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Monday, November 29, 2010

Paul Auster's "Sunset Park" -- The First 70-something pages...

The First 70-something Pages:
I am a fan, I am not going to lie; nevertheless, to categorize "Sunset Park" as anything but the almost perfect novel would be a disservice.  How can this man continue to produce books as good as this one is right up there with the mysteries of the Great Pyramids.  I know it all sounds hyperbolic, but I contend that with a long list of excellent novels Paul Auster should be considered a national treasure (again, hyperbolic).

"Sunset Park" is a return to the fiction that made him one of the great literary fiction authors, away from meta fictions and mind-bending abstractions.  This return--after much criticism of meta fiction efforts in "Travels in the Scriptorium" and "Man in the Dark"--can be seen to match the Auster efforts in both "The Brooklyn Follies" and "Oracle Night."  This is fiction that is painfully clear, allowing the reader to focus on nuances of language and style without losing the plot in the process.  The third person narrative adds to the detachment Auster is trying to achieve after his most recent works but does not in any way take away from the personal observations of one Miles Heller (first part of the book).  At the risk of sounding a little prude, my only negative observation is that of Miles Heller's relationship with a much younger woman and their "different" sexual activity brought upon by the young woman's fear of getting pregnant.  Aside from this, the first part of the book (first 70-something pages) are both engaging and naturally drawing to the reader.  I have been "milking" the first part of this novel because I don't want to burn off and sky-rocket through it in a day (a task I am able to).  I am savoring more as the pages break, as if in an endless wave-watching meditation.  More to come in the next few days and then on to Christopher Isherwood's Diaries Volume 2 which will be my final book for 2010.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reading for the Rest of the Year: Literary Fete Sauvage

I am about to embark on a literary fete savauge, away from all and mentally remote in enchanted woods.  I've only experienced this once before--my two favorite literary figures having works published close to one another. The first time it was the year in which Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami both published within weeks of each other (at that, Murakami had two books published that year).  And now this new experience... I am going to relish this, every delicious page by page... hopefully, I'll be done by December 31st because I suspect my Reading List for 2011 will not wait.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Where Do We Go From Here?

Today, I had a very good discussion with my students about lifelong learning.  We tried to define it considering all of the variables present in our lives, all the way from the requirements of the college curriculum to modern life and how technology is changing the way we think and act.  Really, what is "lifelong learning?"  I suppose we could just categorize it as another educational catch phrase: "Critical Thinking," "Reading Across the Curriculum," "Writing Across the Curriculum," "21st Century Education," "Lifelong learning."  It seems to fit nicely with the others, no?  "What a pity," commented one of my students, "that we have strayed so far from the good life."  Now, imagine every one's surprise when this seemingly "invisible" student opened his mouth for the first time in the semester.  Most people in the class didn't even know who he was--painfully shy, I'd judged.  The Good Life.  He went on to explain what it meant, reciting in order the virtues needed to attain that state of being.  I agreed with the student wholeheartedly.  The most of the class, however, did not.  I didn't want to prod any further because I didn't want to put him on the spot, especially being the first time in over nine weeks that he has actually participated in class.  Yet, he wanted to tell us... he wanted everyone to hear.  His grandfather, he said, had taught him about what the good life really is.  His grandfather, he continued, was an uneducated man.  He came to the United States from Poland in the early 1970s, got a job at a Ford plant, and sat comfortably to appreciate and enjoy his good life.  So, is that it?  Is this idyllic idea of the American dream the good life?  Not so fast.  What this student's grandfather had done was read, and read and read.  He read just about every major idea in the Canon of Western Civilization.  At work he was an automaton, my student recalled, at home, however, he was a mind dynamo! 

A couple of years ago, the grandfather passed and bequeathed his library to his grandson.  My student explained how every single book, without exception, was underlined and noted in the margins.  He talked about the great care his grandfather took with his books.  As a child, my student recollected, he had stared at the floor to ceiling bookshelves and wondered what his grandfather's library meant.  Were those books about the car making industry?  Were they manuals as to operate machines at the plant?  No.  With the exception of Mark Twain's Collected Works there wasn't a single other book of fiction.  The rest of the library included "The Harvard Classics" collection, Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization," Herodotus, Plato, and Thucydides.  When my student received his inheritance, he didn't know where to begin.  Time passed, he explain, and he had no interest in the books which had remained in the boxes for years since.  Nevertheless, the day he decided to open the first box, he opened the first volume of the Harvard Classics, he discovered a letter from his grandfather.  It was a road map, his grandfather wrote in the letter, to a life of learning.  He begged his grandson to not take life for granted and to go and pursue the life of the mind.  I began to think of this story as a badly written moral story, and even felt an obligation to bring the class back to focus: What is the Good Life?

As my student finished his story, he defined living the Good Life as fulfilling the potential we all have to live rightly--that it was easy to live, but that it was difficult to live rightly.  No one reads those books nowadays, he continued.  While I agreed partly with him about today's reading preferences, I asked him to explain what living rightly was, at least, in his grandfather's opinion.  He explained that his grandfather had devised his own education--that somewhere along his seemingly simple life, his grandfather had determined that he wanted to live rightly.  No one knows how to live rightly from the air, his grandfather had written in the letter, knowledge must come from somewhere... and this is what these books are.  This is your road map.

Of course, the class continued its normal course of discussion and moving on, but I am absolutely at a loss on how to approach my "silent no more" student the next time class meets.  He had defined for the entire class the meaning of a fulfilling life, away from technology, away from second (or even third) rate philosophies--even beyond the religious.  Today, we all learned from grandpa: keep it simply and stick to the basics (in this case, the Classics); no discussion of the Good Life could be productive without them.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Literary Detours: Henry James' "Daisy Miller and Other Stories"

Why in the name of all that is sane and logical did I begin reading James' "Daisy Miller" days from Paul Auster's "Sunset Park" being released? The only answer to this dilemma, I believe, can be found in my reading list for next year. I will be re-reading "The Portrait of a Lady," a novel, which, having the displeasure of remembering how difficult it was to read, gave me many problems of readability. That's not to say James is a bad writer--far from it! Perhaps it was a combination between my inability reading serious literary fiction (I was a very late starter) and the lack of reading practice (the proverbial, "I just finished this paragraph/page and I have no clue what I just read"). What escaped me then--that doesn't now--is the idea that becoming a reader is very much like lifting weights or playing an instrument: the more you practice, the better the chances that you will do it better in the future. Well, after all of these years teaching--and years as a grad student--I've come to the conclusion of giving Henry James' work the attention and respect it deserves.

"Daisy Miller and Other Stories" has been a delight to read; the characters are fresh, albeit the fact that they all suffer from undertones of psychological insecurity/apprehension. What I loved the best is Henry James' style of description of both characters and settings. As a Europhile, Henry James wrote both intelligently and authoritatively about the great cities. When it comes to the characters, Daisy Miller's persona is as complex as she appears coquettish. The most difficult part of understanding a character like her, I believe, stems from the fact that her mind traveled 100 miles per hour. While it was hard to keep up with her changing preferences and attitudes, this was precisely what Henry James' masterfully weaves and depicts. She is a young woman of her age. Daisy's complex behavior not only reflects rebellion against Victorian rules of society but also her own fabric as an imaginary person made "flesh" by a master writer. When it comes to those psychological undertones, one is quick to realize the influence of Henry James' brother (William James) in his works. William James was a professor of philosophy, psychology and even theology at Harvard, developing many epistemological treaties including his major achievement, Pragmatism. Henry James' no doubt benefits from a constant and rich correspondence with his brother (James having established himself permanently in England). Interesting bits of information about these genius brothers can be found in Linda Simon's "Genuine Reality: The Life of William James").

It isn't like "Sunset Park" has had to wait. I've read the first chapter, slowly (painfully so). I am taking in every word and nuance of sound, rhythm, in this flawless prose. Paul Auster is one of these writers that when they die, they leave a large hole in contemporary literature. That's not to say that there aren't better writers than him (although, being a fan, I can't pretend to be an objective reviewer). For example, the empty space left by the suicide of David Foster Wallace might give us some glimpse into the tragic end of a genius writer being missed for all the works he didn't have the opportunity to write. I wish nothing but blessings and eternal health to Paul Auster. Do live to be 110+ years old, dear sir, and enlighten us with many more novels, films, nonfiction, reviews! Dare I say the world depends on it. :-)

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Monday, November 08, 2010

I "Saw" the News Today, Oh Boy...

Driving to work this morning I saw what would probably rank as one of the most devastating automobile accidents I have ever seen in my entire life. Even the infamous "Highway of Death," during the expulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait pales by comparison. I am not saying this simply to be gruesome, but seeing the accident as it actually happened sort of put me in a bad state of mind. I've seen blood and guts, been shot at and even stabbed, but hell if I have ever seen anything uglier than this.

The cause of the accident was not very clear to me as I drove by (and yes, I did call 911, as did the other handful of people who stopped and tried to help). In the hopes of not being too graphic, all I can say was that the driver of the automobile was exposed, the entire roof of the vehicle was ripped back like a can of sardines, and what was left of the auto body was wrapped around a utility pole. The driver was not conscious and appeared in a awkward position; blood, however, was everywhere. I could tell it was a woman, and the first thought that came to my mind was to see if I could tell whether or not there was a child seat in the back. Judging by the destruction caused, I would have to believe the car was driving over the 35 mph limit which is standard on W. 130th street. I am no physics expert, but there can be no way that car was sent (obviously) flying through the air at 35 mph, not even at 40 mph.

When I arrived at work, my students were coming in late because of the accident and the traffic chaos it created. Later, another student told me that there was a S.W.A.T. team vehicle blocking the scene and that there was "Crime Scene" tape all over the place.

Why am I writing about this? I am not quite sure, other than to say I was shocked. Is it an indication I am getting a little "soft" around the edges? I don't think that 17, 20, or even 21 years ago I would have acted differently simply because I was a US Marine. Frankly, just like the "Highway of Death," the scene this morning was unbelievable and indescribable. I'll leave it at that, and for John Lennon to explain the rest, "I read the news today, oh boy..."

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