Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Interview w/ The Geeky Press


Interview with my college mentor and friend Brad King.

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“Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s just a natural feeling. You’re not the person who discovered that feeling, so don’t go trying to patent it, okay?” – Oshima

Kafka on the Shore

Haruki Murakami is arguably one of the most talented writers alive today. Much is made of his critical “voice”, at times exceedingly gentle and poetic in its prose and just as frequently careening, atonal, confrontationally political. His love for a certain brand of absurdism, a sort of gonzo Japanese magical-realism, has frustrated Japanese critics and made him a bastion of the US literary establishment.

Over the past few years I’ve familiarized myself with Murakami’s short stories and was interested to spend more time investigating his novels. And, indeed, I can see what all of the hub-bub is about. This novel, bracingly strange as it is, is frustratingly compulsive. Essentially a re-telling of the Oedipus story with a 20th century post-war twist and a healthy sense of post-modern angst to keep things ribald and alive.

The story operates on a parallel structure which is at first intensely engaging. While I would never turn to a Murakami book to have all of the answers layed out for me, I certainly think this one provides a pallet which is comprehensible for the first half of the novel. Eventually the characters come together and from there things actually veer off for the worst. After about 300 pages of genuinely intense and riveting action the improvisational jazz style of Murakami’s approach started to ring out with some false notes. While the story is often name-checked for the presence of a certain KFC charcter, anything after the point of his introduction felt aimless and frustrating. The Chicago Tribune referred to the book as “consciousness expanding”, and I’d concur with that sentiment, as one of its strengths is a sense of looking at diverse and myriad universal connections and drawing abstract connections in a sort of dream-logic. I’ve been listening to a lot of rapper Ab-Soul (review of his new LP likely coming in the next week), and it’s sort of like that. Everything works on about three levels, and I can see how someone could burn through the book with no trouble and not dwell too much on the “riddles” Murakami claims are embedded in it, or spend a long time decoding some of the strange goings-on in Shikoku.

I suppose the major weakness of this novel would also be its secret weapon. Murakami has a thoroughly unique voice, but he also isn’t particularly interested in developing what me might consider a satisfying conclusion. Some of his experimental tactics, including different levels of text boldness, talking animals, and worlds within worlds, can seem frustrating and aimless if you’re not the type of reader who is down for whatever. If you are, though, or share in Murakami’s particular kind of angsty melancholy, there’s a good chance you’ll appreciate the sublime weirdness this novelist offers up. It’s a doozy, though, so prepare yourself for some of the weird corners of the fiction universe.

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Response: Against YA


I write things that aren’t the equivalent of a bad Death Cab for Cutie outtake / the ramblings of a sad, poetic robot programmed with the emotional depth of a 12 year old…?

I came across this article published in Slate by Ruth Graham today. It basically bashes (though, cloyingly, reminds us that all of our sins are ours to make) adult folk for, you know, reading. That thing our country is doing so well at we can comfortably discourage our adult population from OVERdoing it.


Should adults feel embarrassed about reading YA stuff? As an avid comic book reader I’d hope the answer is no. After all, we’ve spent so much time debating the endless boredom of “graphic novel” vs. “comic book”, I can only imagine the next step is “kid’s book” vs. “literary youth fiction”. It’s a hierarchical and arbitrary distinction, one which reinforces the sort of canonical approach to literature that forces adults who want to read books from a section not labeled “fiction” out into the cold anyway.

But I think there’s more reason to disagree with this obsequious attention to dogma than its simple lack of openness in regards to literary merit. I’ve been reading a lot of John Green interviews lately (what with the Stargasm), and have been intrigued to listen/read his handling of all this “sick-lit” and YA worthiness drama. At the conclusion of another YA poster-child, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky makes an interesting and relevant point that “there are people who forget what it’s like to be sixteen when they turn seventeen”. Graham, in her rush to dismiss The Fault in Our Stars as a “nicely written book for 13-year-olds” seems to fall into one of the traps Green frequently alludes to. Besides her use of some very condescending italics, Graham misses the fact that the focus on the world of the adolescent can serve as a way-point for those 13-year-olds, a reminder to those who are older of what it was to be such an age, or even a deeply important bridge to allow people of diverse ages and experiences to commune over extremely human feelings.

My mother and I are going to see the film this weekend. Certainly, she is likely to identify with Hazel’s mother more than I will. But then, she was a young woman once. A young person. In love, I’ve come to believe. Should she be denied the simple pleasure of returning to a past place, a luxury of youth neither simpler nor less complex of feeling? For shame, that we should only be allowed access to our present moment of living. How dull the world would be if we could only move forward, never return as Proust himself to the world of “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia”. How spartan of Graham to elevate herself amongst such base desires in fiction readers. After all, the idea of nostalgia is such absolute anathema to someone like Dickens or Shakespeare, who have never lounged long in the ephemeral world of the past…

“There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers…” truly makes me wonder who I should be ashamed of writing about. And, contemplating my own fiction, I should wonder if trading in my teenage protagonist for a more spritely 20-something model wouldn’t increase my chances of being knighted by the literary elite. Of course, if Pip never becomes an adult we miss out on all of that lovely adult Pippy-ness. Also some really weird stuff with Magwitch. But as Green himself would likely remind you, the point of YA (or any good literature, of which YA is just one component) is not always to offer you the adult reflection on experience. If anything, by offering relatable characters of relatable ages with relatable life/love circumstances, stories like The Fault in Our Stars offer a safe space to ask questions. Hazel’s obsession with the ending to her favorite book, which Graham somewhat cruelly mocks, as unduly “satisfying” ignores the host of questions about life and its worth which Green’s books (I keep using them as his most recent book is the impetus for the film which apparently prompted the article in question) attempt at their core to address. It’s gracious to imagine a world full of adult characters reflecting on past experiences and wisdom gained / lost. It’s a very different thing to attempt to carve out stories where the answers are not only not present, but the questions are hardly fully formed. In works such as Green’s most recent book the characters don’t have the luxury to reach very far beyond the age of questioning. The book is an important analogue to Graham’s assumed age of reflection as the pinnacle of art.

Graham’s article ends on a nice refrain from the (delightful) (also a bit uninformed, generally) Shailene Woodley about the barrier between young adulthood and womanhood. Like the rest of this thoroughly confusing argument for binaries on everything from literary worth to age and gender gaps, I say hang it! Literary lust is not a matter of linear progression. Our reading should swell and ebb and flow as we please, in its own fashion. We should be happy these adults are seeking out works which proffer questions of life and meaning, extend empathy, and worry less about genre or stylistic conventions. Graham’s assessment that the YA reader should aspire to sneak into the world of adult fiction is preposterous. Literary taste is not an Aristotelian plot structure with middle-aged climax built in. Rather, we should think on Ursula K. LeGuin and her (rather childish) sentiment that “the creative adult is the child who survives”.

Perhaps the genuinely engaged adult reader is the one who survives the pressures of adult readership to experience not only what it is to live today, but the virtue or recalling yesterday, too.

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Junot Diaz

“The half-life of love is forever.”

This is How You Lose Her (2012)

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I suppose I forgot to post a link on this blog to the memoir I wrote last year.

It meant a lot to me, and still does.


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Michael Ondaatje

“New lovers are nervous and tender,
but smash everything.
For the heart is an organ of fire.”

The English Patient, 1992

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“Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about…

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?”

(From F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters)

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“Don’t worry. This isn’t one of those tales. Though it started out that way…”
– Olive Penderghast, Easy A (2010)

*So, uh… you read a lot? That’s cool, I guess. But what do you want to do for a living?*

^ The above is a fairly frequent response to my major choice.

*Now, you say it doesn’t matter, but look at Othello! His jealousy is just like yours!*

^ The above is precisely why teachers in highschool suggest my major matters more than anything.

*How many of you have ever felt like Boo? Huh?*

^ And again.

*You have to admit, the gossip about Hester really isn’t that different than the gossip today? Is it, ladies?*

^ And again.

Classics matter. Especially those pesky highschool readers, the type everyone gets a crack at. Why? Because they enter the public discourse, are embedded in our memory. A wise-crack about Belgian colonialism isn’t likely to hit all those Joseph Conrad fans on the head, nor is a well timed play on the predicament of Gregor Samsa. Such is life.

But, for those who manage to negotiate and breath life into old texts, a world of pop-discourse suddenly springs to life. For a simpler example, look at the Harry Potter series, which even managed to proliferate classrooms in my highscool education. The world is open to the eager re-interpreters of myth.

Sometimes these are cleverly disguised. Sometimes they’re teasingly open. The recent film Easy A, which transmutes Hawthorne’s 1850 romance The Scarlet Letter, manages a canny balance of both.

In sum:

The Scarlet Letter: Is the story of the accused Hester Prynne. Well, primarily. It’s also about a doomed priest, her wiley daughter, angry ex, and the town of Boston in the Puritan era.

Easy A: Follows a young woman named Olive Penderghast as she becomes the pariah of her highschool. Otherwise unnoticed, she becomes the talk of the town once rumor spreads she’s lost her “V” card. Olive decides to live the myth up, and finds empowerment before the situation spins wildly out of control.

Now, Easy A invites intertextual study with its breezy attachement to the source material (they’re reading it in class, make light of the infamous bathing scenes in the 1995 Demi Moore adaptation, and Olive begins her introduction with the phrase – “let the record show” – similar to the “trial” Hester finds herself in as the novel begins).

But as we examine the two stories we’ll quickly see that they’re cut from different ideological cloth. Hester’s tool is silence, where Olive cues the story with a very important phrase.

Olive: “There are two sides to every story. This is mine – the right one.”

Well! Hm. Readers of Letter are thrust into the action of the story from the prison door onward. Not so for Easy A, where we hear Olive’s reasoning first-hand:

“I guess maybe it was because the first time I’d felt, sort of, superior…” she says of the lie itself, suggesting an empowerment to sexuality not only concurrent with strains of contemporary feminism, but also a benefit of the first-person narration versus the distanced narrator of the novel.

And what of the confession? Further division.

Olive renounces her branding almost immediately to the ultra-conservative Marianne Bryant (Amanda Bynes):

“What you heard in the bathroom the other day wasn’t true, at all. It’s actually a funny story…”

We never hear the end of that amusing tale, but Olive’s desire to renounce the image (early on) proves nice cognitive dissonance for Hester’s response. Questioned by reverend Dimmesdale she refuses any attempt to de-label herself visually or verbally:

“It is branded too deeply! Ye cannot take it off.”

And a paragraph later:

“I will not speak!”

Hester says when pressed for confession. Another interesting note is Hester’s appearance in the novel. Even before striking out from the Puritans Hester is marked apart as “tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale.”

Olive, on the other hand, is quick to note her “below average breast-size” and lack of physical appeal – that’s part transformation and part personal narrative. Still, it’s interesting to consider how the transformations (opposite as they are from outcast to accepted) mirror two very striking women.

But broadening, there’s that tricky symbol of the “A”. And, more importantly, what it comes to represent in the current of the works. I quote University of Illinois professor Nina Baym:

“[I]ndeed the deepest conflict in The Scarlet Letter is that between Hester and the Puritan rulers over the letter and who it is to decree its meaning.”

And the crux of what I’ll argue here is over the importance of that ideal. How do different generations interpret its importance? In pretty widely differing ways. The multiplicity of symbolism is inherent here, as it is with the “A”. Let’s ask Baym’s question:

“[W]hat is her side? That is, what does she want, and what do we want for her?”

Depends on which one you consult. The entirety of Easy A is predicated on the wildly out of control manifestation of Olive’s experiment.

On the other hand, Hester Prynne never sees her action as a mistake. That is all Dimmesdale, who differs from Hester in the acceptance and acknowledgment of his actions. Struck down in the town square and unabashedly repentant:

“The law we broke!- the sin here so awfully revealed!- let these alone be in they thoughts! I fear! I fear!”

He recognizes his “mistake” and accepts it after ignoring it the length of the novel. That is Dimmesdale’s confession – his way of conquering his own “A”. Likewise, the entirety of Easy A focuses on Olive’s apology. The video-blog which frames the story is her way of taking responsibility for her actions – just like the reverend in his public admission.

Take a look at Olive’s analysis of the second half of The Scarlet Letter.

“But then the town realizes she was too harshly judged, and she’s really a good person – she dies a saint.”

Not. Exactly. Hester remains a baffling creature to the end. The denouement of The Scarlet Letter is an eerie, disquieting thing. Hester, in her later years, never abandons her “A”. Never admits culpability in the adultery at all, really, and the sainthood referenced is one Hester seems to shy from. She’s the object of the lost women of Boston, but hardly beloved of the overall town.

This brings us back to that “A”, and what it means to accept or reject it. The multiplicity of meaning suggested by Easy A is rather linear – an object of empowerment moves to one of leper-dom as Olive begins to live the life she imitated. Individuality, while not wholly un-aligned with sexual independence (Olive suggests her sexual emancipation on her own terms at the close of the film) ultimately reflects a return to moral forthrightness and certitude.

But there are fewer simple answers in The Scarlet Letter. The “A” appears on Dimmesdale, visibly on Hester, and once in the sky:

“[L]ooking upward to the zenith, he held there the appearance of an immense letter, -the letter A,- marked out in lines of dull red light.”

What does it stand for, exactly?

  • Adulterer
  • Angel (a word associated with Hester at the close of the novel)
  • Arthur (he does have one, after all)
  • Anything, really. Hawthorne himself admits “another’s guilt might have seen another symbol in it.”

Even Pearl, the dutiful child, is so passive as to frequently suggest she may be the living symbol of the adultery. Fluid identity permeates every aspect of The Scarlet Letter, from the changing roles of Dimmesdale (his confession) and Chillingworth (learning to let go of his monstrous hatred) to Pearl (who we witness grow and develop throughout the novel).

The static character, what Baym calls the “defiant individual” of American literature – is Hester. Even more striking as Baym sees it because she is a mother, possessed of “stubborn strength”. Hester never re-cants, and her ultimate triumph is as liminal as the lives of of every character in Hawthorne’s story – imperfect, muddled.

Yes, Hester enacts a small change on the Puritan society, as her acceptance suggests what Baym sees as “enlargement, progress in human history”. But it’s also the story of a woman so stalwart she cannot admit any personal fault. If heroes are uncompromising to a fault, Hester wins. But if we ask for a hero with more self-awareness, one who can accept and grow in a more traditional way, she’s hardly the protagonist. And if growth overtime – the arc suggested by Aristotle – is relevant, the hero is far better cast as Arthur Dimmesdale. For he is the one who makes concerted effort to own up, progress, and ultimately acknowledges his actions. Hester, for her part, sees no wrong-doing, and produces the peculiar situation where she cannot be buried with Dimmesdale:

“It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle.”

And so it doesn’t. They believe in different triumphs of the spirit. The final images of Easy A and The Scarlet Letter say it all. Hester and Dimmesdale buried together-yet-apart, while Olive and her new-found love Todd (Penn Badgley) finally embrace – both accepting their actions as proof of their ability to embark on a relationship together.

That is, finally, where the two make their break. What Olive characterizes as Hester’s “humble silence” is actually calculated defiance. The Scarlet Letter is a panoramic, ambivalent essay on the power of definition. It concludes, via the re-definition of each major character in the cast, that labels are ultimately ineffective, unimportant, unreadable.

Easy A tacks on the lens of teenage individualism and refracts it through the eye of a single character – opting for a quasi-moralistic ending and, perhaps more importantly for the Hollywood film, an easy ending with quota established, broken, and (mostly) restored. Responsibility taken yields positive growth – a much more comfortable suggestion for audiences than Hester’s problematic (and perhaps selfish) confidence.

These are different morals for different times. While I entered into this essay planning on disproving the validity of Easy A (I think the moral is white-washed for movie-going audiences) it’s the message fit to the medium. The Scarlet Letter remains so curious because it refuses easy answers, and so frustrating because it pulls a Bartleby and forces the reader to accept the futility of decision.

There are, finally, no simple definitions. But at the heels of such complexity will continually bite the jaws of labeled conditioning. Reminding us, if nothing less, that there’s more to morality than “good” and “bad”. That there’s more to narrative than responsibility equating with personal progression. And, I suppose, that a narrative reflects a moment, while an interpretation negotiates an era.

“Sympathetic readers might have hoped for a finale where the letter is simply put aside once and for all. But it is Hester who insists on wearing it when she returns to Boston in later life.” – Nina Baym, Introduction to The Scarlet Letter (1982/1850)

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Reader Round-Up (2)








Arcadia – Tom Stoppard (1993) Oh, how intriguing. Much talked about in my playwriting experience, this is the story of knowing, of an English country house in the past and present. I’ll confess that I’ve always struggled with reading plays (something about mixing stage directions and storytelling), but I found this extremely intriguing. It’s sharply written, and there’s a good deal of almost gothic humanity and ugliness near the close. I’d love to see it staged (hopefully BSU can arrange that).

The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls (2005) I had the odd pleasure of teaching this text, recently. And while I had initially set up a regimented system of pages per day, I ended up reading most of it in about four days. Mrs. Walls will be attending our university in a few weeks, and I’ll be very interested to meet her. The observations in this memoir (and what a convoluted genre, at times) are drawn with warmth and surprising neutrality. If you’ve any sense for the grief of the family you’ll find much shock and relief in her honest stories of a vagrant childhood. Heartbreaking for anyone familiar with the dysfunctional family, affirming for those who believe in the power of the individual to achieve. Written in clear, unchallenging prose. While not the most revelatory thing I’ve read, it’s compelling and moves quickly. A good read for a short trip, perhaps.

Letters To a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts-For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind – Anna Deavere Smith (2006) A delightful read by a woman I admire very much. Although told in an unusual, specific (yet general) style, I found it a winning collection of memories and advice. Smith is a terrific mentor, and her tips are useful regardless of ambition (although pertinent to the Arts). Full of good personal stories, but also useful advice and connections to a variety of historical artists (Dostoyevsky, Cezanne, Sorkin). Recommended for any artist considering a professional career – it even has resource information for the arts listed in the back.

To familiarize yourself with these contemporary artists, I’d suggest taking a look at some of their work through these videos:




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Reader Round-Up (1)

So, I read. I don’t know if that’s clear, but I’m actually a Literature major. And, besides the larking about that consists of movies, games, comics, etc… You know, books are my actual thing. And I’ve read a few, too!

Regretfully, as I read more books, watch more movies, and hear more music… I can’t give everything a full revision and read-through. So I present, with a small twinge of sadness and a great deal of relief, my condensed book review. A simple(r) way to share everything.








If on a winter’s night a traveler – Italo Calvino (1979)

This was recommended to me by my Lit. advisor, and wow… it wasn’t an easy read. Calvino, in his remarkable post-modern novel, creates the vivid experience of reading. Tracing a reader through the experience of reading and mixing the worlds of fiction and the fictional, the book reads like a playful magic trick. Not for the faint of heart, mind you! It’s one of the more thoroughly puzzling things I’ve read, and the host of Crit. Lit. I’ve perused has only reinforced that idea. Still, if you’re into experimental narrative (or playful narrative in film) you’ll probably learn a lot from Calvino. Just be prepared for ten novels in one…

How to Read Literature Like a Professor – Thomas C. Foster (2003)

Delightful! I think this is assigned in my old high-school. It’s essentially a primer for those beginning to do literary analysis. I’ve heard it called simple, although I think it’s intentionally set out to be helpful rather than experimental. Foster is funny, warm, and genuinely helpful. It can all run together a bit given all of the different novels he cites, and I wasn’t a huge fan of the concluding story, but it works great as a tool-kit for newbies to reading and a charming refresher for those in the know. Heartily recommended for anyone planning to analyze film, theatre, or literature.

Stitches – David Small (2009)

Oh, this is wonderful. Extremely dark, but a very compelling memoir by the famous New York Times cartoonist. Follows the story of a young David Small, his debilitating vocal surgeries, and his attempts to survive his chaotic family life. The book reads like a master-class in visual storytelling, incorporating elements of Hitchcock and Lewis Carroll. Not an easy read by any means, but a unique entry in the graphic novel genre and a deeply compelling narrative of the power of an individual to transcend the most difficult of trials. Grotesque, beautiful, and sometimes nightmarish.

Our Town – Thornton Wilder (1938)

Such a curious play! I read this not too long ago for my playwriting seminar, and it’s not at all how I remember it! We only read the first two acts in highschool, though, so it really didn’t capture the magic of the story. It’s ostensibly about a small town and the hum-drum people in it, but there are layers of magic and darkness beneath the melancholy exterior. Stay through to that third act! It’s something else. Also, check out the 1989 Frances Conroy tele-cast. She’s divine.

Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson (1919)

Can you tell the play I’m working on is about small towns? Well, I absolutely love this book. It’s one of the darkest things you’ll ever read, right down to that unassumingly sinister title. Like Our Town, there’s a raw-edge that digs much, much deeper than the middle-American setting would suggest. Some of these chapters are searing, absolutely harrowing accounts of the destructive wheel of the small town. One of the darkest books I’ve ever read, not to mention the most human. A huge, overarching influence on my perception of storytelling.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway (1926)

This guy. Hemingweezy. I actually ended up loving this novel. And I didn’t like For Whom the Bell Tolls, so that was nice. I’m mostly familiar with his short stories, which made this both a surprise and a joy. There’s a ton of dysfunction in the novel, but the issues addressed regarding masculinity, hipster-dom, cultural relations, and particularly the portrayal of women, are all handled in tight, journalistic prose. You’ll never know who’s talking, but you’ll almost always have fun reading it. Like a long vacation with your best friends it gets fun, it gets ugly, and occasionally it gets real. And drinking. This book puts alcoholics to shame.

That’s it for the moment! I’ll make these periodically as I keep reading. Time allowed, they’ll even get full reviews. Still, hope you like the snack-size reviews!

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