Sunday, January 27, 2013

I'm Sorry, Mr. Clemens

Books I bought today:
-Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, in which the Mr. Sylvia Plath reveals -in his last book- secrets about their complicated relationship.
-Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, in which I give in and purchase this copy albeit used for $8 at Bookman's.
-a book as a birthday present for someone (shh!)
-for my brother, a book from 1885 called "Lucille" and unusually bound in faded alligator skin.

The Three, Solitary, Shamefully Scant List of Books I've finished this year:
-East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 600 pages
-Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 120 pages
-Silk by Alessandro Barico, 94 pages

And because we all know that whatever you commit to on Goodreads is like signing your firstborn child to (yeah, right), I really will read 45 books this year (I think I said 45).

In fact, right now I'm learning something about myself: Mark Twain isn't so bad. Okay, I'm sorry, Mr. Clemens, for calling you old, weird, boring, and maybe a little too hairy like Albert Einstein: what high school girl is really qualified to judge?

Truth be told, I never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, and there's no way you could get me to explain that -even in my detrimentally honest candor- to my 32 juniors who are now (pretending to) read it. For the sixteen year old version of myself, to sit down and read it turned into nap time, and post-nap-time-reading was met with rolling eyes, and sighs, and fidgets, so I gave up. Every day I would come to class and turn to my classmate and say, "Ya know, Katie, I just really didn't get last night's reading." (Translating Subtext: If I'd tried, maybe I would have, but will you just tell me what happened anyway?)  And she would, and I would pass the daily quizzes.  *sigh I know I have students like me in those seats somewhere. Worse, I know I have NHS (National Honors Society) students like me doing the exact thing I did. But, see, that just makes me a more clever adversary. I keep telling myself that this whole hypocritical experience has made me a better teacher. I mean, which of you reading adults hasn't trespassed in a similar fashion? I would bet that most of you have -you just didn't become English teachers.

Um, that's what you call irony, class.

Solution: I ask really hard questions that are ridiculously specific so that even if you read and didn't understand the reading, you would be able to pass, whereas the cheaters like myself would never get these questions by 1. skim-reading or 2. asking their neighbors for answers.

Yeah, I'm a pretty great English teacher...

...who, herself, neglected to read last week. Whoops.  No worries: I asked really clever questions so that the class who seemed to do the reading could supply answers. They didn't catch on that I had forgotten my book on my desk the evening before and crammed the whole thing in ten minutes before class.

It won't happen again. In fact, as of tonight, I have begun reading with pen-in-hand again. C.S. Lewis said, "The best way to read is with book in lap, pen in hand, and pipe in teeth." I have underlined passages about superstition (salt over the left shoulder, a cross nailed into the bottom of Pap's shoes), Jim's fortune-telling clot of hair removed from an ox's fourth stomach (gross), and words like pungle. Yeah. They better see me comin' tomorrow.

So here I am, a recovering know-it-all-sixteen-year-old (aren't we all) who was immediately disproved that Mark Twain was boring by his own opener: 

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be pros- ecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; per- sons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance."

I hereby revoke any verbal injustices to Mr. Samuel Clemens, to wit Mark Twain, and in only a few days, I'll finally do what I said I did eleven years ago, and I'll have another book to add to my books-read-this-year list. #fistpump

A Note To the Reader: I don't lie about finishing books anymore -otherwise there would be a great many added to that "Books I've Read This Year" list, and they would be like Joyce's Ulysses and Tolstoy's War and Peace. Hah. Like any teacher could read those during the school year...

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Frenchman Goes to Japan in Italian Literature

I promise this blog has a book in it -it isn't all about nails (though I love them). 

So it's only the beginning of a three day weekend and it's already fabulous. Last night was a girls' night of eating sorbet and watching the first season of SMASH before an attempt: do novel nails actually work? Pinspiration: 

I was expecting a Pinstrosity (for definition, please refer to "Pinstrosity, Noveltrocious"), something like newsprint stuck in gummy nail polish with words going every which way. I selected a backup plan, but considering my art skills are abysmal, I wasn't expecting that to come through, either...
Anyway, the Pinspiration was not a Pinstrosity: it actually turned out pretty well, we had fun doing it, and I particularly like the ampersand that came through. This was a novelist's dream, after all.

What a great idea. I'm so excited that it worked, and it was so much easier than the simple instructions implied -because you know when instructions are "simple," there's still hidden complexities. Not here. It was simple and easy. It just took a little patience and time.

Okay, girly part over.

So this morning with coffee in hand (nerdfest: I picked a mug to match my nails), I sat down with a 

copy of Alessandro Barico's Silk. Have you ever read it? It's a novella at 91 pages and I was drawn to it because of its price set at $2.49, which was the only reason I justified purchasing it in Grand Junction, CO, over winter break as I had already purchased a gaggle of books. Later I recalled a ghost of a memory from when I worked at B&N and I shelved a copy only with a different cover, that of a motion picture adaptation with Kierra Knightley. I never saw it and never thought of it again except to see if B&N had a copy of the DVD in the Music Dept (which, of course, we didn't). It's funny to think that I had never spent much thought on it thereafter as I am drawn to 19th century (setting or era) literature, but being in grad school, I had so much to read as it was (the Lord knows).

Confession: I keep a reading journal and there's something so satisfying about adding another completed book to your "Read this year" list, even if it's a novella and even if it only took two hours to read.

Books finished this year:
-East of Eden by John Steinbeck
-The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
-Silk by Alessandro Barico
(Okay, the year has just gotten started, but I can do better than this.)

Yes, I was able to read Silk in two hours, but it wasn't because it was easy or simplistic. Silk starts like this:
      "Chapter One

       Although his father had pictured for him a brilliant future in the army, Herve Joncour had ended up earning his crust in an unusual career which, by a singular piece of irony, was not unconnected with a charming side that bestowed on it a vaguely feminine intonation.

       Herve Joncour bought and sold silkworms for a living.

       The year was 1861. Flaubert was writing Salammbo, electric light remained hypothetical, and Abraham Lincoln, beyond the Ocean, was fighting a war of which he was not to see the finish. 

        Herve Joncour was thirty-two.

        He bought and sold.


And that's the entirety of Chapter One. Each chapter is told this way, in crisp prose limited to a page, each a vignette which weaves a story not unlike the beautiful fibers of silk itself. The story plays with this idea that silk is light, lighter than air, and yet its beauty is so intense that it can't help but to be heavy with imagery and symbolism. The story is like that, too, including but not restricted to a thread woven about an aviary, birds in a cage, birds that released and come back, expensive, exotic birds as gifts to concubines as symbols of their love and more beautiful than jewelry. Herein lies the escapism, because I see these threads and for once don't think about the threads of a Discussion Board in Blackboard -school. Instead is a different kind of school, a school which will follow a writer her whole life if she's willing, a school that instructs through example, the school that demonstrates the art of literature.

I have two favorite devices used in this book: one is repetition. Each time Herve goes on his journey to Japan -this mesmerizing journey driven by desire and curiosity- he "crossed the French frontier near Metz, travelled the breadth of Wurttemberg and Bavaria, entered Austria, reached Vienna and Budapest by train, thence to continue as far as Kiev. He travelled two thousand kilometres of Russian steppe on horseback, crossed the Urals, entered Siberia, continued for forty days until he reached Lake Baikal, known locally as: 'the demon.'" In his second journey, this lake is known locally as: "the last." In his third journey, this lake is known locally as: "the holy." Then, from there, he "descended the course of the River Amur, skirting the Chinese border as far as the Ocean, and when he arrived at the Ocean he stopped in the port of Sabrik for ten days, until a Dutch smugglers' ship conveyed him to Cape Teraya on the west coast of Japan. Taking secondary roads, he crossed the provinces of Ishikawa, Toyama and Niigata on horseback, and entered the province of Fukushima," and the town of Shirakawa.  What I love about this repetition is that it makes the journey come alive: the first time through this description feels like necessary detail to understand his travels, and each time thereafter feels like a return to familiar places, as his kind of travel is -something mundane or familiar in real life, but art in literature.

My other favorite device is his sentence fragmentation. You can already see how he does this in the first chapter, but Barico does this several times, one of the most jarring and beautiful is when he meets the concubine -unnamed, but described with repetition: "Her eyes did not have an oriental slant, and her face was the face of a young girl." The same as with the repetition of the landscape is the landscape of her face, like recognizing someone in literature without the author telling us that she's recognizable. 

And when he sees her, this jarring fragmentation is seen like this:
"All was so silent and motionless in the room that what next occurred, though nothing in itself, seemed quite momentous.
     without the smallest movement,
     that young girl,
     opened her eyes.
     Herve Joncour continued talking but instinctively lowered his eyes to her and what he saw, as he continued talking, was that her eyes did not have an oriental slant, and that they were fastened upon him with a disconcerting intensity: as thought this is what they had been doing from the start, from beneath lowered lids."

This is proof that poetry can exist in prose. 

After I finished the book, I explored around Google Images for a bit. First reflection: I might have to watch the Kierra Knightley movie.

Second reflection: Silk worms look weird, and the cocoons look like they've been left in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator for too long.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

New is to Year as Happy is to Reading

Books I bought yesterday:
-Map of Time by Felix J. Palma
-I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems By Cats by Francesco Marciuliano

Books I wanted to buy yesterday:
-Steampunk Magazine Anthology (I'm teaching the class...)
-Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma (The cover is so pretty.)
-Collected Poetry by Jack Gilbert (I just found out he died in November.)
-The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Reviewed well on NPR.)
-Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (I'm a hypocrite: "I hate technology," I profess, as I copy what I've said onto my blog after texting it on my Droid and emailing a student that I'll only accept homework turned in via Blackboard.)

Children's books I looked at because they're fun:
-I Must Have Bobo by Eileen Rosenthal. About a cat who steals a plush monkey. Hee hee.
-Zorro Gets An Outfit by Carter Goodrich. Because pugs should have capes. 

Books I've finished this year:
-East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 600 pages
-Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 120 pages

Newton's Law of Reading Physics:
If the rate at which one acquires texts is steeper than the rate at which one reads texts, one shall be so overwhelmed with reading that one shall rip out one's hair. Or maybe just read faster. Or maybe just never be bored for a single day in one's life -that seems more likely.

(Psst: Thanks, Newton, for letting me put words in your mouth.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pinstrosity, Noveltrocious

Okay, writers, have you ever had this brilliant theme that you set to work in your prose, something that you want to tease out as you work?

Theme is tricky. You don’t want to be so obvious about it that utilizing the theme in the plot bores the reader, but you also don’t want the theme to be so slight that the reader wonders what the story was about (beyond the actions of the character, of course). So how, then, do you know how heavy or light to write and blend the theme?

We’ve just passed the biggest baking season of the year (thank you, Yavapai College, for having a gym), and like many people I found most of my recipes on Pinterest. (If you don’t know what Pinterest is, Google it. It will revolutionize the way you collect recipes. And craft ideas. And pretty pictures. And time-wasting.) I decided to make sugar cookies only because they were fashioned to look like owls -and I have a weakness for owls. Upon reading the recipe, I lost enthusiasm: if I followed the ingredients precisely, it would be the gritty kind of sugar cookies, the kind that scratch the roof of your mouth, the kind that you can leave uncovered on your kitchen counter for a week and a half and they have the same consistency as they did when they were removed from the oven. I like my cookies to be soft, so I continued looking for recipes and found one for the pillowy kind of sugar cookies that you buy in holiday colors at Wal-mart.

I am a recipe-follower. I always have been, because my improvisational skills lack any kind of adept cleverness whatsoever, but now I have a new fear of not following the recipe: Pinstrosity. While the word doesn’t exist in the dictionary (or, as of yet, in Urban Dictionary), it accounts for the growing population of amateur crafters and bakers who are inspired by Pinterest (Pinspired, as they call it), have some erroneous perception of simplicity, and then devastatingly fail. So now social networking is full of these epic fail pictures and forced axioms about how it’s better to have tried yada yada yada.

You’re clever enough to ascertain for yourself where I am going with this in regards to crafting theme: baking and writing are similar in that there’s time and creativity to craft. But I was thinking this especially last week as I finished East of Eden by John Steinbeck and considered his 600 page epic that unfolds the story of Cain and Abel through multiple generations. Any reader –much less writer- can appreciate the devotion and craft it took for Steinbeck to have created such a thematic piece, not distracting from the action to give forced parallelisms, and still molding a compelling story that deep and beautiful meaning can come from.

My owl cookies were a success. Recipe or not and disregarding the fear of a potential Pinstrosity, I crafted some really cute cookies. The first few looked like Muppets so I pressed the fork into the side emulating wings and they turned out even better. The truth is that it’s not “do it” or not, it’s not “follow-the-recipe” or “don’t-follow-the-recipe”, but a matter of do and revise. That’s how truly great novels are written: not in a recipe-following fear of Noveltrosity, but the ability to create something and then to look at it with fresh eyes and rewrite the parts that don’t work.  There’s no way that Steinbeck wrote a well-crafted, epic, 600 page novel in one sitting, and no one will. Worse, I promise you, dear reader, that you will write a Noveltrosity –but I also promise you that if you are devoted to your craft, you will revise and it will get better. 

Okay, so maybe baking and writing are different, because in the oven you only get one shot. Maybe writing is more like stew, something added to and simmered over a long period of time with little heat. But if there’s no protein –no theme- all you have is thin soup.  

Here's some more Pinstrosity pictures. Just because they're funny.