Category Archives: Literature

Woo-Hoo! Arundhati Roy Writes Fiction Again

Since I am teaching the symposium class at my school next year, I was reading up on some various authors on the web.  Saddened by the fact that my favorite living author has only published one work of fiction, I check every once in a while to see if she has something on her burner.  After a short search, I found a link to a Reuters article that says she is working on a piece of fiction.  I am very excited.  Sadly, I don’t think I’ll be able to ask her to come to my school — but I’d love to read another novel by her.

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Al Baby — makes ya miss MN

In my perusal in the Times, I saw that Al Franken is running for Senate in the state of Minnesota. I’m often not so much a fan of the celebrity-politicians, but Franken seems to be a fairly stand up guy. Thinking about him running makes me miss some of my ol’ Minneapolis days.

Shortly after he wrote Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, I saw him read at the now defunct Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul, MN. Actually, I did not see him at the bookstore, but the reading was sponsored by the Hungry Mind. They would hold their large readings at the Weyerhaeuser Memorial Chapel which is part of Macalester College. I saw several great authors there: Al Franken, John Irving, Dorothy Allison. I even saw Brett Easton Ellis at the Hungry Mind — though I’m not sure I’d call him great.

Thinking about Minnesotan senators, I can’t help but be saddened by the death of Senator Paul Wellstone in 2002. He was a great senator an perhaps could have been a great presidential candidate in 2004 or 2008. His surviving kids began the organization Wellstone Action which seeks to train citizens and potential candidates to pass legislation for progressive social change. Ugh — we need a hero. Will Franken be it?

The Sneopard

One of the perks of working at my school is our Symposium signature program. Last year we had Tim O’Brien visit, an author whom I love. This year we had Peter Matthiessen visit. (For those with more discriminating tastes in resources, here’s is your Wikipedia.

To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled that he was going to be our author, but once I began reading his non-fiction, I began to dig him. I can’t say that I worship everything he writes. (after all, he is no Arundhati Roy.) But I did begin to appreciate much of his work. I love his interplay of subjectivity and objectivity. Much to Sujal’s chagrin, I am one of those people who believes that everything is subjective.

In terms of Matthiessen’s work, I read from the The Peter Matthiessen Reader. I really enjoyed the excerpt from Wildlife in America that featured the now extinct Great Auk. I also like The Snow Leopard, which I affectionately call The Sneopard. (And I wonder why the kids love me!)

My favorite excerpt cam from In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. The section I read told a section of the narrative on the events June 26, 1975 on the Pine Ridge reservation leadning to the incarcertaion of Leonard Peltier. The New York Times has this cool little feature — featured writer section on him.

He is a talker, all right. During both of the “readings” I attended, he mainly told story after story, which was actually quite fun. Since I haven’t read any of his fiction, I’m looking forward to checking it out.

Tim O’Brien at my School

So Tim O’Brien’s visit has come and gone. I had dinner with him Thursday night. I like the way that sounds like it was just the two of us, but it wasn’t. The class that studied him all semester was his primary companion, and the few of us teachers were mainly onlookers. But it was great to see him interact with the kids. We were also privy to a bit more of what he had to say, interesting answers to poignant questions. Basically we had more time.

He spent the entire next day at the school. We had a morning assembly where he delivered what was basically this address. When I talked to kids afterwards and they found this address on the net, many were pretty disappointed that he did not “bother” to come up with something new for them. I understand their feelings, and yet it is a lot expect that someone will personalize an address to a group of strangers. Regardless of whether it had been delivered previously or not, I really liked his talk. I loved his answers to the kids’ questions. And even though he often said he was side-stepping answering them, he usually got right at the heart of the questions with the best possible answer. His answers tended to be grey, and often that’s his whole point in his writing: truth exists in the shades of grey. The only negative point was when he said that you never find out the “answer” in the novel In the Lake of the Woods. Due to my ridiculous planning, I had not had my juniors complete the novel before he came. They were roughly 1/4 through the novel, so he more or less ruined it for them. Again, that’s not truly his fault.

In the evening, there was a faculty (and area teachers) dinner and reading. After the dinner, I got my chance to chat with him. He’s from Minnesota, and I really wanted to know how he felt being from Minnesota impacted his writing, though I never got the chance to directly ask him that. Many of his pieces are at least partially set in Minnesota. Clearly it affects him. He currently lives in Austin, TX, where my sister lives. I asked him if he’d take a package down there and he was obliging. We chatted a bit about Worthington, his hometown, and the Twin Cities. I told him I once spent a night in Worthington. He was shocked — asked what the hell I was doing in Worthington. I told him that my boyfriend’s grandmother had a house in Worthington, and we stayed for the weekend. He asked, “Wasn’t it boring?” in the kind of tone that means the responder should agree. I told him that since I hadn’t been from there, I thought it was quaint. I told him I didn’t remember much, that all I really remembered was that it was in a valley. He said that it’s not in a valley, that it is very flat. At about that moment, I figured I might have made a mistake. And I just looked it up on Google Maps, and it is 3.5 hours from Minneapolis. The place we went to, I think it was only an hour or so. My memory doesn’t serve me so well, so if anyone knows James Kraling, ask him for me where his grandmother’s house was — where we spent the weekend about, oh, ten years ago. It’s funny what memory does. I always imagine coming into the little town, which was quite rural, but had a “quaint” little town center, a Main St. with a pizza place — I imagine coming down into a valley from the side of a cliff. Well, a cliff is to steep, but in my memory we dive into a valley from up high. But I think I get that mixed up with a description I read in a novel a long time ago. The novel is Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, and it has the beautiful and detailed description of the protagonist entering this “ghost” town (the town is literally inhabited by ghosts — if I recall correctly). And again, if I recall, there is a description of him entering on a winding path into a valley town. SO the image I have very well may be a fictitious image created partially by reality, a novel, and my own soft, brain tissue.

It’s funny how memory works like that. I have this very distinct memory of being around 4. We had our relatives at our house, aunt, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. I had already gone to bed, but I got up and came downstairs to the living room where everyone was, talking and laughing. I sat down on the carpet in front of my Aunt Pat, sitting with my legs in that upside-down W shape, and proceeded to pee on the carpet. Here’s the thing, I was in a crowded room, yet no one else remembers this. I most likely made it up, yet it is one of my most vivid childhood memories, complete with colors and sounds.

Nonetheless, O’Brien and I chatted about Macalester College, St. Paul, The Hungry Mind Bookstore that is no more, the Macalester Chapel where all the Hungry Mind readings were held, etc. I told him about my lovely neighborhood in MPLS, the cockroaches, etc. And then after the reading, when I got my book signed, he remembered my name. I felt special. I get very star-struck by authors. I really do.

His reading was also very good, though he was really tired. He read “A Letter to my Son” which caused him to break into almost tears. Then he read a piece from his latest novel July, July, which was also very good. Overall, it was a great event. Now my juniors are Deep into In the Lake of the Woods and I think they are getting a bit O’Brien’d out. This is the third text they’ve read by him this year. It is also a challenging and confusing text. Hopefully it will soon strike them.

Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien (a slightly bizarre website that claims to be his homepage, yet fairly comprehensive) will be visiting the school I teach at next week. I’m really excited to “meet” him. I say “meet” — because it’s really about the kids, not us snotty know-it-all teachers. I usually teach (this being my second year at the school and all) In the Lake of the Woods, which I will still do, but the entire school is reading The Things They Carried. It’s been awhile since I read the book, and it has been an emotional experience rereading it. I love the way when one reads a novel at one point in his or her life, the perspective changes when reading it at another stage in life. Perspective maybe isn’t the best word I’m looking for, and yet it seems the most apt. I think the other layer I mean is one’s understanding changes, which of course goes with perspective. I recall reading the novel when I lived in Minneapolis (this is a picture I could find of my neighborhood — a great little diner). I took a writing class at The Loft called “The Novel in Stories”. We read several novels that were written as a series of short stories, and that was probably my favorite of them.

Reading it the other day, it all came back to me — the anger that I felt, the disbelief at him throwing the word “cooze” around, not that I even necessarily knew its exact meaning, but the context was hateful enough. And I remember questioning what I was reading, then thinking I “got” it, then thinking over its hateful ambiguity. I went through those stages again. One of my students hinted at that he felt the tone was superior: You cannot possibly understand unless you’ve been there. I recall getting that same inpression when I first read it, and I think that’s what got my blood boilonmg the second time around to some degree (no pun intended). And then I think about it. I believe there are things in life one cannot truly comprehend unless one experiences it. I can imagine fighting in the Vietnam War is easily one of those events. Part of my issue with the text (when I first read it, and then as I was rereading it) is its exclusion of women. Now, women were mainly excluded from the war, but I think it’s his use of the word “cooze” — it has such hatred. Then I reread the chapter “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and it no longer excludes women. And I think I recall softening, being disarmed (wow — I’m just letting them roll!) by it. Perhaps I do not see the novel any differently at all. Perhaps I have no significantly greater understanding, but it is the act of reading that is fleeting, ephemeral. We read something and bits stay with us, but in the moment it is all so vivid, a variety of concepts in the forefront of our minds all at once. Reading good writing is such a sensual experience, and since he provides such a sensual experience, I really like his work. I also love that he plays with truth and subjectivity. I was recently called a “fiction writer” — though I haven’t written any in a really long time, because I’d said that I think that fiction gets much closer to truth than non-fiction does. I do not claim this as an original thought, but I do believe it. I think O’Brien is also a proponent of this school of thought. Black and whites are seriously rare. The world is shades of grey, and it it tough to get at the heart. “How to Tell a True War Story” is so awful to read — the cruelty and violence to the animal — to “learn” that it’s not real — whether it is or not is unimportant — it’s the concept — the extreme cruelty of which we are capable — it is all horrific to read, and then the reader realizes that it’s no matter what the fictional victim is or who it is, it happened somewhere and somehow.

Enough. More after I “meet” him. Did I ever mention I once had lunch with Billy Collins? He sat next to me at a luncheon at the Key West Literary Seminar and we talked shop: teaching. Name dropping is fun, but it gets me into snobby trouble 99% of the time when I do it. Tee-hee. What is it with brushes with fame? Why do we even feel the urge to name drop? Sujal gets excited that he saw Penelope Cruz in a restaurant. I still have no clue who she is. When I was at the The Key West Literary Seminar, I was excited about meeting famous poets, and I would rehearse the brilliant things I’d say when I met them. Of course when I met them, the dumbest things would fall out of my mouth. Okay, I must grade now.

I Hate Sports…

…and even I am a bit sad by Johnny Damon’s departure. Sujal hates this, but I rarely, and I mean about twice or thrice a year, go to ESPN.com (though to be fair, that’s about how often he goes to K-O, my job). But I saw a headline today and I had to go. It was Bill Simmon‘s page. The Sports Guy’s article makes perfect sense, and being a fairly detached observer, I really get it.

I think part of the reason that I am a bit sad about Damon leaving is that I went to Red Sox games (“went” is a bit strong, should read: “dragged”) one season, the summer Sujal and I first started dating. I got to know a few players, not personally, of course. Johnny Damon was one of them, though I must admit, my heart with with cutie, Nomar Garciaparra. It seems my tour with knowng something about popular sports is just about over. It’s a bit of a relief, because I can go back to being that anti-sport, poetry loving nerd that I am. I also have to admit that poetry and sports can mix nicely as evidenced by Quicy Troupe’s villanelle on Michael Jordan, “Forty-one Seconds on a Sunday in June, in Salt Lake City, Utah”.

Poetry in CT

Recently I went to a poetry reading in Middletown, CT at The Buttonwood Tree with my co-worker, Jeff. It was a reading of area educators (k-12, college, and artists in the schools). Because there is a ton of bad poetry out there, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was very impressed! Not all of it was amazing, but it was mainly very good poetry. In part I wanted to go because Jeff was reading from his new book: Rumor of Cortez. Jeffrey Levine, featured on Poetry Daily, runs a small literary press out of Dorset, VT (near my beloved Bennington), called Tupelo Press. His other book of poetry is Mortal Everlasting.

Another poet I liked was Ravi Shankar. He also has as online journal, Drunken Boat. And then I also really liked Richard Deming’s poems. He had a particularly great style of delivery. It wasn’t anything fancy or off the wall, just very genuine. I met him and his wife, great couple, and they also run a press: Phylum Press.

All in all, it was a good evening, with the obvious downfall of the location’s name. Now, the Buttonwood Tree is a great venue. It’s a cozy space and it has a literary feel to it, but anyone who knows me will know that I will probably avoid the place like the plague. (Side note: Sujal has been telling me for a while to put my poems online, and it just seems wrong for me to “publish” them myslef, but in this case, I am going to post one of them.) For those who don’t know me so well, this poem should give you pretty good insight into why I cannot tolerate the name:

Buttons

Why is it that people just don’t get it?
How can they casually drop that word?
You’ll be having a perfectly nice dinner
And ka-TAC-al,
The word drops
Just like the sound of it hitting the table—
The evil object, the evil word, the evil sound of the word:
Button.

Oh why can’t people understand how vile they are?
First to look at;
Some are white or a smoky translucent
Plastic
With the four sneering holes
And they have that round unsightly ridge
Like the lip of a plate—
Ugh—how awful!
They may be blue, brown, pink, or yellow,
Small, large, ridiculously enormous.
Sometimes they are supposedly practical,
Sometimes decorative;
Even worse, people make crafts—
Using buttons.

Oh and to touch them
Their general small flatness,
The cloth covered or pearl-like ones aren’t as bad,
But then you have to deal with that word:
Pearl.

Sometimes they are difficult to work,
Or they become loose,
Fall off,
Need replacing.
How high maintenance can clothing get?
Sometimes there are too damn many,
Or they open
Or don’t open.
Sometimes they try to be pretty,
But they never are.

Then there’s the word;
Look at it.
It’s garish,
Just an ink stain on the page.
But the sound of the word—
A burst of noxious air
Evoking an image of a rounded Caliban,
A deformity of words.
Who could possibly love a—
A—
I can’t even say it—
Button?

Yes, of course I am able
To live in a world where other people
Wear those deplorable hooligans.
But as for me,
I will only stoop to wear them
On rare and lamentable occasions.
Buttons!

Other than the awful name, I’d really like the place, but I’m going to have to chalk it up to another CT oddity, sort of like the driving here.

Patricia Williams

So I’m having my senior class read Ironweed by William Kennedy, and it is a really good book. I wish I could say I felt the same about all of the books in the curriculum, but alas, I cannot. I’m trying to introduce literary criticism to the students, and I have been giving them definitions. once in awhile, I give them critical essays. I remembered Patricia Williams’ book The Alchemy of Race and Rights. This book left quite an impression on me when I read it in grad school, and one of the specific characteristic I love about Williams is her tenacity in seeing the world in shades of grey. I thought about the book in conjunction with Ironweed, because I remembered some of her anecdotes about people’s reactions to the homeless. I decided I’d have my students read that section, because discussion broke out into, “I won’t give money to the homeless because they’ll just drink it.” While I can understand why the students who espoused those views believed them, I’d like for them to see the perspective of a larger view of homelessness as a systemic problem. Hopefully an interesting discussion will ensue. The school where I teach tends to be pretty liberal, yet I think I have a generally right of center class.

1945-2005

I was saddened by an email a student sent me Monday AM about August Wilson’s death. Frankly, I did not know he’d been ill (not that we were close or anything). Sujal and I saw his last play at Yale Rep, Radio Golf. We liked it — or at the very least, it sparked quite a conversation between us about the play. I have really liked his work for a while now. One of the great things about American culture is that we do have some damn good playwrights. Kirsten and I saw “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” a few years ago in NYC. It starred Whoopie Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton, and it was a great performance. I teach 2 of his plays — one to freshmen and one to juniors. America will miss him.

Okay, Okay

So I’m not quite sure what my deal is… i have this blog, and I never seem to write on it. I’ll try to be better. In the wedding realm, Amy Sun got married last week, and she had her wedding at The Pond House Cafe in Elizabeth Park. It was a great ceremony and reception. They had a really fun DJ, too! Sujal and I have made no headway on our own plans, though many people have made some good suggestions after they looked at my last post.

School has begun in full swing, and already I am consumed with work. I am ecstatic that school has started, yet it never ceases to amaze me how quickly the whole cycle of being constantly behind kicks in. I have wonderful kids this year, as I did last year. One of my co-workers is teaching four preps this year, which is crazy, and me with my three preps this semester — I’m going nuts as is. Of course I’ve chosen to teach a book I’ve never taught before in one of the classes that is NOT new. It’s The Sun Also Rises which I read in high school and college, my favorite Hemingway novel. It is such a first novel, and I think that’s partly why it is my favorite. There’s a whole pool of people out there who believe that first novels are usually the best by an author. i think I may fit into that group. So many authors seem to retell their story. Beckett actually purposefully did this in his trilogy: Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Being well aware of the fact that so many authors just seem to retell the same story, he says outright that that is what he is doing. Aside from that, there are supposedly only so many plot-lines and they are merely recycled. It’s funny — sometimes I will watch a movie and think how mundane stories can be, even the somewhat more interesting stories. Sometimes I am almost bored by them, and yet at the same time, stories are what give me purpose. Literature is what I have. Perhaps this is a reflection on my state of mind rather than stories themselves. Reading stories is somehow different. I think the speeding up of a story in a film cheapens the story. Perhaps Beckett was getting bored by stories in some ways, too, which was maybe why he sought out to emphasize their repetitiveness. Perhaps I just want to be able to compare myself to Beckett. Anyway, The Sun Also Rises is a novel I really like, though I have never taught it. So I am dreaming up wonderful, and I mean wonderful, curriculum by the boatloads.

Finally, I had a social event on Friday. I went out for the first time in forever. I went to a Karoake bar here in West Hartford. I continue with my belief that CT is just a bizarre place. In some ways it reminded me of my grad school days hanging out with the poet MFAs at the WWII Club, their Friday night karoake. I suppose that was the case simply because it was karoake. In other ways it was this whole Connecticutified experience. And hmmmmmm, what does that even mean? I think that will be musings for another time. My old roommate, Roger, used to call me a contrarian. I think that may be so. I think I love to hate the place I’m in. Granted I never hated Noho, but maybe that’s because others there did. I do recall hating Minneapolis, where I lived with Roger. And now I feel nostalgia for the Twin Cities, though I know I do not miss the -25 degree winters. Brrrrrrrrr.