Tag Archives: books

At decade’s end, a week full of nothing: It was good.

31 Dec

In which I watch too much TV, see old friends, run towards a suspicious van, and get a Twitter.

The view from here.

My new dorm: a clean, well-lighted place.

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And how old do I look?

27 Jul

For the record, I’m 20.

But in a single day of reporting on a Bronx church’s street carnival, I can think of six people off the top of my head who said something like, “you’re too young to be doing this” (and I responded likewise to a 77-year-old about his vocation). Today was not the first day I’d heard this, but it was the day I received the highest frequency of variations of the comment so far. Who inquired? A carnival organizer; a cop sergeant; a parent; a ferris wheel mechanic (who guessed I was 16!); a parishioner—just to name a few.

I’m more curious than annoyed by this, but it’s getting a bit old. I don’t like having to explain myself away. I try to make the best of it by making a joke that lightens up sources and makes them comfortable. But it gets awkward! Like: you’re too young to be reporting. What are you doing here? Why are you here? Who are you, even? Go back to school.

And I don’t think actually being young is necessarily a bad thing (aside from having less experience, of course). Though the perceptions that youth carries can be exhausting on the job.

Also, guess who showed up at the carnival?

It's Archbishop Dolan! A celebrity for the parishioners.

It's Archbishop Dolan! A celebrity for the parishioners.

New York’s newest Vatican celeb visited a church’s street festival to lift their spirits after a roller coaster car was derailed on Saturday night, and 11 ended up hospitalized with minor injuries.

More importantly, it may be possible that Andy Borowitz is the most brilliant man to walk the earth. This Shouts and Murmers parody of Britney’s conversion diary is hilarious. The laugh out loud guffaw type of hilarious.

Also, I have a confession to make: I am sort of addicted to True Blood. And in tonight’s episode, I found myself deciphering plot points based on Euripides, which I learned in my first-year English course. From the Bacchae to True Blood—that is full circle.

Anyway. Still in the middle of The Red and the Black; in the beginning of Hamlet in Purgatory; and, as of yesterday, started Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. If only I had an entire summer slated for just reading. A girl can dream.

Life’s a circus.

22 Jul

The best part about work: every day is different. Unlike many of my friends, I am not confined to an office (and when I am in the office, it’s pretty damn exciting).

Today I went to Coney Island again:

Stillwell Ave. Subway Stop

Stillwell Ave. Subway Stop

But this time, there was no beach. Instead, I got to hang out with these guys:

Check out those trunks!

Check out those trunks!

I worked on a followup to a story about a PETA video that showed circus elephant abuse. Many interesting conversations. And the whole circus setting brought me back to a book I read and enjoyed awhile ago, Water for Elephants. I also had a bit of an adventure being chased out of the performers’ parking lot by security guards wielding handguns.

But more about the animals themselves: elephants are actually surprisingly elegant up close. They unfurl their trunks one notch at a time, in a fluid motion that echoes the movement of an octopus. The equanimical creatures stand together, sharing a bowl of carrots, their ultra-flexible trunks doing loop-the-loops around each other. Sort of hypnotic. And beautiful—especially when they use all that power to grasp a single blade of hay.

On Beauty and interiority?

21 Jul

Today I finished On Beauty. I’m not quite sure how to feel about it: the book read well, smoothly, quickly. The characters are rich and real. Plus, Smith built them with individual ticking time bombs. She explodes them each deliciously, one bang at a time, with bursts of incendiary dialogue. And, from a personal perspective, I enjoyed the university setting. Debates over free speech, culture, and long faculty meetings are the stuff of the Spectator. I enjoyed reading about a lecture from the tenure hopeful’s perspective. So the topic, broadly speaking, was familiar to me. Moreover, certain passages are undeniably beautiful, witty, and provocative. Her grip on language—unbelievable:

And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people. Neither as hard as she had thought it might be nor as easy as it appeared.

Brilliant. I wish I had thought of that. And:

A sprawling North London parkland … that encompasses the city’s highest point and spreads far beyond it; that is so well planted it feels unplanned; that is not the country but is no more a garden than Yellowstone; that has a shade of green for every possible felicitation of light; that paints itself in russets and ambers in the autumn, canary-yellow in the splashy spring; with tickling bush grass to hide teenage lovers and joint smokers, broad oaks for brave men to kiss against, mown meadows for summer ball games, hills for kites, ponds for hippies, an icy lido for old men with strong constitutions …

However: On Beauty is an incredibly apt title, since the book is only that: on beauty. Beneath the beauty of well-crafted prose, humor, structure, and character development—which glow divinely under Smith’s deft hand—the book seems to have no soul. I’m not sure why I feel this, because I think that any art that aims to teach a single lesson is definitively bad art. (Singularity is a copout to many important principles, and rules out humanity. etc etc blather blather). But this work needs something more central, an anchor. I get that the book is about culture wars, but that seems tangential to a family disintegration/soap opera-ish plot that is masked by a deep university setting. I think this project would have worked better as clearly demarcated vignettes that showcase the writing and character. But the way it is, subplots seem to circle into a meaningful pot of nothing muchness.

Disclaimer: I have not read Forster’s Howard’s End, on whose structure Smith based On Beauty, and am thus missing an important analytical perspective. Maybe I’d find the soul if I read it as an adaptation as a familiar classic—but I shouldn’t have to. So overall, the book is mediocre, though entirely impressive from a 25-year-old! 25! To think, I’m turning that age in five years. Way to make me feel inadequate, Zadie.

Anyway. Starting Hamlet in Purgatory, plodding along in the astounding The Red and the Black. Work sent me to an amusing press conference today. My failure to teach myself web design is sort of depressing. There are many things I need to do but am not doing. This is summer, and I don’t want it to end.

Why we read

7 Jul

I have been interspersing fiction with Reading Like a Writer, a book by Francine Prose (really?). It touts itself as “a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write like them.” I’m about 30 pages short of being done.

Although it is certainly a pleasurable, self-indulgent read (who doesn’t want to read about reading? and excerpts from brilliant novelists?), I’m not sure it is groundbreaking as much as organized (into chapters such as “close reading,” “words,” sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, etc).

Anyway. Not much to say about the specifics of the book itself–aside from its brilliant structure, it relies on well-selected passages, not brilliant insights. Except: it got me thinking along a tangent that can’t really end well, especially since theorists from Plato to Nussbaum have dealt with it in one way or another. Why do we read to begin with? Escapism? To experience different worlds, in a sort of ‘reading rainbow’ that helps us better understand multiculturalism and minimizes descrimination (I’m skeptical about this one, because one can just as easily write descrimination)? Meditation? Philosophizing? Proselytizing? Who knows?

Personally, the question itself rocks a large portion of my existence. I spend a lot of time reading, and am an English major. But I still have difficulty answering it, which, I suppose, speaks to either my wishy-washiness or the multiplicity embedded into the very idea of literature itself (what is literature anyway? ha, I’ll stop myself before going there) . On a basic level, I enjoy it. I derive personal satisfaction from books. This is not a rational, metaphysical, or productive statement. More than that, the things one can learn feels nourishing. A quest to become more worldly, understand the way people think, tough dilemmas, etc, may be achieved by reading a book. But is that really true? Because it’s never some objective medium, always the writer’s take on how people think, how to deal with moral quandaries, etc. But maybe an aggregate of books, studied seamlessly over time, can get at that, more than any individual work.

Who. Knows.

See, that went nowhere for me. What do you think? Why read? After all, it’s bad for rainforests.

Chesil a go

1 Jul

After reading other reviews—and following Ian’s (oh, not McEwan! I don’t think that I channel the author’s guidance in my head…) advice—I decided, despite my unfiltered reaction to the “lazy” NYT review, I would forge ahead with On Chesil Beach. Plus, the New Yorker already got me 45 pages (or 1/5 chapters) in. So why not?

It’s okay so far, pretty good, not awful, not amazing. Worth reading, of course.

Aaaaanyway today my work assignment—not crime!—brought me close to school. It was good to be back and to bump into lots of people I know after hours. Also the sun has turned my cheeks red. But then it rained. And, of course, I was caught in it. Some things never change.

Also, I saw the South Pacific revival last week with my family. This well-done musical doused my parents and grandparents in nostalgia (my grandma sang in my ear…). I enjoyed the excellent performance, but question the value of reviving a play so historically and ideologically topical. The different reactions from different generations (at least within my family) showcased a conceptual divide: my brother and I initially had trouble grasping that a huge chunk of the plot turned on questions of marriage between different races.

This stuff was revolutionary when Rodgers and Hammerstein produced it way back when. Now, it seems sort of meaningless: the overcoming of these barriers is a conclusion that does not need to be told, let alone celebrated with three hours of music, dialogue, and elaborate sets. But its lack of dramatic intrigue in 2009 could be considered an artistic feat—a barometer that illustrates how far we’ve come.

Saturday (but really it’s Monday)

30 Jun

So there you have it, today was sort of boring. I sat at the desk waiting to be sent out on assignment, and it seemed little was coming my way. Until about 4:45, an hour before my shift ends, that is, when I was told to look into a pedestrian hit by a car close to the office. (Bad timing–a bunch of Spec stuff came up around then). It was outside of a huge event concerning food, so it would have been a big deal, but a kindly hot dog vendor told me that a car hit a biker—he suggested a food delivery boy was hit—but both had left shortly after the collision. Meaning no big deal. So there went the day. I hate that I’m forced to connect the dots this way, but no injury, no byline. Which is good. (The no injury part). Then I went to dinner and a movie with a friend, which was relaxing.

Some more thoughts on Saturday: It took me awhile to get into the head of Henry Perowne. McEwan tells the story of this neurosurgeon’s day—from inside Perowne’s head, but not in first person—in about 300 pages. It took me about 50 slow pages. Perhaps these are the pages that caused a friend to recommend it to me as a “project book.” But once you get into the rhythms and neuroses of Perowne, you internalize his thinking, his speech, and the rest of the book flows organically. You find yourself, as ignorant to the field as you may be, making psychological observations of adversaries along with the protagonist—this alone, the pull towards empathy, is narrative magic. Perowne often describes actions such as swimming, surgery, and sex as enjoyable because each is an entry into a different, unique medium. Past the beginning, the book felt like that. An immersion in a different medium.

By the time I finished, I was riveted. The pacing is brilliant. Pages are only minutes of Perowne’s life, but the flow works. Little drags. Mostly, though, I was impressed at the depth of character we get. McEwan spends pages on minutes by describing the feelings and memories events conjure up for Perowne, leaving us with a rich portrait of a neurosurgeon. This depth weaves narrative with Perowne’s politics and philosophy. In few words, McEwan/Perowne sums up the spirit of entire generations, and then seamlessly leaps back into a dialogue with his teenage son Theo about the day’s news.

But then I realized, this may be a copout. Based on what I’ve read about the author, Perowne’s views—e.g. on a more superficial level, the pleasure he takes while in the operating studio—seem to align with McEwan’s. Perhaps this novel, much like a book I wrote a paper on recently, is simply McEwan’s philosophical treatise, with bits and shreds of truisms wrapped up and tied in a neat narrative bow in the form of Perowne.

Either way, still a good read. Onward.