Monthly Archives: January 2011

January, in Summary

In music:

“I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights.”

In words:

“… insight alone will rarely enable people to undo their emotional disturbances … There is usually no way to get better and stay better but by: continual work and practice in looking for, and finding, one’s core irrational beliefs; actively, energetically, and scientifically disputing them; replacing one’s absolutist musts with flexible preferences; changing one’s unhealthy feelings to healthy, self-helping emotions; and firmly acting against one’s dysfunctional fears and compulsions.”

(Source, wikipedia article on Rational emotive behavioral therapy)

Important to remember: Nothing terrible will happen if I don’t get into graduate school. It won’t even be terrible if I never write creative fiction again. I will be OK. To know this is to literally get my life back. That is the most valuable thing of all, to know that we can be OK. That is priceless. That is my wish for myself and for 2011, that I will find a way out of this terrible, stifling belief that I “must” “be” a certain thing or do things a certain way. It’s not easy. But battling these kinds of beliefs is the trick, so that I can live in the world as a free human being, and dance and sing and write and play in the dirt and generally be silly.

In literature:

(We read this poem this week in my writing class and I liked it a lot!)

Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

In photos:


The tree that my grandfather planted!

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Work and Literature



Sent to me by a friend:

“In December 1924, a postal inspector from Corinth, Miss., leveled a series of charges against the postmaster at the University of Mississippi. “You mistreat mail of all classes,” he wrote, “including registered mail; … you have thrown mail with return postage guaranteed and all other classes into the garbage can by the side entrance,” and “some patrons have gone to this garbage can to get their magazines.”

The slothful postmaster was William Faulkner. He had accepted the position in 1921 while trying to establish himself as a writer, but he spent most of his time in the back of the office, as far as possible from the service windows, in what he called the “reading room.” When he wasn’t reading or writing there he was playing bridge with friends; he would rise grumpily only when a patron rapped on the glass with a coin.

It was a brief career. Shortly after the inspector’s complaint, Faulkner wrote to the postmaster general: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”

 
Ha, ha.

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A List of Things I Haven’t Written About Yet

–       the yellow butterfly eggs we always found on the swing set

–       the noise my nanny’s sandals made when she ran through the house

–       the way I was afraid my stuffed animals would come to life and kill me, so I created a rotating schedule so that I could sleep with a different one every night, so that none of them would fall into a insane jealous murdering rage from being neglected. I had about three weeks worth of stuffed animals to go through.

–      living in a house full of ghosts

–       the aliens are coming and you watch the ship descend into your swimming pool

–       the way I used to shoplift small yellow potatoes from the mall when I was young

–        the family in Tijuana that lived in the wooden shack by the basketball court

–       a recipe. I’ve never written a recipe.

–       a fake autobiography of a 13th-century biologist

I have a fantasy of one day writing an epic Umberto Eco-esque book about this man, Lazzaro Spallanzani, whose name and story I have never forgotten from my freshman year Biology 101 Class.

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Mad Scientists

I just finished The Invention of Morel, an Argentinean novella. I was very happy and pleased to learn that the author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was a very close friend of Borges’. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Borges was a huge Bioy fanboy: he writes the introduction to Morel, and Bioy is the friend who appears in Borges’ wonderful story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Now that I’ve finished it (only 103 pages, yay) I think more highly of it than I did when I was actually reading it, if that makes any sense. While I was reading it I was just kind of impatient to find out what would happen next, and now that I’ve finished I’m like “wow, OK, lots o’ layers to unpack here.” The plot concerns a fugitive, pursued by police for reasons that are never specified, who flees to a deserted island with an abandoned museum rumored to be inhabited by ghosts. A random mysterious group of tourists arrive, and while hiding from them he falls in love with a woman in the group. While trying to win her affections he discovers that the reality on the island is not as it seems, and that’s when things start getting trippy.  The wikipedia article claims that Morel was an inspiration for the computer game Myst, which I unfortunately remember finding very boring and tedious–ha ha!

Morel is neither boring or tedious, though I did feel like the protagonist was a little thick-headed at times (that feeds into one of his many theories though, that he is an inmate in a psychiatric hospital imagining the whole thing!). Morel reminded me a lot of Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference, in the sense that while reading it you are just carried away by the sheer inventiveness of the author. You are completely immersed in a carefully constructed, perfectly logical world, logical in all its surreality and absurdity. I got the same feeling reading this book as I did when reading Kafka, all the way back in sixth grade (OH! How I was inspired and moved by Kafka!), or more recently by a collection of short stories (none longer than 4 pages) that a friend gave me for Christmas, The Girl on the Fridge. I like it when authors remind me of mad scientists in laboratories, furiously mixing up potions of plots and stirring mysterious ingredients and flights and fancy together. There are certain authors who are just great at this: Cesar Aira, Phillip K. Dick, Vonnegut, Borges even… I’ve come to (re)discover that I really like fiction that’s wildly imaginative and inventive. It’s fun to read, and I imagine that it’s fun to write as well. There’s just something very liberating about it: it is a “story” in the very best sense of the word. Like Gary Shteyngart says in this interview (I also recently read his Super Sad True Love Story, another good example of an author-as-mad scientist book!), it is necesarry for literature to be entertaining just as much as intellectual.

Anyway, the other thing I thought was funny about finishing this book is that it is an appropriate continuation of the Mad Scientist theme of my past few days. On Friday at the elementary school where I work we had Family Movie Night and showed “Despicable Me,” a craptastic animation film about a mad scientist that the kids and parents nevertheless enjoyed, so there ya go. And then at my new writing group this morning (yay writing group!) I wrote a silly little piece inspired by the film, specifically by the yellow sponge-like characters. I don’t claim that this story is particularly good, but it was fun to write, to just heedlessly charge from one thing to the next, inventing one crazed frenetic detail after another. I dunno, a lot of the fiction I’ve written since graduating from college has tried to be very realistic, when a lot of the stuff I wrote in high school or early on in college reads as very imaginative, free-wheeling and heedless to me now. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision at one point or not to stop writing that way–I think I was sick of magical realism, and of reading fantastical techniques in novels that just felt very forced and hokey to me. And that was something I didn’t want my writing to be, hokey or gimmicky, by being centered around this fantastical qualities.

But then Borges’s essay at the beginning of Morel provides some comfort, as he argues that it is fantasy novels that are more strict and rule-based than realist fiction, as opposed to the othe way around. In books such as Ulysses or War and Peace, anything can happen, while in an H.G. Wells or fantasy/adventure/science fiction story, what happens has to follow the logic of what happenned before, or the logic of the world and the narrative completely collapses. So in this way a story built around fantastical elements needs to be more adherent to logic and rigidly plotted than a realist novel (this is SO TRUE for Kafka in particular! What would The Metamorphosis be without the specific details?). As Borges puts it in Morel’s introduction:

The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example. . . . In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. . . . The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to be a transcription of reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.

So all hail fanastical ridiculous nonsensical messy arbitrary fiction. It gives me lots of feelings I like. Such as: writing is fun! Creativity is good. Art is necesarry. And so forth.

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Filed under Aira, books, fiction, Phillip K. Dick

Art and Revolution

I really enjoyed this book. It was given to my sister by her friend in Oakland. I’ve never read Alma Guillermoprieto before, but apparently she’s the Latin American correspondent for the New Yorker, a publication I wish I had the $ to subscribe to (even more so now that all their fiction and poetry is subscription-only).

A lot of this book hit close to home for me. I loved Alma’s younger-self narrator: her constant self-critcism, her dislike of her ignorance about politics and Latin American affairs, her love for art, her low self-esteem, her poor choices in men. Even the section where she contemplates suicide is charming. To me, Dancing With Cuba isn’t a good book just because it’s a snapshot of a very specific time and place, or because I learned a lot about Cuba while reading it. More than anything, I liked this book because it powerfully captures the feeling of what it’s like to be young and confused and enamored of art and completely lost in your life.

I really liked the theme in this book about the relationship between Art and Politics. The description of all the delegation of poets and intellectuals coming to Cuba to fiercely debated such as question reminded me of the section in The Savage Detectives, in which one of the main characters gives up art in order to go fight in Nicaragua. There an El Salvadorean poet in Dancing that sums up the dilemma with the following query: “Do I write sonnets or devote myself to studying peasant revolution?” (263) It reminds me of similar questions raised by Bolaño, or of the life of Rodolfo Walsh. It’s a question that young-Alma struggles with quite a bit. My question is, is it possible to combine the two? (Maybe fact that she ended up as a journalist, writing about Latin American politics and writing very openly poetic, subjective memoirs, proves that it is!)

There were lots of interesting questions raised in this book. I liked the part where she talks about stillness vs. consciousness, in terms of modern dance. Apparently in the Merce Cunnigman style of modern dance, the key concept is stillness: “the quiet that things and beings achieved when they have no consciousness of themselves, when they simply are, without intention or aim. Consciousness, however, was Fidel’s key word–self-consciousness, class consciousness, revolutionary consciousness–an in Cuba a human being without aim or intention was inconceivable, unless of course he was a vago–a slacker–who, as Fidel began proposing around the time, deserved to be thrown in jail.” (94)

What is the point of the aritst or intellectual in society? This question is asked again and again. Should they be thrown out into the sugar cane fields, put to work that’s actually productive and useful, work that is concretely measurable via statistics and units? There’s another interesting section that I can’t find right now, in which she talks about how the communist conception of an economy treats it as a machine, as opposed to a living, breathing organism that is affected by lots of different systems, as opposed to a strictly input-output mechanism. I really like this parallel, and think that it would be useful to apply it to a lot of different subjects (I’ve heard similar ideas discussed in trainings I’ve received for one of my non-profit jobs). It really feels sometimes like the knowlege of humanity is moving away from the conception of life as a mechanism, and more towards life (and people, and relationships, and social justice, and so on) as a living, breathing organism, composed of and balanced by many different systems…

I heartily approved of the narrator’s treatment of Fidel, as well as most of the Revolutionary rhetoric that fills the book. I first picked this book up with slight apprehension, mostly due to the subtitle, A Memoir of the Revolution: Oh no, what if this is filled with Fidel love? Thankfully, it’s not, and when it is you can very clearly see how the author is making a point about how seductive that kind of “Viva la Revolucion!” talk can be. As one of the Cubans says early on in the novel, if it weren’t for the Revolution, a lot of Cubans would feel like they had nothing to live for, no purpose in life. I mean, how would you feel if you had to leave your job at the hospital or the university and go cut sugar cane in the fields para la causa for hours and hours, if you had an inkling at the back of your mind that la causa was very, very troubling and problematic?

I also liked Alma’s discussion of Che. I think she does a good job of summing him up and being approrpriately intimidated, repulsed and fascinated by him. Her reaction was similar to mine after reading his massive biography last year, in the sense that good-bad judgements aside, what Che’s life boils down to is that not many people can live like that. They really, really can’t.
 
I’d like to read more of Guillermoprieto’s work, for sure. Here are some other works mentioned in this book that I’d like to check out at some point:
– the film Memorias del subdesarollo
– Poesia en movimento: Mexico 1915-1966 (ed. Octavio Paz) 
– Mario Benedetti poetry
Paradiso by Jose Lezma Lima

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Filed under art, books, non-fiction, politics, women writers

Books of 2010

This are the books I’ve read in 2010, according to my Goodreads account. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I liked a lot.

The Brothers Karamaov (Fyodor Dostoevksy)
Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction
(David Sheff)
*Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
Ema la cautiva
(Cesar Aira)
The Boat
(Nam Le)
The Vagrants
(Yiyun Li)
The Dead Fish Museum
(Charles D’ambrosio)
A Scanner Darkly
(Phillp K. Dick)
The Literary Conference
(Cesar Aira)
*Madame Bovary
(Gustave Flaubert)
*The Corrections
(Jonathan Franzen) – reread
Anna Karenina
(Tolstoy)
*The Return
(Roberto Bolano)
Monsieur Pain
(Roberto Bolano)
Money to Burn
(Ricardo Piglia)
The Witness (Juan Jose Saer)
*A Visit From the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
*Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
The Cookbook Collector (Allegra Goodman) [skimmed the last 100 pages]
The Absent City (Ricardo Piglia)
Assumed Name (Ricardo Piglia)
The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett)
*Amulet
(Roberto Bolaño)
Feet of Clay
(Terry Pratchett) – reread
Men at Arms
(Terry Pratchett) – reread
*The Whole Story
(Ali Smith) – reread
*The Skating Rink
(Roberto Bolaño)
Are You the One For Me? Knowing Who’s Right and Avoiding Who’s Wrong (Barbara De Angelis)
Birds of America (Lorrie Smith) – reread, I think
Self-Help
(Lorrie Moore)
The Wild Things (Dave Eggers)
Perfect Match (Jodi Picoult)
News of a Kidnapping (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Zeitoun (Dave Eggers)
Killing Pablo: the Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (Mark Bowden)
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Charles C. Mann)
Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World (Mary Pipher)
*Light in August (William Faulkner)
The Shrouded Woman (Maria Luisa Bombal)
House of Mist (Maria Luisa Bombal)
The Death of Ivan Ilych (Tolstoy) [reread]
War and Peace (Tolstoy)
Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte (Horacio Quiroga)
Collected Stories (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
*Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerilla Politics in Colombia (Stephen Dudley)
*The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan)
Salvador (Joan Didion)
Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (Ben Fountain)
Chronicles: Volume 1 (Bob Dylan)
Wings of the Dove (Henry James) (started in 2009)

An even 50. Not bad. Overall I feel this was a somewhat paltry year in reading, but it can be hard to judge in light of epic 2009, when I had so much time to read while commuting. I was very harsh about counting “books read” this year: there were a few that I’d started (Girl With Curious Hair, Freakanomics, If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworker’s Movement, Imperial, Natasha’s Dance, Endgame: Volume 1- The Problem of Civilization) that I read quite a bit of but never completely finished.

To see books of 2009 click here.

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