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Friday, October 31, 2008

Murakami Keeps On Running...

It is with somewhat a sad feeling that I come to the last pages of Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running." I was able to "milk" all 180 pages as far as I could. It was intense at times, wanting to read more, delaying the inevitable, etc. It's just the way it is when you really, really love books and their authors. Murakami writes about the sense of isolation in both running and writing, and, as they are two activities that are front and center in my life was well, this passage had a mesmerizing quality to me:

"Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent. That's what I basically believe, and I've lived my life accordingly. In certain areas of my life, I actively seek out solitude. Especially for someone in my line of work, solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person's heart and dissolve it. You could see it, too, as a kind of double-edged sword. It protects me, but at the same time steadily cuts away at me from the inside...."

All those years--especially the ones in Washington, DC--come crashing into my memory like a fantastic wave. It is amazing to realize how universal so many of these feelings are. Despite the over-romanticized notion about writers doing their work in solitude, I think Murakami just about nails it here in simple and succinct language. Nothing fancy, nothing elaborate... just the fact of what solitude is and what it can do. I think this is the reason running comes so naturally to a writer:

"I'm the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point to it, I'm the type of person who doesn't find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I've had this tendency ever since I was very young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else."

Outside of my years with the orchestra, when coming to work was like a social event of sort, most of the time I had to myself in Washington I spent either in the office grading papers or writing, or at home reading and--just like Murakami--listening to music. I guess that, to anyone reading this, it may sound like I had a pretty good balance in Washington, DC, and I probably did. This book made me look back and remember those times for some strange, odd reason I am still trying to figure out. This was, perhaps, a book about meditation and solitude, more than it was about running and reflecting on the comparison to writing. It truly resonated with many of my own personal manias and peccadilloes and that is why I am so happy to have read it.

So, okay, Ubuntu 8.08 didn't work as planned, and I had to downgrade to Ubuntu 6.06 in order to get ONE critical program to work (this is my old Toshiba I use for the only writing class I am teaching now). I use a program call Smartboard. It's an interactive whiteboard and the Linux version would not run on the latest Ubuntu because 8.08 doesn't have the Linux kernel. Having fixed that, it is now working like a charm!

NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow (November 1st) at midnight. I am staying up tonight, at the ready, come 11:59 PM I'll be sitting at my desk, perhaps the very same way Murakami stands waiting for the gun to go off before a marathon. These are the things we live for. It may not be much... but to some of us, it's a blast. See you in a month (although I'll be writing updates here and there).

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ubuntu 8.04

My permanent separation (at least outside of work) from Microsoft operating systems has begun. I downloaded Ubuntu (a Linux product) today. I am using my trusty-yet-too-old Toshiba Satellite as a test platform. Ubuntu is praised for making old computers perform at par with newer, more souped-up systems. The installation process was not easy, bits and pieces I had to learn on the job. The computer, however, restarts even faster than with the original XP Home Edition. The other beauty is that it comes equipped with practically all the applications you might need for common chores: OpenOffice (a Microsoft Office clone which is completely free online). Another added plus is the fact that you could, if you needed to, run antivirus software on Ubuntu, but it is not necessary. Since the design is the collaborative effort of world-wide developers from every corner of the world and every walk of life, Ubuntu is not targeted by virus programmers. If anything, since Ubuntu is challenging the oligarchical nature of Microsoft, the meanies usually leave it alone.

Initially setting up your computer might require some time, the results are worth it. Problems, however, might pop up without warning. For example, I had to go into the system code to update my screen resolution. There's plenty of documentation online, so it wasn't hard at all.

I'll give you all posted on how it goes. This is my first venture into an open-code OS, and, as a faithful Microsoft user (all the way from DOS 1.0 to XP) I feel like a man on a first date 20 years after his first wife died. Depressing.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

Wonderfully written, this "memoir" is a meditation on both writing and running by an author who has elevated those two things to spiritual ground. I am sure it all sounds like hyperbole, but Murakami does "write like the wind" on this one, and also "runs" like it. The only problem I have with the book (only in a very slight and thin-veiled way) is that Murakami's sense of self-deprecation/humble statements strike me as a bit overdone. That's really "small change" considering that this is a book that I will love for years to come... writing and running! The two realms of my life that I have all for myself... the total escape!

There are numerous passages in "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" that deserve mention. Murakami's prose is so clear, so succinct and easy flowing. I love reading that makes you lose yourself and forget where you are. I did most of the reading this past Saturday at (and I try to avoid these places like the plague when I am actually reading seriously) a Starbucks Coffee downtown. I decided a few entries ago that I was going to limit myself to a number of pages so as to "milk" the 180 pages of this great volume. Well, it goes without saying that I was unable to hold myself back and ended up reading over 90 pages in a couple of hours. I am not a fast reader, and I often stop to make annotations and underline passages, but I simply got so lost in the reading that before I knew it I had to put the book down and simply contemplate the people walking in and out of the coffee house.

Of all the analogies between writing and running Murakami makes in this book, the one that got most of my attention is that of talent and what to do when one doesn't have a "natural talent" for either running or writing. Murakami states that one must persevere, and, to make this wonderful connection between the two realms, that the runner/writer needs to 1) focus and 2) endure. This was advice that I put immediately into practice on Monday and Tuesday when I went running. Both of those days I reached the point I normally do when I need/want to stop. I kept thinking of what Murakami wrote so that was focus enough. But Murakami talks about his choice of music and how certain paces hit the mark with certain themes in music, and how it all ties together. Probably I was already doing these things, especially during my longer runs, but it was clearer to me once I read it in Murakami's book. Nothing like being "validated" by a master!

Certainly, I have been too busy to see about how my writing will be affected by his advice, but I can see that in committing to do NaNoWriMo this coming month, Murakami's advice should come home like truth to me. I am still a few pages off from finishing, and with a week to go before the end of the month, having seven days to finish off this jewel/marvel of a book is the icing on the cake for the month of October.

If you are out there in Kanagawa, Mr. Murakami... thank you for all you do in both running and writing. You are certainly reaching some of us. I do hope some day you shoot out like a star out of the short list and into the pinnacle of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I know it's a long shot, but you are one of my candidates and at least I hope one of you two gets it.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fiction, Real Life and the Escape from "Idiocracy"

Recently, a sarcastically-intended-yet-serious-enough essay (Unsafe at Any Read) was published in the Book Review section of the NYT. In it, one Lee Seigel argues that reading to learn something valuable about life is a ruse, a lie that has been told over millennial and now needs to come to an end for the sake of.... I don't know, market trends and competition, commercialism, the global economy, 21st Century education and skills? Seigel's thesis, if I read the essay correctly, goes something like this: "If great literature is so great, why is it that if you act on anything great literature tells you about life, you’re in big trouble? I mean, big trouble."

Perhaps I am being over-defensive about literature. I know how literature changed my life, how it made all the difference at the most critical juncture/life or dead moment in my personal history. Perhaps the question should not be aimed at great literature and its benefits/lack thereof, but at that almost indiscernible American whisper that says: "Conform... Don't Make Waves... Be Productive (rather than Reflective)... Compete... Win... repeat as needed." Harold Bloom wrote another one of his masterpieces in which he asks us, as the title so effectively seems to shout out to the world, "Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?" It seems we have a dwindling number of scholars advocating the humanities and the value of a reflective life, but the blame, again, should be pointed somewhere else. Why are so many young people NOT turning to great literature for enlightenment? I know I am being over-simplistic, but I can't help it: our society has changed. The United States' obsession with "leading the world" has turned our campuses into vocational schools. Colleges and universities were fertile ground in which young people explored the great questions (What is life's great purpose? What is existence? Does God really exist and what is His role in my life? Are Sartre and Camus really that full of shit?, etc.), school are now turning more and more young people determined to have 1) a higher standard of living (as opposed to quality of life), 2) more toys than the previous generation, and who knows what else. I hate to sound dismal, but the fact is we are running out of certified teachers, Peace Corps volunteer numbers are at an all-time low, and social services are being cut out of every single State Budget in America. If, as the general argument goes, great literature can help us become more human, then I think Mr. Siegel's argument (whether humorously intended or not) is highlighting a problematic trend: The more great literature you read, the less adaptable and more difficulty you will have "fitting in" in modern American society.

Mr. Seigel's essay goes a long way to explain my own experience, especially at the inter-personal/relationship level. Yes, great literature can indeed feed unreachable goals and expectations into your brain, but there's also great literature out there that offers insightful and REALISTIC advice. When Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that we were all geniuses and that self-reliance was the way to go, Herman Melville was writing "Bartleby, the Scrivener" to prove to Emerson that life was not as "peachy" as he proposed. That's the great thing about great literature that even our great Democracy lacks... Check and Balances... all you have to do is "balance out" your reading list and you'll have the answers to life's persistent questions from all available angles.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Gender, Creative Writing and The College Race

I am still "milking" the last 20 pages of Paul Auster's "Man in the Dark." I know it sounds ridiculous, but I am afraid of finishing it because I am going to miss reading the Master. If you've never read Auster, please do soon. I went running on Tuesday and promised myself 10 pages if I did 4 miles instead of 3, and ended up stopping at 3 just to prolong the inevitable. Again, I am being silly... but then again that's what love and passion for something makes you act like. It's a rule of life, so why fight it.

Teaching is going well. My poor Seniors are going mad with all those college applications, etc. I do have to say this in defense of female high school students--I think they have more pressure than young men when applying to college. My students... poor souls, and on top of all that, they have me for a teacher. :-) We just finished "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and a couple of my Seniors, who are interested in going into the creative writing field, felt that Stephen Dedalus' extremism hurt him more than it helped him. "Just like you all applying for college, now," I responded. "How so?" Well, a discussion ensued as to what hoops we are forced to go through when applying for college entrance. Are those "hoops" necessary, really, and are they the same "hoops" for everyone? Conclusion: I think female college applicants have an uphill battle, really, to prove themselves "good candidates." "Boys," my student seem to believe, "can somehow 'fake it' if they need to, enough to make college interviewers believe." The argument varied in terms of how my students (all girls) think the boys have an advantage. "If a male applicant to a creative writing program produces a sample writing," one of my students pointed out, "then it is taken as a given he is a writer, whereas a female applicant would be an 'aspiring writer.'" I am not quite sure where they get these ideas, and even if it's healthy to think that way, but going back to my own college application process a decade and a half ago I could--to some extent--agree with them.

At any rate. 12 days to go until November 1st. One more book to finish off this month (Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running"). A a tonnage of grading and reading for work to do. NaNoWriMo approaches.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Man in the Dark" Post 003

This is the passage I was referring to in my earlier post...

The election of 2000... just after the Supreme Court decision... protests... riots in the major cities... a movement to abolish the Electoral College... defeat of the bill in Congress... a new movement... led by the mayor and borough presidents of New York City... secession... pass by the state legislature in 2003... Federal troops attack... Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester... New York City bombed, eighty thousand dead... but the movement grows... in 2004, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania join New York in the Independent States of America... later that year, California, Oregon, and Washington break off to form their own republic, Pacifica... in 2005, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota join the Independent States... the European Union recognizes the existence of the new country... diplomatic relations are established... then Mexico... then the countries of Central and South America... Russia follows, then Japan... Meanwhile, the fighting continues, often horrendous, the toll of casualties steadily mounting...

This is what to some critics constitute meta-fiction. I call it having a sharp eye for the disastrous possibilities our ever-increasing political strife and polarity could eventually lead us to. If you think this is a hash-wash scenario, think again.

The novel takes a turn for the "very strange" when August Brill decides to "finish off" Owen Brick, who is the man in the story within the story who is supposed to kill him. Why did Brill do this? Wouldn't the story within a story then go on and on and the suffering and Civil War never end... that's the brilliant aspect of this that--again--critics can't understand. The story within the story is only in Owen Brick's mind. No Owen Brick, no war. In the same parallel, if Owen Brick actually had gotten to Brill first, the war would have ended and possibly Owen Brick would also be gone... gone in the mind of August Brick. Confused? That is the reason that this book breaks away from the pack. Of course most people can't digest it... it's not a lineal narrative or a spoon feeding session with a NYT bestselling author... this IS fiction at its best. If you can't hack it, Jack... then too bad.

How to do you "milk" a 180 page book so that it lasts you into a good two weeks? You set goals for yourself and use the goddamn book as a reward. Um, let me see? If I run 5 miles instead of 3 then i get to read 10 extra pages today... if I run 10 miles then I get to read 50 more pages. Not too much, though. Okay, if I finish my grading for this week and plan my syllabi for next week, then I get to read an additional 20 pages. And you see, when you love an author as much as I love Paul Auster, you do this sort of thing. And now I am down to the last 20 pages.

Next: Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running." Another 180 page book I am going to have to "milk" for all it's worth. I've got 19 days before the madness of NaNoWriMo begins again. No actual reading taking place in November outside of work reading.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

"Man in the Dark," & The Case for Prophesy

Paul Auster has done it again. Not only has he created a fiction that is more real that the current state of affairs in the United States, he has done so with the keen and exceedingly sharp eye of a modern-day prophet. Of course it sounds like I am exaggerating, but taking into consideration that a certain presidential candidate has an extravagant Messianic charisma I guess I can declare the best "pound-for-pound" writer in the world a modern-day prophet. (Of course I should also make the disclaimer that I aim for humor and a dash of sarcasm when I refer to the presidential candidate, lest I offend anyone).

One of the main characters of "Man in the Dark" refers to the election 2000 as a turning point, the seminal moment in which the destruction of the noble experiment of democracy in American came to an end. The events that followed November 2000 were not so much related to 9/11 but rather the overwhelming discontent of our polar-opposite ideologies. Eventually, Auster makes his protagonist plot the tragic story, people begin a movement to end the Electoral College process, there's civil unrest and states begin to leave the Union as a second Civil War engulfs the United States.

Now, could this happen in real life? All one has to do is to look at the presidential campaign today, not to mention Wall Street and what appears as the end of our high standard of living to realize that Auster's protagonist and his conception of the story within the story is not as far fetch as one thinks. Add a dash of media-generated "Culture Wars" and generational divergence, and moral absolutism versus relativism and we are literally inside Paul Auster's new novel.

"Man in the Dark" has already been labeled "not the best by Auster." If you read my blog you know I have gone into great detail to examine the opposition to Auster's last two novels. But people missing the point of this excellent novel are perhaps not ready to embrace a Master who has moved on from his traditional plot building skills. So critics call all of this meta-fictions.... I call it simply brilliance and the guts to take chances with fiction. These are not easy times in which to produce literature that breaks out of the norm. The media has created entire generations of people who need stories told in much the same way we spoon feed an infant. Literature that is too hard to read is deemed not good literature. I see Paul Auster as perhaps many people saw James Joyce in 1922 when Sylvia Beach helped him release "Ulysses." The problem today that Joyce didn't have to concern himself with back in 1922 is that of audience. Paul Auster's literature is so far ahead into the future (or I should say into the past if you're standing in the post-post-modernist stand) that people are not bound to understand it. Joyce literally became an overnight literary god simply based on the fact that those "in the know" read Joyce's challenging novel and were able to immediately recognize its genius and uniqueness. Unfortunately for Auster, the few critics that read him are perhaps also writing novels of their own, and if you tell me jealousy is not a factor here I have a bridge I want to sell you. To create literary uniqueness is to take a chance with the corporate bottom line that allows for that publication to hit the market. We can almost hear, "uhm, who's the target audience? How are the demographics for this novel divided? Age group? Is there potential film contract value to the story?"

This weekend I am gearing to finish "Man in the Dark" and make my final comments on it. It's sad, you know, how one reads a book by one's favorite author, wondering and hoping and praying and wishing he or she has enough health and peace of mind to produce another one... Paul Auster is that author. Let's start the countdown to the next novel by this genius/prophet. :-)

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The "Insular" Consistency of Idiocy and Bad Politics

Well, it seems I have been validated, vindicated, gold-sealed and delivered from the evils of an insular society.... Marco Roth of the British newspaper "The Guardian" writes:

"I feel a little sorry for Horace Engdahl, although not too sorry. His comments to American journalists last week gave us a glimpse into how the mind of at least one Nobel literature prize judge works, and it wasn't pretty. American writers, en masse, he claimed, were "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture". Then he launched into one of those incoherent anti-American rants that somehow transformed all of American literature into Sarah Palin and George Bush: "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," he said.
It's unclear who "they" are in all of this. Presumably Engdahl meant US publishers, not US authors. Even so, he forgets that one of the largest of those publishers is now a fief of a multinational corporation based in Germany, where the bottom-line decisions are made. The remarks are so general as to be nonsensical. Where does that big dialogue of literature take place, actually, and how does one participate in it?"


Congratulations go out (by the way) to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2008. I've never read anything by you, Monsieur Le Clezio, but I will as soon as I get my hands on a good translation... oh wait, we "don't translate enough" here in the U.S. Perhaps I will have better luck next year... I still have two horses in the race and I am not giving up hope. I'll stop being bitter and insular now.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Nobel Prize for Literature 2008... What a Joke!

Sure, sure... I've heard all about it. It's all over the Internet about how one of the main Nobel Prize for Literature judges called Americans "too insular, too concerned with their media trends" to produce any good literature. "Ignorant, vernacular..." I mean, he called us everything from here to Sunday. It's no surprise that the Nobel Prize has become a massive Geo-Political game. That's no secret. But come on.... imagine that, an American winning the Nobel for Literature? Not with our unpopular foreign policies and our military endeavours, a cowboy for a president and a hockey mom for vp candidate. My God, am I the only one seeing the hypocrisy here?

Go figure. I still have TWO horses in the race... 1) Paul Auster and 2) Haruki Murakami. Yes, yes... I am aware that one of them is American.

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