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Friday, February 29, 2008

On Reading as Life-long Learning... Heathcliff Speaks.

A few years ago, my excitement about Mark Edmundson's book "Why Read" reached such a peak it nearly bordered on the manic. I felt that Edmundson's point was so clearly how I felt that I immediately began to preach his gospel. It basically states that we read to grow humanistically, to understand ourselves and our peers better. Simple enough as a premise, but to keep this constantly present is easier said than done. I have so say with much regret that I didn't enjoy reading "Wuthering Heights" much--or at least I didn't enjoy it until the lesson became clear to me. Heathcliff waits all the way to Chapter 33 to say:

"The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her."

I don't think I have ever taken a line from a character in a novel more serious than this one. It goes back to Edmundson's premise: "to learn about ourselves, to understand our humanity." Heathcliff speaks of that incomparable sense of loss we've all experienced at one time or another (some of us more than others). The reader knows, I believe, that once he/she comes across a line like this one, the enlightenment is quite unavoidable. One must really not be paying attention to miss such a thing. Again, I confess this was not a book I absolutely adored or enjoyed, but felt an irresistible sense of duty to finish it regardless of its shortcomings. I am glad I waited--glad that in the penultimate chapter, finally, as the pages evaporated in front of me, Heathcliff spoke.

I am reading a series of lighter books about the writing process as the decompression from "Wuthering Heights" continues. Natalie Goldberg's books all seem to preach the same premise. I often see her as a hippy, out there on her own little world (Zen, and peace and love and puppies), and I wonder how people can embrace that lifestyle. They are far healthier for it, too. I don't think I've ever been one of those "organic, do-it-yourself, granola eating, greenie" type and now I am wondering why I never embraced that way of life. It really does seem a heck of a lot easier living than what I am doing. I am not trying to trivialize it; I really mean this in a good way.

We had two snow days this week (Tuesday and Wednesday) and I finally caught up with my sleep. This, of course, at the expense of other things like writing and running, but what the heck, I just needed it. Teaching is good and writing is good... and the weekend is here.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wuthering Heights, Writing, and More...

I have been writing lately like the world is coming to an end. Certainly, I have kept up with work as well, and, as a result, I have had no time to report on how "Wuthering Heights" is going, or visit other people's blogs, etc. I am coming to the end of "The Silence of this Wall," and throwing everything I've got into it.

A couple of things about "Wuthering Heights" that struck me as odd. I am half-way through this classic and I am yet to find a reliable character. Lockwood, the voice that begins the narrative gives way to Ellen Dean, and she tells the story for the most part. She has the inside dirt on all the happenings of both mansions. How Lockwood keeps her talking to such extend and detail is one of those things our wonderful "suspension of disbelief" device can overlook. Heathcliff has a keen mind and sharp interpersonal communication skills--he is the master controller. Catherine, on the other hand, seems to me a bit of a melodramatic queen. Here's a passage I find particularly interesting...

"... she seemed to find childish diversion in pulling the feathers from the rents she had just made, and ranging them on the sheet according to their different species: her mind had strayed to other associations.... 'That's a turkey's,' she murmured to herself; 'and this is a wild duck's; and this is a pigeon's. Ah, they put pigeons' feathers in the pillows--no wonder I couldn't die.... And here's a moorcock's; and this--I should know among a thousand--it's a lapwing's.'"

As I read this, a flash of light illuminated my very tiny brain for a second, and made all of those long years, months, weeks, days, and hours of voracious reading worthwhile.... This from Ophelia in William Shakespeare's "Hamlet:"

"There's rosemary, that's for remembrace. Pray you, love, remember.... / There's a fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, / and here's some for me.... / There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they / withered all when my father died...."

I guess that's what a literary education buys you... lots of opportunities to make this type of connections. At any rate, I see Catherine as somewhat predictable. The fact that Ms. Dean is exercising her opinions of all the characters--not just Catherine--doesn't help the narrative. One of my collegues expressed her opinion as being able to "take Jane Eyre over Wuthering Heights any old time of the week." Half way through this book and with less time for reading as I normally have, I am very behind on my reading list.

Another thing I want to make notice of is the fact that today is the eve of the anniversary of the ground attack on the first Iraq war. The day before the massive ground operation began, my company commander at the time, delivered the following speech from atop an M-60 USMC tank. While tomorrow is Saint Vincent's day rather than Saint Crispian, this day is always with me, and the memory of my company commander delivering this glorious speech to us. It was like standing in the middle of a lions' den. The effect on the men was identical, making me think--even at that time--that all men are equal in intelligence and in alliance to their cause... nothing really changes much when one believes (regardless of politics, economics or religious belief) in the cause one is involved in. It was 1991, and I believed.... I believed....

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Classics... round 2

I am presently reading "Wuthering Heights," a novel I neglected to read in my college and post-graduate degree days. While I have had a great number of opportunities to hear and read some literary analysis which made reference to characters such as Heathcliff, the novel itself remained a mystery to me until now. I am in the first few chapters so I have little to say other than I find the overwhelming rudeness of the Heathcliff gang absolutely unrealistic when paralleled versus the long-standing idea of British hospitality and manners. Of course, that is not to say that there aren't people like that in other cultures. Heathcliff makes me think of those absolutely arrogant bastards one wishes not to cross but one ends up doing anyways. Of course, that is central to the plot (from what I have read about it) so I am expecting someone to collect the brunt of his anger.

I won a $20 gift card to Borders Books this week when I took a health screening provided by the Academy. I turned out to be one of the "fittest" people here. Mainly I know this is due to my running, but also to the fact that I eliminated some bad habits from my eating in the last year or so. Weight, blood pressure and other vitals were right on target, and I found out my body "thinks" it is 37 years old. At any rate, I stopped by Borders "Outlet" (a discount division of Borders) and had some great finds, ALL of them under $3. I found Don DeLillo's "Underground," and "Making the Corps" by Thomas E. Ricks (this one is attractive to me for obvious reasons). I also got an anthology of contemporary authors "best works," on the strength that it had sections of "Timbuktu" by Paul Auster. All these riches for under $10.

In order to save my Pre-Made in China "Moleskines," (it is nearly impossible to find the "made in Italy" ones now) I began to use "Moleskines Cahiers" last year instead. I find them easier to handle. What ever is it that I am saving my "original" Moleskines for, I have no idea.... but it is certain that they are now valuable, and even if I don't use them, I might leave them behind for my children to use (I don't have any children, but when I do, I'll make them aware of it). The fact that the cahiers only have 80 pages also helps to feel the sense of accomplishment without having to wait 190 pages for it. It's been a wild ride the second half of "The Silence of This Wall," and I continue to plug away now at a slower pace, looking at small details and carrying on research as the need for it appears. Hot cocoa on a snowy day never tasted better!

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Whirlwind that was Harry Mathews

Harry Mathews' "Twenty Lines a Day" was supposed to be a fast-read, but it proved none of it was purposefully written to be a quick-fix. An established writer sets out to write (under the dictum of Stendhal) twenty lines a day. While most of them revealed a certain amount of connection with the other (especially when they were sequential), many of them were just random writings, the author switching between first and third person at will. They are snippets of brilliance--I take nothing away from Mathews as a genius, but I think I wasn't ready to read this book and only made it worst by persevering through it. Remember, I was still under the spell of Billy Collins when I picked up Mathews' book.

I think I remember the author of "The Corrections" (Jonathan Frazen) saying that he was inspired by Harry Mathews' "The Conversions." I didn't make the connection until much later, even if the connection actually exist. I think the book was Jonathan Frazen's collections of essays "How to Be Alone." I suddenly thought of this while driving back from the library last night, and swore to myself that I will look up the quote immediately after getting home, which of course I didn't do. So here I am now making a wild guess as to whether or not Frazen made that references in one of his essays. Will be reporting back on this later.

Writing continues but perhaps a bit slower than expected. This might be a super stretch, but I might put off the publication until August or September. I have failed to mention here that I will be taking a couple of trips this semester. Late March will find me in Barcelona, settling a group of students who will be studying there for a month or so. April 17 will find me in China for a ten day educational tour, including me teaching a class at a school in Changchung (Northern China). I will be sure to catch up with my reading during both flights, and might even re-work some issues of plot during my 16 hour flight to China. We'll have to see what happens. I never pictured myself the academic ambassador. Talk about a whirlwind.

ALERT: I mistakenly took Jonathan Frazen's reference to Mathews' "The Conversions." Frazen referred to William Gaddis' "The Recognitions." How in God's name did I take one for the other is beyond me. I am glad I checked rather than letting this be the way I wrote it.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Billy Collins, again...

I have a tendency to overblow things, exaggerate to a fault. I know this is the case with Billy Collins, but the more I look at it, the more I start believing in the genius of the man and his work. There is something absolutely distinctive about poetry that cannot be found in any other form of language use. That lyrical aspect, that musical temperament poetry presents to us only goes to show the reader that very same possibility of language. Reading Collins' poetry might be "topical" or even "conventional" to some, but to me Collins takes risks, make turns in the middle of a poem like no other poet alive today. Reading Billy Collins' "Sailing Alone Around the Room" was a definite treat. I was sad to even finish it. Poetry like this, really, should be core curricula for all students.

Many people ask me what I see in Paul Auster's work, and I can only answer with the hyperbole that Auster cannot write a bad sentence even if he tried. The same goes for Haruki Murakami's work; I often describe it as walking into a Salvador Dali painting. Now I have a new champion to receive my exaggerated praise. Here are some phrases, turns of theme and other lines from Collins' book that blinded me with their brilliance....

from "Plight of the Troubadour"

"My sentiments are tangled like kites / in the branches of her incomprehension..."

from "Winter Syntax"

"The full moon makes sense. When a cloud crosses it / it becomes as eloquent as a bicycle leaning / outside a drugstore...."

What speaks to the reader in these lines is the actual picture of the bicycle leaning... a picture of Any Town USA.

from "Schoolsville"

"The population ages but never graduates.... / Once in a while a student knocks on the door / with a term paper fifteen years late / or a question about Yeats or double-spacing. / And sometimes one will appear in a windowpane / to watch me lecturing the wallpaper, / quzzing the chandelier, reprimanding the air."

This is a good example of the topical/conventional made remarkable... as a teacher of literature, there's no doubt as to why these lines spoke to me.

from "Vade Mecum"

"I want the scissors to be sharp / and the table to be perfectly level / when you cut me out of my life / and paste me in that book you always carry."

All I can say about this little, short one is.... "experience, oh experience..."

I could, if time allowed, quote from every single poem in the collection, but I have to go and teach now. I not only recommend Billy Collins, I really think everyone should own at least one book by him; he should be "required reading for the entire human race." How about that for hyperbole! :-)

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