We Moved to Hawaii, and I Surfed

I’m not really interested in surfing but I’m always interested in writing that earns the Pulitzer prize and tell my students that it’s a great list of texts to read! A few friends told me to read this book, so I purchased it. What Finnegan does so well falls under all of the excellent creative nonfiction and memoir conventions. They sound easy when you learn them: hyperbole, repetition, flash-back and flash-forward, embedding your cultural objects to dictate time, showing the reader how something “seemed” instead of reality, transitioning in time in the middle of a paragraph. Here are more. What is more important in this memoir is that someone like me, a very female reader (I love reading a good femoir!) who isn’t really interested in surfing, is engrossed. I want to know what happens to this protagonist whose family moves from LA to follow his father’s film career. Meanwhile, the side action of his father’s career, is the background and the main action of the son’s surfing life. This life is revealed surrounding this move.

I love flash forwards. Tobias Wolff is the king of them. Finnegan executes them well. In chapter two, we learn that our protagonist, William, has inadvertently caused his father to dislocate his shoulder splashing in the pool. At first, the reader is in the pool at the moment the dislocation happens, but the next paragraph does interesting things with time.

“Dad’s shoulder continued to dislocate every few years. The last time it happened, he was out at the Bomb. (A specific beach). He didn’t surf, so what was he doing, on a surfboard, out at the Bomb? Apparently, he paddled out just to have a look, to see big waves at close range. Then a set closed out the channel. He lost the board. And his shoulder came out of its socket. He went down once, twice, couldn’t stay afloat. A Hawaiian surfer saved him. I wasn’t there. I was in exile then, a college dropout. At the hospital, they opened up his shoulder, repaired the capsule, and tightened the surrounding muscles. It would not dislocate again. Neither would he be able to raise his arm above his head. Decades later, driving south through Laguna, I found myself hoping that my daughter, then four, never heard me bellow helplessly” (59-60).

This paragraph shows so many tricks. Instead of painfully telling us what surfer terms mean, Finnegan leaves them up for interpretation. In effect, the terms create theme and give us a feel for being plunged into surfer life. Instead of the narrator telling us, “I felt so guilty,” Finnegan shows us “Neither would he be able to raise his arm above his head.” Notice how “Decades later” plunges us forward in time in the same paragraph. It goes without notice and rolls us easily into this new time and space. Finnegan resists the temptation to tell us of his guilt carrying forward and simply remembers the sound of his father in pain. He transfers that sound onto his daughter.

I can tell you many places in This Boy’s Life by Wolff and in Wild by Strayed where they use this sly technique. I have the pages marked because these paragraphs can fly by. I challenge you to go now and find them. Practice them and integrate these lovely devices into your soul! Your reader will be amazed.

A life went up in flames.

One of my first reads after diploma was Little Fires Everywhere. I got to discuss it with an articulate group of readers up in Steamboat. For me, the point of no return was the way in which Celeste Ng explored class. I was so happy to finally see a novel that addressed such a heavy weight of any society. How to take care of the their lower income people?

There are many passages that allow us in to view a more influential family through subtle scenes. The trappings of such influence are shown well in the first instance that Lexie imagines her bedroom’s inventory — in fact, her life up til then — going up in flames.

“Now Lexie watched the smoke billow from her bedroom window, the front one that looked over the lawn, and thought of everything inside that was gone. Every T-shirt in her dresser drawer, every pair of jeans in her closet. All the notes Serena had written her since sixth grade, still folded in paper footballs, which she’d kept in a shoebox under her bed; the bed itself, the very sheets and comforter charred to a crisp” (Ng 4).

The verbs aren’t that exciting. But they are strong verbs…perhaps another writer would use a metaphor for the smoke. Perhaps the jeans would have been the ones she shopped for once with her boyfriend at so and so mall…in another writer’s hands. However, even at the basic level, we are shown the snake of memory, the way it thinks back and forward at once where the list ends with the “very sheets and comforter,” the more banal and plain detail as a global understanding that Lexie’s belongings are gone forever. We are also shown a subtle inventory of class. Lexie gets to have close friends, she gets to keep her things in a place that remains her own throughout her stable life. The protagonists contrasting this influential family are shown as transient as the daughter, Pearl, puts together her own second-hand bed on the front lawn.

While I entered into a deep debate about book versus series and the way the series bent the rules…I’ll leave that up to other viewers to discuss. The take away from this passage is that she could have simply told us: the house went up in flames. Instead, Ng developed characters while describing an event.

Dissertation Editing: Wisdom and/or Folly

Margaret_cavendish_from_Luminarium

 

This is a post about the act of writing, the very process, and how much this process concerns authority. As I continue to edit the final touches of my dissertation, I am only reading scholarly books about Early Modern Englishwomen writers like the above, Margaret Cavendish, Mary Astell, and Aphra Behn as well as Rogue studies books (Long Meg of Westminster, Mary Carleton, Mary Frith) and books on English society between 1470 and 1720.

I have read these books and have taken notes for the past three years, at least. My notes are lengthy and detailed and now are fifty-five pages in length. I would say that I am an intermediate scholar and can lecture for a while on the topic of how a handful of Englishwomen writers entered into a patriarchally strict world of text. Their unique entrance into this world is my focus.

As I become a scholar, it’s paramount to keep my momentum through feeling like an authority. In order to feel this authority, I need both encouragement and focused, formal feedback. As I have focused on formal tools for this blog, I would require the same from more advanced scholars.

This post serves as a reminder that as I am the student, so am I the teacher. As I experience this very vulnerable space of creating text, I keep this space in mind as I give feedback to my own students. Praise what works and why. The “why” of what works gives the student writer a view into her/his/their own psyche. When she/he/they learns why what they wrote is clear, succinct and understandable, then she/he/they can do more of that act. However, if I were to first focus on what doesn’t work, and even attach a judgement to it –  this is folly. Telling a student that their work isn’t good NEVER helps. In fact, an emerging, first-time student who has spent a life combating subsistence level stress, trauma, and forces of the world that undermine that very vulnerable psyche, has walked through fire to arrive at this privileged space of learning. They have finally arrived only to be told that what they wrote was bad. Those undermining forces from the past come up from the graves of their debtor prison ancestors, their peasant and ever struggling dead come for them with a plaque that says: failure.

This sounds dramatic, but it isn’t. I was and am this first-time student. This process of becoming an authority, one who is open to the wonders of learning and knowledge, can be flattened in an instant.

I am grateful to my committee for taking the time to give me formal feedback and have always recognized the gift of it to all of my students. Now more than ever, after the support I have received, I recognize how important it is to continue to gift  students the authority of writing, to adorn them with oodles of confidence so that once they hit small snags in the creative process, the hurdles remain small and students can rely on their wealth of confidence and authority for momentum to get past them.

Teachers are not gatekeepers. We are the informed cheerers. Wrap students in knowledge and support through formal feedback. When they enter into this privileged learning space, recognize the privilege, always – and allow them to take up the mantle of authority. Encouragement goes so much further than pulling the rug. When I have confidence before I ever turn on my monitor, I am the authority and I don’t have to fight through those rising, blue/gray hands of dead ancestors who have endeavored to pull me down my entire life.

(And yes – a great, great, great grandfather, Cassius Kinsey, was in debtor’s prison in Georgia, a fault with repercussions that affect me today.)

Pool-side Picks: A Few Suggestions

winters tale mark helprin

This post is dedicated to my brilliant, older sister, Shannon, who continues to read voraciously and inspires me to do everything.

At parties, I know how to clear the room. Someone might find out that I am closing in on my PhD in Literary Studies and ask, “Oh yeah? Do you have a recommendation for some classics?” I usually stammer and then ask them, “What do you like to read?” which gets them off the subject because I hate to seem like I hold some keys to the reading mecca of the world. I don’t. I just have opinions like anyone else.

So, here are a few opinions. (Besides taking to the pool or the ocean or the woods a stack of old New Yorkers…) The above is a great, chilly read for these hot summer days. I am not one to condemn movies, but please, read the book and then judge for yourself. This novel sparkles in the ghost of snowy mornings. Its pixie dust reveals the Hudson Valley like you’ve never experienced.  ‘Nough said.

The_Old_Curiosity_Shop_11

Look up my previous post about  Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. We love Little Nel characters – the “one against” and “underdog” archetype – who either triumph against all evil or succumb as martyr. No spoilers but there are moments in this novel where I had to pause to re-read and cherish. This cherishing can be easily done by poolside.

dostoyevsky

This is for my students who would like to crawl inside what “voice” feels like in the novel. Robert Bird’s Introduction is key to understanding the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s life at the time he wrote Notes from the Underground. You’ll notice, eventually, that the protagonist is unreliable and that he is one of those you love to dislike.

harriet the spy

Yes. I believe Louise Fitzhugh stands up to Dostoevsky.  If you never sat down and read this in your teens, or if you have and haven’t revisited it for a while, you’ll be sucked in by Harriet’s life rather than told or pandered to. She’s bossy and insistent and has set precedents for so many novels and movies.

Possession

If you have never read Byatt’s Possession, it’s a treat waiting for you. Two story-lines concurrently. Love twists and intrigue. It’s thick so if you prefer shorter novels, then maybe read this in sections. Again, the movie is up to you to judge. Read the book first.

I tried to sift through my Margaret Atwood library and can’t pick out just one. Try to read any Atwood. Buy one randomly and you will be thrilled. If you want to read Alias Grace, read it first and then watch the Netflix production.

persuasion

Persuasion is one of Jane Austen’s more subversive novels. If you pick up an Austen novel this summer, you’ll enjoy trotting into parlors in Bath, England and all of the social circumstances Anne Elliot is up against. Another underdog story.

Any and all Bronte sisters.

If you would like to delve into Early Modern Britain’s history, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World is, in my opinion, the first science-fiction novel.

If you’re scratching your head and asking: what does she like that is new? You can message me. This post is disparate but aims for pool length novel reading.

Here is a list of authors I tend to like:

Elena Ferrante

Jhumpa Lahiri

Arundhati Roy

Josephine Tey

Again, not any kind of order to the above. Just off-the-hip suggestions from someone who likes to read…

 

 

 

 

It Was Love at First Sight

columbus

My posts are few and far between since I’m re-writing three memoirs, a novel, and am on the second chapter of my dissertation while teaching, and my cat’s femur broke, was repaired, and screws came loose. Now we’re hanging tight hoping for miracle bone to heal itself.

I’m relying on the articulate ladies’ choices forming my bookclub’s reading list to comprise my blog. Just while I finish these projects. If it isn’t Goethe or Early Modern Rogues, I’m not reading it right now – with the exception of my bookclub text.

With that said, Phillip Roth’s opening paragraph in Goodbye Columbus is one of those passages that makes the weak writer in me cringe. Not a bad cringe. It’s that cringe every writer knows–the “I shouldn’t be a writer” or the “I’m not worthy” cringe. Dickens does it to me. So does Raymond Carver. Lydia Davis. A kind of –should I really be trying to do such a thing as write? Instead of the tired phrase I used as title for this entry, Roth employs advanced techniques. Gesture, yes. But more than gesture- he develops both characters. Well, I’ll explain more after I show you the paragraph:

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it. She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside m. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes watery though not from water. She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped. (3)

I already mentioned gesture that is strewn throughout this passage: the glasses holding, the foggy look into the pool, the glide to its edge, and the catching of the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and its flick back over the flesh. All of this slows the moment, presents her through our narrator’s eyes (first person) and creates a dynamic that lasts until the end of the story. In communication theory, once you hold or touch someone’s property or take/eat something of theirs, you feel indebted. In this section, holding the glasses is a power move and reveals the shifting away from our protagonist, his helplessness and socioeconomic inadequacy that dooms the couple. As I instruct my students to do, I also chide myself for not employing enough active verbs. Not a problem for Roth. Also, if you want a great example of telling and showing – the last statement does both through a hyperbolic gesture that all the writing teachers in the world want you to just know – and that, my friend, is called voice.

Her Eyes Were the Key to Her Soul

leaving-the-atocha-station

I have to admit, while in my PhD program, I’d peruse the English aisles at the DU book store and scan other faculty’s classes’ text offerings, to see what I was missing. I also would check out what my fellow PhD candidates were teaching. I came across Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station. Someone at one time or another had recommended him to me a while back so I read the blurbs about terrorism, Spain, Fulbright…and I thought, why not?

His sentences do sing. This paragraph, a great testament to how students don’t have to say “She had piercing blue eyes.”

“Whenever I was with Theresa, whenever we were talking, I felt our faces engaged in a more substantial and sophisticated conversation than our voices. Her face was formidable; it seemed by turns very young and very old; when she opened her eyes wide, she looked like a child, and when she squinted in concentration, the tiny wrinkles at their corners made her seem worldly, wise. Because she could instantly look younger or older, more innocent or experienced than she was, she could parry whatever speech was addressed to her. If you were to accuse her, say, of reading too much into a particular scene in a movie, she would widen her eyes and look at you with an innocence that made you feel guilty of projection; if you accused her of some form of naivete, her squint would bespeak such expanses of experience that the accusation was instantly turned back upon you.” (82)

Throughout Leaving The Atocha Station, Lerner allows us to struggle with him in the dregs and no-mans-land between language – a place he describes well when trying to interpret others around him in conversation.

Does his overly-privileged, apathetic and lying character offend? Is this character meant to get the proverbial rise, especially out of those of us who scrape at walls trying to achieve something so special and amazing as a Fulbright? Does this type of reader (Yes, it is me) resent the main character with fury while reading this text? Yes. I do. Would I recommend it? I am not sure.

I read The Scarlet Letter five times throughout five changes to different high schools. Does that mean I have to pick it up again and read it in adulthood? No.

I acquiesce to the beautiful sentence and to the pretty lines peppered throughout this text. I guess I wanted a few more overt hints that this guy is a monster…a la “I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” But we only get these nuanced and yet very ugly American gestures. The worst of privileged scholars, I’d say. I wanted off the train, never to see this guy again. But use your best judgment. I am biased. My PhD was a teaching fellowship, which I cherished.

#bannedpoem [special post re: banned words]

Hi all,

This is a special post in reaction to a notion that words can be banned in our land of the free: our United States.

Here’s my #banned poem #1

 

At least one #vulnerable catalpa

not yet born #diversity

#entitlement of Robins’ eggs

#transgender Twins

Tower semi-automatic semiotic #fetus

 

wish-wash, troubleshoot, toe-to-heal

baggers bag evidence-based micro-organisms

fill Trump’s water-bed.

 

Telephone poles tell all when

tapped. Nets and neutrals,

 

list your monotone troubles

with ads,

they’ll always listen empirically.

feebling free, at least no wranglers

ranging from ages 3 to 93

ropes shoot from the hip

rally?

 

Tell the telephones’ dials

Say the saw-toothed sides

Wail the wassailer songs

when buildings shed their Gods

and #sciencebased lips tell the truth.

 

Cloister “not to vex the senses”

paper bodies

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this is a little off the beaten track. I thought I’d share a taste of what I’m studying for my dissertation. Early Modern Women contributed to women’s issues throughout the end of the sixteenth and all through the seventeenth centuries. As I read Margaret Cavendish’s plays, faux letters and essays, I kept thinking, “Why? Why were women not successful with this movement?” And then in a wonderful text edited by Ostovich and Sauer Reading Early Modern Women, they cite Suzanne Hull who conducted extensive research on my question. The answer? “Eighty-five percent of the 163 books in 500 editions addressed to women or largely concerned with women’s behavior or rules were published between 1570 and 1640. That is — manners books telling women how to act, what not to write, how not to speak, etc. But, at least women had a small come back, and contested these texts in ones like Margaret Cavendish’s play “The Convent of Pleasure from Plays Never Before Printed.”

In this play, the main ingenue named Happy is beautiful and wealthy. The opening scene shows three gentlemen discussing/scheming how they should marry her and all benefit from her wealth. But in the next scene, Happy speaks with her servant:

Servant: Madam, you being young, handsome, rich, and virtuous, I hope you will not cast away those gifts of Nature, Fortune and Heaven, upon a person which cannot merit you?

Happy: Let me tell you, that Riches ought to be bestowed on such as are poor, and want means to maintain themselves; and Youth, on those that are old; Beauty, on those that are ill-favoured, and Virtue, on those that are vicious: So that if I should place my gifts rightly, I must Marry one that’s poor, old, ill-favoured, and debauch’d.

Margaret was condemned by some who told her she didn’t write the play according to the “play rules” by Aristotle, which was a way to keep women from publishing. This passage not only reveals an individual mind, but a clever one, one who has considered the world at large, the problems in society, and offers herself as example to right its wrongs.

The play goes on to reveal Happy cloistering herself in a women’s only club, the “Convent of Pleasure” where the goal is to get away from men because they only cause displeasure. Happy describes this cloister as “not a cloister of restraint, but a place for freedom, not to vex the senses but to please them” (Cavendish 101).

I’m crazy to post right before my comprehensive exams, but I haven’t posted in so very long and need to be somewhat human again. I can only hope that this utopian feminine cloister gave some women hope, gave them strength in a society that took away rights and limited speech. Margaret calls to us today, to protect our successes, our speech, our bodies, and our rights.

 

 

What you usually call disgusting is my beauty.

lydia-davis

Lydia Davis

While I was supposed to be reading Herman Melville’s poetry and Literary Criticism throughout the ages, I received The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in the mail and I couldn’t read anything else. What the title of this entry suggests is how Lydia Davis turns everything we’ve ever known on its head. Where was she fifteen years ago for my beginning fiction courses? I can’t regret the years I haven’t read Lydia Davis. Let’s just be thankful, right?

I title this entry in reaction to the story: “Cockroaches in Autumn.” She begins:

“On the white painted bolt of a door that is never opened, a thick line of tiny black grains–the dung of cockroaches.”

Not a word wasted, this first line sets theme, character and introduces plot through a fragmented thought.

Later:

“I am alert to small moving things, and spin around toward a floating dust mote. I am alert to darker spots against a lighter background, but these are only the roses on my pillowcase.”

This dispassionate assessment of the infiltration and nerves that can set one into an anxiety spiral sheds new light on the subject: herself as an experient. It’s as if she sat down with the thought: I wonder if I can show myself as a removed observer and anxiety ridden at the same time? Mission accomplished.

She ends with the fragment:

“The white autumn light in the afternoon. They sleep behind a child’s drawings on the kitchen wall. I tap each piece of paper and they burst out from the edges of pictures that are already filled with shooting stars, missiles, machine guns, land mines…”

All of these fragments study, at arms length, relationships of sharing our spaces and environment with others, whether they have goals to subsist or to gain insight.

The entire collection asks: what do you know of the world? And the answers are many, layered, not over-thought, on the page at least, and will reside with you for the rest of your life. Thank you, Ms. Davis!

 

 

 

 

She Was Trapped in and by Her Job

Henry James

I’ve read too much to comment on in any kind of articulate way. I’m entering my second year (yay!) of a PhD program at DU in Literary Studies. I thought I’d consumed books before, but now, I know the difference. Out of my first year’s grouping, let me isolate at least one sentence. A challenging task –and if you befriend me on Goodreads, you can peruse the list– though I must choose Henry James. I thankfully was tasked to read his novella In The Cage: a tale about a telegrapher woman who fantasizes about her high-society customers. She doesn’t want to break the fantasy by joining them, though. That wouldn’t do.

This novella is stream-of-consciousness only because James is fond of the comma. One can read along but it takes fortitude and the kind of alertness one stores in the marrow for poetry.

Coming from retail myself, there are points at which I am plunged back into the service industry, regardless of time or station. The smells of retail are visceral and come with any category of work. They are always assailing and strong and give one a delayed repugnance long after the job is left behind.

Case in point:

“Her function was to sit there with two young men—the other telegraphist and the counter-clerk; to mind the ‘sounder,’ which was always going, to dole out stamps and postal-orders, weigh letters, answer stupid questions, give difficult change and, more than anything else, count words as numberless as the sands of the sea, the words of the telegrams thrust, from morning to night, through the gap left in the high lattice, across the encumbered shelf that her forearm ached with rubbing. This transparent screen fenced out or fenced in, according to the side of the narrow counter on which the human lot was cast, the duskiest corner of a shop pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin, and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names” (James 118).

Immediately, I’m reminded of patio duty at The Westin Resort’s restaurant. 6 am, when the nose is not used to any smell, being attacked by egg and onion and Pine-Sol. Or 6 am at Crabtree and Evelyn, the store would ooze into the mall a woody-rose combination. Once in, the powdery scent of Nantucket Briar took over. Chucking lunch and sometimes dinner into the tiny, souring fridge…

What is Henry James’ lesson here? Part POV, part illegal use of prepositional phrases all piled up…commas, semicolons, smells and sounds all contribute to character and this character is the plot.