Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Feast of Love

Charles Baxter has a vault full of voices. Just imagine a wine cellar where you can descend a staircase and have a variety of vintage wines to choose from. This is literature at its most luxurious. In "The Feast of Love," Baxter writes his characters so well, you can almost inhale them. The book begins with Charlie, suffering from insomnia and writer's block, who goes for a walk and sees his neighbor Bradley walking his dog, who is also named Bradley. Bradley gives Charlie the title "The Feast of Love" and in subsequent chapters Charlie begins interviewing people in Bradley's life.

The book starts out as just a bud, and then blooms into a whole new undiscovered genus of flower. An ex-wife, two young lovers who work in Bradley's coffee shop, and his old Jewish neighbors make up this gorgeous mosaic. I feel like I am forgetting a couple characters, but it's just because this novel is so rich, I feel like everyone in the whole world has been revealed to me, when really, it's just a handful of characters. There is another character known as The Bat, but I don't want to give too much away.

This is definitely one of my favorite books.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gokseong Again

Here I am helping out at Gokseong English Summer Camp. I help plan the games, make safety precautions, and MC at events. On the first night, the students from each class got up on stage to show posters they'd made and to perform class cheers they'd written. Some teams came up with really interesting team names. I never thought I would hear myself say, "Thank you, Hot Black Beavers. That was great!" Another team was "The Happy White Puppy." One girl explained into the microphone that their souls were "pure like white" and that they were happy like puppies. These kids crack me up.

I am working with university students from Arizona State and they are a great bunch of people. I have never been to Arizona, but I think I would like to go, based on my experience so far with these people. They don't complain, not even about the coffee or the hard mattresses. They don't seem to notice the severe heat, probably because they are used to hot weather. If these teachers were from Portland, I think I would definitely hear more complaints about the coffee, and I would definitely see more irritated expressions illuminated by blinding sunlight.

I taught at this same camp last summer and I must say, the accommodations are way nicer this year. Western-style toilets have replaced squatty potties and the bathrooms are equipped with soap and toilet paper. The teachers' lounge has a working refrigerator full of drinks and snacks. The food is more edible. The staff is friendlier. Classical music and opera plays from the speakers outside to complement the beautiful scenery. I wonder if the music contributes to keeping this group of teachers mellow all the time, or if their calm sensibility is true to a lot of Arizonans.

Today we're going on a field trip with the kids to the Bamboo Forest in Damyang, followed by a Western-style lunch, where kids will have to eat with forks. Tomorrow, everyone will gather in the auditorium and watch "The Iron Giant" (my choice) and then, following the principal's request, I will quiz the students on what happened in the movie. As much as I like being camp coordinator, I think I'll be happy to not hear my voice amplified anymore.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Great song, great video

This song perfectly encapsulates my mood today, and it's a vast improvement over the Kylie Minogue version.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Women writing about men and vice versa

Author Reynolds Price says in this Paris Review interview that he thinks men can write about women more convincingly than women can write about men. This, he explains, is because boys and girls are most often raised by women. Price seems to think men are like blue whales, apparently: the biggest and most mysterious animals. Will women ever crack their strange code? Will women ever be able to understand all the behaviors of these complex creatures?

In a Duke University podcast, Price talked about how Jane Austen never wrote any scenes with only male characters and how she must have felt uncomfortable writing about men. I don't think this proves Austen was uncomfortable writing about men, maybe just uninterested. I'm thinking of the movie "Living Out Loud," which would have been a wonderful movie if only the scene showing men playing poker had been deleted. I think Austen's novels are probably better off only being about women.

I tried thinking of some female authors who have written convincingly from a male POV. I thought of Jhumpa Lahiri, S.E. Hinton, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, JK Rowling, ZZ Packer, and Eudora Welty. Recently, author and acclaimed moron V.S. Naipaul said he could tell within a paragraph or two whether the author was a man or a woman. Here's a fun quiz from the Guardian that lets readers see if they have the same magical ability.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On Love

“A total delight,” reads Josephine Hart’s blurb on the cover of Alain de Botton’s first novel, “On Love.” On the contrary, I would say “On Love” is a total downer. I loved it, but you would have to derive pleasure from other peoples’ pain to call this book a delight.

The narrator, also named Alain, plunges into this sordid tale of romance, dashed dreams, agonizing heartbreak and attempted suicide, but resurfaces wiser in the end. He gives the reader intriguing philosophy lessons and astute observations on love. This is a self-help book, philosophy book and tragic love story all in one.  

The narrator’s anguish was real to me. "On Love" stings the heart and stimulates the mind. Crushing emotions gained from reading this book chilled me so much, at times I had to stop reading. Even while thinking about this book, I had to stop walking, stop eating, stop throwing punches in my kickboxing class, just be still and let everything register.

“On Love” reminded me of "Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov. Alain’s obsession’s name is Chloe, similar to Lo. But Nabokov doesn’t shy away from sex -- or rape, I should say, while Alain de Botton’s sex scenes are like clumsily performed magic tricks. Chloe leaves Alain for another man, just like in Lolita, and she also reads mindless magazines like Cosmopolitan, reminiscent of Lolita and her twelve-year-old-girl reading material. "Lolita" is my favorite book, so perhaps it is unfair to compare anything to such a work of genius.

I would have liked this book more if Alain had some close, trustworthy friends, preferably friends on a lower socio-economic scale, since this book needs more of those. I thought of George Orwell and his unpretentious writing in contrast to the privileged characters and their petty disagreements in “On Love.”

Alain’s friends flit in and out of the book, but no one sticks in the reader’s mind. With a few more scenes, a bit more action, and a few more minor but memorable characters, I think this book could have crossed class barriers and offered real, grittier representations of Paris and London. This book could have been set on the moon, given the lack of human contact and imaginable landscapes. Characters travel back and forth from Paris to London, yet writing about places seems to be very low on the author’s list of priorities. Writing about people is higher on the list, but writing about emotion is tops.

Friends are like lifeboats. We can keep them anchored on the shore when we feel like rotting on our isolated islands, and going insane with self-pity. Then we can find our friends when we feel like rejoining civilization. Friends can say careless things when we’re recovering from the insanity that comes after a massive heartbreak. “Maybe it’s for the best,” and, “Time will heal all wounds,” offer little comfort to someone who is traumatized. Even Hamlet had friends, which goes to show that even the most insane, most obsessed, most indecisive, and most introverted characters must stay connected to others.