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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch"

Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch" is a surreal variation (even at that) of Joyce's "Ulysses." Yes, there is a young male artist as a central character. Yes, he happens to be searching for someone in a big city (Paris, not Dublin). And yes, he struggles with most of the existential issues of his day. This is Paris some time in the mid-1950s. The young artist's name is Horacio Oliveira. The first part of the narrative tells the story of his relationship with a woman nicknamed "La Maga." The other string of characters belong to "The Club" a loose-knit circle of bohemians who discuss everything from books to music to philosophical theories they themselves don't really comprehend (there's a lot of mis-interpreted existentialism here). The picture above I just found online a while back and reminded me of what a meeting of "The Club" might be like so I posted it. At any rate, "La Maga" belongs to "The Club" via Horacio's interceding. She doesn't understand a lot of the talk and people have to stop in order to explain to her, something which begins to irritate most of the members. "La Maga" also has a small child, Rocamadour, who happens to be very ill and is not taken in to see a doctor. Of course, Rocamadour dies and "La Maga" disappears, hence Horacio's desperate search for her around Paris.

Horacio eventually returns to his native Argentina. There, with the help of an old friend, he secures a job as the trainer of a cat that can count. This is where I am right now. I should have posted more but I was very busy this last week. Also, I forgot, "Hopscotch" can be read like a normal book (from page 1 to 349), or it can be read using a "chapter map" which explains what order to follow reading the chapters. I believe from what I have read that the story turn out completely different that way, but I am not sure; I am reading the book as any other book, from beginning to end.

This is final examinations week here at the Academy. My last day is Thursday of this week, and after that I don't need to report to work until August 23rd or so. If you think this is great, you don't know the least of it. I get bored over the summer. I do so love the hustle and bustle of the school year, and being around young people keeps you young, really. I suspect that I'll still be enjoying the yard (as a new home owner), and doing things around the house. One thing is for sure... there'll be a whole lot more time to read and post entries.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

"After Dark" -- Murakami's Fine Crystal...

This is an awesome novel. Murakami is a master of the expository. Description and setting are his master strokes in this novel. The story centers after a few characters spending the night out in the city. There's a young woman, Mari and a young trombone player, Takahashi, who engage in a conversation that ties the separate plots together. Mari's sister Eri is a beautiful young woman, a magazine model of sorts. Of course, there's the tension between the sisters, but Mari is really the central character here. Takahashi introduces Mari to Kauro, a love hotel manager who needs helps with Chinese translation (which Mari can provide). A Chinese prostitute has been beaten up at the Alphaville love hotel. This sends the book into another fascinating plot, and again Murakami's descriptions and setting are beyond comparison.

I am beyond the middle point of the novel. I find myself trying to pace myself, enjoying every sentence little by little. I really don't want it to end. I have several nice options for my next read, so we'll see what happens. All I have to say is Murakami is one of the finest writers alive today.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Second Life

You can find me at Second Life now... my avatar's name is Nodnor Biedermann. It's a fun place, but unfortunately you can't do much without money involved... you've got to pay a premium. I sort of knew that corporations were going to be able to monopolize the Internet sooner or later. Oh well... catch me online. I am usually at the Shakespeare and Friends bookstore.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

William Gass, Martin Amis' "Dead Babies" & Murakami's "After Dark"

I haven't posted for a while due to work obligations. I have continued reading voraciously, though. So Gass continued to the very end being the tough writer that he is. He does not relent when it comes to arguing and exposing philosophical truths galore. In the second half of the book, he offers even more academic high discourse. While I may be critical of others doing the same, Gass wins the reader over by simply approaching his topic lineally; that is to say, he offers a great amount of background information before he takes off on a tangent. His writing, as I have said before, it's not for the faint of heart. There are quite a few interesting examples of what Gass considers the "simple" in literature. He reviews the great "simplists"--Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. There's a great difference, states Gass, between the "simplist" and the incomprehensible. Stein plays right along the border of this distinction with "Melanctha," a story in which she successfully employs the vernacular but totally loses the central coherence of the story. Hemingway fairs the same criticism. The last few essays of "Finding a Form" were difficult to read, but I pressed on and enjoyed even the tough ones.

I had promised that I was going to tackle "After Dark" by Haruki Murakami next, but I took a detour and read Martin Amis' "Dead Babies" instead. The story takes place in the span of one weekend at a English country estate called the Appleseed Rectory. There are a series of characters divided into three groups: the Appleseeders, the Americans, and "others." The main characters include an intellectual named Quentin and his wife Celia; Andy Adorno, a reckless vagabond who is sort of a gypsy; Giles, a hopeless drunk who dreams of losing all of his teeth; Keith, a midget who is frustrated with life overall; Diana, partner to Andy Adorno. The Americans (Marvell, Skip, and Roxanne) are a threesome (in all the sense of the word) who come as an invitation by Quentin. Marvell is an illegal drug impresario and specialist. The jest is that Marvell--during the course of the weekend--is to give drugs to all the other characters as an experiment/performance thus pushing everything to its limits.

The structure of the novel is "reader friendly." Some of the chapters begin with a flashback and biographical notations on the main characters. This is useful because the reader has a point of reference for many of the strange decisions the characters make during the course of the novel. Martin Amis attempts at a style caught between the dream-like and the explicit with great success. Where the novel goes amiss (no pun intended) is Martin Amis' experimentation with stream of consciousness; he interjects these in the most strange places and they don't seem to follow anything dealing with the plot. Overall, the experiment doesn't offer anything to the plot. There are very funny passages dying to be interpreted from a Freudian point of view. Giles' constant dream of losing all of his teeth (which is the scene that begins the novel) is one of the many passages. There's a lot of expectation driven by the characters ambitions (sexual and otherwise) during the course of the weekend. The end is a massive discombobulation which ends the novel quite well.

I am in the first few pages of "After Dark" and I can already tell it is Murakami at his best. Murakami really excels writing about urban settings. He really gives it life and at the same time the mystery of every corner of the city comes across clearly and distinct.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

William Gass on Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Ezra Pound

The basic premise of these essays--I am starting to believe--is to shake our most common beliefs regarding intellectual pillars that often go unshaken. Gass takes on Nietzsche not only from a biographical point of view but also from the polemic of Nietzsche's thought. Gass encompasses many of Nietzsche's arguments and alludes to his creative temperament following the chronology of works. "'The Birth of Tragedy'" Gass writes, "is the birth of Nietzsche too, because it contains his major metaphysical discovery: that of an existential disjunction within the continuities of nature. It also displays the liberated skepticism of his mind and the traditional character of his emotions." This is difficult to understand. Like I said in my previous post, Gass doesn't wait for the reader to understand; that is not his business. I think it is unfortunate but this essay obtrudes more than it clarifies Nietzsche's philosophy and creative body of work. There is some juggling of ideas that pre-date or post-date Nietzsche, making it an easy "wonder what" game for the reader.

In "At Death's Door: Wittgenstein," Gass again begins from a biographical point of view. The essay is a good introduction to readers not familiar with Wittgenstein's work. There is, however, too much talk about homosexuality, etc. The essay also takes particular aim at one Brian McGuiness' biography of Wittgenstein. Gass blames McGuiness of over-looking particular elements of Wittgenstein's life that would in other cases act as relevant information in the examination of his philosophies. This is rapid-fire Gass, and his style again waits for no one.

Between the next three essays, I have to say that the one on Ezra Pound is the most interesting. Gass really de-mythologize Pound's exile in Paris. He presents a Pound very much in his element; promoting young talent, pushing forth other people's careers at the expense of his own, becoming a fascist and philosophizing on finance without really knowing what he was talking about. Gass, however, is fair to the poor "later-years" Pound who has been "exiled" into a mental institution. Pound was a threat to no one, Gass expounds, and we can't but agree with him.

Right now Gass is helping the reader find a better definition to exile, approaching it from all angles and points of view. I am delighted to say that Sunday found me purchasing a copy of the new Haruki Murakami novel "After Dark." It is a great thrill when we are lucky enough to read two new works from one of our favorite writers in the span of one year. Something is going to get bumped out of the reading list this year in order to fit in this one volume. Sorry, but Murakami can't wait.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

William Gass Comes Out Swinging...

William Gass comes out swinging in his collection of essays "Finding a Form." He first takes on the Pulitzer Prize, criticizing it for taking "dead aim at mediocrity and almost never miss[ing]." For the most part Gass is right. He exposes the irrelevant qualities that a novel must have in order to receive the prize. He further explains the complexity of selecting a board of jurors for the award. He states, "Not only will they have to be partisans of their own tastes--that's natural--each will be implicitly asked to represent their region, race, or sex, because one will have to be a woman, another a black or academic or journalist, old hand or upstart.... The only qualification a judge ought to have is unimpeachable good taste, which immediately renders irrelevant such puerile pluralistic concerns as skin color, sex, and origin." Gass is not a fan of the process, obviously. The politics of the prize as exposed as well, a turn in which Gass himself feels burdened by the expectations of the prize committee. "A lot of writers are disliked and their works slighted because they have been praised by the wrong critics, have sappy photographs on their dust jackets, overly effusive or too bountiful blurbs, made-up, movie-star names. Or are known to have the wrong politics. (I like to believe I could have voted a poetry prize to Marianne Moore even though I know she once wore a Nixon button)." This essay is an exemplary echo of what has been happening with literary prizes lately. It has turned into a geo-political popularity contest instead of what it should really be--how many of us can really identify or say to have read ALL of the works of the recent Nobel Prize for literature winners? I hardly think so. Even with someone as popular as Gunter Grass--I still haven't read all his works. Why do people like John Updike don't get the Nobel Prize? Politics, perhaps... and a good added doze of anti-Americanism.

In the essay, "A Failing Grade for the Present Tense," Gass explores the idea of present tense writing and why it has become so popular in recent years. He offers a great variety of examples from young writers and taps it off as inexperience, not literary experimentation. There is a good deal of definition as to what exactly is present tense, whether it can exist or not, and how does the written word impacts the idea of the present altogether. He states: "Henry James and William Faulkner had the temerity to put long sentences in their short stories, and these now-old masters thought carefully about the relationship of technique to reality, about the relative weights of meaning and shifts of points of view, accreditation and authority, pacing and scene shaping, among many other issues." I consider this last quotation a great map to editing any fiction one has written. It seems to work parallel with the creative process from beginning to end. Gass explores other mediums, such as film, in his exploration of the present tense. All in all, this is a great essay but not one easy to read.

William Gass style is very mature. There's nothing easy about his essays' structure. Come prepared to duke it out with a writer who doesn't wait for the reader to get it; you either don't or you do. Expect plenty of allusions (including to numerous titles from the 20th Century Latin American literary boom), connection to previous ideas, and generally a circularly pace. These are magnificent essays to read and cherish what we learn from them.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

From the "My Yard is Better than Yours" Archives.

Now that Spring is here, it is time to engage in that most shallow of all American pursuits... the neighborly lawn competition... now, that some serious green I got here!

Of course no one wants to admit it, but that is what one does... compete to see who has the greenest yard. I am proud to say mine is 100% bio-safe and organic fertilizer. No weed killer--I pull mine by hand.

In the middle of things...

One reason why I won't recommend "Dog Soldiers" is the way that characters seem to know and influence the things that drive the plot without the reader knowing how they became acquainted with such information. I have read Robert Stone before, and, on the sheer power and magnificence of his short stories and a novel entitled "A Flag for Sunrise," I consider him a good writer. How "Dog Soldiers" won the National Book Award will continue to elude me. At any rate, there's bound to be a number of books that I will not endorse. This is one of them.

On a lighter note, I am now reading William Gass' "Finding a Form." It is a collection of essay in which the voice of Gass comes out clear and good. I will be annotating the collection so there will be citations and the like on the reviews.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Responsibility...

Because one has a certain responsibility, after all... to those books one picks up to read... that's the reason why I am continuing reading Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers." I am sort of lost as to how even minor characters seem to know much more than the protagonist. John Converse returns from Vietnam to find that the man who he entrusted the cargo of heroin to has runaway with the cargo and also with his wife, Marge. Converse hears all about this from his own father-in-law. How this minor character gets to know exactly what is happening, we never know. After this there's the obligatory torture scene, complete with tough guys and handcuffs. I don't think I was in the mood to read this book. However, I do have to say that Stone's prose style is clear and good. This makes you read further and faster, and to a certain extent enjoy the fragile ties that hold the language to the plot and the characters.

This coming week is the anniversary of my coming back from the war. It seems like ages ago... I suppose because it was indeed a lifetime ago. I have decided to confront some of the left-over demons and go to my local Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting hall and have a beer :-) This past weekend was the funeral service for Lance Corporal Daniel Scherry. He was killed April 16. I can't imagine how much pain that family must have gone through, or must still be going through. May he rest in peace.

Teaching wise things are absolutely on track, and with some work caught up I have ventured to do some more reading and writing. I've also posted some lectures on the current unit on a brand new "YouTube" channel. Next semester there will be a new English teacher and she is an expert writing teacher and poet. I am really delighted to have a creative heart around here... God knows it is needed. I really have a great deal of hope for our English department next year.

Next on my list is William Gass' "Finding a Form." It is a collection of essays by the master of the form here in America.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers"

I am still seeking why this novel won the National Book Award. Right now, the protagonist, John Converse, is in Vietnam. He arranges for a shipment of heroin to be delivered to his wife in the United States and then she would sell it to the pushers. As it turns out Hicks, the person in charge to get the heroin to the U.S., turns on Marge (John's wife) and basically kidnaps her, her baby and the heroin. Again, I suppose it's a bit early to tell. I really had difficulties getting into it, but now the prose is really starting to flow. "Dog Soldiers" is not an easy novel to digest, but I will report later if it was worth reading.

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