Monday, September 28, 2015

A Livelier Post

Things are looking up here in Vancouver. I mean, I was looking up at the moon earlier and that was kind of cool, though it wasn't as cool as you had it back in the Midwest. I thought that maybe I could get a photo of the moon and Mt. Baker in the same shot, but sadly, no. By the time the moon was visible, Baker was invisible, not to mention the two of them being in different parts of the sky—er, horizon (in the case of the mountain). My biggest accomplishment of the evening was not telling the woman standing behind me to leave her negging, braggart of a boyfriend. Maybe that wasn't an accomplishment, maybe that was cowardice. 

Now that my cold has abated I've been able to get out running again. And any running here is a workout. I live at the top of a mountain and, if I want to go anywhere, I have to run down. Then I have to get home somehow, so I run up. Yesterday I did 300 vertical meters (984') and about 12k, today I did 168 vertical meters (550') and about 5k. No long runs just yet.

School is fine and all that, but I am trying hard to keep it in its box. I don't want it to take over my life and make me miserable. Thus the running, and also some reading.

I finished Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book One. It's an astounding book. I wasn't sure exactly how he would pull off a rambling autobiographical non-fiction novel, but he did it. (Hint: it's not actually rambling.) He uses sentences like, “The sky was blue,” and “The grass was green,” and rather than roll my eyes I'm like—YES! The sky is blue and the grass is green! That's exactly how it is. Like any good literature though, meaning is more than literal. If a novel could be summarized in a few sentences then it should have been said in a few sentences. Luckily, for the art lovers among us (and un-luckily for the literalists among us) there is much that can only be said in metaphor. A great novel, I believe, is just as long as it needs to be to get this metaphor across.  A six-volume memoir-novel? I believe that Knausgaard knows what he is doing.

I also picked up Stephen King's On Writing. This is the first book of King's that I've read. Some very good essays, but never a book, and oddly enough, never any fiction. I'm convinced that King is an impressive writer. He knows how to get out of the way of a good story, and maybe that's what's most important. But this is a book about writing and, despite many attempts to become a memoir, it succeeds. He has serviceable advice about writing. I don't agree with him on every point (apostrophes, for instance), but he does give good reasons for why he does what he does. And really, that's what I want and need. I want to know how to make informed decisions on writing. He's best when discussing revision. Every writer repeats Strunk & White's advice (and every writer has repeatedly heard) “Omit needless words.” What King does is show, by example, how to use that advice. Then again, I think that King could take his own advice and lose some of the snarky asides and vaguely sexist remarks that pepper his writing. He needs to get out of his own way, take T. S. Eliot's advice, and extinguish himself in his writing.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Vancouver Rain

Last night I had a headache so bad that it made me wonder whether, were I stuck with that kind of pain, could I go on living? I say this because years ago I remember saying that I thought I could deal with most any hardship so long as I could read and communicate. Such a level of function does presuppose that I'm some way up Maslow's hierarchy, but still, I didn't think it such a high standard. But this sinus headache made me wonder. For the past few days I've had a nagging cold and, while it hadn't stopped me dead, it had slowed me down. I could read, but only fitfully and reading philosophy was out of the question—when I read φ, I ψ-ed.

Since I arrived in Vancouver two and a half weeks ago I've been eating beans & rice and peanut butter & jelly. I'm used to a pretty boring diet, the same veggie sandwich every day for thirteen years, but these particular foods have become disgusting in short order. The peanut butter & jelly is cloyingly sweet and the beans & rice is just a bowl of fiber. However, as my expenses total about 150% of my income—before food and entertainment—I don't feel inclined to splurge. Today I decided I had to splurge. After three days of leaving my room only to go to class, I had to get out. My headache was significantly improved and I was neither coughing nor snuffling constantly, so I went for a walk all the way to the Starbucks on the other end of campus where I bought a coffee for $2.25.

I thought that I would sit and read a sci-fi novel for a while, but that wasn't to be. Every once in a while I would give a snuffle, I'm still recovering from a cold, after all, and when I did the woman two tables over would glance over her shoulder and give me a look that said, “This is a nice coffee shop, you don't belong here.” Maybe so. In Ames, Iowa, my look said, grad student, bike mechanic, or bartender, but here it says, hobo, drunk, guy-who-yells-racial-slurs-on-the-bus. The fact is, I haven't seen a single person with long hair and a beard here except for people sleeping on the streets and, yes, yelling racial slurs on the bus. I've seen more fist-fights and heard more hate speech here in two weeks than I did in Iowa in a lifetime. Perhaps I've just lived a sheltered life.

When I arrived I had a plan. I planned that I would get up each morning, go for a run or a bike ride, write for an hour, then go and do my eight hours at the office. I did pretty well the first week, but I still don't have a bike and since I came up short of breath—the first signs of this cold, I expect—on my run last Saturday I've had to take it easy there too. Writing is sporadic. I have two blog posts 90% done, but that last 10% is proving too much. Some days I've managed 500-600 words—blog, essay, or story—easy, others it's too easy just to go in early and get a start on my day. Hopefully this has just been an off week and I'll settle in to the routine, but today it feels like it's all falling apart. Campus looks more like a damp parking garage than a benevolent futuristic utopia. The rains have just begun here in Vancouver and will likely not abate until next summer.  

Friday, July 17, 2015

Books Read: June

Tim O'Connor, In the Lake of the Woods

If you read last month's books read you might notice a theme, another war story by O'Connor. Here's the thing, these books were recommended to me, not as war stories, but as stories of failure, and honestly I'm not sure how to deal with failure—in literature or life—which, as it turns out, is exactly what I'm interested in. Failure is dear to my heart. It's something I'm good at, experienced at, and so it's what I want to explore philosophically and through creative works. I expect to fail.

O'Connor makes it clear early on: there will be no definite conclusion to his story. We'll never find out what happens. And this isn't so far removed from the idea of failure; uncertainty, skepticism, and doubt figure in as well. There are times, probably most times, when the situation is just too complicated and cloudy to allow us a the satisfaction that we crave. It is no coincidence that I am skeptical of simple answers and distrustful of certain people. I am not sure we ever know the truth. I'm not even sure it's something we should be worried about. Rather, in the face of uncertainty what should we do?

But there's something else about failure in this story: the failure to control one's life and destiny. Perhaps this is the more profound failure, the one that makes this story interesting. The protagonist, Wade, like many of us has a script for how he wants his life to go. One thing will follow another—war hero, perfect wife, political career—but all these turn out to rest on a rotten foundation. All turn out to be illusions that he creates to get others to love him. His failure to deal with reality leads to...what? His downfall, death, escape, love, tragedy, freedom, or more illusion?

Neil Nakadate, Looking After Minidoka

I know Neil as the nice guy who stops by my workplace from time to time. I knew he was an English professor, but really I didn't, still don't, know much about him. What I do know (a little) more about is the Japanese-American experience. Nakadate describes the struggles and paradoxes of a generation both interred in camps and serving on the front lines in World War II, the ways in which they both fought for their rights and lived with injustice. More to the point, he is bringing to the surface those things that have been hidden—for many reasons, by families and governments—and ought to be seen.

The book is part US history, part family history, and poetry. Maybe it's best understood as a new genre (or new to me anyway): the situated poem. Interspersed through the text are poems that bring us around to a more personal wondering about the experiences of that generation. But these poems would be meaningless to us, most of us, without some knowledge of who Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Yasui were, the differences among issei, nisei and sansei, and what Minidoka was.

Lewis Hyde, The Gift

I've had a passing interest in gift economies for the past decade or so, but the relationship has been troubled. To begin with I'm really bad at giving gifts, even at the expected times. I question what and whether the gift is appropriate and what it will make the recipient think about me. Simply put I'm bad at thinking of other people; it is hard for me to get out of my habitual self-consciousness. And gift giving is, above all, an act of—not other-centeredness—but group-centeredness; it brings the focus of the economy to the whole of the group and the group's needs, not the needs of the individual.

The first thing I read on gift economy, a long decade ago, was The Personalist Manifesto by Emmanuel Mounier. True to self-centered form, I pretended to understand it. Actually, to say that I didn't understand it would be charitable. I read the words, but comprehended nothing. Still, from the little I understand about personalism, it fails to be a group-oriented account, or if it is group-oriented it is a group that includes the entirety of humanity. A group that Hyde dismisses as too diffuse and too heterogeneous for a healthy gift economy.

What is needed for a working gift economy is a small group of people who share some goal. In Hyde's case: artists. Artists become part of a gift economy when they accept the influence of others in their tradition and seek to incorporate, increase, and give back to the community of artists. It's an argument that suggests our current understanding of intellectual property and creativity is misguided. Now, before you get all high and mighty on how artists need to make money note that Hyde does recognize this fact. But he also suggests that simply viewing art as a commodity, part of a market economy, is inadequate to the discussion. The book is an attempt to navigate these waters.

Art, as it turns out, is not simply a sack of grain. Art and other intellectual property gains value by being appreciated, commented on, quoted, and stolen. One reason that Shakespeare is still relevant today is that we are still using his works, still building on them. Similar things happen in all arts, visual, music, literature, film and so on. Some level of fluidity in the art community is necessary to creativity. Now art can certainly become a commodity, but this reduces its value as art either through dilution or, more likely, through excessive restriction. How can we recognize the necessity of homage, quotation, and outright theft, without denying the artist a living? It turns out, to almost no one's surprise, to be a difficult question. What isn't particularly difficult is that to be creative we need to turn to the tradition we inhabit and enter into a reciprocal gift relationship with it.1

Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

Bellow has been hovering around the edge of my reading list for a while now. It only took the suggestion that he is an author of failure to kick it to the top. And talk about failure he does. In fact he does it so well that I'm starting to wonder if he meant it, if the whole thing wasn't a failure in itself.2 One might think that Bellow, having explored mistakes so intimately in his writing, would be aware of his own potential for making them and thereby gain some humility. But then it wouldn't be a failure would it?

Regardless, it is fascinating to watch Henderson make wrong decision after wrong decision based on his own simple understanding and certainty of the world. He believes himself smarter and wiser than he is. He believes he can help, can give the benefit of himself to the world. He wants to be a doctor, but can't seem to get the “first do no harm” part of the Hippocratic Oath. A man who wants to be a doctor to the world? Who desperately wants something to fix? Where have we seen this hubris before?

Alongside this is Bellow's use of metaphor. I found myself walking down the street, looking up and wondering: how would Bellow describe this? Would he turn the usual metaphor about the freedom and possibility of floating clouds into, “the clouds reached down to claw the earth?” I don't know. That's just what struck me now. It gets me thinking.

Thomas Harris, Red Dragon

I could criticize this book on the basis of genre—I don't like psychological thrillers, they violate my insistence on underdeterminacy in literature—but that isn't the point or why I read it. I read this because of Lewis Hyde and David Foster Wallace. Harris is a master of pacing, readability, and dialogue. Wallace respected that, saw what he was doing, and emulated it (and occasionally stole it. DFW was a fan of Hyde as well).

Most of all, I noticed that Harris' dialogue was always immaculately readable. He never suffers from the problem of confusion over who is speaking, however difficult the exchange. I could simply read a line and know, without any other textual help, who was speaking it. I would know that Jack Crawford was speaking rather than Will Graham just by the tone and attitude of the quote. And this is done without feeling stilted or unnatural. It's an incredible skill.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

I like literature. One of the reasons I like it is that it offers up multiple interpretations and spurs conversations about, well, anything and everything. The reason I point this out is that it would be really easy to make this novel into a morality tale; most readers do and most criticisms of the novel assume that it is so. But I think there's more going on. There are two things I'd like to keep in mind here. First the story is from the point of view of a young girl, a young girl who adores her father and thinks that he can do no wrong. I think most of us are like that in our childhoods, assuming that our parents are smarter, stronger, and more moral than anyone else. In my opinion this novel is the story of how Scout finds out that her father isn't the divine being she thinks he is. This leads to my second point: this is a story about how Atticus fails.

There are three values that seem to drive Atticus: the rule of law, the innate goodness of people, and non-interference in others' business. But these three values3 are bound to come into conflict and he is bound to fail. Atticus fails in the courtroom (note that Scout does not understand what is going on, in spite of her protests to the contrary). Atticus fails to be the head of his household; he lets his sister dictate what is right for Scout. And perhaps most tellingly, Atticus' values fail in the last scene of the novel; his faith in the rule of law and the goodness of other people is challenged by the events of the night. Ultimately he ends up compromising his values in order to keep the peace.

While I have not read, or read much about, Go Set a Watchman, I don't think we should be surprised by what an adult Jean Louise reveals about Atticus. Remember, the trial and verdict, while important to the story, are not its conclusion, rather it is the reminder that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. Think about how robust—or more to the point, how weak—Atticus' values are, especially given their time and place. What do they entail? What do they allow?

1 For the most amazing example of this I recommend Jonathan Lethem's “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which I first read on the toilet.

2 I know that one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, completely misunderstands himself. Many claim his worst work as his best (Farenheit 451 is awful. Sorry). Bradbury doesn't write about the oppression of totalitarian governments, he writes about the soft oppression of culture, even if he can't see it.

3 You could probably generate an I Robot like series of stores based on these three values, or really any list of values.    

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Books Read: May

Have I lost my last shred of humanity? Last month I was unable to read—bored with, really—two science fiction novels, but found myself staying up late and avoiding responsibilities to read Moby Dick. The two sci-fi novels weren't slouches either, Octavia Butler and Vernor Vinge are fine writers.  I simply didn't care. Melville though, wow. Even the spoilers didn't distract (the ship sinks, just like Titanic).

I suppose that sounds like a humblebrag. Maybe it is. As Muhammad Ali said, “It ain't braggin' if it's true.”1 But then Ali wouldn't be worried about the humble bit.

I do think it's odd that I've (at least temporarily) lost my taste for sci-fi. It's not as though I haven't championed the genre before. I'll continue to do so. There's a lot of good stuff (and a lot of dreck, but that's largely a function of volume) in sci-fi. Here's the thing though, sci-fi is plot driven, moral driven, it has a clear arc of progress and a certainty that, even if we can't tell the good guys from the bad, at least we can know what they did. The facts aren't in dispute. Anytime sci-fi diverges too much from this, say in Delaney's Dhalgren, Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, it is difficult to peg as sci-fi.

What I appreciate, what got me excited, about the books I did read this past month is that they aren't so easy. They're epistemically impoverished and evidence rich. They ask the reader to construct the character as a real human being, not a caricature. I think it is this demand on the reader that makes literature meaningful. It is this demand that makes me want to write, to emulate (all humility aside) these writers and explore what it might mean to be human and reclaim that humanity that I've lost. Why is this? I believe we're all a bit of a mystery, even to ourselves—then again, I've been told, in the most strenuous way short of physical violence, not to project my own inadequacies and failings onto others. But what can I do?

It is tempting here to delve into specifics, to tell you why Ahab isn't the simple obsessive he's made out to be in popular culture, to go on a tangent about negative capacity, but this isn't lit-crit, this is a blog listing the books I've read since school let out in May. So:

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried.
This is the only book to read on how to tell, not just a true war story, but that oxymoron, the true story. I don't trust simple stories. I don't trust easy answers. If I could… But when someone tells me that something is true, or right, or obvious, my eyes narrow, I check my wallet, I lock my door.

I would say that these stories are universal, that they tell us something bigger, that these aren't stories about war. These are stories about life. But then I know better. I've been told. I can't comment—I'm not privileged to comment—on war stories. No, that's not right either. The privilege runs the other way. I'm privileged not to comment.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
There is nothing new under the sun. Everything has been done before, footnotes, lengthy asides, doubt, and so on. All those literary techniques and themes you thought were invented in the last half of the twentieth century were already used by Melville. And it's worth reading just for that.

There is an old joke that a classic is a book that people praise but never read. Perhaps. But I have found that classics are most often classics for good reason. I was bored by action and sci-fi. I've been bored by thrillers. I was never bored with Moby Dick. I read it in four days and when I read O'Brien's How to Tell a True War Story and then Chapter 54, 'The Town-Ho's Story,' I couldn't help but note that Melville had written a war story. Why did it happen? What's the moral? Wrong question.

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood.
This book sits next to on my shelf, shares a publisher with, and has a similar cover to The Stranger. That's serendipitous as the two also share themes of crime, purpose, and capital punishment. I think back to reading Camus in high school. I loved the book, but got a test question wrong. The question was, why did Mersault kill the Arab? I don't recall my answer, but I read into the story I couldn't help but speculate on why he did it. What it meant. But the correct answer, the answer indicated, was that the sun was in his eyes. That answer was too literal for me, yet not literary enough. How can you sum up the reason for the book in that phrase, “the sun was in his eyes?” Yes that's it. No it isn't.

Now, why did Dick and Perry kill the Clutters?

I didn't find this book terrifying in the same way that others seem to. I didn't have nightmares. I wasn't made nauseous.2 I find it terrifying that Capote makes these killers human. He makes them your brother—you. I don't want to read about inhuman killers, Lecters and Dahmers. Inhuman killers, psychopaths, sociopaths, may as well be accidents, rockslides, lightning. Human killers—killers who are like us—that is scary. But that isn't it either. This book isn't scary at all. It is sad and only sad.

Thom Jones, Pugilist at Rest.
Another book of war stories. Similar to O'Brien, but where O'Brien looks at war as an all too real dream, a nightmare come true that one hides from, Jones finds his message in war as a place of belonging, a place that might be home and brings a perverted form of comfort that peace and civilian life fails to provide. The image of the Pugilist at Rest, the statue and the words, brings together disparate images, violence and peace, readiness and relaxation. The pugilist is never truly at rest. Or, if he is it is a kind of senescence. Here I can't help think of Muhammad Ali. Where do we find our value when our powers are taken from us? What are we good for? Ali has his answer, do we? Does it satisfy?

1 Muhammad Ali never said this.
2No, it was Rich Dad; Poor Dad that made me nauseous and wouldn't let me sleep. Dead serious, that is what my nightmares are made of.