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Monday, April 30, 2007

The Rewards of Teaching...

I finished reading Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief" a few days ago. I have been unable to post because my weekend was filled with grading and also with the purchase of my first-ever, top of the line lawn mower. It was an interesting adventure to actually buy one of these things, really. It took us nearly a month to decide on one. It took me an hour and a half to do the front yard alone.

At any rate, I finished a few days ago with "The Palace Thief." The three stories that follow "The Accountant" (of which I wrote before) are excellent and each one grows in excellence from one to the next. The crowning achievement of this collection is, of course, the title story. In "Batorsag and Szerelem" a family struggles to understand a son who seems gifted in mathematics. As a regular genius, he is indulged and praised. The narrator, the genius' little brother, struggles with himself and his eccentricity. He invents his own language, which essentially turns out to be Hungarian at the end of the story. There are some compelling passages here regarding the protagonist's identity and the narrator's effort to convey this. I am not going to write to spoil any of these fascinating stories, so you'll have to read them and find out. In "City of Broken Hearts," the narrator, a middle-aged gentleman whose wife had just left him, is receiving his son who is away at college. His son is only staying one day at home (Boston) and father and son decide to go to a Red Soxs game. The dialogue between father and son is an exquisite ballet of alluding and avoidance, a constant back and forth game of "one-upmanship." It all boils down to a father concerned with his son's future and a son who in turn able to shape his father's life in the time he spends with him. Excellent twist.

"The Palace Thief" is an excellent story about a teacher at a preparatory school. He teaches antiquity, the history of the great civilizations. He takes under his wing a problematic student who turns out to be the catalyst of the story. The narrator is gifted--Canin's use of language here is particularly interesting. Canin is able to reproduce a diction of high intellectual with great ease. The narrator, Mr. Hundert, prepares the annual history competition, "Mr. Julius Cesear." As a teacher he fails to promote the one student who actually was supposed to compete in order to fit in the rebellious one, Sedgewick Bell. The story is about failures, repercussions, and the power of a teacher to make difference (for good or bad). I loved it because it mirrored some of the things I deal with in the classroom almost daily.

I am now reading "Dog Soldiers" by Robert Stone. This books won the National Book Award, but I am still struggling to find out why. I have read "Bear and His Daughter" and also "A Flag for Sunrise" by Robert Stone, and it was on the strength of these that I ventured into "Dog Soldiers." The story takes place in the last days of the Vietnam War. The protagonist, one John Converse, is preparing a drug deal that is supposed to make him rich, but the story doesn't go according to his liking. I am still early on the story, so I can't comment much. More to follow.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich, 1927--2007

Maestro Rostropovich died last night from intestinal cancer. I was fortunate to play under his baton twice and attend one of his masterclasses.

Do svidaniya, maestro!

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Palace Thief...

I am reading "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin, and after reading McEwan this is certainly a change in writing styles. Canin's short stories are as lyrical as they are intricately composed; a very hard balance to strike, even for an experienced writer. The volume covers three stories of which I am presently reading the first one, entitled "The Accountant." It is a simple story of a friendship in which both men find themselves comparing each other's success. Although they are not as close as they used to be, there seems to always been a string of consciousness tying them together. The climax builds as the two men agree to attend a baseball "fantasy camp." For those not familiar with this it is a week-long camp in which middle aged men join old baseball players (perhaps the stars of their youth) and play baseball, complete with real uniforms, etc. Almost every single baseball club has one of these. They are not cheap--presently I think they run around $6,000+ for a week. At any rate, the two men in the story, Eugene Peters and Abba Roth, attend the baseball camp in which Peters was supposed to ask Roth for a business partnership. That's as far as I have read, but I can at least say that I have enjoyed Canin's understatement style and climax building techniques. The title story of the book, "The Palace Thief" was made into a movie you might recognize by the title of "The Emperor's Club." He is certainly a writer I want to read more about. I am not quite sure what else besides "The Palace Thief" and "Emperor of the Air" he has written. He is also a practicing doctor, so he may not have published as much.

The semester is going well at school. The students came back from their Easter holiday quite determined to get this stretch of time done and welcome summer. The last day of school is June 7th, I believe. What else? I ran for a bit yesternight. It went well. I didn't push myself much because I still feel my knee is tender, but at least I got into the swing of it. In the meantime I am doing 200 sit-ups a day instead of running. I have two full-days of committee meetings tomorrow and Thursday. My classes will be directed by a substitute the next two days. I really don't enjoy committee work, but it has to be done. Well, I think that's it for now. I will continue reading "The Palace Thief" the rest of this week.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Weekend Reads...

This is a picture of what I did this past weekend. Well, that wasn't all I did. I cleaned the garage, did some laundry, etc. My wife took the pictures without telling me but was quick to suggest that I post them here. She particularly wanted everyone to see our house (well, the back of it). Also this weekend, I finished Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam," and it was as good in the end as it was slow starting out. I did have some difficulties when I began "Amsterdam" but the story really took off. McEwan combines four major characters whose major outcomes are decided by two sort of minor characters. As I wrote earlier, the major characters all share the fact that at one point or another they had been Molly Lane's lovers. (The story begins at Molly's funeral). George Lane happens to be one of the minor characters. He is married to Molly throughout her illness and eventual death. Vernon Halliday and Clive Linley, along with Julian Garmony had all been Molly's lovers. Let us begin with Vernon. Vernon is the chief editor of "The Judge," a struggling newspaper in London. He comes across some information on Julian Garmony (whom he despises), and some photographs of Garmony in drag (Garmony is foreign minister and running for Prime Minister). The pictures were taken at the time when Garmony and Molly were lovers. In a true genius of a twist, it is George Lane who offers the photographs of Garmony to Vernon for publication on "The Judge" in order to discredit Garmony's run for Prime Minister before it actually begins. The strategy of ruining Garmony backfires on Vernon and he ends up losing his job. Clive Linley's main obsession in the story is the composition of the "Millennium Symphony." He is one of Britain's leading composers and this piece seems to mark the point in his career as to how will he be remembered. Both Vernon and Clive made a pact with each other that in the case of severe illness--just as Molly had died--they would take each other out.
Ian McEwan must have some musical training, especially in composition. His passages on how Clive struggles with the composition of the "Millennium Symphony" are solidly credible and as fine a piece of writing on music as I have ever read. He does so with the basis of Clive's intense struggle after the death of Molly and his own introspective torture along the way. The end (which I am not going to give out here) is a wonderful mix of tragedy and resolution, masterfully done in a fantastic use of language--simply precise and not a word wasted. I highly recommend this novel. It was on my pile for a long time. I started reading the day I bought it but the beginning, like I said, was slow going and strange in setting, so I stopped. I am glad I picked it up again.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

McEwan's "Amsterdam"

Four main characters take center stage in this short novel by Ian McEwan. Clive Linley, Vernon Halliday and Julian Garmony were all, at one point or another, Molly Lane's lovers. They all share that in common. However, their relationships are far from simple. Clive and Vernon do get along, and at Molly's funeral (at the beginning of the story) they share their sadness at Molly's passing. Julian, on the other hand, is England's foreign secretary--a man in line to become the next Prime Minister. Early on Clive and Julian clash. Clive is a music composer who has been commissioned by the government to write a "Millennium Symphony." I have only read around 25 pages so I really can't go much further than this today. There's the scene at the funeral, and afterwards Clive goes home to work on his masterpiece and we find the third person narrator giving the reader a sketch of Clive's career and efforts. So far, the story is very intriguing and I foresee a great amount of reading this weekend.

I did say I was not going to post anything more on "The God Delusion," but something happened yesterday that made me realize Dawkins was more right than wrong about the negative influence of religion. Religion is making me sad. As I said on the previous post... it's isn't God's problem... it is what people make religion to be. I rather say out loud that I hate/despise someone than pretend that because I am so "holy" those emotions do not knock at my heart. This is reason enough to believe that people use religion to deceive themselves and act hypocritically to those around them. I rather NOT believe than be a hypocrite. I am not sure exactly how to explain this, and I feel that I don't want to keep posting items that do not deal with books directly, but it is hard to understand how people can be so mean, egotistical, downright nasty, and still claim themselves to be followers of Christ. Like I said, I rather turn away from Christ than be a hypocrite. I do believe, but I confess that I am very far (and getting farther) away from Christ's teachings. The only consolation I have is that at least I am being true to who I am... with all my massive imperfections.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Last Post: "The God Delusion"

This is the last post for "The God Delusion." Richard Dawkins' most recent chapter (Chapter 9) deals with what he calls indoctrination of children into their parents' belief system, and he goes as far as calling it "mental abuse." There is a comparison about this type of "indoctrination" being like child sex abuse in its magnitude and ability to tarnish and damage a person for life. Several examples include adults who to this day cannot shake off the fear of hell. This hell, Dawkins describes, is a hell full of mythological elements that are simply too far fetched to be believed. Nevertheless, people do believe and when they do so they are simply "damaged" for life. I remember reading "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce in graduate school, and being scared to bits by that "sermon" chapter on the pains and tortures of eternity in hell. It was so far reaching that I went to see a priest about it.... and this Jesuit priest told me that hell as the church describes it doesn't exist!

Should a child be taught his/her parents' belief system, or should they be allowed to grow up and mature and decide for their own. This, as I see it, is problematic. Dawkins assumes that a child would have enough guidance (religious or otherwise), say, between the ages of 1 to 12 to be able to make up their minds insofar as religion is concerned by the time they reach their teens. If a person is never taught one thing or the other, would they be informed enough to make a decision once they start "thinking for themselves?" That's a difficult question to answer. There is a video on YouTube that caught my attention. It's very short (46 secs) but it packs a punch about religion, atheism and just plain human behavior... check it out.

My object in posting this video is not to side with Dawkins. After reading this book I know for a fact that I will always know and believe in a God. It's as if, despite all the concrete evidence against it, I can't shake the idea of the existence of God in my life. That is not to say that I don't agree with Dawkins in all he says about the destructiveness of religion. But I believe that every killing, torture, or suicide attack in the name of God is not God's problem but humanity's instead. I would be remiss if I didn't show that side of extremism as it exists here in the U.S. (See, I am not just picking on Islam). This HERE is a website (very slow to load) for a fundamentalist Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas. Perhaps you've heard of them. Again, as I see it, this is the sort of thing that Richard Dawkins exposes in "The God Delusion." This form of extremism fueled by religion is about the only thing I agree about with Dawkins, but then again, like I said, that is not God's problem, that's a human problem.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Case For Secular Morality...

It is simply taking me too long to finish "The God Delusion," but I believe that in the final pages of the book is where the most thought provoking ideas come into play. Now the book has received quite a deal of criticism from religious people. Perhaps the reason why it has taken me so long to finish this book is the fact that I have gone out my way to read much of that criticism posted on different websites (not all of them religious). Dawkins aims to answer the question: "Is a secular morality enough to live a productive and well-driven life?" His answer of course is "yes." He expurgate holy books (especially the Ten Commandments) and "unmasks" where the holy books go wrong when dealing with those who break the moral code. And part of this is true--Dawkins is not making this up. Adultery, homosexuality, blasphemy, and others are/were causes for death in most holy books. Now, religious moderates point out that we don't read the scriptures literally anymore, and that is by far a fair enough claim. But what about the fundamentalists? Dawkins clearly aims his criticism at them, not so much the moderates. He writes of the Christian Fundamentalist movement in America being a sort of American Taliban. And this is where things go a bit lop-sided for me. Richard Dawkins claims that the reason why so much of his criticism is aimed at Christianity is because that is the religion that he feels most comfortable criticizing. Fair enough claim, but how can we really know for sure. Perhaps he is afraid of tackling the Muslim Fundamentalists for fear of enraging them and finding himself in a fatwa just like Salman Rushdie did after publishing "The Satanic Verses." For this reason, I think Dawkins' book is not entirely credible. I would have liked to see more criticism leveled at Islam and Judaism.

But back to the question, "Can we live a good life based on a secular, non-religious morality?" Dawkins an alternative atheist commandments list to rival that of the Old Testament:
* Do not do to other what you would not want them to do you.
* In all things, strive to cause no harm.
etc. etc.
When looking at it from an objective perspective it is absolutely probable that we could live a good life without the religious moral code. We can't, however, deny the fact that humanity's moral code has been shaped vastly by the religious traditions, and this is what Dawkins tries to refute.

I can't wait to go back to fiction... hopefully by Friday I will be reading "Amsterdam" by Ian McEwan.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

We Have Created the Problem... American Zeitgeist

The news are just out about the shooter in Virginia Tech being of Korean descent. As soon as the news hit, the media was already speculating about motives, cultural and otherwise. See, I believe we have created the problem ourselves here in the United States. The culture wars are not as simple as that being "Left" versus "Right," "Conservative" versus "Liberal." The problem of our society is indeed one of ideologies. Somewhere along the line, the elements that shape society began to give in to the demands of the individual. One generation after the other, we have become accustomed to getting our way most of the time. When we do not get our way, we turn to emotions that otherwise would be left dormant. I don't know the motives of the young man who killed all those people at Virginia Tech, but something deep inside me tells me (at 10:40 AM on April 17) before the motives are revealed that this has something to do with this young man not "getting his way" on something he deeply cared about. Again, generation after generation growing up with a sense of entitlement and a constant inclination that "it's all about me."

We fill young minds with the over-idealistic, unattainable goals such as "it's up to you guys to end poverty," "you can all end the wars and conflicts in the world." These are all noble sentiments and it is right to think and certainly discuss them. But I believe it is a great disservice to the young generation for us to make them believe they can actually change the mess we have made of the world. The best we can do is hope that the world continues to work with all its imperfections. War and poverty (human suffering in general) is part of the human condition. Since the beginning of times, conflict, poverty and suffering in general have not only been a plague but have actually contributed to human development as we know it. To make young minds believe that they could realistically fix all of these problems is plain irresponsible. Rather, as an alternative, we need to make young minds realize the consequences of their own individual actions before they can start acting for the mass of humanity. Other alternatives include but are not limited to: 1) help young minds become stronger in their sense of right and wrong, 2) help young minds identify those things that they can realistically help alleviate pain and suffering (not end), for example a local homeless shelter soup kitchen, etc. 3) help young people realize that even though they might get involved politically things are not going to change overnight. There's a large population of our present college students who not only disagree with the policies of the Bush administration, but plainly hate the president's guts. Yet, in the most recent election, the lowest number of votes came from that very same voting group. Again, I think young people have been poisoned to believe that they can "change the world" by simply screaming about its ailments. Whoever screams the loudest (or posts more videos on YouTube) wins. I am not, in any stretch of the imagination, blaming the younger generation. On the contrary, again, I blame my generation for continuing this ridiculous propagation of over-idealistic and unrealistic goals and expectations of the younger population.

I promise this is the first and LAST "personal opinion" post.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Adding fuel to the fire...

I brought up the argument about writing and writers in class today. What a variety of views! It's really amazing what can come out of a teenage girl's mind! Most of the students agree that there has to be more of a standard than just "writing."

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The Writer

Who can claim the title "Writer?" It would be nice and easy and all-inclusive to use the title loosely and apply it to anyone who does some form of writing. That's the politically-correct way of going about it. But in reality, how many of us can claim the title of writer? I write a blog. I write an exceedingly large number of "observations" journals. I write personal essays that I post (notice the avoidance of the word "publish") on my personal website. I write fiction for personal enjoyment. Do all of these things make me a Writer? The key here is really between creative production and harsh reality. Perhaps making some distinctions would help. A published author/writer is someone who makes a living off their writing. An unpublished author/writer is someone who writes everyday and perhaps has a desire to see her/his work printed and bounded and mass marketed. Is there such a thing as the writer who has no desire to see himself/herself published? There's a lot to say about "Ars Gratia Artis," and I am sure there are plenty of people doing this out there. Nevertheless, this is all starting to sound a bit confusing. Let me clarify. There's a thin line between writing, publishing, and posing. I was at a bar once and I was eavesdropping on the conversation going on next to me. It was a young man trying to impress a young woman. "Sometimes I spend days on just one sentence," he said dramatically. I thought to myself, "wow, either this man is the next James Joyce, or he is a complete idiot and a poser." But it is not for me to judge. Posers know who they are, and there's no reason (nor is it my position) for me to try and remind them. As I said, my struggle and issues with this go back down a long and winding road. SEE HERE.

Potential writers, aspiring writers, or unpublished writers and the rest are simply another bracket of the economic market. The ever-widening publications on "how to write..." proves just that. Aspiring authors/writers are simply another market bracket. Go to Amazon and type a search for "how to write," or "writing fiction" and see how many hits you'll get. See HERE. And HERE. Troubling, isn't it? Published authors are writing books about how to write because there is a market out there of people who buy these books (myself included). Again, I apologize if I am sounding a bit over the top or condescending. I mainly bring this up because it is a personal struggle for me. I teach writing at an all-girl Catholic college preparatory academy. Teaching writing gives itself to assume that as a teacher of writing I should be a writer myself. Again, the answer proves incredibly problematic... at least to me.

"The God Delusion" is getting to that part where most of the harsh criticism I read about before purchasing the book takes place. Richard Dawkins can be a bully about his position. Funny, he really does sound like those tele-evangelists he seems to criticize so much. But I am postponing the inevitable, and I should finish the book in the next couple of days. It's going to be very nice to start writing about what I am reading again. The situation with my left knee is the same.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Stack O'Books...




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The Know-Nothing...

The more I read, the more I realize how little I know. I said I was not going to comment on "The God Delusion" because this is not a forum for my personal views about religion. I only have to say that there is something absolutely seductive about scientific proof against religion. It's as if we want to say, "yes, of course... why didn't I think of this before!" But the truth of the matter is that no one really knows. Science could be wrong, and holy books as well. It's been tough going with "The God Delusion" but I am almost done with it.

Going along with the religious reading challenge, I have decided to make some time on my 2007 Reading List for Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses." I might not get to it very soon, but I will definitely make some time for it. Somehow I ended up with a first edition print from 1988. I have no idea how I came about it but it was probably one of those massive book sales I used to frequent.

As soon as I am done with my present read, I will be delving into some Indian fiction/non-fiction with books by Chandra, Mishra and Upahyay (whom I happen to know personally). Of course, I have to go back to Joan Didion probably this summer. I have been meaning to look for an accessible novel by her husband, but I've come empty handed in my last searches.

I go back to the academy tomorrow after 10 days of holiday. I really think it is time to go back. By the way, my running project is not by any means over. I just got a really bad case of tendinitis on my left knee and it's even hard to walk at times. As soon as it heals I will be back to catch up on some of my running mileage.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Without a computer...

During my 10 day holiday, I decided not to use the computer at all and see how much more I could read and write. Several things jumped at me immediately. I certainly could read more, have more time to spend with the books, etc. I could also write more using my Royal portable typewriter. I am not reverting back to pre-technology days, but it was a test of will not to turn on the computer for a week.

This is what happened:

1-I read "Rilke On Love and Other Difficulties"

2-I read "The Dream Life of Sukhanov" by Olga Grushin

3--I am in the middle of "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins

Of Rilke I can only say it was a worth while read but strictly on an academic level. There are some fine passages from his letters and other writings. This was the first time I read some of his poetry. I quote here in the original German in honor of my literary benefactor and friend:

Wir sollen nicht wissen, warum
dieses und jenes uns meistert;
wirkliches Leben ist stumm,
nur daB es uns begeistert,
macht uns mit ihm vertraut
"The Dream Life of Sukhanov" went by so fast that I finished the book in 24 hours. I couldn't put it down. The first five or six paragraphs are hard to swallow--it's difficult to make out what's going on. Once things are settled, it is an enjoyable read. Sukhanov is the editor in chief of the premier art publication in the Soviet Union. He has everything he could ask for. Things begin to unravel when a friend from his past chances upon him. The toss up judgment that the reader eventually has to take is that of whether it was right for Sukhanov to give up his dreams for a comfortable career. He begins to justify his life by claiming that he did it all for others, not for personal gain. But the equation is not that simple. He "sells" out to the Soviet apparatchik, and his dream of being a cutting edge (albeit highly against Soviet policy) surrealist painter vanishes. I think there are some interesting devices here too. For example, the narrator point of view changes from third person to first person and then back. I think this works, insofar it helps Sukahnov explain his dilemma. It does get confusing at times so the reader must be alert to the change as it happens. This story is easily comparable to "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy.
I am reading Richard Dawkins "The God Delusion," but I am not commenting on it.
I found this old quote by Kafka in a scrap piece of paper hidden between the pages of one of my old books.
I am nothing but literature and can and want
to be nothing else.... A writer's life actually
does depend on his desk; if he is to avoid going
mad, really he should never leave his desk, he
must cling to it like grim death.... I want to delve
into it with all my strength; when not writing I feel
myself being pushed out of life by unyielding hands. -- Franz Kafka.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Other Titles...

Here are some other titles that may be included in my reading list for this year "Love and Longing in Bombay" by Vikram Chandra, and "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin.

A few days ago, I reviewed a story by Haruki Murakami entitled "Tony Takitani." Imagine my surprise when I found out it was made into a film in 2006.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

True to Life

"Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" came to an end with an incredibly avant garde story by Murakami in which a speaking ape is the centerpiece. It was pure Murakami, and, for the most part, a wonderful way to end the book.

Even though I haven't posted for a couple of days, I have been reading restlessly since Wednesday. I began a 10 day holiday away from the academy, and I have done nothing but read since. I read Mark Salzman's "The Soloist" in one day and enjoyed it tremendously. I remember picking up this book at a used book sale and thinking it was a bad idea to read a book that was so close to home at the time. I think I've had the book for some three or four years now and finally put it in my reading list. The story is about a cellist (the reason why it is so close to home). Although I never was a child prodigy, some of the early experiences that the narrator goes through early in the book are like a flashback to some of my youth. Unfortunately for the narrator, the amazing virtuosity that he is known for early in the story disappears suddenly, leaving him as a "has-been" in a profession where "come-back" efforts are nearly non-existent. So, having lost his gift and unable to tour the world as a soloist, performing with the world's greatest orchestras, he moves to Southern California where at the age of 20-something he accepts a teaching position at a university.

From here, the narrative takes two very different but widely interesting sub-plots. 1) The narrator is contacted to teach a young prodigy, a nine-year-old virtuoso, a Korean boy named Kyung-hee. 2) The narrator is summoned to jury duty in a murder case involving a Zen student and his master. The action of the novel goes back and forth with the narrator struggling to teach the young boy and balance his role in the jury. Eventually he becomes involved with one of the women in the jury but things go badly (he is, at 34, still a virgin). The story concludes with the narrator finishing his jury duty and finding a path to guide the young Korean boy so as not to have him suffer the same as he did.

There were many parts of this story that reminded me of my four year tenure with the Washington Symphony Orchestra. The principal cellist was like a father to me:

I think that what I miss the most of this time in my life (besides the concerts) was going out with the cello section after the concert Saturday night and having drinks and food and good conversation and all the rest. It was a wonderful time in my life, although I do not regret giving it up for my position at the academy. I enjoy what I do now very much, and the memories from the orchestra are simply too vivid to lose. Back to the Salzman's story, I could definitely relate to the narrator's experience with women throughout the story. He feels that because of his up-bringing, his shyness and the rest that he is doomed to live a single life. He accepts this rather peacefully at the end. For my part, those four years were a dating living hell, but I won't get into it here other than to say again that I don't regret any of it.
I think I have posted this picture to the left before. It was in March 1999. For that concert we had a young virtuoso playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.2. I fictionalize the story a bit for a short story competition. You can read it HERE. As I read the Salzman book I kept thinking about the young Korean boy and this pianist we had as a soloist that night. It is hard not to believe that something sacred exists when one hears talent at this rate. It is a wonderful experience to see youth dedicated so fully to the one thing they were born to do. I think that Mark Salzman's "The Soloist" is a gem of a book and it took me back to a time in my life when while things were not easy, they certainly seem to be infused with a brighter sense of being.
I am reading a biography of Samuel Beckett as my next read. I hardly know anything about him other than "Waiting for Godot," so it is very nice to actually get to know his previous work and about his friendship with James Joyce.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Beyond Great Writing: Magic

Yesterday, I went to Half-Priced Books and did the common rounds... look at the Auster books, the Didion, the Eco, the Murakami... and found a first print of Murakami's "A Wild Sheep Chase" for $5. This is a top find. It's a Kodansha edition, introducing Murakami to the American public for he first time (1989). The book has both Japanese and American ISBN numbers and the price in dollars and yen. I couldn't believe my eyes; even the dust cover has the author's photograph.

"Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" is now slipping into its last pages. Last night I finished reading "Tony Takitani," "The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes," "The Ice Man," "Crabs" and "Firefly." All of these were great. I loved the "Tony Takitani" story. I was reading it during lunch and didn't want the bell to ring again before class. It is the story of a trombonist during the Pre-World War II days. He enjoys great deal of comfort in Japan but finds himself going to China to play in the fashionable western establishments. In the conflicting ideologies of the post-World War II days, he is imprisoned and almost put to death. Back in Japan, he never marries but has a son whom he names Tony. Tony becomes an artist and from this point, the story take a wild but realistic rush through a myriad of emotions: sadness, joy, reflection, nostalgia, etc. All rolled up in the perfect Murakami form. "The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes" is a different story (no pun intended). This story feels as if Murakami was experimenting with extravagant elements. Certainly, it feels as if he sat down in front of the computer one day and said to himself: "Let's see how absurd I can make things." It is not a very good story. It's rushed and not polished. I don't really know what else to say about it. I had read "The Ice Man" before on "Vintage Murakami." But "Firefly," well... "Firefly" is something altogether apart. This is certainly Murakami's crowning achievement... it is part and parcel of "Norwegian Wood," one of his most famous novels.

Reading "Firefly" was like taking a trip back to 1994 Japan. This was the year I discovered Murakami. I was living in Japan at the time and my then friend-now-brother-in-law gave me a copy of "Norwegian Wood." I could not put down the book. I cried, real tears, moved by the lyrical and poetical style... along with the pains of the "coming of age" story. Here's an example from the selection included in "Firefly:"

.... A long time later, the firefly took off. As if remembering something, it suddenly spread its wings and in the next instant floated up over the railing and into the gathering dark. Trying to win back lost time, perhaps, it quickly traced an arc beside the water tower. It stopped for a moment, just long enough for its trail of light to blur, then flew off toward the east.
Long after the firefly disappeared, the traces of its light remained within me. In the thick dark behind my closed eyes that faint light, like some wandering spirit, continued to roam. Again and again I stretched my hand out toward the darkness. But my fingers felt nothing. That tiny glow was always out of reach.

There are perhaps a hundred or so different passages on this 250+ page novel that I would love to post, passages of long lost love and nostalgia, agony and yearning. It is going to be hard once I finish "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" and begin some other author's book.

Just off the press... I just found this while searching for link on Amazon... Paul Auster's new publication... the film script of "The Inner Life of Martin Frost." I am so excited!

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Monday, April 02, 2007

All that Encompasses Fiction...

Murakami's ability to make us believe in the dream-like stories he weaves is by far the most obvious example of his genius. The 24 stories in "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" are addictive to read. Murakami's work is the reason we return to fiction as an escape (or as a learning tool). Again, his ability to make us believe is uncanny and unparalleled. The last story I reported on was "A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism." That story was a microscopic venture into the heart of a generation that was too big for its own good; a generation whose promise not only was fulfilled, but generated more greed than any before then. And along those lines, the protagonist finds himself fulfilled but unhappy.l In "Hunting Knife," the narrator and his wife are on vacation at a small resort. Being it out of season there's hardly any other guests. The narrator describes the exception as a mother and a young man in a wheelchair. To make a short story even shorter, the narrator's emptiness is so thinly and vaguely described that one finds it hard to see what--if anything--is the matter with the narrator. At the end of the story, the narrator and the young man in the wheelchair have a conversation about a hunting knife, and just like magic the reader is left to theorize about why the narrator seems to keen on waving the hunting knife cutting through the air (hoping to cut those attachments that make him so weighed down?). "A Poor Aunt Story" begins by a narrator questioning why to every family there seems to be a 'poor aunt,' you know the type... you only see her on birthdays or weddings, she keeps to herself, never married, etc. Well, the narrator wakes up one day (after complaining of not having such an aunt) with his own poor aunt attached to his back. She looks over his shoulder. This is why Murakami is so incredible. He makes this leap of faith into the fantastical in an otherwise realistic story and without the reader realizing it, she/he suspends his/her disbelief without reserve. This story is a reminder to all of us as to what the purposes of fiction are. We can theorize them, analyze them, restrict entrance into the canon... but there's no way to absolve us to whom fiction of this type is simply and escape. Murakami is one of today's finest writers and a humankind genius.
4.0/18.2 total miles.

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