27 March 2007

From one more girl who loves Pynchon

What she said.

This is ridiculous. (And what's even more heinous is the fact that--at this posting--42% agree with him...)

Highlight of the month

Being confused with Darby Dixon of Thumb drives and oven clocks. Every time I visit his place, I feel better about my inconsequential keyboard tapping--more inspired and more willing to venture out with my own thoughts on what I've been reading.

It's an honor, sir.

25 March 2007

Lost and found

How is it some authors inspire absolute trust? How is it that after reading "Lost in the Funhouse" I want to give John Barth a huge hug, while after reading, say, The Exquisite, I would give Laird Hunt a friendly handshake and happily consider reading more of his writing?

It's different for everyone, I know--the subtle somethings that win your confidence and hand you a lovely sense of relief (a cool breeze in locked room). Many have already written on Barth's particular brilliance and this tale's perfected melding of form and content (at least I imagine they have). But what struck me was the spot-on articulation of...this:
Strive as he might to be transported, he heard his mind take notes upon the scene: This is what they call passion. I am experiencing it.
[...] he has...some sort of receivers in his head; things speak to him, he understands more than he should, the world winks at him through its objects, grabs grinning at his coat. Everybody else is in on some secret he doesn't know; they've forgotten to tell him.
He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he's not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator--though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.
But what is it? The chronic experiential detachment of... Whom? Writers who don't know they're writers? Over-analytical types? Artistically precise crazies who should all live on their own deserted islands? Emotionally constipated naturalists? Bicultural bookworms with nomadic tendencies?
There was some simple, radical difference about him; he hoped it was genius, feared it was madness, devoted himself to amiability and inconspicuousness. Alone on the seawall near his house he was seized by the terrifying transports he'd thought to find in toolshed, in Communion-cup. The grass was alive! The town, the river, himself, were not imaginary; time roared in his ears like wind; the world was going on! This part ought to be dramatized. The Irish author James Joyce once wrote. Ambrose M____ is going to scream.
Sex and spirituality fail, while the ordinary sings loud and clear. Why are some like this? Why can't we be struck likewise? Why do I find cause for concern in the fact that it only happens sometimes--that I'm neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring?

Best ponder this:
When you're lost, the smartest thing to do is stay put till you're found, hollering if necessary. But to holler guarantees humiliation as well as rescue; keeping silent permits some saving of face--you can act surprised at the fuss when your rescuers find you and swear you weren't lost, if they do. What's more you might find your own way yet, however belatedly.
Maybe it just means I'm an incorrigible reader.

(Art by Kozlov Nickolay: "Three". Indian ink on paper. 1995.)

UPDATE: Ed steps up...
I too want to give John Barth a huge hug. If I had been at AWP, I would have given John Barth a huge hug. He may have been weary of this. He may have thought me insane or a fanboy to be avoided at all costs. But in Barth’s case, the hug is necessary. I encourage you to read John Barth (particularly, The Sot-Weed Factor), so that you too can feel compelled to give John Barth a huge hug. I think more writers can really use huge hugs. If you know an author who hasn’t been hugged, please hug them. Or promise to hug them. Or if the writer is shy about hugs, hug someone else in the author’s presence and tell the writer, “You see, I would apply this affection to you, but I understand your position about hugs. And I have no wish to invade your personal boundaries. So perhaps you can live vicariously through this third party, who is also deserving of a hug for his own achievements.”

23 March 2007

That piece of paper

An inspiring interview with Anne Carson:
Carson took Latin in high school because it was the alternative to typing. Her Latin teacher was also conversant in ancient Greek, so Carson took Greek lessons in her lunch hour. "Greek is one of those things that, when you do it, you realise it's the best experience in the world, there's no reason ever to stop. It's just some amazing combination of the kind of puzzle-solving that goes into crosswords and amazing literature. You think, well, they're nerds, they were born that way. But they're not just nerds, they're all kinds of people who stumble into this happy field of endeavour and stay there." To her parents' alarm, she announced that she was going to pursue these two, entirely impractical dead languages at university. "My father kept telling me to get a marketable skill on the side. He suggested typing. He was worried for some time. And then I got a job at Princeton and he sort of calmed down."

If her study of Greek and Latin has affected her own writing style, Carson suspects it is to be found in the way she makes patterns between things. "There is something about the way that Greek poets, say Aeschylus, use metaphor that really attracts me. I don't think I can imitate it, but there's a density to it that I think I'm always trying to push towards in English. It's a kind of compacting of metaphor, without a concern for making sense ... it's just on the edge of sense and on the edge of the way language should operate."

The danger with this, and with Carson's writing, is that it drifts into whimsy or nonsense. "It does fall apart a lot. It gets just too weird for anyone to care about reading, or else it gets diluted into a sort of parody of itself. Intuition is the only way to keep on the line between them. And also focusing back on to the first time the idea came into your head has some kind of pristine conviction that it gradually loses." Carson returns to the actual piece of paper on which she wrote down the beginning of the idea, usually a coffee-stained back of an envelope. "Because there's something almost magically convincing about that piece of paper. The same words typed on a nice clean piece of paper wouldn't have whatever it is - fidelity, to your original thought."
(via The Page)

22 March 2007

When you run out of books

I knew there had to be more of us out there--readers without adequate access to books. In her post "Reading as an Expat," Gretchen of Readers Without Borders (a site I just discovered last week) proposes that the Sony Portable Reader is a potential solution for those of us who can't pay the hefty shipping costs (or wait the extra month) for new books. It sounds like a good idea and has the potential to provide a quick fix for stranded bibliophiles. However, the selection doesn't look all that fantastic and not quite worth the investment at this point. Hopefully, this changes in the next couple of years. It would be amazing to have near-instant access to new books: the perfect motivation for concentrating on getting through my current stacks and not worrying about running out.

That said, there's still plenty for me to read and investigate in my second language. My present practice of always having two books on hand--one in English, one in Spanish--is helping considerably. I'm hoping (as ever) to be able to share some coherent thoughts on John Barth and José Edilberto Zuluaga soon. (I read a critique that complained of certain aspects of the latter, including the fact that after finishing the novella, the reader still couldn't understand what the title referred to. Needless to say, I felt pretty happy about figuring out the title's double meaning by page 15, but that doesn't necessarily mean I understand it any better than he does.)

But for now, there are report cards to do. I let Pandora play as I sit here on the tile floor and revel in my newly-acquired broadband connection. Yes. I am actually typing this from home.

A new leaf.

The apartment I'm renting was sold, and although I'll be here till November, the former owner had her furniture hauled away last week. It's nice, though. Very clean and minimalist. (I am currently typing away on top of a cardboard box.) I regret the loss of the cheap, black bookcase, but my stacks now surround me as I sit here and hope to write some sense into things.

14 March 2007

Sunlight in March

The Innocence Mission--one of my all-time favorite bands (I've been a fan since the age of 15)--just released a new album yesterday: We Walked in Song. Once a upon a time, I penned a brief review of their previous album, which was posted online in the days before I started this little blog. I can't say enough about the spare beauty of their music, with lyrics that tap into the literary influences of Eudora Welty, William Maxwell, and Gerard Manley Hopkins (among others).

Give a listen to "Into Brooklyn, Early in the Morning". Fragments of "Brotherhood of Man," "Lake Shore Drive," and older favorites "Tomorrow on the Runway" and "You Are the Light" can be found here.

The finite within the infinite

Nabokov, Speak, Memory:
Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love--from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter--to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time. It is a pernicious habit, but I can do nothing about it. [...] I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.
I was going to add some sort of personal comment to this passage, but rapidly realized there was nothing to say. Even in posting it, I feel as though I'm intruding on something sacred (which it is), and still marvel that I held these words in my hands at all.

Love etches itself into our skin, then down into the bone. We smell a fragrance in a recently-entered room and after a decent period, adjust. It no longer stands out, calls the attention. It becomes a part of us even as we begin to forget it's there. We know we need all the help we can get to help us see what's right in front of our faces.

And so we read.

13 March 2007

Coffee, coffee, coffee

A new Juan Valdez has recently opened in one of our two local malls. I'm there nearly every other day reading, writing, grading, or planning classes. The coffee is amazing. I've never had such marvelous espresso. Now all we need is another bookstore and I could live here forever...

(Outside Colombia, there are locations in Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Madrid, Spain.)

12 March 2007

A world unto themselves

This weekend, I picked up a copy of Diners. There's a marvelous homage to Gabriel García Márquez, which includes the words and works of
Paul Auster - John Updike - Gay Talese - Norman Mailer - Gregory Rabassa - Jon Lee Anderson - David Manzur - Ana Mercedes Hoyos - Maripaz Jaramillo - Omar Rayo - Carlos Jacanamijoy - Darío Ortiz - Lorenza Panero - Enrique Grau - Juan Goytisolo - Manuel Vicent - Belisario Betancur - Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza - Juan Carlos Botero - Héctor Abad Faciolince - Mario Mendoza - Jorge Franco - Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda - Ruven Afanador - Richard Avedon - Carlos Duque - Nereo López - Hernán Díaz - Indira Restrepo
It's a gorgeous issue.

Here's Paul Auster's contribution, "A Memory":
It was the spring of 1970. I was twenty-three years old, writing and translating poems, writing essays and reviews, but also dreaming of one day being able to write novels. By then, I had read nearly all the masters of the twentieth century--Joyce and Proust, Kafka and Beckett, Faulkner and Nabokov, Fitzgerald and Céline--and was feeling a little crushed. How on earth could one ever get out from under those giants?

One day, I read a highly enthusiastic review of a novel by a South American writer whose name was unknown to me. At the time, thirty-seven years ago, buying hardcover books was an extravagance I could scarcely afford, but my curiosity had been aroused to such a degree that I went out and sprang for the book anyway. I started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in the early afternoon and I didn't put it down until I had finished reading it late that night. Here was soemthing new and fresh and altogether mesmerizing: an imagination, a voice, a sensibility that resembled nothing I had encountered before. And yet Gabriel García Márquez's novel, in the masterful translation by Gregory Rabassa, contained many old-fashioned virtues as well, most of which can be summed up in a single phrase: love of storytelling.

This love is what creates pleasure in the reader, the sense of amazement and happiness that washes over us whenever we stumble upon one of those rare books that changes the way we look at the world, exposes us to the infinite possibilities of what a book can be. Every passionate reader has had that experience, and each time it happens, we understand that books are a world unto themselves and that world is better and richer than any we have traveled in before. That is why we become readers in the first place. That is why we turn away from the vanities of the material world and begin to love books above all other things.
(Painting by Darío Ortiz)

Bilingual blogging

After having ruminated on one day making this blog more bilingual (rather than just the odd Spanish quote--kind of like the opposite of what Mauricio Salvador does, but much less extensively), I finally discovered The Book's Den. A very happy development, which bears futher investigation...

Any more Spanish-English bilingual litblogs out there? Or, for that matter, any more Spanish-language litblogs? I'd love to link to you.

09 March 2007

Happiness is...

...finding copies of Gabriel García Márquez's novels at supermarket check-out counters. (Have I mentioned how much I love living here?)

The coverage continues...

~ 21 articles up at Semana.

~ The cover of Cromos was a delightful photo and article ("Los 80 años del niño de Aracataca").

(I picked up copies of both of these magazines last night. Joy!)

08 March 2007

Mysteries practical and profound

From Colleen Mondor's Bookslut interview with Scarlett Thomas:
I have always been a bit of a geek, I suppose, and I have been helped in this by not having any desire to marry or have children or get swamped by any of the domestic stuff that often (but by no means always) snaps women out of their geekdom and forces them to think in terms of nappies and bottles of baby oil and to be normal for God’s sake because if you’re not normal other parents will look at you funny and eventually someone will come and take your kids away...

Aristotle says that fiction should do one of two things: reflect the world as it is, or make it better. While this is a little too cheerful for where I am at the moment, there’s a lot of truth in it nevertheless. People sometimes forget that real women, even ones covered in nappies and shit and bleach etc., do not spend all their time thinking about dresses and princesses and kisses--it’s women in stories that do that. And these are stories that make things worse. So my stories seem different because they’re not like other stories, perhaps. I don’t know. Most women out there are geeky in some way, and you’re right that not much fiction reflects this. I guess the more common experience is for women to be somehow restricted by domestic life or to live under the threat of this restriction, and of course there’s a lot of fiction that reflects this beautifully--like The Bell Jar, which is probably my favorite novel, in which Esther Greenwood pretty much has to stop being a geek or else. Oranges are Not The Only Fruit does something similar, too, where the character Jeanette has to try to find a new way of inhabiting all the fairy stories and religious myths she’s grown up with.
(Emphasis mine.) As a fellow geek, I think many women (fully aware of their geekiness), are finding ways to not be caught up in either of the two extremes that Thomas articulates so well. A kind of non-domestic domesticity exists, where responsibilities are met, but in liberating and non-restrictive ways. I would hazard to guess that it all depends on the type of spouse and on the joy one takes in "nappies and shit and bleach". Elements of non-traditional "domesticity" can survive if one refuses to sacrifice personal geekiness and the desire to live an authentic life.

Incidentally, Happy Women's Day! The Guardian has a smart quiz on female authors, in honor of today (via Books, Words, and Writing). Funny how having spent most of my life in the U.S., I was completely surprised by the hugs and kisses from my students celebrating today. (Evidently, there are many things right about Colombia.)

Another aspect of the Thomas interview I loved is this:
All learning is independent. However, I’m not really striving to make any point about this. But now I think about it I realise that almost all "knowledge" I’ve been given within an institution is to serve someone else’s purpose, not mine, and most of it is just wrong, or not even wrong. I work in a university now, and the only way my students learn is by doing things themselves or by reading complicated writing that doesn’t give them any facts. I actually have some sort of undiagnosed medical condition, I think, because I am incapable of remembering any dates, facts or figures -- even ones I make up myself! I can remember long strings of abstract numbers, but not ever four figure dates. When I was younger I felt stupid all the time because I didn’t know Latin and Greek, and my mathematical skills weren’t that great, and I hadn’t read enough "classic literature." I think I’ll always feel like that, but now I am learning bits of Greek, and I’m reading stuff I missed out on at school, and I am finding that what all good professors and lecturers tell you is true: read books, all by yourself, and work out why they are or are not important yourself.
Truer than true.

The End of Mr. Y sparked many long-held thoughts of mine, and was just the thing to validate personal theories and inspire further thought. When I read lines like, "Thought is what encodes matter," I'm reminded of Genesis and the narrative of how spoken words brought matter into being. Be it myth, literature, or a matter of faith (or all three at once), I find it fascinating that this common idea/thread is found in literature, ancient and contemporary. There is harmony in paradox.

I also found myself wondering about the cause and effect nature of this (word or thought) does that (encode or create matter) and the possibility of everything happening at once...light as particle and wave...how traveling at the speed of light would show you reality as a cubist painting: an all-encompassing present, an eternal Now....

06 March 2007

Birthday wishes

El Tiempo has a lovely spread on Gabriel García Márquez, who turns 80 today. Aside from the six (Spanish) articles, which include an interview with fellow author Álvaro Mutis, there are also six interesting photo albums containing recent pictures, snapshots during his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, and various book covers. There are also recent shots of Aracataca, a few movie stills, and many from last year's Hay Festival in Cartagena.

Many happy returns to the man who celebrates four times this year. Not only is it his birthday, but it is also 60 years since he published his first story, 40 years since the publication of Cien años de soledad, and 25 years since winning the Nobel Prize.

02 March 2007

Catala tregua tregua espera

It’s taken me ages to find the quiet mental space in which to reflect on Julio Cortázar’s marvelous Historias de cronopios y de famas, but I finally sat at a small table in the corner (next to the bookcase by the balcony) and scribbled a draft of this post with pen and ink. For now, it’s the only way. (We’ll see what happens afterwards in this new month.)

In the opening pages, Cortázar confronts us with the sad reflection of our hopes and the crystal brick in which we live. But it isn’t all bad:
Y no que esté mal si las cosas nos encuentran otra vez cada día y son las mismas. Que a nuestro lado haya la misma mujer, el mismo reloj, y que la novela abierta sobre la mesa eche a andar otra vez en la bicicleta de nuestros anteojos, ¿por qué estaría mal?
The ordinary both hides and reveals struggle (as the open novel on the table remounts the bicycle of our reading glasses). And so he offers us instructions on how to cry, how to be afraid, how to understand three famous paintings (by Titan, Rafael, and Holbein, respectively), how to kill ants in Rome, how to climb stairs, and how to wind a watch (“No te regalan un reloj, tú eres el regalado, a ti te ofrecen para el cumpleaños del reloj.”).

Then there are the “strange occupations” of the extended family that build a gallows in their garden and drop strands of hair down bathroom drains in order to recover them. An aunt has an unholy fear of falling on her back, to such a degree that the father accompanies her throughout the house to examine the floor for potential trouble, the mother sweeps the patio several times a day, the sisters go around picking up stray tennis balls, and the cousins eradicate any trace left by the various dogs, cats, turtles, and chickens that wander the house. Her obsessive terror is a mystery--especially since she’s darkly hinted at never being able to get up again, even though there are 32 other people in the house to help her. That is, of course, until the night the eldest brother finds a helpless cockroach stranded on its back on the kitchen floor.

Aside from Kafka’s kitchen, there’s the room where they trap tigers (celebrating afterwards), and the strategic and carefully dramatized way in which they crash local funerals and wakes. But none of this is a big deal. As he puts it, all that matters is doing something, which is why his only motive for this telling is to prevent the rain from getting too oppressive on an empty afternoon.

Next come the discursive notes on “unstable stuff” (according to translator Paul Blackburn). We are given instructions on singing (and admonished to leave Schumann in peace), notes on office work, the nobility of bicycles, how mirrors behave on Easter Island, the possibilities of abstraction, the interchangeable lives and deaths of a newspaper, a satire on bureaucracy, the sensory experiences of a headless man, a theme for a tapestry, history as perceived by a chair, a wise man with a hole in his memory, plans for a poem, an undesirable camel, a bear’s discourse, a portrait of a cassowary, the tragedy of falling raindrops, a story without a moral, and the portentous journey of the lines of a hand. My favorite piece is “Fin del mundo del fin,” a fanciful exploration of the consequences of writers writing without end and what happens when books multiply like rabbits. The poor use books for bricks to build cabins and the books eventually create new land masses. Boats are no longer able to sail, so they’re converted into casinos and the public walks to them on foot over the bibliographic (or well-versed) sea. I also love “Qué tal, López”, which contains a line I believe to be part of Cortázar’s artistic motivation:
Pero las cosas invisibles necesitan encarnarse, las ideas caen a la tierra como palomas muertas.
“But invisible things need to become incarnate, ideas fall to earth like dead doves.”

And so we find ourselves at the book’s last section, “Historias de cronopios y de famas,” which is divided into two. After a brief primer on the nature and customs of famas, cronopios, and esperanzas (where we learn of their habits, joys, and griefs), we come to the little tales of their “days and ways”--slight vignettes which whimsically capture their essence. There’s an indefinable delicacy about the way in which Cortázar recounts these stories. Dry wit mingles with compassion, leaving an indelible impression on the imagination that is stronger than mere mental pictures.

Famas conserve their memories carefully, wrapping them (from head to foot) in black sheets and placing them upright against the living room wall with small place cards attached. Cronopios are disorderly and let their memories wander about the house amid happy shouting, and when they run into one, they softly caress it and tell it to take care.

They all go on trips, wind clocks, eat lunch, own handkerchiefs, start businesses, conduct experiments, sing and dance, walk down streets, have trouble with utility companies, build houses, treat psychiatric patients, entertain academics, explore caverns (with tragic results for the intrepid cronopio who was given ham sandwiches instead of his beloved cheese), mail letters, send telegrams, and have encounters with flora and fauna. Hence:

Now tortoises are great admirers of speed, as is natural.

The esperanzas know it, and don’t give it another thought.

The famas know it, and make fun.

The cronopios know it, and every time they meet a tortoise, they take out a box of colored chalk, and on the tortoises’ round blackboard, draw a swallow.
I miss reading about them and wish it wasn’t finished.

(Image via UNESCO)