Thursday, April 16, 2009

Halleluiah by Mary Oliver

Everyone should be born into this world happy
and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Halleluiah, anyway I'm not where I started!
And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years.
Halleluiah, I'm sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.
~ Mary Oliver ~

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Gesture Life by Chang Rae Lee

A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Profoundly moving story, 12 Mar 2006
By kimbofo (London, UK)

Every so often you come across a book that makes you rejoice in the sheer beauty of the English language and the power of the novel to change your perspective on so many different things.

In A Gesture Life Chang-Rae Lee has delivered one of the most elegantly restrained pieces of fiction I have ever read and yet, despite the unhurried prose, it brims with suspense, so much so I was reluctant to put the book down and read it within a matter of days.

It's a rare, almost perfect novel that provides such an eloquent insight into the nature of human relationships that I don't honestly know how to condense the magic of this profoundly moving and deeply unsettling story into one short review that will do A Gesture Life any kind of justice.

In fact, I'd argue that the blurb on my Penguin edition, doesn't even come close to explaining what this story is about, and I suspect that most people would overlook the book entirely should they stumble upon it in a bookstore or library. Personally, I can't even remember why I bought it, other than the ringing one-word endorsements - "Stunning," New York Times Book Review; "Unforgettable," USA Today; "Mesmerising," San Francisco Chronicle Book Review - on the front cover must have spoken to me on some deeply unconscious level. Even so, this book lay unread in my bedside cabinet for nine months before I decided to pick it up.

And once I picked it up, I was taken on a sagacious journey that allowed me to walk in another man's shoes. The fact that that man was an elderly Japanese-American speaks volumes for Chang-rae Lee's abilities as a storyteller...

I will be discussing this novel with my Literature classes next week. The feedback I've had so far is that it's an amazing novel and everyone is eager to get together and have a go.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Lord of the Flies

original UK cover

Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel by Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding. It discusses how culture created by man fails, using as an example a group of British school-boys stuck on a deserted island who try to govern themselves with disastrous results. Its stances on the already controversial subjects of human nature and individual welfare versus the common good earned it position 70 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged Books of 1990–2000. The novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.

Published in 1954, Lord of the Flies was Golding's first novel, and although it was not a great success at the time — selling fewer than three thousand copies in the United States during 1955 before going out of print — it soon went on to become a bestseller, and by the early 1960s was required reading in many schools and colleges. It was adapted to film in 1963 by Peter Brook, and again in 1990 by Harry Hook (see "Film adaptations").

The title is said to be a reference to the Hebrew name Beelzebub (בעל זבוב, Ba'al-zvuv, "god of the fly", "host of the fly" or literally "Lord of Flies"), a name sometimes used as a synonym for Satan. (Wikipedia)

Google search


I'm planning to teach Golding's novel this semester, Fall 2008. It's proving to be an exceedingly interesting and complex novel.


Saturday, May 31, 2008

The River Queen by Mary Morris

"The River Queen"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage MAY 10, 2007)

“I guess you’ve seen it all on this trip, haven’t you, Mary? You’ve seen hooters and shakers. You’ve been in tornadoes and hurricanes and lightening storms and bugs. You’ve bivouacked on beaches and swam in the river’s mud. You’ve met sorcerers and sea captains, river rats and gypsies…. What more could you ask for?"

In September 2005, just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, author Mary Morris went on an unusual journey. With the recent death of her father, and with her daughter Kate leaving for college, Morris made a decision to do a remarkable thing. Morris, who frankly admits she isn’t a “boat person” arranges for the purchase of a tatty houseboat named The River Queen, and then she sets out on a journey with two men--Tom, the mechanic and Jerry, the river pilot. Her goal is to sail down the Mississippi beginning in Wisconsin all the way to Tennessee.

This is both a literal and figurative journey for Morris. As the houseboat sails down the Mississippi, there are many stops in the communities along the way, and the journey cause memories of the author’s father to flood to the surface. Morris’s father was clearly a remarkable man, and many of the author’s memories involve mulling over the peculiarities of her parents’ marriage--theirs was not a “loving union.”

Morris captures the often-claustrophobic atmosphere on the houseboat. When the journey begins, there is no running water, and no electricity. Tom brings his dog, a small terrier named Samantha Jean--who is recovering from cancer--along for the trip, and Morris captures the extraordinarily close relationship between Tom and Samantha Jean. In the months that follow, the travelers survive a tornado, an insect infestation, and various mishaps. But more importantly, Morris discovers a sense of closure about the death of her beloved father.

There are some wonderful moments here--at one point, for example, Morris runs into a family about to sail around the world--a journey that they anticipate will take four years. The husband explains that their home-schooled daughter doesn’t have “much choice” in the matter, and Morris’s unsettling moment with the daughter haunts her later. This meeting however, morphs into Morris’s recollections of her daughter, Kate in a tender childhood moment: “I think of our empty house. Our daughter gone. And I recall a night when she was a little girl.” It’s this sort of transitional leap that removes The River Queen as a travel book, and confirms it as more of a personal memoir. As a travel book, it’s disappointing, and Morris misses many opportunities to hook the reader in--for example, she visits the Superman Museum in Metropolis, Illinois, and wanders around. Slightly less than two pages are devoted to the town, George Reeves and the museum. I can’t help thinking that author John Berendt would have handled this material differently, but Morris seems to miss an opportunity here while even she admits she’s “bored.”

If you are hoping for a travel book, you may be disappointed. The River Queen is frequently far too personal and introspective to fall into that category. For a great deal of the time, author Mary Morris does not appear to be having a good time. And at one point, she quips that on the boat: “there is no place to go, really, if one is in a bad mood, or wants to be alone.” There were moments in the book when I wanted the author to ask more questions of those she meets, but instead the book rather frustratingly misses opportunities by swerving away from the external world, and instead the author chooses to turn her gaze inwards towards her personal life and her cherished memories. And whether or not readers connect with Morris’s memories may be determined by some sort of shared experience between author and reader--grief, loss or perhaps even a desire to drop everything and sail down the Mississippi for a while.

Mary Morris's bio:

Born in Chicago in l947, Morris moved East to go to college. Though she never returned to the Middle West, she often writes about the region and its tug. Morris likes the fact that there is more magnetisim around the shores of Lake Michigan than the North Pole. She feels drawn there and feel an affinity for Midwestern writers such as Willa Cather and Mark Twain who wrote their stories of the Middle West from afar.

In her first collection of short stories, Vanishing Animals & Other Stories , awarded the Rome Prize in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, Morris writes about childhood and adolescent memories. The Chicago Tribune called Morris "a marvelous storyteller-a budding Isaac Bashevis Singer, a young Doris Lessing, a talent to be watched and read." Morris's stories often deal with the tension between home and away. Travel is an important theme in many of the stories in her three collections, including Vanishing Animals, The Bus of Dreams , and The Lifeguard Stories . It is also a recurrent theme in her trilogy of travel memoirs, including the acclaimed Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, Wall to Wall: from Beijing to Berlin by Rail , and Angels & Aliens: A Journey West . In her five novels, including The Waiting Room, The Night Sky (formerly published as A Mother's Love ) and House Arrest , Morris writes of family, its difficulties and disappointments, its iron grip and necessity, and ultimately the comfort family can bring.

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Morris sees herself as a storyteller, weaving tales. A Japanese critic once, referring to her non-fiction, told Morris that she is not really a travel writer; rather she writes stories that take place during journeys.

Her many novels and story collections have been translated into Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swedish and Japanese.

The recipient of many prizes and awards, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the George W. Perkins Fellowship at Princeton University, Morris is currently working on a generational family saga, set in Chicago, during the jazz age. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and daughter and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Stones From the River by Ursula Hegi

Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River clamors for comparisons to Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum; her protagonist Trudi Montag--like the unforgettable Oskar Mazerath--is a dwarf living in Germany during the two World Wars. To its credit, Stones does not wilt from the comparison. Hegi's book has a distinctive, appealing flavor of its own. Stone's characters are off-center enough to hold your attention despite the inevitable dominance of the setting: There's Trudi's mother, who slowly goes insane living in an "earth nest" beneath the family house; Trudi's best friend Georg, whose parents dress him as the girl they always wanted; and, of course, Trudi herself, whose condition dooms her to long for an impossible normalcy. Futhermore, the reader's inevitable sympathy for Trudi, the dwarf, heightens the true grotesqueness of Nazi Germany. Stones from the River is a nightmare journey with an unforgettable guide.

Ursula Hegi Photographed by Gordon Gagliano


I'll also be teaching this novel in the Fall 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee

This complex exquisitely written novel concerns both cultural/racial exile and universal experiences of emotional exile. It raises numerous human and moral issues: how the need for acceptance generates a pressure to conform that may ultimately be dehumanizing; how the brutality of war creates enormous moral dilemmas, where the horrors experienced and the decisions that are made may destroy the capacity to make emotional attachments; how parent-child relationships are inevitably affected by past trauma. The relationship of father and daughter is beautifully drawn and depicts powerfully how self-destructive and yet brave a troubled adolescent can be.

From its retrospective stance the novel can ask moral questions with the benefit of hindsight, yet it confronts us with the need to address those same questions in the here and now. Interestingly, the protagonist, Hata, is known locally as "Doc" and although he never tries to pass himself off as a physician, this pseudo-doctor designation is emblematic of the facade which is his life. It is metaphor also for the imperfect moral choices that Hata makes. In the end, Hata's willingness to let the past surface and disturb the present is what redeems him and allows him to re-establish emotional connection.

I will be teaching this novel in the Fall of 2008.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee

From Publishers Weekly
Espionage acts as a metaphor for the uneasy relationship of Amerasians to American society in this eloquent, thought-provoking tale of a young Korean-American's struggle to conjoin the fragments of his personality in culturally diverse New York City. Raised in a family and culture valuing careful control of emotions and appearances, narrator Henry Park, son of a successful Korean-American grocer, works as an undercover operative for a vaguely sinister private intelligence agency. He and his "American wife," Lelia, are estranged, partly as a result of Henry's stoical way of coping with the recent death of their young son. Henry is also having trouble at work, becoming emotionally attached to the people he should be investigating. Ruminating on his upbringing, he traces the path that has led to his present sorrow; as he infiltrates the staff of a popular Korean-American city councilman, he discovers the broader, societal context of the issues he has been grappling with personally. Writing in a precise yet freewheeling prose that takes us deep into Henry's head, first-novelist Lee packs this story, whose intrigue is well measured and compelling, with insights into both current political events and timeless questions of love, culture, family bonds and identity.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

If you haven't read The Awakening by Kate Chopin you've missed a great read!

The Awakening is a short novel by Kate Chopin, published in 1899. It is widely considered to be a proto-feminist precursor to American modernism.

Plot summary

Edna Pontellier, the wife of a successful New Orleans business man and the mother of two, vacations with her family at a seaside resort in Grand Isle, Louisiana. She spends much of her time with Robert Lebrun, a romantic young man who has decided to attach himself to Edna for the summer. After many intimate conversations, boating excursions, and moonlit walks, they both realize that they are developing romantic feelings for each other. Edna then realizes that there is much within herself that has remained dormant throughout her adult life.

When vacation ends and the Pontelliers return to New Orleans, Edna frees herself from the trappings of her old life, including her social position, her role as a mother, and her role as a wife. A major part of this freeing in Edna's life is accomplished through her affair with Alcée Arobin. Moving out of her husband's house, she establishes herself in a cottage and hopes that Robert Lebrun will return soon from an extended business trip in Mexico.

Upon Robert's return, Edna discovers that he is unable to come to grips with her newfound freedom. Indeed, he seems hopelessly bound by the traditional values of the French Creole community.


Edna thereupon returns to the seaside resort in the off-season. She makes arrangements for her lunch before heading off to the beach, and carries along a towel for drying off. Unable to resist the lure of the water, she strips nude and swims out as far as she can and, having exhausted herself, drowns. Most readers interpret this final passage as a deliberate attempt at suicide.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is the first novel by Afghan American author Khaled Hosseini. Published in 2003, it is the first novel published in English by an author from Afghanistan.
The film is out to marvelous reviews. The official film site is The Kite Runner

film poster

A Holiday wish from me to you:

It is that time of the year again, when you are thankful for everything merry and bright. May this Christmas be a delight! Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday!


Monday, December 10, 2007

What Will You Get for the 12 Days of Christmas?

For the twelve days of Christmas, your true love will send you:

Twelve glam rockers drumming

Eleven candycanes a-sticking

Ten midgets a-leaping

Nine ladies waltzing

Eight llamas a-milking

Seven hot chocolates a-steaming

Six iPods a-playing

Five golden coins

Four calling bill collectors

Three French fries

Two stale fruit cakes

And a crazy homeless person in an apple tree