library. Perhaps I will end up like him.

Manguel on borrowing books: "I feel uncomfortable having other people's books at home. I want to either steal them or return them immediately. There is something of the visitor who outstays his welcome in borrowed books. Reading them and knowing that they don't belong to me gives me a feeling of something unfinished, half enjoyed. This is also true of library books." Over the years I have been collecting books at the same rate I read them, voraciously. I mark my books so borrowing from a library really doesn't help my case much. I do, however, borrow computer books from friends and from the library. I use them to teach myself and then have little or no attachment to them in the end.

I almost forgot to mention what Manguel writes regarding reading more than one book at a time. He says it is like two voices that enjoys at different times of the day. I am thinking of doing the same. I always read one book at a time and start thinking about what to read next on my list when I start getting close to the end. I don't know how it will go but I think I might want to try. Perhaps I will read twice as many books :-)

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Friday, January 26, 2007


This is a debate that has been brewing in my classes for a long time. What is nostalgia? How can we describe the feeling of longing-yet-happy-bittersweet emotions? Manguel's book defines the term for us once and for all. It is fascinating how one comes across information like this by just opening a book. Here's the most concrete definition of nostalgia I have read up-to-date:

"The word 'nostalgia' was invented on June 22, 1688, by Johannes Hofer, an Alsatian medical student, by combining the word nostos (return) with the word algos (pain) in his medical thesis, "Dissertatio medica de nostalgia," to describe the sickness of Swiss soldiers kept far away from their mountains."

What do we feel nostalgia for? A loved one. A place or time. A country. That I believe is particularly the one that applies to me. Even though I was born here there are times when I feel I live in exile. The search for home is never ending. A passage fron Ovid's "Tristia," .... a country created by layers and layers of memory, embroidered, corrected, reshaped.... the places we live in become transformed through our prejudices, whims, limited experience, through the fact that we walk one route and not another." And as in yesterday's post, when I took refuge in literature, perhaps I can find a country in it as well. Manguel includes some of the finest quotes about literature I have ever read. From Josef Skvorecky: "To me literature is forever blowing a horn, singing about youth when youth is irretrievably gone, singing about your homeland when in the schizophrenia of the times you find yourself in a land that lies over the ocean, a land--no matter how hospitable and friendly--where your heart is not, because you landed on those shores too late." Literature can do that, and this book is making me more and more aware of the possibilities.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Take Refuge in Me...

Manguel writes about taking refuge in books. I can definitely vouch for it. I don't think I could've made it through my last heartbreak if it hadn't been for the escape books provided. It is strange but at that moment, at the precise moment of break up, I turned to Kafka for refuge. In his letters to Milena: "Nor is it perhaps really love when I say that for me you are the most beloved; love is to me that you are the knife which I turn within myself." And just like that I simply understood why that other person had to move on with her life. But I am digressing. We take refuge in books to forget what has been carved into our consciousness through experience. Take refuge. Appropriate. Manguel remembers his bouts of escapism while, as a child, he read "The Island of Dr. Moreau." There was something exciting, he states, about being totally terrified; something that helped him forget the clutter of present-mindedness. He also writes about his collecting books and how his library has changed with the many moves of his life. Recently, I laid down roots in a brand new home, and established what I hope to be my permanent library, so I can relate to what he is writing. He describes the trees outside his window, the way the sun catches the front of the house, etc. I have gone through similar emotions lately (although the sun doesn't hit my window at all in the library). It is, however, home, and my books are my refuge. It's like having at your disposal several hundred counsellors or psycho-analysts.

Then there are those who resist the illusion, those who can live without the hope of the refuge. A college professor friend of mine spews out that for her all reading is escapism and that escapism, no matter how much it might be needed, is not a worthwhile endeavor. I resist that corrosion. I am simply attached to the comfort the written word offers. Just like Manguel who happens to be "drunk with words."

I think that the only criticism I have for "A Reading Diary" is that Manguel turns political at some points, strongly critical of the American administrations of the past and of today. I believe he is a socialist. While there is nothing wrong with that fact, the truth is that in a book so lovely even a paragraph of this non sequitorial stuff seems too much. Perhaps he has in mind a book on political analysis. Thankfully, those passages are few.

Tomorrow I will try to write about what Manguel calls "nostalgia." Lovely word, really.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Growing Up Philistine...

Alberto Manguel's book has awakened in me feelings that had been dormant for quite a while. I grew up in a household where books were not a priority. We had an encyclopedia and that was about it. The reason I am bringing this up is to explain why I started reading so late in my life. I don't blame my parents for the lack of initiative to promote education; they were a product of the Depression, when reading was a luxury not many could afford. It's a sad fact, but it is true. What really brought me to the "life of the mind" was music. I listened to music constantly when I was growing up. One day I felt music the way many people feel religion: a spiritual awakening. I decided to teach myself to read music and eventually picked the cello as my instrument. Knowing Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and the rest opened up for me the world of intellectual pursuit. After that, philosophy, literature, history, science came easy to me, almost naturally. I knew my life had changed, but never imagined that it was going to draw such a barrier between my parents and myself.

Reading eventually caught up with me, and when it did it enveloped me completely revealing a new me, a part of my spirit I had never known before. The first two books that did me in as a reader were Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and Garcia Marquez' "One Hundred Years of Solitude." I read them both in Japan during the summer of 1994. I traveled constantly between Osaka and Hikone and read mostly on the train. One night coming back from Osaka I was enthralled in my reading that I passed my station and realized it nearly an hour and a half later. That, I have been told, is a real reading experience, when everything else evaporates and nothing is left but the word on the page and in the mind. Manguel states in his book: "Maybe this is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know but can't describe." I know that I will never stop reading. For the rest of my life I intend to learn more, to love more and more the written word. I think this is the reason why Manguel's book has been so instrumental in awakening these feelings. I love the subtitle of the book: "A Passionate Reader's Reflections on a Year of Books." It is still January... how many more treasures to discover. The beginning of the year is like the beginning of life, tabula rasa and away we go to enjoy our books and learn more! We are more blessed than we can estimate in the limit of our minds.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

A Reading Diary

Alberto Manguel's book is fascinating. I was surprised right away when he cites that he began his year-long reading list by re-reading Adolfo Bioy Casares' "The Invention of Morel," a novella I read when I was an undergraduate. He describes the story well, although I suspect he doesn't really want to summarize the story itself. "The Invention of Morel" is a story about a man who comes to an island in the Caribbean only to find that the island is full of images of people. You see, there's a machine which reproduces images over and over again. Bioy Casares' story is along the lines of Jorge Luis Borges "Ficciones." In fact, Bioy Casares and Borges were close friends, and together they defined the Latin American literary boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Alberto Manguel's mentioning of this story really took me back to the summer of 1994 when I read "The Invention of Morel" for the first time. It was summer and I was living in Japan then. I was a young reader; that is to say, I began my reading career rather late. It is for this reason that the mentioning of "The Invention of Morel" in Manguel's book means so much to me. Manguel is an experienced reader (and writer) and his observations are magnificent. For example, he very subtly compares the story of Morel with the financial crisis that Argentina (he is from Argentina) suffered in the early 2000s. He saw Buenos Aires as inhabited by ghosts, just like the images the narrator sees on the island. I think this is done very cleverly and Manguel pulls it off without seemingly wanting to. Here's a quote from the book that moved me: "Perhaps, in order for a book to attract us, it must establish between our experience and that of the fiction--between the two imaginations, ours and that on the page--a link of coincidences." Ever read a book thinking you have gone through a similar experience? For as much as I disliked "Run Between the Raindrops" I have to say that all the grunt speak, etc. really got to me. I love the idea of having my experience linked intricately to a book. I can think of no better companion, really. Manguel also writes about the link of word on the page and image in the mind. I am fascinated by this book. I will pace myself so as not to read too fast. I want to write at length about this.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

When the Rain Stopped...

I finished "Run Between the Raindrops." The narrator is wounded on the last day of the battle. I think he got a bit careless. At any rate, as I have said before, this is one book I had to finish despite it being so bad. I have a habit of (or a responsibility to) finishing the books I start regardless of how bad they might be. After all, someone wrote them so that others may read them. Whether they are good or bad never entered into the equation.

I am reading "A Reading Diary" by Alberto Mangual. It's a short book about the enjoyment of having a reading list for a year. Since I have been doing reading lists for the last few years, I thought this might be a good read for me.

I am playing in a concert on Saturday, February 3rd (here's the advertising). The pieces are mostly experiemental in nature, so I don't know how much of it will go over well with the audience. Of course I can always make this face to the audience if they don't like what they hear.

I might not be able to blog every day this week. Work has to come first :-)

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Master in Madrid


Friday, January 19, 2007

Reading with a Different Goal

I think I now know the reason why I wanted to re-read "Rain between the Raindrops." The fact is that I don't think I finished it last time I read it. I think I was cut short of the last three or four chapters. So, unconsciously I went through the trouble of finding another copy of this book after 21 years just so that I may finish it. I have a habit of finishing even the worst of books. It's strange the things one remembers. I remembered the scene where a Hispanic character is pinned down on the edge of the citadel wall and does some strange dance taunting the enemy. How vividly did I remember this! But I am coming to realize that there's a time and importance ascribed to things that can never be recovered. And this book is far different from my own experience in the war. And no matter what, things cannot be changed. One has to live with it regardless. So, in the end, this book came to me as a revelation of sorts mirrored on my own experience. War is not the answer, really. Even a book can tell you that. One doesn't have to be as unfortunate as I was. "Run Between the Raindrops" is not a very good book, really. It's not well-written. I mean, I hate to sound like a snob, but it is difficult to engage with a writing style that ignores basic grammar rules for the sake of the vernacular. To be sure, better writers can actually pull it off (Paul Auster being one), but Dale A. Dye doesn't. I am deciding on what to read next. I think either the new Murakami short story collection or "A Reading Diary" by Alberto Mangual.

I am embarking on the "Write a Paragraph a Day" project. I already started a short story that has been mulling in my head for quite a bit and have about a page and a half going. So concentrating on the reflective narrator I am going to try and (purposely) avoid dialogue. We'll see how it goes. Also, right on the heels of my html victory I am now going to teach myself Java script and Flash 8. Gonna make this blog look like something right out of Hollywood. :-)

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Citadel

The book is moving too fast for me at the moment, even though the Marines are trapped trying to get over the wall of the Citadel. Believe me, this is the last of this type of books I will read. It's not that I don't enjoy it--I enjoy all kinds of readings. It's just that trying to read a book I read in high school (not a classics book) just to see what I will feel about now was not a productive endeavour.

I suspect that even though the book is based on Dale A. Dye's experience, some of it might be fictionalized. There's a scene of ferocious action, but it falls short when the narrator goes overboard in the description of what he did. It's a little too much. There are passages depicting the harsh treatment of enemy bodies. It's not interesting reading and I know that I am not reading it for enjoyment but just to read something I read long ago. I won't do this again.

The new semester started today. I have wonderful students and I already feel this will be an enjoyable 3 months.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Run Between the Raindrops

What is most amazing to me is the way that--seemingly--all the good titles for novels have been taken up by usually crappy books. One example is the novel that I am reading now. Mind you, I am re-reading it because it was one of the few books I actually read in high school, but it is definitely not a classic of the 20th Century literary canon. Another example: "The Sum of All Fears." A great title "wasted" on a beach novel. So, I am being opinionated today, I am sorry. Perhaps I should stick to the book. The Marines just entered Hue City in the story and casualties are mounting. What is most difficult for me is reading the narrative style Dale Dye employs. There are a lot of fragment sentences one after another. I guess he tries to capture spoken dialogue even when its just the narrator's mental meandering. Here's an example: "Staring through the mist at a pristine field of grass. Some two hundred yards from the railroad bridge that connected the two sides of the city. Grass field formed a well-manicured flank for one of Hue's most popular war attractions. Cercle Sportif. Laid out in concentric circles. Remnants of French colonial days. Picturesque fountain located at its center." And so forth and on. :-) There are some really gruesome scenes that are well written and make a clear picture in the reader's mind. They go to collect recon on a television station that fell on enemy hands. There they look for the remains of a soldier they knew. And find him they did... executed and decomposed, etc. Too terrible for details so please don't mind me changing the topic.

Today I finally learned how to create form pages on html to collect information on my course website. So now I can give students online examinations. I struggled to understand how to do this for a while, so I do feel like I accomplished a great deal. Tomorrow is the last day of final examinations. Thursday is the beginning of the new semester. Cheers.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

The End of Trimalchio and Run Between the Raindrops

The end of "Trimalchio," just like "Gatsby's," is one of the most memorable in the history of the literature of the 20th Century. It is that passage that has--for better or worse--jaded teachers to instruct the novel centered around the value of "the green light" at the end of Daisy's dock. The novel really is much more than the green light. The light transformed into Gatsby's dream becomes then a metaphor for reckless ambition and deceit, much more in tune with the main theme of the novel. It is difficult to pick a character to directly associate with; to allow ourselves to be led unquestioningly by Nick Carraway is readers' suicide. Is there a sympathetic character in this novel? If not, why is it the classic American novelistic achievement it is? Tom and Daisy are scratched off from the beginning of the novel. Nick is too much into himself for the reader to give in peacefully into his epiphanies and meanderings. Gatsby earns some pity from the reader, but pity doesn't cut it, really. Jordan Baker is, despite her vampirism, the only openly dishonest person in the book. She accepts her condition because she always gets her way. The Wilson's are not minor characters, as some major literary criticism would have them be, but their effort is a little too late in the book for redemption. So where does that leave the reader? It is only Fitzgerald's technique and artistry that keeps the reader begging for more, even at the end when the catastrophic events bring the novel to a resolution. I always teach this from the stand point of reader's enjoyment rather than to make a political, gender or literary criticism statement. At any rate, reading "Trimalchio" was more than satisfactory. It was like having a conversation about Gatsby with the master himself.

I am re-reading two novels I read when I was in high school. The first one was the first book I read this year, "War Year," by John Haldeman and the second one which I am reading right now is "Run Between the Raindrops" by Dale A. Dye. These are two novels about the Vietnam war. They are written brutally honest, and carry with them all the pain and horror of that conflict. The language is "dirty" language. That is not to say that the language is sexual or deviant in content, but rather that it is written in a vernacular that is so steeped with the language of the infantry man so as to have the effect of ripping to shreds all the stylistic rules of standard novelistic language. The action centers around the Battle of Hue City in 1968. It follows a group of United States Marines in their almost hopeless charge against the walls of the citadel. Why am I reading this book? I have been thinking lately about my own war experience (first Iraqi war) and how memories fade and affect me when I see what's going on in Iraq today. I miss the grunts, that's all.

I am actually going to write a bit more this coming week about the creative process. I am really trying to make an effort to finish some projects I started last year. We'll see where it all ends up.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Trimalchio and other books

The main differences between "Trimalchio" and "Gatsby" are now in the open. Daisy has a conversation with Nick about leaving Tom, her husband, for Gatsby. That never happened in the final edition of the book. The long narrative describing Gatsby's past is also absent until much later in the book.

The book is still beautifully rendered. I've already written about Fitzgerald as a master of lyricism, but he also had a wonderful ear for dialogue. Here's an example: "'One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil. Reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop on that there crystal glass.'" I know I am going to sound a bit ridiculous by just picking out a word, but in this passage it is "that there" part that makes it so believable. People used to talk back then and to have included that very specific detail without overdoing it is magnificent. Another passage of marvelously (almost miraculous) prose is this: "They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which come at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out in the darkness and there was a sort of stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place about the trees--he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder." What follows is even more beautiful, "So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete." The sheer magnifience of this passage is enough to convince the most incredulous person that Fitzgerald was, without a doubt, a genius. I already confessed that I am a fan of Fitzgerald. Once I even took my students to his grave: here, here and here. I only have about 40 more pages to go and hope to finish today and start my next selection.

I got a copy of "The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays" by Albert Camus, and another book on the writing life. I really have to start writing and working again creatively. I won't have much time over the weekend but I will try next week.

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Friday, January 12, 2007


A friend of mine pointed out the fact that "books do not come equipped with a quota" of pages to read a day. I needed to hear that statement. After finishing "The Good Soldier" yesterday, I started to think that perhaps for the first time in my life I am becoming a fast reader; I am, for the most part, a very slow reader, consuming word by word, enjoying each of them as if they were a drop of honey. Instead of putting restrictions and limits on myself I am just going to read, come what may. I don't want to defeat the whole purpose the "freedom of reading."

I started "Trimalchio" last night right before dinner. The book is billed as "An Early Version of 'The Great Gatsby,'" yet James West writes in the introduction that despite the fact that the book is an early edition of a great book, it should be read as a completely different book. I agree. You see, I have a long history with "Gatsby." I never read it in high school (it wasn't even offered), and I didn't come into contact with the book until 1995. The first mention of it I believe was in college. One of my undergrad professors gave me a copy but I never picked it up to read it until the summer of 1996. I read it that summer before entering graduate school at Georgetown University because it was on the reading list of one of the course I was going to take. I enjoyed my first reading of "The Great Gatsby." Now, after reading it over 20 times and teaching it for the last six, I enjoy it more and more. There's something miraculous about a book with such an intense plot, such lyricism of language done in 50,000 words. It is the economy of language that makes Fitzgerald's masterpiece a great book.

There are many differences between "Trimalchio" and "Gatsby." The first two or three chapters are identical. The differences begin in the chapter where Nick Carraway, the narrator, goes to Gatsby's party for the first time. There he meets Jordan Baker again (she will become his love interest later in the book). A major difference occurs in some passages that were eventually cut from the final version of the book, so reading those passages feels like reading a secret treasure of words that was kept inside a closet for a long time.

About Fitzgerald's lyrical style. Simply put, he was a god of lyricism. Here's an example:
"He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey."

I will confess that I consider this book one of the greatest (if not the greatest) masterpiece of the 20th Century literary canon. While I may be prejudiced for it, I am also aware of its little discrepancies. I will keep these in mind as I write.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Finished The Good Soldier

I finished the book during my lunchroom supervision. Again, I think I am reading too fast for what I am writing here. The story becomes more complicated when one girl (she is very young and her name is Nancy) becomes attached to the Ashburnhams, and Edward falls in love with her. Mind you, this is the fourth woman he becomes attached with in the story. John Dowell, the narrator, is not the least upset at his wife's death; he is in fact happy about it. He has an interest in Nancy as well. In the end, Edward commits suicide, Leonore marries another man, Nancy goes insane and John is left to take care of her. There is, to be sure, a lack of sympathetic characters in this book, but it is so well written that it much more than enough makes up for it. I have to give Ford Madox Ford credit. All I knew about him was what Hemingway wrote about in "A Movable Feast," a book that should really be taken as fiction rather than biography. There Ford is presented as a sort of buffoon, a bumbling idiot who cares about "cutting people" (apparently looking the other way when he sees them) and having affairs with married women. Here's a little biography on Ford.

Like I said earlier, I think I am reading too fast for what I am writing. I want to write every day and it just occurred to me that it might be easier if I cut down on the pages I am trying to report. I would certainly do a much better job. And perhaps I should do all this writing as soon as I wake up in the morning (5:00 AM), and not take my lunch time to write but rather read. Oh, well. All in all, I wholeheartedly recommend "The Good Soldier" for its magnificent technique of storytelling and pace and honesty of language.

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Ford Madox Ford and Book 2

Well, I am glad to admit that Ford is a genius of plot. No wonder Graham Greene called the novel "[o]ne of the fifteen or twenty greatest novels produced in English in our century." The revelation of Edward Ashburnham's affair with the narrator's wife, Florence, is brought in at a critical point. What happens next is a stroke of masterful genius, really. Edward is also having an affair with another woman at the same time he is keeping Florence. Florence sees them together and has a heart attack (remember she has a weak heart)... or did she? I was really surprised at the suggestion that Florence committed suicide. Leonore, Edward's wife, proposes this to the narrator who is unwilling to believe it at the time. Another twist in the suicide theory: While at the lobby of the hotel, John (the narrator) is approached by a man who supposedly knows Florence from before she married John. The theory is that when Florence returned to the hotel after seeing Edward with the other woman, she was pale and clutching her chest. At the same time, Bagshaw--the man talking to John--reveals that Florence had had an affair with a man before marrying John. Therefore, Florence (at least in John's estimation) had a heart attack due to seeing Bagshaw and John talking (apparently, she guessed at Bagshaw's intentions). Whatever reservations I had about Ford's technique have vanished. He's an excellent novelist. There's a particularly good description of this Bagshaw fellow that should be textbook for beginning writers: "Well, he was an unmistakable, with a military figure, rather exaggerated, with bulbous eyes that avoided your own, and a pallid complexion that suggested vices practised in secret, along with an uneasy desire for making acquaintance at whatever cost..." Brilliant description. I think I am reading a bit too fast for my writing; I am already 60 something pages away from finishing the book.

Final exams for the first semester of school are on Tuesday and Wednesday of this coming week. Lest I don't have time to write those days, I hope you understand.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Good Soldier, post ii

Whatever problems I was having with "The Good Soldier" appear to have been my own inability to read between the lines. Finally, the novel is beginning to appear like a lineal plot. I got in the groove last night and finished "Book One."

The Ashburnhams and the Dowells are two couples who meet yearly at the fashionable German spa town of Nauheim. The plot really centers around Edward Ashburnham's infidelities to his wife. The narrator, John Dowell, and his wife Florence are Americans who visit Europe yearly seeking "cures" for Florence's weak heart. I am not particularly sure yet if the narrator is a reliable voice. Like the good British subject she is, Edward Ashburnham's wife, Leonore, puts up with quite a bit from her husband. Like I said, the action shifts from 1904 to 1915 rather quickly, and one is prone to get lost for lack of attention. There are interjections by the narrator that give away a certain amount of the story beforehand. For example, John Dowell touches very lightly on the fact that Florence and Edward have an affair. Perhaps this would have been better revealed later; that or else Ford has a genius twist in store for us at the end. That's the problem with this type of plot, one expects that to happen later in the book and if it doesn't, one becomes disillusioned by the story's lack of resolution or even climax. I plan on starting "Book Two" today.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New Course

This is a preliminary course description for the class I will be teaching next year:

This course is designed to introduce students to a critical and analytical examination of 21st Century popular culture and media. The main objective of the course is to provide students with the tools to effectively “deconstruct” the constant flow of messages in television, magazines, newspapers, Internet, music and videos. To that end, students will uncover embedded messages in popular music, contemporary film, advertising, newscasts, serial programming, print media and online sites, among others. Students also will learn the difference between fact, information and propaganda in a rapidly evolving information age. The course will teach students critical theory and how to apply that theory to the media maelstrom they confront on a daily basis. Requirements: Open to 11th and 12th grades only.


The Good Soldier

I have my hands full with a difficult book. Ford writes exquisitely, but the constant metaphoric and simile elements make it a hard going on following the plot. Right now, the Ashburnhams just met the Dowells. The action shifts from 1904 to 1915 almost constantly, so one has to be concerned with the technique that Ford employs and this leaves little space for actual enjoyment of the rhythm and other nuances of language. I only read about 50 pages last night, but I wasn't feeling well after a tough day so I went to bed.

The administration at the school just approved a course I designed for next year. The course is "Popular Culture and Media Studies," and it is promising to make waves all around. The course will concentrate on viewing and listening to popular films, television programs, songs, etc., with a constant awareness of the intended message and audience in mind. This is all critical thinking. I just wrote an outline of what the 18 week semester would look like; now I have to design it day by day. Lots of work for this coming summer!

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Change of Plans

I will be reading "The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford instead of "Trimalchio." I promise I will get to the Fitzgerald masterpiece next.

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David Mamet, Moleskines and Gatsby

I finished "Writing in Restaurants" by David Mamet. I think that most of the theatrical theorizing was way over my head; I know very little about the stage. The strength of his essays, I believe, was in those essays when he "anecdotized" the subject matter. Some passages did catch my eye, and I ended up underlining several to which I will return. There was one particularly about technique that made sense to me:

"It [writing] is especially stultifying when accompanied, as often happens, by blandishment to the effect that there is no such thing as technique; that there is no need to study; that the only way to learn is through doing; and that, finally, pursuit of good habits of work, that is, technique, and good habits of thought, that is, philosophy, are effete."

I also found Mamet's treatment of Chekov's play "The Cherry Orchard" interesting. It was a lit crit treatment and I found it insightful. All the theorizing about the stage craft now made sense once he applied it to a specific example. He also wrote about the writing life and how it applies to age: "The pressure to continually achieve makes [writing] a young person's game, for it is easily tolerated only by the inspired and naive--by those bursting with the joy of discovery and completely, unselfconsciously generous of that gift." If anything else, it reminded me of those day-long writing marathons at Barnes & Noble bookstores cafe. How little did I think about the process and how easily the words came. But then I got to thinking about it too much and somehow lost the gift. But I still see myself as a contender, and try and write and give it still more thought.

The use of the Moleskine for the composition of this blog entry was a success. It took me nearly 20 minutes to formulate the ideas about Mamet's book and about 5 minutes more for what I am about to write next.

The next book I am reading is "Trimalchio." It is an early version/edition of "The Great Gatsby." There's a million things I could say about "Gatsby," really, but I'll keep it to a minimum since I am going to be writing in length this week as I read the book. This morning I discovered an article by Jonathan Yardley on what makes Gatsby a great novel (just about the greatest novel in the American literature canon). I was enthusiastic about the article until I realized that Mr. Yardley purposely and without discrimination bashed Ernest Hemingway. Now, I am not a lawyer defending Mr. Hemingway, but I think it is easy to bash him practically for all the ills of most Modernist American writers. People blame Hemingway for double-crossing Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, etc. And people who engage in this sort of behavior are concentrating on Hemingway as a social person, not the artist he was. But all the Hemingway bashing aside, the article presents Gatsby as the one marvelous book in American literature; a well-deserved place indeed. More on this as I write about "Trimalchio/Gatsby."

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

D.H. Lawrence, David Mamet, and Pankaj Mishra

I read voraciously last night and finished the book. Again, I do have to mention the artistry of the language; how well developed and employed it is! The complications that Lawrence introduces the reader to add so much to the plot. The return of Mellors' wife complicates things while Lady Chatterley is in Venice. One can feel her stress as she reads the letter from her husband explaining all the gossip. The subtle letter has a hint of malice, and the reader is compelled to side with Connie. For the Mellors part, one can only feel so much. The penultimate chapter is really an indictment to the rapidly expanding industrial complex, as it is the letter from him to Connie that ends the book. That was perhaps the only part of the book I really didn't enjoy much. Lawrence was indeed making a statement against some social injustice when he wrote about the colliers, the mines, the industry, etc. Somehow, however, it seemed rather forced in the latter stages of the story. I can truly say I enjoyed the book very much. It was a book that left me feeling so much love for literature. These are the strange moments when I feel gloriously alive in literature, wanting to devour all I can and get lost in all the emotions and feelings. I want to live the life of the mind constantly and surrender to the words completely.

I began reading "Writing in Restaurants" by David Mamet. It is not at all a book about writing instruction, but rather a collection of dated essays (written in the mid-1980s) regarding the dramatic theater and other aspects of dramaturgy. I am only about 30 pages into it and it is rough going. Some parts are over theorized, I believe. Here's an example: "The pursuit of Fashion is the attempt of the middle class to co-opt tragedy." This is the first sentence of an essay I could hardly decipher. I am going to force myself to finish the book, although I would much rather be reading some thing else. Oh well... can't win them all.

I purchased "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World" by Pankaj Mischra. This is a book I am dying to read but it will have to wait until later on this year. He is also the author of "The Romantics," an incredibly under-rated novel that caught my attention in a newspaper review in 2000. Later in 2001, I got the book on the discount rack for $6.00. It was a tour de force as far as I am concerned, and one of the best books by contemporary authors I have read. So my reading list is getting larger by the week. I won't go over my yearly total, really; what with work and trying to write I may not have time for them all.

As an effort to clarify my ideas before I put them in the blog, I am going to start writing the entries on paper first and then typing them up. I have been typing them directly from my head to the computer and I miss the feel of the pen on the paper. For this purpose I have selected 3 Moleskine cahiers that I will be taking with me to work. I will write even if I only have 5 minutes to do so. I will not waste any time and will try to keep the ideas flowing. I will give this experiment this week.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Language of Lawrence

Well, when it rains it pours. Here I was trying to figure out why "Lady Chatterley's Love" is such a controversial book and I was soon to find out. After their first encounter, Mellors and Lady Chatterley do little more than enjoy each other constantly. Lawrence is explicit, but in a tasteful way. There's the use of some heavy words when Mellors is describing to Lady Chatterley the physiological functions of a man and a woman. But one gets the sense that back in 1928, when the book was privately published, those words had a different meaning, at least not all together what they mean today. Chapter 10 is a wonderful journey of language. It is so well-written it makes me think that my own ventures into fiction writing are hopeless. But then again, we are talking about one of the great genius of the English language. I know I have mentioned before how wonderful "Women in Love" is, but unfortunately I don't have the time this year (my reading list for 2007) to re-read it and do justice to some comparison between the two. I know that I totally lost myself while reading Chapter 10. I came back from school early yesterday and just went to my reading room and read comfortably while it rained outside. A good cup of tea and my cat Mischa on my lap didn't hurt any either. These are the times when I realize how much literature means to me, not only the passive and engaging reading but even my simulacrum of writing little stories and sketches. This is one of the things one hopes to pass on to the students--a total love of living and learning and losing one's self in a good book.

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Some vindication...

Here's a review of "Freedom Writers" I found online today....

Movies about life-changing, role-model teachers push a lot of buttons, especially if you're an educator or you've been involved in school for any stretch of time. Being the son of a former teacher, I usually can't resist. Unfortunately, they're usually pushing the same buttons. The formulaic nature of the genre, from "Goodbye Mr. Chips" to "Dangerous Minds" to "Akeelah and the Bee," seems impossible to escape ... "Freedom Writers," unfortunately, trots right back to the formula.


Friday, January 05, 2007

The Key to the Cottage

Right now the main point of contention between Lady Chatterley and Mellors, the gamekeeper, is the key to the cottage. He doesn't live in the cottage, to him it is simply a workplace. She wants to come there from time to time to "just sit a little while." This whole section of the book is a tug of war that doesn't limit itself to words. There's some really magical description by Lawrence. The tension between them in the scene is something one can see with the mind's eye as clearly as the weather. The reader can get a sense that Mellors is itching inside, desperate to both embrace and get rid of Lady Chatterley. The scene is also a microcosm of a venus versus mars debate--how do men and women communicate. I didn't get as far as I wanted last night, but other interesting parts of what I read were the gossip the nurse brings to Sir Clifford, and the subsequent relationship between the nurse and Sir Clifford. I wish I had more time to read!

I was thinking this morning of why I love my teaching job so much. There's a new film coming out called "Freedom Writers" about a teacher and underachieving students. I think all of those films--even the one's based on a true story--are overly exaggerated. There's been a hundred films with the same theme and, frankly, from the stand point of a teacher, they've all been failures. I say so because they emphasize so much on the "miracle moment," the moment when the most rowdy and disrespectful student turns into the genius next door. In real life (and this I say after over 10 years teaching) it is not like that at all. One loses students in the process; one cannot save them all. One tries but it is really impossible. To ignore this fact is irresponsible and no amount of political correctness or "feel good" liberal-minded policies can override that.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Lady Chatterley's Lover

I've read about 1/3 of the novel and I don't quite see what all the controversy is about. There was the scene with Michaelis, but that really wasn't too explicit. There's the use of the "f" word in a couple of places during dialogue, but it's nothing to be offended about unless you have something against men using that word in conversation (especially in front of a lady). The tension is building between Lady Chatterley and the gamekeeper, but Lawrence does so much with language that he doesn't really telegraph the relationship giving it away before it is time (although I have no idea what their relationship will be). It was a tough start, but the language is flowing now much like "Women in Love," and D.H. Lawrence seems to engage the reader in those long spans of dialogue that achieve so much. This is a beautifully written book, controversy or not.

I've taught John Keats the last couple of days with some success. The girls seemed to enjoy "When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be" most of all. I had to keep the class on track about the poem; they are so prone to easily slip away when they start to dialogue about their own experiences. This afternoon I have to present "Ode to a Nightingale" to a class of 29 teenage girls... wish me luck.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

War Year

I finished reading "War Year" by John Haldeman in one day. It's a short novella about a tour of duty with a combat engineer. I read this book for the first time in 1985. Went through a lot of trouble to secure a copy online for which I paid .50 cents. I was just curious to read it again after 20 years.

I am currently reading "Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D.H. Lawrence. I've always been interested in reading this book, with that controversy and all, but since reading "Women in Love" I couldn't believe Lawrence could write a better book. We'll find out. I'll report my findings in the coming week.

School begins tomorrow again after Christmas break. I won't have as much time to read like I did over break but since I am now including teaching in my blog I may have new stories to tell about how 29 teenage girls take to Victorian and Modern British literature.

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