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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Time Change

Today in the US we turn our clocks back to standard time (aka, the time for our zone based on the position of the sun, etc).  For some reason, we spend more than 6 months of the year on “daylight savings time,” which seems odd and pointless to me… but that’s not what this post is about, so I’ll stop.

On the last day of October, Prof. H.M. Wogglebug, T.E., paid a visit to the library.  The Wogglebug is a character from the Wizard of Oz books; this is the look I was aiming for:

A lot of people thought I was supposed to be a leprechaun, but I carried the book with this illustration around with me (The Marvelous Land of Oz) and educated them.  The Wogglebug character began life as a simple bug, but by hiding himself in the crevice of a school room wall, was able to become Thoroughly Educated (hence the T.E. at the end of his name).  Eventually, the schoolroom professor caught sight of him and plucked him up and set him in front of the magnifying projector so as to use him as an illustration for a lesson.  Magically, the magnification never reversed itself (hence the H.M., or Highly Magnified).  L. Frank Baum didn’t have much formal education, and what he did experience (at a military academy) was unpleasant, so he was a bit cynical about academics.  Prof. Wogglebug’s character is always rather pompous.  In the Oz books, however, he’s best known for inventing pills that allow the swallower to instantaneously absorb all the knowledge in a given field (mathematics, elocution, spelling, etc.), which frees up the students at his academy to practice athletics all day long.

Turning to the opposite of pompous, Bo dressed up our dilapidated pumpkin-head guy for the trick-or-treaters.  You’ll notice the attempt at scariness, with the rusty old axe and glowing blue eye insets.  The string attached to his right sleeve was threaded into the house through an open window so that Bo could crouch behind and wave the arm about in a menacing way.

In the end we only had about five trick-or-treaters come to our door.  I attribute this to living near the end of a dead-end street and not having a working porch light (yes, we lit the stairs with solar yard lights, put our jack-o-lantern out next to the door, and left the solid door open so the lights of the house shone out).  Oh well, next year we’ll make sure to light our house better.  The big question is what to do with the unclaimed loot– 5 pounds of candy and 6 pounds of peanuts in the shell!

Now the days keep growing shorter and shorter, and even on sunny days the temperatures don’t get much about 60 degrees.  With the time change, I’ll be coming home from work in the dark every day, and eventually, I’ll be leaving for work before full daylight, too.  Which leads me to my next beef: instead of all these other holidays, why don’t Americans celebrate a National Month of Hibernation at this time of year?

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Birthday, Books, Max

Last week Maurice Sendak died, inspiring a rash of Sendak tributes across the internet, many of them incorporating characters from his most well-known work, Where the Wild Things Are. Unlike many authors of books from my childhood, Sendak was still alive during my lifetime, and had been involved in the movie made from his most famous work.  So, I felt a twinge of sadness at the news, as if a portion of my childhood had departed.

Meanwhile, heavy rain and and laziness kept us inside for the most part this weekend.  I finished reading Mockingjay, the third and final book of the Hunger Games series.  We started (finally!) setting up the office in the house and unpacking books. I made a cake, and Bo actually wore that silly birthday crown for more than an hour– and let me take a picture.  Finally, the sun appeared in the afternoon and we went down to happy hour at our favorite local cantina.  They were just finishing clean-up from their Mother’s Day brunch buffet, transitioning to regular dinner service, and we enjoyed our beers in the relative quiet.

It was no rumpus, and a wild one much less.  But when I downloaded the photo onto my computer, I realized that it kind of looks like Max sitting there in our living room, plotting some gleeful scheme.  Childhood might be getting more distant every year, but like Max the boy and the king, it’s never really gone.

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Henry and me

I recently finished reading Washington Square by Henry James.  It’s one of his earlier novels and tells the story of Catherine Sloper, a quiet, plain, and not particularly bright young woman who struggles to reconcile the wills of her ne’er-do-well suitor and her overbearing physician father.  Money, of course, is also heavily involved.

I’ve never been a fan of Henry James, though I have begrudgingly admired his work at times.  I complained bitterly about having to include three of his novels on my comprehensive exams reading list in graduate school.  I was told that a doctoral student who professed to specialize in late-19th-century and early-20th-century American literature had to have a good working knowledge of Henry James.  Nonetheless, I gritted my teeth as I slogged through The American and Portrait of a Lady with an attitude of resistance and increasing ill-will toward the sissified, uptight ex-patriot (I mean, really! he lived most of his life in Great Britain!) who had written them.  By the time I got to The Golden Bowl, the exercise was more about vanquishing this portion of my reading list than anything else.

Amazingly enough, The Golden Bowl really reeled me in.  At some point (probably several hundred pages in), I realized how very subtly written the story was, how skillfully James was telling the story that is mostly about speculation (does the male protagonist’s wife know that he is cheating on her with her own youthful stepmother?) and the reading or misreading of vague hints and indicators.  Anyone who has been suspicious, or in a position to be suspected, will recognize the delicacy of this kind of situation.  You scrutinize the other person, decide that What is Not Being Said must be true, and therefore you will respond thus… but it’s all too easy to dismiss what you’ve determined, precisely because it is not, and cannot be, spoken of.  Hence, you begin to live in two simultaneous and contradictory worlds.

James’ books are an awful lot of work to read, and most of my reading since graduate school has resulted from an attempt to avoid reading books that are so much work.  I think I bought my copy of Washington Square right after reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, because the author, Azar Nafisi, writes quite a bit about the discussions she had with her female Iranian students about that novel.  Of course, I read Reading Lolita four years ago, so now I no longer remember what it was that I found so fascinating about Nafisi’s discussion of James and her students’ responses.  It was a surprise to me, though, that I enjoyed reading the book.  Nice short chapters, easily absorbed characterizations– it was a pleasure to read over the course of a week or so.

A few days after I started writing this, my parents said they had tickets to a theatrical production of The Turn of the Screw.  They were unfamiliar with the story and asked if I knew anything about the author, Henry James.  I laughed and paraphrased what I’ve written above.  My mom said that the street I grew up on, James Street, was named for Henry James’ grandfather.

What??  All these years, while I slogged through James’ novels, alternately hating and admiring him, I was a product of the city that was once dominated by his family?!

Yes, indeed.  Henry James’s grandfather, William James, owned much of Syracuse, NY, back in the day.  Wow.  I feel like I’m in some sort of ironic Jamesian plot twist.  How very subtle.

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…Or at least it seems that way lately.  First it was watching the movie Thunderheart, which I seem to get a hankering to see every few years: all that footage of the South Dakota badlands reminds me so sharply of my days there as a seasonal park ranger in my early 20’s.

Badlands NP, 1993

Then there was the NY Times interview with Beverly Cleary that took me back even further, to 4th grade visits to the school library, where our librarian, Mrs. B. (I can’t remember her full name, but she was probably about 26 years old at the time), read us stories of Henry and Beezus and Ramona.  The Times book review staffer who did the interview reminisced about Cleary’s books as well as those of Judy Blume, saying that she could still remember exactly where they were located in her school library.  Amazing! those two authors are tightly associated with my 4th-5th-6th grade years– and with Mrs. B., who probably introduced them both to us.

a few years and a few series before Beverly Cleary

Finally, while driving around on Saturday morning, I caught this story on NPR, about Nirvana and the 20th anniversary of the beginnings of grunge music.  I didn’t live in the Pacific Northwest until the end of the 1990s, but I can still remember hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” pounding through the walls of my seasonal apartment in the Badlands during the summer of 1993.  I had never paid much attention to grunge before, but I walked next door and asked my neighbor for a grunge mix tape.

Seattle 2007, UW Arboretum

Of course, by the time I lived in Seattle in 2007, the era of grunge was long over.  This was a main point of the NPR story, which pointed out the irony that it was in part the fame and notoriety of bands like Nirvana that brought attention to Seattle and environs, and that this contributed to its renewed popularity, stronger economy, higher rents, and the end of cheap nightlife venues… thereby eliminating grunge’s natural habitat.

Nostalgia has been defined as “sadness without an object”.  It’s also associated with the Greek words for pain (algia) and with the idea of home (nostos).  In my case, it probably just means that I’ve been away from my comfort zone in Oregon long enough that my unconscious is panicking a bit at my apparently unmoored state.  Suddenly I am in the mindset to reminisce, to long for the past, to feel utterly clearly how I felt on that day I first drove into the Badlands, the thrill of that distorted guitar sound through the apartment wall, the eagerness of my friends and me as we waited for Mrs. B to read the next installment of the kids on Klickitat Street to us.

When almost every experience and every setting is suddenly new, I seem to develop the need to grasp at something familiar, a known quantity.  What is more familiar than my memories, especially the ones I’ve gone over many times?  So yes, the past is always there.  It’s just waiting for the moment when I need to summon it up, and it comes flooding back.

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Last week marked a period in the academic quarter that I’ve begun to look forward to. It’s the week when many of the humanities classes on campus require the students to come to the library and pick out an item to study individually.  Depending on the class, they might be searching for a novel, a set of short stories, a book of landscape painting, a movie, or something else literary or artistic.

As you might expect, Oregon Institute of Technology does not offer many classes in the humanities. Nor does it recruit students driven by great interest in the humanities (those students are over at Southern Oregon University, on the other side of the mountains). As a result, reference librarians come in handy when students are looking for their humanities materials.

I’m not sure what it means about me and my choices, but ever since I did my degrees in English, I’ve immersed myself in jobs that require knowledge not in the humanities, but in the sciences.  So, it’s gratifying to be asked for help in finding a book about art, history, or literature.  OIT library doesn’t have rows and rows of literature in the stacks, but it has a fair amount for a tech school, as I found out a few weeks ago as I picked out poetry volumes for a National Poetry Month display.

Librarians who know their literature can be helpful in that the Library of Congress subject headings, which are used to categorize books and other materials into groups based on what they are about, do not always apply so well to literature.  Fictional works are often “about” so many different things that it’s impossible to peg them in a handful of short, pre-determined phrases.  So, librarians with familiarity with literature and literary history can serve as a shortcut for students searching for particular kinds of fiction.  Several students that I helped last week were searching for fiction written by Native American writers, and being able to go to the online catalog and distinguish the names of Native American authors from people writing about Native American authors from the list of results helped save time; from there, we were able to look at a record, find the exact subject heading (“Indians of North America– Fiction,” in this case), and find all the other books assigned that subject heading.  Leslie Marmon Silko’s book Storyteller contains poetry, essays, and short stories, so it wasn’t assigned the subject heading above.  But it suited the young woman who needed to find short stories by Native American authors.  Pulling from the shelf a book of short stories by American authors, I pointed to the name D’Arcy McNickle in the table of contents.  “That’s a Native American author?” the student asked skeptically, seeing a name that didn’t look right.

Of course, people without advanced degrees in the humanities can do this too: do a Google search for something like “Native American writers,” copy-paste one of the author’s names into the library catalog box, see what subject heading is assigned to that author’s works.  But for me, it felt good to be on the trail, working quickly and easily through the catalog and the stacks with the students, verbalizing my thoughts aloud as I homed in on the materials they were seeking.  The students– maybe they learned something about how librarians organize books, or about how some books are inherently difficult to organize, or that the messy machine that is a librarian’s brain is sometimes the fastest search engine out there.

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The Lacuna

Barbara Kingsolver has turned her hand to many Big Concepts throughout her writing career, and her latest novel is no exception.  Whether the topic is interracial adoption, the ethics of the human relationship to the natural world, or the moral ramifications of Christian missionaries in third-world countries, Kingsolver can wrap it up in a scrumptious flatbread storyline, add likable and well-developed characters infused with a flavorful setting and sprinkled with moments of humor, sadness, epiphany, and grace to make a satisfying repast.  Critic Maureen Ryan wrote a piece back in the mid-1990s about “Barbara Kingsolver’s Low-Fat Fiction,” which claimed that the neat little sandwich I describe above is a package that is “seductively appealing” to readers, but that while being fashionable and “aggressively political,” Kingsolver’s work is also “fundamentally conservative,” offering as it does, the familiar and comforting conventions of old-fashioned fiction.

Since that piece was written, Kingsolver has issued The Poisonwood Bible, Animal Vegetable Miracle, and now The Lacuna.  While the narrative framework of these books can still be called “old-fashioned” or “conservative”, I don’t think you can accuse Kingsolver of political conservatism.   One of the ironies of our time is that some liberal and progressive ideas are also old-fashioned and, at least at one time, could have been considered conservative.  Kingsolver’s work tends to fit into this category– who would have thought that suggesting one eat locally-grown food would be considered progressive or even radical?  Or that calling for freedom of speech, freedom of association, and other basic rights, might once again be unfashionable?

The Lacuna chronicles Harrison Shepherd’s life as it moves from a small island off the coast of Mexico to Washington, DC, again to Mexico City and then back to the US, between about 1925 and 1950.  Shepherd is like a Zelig character mingling with historical figures such as Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky in Mexico City and the rioters of the Depression-era Bonus Army in Washington, and all the while Shepherd is surreptitiously recording the events.  The narrative is thus  first-person, ostensibly from these notebooks and diaries, and the book’s Big Concept is not quickly seen, though themes of isolation and alienation emerge fairly soon.

A Big Concept appears in the second half of the narrative, however, when the time period moves past World War II and into the anti-Communist witch-hunts that plague Cold War America.  Kingsolver has a genius for picking up on the familiar motifs of our every-day life and echoing them back in a different light, in a manner that is both subtle and bludgeon-like at the same time.   More than once, I let my jaw drop and my head sink back with a gasp as I recognized the similarities between the tactics and  accusations of the McCarthy era and those used in our post-9/11 nation.

I won’t say much more so that I won’t spoil the novel for those who haven’t read it yet.  Suffice it to say that, as always,  Kingsolver is stretching herself intellectually with this book, and as always, the results are both absorbing and compelling.  So, get off the computer and go read it!

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Random Coincidences

IMG_2793cropA couple days ago, on Veteran’s Day, to be exact, I was walking with Joda, absorbed in some long literary reverie that concluded with the thought that I wanted to read The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West.  I was supposed to read it about 15 years ago for a seminar I took in grad school, so I knew I used to have a copy somewhere.  After half a dozen moves, however, I didn’t quite know where it might be, if I indeed still had it.

Later that morning, I was listening to a podcast that specifically mentioned The Day of the Locust, which again reminded me of the morning’s resolution.  So that afternoon, when I attacked yet another box of books in the garage, I was happy to see that my copy of the novel was inside.

Also in that box were two comic books that made me nostalgic for my college days: Matt Groening’s Love is Hell and School is Hell.  With a fond smile, I put them in the magazine rack in the powder room for the intermittent reading pleasure of me and my guests.  With the new unauthorized “biography” of the Simpsons out and the corresponding controversy about its claims that Matt Groening had little creative input into the show’s development and popularity, it was nice to reminisce about the “old” days, pre-Simpsons, when Groening was still a cult figure and my friends and I would read the Life in Hell comic strips religiously.

As of this morning, I’m about 6 chapters into The Day of the Locust and have just been introduced to a character named Homer Simpson.  How funny!  A series of minor coincidences has just come full-circle.

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