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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Strong Ending, Great Beginnings...

The end of 2008 came at me without relent. I left the Academy on Friday, December 19th at 3 PM, and from that moment on, all I did was concentrate on getting better and reading. The reading was marvelous. I read four books in about 10 days. It was great to be able to concentrate and finally understand all the things that were going wrong during the second half of the year. Once again, it was literature that saved me, as it has so many time before.


Among the books that I read, the one that really stands out is A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler. This collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. The volume has been patiently waiting for my attention in one of my bookshelves for a long time. Butler writes magnificently, and the voices therein are so real, so authentic it is difficult to realize those voices do not belong to the Vietnamese immigrants he is writing about. That's the incredible thing about this prose. I simply got lost in a sea of amazingly detailed and credible voices, all mixed with longing for home and dealing with their expatriate existence.


A re-reading of Demian, by Herman Hesse came about because the book was mentioned in conversation with a good friend, a concert pianist making her way in the music world. Over dinner she expressed her very insightful ideas about the book, and the temptation to re-read it was planted firmly in me. My favorite passage from the book, "I am coming to the end of my story. Everything went very rapidly from then on. Soon there was war, and Demian, strangely unfamiliar in his uniform, left us.... All men seemed to have become brothers--overnight. They talked of "the fatherland" and of "honor," but what they lay behind it was their own fate whose unveiled face they had now all beheld for one brief moment. Young men left their barracks, were packed into trains, and on many faces I saw a sign--not ours--but a beautiful, dignified sign nonetheless that meant love and death. I, too, was embraced by people whom I had never seen before and I understood this gesture and responded to it. Intoxication made them do it, not a hankering after their destiny. But this intoxication was sacred, for it was the result of their all having thrown that brief and terribly disquieting glance into the eyes of their fate." I find this to be a beautiful and very disturbing passage. I read it for the first time in 1993 and still consider it one of the most moving things I've ever read. It was good to read again, this time at the end of 2008, to remember all the things that have happened and the new bright beginning of 2009.


I also read Wallace Stegner's "On Teaching and Writing Fiction." This was written with great insight into what it means to both teach and write. Stegner explains both theory and practice as only a professional writer can. Among the many interesting things he writes about is the difference between a "writer of serious fiction," and "a writer of entertainment." He states that one works from intuition and the other from a blue print. While it is not permissible to make judgments as to whether or not one is better than the other, Stegner ascribes far more value to intuition. His own fiction is full to the brim with it, so it is easy to understand this argument.

Alexandra Johnson's "Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal," was a great little find at my local used bookstore. I read this in under 24 hours, not only because it was engaging and easy to read, but because it was a treasure of ideas and techniques. There are exercises at the end of every section, and I will be trying some of them throughout this year.

I am very happy right now with how the end of the year turned out, despite the many difficulties during the second half of the year. Music also played a great influence during my break, and I will be writing more about it later on.

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2 Comments:

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Suzan Abrams said...

Hi JCR,

I liked the way you said, that as always, literature saved you and in the way that you sought books as answers to the complexities in your own life. A philosophy for your own heritage and beautiful.

 
At 4:08 AM, Blogger litlove said...

I looked back over your last few posts to see whether I could catch up with what had happened. Maybe I missed it, but I couldn't find what was the matter. I am in any case glad to know you are better, and thank you for the recommendation of Alexandra Johnson - I've just ordered the book.

 

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