Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

2018.08.15

Literature and Life

 

It is always of great interest to me when, typing the name of a foreign author or expert in a field, spellcheck knows the person of whom I am writing.  This is especially true with today’s featured author.  There are other Russian notables with very similar names and, quite frankly, I expected to be suggested that I was trying to type one of those.  However, Nabokov is well-known in the data spelling files of my computer!

 

“Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.”  This incongruence is just one of many in regards to Nabokov.  Born in St Petersburg, Russia, Vladimir learned to read and write in English before he did in Russian.  As a teenager he published a collection of 68 poems entitled “Stikhi”.   Zinaida Gippius, renowned poet and first cousin of Vladimir Gippius, critiqued the collection to Nabokov’s father: “Please tell your son that he will never be a writer.”

 

Nabokov’s father became a government official after the Russian revolt in February 1917 but in October another revolt found the family fleeing to Ukraine.  They soon sought refuge in Western Europe with Vladimir enrolling in Trinity College/University of Cambridge.  Studying zoology and then Slavic and Romance languages, he earned hi BA in 1922.  The family had moved to Berlin in 1920 and Vladimir followed.  That same year as he graduated from Cambridge, his father was accidentally shot while shielding the real target.  This them of accidental death occurs frequently in Nabokov’s writing.  Though his mother and sister moved to Prague, Vladimir stayed in Berlin, using the pen name V. Sirin.

 

Nabokov married a German woman and had one son but then, as anti-Semitism grew, they moved to France.  In May 1940 the entire family except his brother fled to the USA to escape the advancing German troops.  His brother Sergei died five years later at the Neuengamme concentration camp.  The Nabokovs settled in Manhattan and Vladimir began volunteer work as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History.  A year later he became part of the faculty at Wellesley College as a guest lecturer in comparative literature.  At the same time he was the de facto curator of lepidoptery at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

 

Vladimir Nobokov spent the waning years of his life in Switzerland, enjoying writing.  His sone became an acclaimed operatic basso in Italy and the family enjoyed relative q1uite and success with Vladimir’s success as a writer.  Nabokov’s creative processes involved writing sections of text on hundreds of index cards, which he expanded into paragraphs and chapters and rearranged to form the structure of his novels, a process that has been adopted by many screenplay writers in subsequent years.

 

Quoting  Darren Wershler) in his “The Locative, the Ambient, and the Hallucinatory in the Internet of Things” (Design and Culture):  “Nabokov is noted for his complex plots, clever word play, daring metaphors, and prose style capable of both parody and intense lyricism. He gained both fame and notoriety with his novel Lolita (1955), which tells of a grown man’s devouring passion for a twelve-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His longest novel, which met with a mixed response, is Ada (1969). He devoted more time to the composition of this novel than any of his others. Nabokov’s fiction is characterized by linguistic playfulness. For example, his short story “The Vane Sisters” is famous in part for its acrostic final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave. In another of his short stories, “Signs and Symbols” (1958), Nabokov creates a character suffering from an imaginary illness called “Referential Mania,” in which the afflicted is faced with a world of environmental objects exchanging coded messages.”

 

Nabokov is also known for his scientific endeavors and watercolors of butterflies.  Additionally, he was a self-described synesthete, who at a young age equated the number five with the color red.  Synesthetes experience a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color. 

 

Nabokov’s favorite book is said to have been “Ulysses” by James Joyce.  He felt Joyce wrote beautifully proclaiming:  “Joyce can turn all sorts of verbal tricks, to puns, transposition of words, verbal echoes, monstrous twinning of verbs, or the imitation of sounds. In these, as in the overweight of local allusions and foreign expressions, a needless obscurity can be produced by details not brought out with sufficient clarity but only suggested for the knowledgeable.”

 

Of the reader, Nabokov write:  “Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”

 

In his “Lectures on Literature” he explained the trifecta of writing.  “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storytellers, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

 

“To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

 

“The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.


Of writing, Nabokov once said “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.”  Indeed, I think this is why all writers put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. 

Miller-Hemingway

Arthur Miller

Ernest Hemingway

2018.08.13-14

 

Today we are focusing on two authors who might well be called the “bad boys of literature”.  I am posting their favorite books together because, although they both lived somewhat of a rebellious life and rebelled against some of the confines of literature, they both share some favorite books. 

 

Henry Miller is not an author for whom it is difficult to list favorite books.  He did, in fact, write an entire book about the subject.  Entitled “The Books in My Life”, Miller described these books as “a vital experience”.  What a glorious critique for any author to receive! 

 

Ernest Hemingway once proclaimed “There is no friend as loyal as a book!”  It was said that he would, on occasion, send a list to select friends of those books he would “rather read again for the first time… than have an assured income of a million dollars a year.”

 

One of the favorite books of both of these acclaimed writers was written by a writer we’ve already discussed – Mark Twain.  The book is “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.  This novel by Mark Twain was first published in the United Kingdom in December 1884 and in the United States in February 1885. Commonly named among the Great American Novels, the work is among the first in major American literature to be written throughout in vernacular English, characterized by local color regionalism.  I will note here and now that it is often on lists of books to be banned or censored because of the language. 

 

Sometimes listed as “Adventures of…” and other times “The Adventures of …”, this book is unusual for its beginning.  It opens with a “notice” from a character named G.G., identified as “the Chief of Ordnance.”  G.G. demands that no one approach the novel with intent to find morality and/or seriousness. In its declaration that anyone looking for motive, plot, or moral will be prosecuted, banished, or shot, the Notice establishes a sense of blustery comedy that pervades the rest of the novel.  This is followed by an insert from the author himself called “the explanatory”.  The Explanatory takes on a slightly different tone, still full of a general good-naturedness but also brimming with authority.  In the final paragraph, Twain essentially dares the reader to believe that he might know or understand more about the dialects of the South, and, by extension, the South itself.  Twain’s good nature stems in part from his sense of assurance that, should anyone dare to challenge him, Twain would certainly prove victorious.

 

Those wishing to have this book banned object to the language of the period.  To be sure, the language was inflammatory, not in intent perhaps but in usage.  In his book, Twain accurately portrayed the period historically as well as the absurdity and lack of humanity in assuming people should be valued by the hue of their skin.  It also portrayed the class structure and how those caught in the middle might object, seeking a better form of humanity.

 

One might say that the yearnings of Huckleberry Finn are reflected in the lives of Arthur Miller and Ernest Hemingway.  Both men engaged in adventures trying to find themselves and a better version of man.  “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a serious novel, and Twain’s note on dialogue speaks for the authority and experience of the author and establishes the novel’s anti-romantic, realistic stance. In short, the Notice and Explanatory, which at first glance appear to be disposable jokes, link the novel’s sense of fun and lightheartedness with its deeper moral concerns. This coupling continues throughout Huckleberry Finn and remains one of its greatest triumphs.  It is the approach I feel that Miller and Hemingway also sought in their own works. 

 

This series is about more than just favorite books.  It is about how those books have influenced not only the lives of writers but also our world.  “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” asks a very important question – What is freedom?  Huckleberry Finn presents two main visions of freedom in exploring questions about the meaning of liberty and at what price, if any, a person is truly free. Both Huck, an abused, neglected young boy, and Jim, a black slave, seek freedom, though they have very different ideas about what freedom means.  Both seek that freedom by running away from their life situation and the Mississippi River becomes their avenue to freedom.

 

One of the unforeseen effects of this book was the opening of a youth crisis shelter eighty years after the book’s publication named Huckleberry House.  A shelter for runaway and homeless youth located in San Francisco by Larry Beggs, this shelter offers counseling, food, shelter, and medical attention as needed.  Today Huckleberry Youth Programs also sponsor Huckleberry Youth Health Center, Huckleberry’s Community Assessment and Resource Center, both in San Francisco as well as the Huckleberry Teen Health Program in San Rafael, CA.  Huckleberry’s for Runaways opened its door on June 18, 1967.  Their efforts helped change being a runaway from a criminal offense to the concerned social problem it is.  Today the justice system is able to encourage voluntary communication with parent and child using family therapy and other helpful tools instead of merely incarcerating the child.

 

Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, and Ernest Hemingway all sought to reflect the times in which they wrote of but also to illustrate the idiosyncrasies that humans often portray in their living.  Often humankind seeks to emancipate itself from itself.  We create the very constrains within which find ourselves bound and then rebel against.  In their writing, they all asked us to take a good look at ourselves and then, if possible, make tomorrow a better day and create a better world. 

River Jordan

River Jordan

2018.08.12

Literature and Life

 

The Jordan River, also known as the River Jordan, is a river in southwestern Asia, in the Middle East region. It lies in a structural depression and has the lowest elevation of any river in the world.  Flowing southward from its sources in the mountainous area where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet, the Jordan River passes through the Sea of Galilee and ends in the Dead Sea.  The Jordan River’s geology and climate have contributed to its role in history as a political boundary and in biblical history writing as a site of community formation.

 

I’ve told this story before but in writing about one of my favorite authors, I must tell it again.  The first paragraph was not unknown to me so imagine my surprise when I see River Jordan on the spine of a book incorrectly shelved in the general reference, religious, philosophy and psychology sections of a local library.  Clever marketing, I thought; a bit too clever, in fact.  To pretend a religious or philosophical author’s name was the same as a well-known religious landmark was really rather trite.  I was in a hurry, however, so instead of taking the time to read the back cover ir inside flap of the book, I added it to my pile and proceeded to the self-checkout.

 

Later the next day I looked at the book I had no intention of reading and realized two things.  First, it was a book on prayer, a subject near and dear to me.  Secondly, the author’s name really was River Jordan.  River Jordan began her writing career as a playwright where her original works were produced, including “Mama Jewels: Tales from Mullet Creek”, ‘Soul, Rhythm and Blues”, and “Virga”.  Her first novel, “The Gin Girl” (Livingston Press, 2003), garnered high praise as “This author writes with a hard bitten confidence comparable to Ernest Hemingway. And yet, in the Southern tradition of William Faulkner, she can knit together sentences that can take your breath.” Kirkus Reviews described her second novel, “The Messenger of Magnolia Street”, as “a beautifully written atmospheric tale.” It was applauded as “a tale of wonder” by Southern Living, who chose the novel as their Selects feature for March 2006, and described by other reviewers as “a riveting, magical mystery” and “a remarkable book.” Her third novel, “Saints In Limbo”, has been painted by some of the finest fiction voices of today as “a lyrical and relentlessly beautiful book,” and “a wise, funny, joyful and deadly serious book, written with a poet’s multilayered sense of metaphor and meter and a page-turning sense of urgency,” and reported by Paste Magazine as “a southern gothic masterpiece.”   Her fourth novel, The Miracle of Mercy Land, was published on September 7, 2010.

 

It was her first non-fiction work, “Praying for Strangers, An Adventure of the Human Spirit” that I had picked up.  It was published in 2011 and was a book that was happenstance and one River Jordan never intended to ever write.  This acclaimed author teaches and speaks around the country on “The Power of Story”, and produces and hosts the radio show Clearstory Radio from Nashville.   She can often be found traveling the back roads of America with her husband and their Great Pyrenees lap dog. 

 

I felt a bit ashamed I had doubted her name (and yes, it really is her name) and was surprised that she lived less than two hours from me and had the same breed of dog that I did.  We also had one other thing in common – we both had sons in the military of this country.  Hers had been deployed to a war zone about the time mine returned from the same area.  Her non-fiction book begins with the week before her son was to leave and the feelings she described I knew all too well.  However, she had very little acquaintance with praying for strangers while I had spent the past eight years doing just that.  Still, I felt compelled to read the book, more a diary than a novel or autobiography.

 

E. M. Bounds describes prayer as “power and strength, a power and strength that influences God, and is most salutary, widespread, and marvelous in its gracious benefits to man. Prayer influences God. The ability of God to do for man is the measure of the possibility of prayer.”  We tend to overlook what prayer does for the person doing the praying, though.  River Jordan addresses both in this book as she embarks upon her journey as the parent of a child walking into war.

 

There are many different types of wars we face, especially as parents.  First it is colic, then perhaps first day of school anxiety.  Regrettably, some parents must face their child having a life-threatening illness or developing an unhealthy addiction.  Sometimes it is peer pressure that creates the war zone with destructive behaviors or ill-planned escapes becoming the enemy.  Long before our children are of an age to defend their country, we as parents have faced many battles.  Every person confronts life’s issues but it seems to be most difficult when it is our children doing so once they have “grown up”.  The concerns and fears of our hearts grow also and never are diminished in spite of how accomplished we may believe our children to be.

 

River Jordan has an encounter with a stranger, recognizing the pain of another similar to her own and offers to pray for this person.  To be certain she knows saying those words will not instantly change anything.  They are not a magic chant.  She is somewhat surprised, though, to see the calm they seem to give this stranger.  Within a few days, another incident occurs and again, she sees the power that offering to pray for a stranger can create.

 

It is very seldom – okay, never – that I will claim an author as one of my favorites when I have only read one book by said author, especially if said book is diametrically opposed to the rest of the volume of their writings.  And yet, it is that very fact that made me claim River Jordan as a favorite.  I have given this book to others, had a book club read it, shared it on this blog in years past, and still at least once a year reread it.  I could not leave her out of any list of influential writers.

 

Trying to get River Jordan to pin down a favorite writer, though, is difficult.  “Honey, I was raised by the tribe of Eeyore. I can worry about anything and everything….I want to read something that sets my soul on fire. I want to read words that tell me what it was to have been human and to set my feet on this planet for even just a little while. I want to carry some truth away about this life that I didn’t recognize before. To connect to another person’s life in the process. To cry, fight, laugh, love, and live more passionately than when I first turned that page.  I want the story to carry me somewhere wonderful whether it’s South America, or a riverboat, or even if it’s only a backyard on a summer night. And it doesn’t matter if it’s wonderful contemporary voices southern and otherwise, or the older voices of Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Conner, Harper Lee – the list goes on into eternity. Just give me that great story. Carry me away. The words can be soft or sharp, biting or butter, I just want the passion of the writer to be so intense that the words are like a white, hot light on the page.”

 

River Jordan has stated that “it is her deep belief that through our stories we discover the truth of our common ground and are able to celebrate our humanity, working together toward living at our highest potential.”  I hope you read “Praying with Strangers” but more importantly, I just you read.  By the way, River Jordan’s latest book, “Confessions of An American Mystic, Stories of Faith and Fiction” ( Jericho Books, Hachette) will arrive later this year.  Literature and life continue to reflect one another.

 

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

2018.08.11

Literature and Life

 

“Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! … What are we doing here, that is the question.”

 

It is my personal belief that these words, written by today’s featured author reflect the thinking of many writers at some point in their careers.  It is also excellent advice for everyone else – “Let us do something while we have the chance!”  Samuel Beckett was a Nobel Prize winning author who was born on Good Friday.  Perhaps it is not surprising then that his writings are often described as offering a bleak, tragi-comic outlook on human existence. 

 

Born in Dublin right after the start of the twentieth century, Samuel Beckett led a rather typical life and played first-class cricket.  He briefly held a position in academia but then spent some years traveling and writing.  Beckett was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”  He is credited with developing the literary movement called the “Theatre of the Absurd”. 

 

The Theatre of the Absurd is a post–World War II designation for particular plays of absurdist fiction written by a number of primarily European playwrights in the late 1950s, as well as one for the style of theatre which has evolved from their work. Their work focused largely on the idea of existentialism and expressed what happens when human existence has no meaning or purpose and therefore all communication breaks down. Logical construction and argument gives way to irrational and illogical speech and to its ultimate conclusion, silence. 

 

Critic Martin Esslin coined the term in his 1960 essay “Theatre of the Absurd.”  He related these plays based on a broad theme of the Absurd, similar to the way Albert Camus uses the term in his 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”.  The Absurd in these plays takes the form of man’s reaction to a world apparently without meaning, and/or man as a puppet controlled or menaced by invisible outside forces.

 

This style of writing was first popularized by the 1953 Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot”. Though the term is applied to a wide range of plays, some characteristics coincide in many of the plays: broad comedy, often similar to vaudeville, mixed with horrific or tragic images; characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive; either a parody or dismissal of realism and the concept of the “well-made play”. These plays were shaped by the political turmoil, scientific breakthrough, and social upheaval going on in the world around the playwrights during these times.  While absurdists believed that life is absurd, they also believed that death and the “after life” were equally absurd if not more, and that whether people live or not all of their actions are pointless and everything will lead to the same end (hence the repetitiveness in many absurdist plays).

 

In his 1965 book, Absurd Drama, Esslin wrote:   “The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it. But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” 

 

It should note that William Shakespeare is the first playwright to use this combination of tragedy and comedy together.  Samuel Beckett himself spoke often about books he liked and disliked.  He dismissed Agatha Christie’s “Crooked House” as ‘very tired Christie’ but praised Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” saying ‘It is lively stuff’.  There were some that he read more than once:  “Andromaque” by Jean Racine: “I read Andromaque again with greater admiration than ever and I think more understanding, at least more understanding of the chances of the theatre today.”  Theodor Fontane’s “Effi Briest” was clearly a favorite read – “I read it for the fourth time the other day with the same old tears in the same old places.”

 

Samuel Beckett knew the value of words.  Indeed, it is man’s ability to use words and understand their meaning that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom (although we are slowly learning the language of other animals and their ability to communicate).  Beckett knew the power of the single word. The strengths and weaknesses we portray, illustrate, and create by our use of them.  His approach to life was simple:  ““Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” A writer’s best tool is a single word or as Beckett once said:  “Words are all we have.”  That is truth, not absurdity.

 

George Saunders

George Saunders

2018.08.10

Literature and Life

 

Ask a writer why he/she writes and you get a variety of answers, depending on what time of day it is, what they’ve just eaten (or haven’t eaten), what is going on in the world, etc.  At the core of it all, though, most will admit it is because they feel a need to let out what is in their head.  I really like the way George Saunders puts it:  “It seems to me a worthy goal: try to create a representation of consciousness that’s durable and truthful, i.e., that accounts, somewhat, for all the strange, tiny, hard-to-articulate, instantaneous, unwilled things that actually go on in our minds in the course of a given day, or even a given moment.”

 

Here is how Saunders describes himself:  “I was born in Amarillo, Texas, grew up in Chicago, and (barely) graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in exploration geophysics.  There was an oil-boom on, which meant that even someone like me could get work in the oil-fields.  So after college I went to work in Sumatra, as a field geophysicist.  We worked four weeks on and two weeks off, in a jungle camp that was a forty-minute helicopter ride to the nearest town – so this is when my reading life really started.  The game became filling up an entire suitcase with books sufficient to get me through the next two weeks of camp life.  About a year and a half at this job, I got sick after going swimming in a river that was polluted with monkey shit (I remember looking up at about 200 of them, sitting on our oil pipeline crapping away, and thinking: “I wonder if swimming here is okay?”) and came home to try and be Kerouac II.  I worked as a doorman, a roofer, a convenience store clerk, and a slaughterhouse worker (a “knuckle-puller,” to be exact), and all of this contributed to my understanding of capitalism as a benign-looking thing that, as Terry Eagleton says, “plunders the sensuality of the body.”

“I’d always been interested in reading, ever since a nun I was secretly in love with turned me on to “Johnny Tremaine” in third grade.  But I’d never met a writer and so it took me awhile to realize that a person could actually write for a living.  In 1986, at a wild party in Amarillo, Texas, I found a copy of People Magazine in which Jay McInernry and Raymond Carver were profiled.  Before this, I’d never heard of an MFA program.  I applied to Syracuse, got in, and had the great good fortune of studying there with Tobias Wolff and Douglas Unger.  I also met my future wife, Paula Redick there, and we got engaged in three weeks, which I believe is still a program record.”

 

Saunders is quite the prolific writer, having written books, articles for “The New Yorker” and “GQ” magazines, a best-selling children’s book, two screenplays, and a host of essays and short stories which have won him high praise and awards.  He has taught at the Syracuse MFA program since 1996 encouraging other young writers just as he himself had been.  “In 2001, I was selected by “Entertainment Weekly” as one of the 100 top most creative people in entertainment and by “The New Yorker in 2002 as one of the best writers 40 and under.  In 2006, I was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.  In 2009 I received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.”

 

George Saunders lives in the Catskills of upper New York State but it was a writer born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Washington state that got him there to study.  Tobias Wolff is an American short story writer, memoirist, novelist, and teacher of creative writing. He is known for his memoirs, particularly “This Boy’s Life” and “In Pharaoh’s Army”. He has written two short story collections, including “The Barracks Thief”, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Wolff received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in September 2015. 

 

It was Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” that convinced Saunders he wanted Wolff as a mentor.  The book is a collection of twelve stories with such characters as a teenage boy who tells morbid lies about his home life; a timid professor who, in the first genuine outburst of her life, pours out her opinions in spite of a protesting audience; a prudish loner who gives an obnoxious hitchhiker a ride; and an elderly couple on a golden anniversary cruise who endure the offensive conviviality of the ship’s social director.  Fondly yet sharply drawn, Wolff’s characters stumble over each other in their baffled yet resolute search for the “right path.”

 

George Saunders has said that “fiction has a way of reminding us that we actually are very similar in our emotions and neurology and our desires and our fears.”  He describes his process this way:  “So for me the approach has become to go into a story not really sure of what I want to say, try to find some little seed crystal of interest, a sentence or an image or an idea, and as much as possible divest myself of any deep ideas about it. And then by this process of revision, mysteriously it starts to accrete meanings as you go.”

 

“Character is the sum total of things you can’t explain.”  Maybe this why some writers have a hard time explaining why they write.  Saunders has said that his greatest fear would be to discover he has gone through his life sleepwalking.  “To me, the writer’s main job is to just make the story unscroll in such a way that the reader is snared … seeing things happen and caring about them. And if you dedicate yourself to this job, the meanings more or less take care of themselves.  We try, we fail, we posture, we aspire, we pontificate – and then we age, shrink, die, and vanish.”  George Saunders has been called a master of the American short story and if you have not read one of his works, please treat yourself. 

 

 

 

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

2018.08.08

Literature and Life

 

“I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”  This was not an easy lesson for Marguerite Annie Johnson to learn.  A child raised in part by her grandmother, raped by a boyfriend of her mother’s, she was traumatically mute for five years.  Her brother called her “Mya sister”, and that was the basis for her pen name “Maya”.  Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors who would affect her life and career, as well as black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.

 

Maya Angelou would be a dancer, a singer, and San Francisco’s first black female street car driver before settling in as the noted and acclaimed author that we know and love today.  She would go on to become only the second poet (and first black female) ever to read at a presidential inauguration.  When Maya Angelou wrote and recited “On the Pulse of Morning”, she was already well known as a writer and poet. She had written five of the seven of her series of autobiographies, including the first and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  African-American literature scholar Mary Jane Lupton describes the poem:  “On the Pulse of Morning” is an autobiographical poem, one that emerges from her conflicts as an American; her experiences as traveler; her achievements in public speaking and acting; and her wisdom, gleaned from years of self-exploration”.  Angelou herself considered the poem good but not great. 

 

“On the Pulse of Morning” was full of contemporary references, including toxic waste and pollution. Angelou’s poem was influenced by the African-American oral tradition of spirituals, by poets such as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, and by modern African poets and folk artists such as Kwesi Brew and Efua Sutherland, which also influenced her autobiographies.  Si it might surprise you that Angelou held that her favorite author was the one that most influenced her as a child – Louise May Alcott.  “When I read Alcott, I knew that these girls she was talking about were all white.  But they were nice girls and I understood them.  I felt like I was almost there with them in their living room and their kitchen.”

 

The BBC had an article regarding Maya Angelou and I think it illustrates the impact an author can have.  The article listed fourteen people that were influenced by Angelou.  “American icon Maya Angelou was a celebrated writer, poet, activist, singer, actress and speaker. During her long and varied career she worked as a journalist in Africa, toured the world as an opera singer, authored the international bestseller I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, worked alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and recited one of her poems at a US presidential inauguration. But more than that, Maya’s life, work and wisdom inspired some of today’s most famous names to achieve great things too.”  Those listed included Nelson Mandela, Tupac Shakur, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Serena Williams, Bill Clinton (at whose presidential election she spoke), Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Barack Obama, Rochard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock.

 

“She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace”, Oprah Winfrey once said of Maya Angelou.  Controversy did follow Maya Angelou but nothing illustrates the unifying goals of her writing more than these remarks from President Barack Obama.  Although Angelou supported Hillary Clinton in the race to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 2008, she became a strong advocate for Obama during his time as US President. He awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. When she died, Obama described her as an inspiration to all Americans. “A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking,” he said, “but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves.” 

 

Inspired by the writing of a girl from another time and of a different race, Maya Angelou herself overcame the unimaginably horrible to do unimaginably great things.  She herself said quite simply:  “We are more alike than unalike.”  Hear her reading her poem “On the Pulse of Morning”:  https://youtu.be/59xGmHzxtZ4

Rising and Phenomenal

Rising and Phenomenal

2018.07.03

Pentecost 2018

 

She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri.  She took the name of a husband who was a Greek sailor and used a form of it professionally.  She was the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco as well as the author of the first nonfiction bestseller by an African-American woman.  She was also the first African-American woman to have a screenplay produced for a film.  We know her as Maya Angelou.

 

This activist, author, and poet is known around the world for not only her works and soft-spoken voice but also her strength and the voice of her writings which is as strong as any ever put to paper.  Maya Angelou wrote several autobiographies and various volumes of poetry.  Her third is titled “And I Still I Rise”.  Of particular interest to us today is the poem “Still I Rise”.  While it speaks directly to the decades and even centuries of oppression of people of color, it specifically speaks to the oppression of women.  Angelou was a singer, dancer, producer, and director in addition to being a writer and, in my humble opinion, all of her experiences come together in this poem.

 

“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

 

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

 

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops.

Weakened by my soulful cries.

 

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own back yard.

 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.”

 

 

Whether we are black, yellow, brown, red, or white, male or female, Angelou’s words are a challenge and lesson to us all.  Her life and her work provide inspiration and exemplify the determination that one must have in order to succeed at anything.  We can truly be a phenomenal woman.

 

 

“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,

And the flash of my teeth,

The swing in my waist,

And the joy in my feet.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Men themselves have wondered

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them

They say they still can’t see.

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman

 

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.

When you see me passing

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,

The bend of my hair,

the palm of my hand,

The need of my care,

‘Cause I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.”