Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On D.G. Myers on J.V. Cunnigham + Commonplaces

I've been blog-stalking A Commonplace Blog for a couple of months now. Its author, D.G. Myers, - 'a critic and literary historian at Texas A&M University' -never fails to provide stimulating commentary on all things *literary* - and the inspiration I find there is invaluable, as evidenced by my almost physical response to the post found HERE; below is the comment I left:

You've given me enough fuel to last a LONG while. Thank You! Pithy, poignant - near heroic couplets in substance and brevity.

"The assumption of translation is that things can be said in several ways and that the ways can be compared." <-- I've spent the last week or so vacillating between the English and French versions of Bouillier's The Mystery Guest and am miserable (it's all documented on my blog).... this is timely.

"The purpose of the plain style is to persuade, of the pretty style to charm, of the grand style to move or bend."
<-- I'm drawn to dandyism in literature, so it's definitely the charming, pretty style for me.

"An accumulation of bad habits marks the colloquial style."
& "In modern literature we witness a widespread need for anti-formality which often takes the form of vandalism. It goes by the rubric Make It New." <-- These are the reasons I've disliked many of the books I've recently read.

"When style is overpowering it takes us over. We think we have said what we have heard."
<-- Montaigne is the master of this plain, persuasive style. You'd think you'd come up with some of the self-realizations he documented. And these notes of yours, of Cunningham's, I find myself nodding in agreement and gasping in epiphany as I read them.

"How difficult it is to write in praise!"
<-- I started my own commonplace blog last week (this blog has been my inspiration) and already I feel I'm being too negative, finding fault with everything, being a literary *hater* (lol) - but it's much easier for me to identify and criticize the source of my dissatisfaction in what I read... which is strange because there's so much pleasure to be had in a book. What a teacher Cunningham must have been!

It may seem like I slathered the praise on a bit too thickly, but my appreciation is genuine. I loved being a student, learning from amazing and insightful people... and not being in an academic setting at 22, and for over a year, hurts more than I am comfortable admitting. I plan to be back in school by next year, and in the mean time this blog has been a source of motivation.

"Commonplace book
orig. A book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement.
1578 COOPER Thesaurus A studious yong man ... may gather to himselfe good furniture both of words and approved phrases ... and to make to his use as it were a common place booke. 1642 FULLER Holy & Prof. St. A Common-place-book contains many notions in garrison, whence the owner may draw out an army into the field.


Immediately after reading the above for the first time, I knew I'd found a place on the internet to relax and stay a while. I'd been amassing 'commonplace books' for years without knowing what to call them. Now, with a commonplace blog of my own, I feel I am actively doing my part to stay sharp (and hopefully grow sharper by the day!) in preparation for my return to school and for my life as a reader and writer.

That's all for now. More on The Mystery Guest & Death in Venice coming up.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Macro vs. Micro Reading + why I can't read in French

This post can be considered The Mystery Guest part 1.5 because these thoughts were triggered by my frustration with the translation of the story from French.

In which I TRY to explain my reading style:

When I read a piece of fiction, it's being read in two ways at once. Of course, I'm forming an overall impression of the narrative and whether it leaves a good or bad taste in my mouth. But I'm also picking apart the minutiae, finding fault or excellence in the details; macro-reading vs. micro-reading.

What I can't decide is if the two are independent of one another or interdependent - because I can love the plot, characters, and themes of a story and think it clever while taking issue with its mechanics. Conversely, exemplary, deliberate writing can, for me, render nearly ANYTHING enjoyable.

I may criticize elements of a book severely, and finish it with a positive impression - which brings me again to The Mystery Guest and why (micro and macro) reading in French seems a Herculean task. I'll outline my individual charges in my next post on the book, but the English translation is becoming a larger and larger issue by the page.

Because I know just how finite my grasp of my native language (English) is, I can't possibly be satisfied with reading in French. Even if I understand each French word I read (and I'm not there yet - I don't dare read even in English without a dictionary at my side) there are still nuances and intentions that elude me completely. French syntax, pronouns when used as objects/direct objects especially, is another beast I have yet to conquer - and it clouds my comprehension.

So I'm stuck with an unsatisfactory English translation and what I can LITERALLY garner from the original text. In my next post, I'll have specific examples of what I mean - outside of the idioms with which I've already taken issue.

Micro-reading in French is out of the question for me at this point, and will be a long time coming...

But I shall soldier on and finish this book (that I LIKE so far, though it may be hard to tell).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier Part 1

EDIT: Finished the Book. HOW WRONG COULD I HAVE BEEN????

I'm just starting a new book, The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier, and I've already some qualms.

So far, what I know of the plot seems promising and the rhythm is pleasant, but there's something ELSE going on....

The Mystery Guest reads like a story being recounted aloud and I read French well enough to have garnered upon comparison that it's the not the fault the English translation. I was afraid that this would be another 'On The Road' - written incidentally as a continuous stream of consciousness with a lax, free-association influenced story structure, each thought or memory triggering the next, the reader frequently taken on amusing tangents along the way (and the tangents are abundant, as are idioms and colloquialisms "as they say"). Boullier's narrative has also in common with Kerouac's its basis in reality; both books blur the line that separates memoir from fiction. But this story has among it's draws, a lyrical rhythm - whereas 'On The Road' bares the telltale mark of certain American fiction: a jumpy cadence.

The rhythm was never the source of my hesitance though. My issue is more with the careless use of tiring and inappropriate idioms:

"...I was fast asleep and at my most vulnerable, my least up to answering the phone, when IN A WORD I was completely incapable of appreciating this miracle for what it was..."

"in a word" <--- This phrase makes no sense here because the following description of the speaker's state of mind is 10 words, rather than 1 word, long. Because this is a translation, there were three possibilities for this lackadaisical error:
  1. It was the doing of the author.
  2. It was the doing of the translator.
  3. It's a device to characterize the emotionally distressed and neurotic narrator.
I was hoping for the third, but unfortunately, it's the translator's fault.

The original reads: "...j'ètais le plus dèmuni et le moins susceptible de rèpondre à son appel et même dans l'incapacitè la plus totale d'en èprouver la miracle." Nowhere does the literal or colloquial equivalent of "in a word" (en un mot/parole) appear. Literally the phrase in question would translate to "yet in the most total inability to experience the miracle."

I'm hesitant to read on from this point because I'm experiencing this book through the lens of someone else's understanding and interpretation of the original text. Audio books, for the same reason, don't appeal to me (being burdened and imposed upon by a stranger's inflections and intonations is no fun). Unfortunately, I can't read French well enough to fully digest, decode, interpret, and analyze an entire book the way I'd like... So I'm forced into a purgatory between languages and will refer to both versions as necessary.

I'll post a full review when I'm done with the book.

Onward I tread.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Death in Venice Part 2

I said I wouldn't write one (because what can I say about this book that hasn't been said???), but here's a MINI review of Death in Venice. I'm going a bit into some of what I'll cover in my future posts about this story (Gus von A as a fallen dandy), but whatever. I don't think anyone is reading this blog yet lol.

In 'Death in Venice', Thomas Mann allows his readers to view a respectable man's descent into madness, into a dark, disturbing obsession where reason and logic have no impact on actions - where passion reigns sovereign... and it's jarring to *witness*.

The story begins with such attention taken to establish the story's protagonist (*Gus von A*) as hyper-disciplined, possessing the utmost aplomb and self-mastery - only to have him come undone as the book progresses.

This is one of those stories where syntax and diction play as much a part in the reader's investment as does the plot itself. Mann's sentences are at first long, and intricate - with far too many dependent clauses (seriously, try to diagram some of these suckers!)... but by the story's end, peppered amongst the ornate are an equal number of staccato phrases (often the protagonist's hurried and ill-considered decisions to act on whim).

I love the art of writing and Mann's style is the equivalent of literary porn. The subject matter isn't lacking scandal either. GREAT read. It's short enough to read quickly, but why rush. Savor it a bit.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Death In Venice Part 1

I just finished Death in Venice by Thomas Mann and loved it! I have so much to say about the story that I've decided to break my entries into sections. This is part one. (Technically, it's part 2 because I posted my thoughts on a quote from the story HERE - so check that out also).

First, a summary: Death in Venice is the story of Gustav von Aschenbach (but I'll be calling him Gus von A), an acclaimed and well-respected German writer, who, in an uncharacteristic departure from his hyper-disciplined lifestyle, becomes obsessed with a beautiful boy named Tadzio while vacationing in Venice.

It seems pointless to review this classic story, so I'll be discussing some of my observations instead, starting with my thoughts on this quote:

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous- to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”

This is the absolute truth, but I can only speak from my own experience. I spend a lot of time alone these days (thanks depression!) and have never been more creative or bizarre in my life. The chance to do heaps of silent sustained reading is plenty to be thankful for, so it's not all bad and I've gotten to know what I'm like when there's no one else around, when I don't have to answer to anyone's expectations. A descent into madness isn't out of the realm of possibility though (ha!).

Montaigne's On Idleness has something to say about this and it's very similar to Mann's description of Gus von A's isolation and its effects on his mind:

"I find... like a runaway horse, [the mind] is a hundred times more active on its own behalf than ever it was for others. It presents me with so many chimeras and imaginary monsters, one after another, without order or plan, that, in order to contemplate their oddness and absurdity at leisure, I have begun to record them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of them."

Which is why I write as much as I do. Montaigne's Essays are the most honest and articulate exploration of character and personality I've ever come across (which is why we're still talking about them over 500 years later) and as I read of his epiphanies and moments of self-discovery I often find myself nodding in agreement. The same was true of my reaction to parts of Death in Venice.

When literature is truly universal, which all great literature is, any reader can see his or her self reflected in its words. The passing of 500 years, the separating distance of an ocean and several nations, a difference in sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity and language proves no hindrance to the power or poignancy of a great story.

That's all for now.

Part 2 - Tadzio is to Gus von A as Dorian Gray is to Basil Hallward.
Part 3 - Gus von A as a fallen dandy (as defined by dandyism.net).
Part 4 - "Who shall unriddle the puzzle of the artist nature?"
Part 5 - Death in Venice: on the page and beyond (on: the real Tadzio, Rufus Wainwright's Grey Gardens, the movie adaption, and mythological allusions).

My First Poem For You by Kim Addonizio

This is by far one of my favorite poems. I could go on and on about it - but read it first:

I like to touch your tattoos in complete
Darkness, when I can’t see them. I’m sure of
Where they are, know by heart the neat
Lines of lightning pulsing just above
Your nipple, can find, as if by instinct, the blue
Swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent
Twists, facing a dragon. When I pull you
To me, taking you until we’re spent
And quiet on the sheets, I love to kiss
The pictures on your skin. They’ll last until
You’re seared to ashes; whatever persists
or turns to pain between us, they will still
be there. Such permanence is terrifying.
So I touch them in the dark, but touch them, trying.

See? What did I tell you? AWESOME!

'My First Poem For You' is pretty much a sonnet: rhyme scheme? check! 14 lines? check! the meter fluctuates, but for all intents and purposes, this is a structurally sound sonnet - down to the final reflective couplet.

Kim Addonizio is a TRUE talent; this piece is so precise, but reads so casually and intimately (sensually???) and with such fluidity, you'd never notice how formally it's written on a first reading - and that takes some SERIOUS skill to pull off. But it all works because the structure of the poem is in such direct opposition to the conversational tone and the subject matter.

The speaker obviously has some complex feelings about whoever this "you" character is; she freaks out about the permanency of his tattoos, which she only appreciates and explores in the dark - which I read as her ACTUALLY freaking out about the increasingly serious nature of their relationship. DEEEEEEEEP!

And if you break it down by sentences, its all "I like," "I can't," "I'm sure," "I pull," "I love"... bla bla yadda yadda - and then out of NOWHERE it's not about the speaker any more in the last lines and she finally hits us with "permanence is terrifying" (say whaaaaaaaa?). The last word, "trying" leaves me reeling everytime - she leaves the verb unsatisfied like that - just like her ongoing struggle with her feelings this "you"..... which makes sense because this is the "FIRST" poem for whoever this person is - and probably not the last.


I'm not going to write a PAPER about this poem on my blog - but there are a million reasons to love this poem... above are a few.

nothing like a good nerd tattoo.

because I like my books with pictures...

Marvel is a corporation after my own heart.

I finished reading The Picture of Dorian Gray a few weeks ago and I keep renewing it at the library because I don't want to give it back. It has some deliciously animated descriptions and colorful turns of phrase - and the setting and themes of the book are so parallel to contemporary events (the glorification of youth and our pleasure driven society), so naturally I can't put it down (even for reading the 6 or 7 other books I have from the library).... add my love of that book for my love of comic books and graphic novels and you'll see where I'm going with this.

MARVEL ILLUSTRATED has taken upon itself to prey/capitalize upon my love (and I suspect the love of many others around the world) of classic literature and comic book format by creating a mashup of the two mediums....

I found out about this from a random comment left on my blog by some guy I'd never heard of before and will probably never hear from again - he found my blog, left a comment about this mashup and that was that.

WELL - today I found volume 1 of Marvel's interpretation of The Picture of Dorian Gray online and it's AMAZING! The characters look just as I would imagine them, the composition of each panel is deliberate and compelling, and they've distilled the action of the book into the perfect concentration of dialogue and narration....

NOW, I have to get my hands on the other 5 volumes. As much I love patronizing the library, I'm definitely purchasing these - they're only 2.99 each.

I've posted volume 1 in its entirety between my gushing about its existence. Check it out and read the book if you get the chance. This interpretation of the source work really brings the story to life.....

On Trend Literature + Book Reviews

I've decided not to read anymore trendy, commercial crap like Twilight, so Minion by L.A. Banks is getting returned to the library ASAP. It's a trilogy, and I know once I read the first book, I'll be obligated to read the second and third, so I'm saving myself the trouble of being latched to the series for any period of time by reading none of it. To quote a review from ReadySteadyBook.com, I refuse to read books that are "not so much ‘compelling’ as ‘enslaving’". I'd rather read something of substance if I'm going to take the time. It is wrong to yearn for literary merit????

ANYWHO - The Razor's Edge was a GREAT read. It reminded me of The Picture of Dorian Gray in that Dorian Gray, the character, is a lot like Larry in The Razor's Edge: they're both young, attractive men with no family, of middling social status - charming, charismatic, peculiar. Both cease to age as well, but for very different reasons and in very different ways. The Picture of Dorian Gray's Lord Henry is reminiscent of The Razor's Edge's Elliot Templeton in that they're both obsessed with social status, and strive to remain relevant by being in the favors of those in certain circles and of a certain class. Both are great books that I enjoyed immensely.

The Handmaid's Tale was a surprisingly quick read - and equally disturbing. The matter of the book overshadows the manner in which it was written 100 fold, though it is impressive prose. It tells the story of a dystopian, but not too distant future in which a fundamentalist Christian group takes over America by killing the President and Congress - forcing women into subservient roles, including the eponymous Handmaid, whose sole purpose is reproduction, as most women have been rendered barren by pollution and environmental toxins. THE STORY IS DISMAL! I definitely recommend it to everyone who can read!

I just started The Reader today, but I accidentally read a HUGE plot spoiler online... so the big 'OH NO SHE DIDN'T' of the book isn't going to have as big an impact for me. I won't spill that moment here.... The book is now a movie starring Kate Winslet, and 18-year old German actor David Kross (who is hot! too bad he's so young....). Here's the basic plot: A 15-year old boy is sick on his way home from school and rescued by a woman over twice his age, with whom he then begins an illicit affair - the strangest part is that she makes him read aloud to her. The woman disappears for about 10 years and they run into each other again when he is in law school and she is on trial for war crimes in post WWII Germany.... he's conflicted because she has a huge secret and it's even worse that the heinous acts she committed in the war.

David Kross & Kate Winslet @ The Reader Premier

Best part - David Kross had to learn English for the role.

Can't wait to finish reading this. EDIT: Finished it in about a day. The book has a great plot and full characters, but it's written so clinically.... I'm glad it was short. It felt less like a novel and more like a piece of academic writing or a 200+ page newspaper article. It was very cold, somehow. That said, I did enjoy it and think the way it was written lends itself well to the subjects with which the story dealt. There's a lot of talk of detachment and divorcing oneself from one's actions - and that's exactly how the book reads, so perhaps it was an intentional choice.

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie - mainly because David Kross is HOT!!!! lol

and this is funny: According to the Washington Post, December is National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month... amazing! AMAZING! As someone who plans to be a novelist (soon?), is in marketing, and is Black - I call 'MARKETING SCHEME' on this one - but it's a good one.

book guilt and frustration

I feel bad when I don't finish a book; it's a terrible feeling - like leaving your dog outside in the cold overnight (WHICH I'D NEVER DO!) and not coming back to get her - EVER.

So excruciating was the decision not to finish Awesome: a novel by Jack Pendarvis. I love urban fantasy movies and literature, so when I read reviews about the humourous tale of fabled giant making his way across the country to win back his true love, I thought, HEY - THIS IS RIGHT UP MY ALLEY!

Unfortunately, that was not the case. I can imagine that this book would be very funny for some people. I am not one of those people - and it's not the fault of the author and the book is not a poor(ly written) one. Awesome is written in a voice and style that I can appreciate, but can't relate to on any level.

The protagonist is a megalomaniacal giant, the eponymous Awesome, that I couldn't force myself to like or care about. His world of obligation was limited solely to himself, which made it difficult to invest my interest as a reader in his interactions with the other characters.

It also didn't help that the reviews I read were completely inaccurate. The book was described as 'cute' several times; while whimsical, cute, the book was definitely not. If I had to label it - I might call the genre Adult Whimsy (which, if you think about it, doesn't make sense because only adults are aware of the concept of 'whimsy' anyway. Children express, and if I remember correctly, sometimes perceive the mundane and the whimsical interchangeably and with equal conviction - which must be nice - so there's no suspension of disbelief required for them to become lost in fantasy. But I digress.) - or maybe Adult-THEMED Whimsy.

There's lot of talk of ejaculation and bodily fluids, which isn't what I was expecting. I'm not opposed to toilet humor but it didn't seem to serve a purpose in Awesome. There were some parts so ridiculous that I couldn't help but laugh - but they were few and far between for me. That said, I DO think Pendarvis has succeeded in creating challenging prose; I think it was too unconventional for my taste, which is difficult for me to swallow.

I felt like I was a slave to the book and was only continuing to read it because I had began it.... so I stopped (the only other books I can remember not finishing are Marley & Me - because I only starting reading it to waste time at the laundromat and was reading another book at the same time - and The Maytrees by Annie Dillard - which I was conned into returning to the library. I went in to renew it and someone else had it on hold so they took it from me. I have it on hold again now). The book just wasn't for me. I have a feeling it's more of a cult-following thing.

Anywho - I'm reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac now - which I'm enjoying so far. I had wanted to read it for a while. Next I'm on to The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier.... which has a trailer. I love creative marketing.