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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Thomas Pynchon's Slow Learner

This is a rare collection of short stories by this eccentric writer. The introduction to the stories proves to be a rare semi-autobiography by the secluded artist. Pynchon evokes a time in his life when he was just starting to write, and how he gave in to the many pretentious habits of the starting artist. He explains how he would go to the thesaurus to find a word that sounded good rather than just looking for the right word. The stories in this collection show him as a natural writer, a beginner with a great sense of where he was going with his talent. The stories are not so much surreal. I have to say that the story "Under the Rose" completely lost me; even after I finished reading it I had little idea of what the story tried to convey. I do, however, recommend this volume for anyone familiar with Pynchon's work or someone simply starting out.

Work has been very busy lately. I haven't been able to post every day due to this. I will try and read Rilke next so as to have more to say. I barely commented on Jung, I know, and it makes me feel bad. Cheers.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Lost in Place..

Nothing really happened since my last post.... NOT! I actually finished "Drown," Carl Jung's "The Undiscovered Self," and also finished "The Elsewhere Community" by Hugh Kenner.... I am more than half way through Thomas Pynchon's "Slow Learner: Early Stories." So I have been reading faster than I can post them. I will review Pynchon's completely as soon as I am done reading it.

Work has been busy and that has also affected the fact that I haven't posted in a while. Nevertheless, I am back and reading at a great pace. Cheers.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

"Drown" by Junot Diaz

Now I am back reading at the pace I like. Last night I read about 50 pages and I could not put the book down when it was time to sleep. It is definitely engaging and the way that Diaz describes his early childhood should make us all feel the beneficiaries of a good life. This is a hard fictionalized memoir (no doubt the stories are filled with biographical details), and the way the stories tie together is really a masterful touch. The stories go back and forth between New Jersey and Santo Domingo, where Diaz is originally from. There are some description of slums in New Jersey that remind me of my own childhood in the South Bronx. The book is full of the feeling of displacement immigrants have to deal with. The stories based in Santo Domingo are more in tune with the pains of growing up. In "Ysrael" the narrator Yunior is accompanied by his brother Rafa as they set out to "see" a boy whose face was eaten up by a pig while he was still a baby. "Ysrael" (the boy they set out to see) now wears a mask. Little do the reader know that Yunior and Rafa's intention is to take off the mask and "disrobe" Ysrael. This they do, besides beating poor Ysrael brutally. It is certainly a story of those lazy summers when boys have little to do and too much in their heads. The stories are peppered with the fact that Yunior's father abandoned the family and moved to New York. Eventually they all make it to New York and begin to deal with the displacement. In "Aurora," the narrator recounts his love life with a crackhead girl and his own selling drugs business. It's a hard story, and I felt both the desperation and hopelessness of love. It is incredibly well-written and lovingly poetic.

What I do find a little strange is the praise offered to Diaz. The backcover reads: "Junot Diaz is a major new writer. His world explodes off the page into the canon of our literature and our hearts." And also, "Talent this big will always make noise..." Definitely I agree with Diaz's talent. I remember that a few years ago (when I applied for one myself) Diaz won a Guggenheim and funding from the NEA on the same year. I guess some people have all the luck. Another thing that is important to point out is that Diaz infuses his stories with a great deal of vernacular... IN SPANISH... I have no idea how a person unfamiliar with Spanish street talk makes sense of some parts of the book. I don't have a problem with it, but again, I wonder.

The other book I am reading is Carl Jung's "The Undiscovered Self." It deals with collective and individual consciousness and unconsciousness. The book is an inquiry into the stresses that face humanity today. Even though this book was written at the height of the Cold War, if one supplants the Soviet threat with present day terrorism the book still makes a great deal of sense. Perhaps I will get more into it as I finish "Drown." That's another action shot from yesterday.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Feeling Happy..

How do these characters come alive? How do they do things on their own? The process is magical, really. Who knows? I wrote three pages before I stopped. This is an action shot.

I feel incredibly happy for some reason. The creative process is amazing. The best medication for any depressive mood!


The Last Resort...

I started a short story a while back. This short story is now on its third draft and no progress has been made beyond the third paragraph. I am using the reflective narrator so dialogue is not a problem, nor is it the expository. As a source of inspiration I have turned to my last resort: A 1939 portable Royal typewriter in mint condition.

I bought it late in 1997 and it has been a faithful companion in the age of technology. I have written various essays using it and even though it feels like a pre-historic dinosaur, I find succor with it. This is the same model Hemingway used while composing his masterpiece "For Whom the Bell Tolls." I have read various books on fiction writing and all of them agree that if a certain habit or knack helps you with your writing then by all means indulge. I know of people who only use a specific gel pen (they've ordered dozens on the chance that they might not be produced again), or others who only write on Moleskine notebooks. So, I will use my typewriter like the good Luddite that I am... wish me luck with this!
By the way, I finished reading "Writers on Writing." This book took me a long time to finish due to the fact that I had a concert and several other things going on at the same time. So, in order to catch up for lost time I am going to give my two-books-at-the-same-time theory another try. I am reading Junot Diaz's "Drown," and Carl Jung's "The Undiscovered Self."

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

James Salter & The Case for Literature

This is the essay from "Writers on Writing" that prompted my diatribe about the end of literature: James Salter's "Once Upon a Time, Literature. Now What?" Here's a nice passage:

We know that what is called popular culture has over-whelmed high culture with consequences not yet fully realized. Pop culture's patrons, youth and a large number of those who were formerly young, have rewarded it with immense riches, advancing it further.... Are we witnessing a mere collapse of taste or the actual genesis of a new myth worthy of replacing the outdated Trojan War or of standing beside it? As with the glorious stock boom, age-old standards of value are henceforth cast aside.

I think Salter is right on target here when he writes about the supplanting of the one for the other. There was a clip on television once of a young man (obviously a great fan) just coming out of a theater after watching the latest Star Wars installment. He was screaming at the top of his lungs that George Lucas was a god and that Star Wars was the greatest story ever told. I was deeply disturbed. No doubt the young man was a fanatic, but some thing else seems to be out of sync here. Has anyone ever heard of the genealogy of myth? I think it was Joseph Campbell who first coined the idea that all great stories are geologically based on previous ones; especially those stories based on the struggle of good versus evil. Star Wars inarguably has its roots in many previous stories, the legend of King Arthur being the most obvious one (Excalibur i.e. light saber, etc.). So I think that this is what this generation is losing. They take everything at face-value and bother little with what came before. Perhaps I am sounding like an old-bite, but when I was a teenager things had substance; all things seemed to evolved from the root of art, poetry, music, literature, history, philosophy. In fact, there wasn't a good story in secondary school that we didn't compare to our Greek Mythology class. We are, above all, losing this type of critical thinking and drawing connections between things. And the Luddite in me keeps wanting to come out... "it's the technology, stupid!"

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Case for Literature

I feel bad that I haven't posted anything in the last few days. I am flooded with work, and I suspect I will be for another week or so. What I have been reading lately concerns most of all writing, but some of the essays have gone into great detail about the state of literature today. I guess I am also concerned about the future of literature because I am a teacher, but the primary reason also deals with the way things are today. From various sources I have come to realize that literature is in trouble; that entertainment is not what it used to be. I don't want to paint an apocalyptic future for literature but it is a fact that people are reading less today than they did, say, fifty years ago. Perhaps it has to deal with television, but maybe that is the same thing people said with the advent of films. The contradiction, it seems, is the proliferation of mega-bookstores all over the United States. I wonder how Borders and Barnes & Noble stay in business when so few people are actually reading. It isn't a surprise, however, that the DVD/Music section of Barnes & Noble is larger than the literary fiction section is. It doesn't make me mad, it rather makes me feel depressed at the loss of such a beautiful art.

Ever wonder where the never-ending stream of technology will lead? Is anyone paying attention to the fact that culture is rapidly evolving due to the flood of tech-toys? Doesn't it seem like these companies are coming out with a new cellphone weekly? It does. The more we accessorize the less we are prone to leisure activities and leisure time (the very thing tech companies swear we'll have if we use their product). I don't know... I don't know what the answer is. It is really all very confusing. Every little thing seems to demand so much time, so much effort that by the time we get around to a book we are extremely exhausted and unable to concentrate. And children today for the most part do not seem to care, or are totally unaware of where we are heading. As a teacher this hurts me, but as long as I have one caring soul in my class I will make some endeavour. The current situation is this: this generation of teens are not into reading and society and big business are not doing anything to alleviate that; all they care is for their bottom line. Will literature die with our generation? I am sure others have questioned that, but they never did so under the threat we are facing.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Cold Days

I forgot to mention that we had two days off from school this week. The temperatures were down to -11 in some places, and it was a surprise to see schools close from Michigan to Maine. I didn't lose a single day because I posted all my classes materials on my course website. I am sure the kids loved it.

"Writers on Writing" is a particular treasure. So many of the authors have gone into detail about what they do and how they do it. One that struck a nerve was an essay by Annie Proulx. She talks about her shovels of metaphorical work... lovely image... one metaphor after another. I haven't read much by her, but I have a collection of short stories "Heart Songs" that I might get to soon.

My mother sent me $20 for my birthday. I felt embarrassed, of course, since I am the one who helps her out now and it shouldn't be the other way around. I wanted to send the money back, but she told me over the phone to spend it on something nice. So I bought "What I Loved" by Siri Hustvedt. I read a bad review on her book "A Plea for Eros" and was interested to see what else she has written. It also helps my intriguing the fact that she is married to Paul Auster. I can't fit the new book in but I will try for it perhaps next year.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Andre Aciman, Saul Bellow, & E.L. Doctorow

Reading "Writers on Writing" has been a tour de force about writing from the perspective of different authors. Some are serious and some not so serious, but they all share the same premise: why write? Andre Aciman explains it beautifully: "We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours. We write about life, not to see it as it was, but to see it as we wish others might see it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our life through their eyes, not ours." This is why I believe we lie. Ultimately we all want to put our best foot forward and expect characters we invent to fulfill lives we would never get to live. Like the parent living his/her incompleteness through their kids, writers often demand more from their characters than they can give. Inventing a past also erases the bad taste of unfulfilled dreams, broken hearts, tremendous defeats, etc. I know for a fact that that is why I lie--to safeguard myself from embarrassment.

Saul Bellow takes up issue with how a new trend of competition between literature and film has left an audience fragmented in attention. He cites a "Wall Street Journal" reporter who states that "[f]or Americans under the age of 30, film has replaced the novel as the dominant mode of artistic expression." That may be true, painfully so. I know for a fact that most of my students' cultural references come from films that they have watched. We might be losing the literati generation to the visual seduction of film. Some will say that films need to be written, and that writing is inarguably part of the process. But it is not so much being part of the process as it is on how to consume the product. Books force you to pace yourself; films are basically instant gratification due to the fact that we process it through visual/auditory paths. Bellow concludes that technology will never be able to give the audience "what they so badly need."

E.L. Doctorow picks up where Bellow leaves off. Neither one is a Luddite of any sorts, but they both attack the film establishment in their defense of literature. Doctorow states: "Film deliterates thought; it relies primarily on an association of visual impressions or understandings. Moviegoing is an act of inference. You receive what you see as a broad band of sensual effects that evoke your intuitive nonverbal intelligence." The defense of literature is an edgy movement. When one becomes a reader, it is nearly impossible for one to understand why people watch so much television, or talk "intelligently" about films that they have seen. One wonders if the current trend continues, how would we discourse on the aesthetic? What would we implied about the visual that the textual hasn't already given us (that is if we decide to accept it). I might really be a Luddite, but I do enjoy some television. What we have gotten away from is the idea that the visual of the textual takes place in the mind, and that those mental processes are all different. To each one of us a Borges story evokes different visual (mental) context. All three of these authors questioned where do we go from here. Literature may very well be on the way out. I fear not.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Reason for my Disappearance

Here's a picture of the concert Saturday night. This is the dress rehearsal. The program was called "Ordo Superman" and included pieces by Stockhausen, Hildegard, Olivera, among others. I didn't read anything for the better part of the week. We had rehearsals Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday was the concert. So, I am back now, still haven't read a thing but looking forward to starting again. I decided that reading two books at the same time is not for me. As a result, I will only be reading "Writers on Writing" this week. Photo credit: Miki Satake.

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