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Thursday, December 09, 2010

Happy Christmas 1983 - Unknowing Gifts Found at a Used Book Store

My usual watering book "hole" is a local used books store (actually two locations in town) where I go to look for treasures.  Often I don't have the money to buy them, but a nice British subject living here in the Colonies and working at one of the aforementioned stores usually puts the books aside for me to purchase later.  At any rate, I go there at least once a month, and, since time is always so limited, I have a store map I follow.  Principally, of course, I aim for the Literature/Fiction section.  There I go "author-hopping" beginning in the "As" (Auster, of course, disregarding the fact that I can't really find anything there--a sign that people who read Auster tend to keep their books), moving alphabetically but with a sharp eye for the following: anything out of the ordinary on the Dostoevsky section; anything Scott Fitzgerald simply because there can always be a treasure hiding in some corner of the "F" section; Hemingway because of my love/hate relationship with the Great Bastard; the "Ms" are always fun... mainly Murakami (very much in the same vein as Auster, one can't really find anything at used book stores because his readers--like Auster's--are fans and tend to keep their books); Norman Mailer, also in the "Ms" on the strength of the titles I have enjoyed so much over the years; from the "Ms" there's a huge jump to the "Ss" to see if I can find anything by Robert Stone.  After I do my map trek, then I take a bit more time to go back and see if I didn't miss anything else from the other letters of the alphabet.

This past week, I got extremely lucky (as I did a few weeks ago--more on this later) and found a FIRST EDITION/FIRST PRINTING of Murakami's "The Elephant Vanishes;" back then, the second book published in the U.S. market.  While at the "Ms" I noticed a copy of Norman Mailer's "Ancient Evenings," one of Mailer's obscured titles; no one ever remembers he actually wrote some of these.  Inside, I found a Christmas card from one Char to his wife, Joan.  I read it and felt it necessary to take with me, so I sneaked it inside my Murakami purchase.  I know, I know... but it was such a wonderful gift, really... who could contain himself after reading the card?

The problem was that when I finally had time to re-read the card, it didn't feel as sweet as it did the first reading.  I don't know why, but the prose felt forced, as if following a model too closely.  I've said before that I am not the world's greatest writer, despite the fact I teach people how to approach it.  I'll let you be the judge.  This is the text of the card...

To Joan:
This is Christmas day 1983.  We have traveled a long way together.  Out children and the things we have done have been a great pleasure to both of us.  The kids are out in the world now making their own ways and finding their places as we had done.  It is a time to be happy that they are well educated and healthy and well prepared for their futures.  It's a time to be happy that we too are healthy, that we have so many good friends, that we are fortunate to have so many material things, and that we are about to make changes in our home and lifestyle so that we can better enjoy the years that lie ahead.  Let's try to talk to our kids today and please be happy,  Char.

I am trying hard not to be critical, but the message feels a bit "forced," as if Char was going down a standard list of things to include in the message.  Perhaps it's my cynical side making a nasty appearance.  Again, I'll let you be the judges of this wonderful Christmas message.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Paul Auster's "Sunset Park" -- Coming To Terms With The Fact Talent Has Its Limits

I will still praise "Sunset Park" as an excellent novel, but a disturbing pattern began to develop around the middle of the novel that, while it didn't exactly disappointed me, it made me realize that even geniuses have faults.  Again, I still think the novel is a must-read, a very human, existential and compelling portrayal of feelings that is second to none.  Perhaps it is my inability to fully understand the structure of the novel and the flow of the narrative, but I felt some discontentment the deeper I got into the plot.

First, the structure of the novel is that of chapters entitled with the names of the characters center to said chapter.  For example, the protagonist, Miles Heller has a number of chapters where most of the action is based on allowing the reader to obtain, digest and piece together Mile's fragmented last seven years of his life.    The same goes for the rest of the main characters.  There is, without a doubt, a conjoining pattern to all of this, I just haven't discovered yet.  I wonder if this is not the reason why, at times, it feels like too much information is being jammed in so as to appear crammed with bits and pieces I am not quite sure add anything to the character's portrayal.  For example, the father-son relationship for which Auster's work is notorious is once again excellently examined.  Miles and his father, Morris, relate in a constant shift between past and present.  In addition to what the reader can absorb on the surface, the character of Alice, a struggling PhD candidate writing a dissertation on The Best Years of Our Lives is displayed as another element in the individuals' dismantlement in views of the past/present environment and personal inclinations toward melancholy.  A key scene to this post-World War II classic is examined by Alice--the father trying to bequeath war trophies to his son, and his son's indifference to the trophies (a Japanese flag and Samurai sword).  This scene is connected to others in the film--the character of Harold Russell's inadequate relationship to his father and mother (but particularly his father) when his hooks (hands) become a fixture of challenge ahead.  All of this adds to Miles and his relationship to his father.  There are periphery relationships too disconnected to mention here: Miles' mother, the actress MaryLee Swann, absent for most of Miles' life; Morris Heller's second wife, Willa, whose son Bobby from a previous marriage Miles' has been "blamed" for killing in a bizarre accident; other relationships like the one between Miles and Bing Nathan, a childhood friend whose long-term friendship is now being saturated with homo-erotic tendencies--all of these seem, in some way or another, linked intricately with an almost invisible line to the relationships in The Best Years of Our Lives.

As for the writing itself, one is always safe to bet on Auster's magnificent construction of passages that are as poetic as they are moving.  For example, Morris Heller's ruminations late in the novel, "We do not grow stronger as the years advance.  The accumulation of sufferings and sorrows weakens our capacity to endure more sufferings and sorrows, and since sufferings and sorrows are inevitable, even a small setback late in life can resound with the same force as a major tragedy when we are young." This is one of the many passages Auster's fans are always looking for every time he publishes.  All in all, there's nothing extraordinary about the passage, but if looked at deeper level (not of meaning but semantics), one realizes how much craft goes into a passage like this.  This is where Paul Auster always shines--a master language handler and king of the revision process.  Hands down the best contemporary author!

I am not a great writing teacher; most of my work at the academic level has been less than stellar. I'll be honest enough to confess to several thousand writing mistakes/errors on this blog itself.  Yet, there's an element of grammar in the second half of "Sunset Park" that (while being an issue of contention regarding style) I cannot ignore.  The use of the pronoun "you" late in the novel, while artistically permissible, acts as a repelling factor to many writing teachers.  This is no doubt a personal preference of mine... or, in fact, not a preference of mine, but one inculcated in my head while I was an undergraduate.  One of my professors in an Introduction to Fiction course felt it was his duty to "assassinate" authors he considered "old-fashioned," or "politically incorrect" to prove a point.  What that point was, I don't quite remember.  But the jest was something to the effect of killing the excitement some readers have when they discover, say, Hemingway's writing.  I am only using Hemingway as an example.  We had a long discussion in class one day about the use of the "you" in a narrative.  The professor indicated that Hemingway was known vastly for this "trick," and may be even to blame for its propagation.  He stated that Hemingway, like many others, use the "you" as a cheap trick to draw the reader into the plot, while "real" or "authentic" fiction writers worked harder and drew more talent to achieve the same effect without the use of a pronoun.  As ridiculous as that point of view is, it somehow remained in my brain strongly enough to think about it every time I see it in someone writing.  Again, this is more my perception (or even misinterpretation), and not Auster's fault.  He has paid his dues, really, after 19 novels, to prove that his use of "you" is not a cheap trick but part of the craft itself.

I cannot wait until the next Paul Auster novel.  Every release of a new book is an event to me.  Let's hope he continues to publish and share his amazing talent with all of us for years to come.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Sixties - The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood 1960--1969

I've owned two copies of "The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood Volume 1" in the last five years.  The first of these was a paperback edition purchased on the strength of its length--I was due for a long volume reading at the time.  Unfortunately, I "lost" my copy of Volume 1 when it suddenly disappeared from my classroom desk one day (I think some student "borrowed it" after I constantly praised it in class), and neglected finding another copy, even online.  I came to my second copy on one of my lucky trips to my used bookstore/literary "watering hole," and, as lucky can be, it was a hardcover copy! I fell in love with the Diaries from the moment I read the first page of the Introduction and didn't stop until the very end.

"The Sixties: Diaries 1960-1969" was released a few weeks ago.  Needless to say, I was at "Barnes & IgNoble's" door half an hour before they opened.  I consider it my "Harry Potter" moment every time my favorite contemporary author publishes a new book.  Presently, I am about 260 pages in and I cannot put "The Sixties" down.  In fact, I took a nap yesterday in the afternoon and ended up dreaming with the main characters of the diaries, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.  It was something really new!

"The Sixties" sees a much more mature Don Bachardy, and a not so much different than Volume 1 Isherwood.  It's very refreshing to read Isherwood's assessments of what Bachardy is going through (growing pains as an artist and as a lover).  Their love affair is so expertly detailed in the writing, as well as analyzed by the more "mature" Isherwood.  It seems to me he understands Bachardy better as the young man goes to the trials of blazing his own path.  Despite moments of real "bitchiness" (what Isherwood himself admits several times), the Sixties show are more understanding Isherwood, dedicated with renewed vigor his practice of spirituality and search for peace.  I have not seen the documentary "Chris and Don," and just found out no library in this area carries it (I wonder why!!!), but I really, really want to watch it.  Oh, the perils of living on the skirts of the Bible Belt.

So far, I have only underlined a couple of passages and they both deal with the writing craft, of which Isherwood is definitely an overlooked master of the 20th century.  The first of these stabs directly at the main problem with writing creatively.  Isherwood states: "I shall try to abstain from philosophizing and analysis, and stick to phenomena, things done and said, symptoms."  It is a sobering piece of self-advice, and what makes Isherwood so honest about it is the fact that 1) despite the fact that he was a master diarist, and 2) despite the fact that much of what is found in the Diaries crosses over (the experience not so much as the detail) to the fiction side of his writing, he sticks to this idea through and through.  Creative Writing 101: Internal monologues devoid of action do have their place in fiction, but can't hold an entire plot together all of their own (unless you are Joyce or Woolf).  The other passage was directed a "work in progress" and just as important self- advice: "Yesterday I reread my novel, the fifty-six pages I've written so far.  I am discouraged; very little seems to be emerging.  Maybe I really have to sit down and plot a bit before I go on.  I do not have a plot and I don't even know what I want to write a novel about... No, that's not quite true.  I want to write about middle age, and being an alien.  And about the Young.  And about this woman.  The trouble is, I really cannot write entirely by ear; I must do some thinking."  

My colleagues criticize my time allowance to volumes of work like the Diaries.  They think differently than I do.  I am a much slower reader (and grader, too) and it doesn't bother me one bit to find a minimal number of passages to underline (2 passages in 600 pages).  My colleagues use their time much more "intelligently," they argue.  If it's not helpful on research, it's not worth it.  Father forgive them, for they do not know what they say.

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