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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

K: A Biography of Kafka

When I finished “The Last Thing He Wanted” I was still unable to identify who was “talking” in the story. Most the chapters opened with a first-person perspective (I assumed it was the protagonist) which in turn quickly switched to third-person descriptive. I think I took too long to finish it, and while I have been done with it for a few days now, I didn’t want to post anything else about it.

Ronald Hayman’s “K: A Biography of Kafka,” is an insightful biography written from the perspective of Kafka’s own diaries. Hayman’s quotes and passages from the diaries are very functionally placed and the pages flow one to the other like an endless—what else could we call it—dream. There is a large amount of description about Kafka’s writing discipline and lack thereof. At one point in the narrative Hayman calculates that Kafka “had done no writing for over two years.” The middle of the biography covers, in great detail, Kafka’s relationship with Felice and the abortive efforts at engagement and subsequent marriage. Here is a Kafka trapped in a world made partly of his own doing, unable to escape but not know what to do if he does indeed escape. Indecision is the common denominator throughout the narrative. There are some good comparisons between Kafka’s father, Kafka’s dreams and how he was able to transfer all of it into his fiction. Between travels and emotional and personal distresses, Kafka is able to summon all of his might and write. Incredibly, he is more drawn to the desk than he is to real life. This is partly due to the fact he wasn’t an easily adaptable person; socially he was limited by his lack of eloquence, and in private he lacked the spiritual force to look at himself even-handedly. He could only find succor in the “consolation to be had from writing masterfully controlled sentences about uncontrollable situations.” This is one of the nicest biographies I have ever read if simply because one page has melted into the next and I have been able to read at long intervals (I read for a couple of hours last evening in the balcony).

Where Hayman fails, really, is his lack of depth when it comes to writing about “Der Verwandlung” (The Metamorphosis). There are a few snippets of information that drip from in between accounts about his lack of health, concentration, and his problematic relationship with Felice. I don’t find any other fault with this biography; it is well written and clearly organized. I am presently on page 220, with only 80 more to go.

I wrote eight pages last Friday and felt quite content with the progress… more on this later.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Didion's "The Last Thing He Wanted"

I am not sure why I haven't finished reading this book yet. I should have been done with it a couple of days ago, but I have worked so hard this week, really. I went into work every day this week. I photocopied and worked on my website for what seemed an eternity. By the time I got around to reading, it was time to go to bed. I created a massive amount of pdf files for the course website, and I still have a ton more to go. So, I have been on vacation for two weeks now and it feels like I have done more work than before the semester ended. I also created the three summer reading blogs for my students and have been updating those as well. At any rate, there's nothing I can say here to prove it but I have worked a great deal this week.

Didion's novel is so disjointed. I really don't know what is going on. For a while the protagonist Elena McMahon gets involved on her father's dealings, and even goes on a mission to complete one of his deals. Apparently, he sells arms on the black market. So our correspondent turned mercenary goes to Costa Rica to complete a deal her father started. In the span of time she is gone her father dies and she returns home before the operative who was giving her instructions completes the transaction. The novel is a jigsaw puzzle of point of view narratives. There is a persistent stream of consciousness thing going on that really does not add at all to the narrative, rather it makes the reader confused as to who is thinking or saying what. There's also a repetitive sentence mode that is confusing and sort of annoying. For example: "Many people appear to have walked around the dead center of this period.... Many people appear to have chosen during this period to identify themselves as something other than what they were.... This was a period during which many people appear to have known the way to fly undetected.... This was a period during which many people appear to have known that the way to fly undetected over foreign coastlines was with cash.... This was a period during which a significant minority among the population at large appears to have understood how government funds earmarked for humanitarian aid might be diverted...." This goes on in the span of a single paragraph--can you imagine how annoying this can get after a while? At any rate, commitment to a book is commitment to a book and I must respect the fact that I owe the book my attention and must keep reading it. More to come soon (unless I succumb to work).

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Joan Didion's Lost Message

I don’t have Internet access in the English Department office yet, so I am writing this on Word and cut and pasting it into Blogger. I finished reading Dirda a while back and in between re-read one of our summer reading books, “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.” It is the story of a young woman who is burnt as a child and now suffers more than just disfigurement from her physical scars. She teams up with “Moby” or Eric Calhoune as her best friend. Eric is called “Moby” because he is excessively over-weighed but participates in the swimming team; so the nickname Moby comes from “Moby-Dick.” Sarah is hiding the secret that it was her demented father who put her face straight into a kitchen range. The excuse of her dropping a pot of boiling spaghetti on herself is the only thing she has to explain what happened when she was 3 years old. Eric and Sarah publish an underground paper in their high school; the paper’s name, “Crispy Pork Rinds,” alludes to the fact that Sarah is burnt and disfigured and that Eric is a pig. Along the way there are sufficient characters to make the plot very exciting, but the “young adult” label on this book takes away a great deal from it. For example, there are no redeeming qualities to any of the adults in the story, even the teacher that helps out and Eric’s mom or her live-in boyfriend. The end of the novel is quite predictable (assuming the reader can be attentive to the foreshadowing in the plot).

I started reading Joan Didion’s “The Last Thing He Wanted,” and I am totally lost. The third person omnipresent narrator goes back and forth—past, present, not quite present, not quite past forms are part of the course in this plot that is leading nowhere. There are so many changes in the narrative point of view that it is enough to dizzy the best of readers. The characters are, so far, atrocious. This is definitely Didion’s worst effort as a writer (at least in my opinion, and the opinion of those reviewing at Amazon). Of course I will finish reading it, but not before I start reading something else as this would be my third attempt at reading more than one book at a time. I haven’t decided what to read next, since I am still giving Didion a chance on this one as it is quite too early to tell. We’ll see. I am seeing the pile of books for this year starting to go down—that’s quite satisfying

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"Book by Book" by Michael Dirda "Why Read?"

As I said before, I think I read all of these books about people obsessed with books because I feel I need to "justify" (not sure if that's the right word) to myself that I am not the only crazy one; that there are more like me out there. It is, I believe as Dirda has stated in his other books, a dying art. People seem to be losing their interest in reading as a whole. I recommend highly a book I read two years ago entitled "Why Read?" by Mark Edmundson. He begins with a simple enough premise, something he observes as "the recent identity crisis in the humanities," that "reading can change your life for the better." We have become so consumerized that the art of reading for personal growth and edification has been relegated to an obsolete function of human necessity. Edmundson sticks to "the best that's been thought and said," which I am sure would offend some of the liberal revisionists out there, and perhaps this is why this book didn't get much press. At any rate, it is what it is and we cannot cover the sky with our hands... liberal thought (which makes nearly everything in western intellectual history offensive to some political/sexual identity/ethnic or racial group) has created a problem... the proverbial elephant sitting the middle of the library. We all see him there, but pretend not to notice, lest we offend some political-correctness credo. At any rate, it is not my intention to rant. I would like to make the disclaimer that I do "bash" both conservatives and liberals alike. I stick to the William James' way of absorbing and digesting information: pragmatism.

Where does this leave me? Ah, yes... Dirda. Dirda is clear of any liberal or conservative interpretation and that is why I like him so much. He doesn't take an analytical stance based on political-correctness, nor does he goes out of his way to interpret in the "old-dead-white-male" way. Although "Book by Book" is not ranking among my favorites by him, it is nonetheless a great source of "I-am-not-as-crazy-as-I-thought" material.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Cortazar's "Hopscotch" and the End of the School Year

I haven't posted for a while due to the tremendous stress of final examinations week and the task of getting everything squared away in the classroom. But I did manage to finish "Hopscotch." I have to say that I found the protagonist's move to Argentina quite sudden after losing "La Maga." There was the incident with the failed pianist that was perhaps the best written part of the novel. Horacio Oliveira walks the streets of Paris aimlessly looking for "La Maga" after her son's death. He decides at the last minute to attend a piano recital given by one Berthe Trepat. The pieces being performed were a compilation of seemingly the worst the contemporary Paris music scene could offer. People begin to leave after the first few minutes of the performance and Berthe Trepat begins to notice. At the end of the concert, only Horacio is sitting in the hall and embarrassingly gives her a standing ovation all by himself. Afterwards, Horacio offers his services to walk Berthe home. The conversation is controlled by Berthe who engages in a litany of complains about how people do not enjoy or appreciate her music. I have to say that for me, this was the best part of the novel.

A little after, "La Maga's" son dies after the long illness that keeps him in bed for most of the novel. The "Club" comes apart at the seams and everyone parts in their own direction. Horacio returns to Argentina where he works as a trainer for a cat that can calculate and count accurately. There are two new characters here, Traveler and Talita. From here the novel really takes on an absurd path ending, accordingly enough, at a mental hospital. This novel didn't disappoint, but I can say I am dying to re-read it.

I am presently engaged with "Book by Book" by Michael Dirda. I somehow ended with three different books on my list this year that deal with the "madness" of reading voraciously. I think I want to convince myself that I am not the only insane mind that reads so much and with such obsession. The other is "Leave Me Alone, I am Reading" by Maureen Corrigan. The funny thing about Dirda is that I didn't really like him much while I was living in Washington, DC (he writes for "The Washington Post's Book World"). I love him now, and have read ALL of his books. He definitely is obsessed with reading and learning from his love of literature. It's easy to identify with him, but "Book by Book" is starting to sound like a collection of quotes and citations which is very different from his previous books. I will write more about this later.

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