Monday, April 30, 2007
My aunt recommended it to me, so she keeps asking me what I think of it. I had to tell her the truth, that I really dislike all the characters so far, but I guess we'll see. With 400 more pages to go, I hope I latch on to somebody and start caring for one of them. Because otherwise, this is going to be a really long exercise....
On a separate note though, I do have to say that while the antiquity of Lawrence's language bores me a little bit, he does well with descriptions and what not. I'm not sure how I like his use of the omniscient 3rd because there is a lot of transitioning POVs of characters even within a paragraph which I'm not terribly fond of. But it does give you a good glimpse into each of the characters' mindsets (allowing me to hate them all equally as I find out their ridiculous thoughts). He also has a lot of these little ideological rambles on knowledge and humanity and stuff that is interesting for the moment, but if anything while I'm kind of pondering them, I get so wrapped up in how irritating these people having this discussion are, that I end up not caring about the topic at hand anymore. So I hope he wasn't trying to make any sort of ideological point.
Okay. But maybe it will get better. Will keep at it and update later.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
Now, I have to admit something - I don't always quite get these, and this makes me feel a touch shamed, like I'm missing a screw in my head or something. Don't get me wrong, they're enjoyable enough, but I guess I'm trying to figure out where the acclaim of this comes through. Is it the premise of the collection? The strange cracked-out narrator? The world that he inhabits? The untraditional way his stories meander through? The disconnect and urban rawness of his voice? I guess I'm trying to figure out what an English teacher might tell me if we were to study this little piece. I like them for sure, I guess I just wish I had someone to guide me towards the elements I'm supposed to be noticing instead of trying to figure it out myself.
I just finished "Emergency", which is possibly my favorite from the collection so far. It's all just so bizarre - the guy with the knife in his eye and how Georgie just pulls it out, how they save baby bunnies from a rabbit they run over, staying overnight in god-knows-where just because of a lack of headlights, the kid running away from the draft. It's all so weird yet normal in a way, and the voice of the narrator is the same way, bizarre but normal. Detached a little but not. Maybe because it's this weird combination of an immediate narrator and one who is also kind of backwards looking. He's close to the matter at hand but still so much the role of the older, wiser observer at the same time. Strange thing to do of Johnson, but it works. It's like being in the head of someone with a dissociative disorder or something.
But anyway. I like the bit about the baby bunnies. How Georgie is fricking obsessed with nursing these babies. It ties in well with how sad he is in the beginning, the blood he imagines he sees all over the ground, and in the end when he sees this kid and tells him he's going to help him get to Canada, and then says, "I save lives." Hugely ironic in the contrast of the hospital he works in where the Nurse and doctor seem to be selfish and don't really give a flying fuck. At the same time though, it's so interesting how he doesn't remember the eye guy for who he is, because I mean, who can forget a guy who's been stabbed in the eye? But he forgot about him so fast. I need to mull over why.
When the narrator confesses he's squashed the bunnies and Georgie asks him everything he touches turns to shit... I found that moment really sad. The narrator is obviously at a point in his life where he's trying to turn things around, working at a hospital for 3 weeks already and all. He's trying to do some right but this kind of shit happens. He meant well putting the bunnies in his shirt but he forgot and then they got smooshed and he has to confess this tearfully. I love the vulnerability and humanity in this moment. Crying over bunnies he didn't even care to save to begin with. He seems so small and childish in that moment.
And my favorite part:
On the further side of the field, just beyond curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there'd been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.
Georgie opened his arms and cried out, "It's the drive-in, man!"
"The drive-in..." I wasn't sure what these words meant.
"They're showing movies in a fucking blizzard!" Georgie screamed.
"I see. I thought it was something else," I said.
--[pg. 81, Jesus' Son]
I love this whole thing. This totally beautiful, trippy, eerie image of angels bigger than life descending through a snowstorm, and how incredibly freaked out it makes him, only for it to dawn on him very very slowly that when Georgie refers to a "drive-in", he's referring to the "angels". I wonder for a moment, if he freaked out in a bad way or freaked out in a good way. On first reading, I thought it was bad, in a why-the-fuck-are-there-angels-in-the-woods-and-what-are-they-gonna-do kind of way, but on a second reading, I wonder if he was almost hopeful for a second, that when he thought that's what they were, he got freaked out but also really hopeful and it touched him, only to be really disappointed once he realized he had it all wrong.
Also liked the bit at the end with the kid - throwing in a time setting there with the war, and it was quite effective in tying it back to Georgie's little thing about saving lives even while they spend a day meandering around doing pretty much nothing of note.
Anyway, I have to think a little harder about the whole thing and what the "theme" as we've learned in class, of this would be, but I really enjoyed it.
I guess my problem with these stories isn't that I don't like them, because I really do, it's just that I don't really get them immediately. I don't think they intuitively make sense or resonate with me, and I think it has something to do with how my brain is wired or my own experiences or the way I think. I have to think about them pretty hard to connect the dots because it is so unlike anything I have personally experienced I guess. Or maybe the manner in which it is presented. But I like the challenge of being forced to think about them and make them make sense to me. It's like learning to approach things from a new angle.
As an aside, I think this is how I'll approach short story collections for now. I'm working through short story collections on the side in addition to my novels, so I'll just go through stories every once in awhile when I find something I particularly feel compelled to write about, maybe do a final review of the collection when I'm done.
Not that I don't love Barnes. But I guess I'll keep Barnes to buy the lesser known stuff that I might not be able to find easily at this stall.
I'm so excited. I love owning new books.
Friday, April 27, 2007
So I found out that JSF and Nicole Krauss are doing a reading (along with several of Granta's other Best Young American Novelist winners) in Brooklyn on May 10th. This is like, my dream. I've been dying to go stalk them, because I loved their books, and am extremely envious of their little writer's-power-couple relationship. I freaking want their life! There are very few things I would haul ass all the way to Brooklyn for, and believe me, this is one of them. I know JSF is controversial, and Nicole Krauss's History of Love is looked upon with a cynical eye because it sounds so JSF-esque. But whatever, their novels are good novels and managed to touch me so. So I WANT TO GO!
BUT. But but but but.
MY BROTHER'S GRADUATION IS ON MAY 10TH!!!!!!!
Dammit to hell. There is NO WAY I'm getting out of that. I mean his grad is during the day, but I'm fairly certain my parents are going to want to do a celebratory dinner at night time. Maybe my brother will try to cop out and insist he wants to hang out with his friends instead. That would be ideal.
I'm a HORRIBLE sister. I totally want to skip out on his graduation dinner so that I can go stalk a couple of authors in Brooklyn. OMG, seriously though. When I found out they were going to do a reading, I almost peed my pants in excitement. Only to have my hopes dashed.
Sigh. Okay, I keep checking readings listings in hopes that something else nearly as good will come up that I can be excited about. The only thing I'd be more excited about though, would be to meet Cormac McCarthy and tell him how his book just totally saved my life.
For those that are interested and want to go though, the info for the reading is as follows:
Thursday, May 10th
163 Court Street
Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
Blargh. So disappointed.
Hmm, what to say about this? I waver between thinking I liked it more than some of them and thinking I liked it less. I'm not really sure.
Okay, the thing is, this novel, I think was one of his first. And it makes a lot more sense than his later novels, or at least, is a little bit more firmly rooted in reality compared to his later novels. The bizzare only starts occuring towards the end, even if you get hints of it in the beginning. For the most part, you feel like you can follow it pretty linearly, and things came together a little more neatly for me at the end in a way, even if still a typical Murakami bizzaro ending. So in that sense, I didn't get my usual, "Okay, I feel stupid because I didn't get it," reaction to his story. I kind of liked that for once it all tied up nice and neat and made sense to me.
But at the same time, I think it's also what made it a little less interesting. The thing is, with Murakami, you kind of buy into everything on the outset. Strange things happen, people do weird things, say things normal people wouldn't say, and you buy into all of it without a second thought. Wherever he takes you, you'll go with him. It's a full immersion into a wild dream where nothing makes sense but it's all compelling. But Wild Sheep Chase I felt, lacked some of that. There were stretches of the novel where I was a little bored, and that never happens. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it for the most part, and now, re-reading the beginnings of Dance Dance Dance, it makes so much more sense. But parts of it were like, okay, ho-hum, he's sitting in a cabin, he's reading a book, yay. And the ending, while it tied everything together somewhat neatly, I just didn't feel as satisfied with it as I would have liked. It was more like, oh, okay, so that makes sense, that's why this happened, all right. I guess it was a much more subtle book. It was definitely funnier than the others I read, but I felt it lacked the sense of dreaminess or bizzare or even nostalgia that the others I've read held, which is what really captivates me about Murakami. His way of conveying all of the strange with a weird sensibility and beauty. Like I said, like being caught in a dream. This one didn't feel that way exactly. It felt like I had one foot in, one foot out. Bordering on a threshold.
So, I guess my thoughts are, it was good, but not great. Good to read for Dance Dance Dance fans. But I guess Murakami has evolved somewhat since he wrote this, and maybe I went in with false expectations. For an early novel, it's pretty good. Maybe if I hadn't known what Murakami is capable of, I wouldn't have been as disappointed with it.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
The house kept it's own time, like the old-fashioned grandfather clock in the living room. People who happened by raised the weights, and as long as the weights were wound, the clock continued ticking away. But with people gone and the weights unattended, whole chunks of time were left to collect in deposits of faded life on the floor.
--[pg. 284, Wild Sheep Chase]
There's something very wistful about that paragraph. Stale and still time. Lost. Forgotten. Covered in dust. Time stood still there, waiting to restart, waiting for someone blow over the deposits and refresh it, give it another chance to join the world.
I like that.
Mitch Albom makes me mad too. The fact that he's built an entire career around writing not-so-great books pushing feel-good crap straight in your face. It works too. I own all the Mitch Albom books and I don't know why. Damn him.
I also abhor chicklit. I mean, sure, there's a few well-written ones out there I'm sure. But the general genre of it makes me mad. A fashionista dealing with dating, make up and fashion emergencies, some crazy boss or crazy boy, in some city setting. I. hate. chicklit. I think it's one of those formulaic genres that is mostly not that well-written, but just appeases the masses of women who don't want to read real literature. Which is fine, I mean, hey, everyone has their own taste. But I guess as an aspiring writer, it makes me so mad that people are making SO MUCH MONEY off of these things, even commisionning the damn books.
Anyway. Had to vent.
Anyway, this weekend at Barnes I was so tempted to buy a few books, but now I'm glad I held out because the coupons are in my inbox again. So now I have to go through my vast list of books and decide what it is exactly I want to buy?
I'm going to end up in the range of something like 6 books:
1 10% off in the store
1 15% off in the store
1 10% off online + a cheaper book to make a $25 cut for free shipping
1 15% off online + a cheaper book to make a $25 cut for free shipping
I've decided I'll make the two "cheaper" books a couple volumes of some of the classics, since they always come in less than ten bucks. I may have to do Anna Karenina because even though I have it for free as a word document, 700 pages is simply not doable for me on a screen.
What else, what else?
It's never a question of, oh, man, I have nothing to buy, but a question of, crap, what do I want to buy FIRST?
6 books - I think I should do an even cut between fundamental must-reads (pull a couple off of M's list) and books I want to read. No Murakami this time. Even though I'm slowly but surely making my way through everyone of his novels, I think I need to try something else out. Maybe David Mitchell and Ian McEwan?
Hmm. Okay, I'll update when I've decided on my six.
Wow. They're really capitalizing on the fact that people are into literature and trade paperbacks these days. You can't find the classics for good and cheap! They're all redone with new covers and nice paper and fricking $14 each! WTF! I want a flimsy copy of Lolita, not some uber fancy one with a pretty new cover. The content inside is the same, no?!
Murakami is one of my all-time favorites, and I can't even tell you why exactly. Everytime I read one of his books, I feel stupid at the end, like there was much more that I should have understood, but didn't. I end up reading everything he writes at face value. Try as I might, I can't grasp the greater symbolism. Half the time I find that afterwards, I've forgotten 80% of what has happened. All the little weird things. Like I couldn't tell you precisely what happened in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Norwegian Wood, even though those are among two of my favorite books ever. I get them all confused sometimes, and I remember snatches of images that really stick with me, but everything else is so bizzare and so ungrounded in reality that I kind of lose it. But then maybe that's kind of the point. Murakami is so dreamy and so bizzare, that maybe it's kind of like a dream; nothing makes sense, and at the time, you buy into all of it, but when you wake up, you only retain a few things that made sense and resonate with you strongly. That's how I often feel with Murakami. I'm drawn into all of his worlds so tightly while I'm there, but when I get out, it kinda slips away...
Anyway, so far, been enjoying this one. At first I was more excited about it than I am now, but it's still a pretty good read so far. Matt just told me he heard somewhere that it's related to Dance Dance Dance, which I read last summer since it was Jon's fave Murakami (we share a love for Murakami). I liked that one, but didn't love it. So I barely remember it really, other than the hotel and the creepy elevator and floor with the Sheep Man and maybe a couple of other weird elements. But after reading this, maybe I'll go reread it. Actually, when I get the time, I really want to re-read all the Murakami I've already read as a refresher. [Ha. With this list of books? When will I get the time??]
Just an early passage I wanted to pull out though:
She'd show me her ears on occasion; mostly on sexual occasions. Sex with her with her ears exposed was an experience I'd never known. When it was raining, the smell of the rain came through crystal clear. When birds were singing, their song was a thing of sheer clarity. I'm at a loss for words, but that's what it was like.
"You don't show your ears when you sleep with other men?" I once asked her.
"Of course not," she said. "They probably don't even know I have ears."
"What's sex like for you without your ears showing?"
"A duty. Dry and tasteless, like chewing newsprint. But that's okay. Nothing bad about fulfilling a duty, you know."
"But with your ears out it's a thousand times better, isn't it?"
"Then you ought to show them," I said. "No need to go out of your way to put up with such dull times."
Dead serious, she stared at me and said, "You don't understand anything."
For sure, there were a lot of things I didn't understand at all.
For instance, the reason why she treated me special. I couldn't for the life of me believe I might be any better or different in any way than anyone else.
But when I told her that, she only laughed.
"It's really very simple," she said. "You sought me out. That's the biggest reason."
"And supposing somebody else had sought you out?"
"At least for the present, it's you who wants me. What's more, you're loads better than you think you are."
"So why is it I get to thinking that way?" I puzzled.
"That's because you're only half-living," she said briskly. "The other half is still untapped somewhere."
"In that sense, you're not unlike me. I'm sitting on my ears, and you've got only half of you that's really living. Sure seems that way, doesn't it?"
"Even if that were the case, my remaining half couldn't possibly compare to your ears."
"Maybe not," she smiled. "You wouldn't have any idea, would you?"
And with that smile in place, she lifted back her hair and unbuttoned her blouse.
I don't know why I like that passage so much, but it struck me I guess. This idea that we all have part of ourselves that we hide, protect, only let out for certain people. And it's like, without it, we're only half-living. We're still doing our "duty" maybe, but we're half-living. And everyone has that. I like that Murakami chooses ears. It's so simple, so elegant yet bizzare. Ears are these things that people generally don't pay attention to, unless called to by earrings. They're strangely shaped, yet a good ear can be delicate. The way a girl might push her hair behind her ears and show a little lobe can be so graceful. Such a funny looking thing. And, it's so important too. Hearing things. How do we shut out the world? We cover our ears. When you don't hear, it alters the world incredibly. So she's got these amazingly beautiful ears. And when she shows them, it transforms her from this plain whatever girl to this beautiful stunning girl. But she doesn't show them for just anybody. And she doesn't have sex with them out. I like that idea. That idea of having that thing you protect from most of the world, but it's that thing that makes you you. The thing that makes you different from everyone else, and if people saw or knew, they would think you were beautiful. Maybe because it's what is the essence of you. The truth. And pure truth like that can be beautiful.
Sometimes I think my writing is a little like that. It's something I'm incredibly protective over. I tend to let most things about me hang out - I'll tell people even the most personal details of my life with candor and lack of shame. I tend to have my heart all over my sleeve. But my writing, I hoard away. Because I kind of feel like it's me in a purest form. And I've always said that someone who gets my writing, gets a feel for the real me. I'm protective of my dream, and when people are like, "Why don't you show us some of what you write?" I can't. The more I care about people, the less I am able to show them my writing, because I'm afraid they'll see what I'm really all about and see the truth and not like it. This is perfectly strange, because, well, it's fiction, and even if there are elements of me in there, it's not all me, not even 90% me sometimes. It's fiction, and most people I meet can't read something and make the leap from story on the page to who I am. Because when I say that my writing is me I don't mean the story. In fact, part of my worries are that people will read it and think I'm writing about myself. Because often times I'm not. But I guess it's the good readers, who read it, and understand beyond the plot but the music behind the words, and in that music somewhere is me super naked. So I'm protective and secretive. Submitting to workshops is something different though. Maybe even then I'm hiding my ears somewhere. I can think of no clearer example though of how between submission 1 and submission 2 last class, there was a big change in my feeling of vulnerability. Once I cared about what Matt thought of me as a person, as a friend, I suddenly did not want him to read my writing. It felt intensely naked to me suddenly, and I didn't know I was ready or trusting enough of him to let it hang out like that.
Hmm okay maybe bad link to the ears. I guess I just really liked the whole idea. Of being half-living without her ears. I also liked the reasons she said she liked him. How he's better than he thinks he is, he's just got another half untapped somewhere. And how it's because he chose her. I don't know. Felt like there was something incredibly honest about that. Like, she's here because he chose her, and now that he has, she's put her hope into him, thinking he's got this potential somewhere. Somehow, he made a choice, but she gave it all to him, her ears and everything. And he's like, I'm not better than anyone else. But it's like, you chose me, that's what makes you better. And in fact, you are better than what you think, you just haven't found that other half of you that is sleeping yet. You haven't unlocked your fricking ears.
I think that's great. Sweet. Honest. I love how she has no name, this girlfriend. Just girl with the ears. I love that. Defined by her ears. The most honest and true and beautiful part of her. But him? He's still got nothing. It's a wild sheep chase, but he's looking for that other half of his too. And she's encouraging him, tells him she'll go with him, be by his side.
Maybe I'm just attracted to the devotion, because I see a little of that in myself. Bleh.
On a separate note, is it just me, or is this book way funnier than the other ones? I've been cracking up all over the place in this one, smirking at the protagonist's little snarkiness in his observations and even the things he says back to the man in the black suit sometimes. Fricking hilarious.
And btw, I expect Murakami to have a whole house full of cats, or at least one that plays a pervasive role in his life, because I have yet to read a Murakami book without a cat. There's never any dogs!
Okay. Enough, back to reading!
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
What I really wanted to note though, was that I walked by a book that caught my eye: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. It's a book basically written for someone like me, who is trying desperately to read to become a better writer. I almost picked up a copy - in fact, I probably should have, but the thought of throwing that book ON TOP of the many I'm trying to juggle these days was tiresome.
[Side note: at this point I'm juggling multiple books - 1) Fiction novel for fun 2) Short story collection - and thinking that I should also throw into the mix 3) A classic novel without waiting to finish the fun stuff, otherwise I'll never get to it 4) A book on craft, notably, McKee's Story. A 5th book on HOW to read is just... too much.]
The book however, had a great list of essentials in the back, similar to what I'm doing here. But it was extensive, and looking through it hurt my eyes. Made me anxious. I am so so so behind on my reading, and I wish I were more well-read than I am. For instance, I've never read any Hemmingway, Austen, Lawrence, Dickens (besides A Christmas Carol which hardly counts), Dostoevsky, etc etc. None of the classics. I haven't read any short stories by any of the famous guys, either. I feel like I need to buy up all of Barnes. So I kind of want to buy this book, just to get some direction.
However, at the same time, I kind of like just picking through my own list, going by suggestions, and trying to get what I can out of each novel on my own. I know I'm undertaking something quite ambitious here, but I almost wonder if trying to read every book on Prose's list will make me even more anxious than I already am, because her list also doesn't include a lot that are on my list. So a balance eh? Still might be useful to have her book, so I may decide to pick it up at some point and read it when I have time. I'm trying really hard here to be more well-read.
Though, currently, I am sort of cheating by reading Murakami, who I've already read plenty of. [And loving Wild Sheep Chase so far, but I've yet to be disappointed by Murakami yet] But okay, I'm promising myself. D.H. Lawrence is going next.
By the way, being in Barnes is always so inspiring to me.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
Going into the story, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I mean, even looking at the back of the book, the story didn't sound all that compelling? A butler? Really?
But I had decently enjoyed Never Let Me Go, and this is one of those "acclaimed" novels that I felt I should read. Even before reading When We Were Orphans, which I also own and need to get through.
Going into it, I was kinda like, ehh... The tone was so formal and the narrator kept talking about butlering, which was kind of boring. I thought there'd be some "action" but the further I got into it, there still wasn't. Sometimes when I was tired, I found it difficult to get through the book without re-reading passages.
The more I read it, the more I noticed the literary value of it. Okay, story itself, is it that compelling? I probably wouldn't have picked it up if it weren't him and if it weren't acclaimed. But I'm trying to hold my own English classes here, so fine.
I started to seriously appreciate the technical aspect of the book. The tone of the book was done so well, how unreliable you slowly realize the narrator is. He's all business, all butler: formal as shit, and never letting on how he feels about anything. His dad dies, and he just paints it all so objectively, how he has to go back down and attend to guests. In fact, we only find out how he feels through other people, people asking him if he's all right, he looks like he's tired or upset or whatever. He never lets on in his narration how he feels. Strictly butler, always trying to convince the audience he is doing what is proper. Even at the very end, he's talking about serving Lord Darlington and we don't even know he's crying until the guy he's talking to offers him a hanky. He never even says he's crying. In fact, the only time we really get how he really feels about a situation is the very last memory with Miss Kenton:
Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed - why should I not admit it? - at that moment, my heart was breaking.
It's interesting to me how formal and guarded the tone is the entire time, as if he's trying to convince himself of things. It goes along with how he just kinda goes along the whole time with Lord Darlington's shenanigans, saying it's not his place to have an opinion. And how he kinda never mentions his true thoughts of Miss Kenton, but you kind of figure it out. He spends the whole novel convincing himself of things, but it's not his narrative that gives us an accurate view of things at all, but the memories he chooses to bring up. His narrative is deluded, but over the course of the novel he kinda concedes a little at a time to the delusions - even Miss Kenton's letters and the intent behind them, and of course, the larger picture of Lord Darlington and if he indeed had helped something along. The idea of "dignity" and what that is, how one aspires towards that.
Very clever, really. The whole thing isn't forward-looking at all, but backwards looking, and it's only at the end he can come to terms with these things that have been nagging at him apparently, and thus, causing him to make those "mistakes" for his current employer. And it's only there where the title kicks in and means something.
By the way, I totally smirked and tried not to laugh outloud on the subway when I read about his attempts to "banter". That strikes me as so funny. A butler who doesn't know how to banter.
Stevens actually irked me somewhat. By his hoity-toity demeanor and self-validating pretention where he tried to justify things and his lack of empathy. But I think that was all part of the cleverness of this whole thing. His guise was so complete, that he wouldn't even let his guard down on paper - this is a butler who reads ROMANCE novels during his free-time. Obviously there's much that lies beneath the surface that he has surpressed. It's interesting because you never really get an honest picture from him of what kind of person he is, but you can gather clues from everything else that there is a weird sensitivity and pain hidden behind all of his butler training and decades of being "proper".
Okay, Ishiguro, good job. Can't wait to read When We Were Oprhans.
By the way, this kind of book makes me wonder: where the hell did he get this idea from?
Friday, April 20, 2007
This is when that chip on my shoulder kicks in. I feel woefully not well-read for someone who claims to love literature and wants to be a writer. I think this is part of the reason I feel so pressured these days, because I feel like how can I possibly break into a market where I don't know what I'm up against? These are the people who are acclaimed of their generation - I need a standard to hold myself to, and yet I haven't read any of them. Makes me feel really behind on things, and that's why I've been trying to read voraciously, trying to get through at least a book a week, if not more (last week I finished three, this week I've been only on one). I feel a lot of pressure these days, self-induced pressure I guess. I feel like I have such a long way to go to get to where I want to be, and I'm not nearly close enough. Maybe part of the reason I feel so pressured too, is because I feel like I should have some of this figured out by 30 (or at least have made some headway) - because that's when I want to start having kids, and god knows how much time I can devote to this once I have a family - and 5 years is not long to go at all.
In any case, though, with so many events at this festival going on, I feel like I should go to one or two, maybe on a topic that interests me, even if I haven't read the book yet (though I'd hate to go to something where I don't feel prepared because I have no idea what the authors are writing about??). I've been pretty good about going to these things alone, too. But, if there's anyone who loves literature and wants to go to an event with me, give me a holler. There are a couple of writers I've read, but not very many, so if anyone has heard of any of the people on this list that they are particularly fond of, I'll go out and read a book of theirs this weekend to prepare for this. :)
Pen World Voices 2007.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
She didn't actually "read" all that much, maybe a page or two from her novel, The Last Empress. Instead, she spent a long long time, telling us about her journey - how she was working in the labor camps of China during the Cultural Revolution, how they ordered (not "recruited" as her bio says, she emphasized) her to be a movie actress for Madame Mao, how after the fall of Madame Mao, she was denounced and pushed towards the brink of suicide. Then how Joan Chen (an actress who is beautiful and I love) told her to come to America, how she came here, was working multiple jobs, how she learned English while trying to write her book, how her agent wouldn't take her until she was published so she submitted to some Minnesota Review contest and finally got an agent and finally got her book sold, and not just that, but the international rights too. She went off on sooo many tangents, but it was incredibly intriguing, this woman had been through so much and now she was here, a writer with multiple books under her belt, living in America.
I thought her portrayal of Cixi Taihou was unreasonably forgiving, but she said that 95% of it was accurate, that she had done all the research for it and found the evidence and letters and stuff, and how she is certain that the British/Western world had demonized her in order to justify their infiltration and attacks into China. I just thought this was such an amazing piece of writing, because it was so important. Bringing a new perspective on things.
At the end, I got to chat with her a little bit, and I confess I rambled off because I was so excited (I always wonder how writers feel about meeting groupies), and I told her I wanted to be a writer. And she said that was so important, that I put my voice out there as a Chinese-American. I neglected to mention that I am trying to avoid the whole "Asian" niche market, but I still think it's important. I think it's important that America sees that we can write non-Asian identity stories too. She said, you have to do better than everyone else to prove your worth, like Michelle Kwan. Hahaha.
Oh, and something else I thought was so interesting - how she said that she didn't like writing in Chinese and then translating, partly because the language is so different (the poetry) but also because she had Chinese censorship drilled into her, that when she wrote in Chinese she felt she couldn't be free, but in English she could.
I had so many other notes and thoughts I wanted to mention from the reading today, but can't really remember anymore. I just thought it was great, and so inspiring to meet a woman who had been through so much, and then finally made it here, as a writer, of all things!
By the way though, both her and Tinling's stories about how they got their foot in the door - Tinling took fifteen years to write her little book and her book was originally in the discard pile except some intern picked it up and handed it to her agent - that made me realize even more how hard it is to break into this world.
But I don't care. I'm going to do it. If anything, listening to them today made me want it even more. I'll do what it takes. Just watch.
Monday, April 16, 2007
This book, in many ways, for personal reasons, saved me from cynicism and despair this weekend as I read it. I have read many books that have touched me and stirred my emotions, but this is the first time I've read a book that felt opportune, like it saved me from a drowning pit. Of course, my little experience isn't why it won, but I think the book is a work of incredible beauty, intelligence, vision. And it's a damn good piece of literature too. Now, I would never be so arrogant to even think I could ever write a novel of this achievement, but this work is definitely something I read and remember why I want to be a writer in the first place.
I am so excited for him. So happy. So incredibly happy. Almost as happy as if the work were my own. I can't explain why, it just does. It's hard to move on to another book after reading his, although I am trying. But. Seriously. Congratulations, Mr. McCarthy. Well-deserved, incredibly well-deserved. If I could do for one person what you did for me this weekend, I would consider my goal as a writer met.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
In two days, I've finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Just put it down. Just exhaled as I finished. And now I am here, trying to make sense of the world in which I just exited.
What a beautiful book.
These are the things that kept plaguing me as I read, went with father and son on their journey.
The world they inhabit is desolate, stripped of humanity, awash in fire and chaos and carnage. People eat their own young. People kill each other to eat each other. Civilization is gone. How can they keep going, these two? To what end? For what? What is there to keep going for? When they reach the coast, then what? What are they looking for? The old world is gone, and now they are surviving for the sake of surviving. Life has lost meaning. The meaning attributed to it as we as humans have given, burned, taken away for good. There is no hope for them. Their journey is about survival, but there is nothing to survive. So why keep going? As I read, I just kept thinking, how does this end? This must end in death, because there is nothing else. No matter how long this journey goes, it will inevitably end in death. There is no salvation here. Why do I keep reading? Why do I want to read knowing there can only be death? And why do they keep moving knowing there is only death?
Thoughts of a conversation about life I once had with M over chickpeas and mediocre chicken cacciatore flicker in my mind. We are all in a freefall, he said. Life has no meaning, we said. But we make meaning out of it. Isn't that what makes us lucky?
Through all the bleakness of the world, there is the father, doing what it takes to survive, for him, for his son most of all. Sometimes wishing for death so that it can end. But never giving up. And then the boy. He touches me so. He is the beacon of light, of hope, for humanity. That within the wreckage and annihlation of all that is good and worthy of civilization, he still finds it within him to be good. To be compassionate. To cry for little boys and thiefs and old men on the street. To give what he doesn't have. To shed tears over a broken conscience that is all but imagined and useless in a world where survival is the only thing that matters. The hope that good has a place in the world, in a world where laws no longer pass judgment and gods no longer exist to provide redemption. That good belongs and is and should be, even in the wild. The boy gives me hope, feeds me hope. His father, who does everything to shield the boy, protect him, carry him on to whatever may come next - he is guarding something precious. The good in the boy. This hope for humanity. He is fighting tooth and claw to deliver this, to save this, for the next generation of man. Should there be one. Because this is what needs to survive. Not our technology or our knowledge. But our good. The good. This is what the fire is. This is what the flame is. This is what is worth saving, worth dying for, worth protecting. Good needs to survive, and vulnerable as it is, it is worth everything to the man. The man and his son.
I cried. Tears. When the father was dying and talking to his son. When I thought the son was going to die. When it seemed like it might all end. And the hope at the end. That there are still good guys. Still children. Boys and girls. Maybe from the ashes of this, good can survive, however tenaciously, and become stronger.
What a wonderful book. So simple, so moving. Horrifying descriptions captured with a sense of such despondency. As if they, too, were part of the landscape of the world. No different from describing a tree fallen, or a cloud passing. I am touched beyond everything I could possibly imagine. From such simple words. From such a simple tale.
And I have hope. Hope that good endures. Hope that in this free-fall of meaninglessness, there is still purpose. Hope that what I live for is not in vain, that this journey will move forward. That every step I take, even if it is part of a slow death, is one in which I live and leave behind footprints that are beautiful.
No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.
--[The Road, Cormac McCarthy, p. 54]
I don't know what this means to me right now, I just know it does.
Friday, April 13, 2007
So far, I'm loving the book. Very different than what I've been reading differently. Different than the highly stylized, wacky voice of JSF, different than the very straightforward backwards-looking narrative of Anchee Min. This stuff is great. Simple, but captures the desolation of the world so well. The namelessness of the father and his son, the few sentences shared between them, the dreams, the little actions. It's all so good. Makes me a more careful reader than I normally am, because I don't get this sense of needing to move quickly to find out what happens next as if there's a big dramatic plot to follow, but I want to move on the road with them, experience what they do.
In my heightened state of melancholia, as well as the fact that I just wrote two incredibly sad scenes (one of which will never make it into my story, but I needed to write so that I knew what happened), both of dealing with promises or loss thereof or disillusionment, the following little scene totally captivated my heart:
In a pocket of his knapsack he'd found a last half packet of cocoa and he fixed it for the boy and then poured his own cup with hot water and sat blowing at the rim.
You promised not to do that, the boy said.
You know what, Papa.
He poured the hot water back into the pan and took the boy's cup and poured some of the cocoa into his own and then handed it back.
I have to watch you all the time, the boy said.
If you break little promises you'll break big ones. That's what you said.
I know. But I won't.
I found that moment so incredibly touching. A little boy and his father. Each loving each other. One wanting to sacrifice, one wanting to keep the other in check. How powerful is love, I think. I think about the premise of this story - and how, if the boy died, the man would no longer have any reason to try as hard as he is now. How, the only reason he is surviving is because of the boy. So in a way, the boy is saving him too. Without him, his father would not survive. Without the father, the boy would not survive. They need each other. They trust each other. Love each other. And keep each others promises. Little and small. Because the little ones are as important as the big ones. Love means keeping promises.
That is love.
Back to it. Just wanted to take a break and write down this passage that so inspired me.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
I've grown up listening to my mom tell me how Cixi Taihou was an evil woman, and was all but responsible to the death and fall of Imperial China (and thus the aftermath that China is now still recovering from). It's written in history how she dominated over two child emperors, making them prisoners while using them as puppets for the throne. I've never questioned this history and the fact behind it, although now I realize that history is perception, no matter how hard a journalist may try to be subjective.
The book offered a very human view of this so-called "dragon lady" - explored the reasons she may have had for the decisions she made, even if they were not always smart. I'm always intrigued by this, by the idea that the outside world will exploit and misinterpret public figures, stripping them of their humanity, and forgetting the burden that ruling a nation may have upon someone. I couldn't help but seethe for the injustice of the horrible things that she was being called by papers worldwide as she struggled to do what she thought was best for her sons and her country in the face of brutal attack.
And that is the other thing. I really wish I knew more about Chinese history than I do, both contemporary and ancient, as China has a long, long history and the last century and a half especially are so important to the Chinese people. I love reading historical fiction because I want to find out about this stuff without having to read some boring history book (and believe me, a history book on Chinese history would be EXTREMELY long and boring... it's no 200 year old fledgling country like America).
Anyway, reading this book though, it made me both sad and angry, the way China was backed into a corner (and I will admit that they were left vulnerable due to their pride and closed-door policy, but still), and the way the various nations came down upon them like vultures on a not-dead corpse. I've long been told by my parents, of the Opium Wars and how the British encouraged the trade of opium to weaken the Chinese people so they could not fight. And reading about how they could barely survive and fend for themselves - the Russians at one border, the British and Germans and French demanding territories, the Japanese invading at another port - it just seems like so much to me. So much bullying. Of course China was doomed to fail. Of course the empire would fall. When every last prosperous nation with a military is on your back, how can you shake them off? When everyone wants a piece of you, and then the peasants themselves start uprising, starting rebellions, and no one cares to understand your people or your culture... what else can you do? I feel so terrible for these child emperors with the burden of a billion people and the weight of a nation in inevitable decline on them. And reading this account, while perhaps we will never know what Cixi's true intentions and character were, I can't believe she would evilly drive her country into the ground for her own personal profit. I'm barely Chinese, already a generation and a half removed, and I read this story and felt pain for my people, for my country that isn't really mine. It's not that I'm for Chinese feudalism, but there is the pride of my ancestral nation and pride of my ethnicity and race to consider. (And I'm not even Manchurian) Thinking about what it must have felt like, to try to defend your country from others that just wanted to divide you up like a piece of pie.... it makes me so angry, so sad. Especially knowing what is to come. The closed doors. The bamboo curtain. The cultural revolution in a desperate, extremist attempt to make up for lost time. The generation of lost people. My father frequently reminds me that if his parents had not decided to go to Taiwan, he would have been born in China. He would have been in the generation of the Red Guards, and very likely he would have never learned anything past 5th grade level. A generation lost, and countless cultural and historical artifacts, books, art, literature, all gone. How sad. I sometimes think China's history in the past 150-200 years has been nothing but tragedy.
Oh and the lines that I wanted to write down, I believe are probably from real Chinese poems, but I confess I don't remember any of the poems I learned as a kid except the one about moonlight falling on a bed and some other poem about returning home after years. But I liked this:
The silkworm labors, until death its fine thread severs
The candle's tears are dried when it itself consumes
I sometimes wish I had been born in China or had better faculty of the language. I think I could have been a good writer in Chinese, given how inherently poetic the language is. Even when I don't fully understand the meaning of poems, descriptions, song lyrics, I can hear how beautiful the words are, how so much is captured in a few simple characters, unlike the many words that is required in English to describe something. Chinese language is steep in simile and metaphor - in fact, I don't think there's a way to avoid it if you are good with the language. I think if it had been a true native tongue of mine, I could have done so much with it, I could have written things moving and poetic and beautiful, finding just the right couple of phrases to do what is needed. The poetry of it moves me, and at the same time, frustrates me that understanding it is out of my reach. I will never hear the Chinese language, understand its clockwork, see the way the pieces fit together, not in the way the English language does for me. And that makes me sad, because I think I had the inherent ability, just not the knowledge.
Anyway. Good book. Can't wait to hear Anchee Min read on Tuesday. I love historical fiction, and this one stirred up all sorts of Chinese-y feelings in me that I almost forgot existed.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
I had you wrong, Jonathan Safran Foer, all wrong. After how much I loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close I should have had more faith. But I confess that for the first 50 pages of this book, I was unimpressed.
In the beginning, I was slow to get into the book. The way Alex as a translator, wrote, was tiring to me, and I was like um.. okay... I know it was supposed to be kind of funny, but I wasn't so into it. Then I got past that chapter, and then past the chapter when they meet "the hero" and then into the fictionalized history... and I was still kind of like, um... okay.. this is all so weird and where is this going. Did not buy into the quirkiness of it at all. Did not buy into the humor or the gimick. In fact, if it weren't such a highly acclaimed novel, and the fact that I made a commitment to the thing, I wouldn't have finished it at all. I started the novel tons of times, pushing it aside for other pursuits for the longest time. I worried it'd just be one of those quirky fun novels that I just never get into.
But, oh, how wrong I was.
The more I read, the more I got used to his style ("style" since so many devices were employed). I even started laughing outloud at some of the stuff Alex wrote. And I started to see the underlying grief and beauty in the novel. How on the surface it was mostly so humorous, but underneath it held this beautiful undercurrent of sadness. And I am so incredibly drawn to sadness and its many renditions.
The way the novel itself rises, develops, is intelligent and thoughtful. The way the humorous passages become less humorous; the way Alex's English improves but becomes more truthful, and thus wounding in its truth; the way everything starts to mix and mingle and wrap itself back on itself again in the fake histories; the way the story becomes more about Alex and his family than about Jonathan's in a way you don't suspect in the beginning.
This is a book I need to read again, just to make sense of things I missed in the beginning or dismissed as unimportant.
Safran's many trysts reminded me of Florentino Ariza's in a way - the way they kept making love to all of this women, indiscriminantly almost, trying to give them something, fill a hole or aching that these women held, but never giving them their full love.
And there are so many, so many passages, moments in this book that struck me, resonated with me, spoke to me. So many, that I can't even start to put them down, so I won't.
When Alex writes his portion about what his Grandfather reveals. Oh man. The tidal wave that he unleashes there is so effective, I found myself in tears. What a difficult decision. Choosing the lesser of two evils. Does it make a person wrong for choosing an evil even if it is the lesser of two evils? Isn't it just wrong that war makes a person choose what a person should never have to choose? Is it the person who is evil or the war that is evil? Loss and grief are one terrible thing, but unforgivable guilts - good people being forced to do bad things - perhaps that is even worse still. We are all trying to be good. Trying to do the best we can.
By the end, I relished the gimmick. I didn't like it at all in the beginning, but I found it clever by the end. Still feel it's a gimmick, but it works. It all works. It's so off-the-wall, but I bought into it, savored every word he had. Maybe because sometimes I want to be able to write this way too, pull off something like this too. Do little crazy things here and there (because I have all sorts of strange notions and dreams and letters and soliloquies and monologues and POV switches and streams of consciousness that always feel authentic to me that I would love to throw into a novel... thus, learning all the rules before I break the rules. I want to perfect traditional form before I go and wreck it all, so no one can accuse me of not knowing the rules). So in the end, I fell for it, even when maybe it wasn't always necessary, I always felt like he did it not for the sake of being different, but because he's quirky like that, and it felt right to him instinctively.
I am hugely impressed. This book totally won me over in the end, and I recant every doubt I had. Jonathan Safran Foer did not disappoint. I am just sad because, at the age of what - how old was he when this was published? 24? - he wrote an amazingly intelligent, raw, honest, beautiful book, and I wonder if I have it in me to do the same. I read his words, and I think, if I could do for others what he just did for me.
Just when I was about to write off Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed novel as "eh, whatever", he pulls out a line like this and makes me stop. Read again. Keep reading. Then stop. Go back. Read again.
Love, in your writing, is the immovability of truth.
I've never thought about love in these terms before, but it clicks. Makes sense.
I think about love a lot. Not just in the girlie, frou-frou, pink ribbons sort of way. But thoughts of what love is. What it means to truly love someone. How to love someone better. What real love is. What love makes us. What we do for love. If it is real or imagined. Things like that.
And I think this line means so much. Speaks volumes of love. Love is truth. Love is truth in so many ways. Love is not lying. Love is not secrets. Love is truth. No matter how the world changes, how things evolve, revolve, the truth of love doesn't change. Loving someone is not letting truths change. Is not letting loves change. Loving someone is giving the truth, the whole truth. Faithfulness, fidelity, a whole heart. I am idealistic, but I know this to be true. I know that when I love someone, I will give them truth. This is not to say white lies aren't necessary sometimes. But this is to say that overall, in the big picture, it is Truth that I offer them. And I expect the same in return. And love makes this immovable. Love makes it impossible to not give this. Love is sharing truth, having truth, seeing with clarity of vision. Seeing and still loving.
The book is growing on me, and I'm starting to appreciate it. Appreciate the humor coupled with underlying melancholia. The kitschy gimmickiness bothered me at first - felt like he was purposely being so out there - but I have to hand it to him, beneath all of that (and I'm not one of those people who think he is genius for having used his devices, I'm liking him despite these devices) he has moving moments, beautiful thoughts, and this wonderful undercurrent of confused nostalgia that I am starting to really enjoy. Especially the naivity of the interpreter. Oh man, the following passage got me this morning on my commute in:
I parrot: Grandfather is not a bad person, Jonathan. Everyone performs bad actions. I do. Father does. Even you do. A bad person is someone who does not lament his bad actions. Grandfather is now dying because of his. I beseech you to forgive us, and to make us better than we are. Make us good.
Isn't that what it is? That's how I think of people most of the time. People wonder why I give people the benefit of the doubt, why I give people second chances, why I don't walk away, cut people out of my life when they do questionable things to me. And that's how I feel. That people mostly are not bad. I have issue with people who do not believe they have anything to be sorry for, and I don't forgive people who don't want to be forgiven. But if someone wants to be forgiven, I usually will, right away. Because I think good people make bad choices. And I believe that people can change for the better. That I only have to give people chances to change, and they will be better.
Now I'm not saying I'm good either. Or that I'm better than other people. I'm saying that everyone deserves a chance. That that's how I percieve the world and the people I meet and care about and grow to love. Because I'd hope for that same benefit of the doubt. I'd hope that people would give me a second chance too, because god knows how many mistakes I've made in my lifetime too. How many dui bu qi ren de shi I've done too. I think we all have the ability to make each other better people, good people. I really do.
And then there was this:
I think that this is why I relish writing for you so much. It makes it possible for me to be not like I am, but as I desire for Little Igor to see me. I can be funny, because I have time to meditate about how to be funny, and I can repair my mistakes when I perform mistakes, and I can be a melancholy person in manners that are interesting, not only melancholy. With writing, we have second chances....... It is true, I am certain, that you will write very many more books than I will, but it is me, not you, who was born to be the writer.
When me and J. used to fight or I'd be unhappy about something, I'd write him these long emails explaining how I felt about everything. Finally, after one particular email in which I hinted at a possible ultimatum, (and I was in HK) he told me he never wanted to discuss these matters over email ever again. That if I had something to tell him, I should tell him in person.
I knew this, and understood that to him it was a respect sort of thing. And it's not to say that I didn't agree. But I felt like I could say things best as how I meant them when I wrote them. In person, I was always tripping over words, saying things in ways I didn't necessarily mean. But writing, I could perfect things. Say them exactly how I meant them. In the exact way to deliver them. Writing was my strength and best way to express myself.
So I get what Alex is saying above.
However, unlike him, I often feel like when I write, I'm most me. More me than when I'm not writing. I recently made the realization that, someone who reads my writing and understands it, understands me. Because I am so often so many different people, different personalities. Playing to people, playing off people. Catering to people's needs. I meet people and I can intuitively tell what part I'm supposed to play, how I have to be. It's not to say I'm being fake, because I'm not. Because all these personalities are me, part of me. But when I'm writing, I'm writing for no audience. I'm writing for myself. And because I'm writing for myself, it's possibly the one time I am who I am. Karen tells me she can pick my writing out of a dozen pieces. That I'm remarkably consistent in my style, even if tone and voice and all that are different. That my quality of writing remains the same. Unlike her, who is versatile and can write all sorts of different things in all sorts of styles. Me, I have one style, and that's my writing. And I think it's because it's me, through and through. The only time I feel most comfortable in my own skin is when I'm losing myself in words. I love writing for the ability I have to control it, to go back and make things sound perfect... but I think it's because it's so hard for me to be me. But when I write, I can make it perfect, perfectly in line with what I know to be me inside. That's why I obsess over the way things sounds, the musicality. Cuz inside me I hear something beautiful and lyrical, and it lifts me, makes me feel incredibly moved. And I want to get it perfect, to share this with the world, so they can hear and feel what I do...
Alright Safran Foer, you've won me over. Took getting halfway through the novel, but you've finally won me over. I'm finding this beautiful... despite myself.
Monday, April 9, 2007
The first answer is this: I wanted to keep track of all the books I was reading, had yet to read, wanted to read, saw in a bookstore and thought I might read. Blogspot is handy with lists. So here I am. As you can see, I went all anal (as I'm prone to do) and broke it up into categories.
The long answer though is something more in the line of - I want to be a writer, and as a writer, I believe that I need to read voraciously, even more so than I do now, in order to make sure I not only keep up with my (soon-to-be) contemporaries, but also to understand how the highly acclaimed classics worked. Having forgone the English major route for a Psych route in college, I feel quite a bit behind on my reading of classics. So now I'm trying to make up for it, intermingle my pleasure reading with a bit of classic/essential literature here and there. Unfortunately, I feel completely overwhelmed and like I'm not reading nearly fast enough to get through the hundreds of books I feel like I need to get through. This list hopefully will help me get a little more organized about what I need to read.
I also have this bad tendency to um. Forget a lot of the books I read after I'm done. So I figured I'll be a good girl and ponder each book that I read after I'm done, like having my own book club. Maybe pull out a couple of passages here that inspire me or particularly touch me. Just so that I can pull up a post months down the line and be like, what did I like about this book? Oh... right... Haven't decided yet if I should be doing this as I go along or only when I'm done. Wrote a little today about my current read, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated. But maybe I'll see how I feel when I'm done.
Anyway, I highly doubt anyone except for me will care about my ramblings on books, but if anyone has suggestions, please let me know. A book I picked up today, The Master and Margarita, was suggested to me by a tall beautiful woman with a wonderful European accent, after I told her to pick up Time-Traveler's Wife. Unfortunately, this book will have to get in queue with the other 10 books I have lying on my bedside table, still unread....
Next up is The Last Empress which I need to fly through in order to finish before Anchee Min's reading next Tuesday. Which means Safran Foer needs to be done ASAP...
Okay kiddos. Let's see how this goes. But I must say, I feel so relieved to have this list so well organized. At least I can see the hundreds of books that I must get through someday.