Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Family"

I spent a rainy morning relaxing with my rescued kitties, who are all peacefully hanging out with each other and with me on a daily basis.

And this song sums up how we collectively feel about that.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Spring Readathon

Today is Dewey's Readathon and quite frankly, it couldn't come at a better time.

I spent Thursday night in the ER again.  (Anaphylactic shock brought on by food allergies.  I'm fine now.  Thank you for asking).

Ai-yi-yi.  That's all I can say, so I'll say it again: ai-yi-yi.  This semester has been one for the ages.

That said, I'm looking forward to a day of peaceful reading.  Right now, I'm planning on working on two books: Junot Diaz's collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her (2013) and Chang-Rae Lee's novel Native Speaker (1995).

So, 'nuff said.  See you later.

3:20 p.m.

I'm about halfway through Native Speaker--it's actually pretty interesting.  It's about a Korean American named Henry Park who works as a kind of spy, befriending executives and political figures--as he explains,
"I wasn't to be found anywhere near corporate or industrial sites... Rather, my work was entirely personal.  I was always assigned to an individual, someone I didn't know or care the first stitch for on a given day but who in a matter of weeks could be as bound up with me as a brother or sister or wife." (6)
When the novel opens, his wife has left him--we later learn that his mother died when he was a child, his father has recently died, and he has suffered the loss of his son.

The novel revolves around the question of who he is, really, and what other people mean to him.  It focuses a lot on how he speaks--and what he hears when others speak.  The novel's opening sentence is immediately intriguing: "The day my wife left she gave me a list of who I was."

So I'm enjoying my reading.  But I'm getting a bit drowsy, so I'm going to take a break and then maybe switch to Diaz's short stories for a while, then return to Lee's novel.  More later... I hope!

9:15 p.m.

I've switched to Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her, and I'm happy to report that I'm enjoying that as well!  I really liked Diaz's first collection of short stories, Drown, and This Is How You Lose Her deals with many of the same characters from Drown.

Diaz probably isn't for everyone: his stories are... gritty.  But interesting.  And if you don't mind grit, they're very readable.  I usually don't like reading stories told from the perspective of a misogynistic narrator (obviously), but Diaz's stories work--in part, because they're short, so I don't feel like I'm trapped with someone for all that long, if I don't like their voice or perspective.

But more importantly, I think Diaz has to represent misogynistic characters if he's going to remain true to what he's trying to represent.  And in an odd way, the problems that his male characters have with women make them more interesting and give them greater depth--something that I don't think is usually the case.

I don't know how late I'll stay up, but I probably won't post again tonight.  I'll just keep reading until I fall asleep, and then finish up tomorrow.  It's been a really nice day of resting and relaxing and reading, reading, reading.

Which is always a good thing.

The next day...

Well, I fell asleep (of course), but I did finish This Is How You Lose Her.  And I actually liked the very last story in the collection--"The Cheater's Guide to Love"--best of all.  It was a perfect example of what I described above: Diaz using his own particular combination of poignancy and humor to reflect on the misogyny of his protagonist, Yunior.

At the end of the story, Yunior takes out a folder he has kept hidden under his bed for years: "Copies of all the emails and fotos from the cheating days, the ones the ex found and compiled and mailed to you a month after she ended it.  Dear Yunior, for your next book" (216).
You read the whole thing cover to cover (yes, she put covers on it).  You are surprised at what a fucking chickenshit coward you are.  It kills you to admit it but it's true.  You are astounded by the depths of your mendacity.  When you finish the Book a second time you say the truth: You did the right thing, negra.  You did the right thing. (216)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"The Eventual Event"

"It began very simply, nothing of deliberation, nothing of vanity or pride but simply the eventual event coming as the phenomenon of chance."-- Toshio Mori, Yokohama, California (1949)

Yesterday afternoon I read Yokohama, California by Toshio Mori.  It's a collection of short stories that was originally supposed to be published in 1942, but with the outbreak of World War II, publication was delayed.  The book eventually appeared in 1949.

After the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor, Toshio Mori and his mother were incarcerated in the Relocation Camp in Topaz, Utah.  Mori's brother, who was a serviceman in the US Army prior to the war, remained in the army and was injured in Europe--while the remainder of his family lived in the relocation camps in the US.  (Both Toshio Mori and his brother were born in the United States and lived just outside of Oakland, CA.)

When Yokohama, California was finally published, it quickly went out of print and, by the mid-1950's, had virtually disappeared from circulation.

It really is an interesting and beautiful collection of stories.  Two of the tales, "Tomorrow is Coming, Children" and "Slant-Eyed Americans" were added in 1949: they were written during the war, and not envisioned as part of the initial collection.

Mori's style reminds me a bit of Steinbeck's, at times: I'm not sure if it's because I know that they're both California writers (like Joan Didion), but there's a spare simplicity to the style that strikes me as very similar.

Yokohama, California focuses on the ways in which characters define place (it has been compared to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio--which personally, I didn't really care for, actually).

I think what I like best about Mori's very short stories is that they don't try to do too much: he doesn't feel a need to spell everything out, and he often leaves you to wonder exactly what is happening in the minds of his characters.

This then allows the reader to connect the threads between stories, and creaes a narrative fabric in which the space of Yokohama (a fictional town in California) is not only literal, but existential.  It is quintessentially "American" even though its occupants will soon be in the process of being denied their status as "Americans."

It's a wonderfully philosophical text as well, with beautiful, elliptical phrasing in which complex ideas are interwoven with everyday existence.  As the narrator of story, "He Who Has the Laughing Face" explains, "Every little observation, every little banal talk or laughing matter springs from the sadness of the earth that is reality; every meeting between individuals, every meeting of society, every meeting of a gathering, of gaiety or sorrow, springs from sadness that is the bed of earth and truth" (125).

Many of the stories in Toshio Mori's collection are about work, truth, life and happiness.  My favorite is the story, "The Trees," in which a man named Fukushima asks his friend, Hashimoto, for the secret of his happiness.  Fukushima was once a wealthy man who "owned stocks and properties," but in the last year, "fate overtook" him and he lost everything he had.

He arrives at Hashimoto's home one morning to walk with him among the pine trees because, he says, "people tell me you have your trees, and that is why you are happy" (138).  In response, Hashimoto says, "there is really nothing in it.  I simply see the trees.  That is all" (137).

The two friends walk together among the pine trees, but Fukushima insists, "still I don't see anything in the trees.  Why is that?" (137).  He grows angry and tells Hashimoto, "anyone could see the trees."

To which Hashimoto responds, "They could and should" (137).

In an effort to elaborate, Hashimoto asks Fukushima, "Did you not say you were cold a few minutes ago?  ... Look at yourself now... You are warm and perspiring.  You are very warm. ... The difference between warmth and cold is movement... And movement makes warmth and cold" (137).

Fukushima, for his part, cannot understand, and simply insists that Hashimoto "explain the trees."

When Hashimoto tells him, "I cannot explain the trees... But listen, friend. The warmth and cold I talk about is in the trees" (137-138), Fukushima becomes angry and severs their friendship.  He leaves, never to return.

This is the constant refrain of Mori's beautiful collection of stories.  As the narrator of "Tomorrow and Today" observes, "When one has been around the neighborhood a while, the routine is familiar and not emphasized.  It appears dull and colorless.  But in this routine there is the breath-taking suspense that is alive and enormous, although the outcome and prospect of it is a pretty obvious thing" (165).

In the end, this phrase perfectly sums up Yokohama, California.   In his descriptions of things that are "pretty obvious," Mori captures the enormous, breath-taking suspense of familiar routines.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Flattery

I have come to the conclusion that, if you want to motivate a writer to write, just tell her you want to publish her stuff.

If you also want to motivate her to vacuum and do laundry with a smile on her face and a song in her heart, tell her you want to publish her stuff because it's "brilliant."

I had an article accepted earlier this week--one that I've been working on for ages and ages, on Melville's Moby-Dick.  Truth be told, I'm kinda proud of this article because it took so long to get into shape and because it points out some things about the novel that I think critics have missed along the way.

I waited forever to hear back from the publisher about this one, and when I did get it back last October, they wanted it revised.  So I did what they asked, and I kind of thought it was "better," but "brilliant"?

Hey, you don't say...  Gosh.  Excuse me while I blush a bit.

So I've been smiling and working all week.  The only slight, slight, SLIGHT damper on the smile came when I realized that if this is in fact the month of April then that does in fact mean that I need to get my car inspected which will in fact mean time spent in the lines at the DMV.

I can maybe bring my article and read it to everyone.  Then they'd speed me right on through, maybe. LOL.

In all seriousness, though, I will say that nothing beats finding out someone wants to publish something you've written.  You always think it must be kind of a fluke and so in a way, you always assume the last thing you published might very well be the last thing you ever publish.

I had my first publication about 20 years ago, and since that time, I've assumed that I'll never publish anything ever again at least... oh... 20 times.  Probably about once every year or two.

But then you hit your stride and you think, well, MAYBE this is... okay... sort of.

At least, that's how it is for me.  Once you've had a few things published, you can usually kind of tell when you're hitting your stride and when you're not quite there yet.  And in the latter cases, an editor can be crucial: a good editor can make a mediocre writer good.  And a good editor can make a good writer great.

Editors have to be able to see what you yourself, as the writer, can't quite see just yet, and they have to be able to point you in the right direction.  And they have to be willing to not be totally cool and nice all the time.

They have to want to make the work better.  And you, as the writer, have to want to make it better as well, and be ready to figure out when someone is giving you advice that is helpful and worthwhile.

You can't let other people butcher your stuff, but if you think your stuff is so good it can NEVER be improved on, well... you won't like the revise and resubmit process very much, I don't think.

To celebrate, I've decided to cook a special little dinner for myself.  When I turned 40, I cooked a very easy recipe for Indonesian Ginger Chicken for my birthday party dinner, so I'm going to make that again.  (It's from the Barefoot Contessa, so if you want the recipe, you can have it--just look it up on her site!)

And then, there are socks to knit.  And a quiet, restful weekend to be had.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Arrowsmith"

Well, it took me three weeks longer than planned, but I read Sinclair Lewis' novel Arrowsmith (1925) for my Classics Club Spin, as planned.

It was an odd coincidence, because I first read this novel 30 years ago, when I was in high school.  I read a lot of Sinclair Lewis in high school, and always really liked his work.  So I was glad to discover that I still enjoyed Arrowsmith as much as I had the first time around.

I had actually remembered it as one of my favorites by Lewis, which is why it was on my Classics Club list to begin with.

Arrowsmith is the story of Martin Arrowsmith, a man who longs to devote himself to science.  He studies medicine and becomes a doctor and, along the way, encounters the forces that Lewis is known for critiquing all of of his novels: American consumerism, American narrow-mindedness and provincialism, and American salesmanship.

Arrowsmith struggles against these forces, drawn by the lure of money and fame and a desire for success.  He struggles to define himself in a world in which what he loves--in Lewis' words, "the thrill of uncharted discoveries, the quest below the surface and beyond the moment"--possesses little or no value for those around him.

Looking back, I'm not surprised I liked this novel as a teenager--or that I continue to like it today.  Arrowsmith is an idealist who seeks knowledge for its own sake.  Given the chance to shine in the public spotlight, he opts instead to work and to think.  He isn't always true to his own sense of self--in fact, much of the novel describes his struggle to find the time when and the place where he can work, in his own way.

In many ways, the novel is a bildungsroman--that is, a novel that details the protagonist's growth and development--and I think Lewis was particularly drawn to the idea of depicting the development of an idealist who must live and work in a country that was, in many ways, known for its anti-intellectualism.

Arrowsmith questions the role of scientific knowledge and discovery in a nation organized around salesmanship: it examines the value of process in an economy of products.

Like most of Lewis' novels, it isn't about working towards a happy ending.  Rather, it's about thinking about what exactly it means to work and to be in a world in which our lives are often shaped by social forces we endorse without questioning.

As he learns what it means to be both a doctor and a scientist, Martin Arrowsmith also learns what it means to be a man and to be human.  Lewis' depiction of this process--and of the ways in which the emerging American nation constrain and hinder that proess--is as insightful and thought-provoking today as it was when the novel waas first published, nearly 90 years ago.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Thinning

I've been in the thick of it for the past few weeks.  But the work is finally starting to thin out for a bit.

Just for a bit.  In time for the nicer weather.

To get to this point, I had to chain myself to my desk last Friday and swear that, come hell or high water, I WOULD get all the grading done, so that I could have a full, blessed TWO days free from all grading.

Another batch of grading arrives today.  Such is the life I have chosen for myself.

I have also finally had to pay the piper on all of the various projects that needed finishing--that is to say, I had to actually finish them.  The ones that can be finished at this time, that is.

And I did.  I have spent the past week systematically plowing through it all.

But lest you feel TOO sorry for me, I'd like to remind you that I now have THREE wonderfully playful and cute kitty cats to keep me company.

Introducing a new cat to the household has been a small study in behavioral psychology, feline edition.  Nevertheless, I've learned a few lessons that I think apply to the human world as well.

Such as, in life, you need to decide what kind of cat you're going to be: will you be the dominant ruler of your territory, or will you occasionally allow others to hunt there too, on very specific terms and with very clear guidelines?

If someone encroaches on your territory, will you fight to the death, or will you just... let it happen?  Or will you steer a middle course between the two, making it clear that what's yours is yours, but that this doesn't mean you aren't willing to live and let live?

How well will you adjust to change?

I think that, in life, we all have to stake out our own turf and script our own terms.  And if I've learned one thing from watching my cats, it's that you have to stick to your terms and be willing to claim your turf.

Others won't simply hand it all over.  And if you just skulk along the perimeter or sit hanging your head and hoping, you'll never get to scamper across the middle of the room fearlessly.

And once you decide who you are, you have to stick to that.  You can't aggressively intrude on someone else's ground, only to retreat in fear, and then try to groom that person as a friend a little while later.

They aren't going to buy it.  They remember what you did.  They saw that side of you.  So now you're stuck with it and with their reaction to it.

Harmony is an ongoing negotiation of personalities, priorities and resources.  On the surface, it may look effortless, but in fact, it is not.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Middle

The band, Jimmy Eats World, sings a song called "The Middle" that I always enjoy listening to when life gets scattered and hectic.

"It just takes some time, little girl, you're in the middle of the ride
Everything will be just fine, everything will be all right..."

Time is a funny thing.  Things that seem important in the moment prove to be totally unremembered and not at all memorable a week or a month or a year later.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if there was any benefit or life-lesson in the experiences I've had (and I'm not saying there was--just "if"), it lies in the fact that I see the trivial things in life for what they are: trivial.

This is such a blessing.  It cuts back on all kinds of stress and enables me to be so much more focused and productive, once I put things in perspective.  

When I feel myself getting sucked in now, I think, "What is this, really?  Remember all the things you've been through?  Does this even compare to that?  If not, why do you even care?  How important is this, really?"

"Just try your best
Try everything you can
And don't you worry what they tell themselves
When you're away."

And then I find that I can regroup and move forward, in nearly no time at all.  

What's even more interesting is, the minute I do so, some element or comment comes into my life uninvited and lets me know that what others thought of as "wrong" about me might very well be what's "right" about me, if viewed from another perspective.

"Hey, you know they're all the same
You know you're doing better on your own...
So don't buy in.
Just live right now,
Just be yourself
It doesn't matter if it's good enough
For someone else."

I've been busy compiling all of my work over the past decade for an application I'm putting together: whew, what a task!  But on the other hand, aside from the time spent babysitting the printer, it's been very gratifying.  

I've accomplished more than I remembered.  And things have gone better than I had thought.  Again, it's a question of how things look in the moment versus how they look in retrospect.

"Just do your best
Do everything you can
And don't you worry what the bitter hearts
Are gonna say..."