February 25, 2009

Insert jaw-dropping verb here.

Is a cup of tea what you'd call an English-major beverage?

According to a New York Times article today, only 8 percent of all college degrees are awarded in the humanities. Is it just me, or does that not sound exceedingly low?!

February 23, 2009

a separate piece

How do you do? I'm Barney.

Yes, hmm? What's that you say? You like my scarf? Why, thank you. (blushes furiously)

This is Barney. Besides his talent for wearing scarves, he can also read a book all the way from the other end of the sofa. It doesn't even have to be open. That's a testament to how much of a bookworm he is -- those paws would never dream of harming the ever-precious spine of a book.

Ah, if only I had possessed Barney's reading powers as a kid (or even now). My sister gave me her precious copy of Matilda on the condition that I would promise to keep the spine in tact. She taught me how to read it by gingerly tilting it from side to side instead of savagely creasing the spine like the bookish barbarian I was. I had to work hard to soak up every juicy word, for I scarcely dared to open that little yellow book wider than what was absolutely necessary to read every lovely word. No pain, no gain.

Nostalgia knocks

Since the invention of cameras, important events and milestones have called for two types of people in this world: those who look through the camera lens and snap away, and those who try to ingrain every sight, every motion into memory, preferring to live in the moment.
"I was having my childhood. But I was haunting it, as well, practically reading it, and preventing it. How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself round the bend? Too much noticing and I was too self-conscious to live; I trapped and paralyzed myself, and dragged my friends down with me, so we couldn't meet each other's eyes, my own loud awareness damning us both. Too little noticing, though--I would risk much to avoid this--and I would miss the whole show. I would wake on my deathbed and say, What was that?"
--from An American Childhood
Regardless of which type of person you are, you are probably familiar with such moments -- moments when you are so itchingly happy, you already start aching, missing them before they have even ended. It's then that nostalgia's like the pesky guest who arrives 15 minutes before you told everyone to come, and 10 minutes before the potatoes are going to be ready.

February 20, 2009

Bridges and lines, divisions in time

"...for a moment he forgot the danger he was in, grateful for the world which purposefully puts divisions in place so that we can overcome them, feeling the joy of getting closer, even if deep down we can never forget the sadness of our insurmountable differences."
--from The History of Love

February 19, 2009

A delicate balance

Writing is solitary activity. But does that also make it a lonely one?

Solitude can be a good thing (to borrow a phrase from Martha Stewart):
"The necessary thing is after all but this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going-into-oneself and for hours meeting no one--this one must be able to attain. To be solitary, the way one was solitary as a child, when the grownups went around involved with things that seemed important and big because they themselves looked so busy and because one comprehended nothing of their doings."
--Letters to a Young Poet
Though solitude definitely carries a more positive connotation than loneliness, I can't help thinking that too much time spent in solitude fosters feelings of loneliness. Following this formula, maybe too much time spent writing can make you lonely, too. Nevertheless, it makes for memorable literature:
"A loneliness heavy enough to balance out all the years the two of us had spent together as cousins and good friends echoed between us like the faint strains of a melody. ... We were just walking along talking about silly things, giggling--that was it. And yet no matter how much fun I seemed to be having at the time, sometimes when I think back over my memories all that comes to mind is the blackness of the night and the shadows of telephone poles and garbage cans, things like that, very dark, and the images make me heartsick. When I remember that night now, it seems that's how it really was."
--from Goodbye, Tsugumi
"She tried to recall her father's stories--storms at sea, waves ten, fifteen meters high!--but they rang shallow against what she'd just seen: those dense roaring slabs of water, sky churning overhead like a puddle being mucked with a stick. She was crammed in by a boatload of human bodies, thinking of her father and becoming overwhelmed, slowly, with loneliness."
--from The Boat
Loneliness washes over all of us, but not just anyone can describe it the way these writers can. And I guess that's what distinguishes writers from readers. Readers recognize the feeling, and while writers recognize it too, they can also do more -- describe it to a T, build stories around it, make it into something new and meaningful. Making something from nothing, Eggers calls it.
"This is like making electricity from dirt; it is almost too good to be believed, that we can make beauty from this stuff."
--Dave Eggers, AHWOSG

February 17, 2009

Paper-wrapped goodies

Today I put a notebook in my bag, and that notebook happened to contain a passage I scribbled down on a particular rainy day I spent in the NYPL last summer. I finished Banana Yoshimoto's Goodbye, Tsugumi in one sitting. I remember this quite clearly because I seldom finish books in one sitting (especially in public). The only similar instance I can recall happened that very same summer, actually: Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company (completed at a Barnes&Noble). Usually this tells me nothing more about the novel than that it was short and probably good (but not necessarily great). But even good-not-great books have passages that inspire me to pull out pen and paper, lest I forget.

Goodbye, Tsugumi is both upbeat and heavy, with an effortless kind of storytelling that makes you keep rooting for it, even if the content isn't always so light.

There are definitely lighter parts, though, i.e. the parts involving food.

"Suddenly my father spoke. 'Hey Maria, want a senbei?'
'Huh?' I said, looking back over my shoulder.
My father was just removing two rice crackers wrapped in paper from his briefcase, making a sort of bumbling, crumply paper noise but handling them extremely carefully.
He put them down on the table.
'One is for your mother.'
'I'm confused. Why do you have only two?' I asked, puzzled.
'Someone from another company came in today and he brought a box of these along as a little present,' explained my father. 'I had one and it was so delicious that, well, you know, I kind of snuck these out for the two of you. Trust me, these senbei are really, really good.
[several paragraphs later]:
I felt the way non-Japanese must feel when they encounter senbei for the first time, with the very first bite I took, the intense flavor of the soy sauce in the coating flooded my mouth. It really was delicious. I told my father this, and he nodded contentedly."
But life isn't always all senbei and roses for our narrator Maria, who has a pensive independence about her:
"I guess when you're out on the ocean and you see the piers way off in the distance, shrouded in mist, you understand this very clearly: No matter where you are, you're always a bit on your own, always an outsider."
p.s. This is the second post in a row that features a passage with some kind of delectable treat wrapped in paper. Are the two (tastiness and paper wrapping) directly correlated? Is it the sound of the crumpling, or the anticipation of folding it away to reveal the treat, that makes it extra special? I know I certainly enjoy receiving a nice piece of tissue paper with my doughnut or bagel or scone purchase:

p.p.s. Doesn't the "shrouded in mist" part remind you of the beginning of Great Expectations? Perhaps Dickens and Yoshimoto have more in common than I thought.

p.p.p.s. Senbei is a type of Japanese cracker flavored with soy sauce. An interesting recipe here.

February 12, 2009

Sweetness in sorrow

It has come to my attention that the more pitiful the characters of a novel, and the grayer the circumstances they are placed in, the more satisfying I find it to read about the rare instances in which these characters are able to scarf down some sort of food. Kind of like how when you're really, really hungry, everything tastes better.

John Steinbeck, for instance, was great at this. Nothing like a hard day of peach picking to make you appreciate a hot dinner. Roald Dahl, also a master of crafting pitiful characters who sometimes gained access to wonderful treats of the culinary kind. But I never saw a scrappy character turn down food until Charles Dickens' Bleak House.

"Now, look here!" he said. "In this paper," which was nicely folded, "is a piece of the best plum-cake that can be got for money--sugar on the outside an inch thick, like fat on mutton chops. Here's a little pie (a gem this is, both for size and quality), made in France. And what do you suppose it's made of? Livers of fat geese. There's a pie! Now let's see you eat 'em."

"Thank you, sir," I replied, "thank you very much indeed, but I hope you won't be offended; they are too rich for me."
Yes, let's see you eat 'em, Esther! I wanted it so much. Her refusal left me feeling unsettled, because I didn't know where I could go out and get these things myself -- especially that plum cake with the inch-thick layer of sugar coating "like fat on mutton chops." Oh, Dickens, you devil. I wouldn't dream of turning that down in a million years. I guess that's why I'd never be the one telling the story...and I suppose my mouth would be too full with pate pies and plum cakes to tell it, anyhow.

February 10, 2009

experience > emotion

In the aged copy of selected works of Rilke that I picked up at a library sale, there is an excerpt from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge titled [FOR THE SAKE OF A SINGLE POEM] in no-nonsense capital letters.
"Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. ... For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)--they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn't pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else--)..."
I'm having a hard time grasping that last segment about parents, but I love the idea of "a joy meant for somebody else." For whom was it meant? And isn't it interesting how you don't need to understand something completely before you know you love it? Just like you don't have to understand someone in order to love them.

February 8, 2009

Spottted: Typo

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of stumbling upon a typo in Edgar Sawtelle. Some would have gotten angry, others wouldn't have cared less, but personally, I was pretty satisfied/giddy with the whole experience. There it was, right on page 423:
"It's okay, Edgar signed. He jottted Starchild Colony on a sheet of paper and handed it to Henry."
I wanted to give HarperCollins or whomever edited the book the benefit of the doubt, so I actually looked up the word "jottted," and, aha! Just as I thought..I do not believe it exists.

Come to think of it, do any words in the English language have three T's in a row?

On baguettes and bonding

Still, Miranda looked forward to Sundays. In the morning she went to a deli and bought a baguette and little containers of things Dev liked to eat, like pickled herring, and potato salad, and tortes of pesto and mascarpone cheese. They ate in bed, picking up the herring with their fingers and ripping the baguette with their hands. Dev told her stories about his childhood, when he would come home from school and drink mango juice served to him on a tray, and then play cricket by a lake, dressed all in white.
--Sexy, from Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Reading this part again after finishing this story, it bothered me how passive Miranda became about her relationship with Dev. She didn't fight the ending at all, nor did she expect him to fight for her. The fleeting passion of shared experiences will never cease to bother me. How can it all mean nothing, in the end? I can't help but wonder...if two people knew that their little love story -- the ripping of baguettes, the recounting of childhood experiences, the talks in bed -- would eventually end, as T.S. Eliot wrote, "not with a bang, but a whimper," would they even bother in the first place?

February 3, 2009

I pity the lactose intolerant.

In the process of reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I've noticed that Edgar eats cheese curds a lot, which makes sense, since it takes place in Wisconsin. His mom rolls a piece of cheese in her fingers to soften it before feeding the ball to an ailing pup.

Later, when Edgar's parents tell him that he will be in charge of his own litter for the first time, he celebrates with the dairy delights:
Thank you, Edgar signed. He dropped his hands and lifted them again and put them down when he couldn't think of anything else to say. He went to the refrigerator and poured milk into his glass and drank it with the door open. From the back of the refrigerator he retrieved a package of cheese curds. He ate one in plain sight, palmed the rest, and walked out into the brilliant summer daylight.
By the way, at first I confused cheese curds with a Cheeto-like product, cheese curls. Then I realized that no one stores Cheetos in the back of the refrigerator, so Edgar had to be eating something more perishable (and therefore, truer to cheese's natural state) than cheese curls, so I looked it up. I soon found a very nice explanation of how curds are made, a question that, according to the website, "every Wisconsin parent faces sooner or later." Wow, whatever happened to asking mom and dad something normal, like where babies come from? Then again, scratch that. I think the curd question makes more sense than the baby question. Cheese curds are definitely a more interesting topic.

February 2, 2009

A you-mean-everything bagel

"All fictional characters are flat. A writer can give an illusion of depth by giving an apparently stereoscopic view of a character--seeing him from two vantage points; all a writer can do is give more or less information about a character, not information of a different order."
--Evelyn Waugh, Paris Review Interviews, vol. 3
How does a writer reach that next plane or dimension of character development? This author didn't think it was possible. But doesn't it sometimes seem like authors achieve "roundness" in their characters?

Think of this H&H everything bagel. Obviously, it's not flat; it's round. I could have tried to make it look flat if I photographed it from above. But even if I had done that, the closer the lens got to it, the more the seeds would have stuck out as 3-D objects atop its magnificent surface, giving the bagel away as an object with dimension. Similarly, some characters are not just crafted by excess information but by a master hand that brings them to life within the story and within the readers' minds. They are just undeniably round. Like good, chewy, salty bagels, which are undeniably delicious.

At least Georges Simenon agrees that writing can create a third dimension.
A commercial painter paints flat; you can put your finger through. But a painter -- for example, an apple by Cezanne has weight. And it has juice, everything, with just three strokes. I tried to give to my words just the weight that a stroke of Cezanne's gave to an apple. That is why most of the time I use concrete words. I try to avoid abstract words, or poetical words you know, like crepuscule*, for example. It is very nice, but it gives nothing. Do you understand? To avoid every stroke which does not give something to this third dimension.
Now, I agree that concrete words are important, and that whatever is not necessary shouldn't be written at all. But what about those poetic, beautiful passages that you might come across in Shirley Hazzard? Are they concrete, and if not, aren't they just as necessary to the reading experience as the juice, as the weight, or a concrete passage? They make reading a contemplative pleasure, and not just an adventure.

*crepuscule: twilight