where i’m writing from

March 22, 2014

Am I still a book blogger or simply on hiatus?

“Aren’t you due for another blog,” asks Kathy of mirabile dictu.

Yes and no.

Although I’m certainly not an active book blogger at the moment, I’m still reading, always reading.

The Righteous Mind by J. Haidt validates Hume’s famous thesis that reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.

Where I’m Calling From by R. Carver, a bloke I’ve been wanting to read ever since I learned that he and I share many geographical locations in common, from Chico to Cupertino, and beyond.

Carver sits at the feet of the common. I like that, a lot. Blue collar gritty stuff.

Plus his prose is as addicting as Candy Crush.

Moral Tribes by J. Greene is a full-court press that smothers the idea of moral incommensurability and replaces it with a pragmatic understanding of utilitarianism.

His work is fascinating in that he combines first-rate philosophy with leading-edge neuroscience.

The result is a new appreciation of moral psychology. Highly recommend it.

J. Greene almost had the pleasure of meeting me in Berkeley. He doesn’t know this yet, but he and I will get along famously.

I’m confident that way.

Lastly, An Equal Music by V. Seth, a novel that roused me to enthusiasm early on with prose like “What I lost I have never come close to retrieving” and “I become the music of the scale. I mute my will, I free my self” but have since tired of the glacial plotting.

Beyond reading

Is there such a thing? No. Even when I’m on business travel, I read everything around me as though they were pages.

I recently boarded a plane early in the morning.

0

I landed in Honolulu and went for a glorious two-hour urban hike.

1

I saw signs…

2

…and tentacles and suckers. That, or “Aloha” in Braille.

3

Then I devoured the soft and juicy bits of things to sate my hunger.

4I looked out the window of my room.

5

I saw people lying in the sun near the pool.

6

I went for a swim and because decency requires that voyeurism not take the form of a clicking camera phone, you’ll just have to trust me when I say that I saw many beautiful people. The ugly young were pretty, and several of the old cougars were pretty, too. And even that pale German tourist wearing way too-tight James Bond swim trunks, even he was handsome after a fashion.

That is all.


on the dangers of reading too often

February 3, 2014

Grad school is a period of extended adolescence. One’s future is up in the air, and one is largely dependent on others, especially creditors. Unlike adolescents, however, grad students often lead very sedentary lives. farmerThey burrow into libraries amongst musty aisles of books. And they stoop over their reading and stuff their faces with flaky croissants and stain pages of books with inkblots of coffee. Sure, the cloistered life of learning has its advantages, but physical activity isn’t one of them. In One of Ours, many contrasts are in play: urban/rural, individual/group, and reason/faith, among others. But my favorite contrast hands down, and the one that makes me chuckle at all hours of the day, whenever I think of it, is the contrast between the life of the body, say, farming, and the life of the mind. Of a young man who intends to be a professor, Claude’s muscular and sun-burned neighbor drily asks, “What’s the matter with him? Does he have poor health?”

Postscript. In related Bay Area news, here’s a tribute to a “crusty old farmer who had a dream.” I have something approaching love for him.


Ghost in Search of a Machine

February 1, 2014

One of Ours is a 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Willa Cather. Like a Quentin Tarantino Film, the story starts in one genre but ends in another. No, I was never a big fan of From Dusk Till Dawn. So it’s no surprise that One of Ours leaves me dissatisfied.

Books I through III are set on the prairie of Nebraska. We follow the growth and development of Claude, who searches for something fine and splendid in life, as he navigates the crass materialism of his dad and the foolish piousness of his mom. The prairie sections of the novel are quite lovely. Even the creek bears witness to it.

“The sun popped up over the edge of the prairie like a broad, smiling face; the light poured across the close-cropped August pastures and the hilly, timbered windings of Lovely Creek…”

But when Claude journeys to France to fight in World War I, Cather’s bildungsroman morphs into an uninspired war novel. It’s as though the narrator, at first totally enthralled by Claude and the comforts and pleasures (and difficulties) of country boyhood, abruptly loses interest in her host and breaks free from the skull of Claude’s experience. In books IV and V, a homunculus is on the loose, one that’s gallivanting about, fascinated by cheese and architecture, and by the abstract joys of military life, of marching together, of living and dying together.

Problem is, an Odysseus who leaves home in search of an ideal is only as interesting as the inner experience that propels him. And this experience is largely ignored once Cather’s narrative gaze looks beyond the green alfalfa and “shattered grain” of Nebraska.

No wonder I’m homesick for the Midwest.


Literary Cage Fight

January 27, 2014

I marvel over literary descriptions of commonplace things. If only there were a reality TV show pitting two writers against each other. At the sound of a bell and the pointing of a finger, they would be told to “Describe this!”—say, a scene of the sun and sunmoonmoon each on a horizon’s edge. Well, I’m delighted to report that two literary heavyweights are game and the contest is on.

Enter Willa Cather, from One of Ours:

“The sun was already low. It hung above the stubble, all milky and rosy with the heat, like the image of a sun reflected in grey water. In the east the full moon had just risen, and its thin silver surface was flushed with pink until it looked exactly like the setting sun. Except for the place each occupied in the heavens, Claude could not have told which was which. They rested upon opposite rims of the world, two bright shields, and regarded each other, —as if they, too, had met by appointment.”

And Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead:

“At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.”

Is there a winner of this literary cage fight?

Can there be a winner?


why dialogue fails miserably

January 23, 2014

Time to deliver on a promise, delayed as it might be. One last quick post on The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Emphasis on quick. The novel is pervaded by an atmosphere of desperation and loneliness, of mutual distrust and antagonism. People roam the streets untitledwithout satisfaction. An abiding theme of the novel is the total lack of belongingness. Because prattle, chit chat, and shooting the bull is how we connect with others, dialogue must fail in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter—and it does so spectacularly. A brute spills his guts to a deaf mute who doesn’t hear a blessed word; a troop of four visits another with comically subdued results, no one able to muster a sustained conversation, a stilted, uncomfortable affair; a boy filled with envy communicates his jealousy by way of accidentally shooting a girl in the face, leaving her with a bloodied, crumpled skull; and two men separated by race but bound by ideology bicker ceaselessly over tactics, till they stare each other down in bitter rage: “You short-sighted bigot!” “White! Fiend!” In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, talking is a dangerous affair, a terrifying parody. A thought, a word, or a sentence might cut or kill you.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 91 other followers