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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Slouching Towards Bethlehem -- Joan Didion

This collection of essays marks the crowning of Didion as the master of the American essay. I particularly liked the essay on John Wayne; it brought a plethora of black and white Western memories and the excitement of old time war movies. These essays--although dated--depict an era of history in the United States that could be interpreted in a million different ways. Didion's essays make it sound like the conventional wisdom about the 1960s generally holds: that everyone was out there living it up and being a hippie. But, I wonder, how did Nixon get elected in '68? He said it best when accepting the Republican nomination for president he referred to the "silent majority." I really think that was the case in the 1960s. Sure the hippies and the social activists were more visible, always on television, etc. But the truth was the the "silent majority" still ran the country.... the 9 to 5 worker, the housewives, the young men who volunteered for service in Vietnam (only a small percentage of those drafted actually served any combat time in Vietnam--the majority were volunteers).

Didion gets it all right. I think she does because essentially it did happen that way, whether to a certain degree or another that's beside the point. She is illustrative and precise in her depiction of the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco. I love her reference to the Yeats poem, particularly the lines "the center cannot hold" and "The falcon cannot hear the falconer."

So, I am half way through this book which I began yesterday, including the fact that I am taking notes and also the fact that I am taking my friends from Holland for drives around the city. So I promise to do better this week. By the way, today is the FIRST YEAR ANNIVERSARY of this blog, and also my wedding anniversary! What a day!

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

In the Middle of Things...

I haven't written much in the last week because I have been working on my work website. Also, I couldn't come up with a single thing to say about "Writers on Writing, volume 2." I read the essays with great interest, but they continued to strike me as too fancy; that is to say, a bit on the inflated side. (I had the same reaction to volume 1). I suppose that those writers can say more about it because after all they are published authors. I think the essay about 9/11 and what that event did to the process of imagination and creativity was the best of the bunch. The main idea is that creativity came to a halt after that day because writing fiction might have seemed like a leisure when so much needed to be done. I think everyone pretty much felt this way.

I got trapped between two books and did not make head way on either one until I decided on just one of them. I started out with Pankaj Mishra's "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World," and with Buzz Williams' "Spare Parts." I decided on Mishra's and it has paid great dividends. It is, without doubt, the most insightful historical perspective about the Buddha written up to date. Despite the fact that Mishra is a very young writer, he blends his travels around the world with historical perspectives of the Buddha, the political and racial history of India, and a gamut of other perspectives that even include Nietzsche and nihilism. Mishra is the author of a little known novel entitled "The Romantics." I had read a review about it once and it caught my eye, but it wasn't until some years later that I got a first print copy of it at a discount rack and it turned out to be one of the greatest books I've ever read. In the Buddha book, he writes about an experience with an American Buddhist named Helen, which turns out to be particularly close to that of the relationships depicted in "The Romantics." So pick up Mishra if you get a chance.

My friends from Holland are in town visiting. Ilse and Eugene are just as lovely people as they were 14 years ago when we first met in college. My trip to Holland in 2001 was one of the greatest holidays I've ever had. Here's a picture of last night's banquet by Eugene, our chef:

I have decided to abandon my efforts to write about my experience in Al Khafji. It seems to me that after the years the unhealthy obsession I've had with my memories is not worth the time and the ink. Also, a passage by Joseph Conrad reminded me:

"Why I longed to go grubbing into deplorable details of an occurrence which, after all, concerned me no more that as a member of an obscure body of men held together by a community of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct I can't explain. You may call it an unhealthy curiosity if you like; but I had a distinct notion I wished to find something." -- Joseph Conrad.

I am not quite sure yet of what to read next. I definitely have many choices to pick from. I am leaning heavily towards the Didion collection, but I haven't made up my mind yet.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Siri Hustvedt's "What I Loved"

What I Loved” turned out to be a surprisingly engrossing book. I say surprisingly because despite some repetitive elements in the narrative, the compelling characters kept me glued to the page. This is, I believe, the fastest I have ever read a book over 300 pages (and that’s a lot to say). I think it took me a little under a day and a half. I wanted to post my impressions of the book yesterday but I didn’t have the time. The more I work on my courses website, the less time is left over to write. The reading comes easy, really, at my second story balcony right off my main bedroom. It’s a lovely place to read. At any rate, Leo’s son, Matthew, drowns and shortly thereafter Bill also dies (of a heart attack). With Erica gone to teach on the west coast (Berkley), Leo and Violet are left alone to deal with Bill’s death and Mark’s continuous decent into chaos. Mark becomes entangled with an artist-turned-murderer—his name is Teddy Giles. Mark steals and lies beyond anything I have ever read possible in a fictional character (it reminded me of “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, but more complex and depth-driven). Mark lies to the point where Leo and Violet can’t do anything to help him. Up to the very end it is still unclear how Mark’s personality has become so muddled. The murder committed by Teddy Giles is not confirmed until the very end and he is put away. Since the novel takes place over the span of 25 years, Leo, the narrator, becomes an “old man,” and tries unsuccessfully to create a place for himself in the world. I say unsuccessfully because what ails him the most is the fact that he begins to lose his eye sight—for an art historian that must be deadly. He continues work on his Goya book, but soon shifts his attention to a book on Bill’s work trying to finish it before a retrospective of Bill’s work takes place. The story drags a bit at the end but definitely the characters make up for it in the end. There’s a quote by Gershom Scholem that Leo analyzes in the course of trying to understand Mark’s resistance to reality. The quote is a translation from Hebrew: “to repent” which is the same word for “to return.” Violet soon turns her attention to a possible teaching position in Paris and takes off leaving Leo behind, alone.

This is definitely a book I will recommend for its depth and large, complex, varied and chameleon-like characters. Worth my time and effort!

I worked yesterday about six hours at the English Department office. As I was walking out, I saw a student that graduated a couple of years ago. She is now a sophomore in college. After some small talk, I got into my car and thought about that student when she came as a freshman to the academy. She was in the soccer team (which I coached at the time) and it seemed she rubbed everyone the wrong way. She quit the team shortly after that and I never really stopped worrying about her until the moment she graduated. I think the rest of the students in her class understood her around the end of her second year here, and accepted her personality and her ways. It is true that everyone finds their pace in life—I clearly saw that in her yesterday. I started thinking as I drove home that I really don’t know much about the students in general. I mean, there’s always the over-achiever, the one who wants to be more intelligent than the instructor, the under-achiever, the eternally-bored one, the one who likes you and the one who hates you all at the same time…. I think I am beginning to see a maturity in me as an instructor, an ability to let go of them after four years realizing that indeed they are NOT my daughters and that I am just a tiny, tiny some times insignificant part of their lives. I accept that. All I can do is give all I’ve got every four year stretch, one set of class after another and never relent. I am not as confused about my role as a teacher anymore, at least not how I used to be. It’s all a cycle, a readjusting and regenerative process. One must love it, of course, but one must also be realistic about one’s own contribution to the learning process. Think too much of your own role in it and you spoil it—embrace its realities and perhaps you’ll be more efficient, more loving, more compassionate. I only regret that I have only four years to give to each class. It is reality at work that, after they leave, they are on their own and because the world offers so much now, I end up meaning very little to them. I am not upset or jealous about it… it’s just reality… they leave and most of them never come back.

Next on my reading list is “Writers on Writing: Volume ii.” This is the continuation of “The New York Times” columns that were collected on an earlier volume I read this year. I plan to complete the cycle and read “An End to Suffering” right after.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Amis' Inferno Ends -- Hustvedt's "What I Loved"

Martin Amis' "The Moronic Inferno" kept the straight shooter model throughout. He examines a Ronald Reagan campaign for president, as well as Stephen Spielberg, Joseph Heller, Joan Didion, Gloria Steinem, Hugh Hefner, plus an attack on political correctness and other American cultural elements that are ridiculously dated (remember I said this book is a collection of essays written in the early 1980s. All in all, the book was a nice read, but I don't recommend it unless you are trying to take a trip down amnesia lane.

"What I Loved" by Siri Hustvedt has been a literary tour de force. I believe this is the fastest I have read a book in my life, I think. I started yesterday morning and I am in page 256 of 364. The story takes place in New York City and it follows the life of four artists/academics as they struggle to make sense of their increasingly complicated world. Leo is the narrator and he is a professor of art history; his wife Erica is a literature professor at Rutgers. Leo's friend Bill starts out as a struggling artist, but becomes a highly respected modernist. Bill is married to Lucille but the marriage sours and he ends up divorcing and marrying Violet Blom instead. Violet had been Bill's model at one time. At any rate, both couples grow together, supporting each other through and through. Leo and Erica's son, Matthew, dies while away at camp, and they are all left to try and fulfill their parenthood at the expense of Bill and Lucille's son, Mark. There are around two or three different narratives going on at the same time and the book becomes undone while the lengthy descriptions of Bill's art pieces take place. Also, at the beginning, some of the expository seems forced. For example, "When we met, Erica was assistant professor in English at Rutgers, and I had already been teaching at Columbia in the art history department for twelve years. My degree came from Harvard, hers from Columbia..." All this seems a lot of information and breaks some of the narrative style she had established with Leo's voice. That, I believe, is the only drawback (it happens several times throughout) with the novel. It is, nevertheless, one of the most engrossing novels I have read in a long time; I can sit and read for hours and totally get lost in the narrative without a worry in the world. It's lyrical and full of passion.

I forgot to mention that Siri Hustvedt is married to Paul Auster. I picked up her book because I had read a terrible review of "A Plea for Eros," also by Siri Hustvedt, and wanted to know what the offense was. So far, no complains... but Paul Auster is still my favorite.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Martin Amis' "The Moronic Inferno" ii

Something is beginning to strike me as odd as I read Martin Amis' essays from "The Moronic Inferno." I think that there's a liberal twists to the essays but it is so slightly done that it is almost untraceable. Almost untraceable that is, until you hit a tough spot like, say, Norman Mailer. Yes, it is true that Norman Mailer's persona literaria has been designed and engineered after Hemingway's mold (that should be obvious to anyone), and this makes it hard for Amis to take a swipe at the hairy chested Mailer without being too obvious. I don't have any problem with people taking a swipe at Hemingway or Mailer, but I do have to "problematize" the reasons behind it. I believe that a lot of what passes for lit crit today is just an excuse to bash one group for the emotional benefit of another. "Let's bash group X so that group Y can feel better and have better self esteem, or worst yet, group Y can feel that the wrong done to them can be corrected by the denouncement of another group (whether that other group is responsible or not)." The problem with this is that it isn't a humanist approach to the enjoyment, the study or even the qualification of literature as good, bad, worthwhile or enjoyable. The entire process becomes a vehicle for 1) identifying a group seeking victimization, and 2) holding another group responsible for the oppression that caused the victimization. Norman Mailer gets it from feminists, post-modern critics, politicos, ethnic and racial minority groups, etc., just as Hemingway does too. Never mind that the literature of both men, (perhaps not so much Mailer) might not have been conceived in order to degrade women, single out "negroes," or bashing other minorities. Never mind... this is way too complicated. I think Amis is amiss on this one as much as other "lit crit" people are in the "post-modern" world. I don't have anything about people writing from the left or the right, just as long as they don't claim that they are not doing so when it is obvious they really are.

Martin Amis is much "cuter" and "nice" when covering an interview with author-turned-politico, Gore Vidal. He treats Vidal with reverence and with a white glove tendency. Of course the story of Mailer's attack (physical attack) of Gore Vidal comes up and we get Vidal's version quite clearly... biased and unfair as it is. I think in general Gore Vidal is to American Letters what Oprah has become to American television... no one can say anything bad about either one. But like I said in the previous post, Amis is dated, the essays are dated and so is the book. I am enjoying reading it more for its "yeah-I-remember-when-Reagan-was-president" quality than for literary entertainment.

The eight pages I wrote last week are still sitting there, waiting. Working title: "My Personal View of the Battle of Khafji." I am stuck and thinking it is better left unwritten.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Samrat Upadhyay's "The Guru of Love"

I haven't written an entry in a while. I really don't have an excuse other than the fact that I have been working on my website for work and continue to do so while reading at the same pace and not posting an entry here. Neither have I read or respond to any other blog. I did write, however, a response to the Islamic Fundamentalist new cry over Salman Rushdie being knighted, but I rather not post it because it is fair to say I would be sharing a fatwa with Rushdie and I am in no position to go into hiding. I plan to post it anonymously as a response on a political website soon. It's sad, really, not the way I had planned my summer holiday.

I finished reading "K: A Biography of Kafka" and immediately started "The Guru of Love." I read at a pace that was comfortable, keeping in mind that every time I get into such an engrossing story I tend to finish in a day an a half or so. The author, Samrat Upadhyay, is a friend of mine. He taught at Baldwin-Wallace College for a while. It was there that he gave me a copy of "Arresting God in Kathmandu" complete with a delightful dedication. He is a very nice man. At any rate, "The Guru of Love" is a sad story (depending on which character you decide to identify with) about a math teacher who falls in love with one of his tutorees. Ramchandra, the math tutor, and his student, Malati, begin an affair despite the fact that Ramchandra is a highly devoted husband and father of two. It is interesting how Upadhyay introduces the relationship--it is done so simply and lightly that one has to re-read the passage (i.e.: "did that just happened?"). Ramchandra can't hide the truth from his wife and when he tells her, his wife decides that the best thing to do is to bring Malati to live with them under the same roof. Along the way, many things happen that add so much to the plot it is nearly impossible to believe Upadhyay could write such a beautiful novel in just 290 pages. Furthermore, the economy and lyricism of language is enough to declare this the Nepalese "Gatsby." This is a novel to read and re-read; it is deeply affecting, moving, engrossing, and lyrical. (Samrat didn't pay me to say this, really).

I am presently reading Martin Amis' "The Moronic Inferno." This is a collection of "dated" essays about contemporary (1980s) America. There are some interesting takes on Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth and Truman Capote. So far, the essays read like lit crit, but I suspect that the later essays will be more about society and its problems, etc. Too early to tell but so far a significant read.

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