Friday, May 29, 2009

Hey There, Remember Me?

I am not a monthly regular. In fact, I've only posted one other time on this blog (and to be honest, I couldn't even tell you in which month that was). I am a Fifth-Weeker. As a FW, it is my job to take a slight burden off the regulars shoulders, ensuring that none of them be required to post more than once in a month. This has both advantages and disadvantages. First, I don't have to worry about posting until the email siren sings her special song warning me that a Fifth Week is coming up. Second, because I don't post regularly, I come up with ideas that don't necessarily fit into the rest of the month's posts. Case in point: the post you're about to devour. You shan't be reading a post about which book in the canon "isn't for me," instead you shall be reading some of my own thoughts. Enjoy.

I just recently finished the book, Brother One Cell by Cullen Thomas (I highly recommend it to all those who like autobiographical glimpses into an "unknown's" life. Note: it does contain some language, mostly because it is written about a man's stint in prison). It depicts Cullen Thomas' life in the mid-90s living in South Korea. Long story short, having just graduated from college, he goes to South Korea to teach English. In his youthful stupidity, he tries to bring some drugs into the country, gets caught and spends three and a half years in a South Korean prison. When he is released, he realizes that he is a completely different person than the one who entered the prison gates--he has experienced a lifetime of memories and has "come of age."

While reading this memoir, I couldn't help but identify with Cullen (I call him Cullen because I feel like we're on a first-name basis). He examines a relatively small portion of his life, retelling quite plainly the events that took place. He seemingly stumbles into situations that will ultimately change his life forever. While his trip to South Korea, as a whole, was intentional, the amount of change that took place while there was completely unforeseen.

I want to write a book. I have so many ideas, it's ridiculous. But one of them that is quite near the top of the list is a memoir of my time in Uganda, East Africa. I spent three months, living among the nationals, helping the missionaries, and "coming of age." I went there with plenty of good intentions, but I left there with so much more than I ever imagined. Maybe that's why I identified with Cullen so much. Our stories are slightly (very slightly) similar. I've always wanted to record my memories of Africa. I kept a very detailed journal while over there, and I have often pulled it out and read it. Still today, I am realizing ways in which I was affected while there. It's been five years since I returned and I think it's time. I think I finally understand enough of what happened to accurately convey it to others. Cullen helped me. While reading his story, I understood that the most mundane of events can actually have meaning. He wrote so simply--and yet he was so profound. Maybe, just maybe I can be profound to someone too.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Alienating Literature Lovers Everywhere
I’m resisting the urge to choose John Milton’s Paradise Lost. By that statement, I just lost credibility with all Brit Lit canon lovers.

PL was my first instinct because I had to take a semester-long Milton class in grad school and found PL needlessly long and the language inaccessible (the impatience of a hopeless American lit reader). However, I did not pick PL as my "great book but not to me" choice today because:
- the scope of the work is so magnificent, and that has to count for something.
- Milton became completely blind sometime around 1652. PL was not published till 1667, so it’s safe to say at least a bulk of the work was done through dictation, making the lyricism of the poem even more impressive.
- he is considered by some to have ushered in the Romantic movement. You can’t disqualify groundbreakers.

So Then...
So then what should be allowed in the canon? I think it has to be something that impacts society with its message and its form.

So what shouldn’t be in the canon? I would postulate: books that don’t accomplish the aforementioned. My pick for the day…

Now to Alienate the American Lit Fans (and My Fellow Missourians)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I love Twain’s witty one-liners, and his short stories are entertaining. But is all his work just that—entertaining? While entertainment may be a great criterion for picking your next beach book, selection for the canon should involve something more worthwhile.

My issue is that Tom Sawyer is plot-rich and humorous, but that’s about it (to me). I’ll go a step farther and say I’m not even entirely impressed with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn either. Once you’ve read one, you’ve as much as read the other (minus heavier racial issues in Finn and what some would call satire of American bigotry). While I grant that we see young characters faced with moral choices, wouldn’t that be said for any coming-of-age story? How is Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn any better than any other bildungsroman (fun lit term of the day)?

My Opponents Would Say…
Twain’s novels, by virtue of their context, involve heavy race relations issues. But that’s just it—it’s a matter of context. Any work written in that setting would naturally address those issues. Some would say Twain’s work is important because it set the pace for other American writers to begin exploring race relations in America. But that can’t be true because it disregards the many slave narratives and fiction such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

All in All
Ultimately I suppose I will always just think of Twain’s work as “just good books.” Nothing wrong with that for juvenile fiction, but I think that’s a far cry from living up to all the hype of America’s first great writer.

Appendix I

storySouth is an online journal that publishes a wide variety of new fiction from the new South. (Click here for details on "new South" and the journal itself.) storySouth offers a chance to sample what other break-out writers are getting published. Readers also have a chance to vote for winners in a writing contest.
What I'm Currently Reading: Same Place, Same Things by Tim Gautreaux.
Why: He was a down-to-earth, "boy-from-the-parish" instructor at my alma mater, and I'm on a kick to prove to myself that writers are just ordinary people, and it can be done.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Madame Bovary: It's in the Canon, but . . .

Madame Bovary. I wanted to like this book. I really did. It’s Flaubert’s masterpiece. The praise was overwhelming.

• James Wood, contemporary literature’s finest critic, waxes elegant about its groundbreaking effect on all of modern literature in his latest book, How Fiction Works.
• Frank Conroy, (former) director of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop program, is said to have told MFA students that it can never stop teaching us about writing.

Perhaps they’re right, but I don’t see it.

The Story
The story is about Emma Bovary’s attempts to escape her loveless marriage with the bumbling Dr. Charles Bovary. Her efforts lead to adulterous affairs, among other things, but it’s all in vain. There is great detail lavished on every scene (and I’m told hidden patterns, which may indicate I’m a clueless reader), but it reads like so much plodding through the French countryside today. The social situations, while obvious at the time (I presume), now seem to need footnotes to make sense.

It’s hard to empathize with Emma or her cuckolded husband, as she is shallow, without a spark of freshness. Ultimately, her desperation to escape doesn’t seem like desperation, but selfishness. Unlikable characters are fine, but selfishness is so easy. (While this might be a perfect prophecy about our selfish society, its prescience nonetheless feels wilted.) There has to be more at stake. I never felt that for Emma.

Compared to another adultery story with a female protagonist written less than 20 years later, it feels lifeless, while Anna Karenina’s star continues to grow more lustrous despite being about four times as long.

A Counter-Thought
Maybe Flaubert is a ground breaker, so a comparison to Chaplain might be in order. Watch Gold Rush today and it’s cute; however, at the time of its release no one had ever seen anything like that before. Now it’s been ripped off so many times, and so many have used it for inspiration, that it’s hard to enjoy it past “Cute today.”

A Caveat
Now that I think about it, French lit has never captured my imagination. Balzac’s Pere Geriot seemed insightful, but Zola’s Theresa Racquin seemed pedestrian and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education read flat (though I loved his little witty dictionary).

Appendix A: Flannery, Marilynne, GAN

Ruminate Magazine is worth your consideration. I'm a subscriber and here's why (from its web site): "A good word, in and of itself, can be a spiritual endeavor expressing the beauty, creativity, and ironies of the human experience. Because of this, RUMINATE publishes work with both subtle and overt associations to the Christian faith as well as work that has no direct association. Ultimately, we are seeking writers and artists who are interested in the process of creating quality work that reveals the nature of Christ, in whatever form this may look like."

• Terry Teachout on “Believing in Flannery O’Connor

• An interesting, secular take on Marilynne Robinson's Home

• Laura Miller wonders, "Why Can't a Woman Write the Great American Novel?"

"it seems that before the 1970s there was nothing more conducive to a woman's literary success than the failure of the men in her life. More often than not, what prompted these writers to sit down at their desks and send out their manuscripts to magazines and book publishers was the bankruptcy, desertion, idleness or death of her husband or father. When the touted sanctuary of the nuclear family let them down, and they needed the money to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, their talents were finally loosed

Appendix B: Writing Contests

Esquire Magazine used to be one of the havens of great contemporary fiction, and while it still publishes fiction (an increasing rarity in magazines today), its lustre has dimmed of late. Now it appears they're making a huge bid at reasserting their claim on great fiction on the web. There are stories by Arthur Miller, Nathan Englander, Stephen King, James Lee Burke, and other.

Plus, they have a $2,500 fiction contest where they give you a choice of 3 titles to write your story about.

Family Circle has a big fiction contest as well.

Don't pass up these opportunities! It's a great chance for Pentecostals to shine!

Friday, May 8, 2009

So, This Book Is in the Canon Because . . .

Good ol' Gulliver.

I sat in the back of my 12th grade English class and would randomly say "good ol' Gulliver" in an exaggerated, hicktown voice just loud enough for the 2 or 3 people nearby to hear me and snicker as we trudged through the rest of our discussion about Lemuel Gulliver's voyage to Lilliput.

Who am I to say that Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift is not worthy to be in the canon? It may be a good book, but I must admit that its virtues were lost on me.

Jonathan Swift is one of the most well-known satirists in the English language. I get it. But I much prefer "A Modest Proposal" as his legacy to satire over good ol' Gulliver. In its defense, the plot shines with creativity and whimsy as the main character travels to far off lands with names like Brobdingnag. I appreciate the fact that there is character development as Gulliver starts out good-natured and somewhat naive and ends up a little more wisened and somewhat cynical after his travels. Hey, it became a TV miniseries. No mean feat.

I understand the way that he described the court at Liliput was meant to satirize the court of George I. I get that the Liliputian dispute over how they cracked their eggs was meant to satririze Catholic/Protestant tensions . . . but I guess details like this are part of my issue with it. If you aren't privy to the extra-textual revelations of exactly what it was Swift was making fun of, then the little details serve as little more than little details. Because of the historical disconnect, Gulliver's Travels loses some of the timelessness that I feel is a necessary strength in order for a novel to be considered a part of the canon.

As I recall in my 12th grade Literature class, when we weren't zoning during less than spirited discussion about the novel, we did laugh at the absurd names, characters and situations in which Gulliver found himself. But I'm afraid we didn't grasp Swift's overall purpose. The book may have entertained us somewhat, but it didn't connect with us.

However, to give credit where credit is due, Gulliver's Travels did serve as a spinoff name for a website that I created many years ago as I voyaged out into the Old World: Chantelliver's Travels.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Fill in the Blank

This month we Word bloggers are to fill in the following blank: "________ may be a great book/in the canon but not for me because..."

Difficult...or am I being honest?
So yes, at first I thought this was going to be super difficult. On what grounds would someone deny one of the books in the canon? Wouldn't this inevitably reveal one's shallowness? How could one maintain a pretentious, arrogant air whilst...but then the truth descended upon me like a ton of bricks. The truth is, I once returned a book, a book I've now discovered that quite a few people treasure (there's a pun but you have to wait for it!). I not only returned the book, I proudly and even gleefully returned it. I returned it with the comment that: "I do not understand why this is a Great Book or why ANYONE would ever want to read it!" So what is this most offensive tome?

Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations
There it is. Take that. And while I'm at it I'd go ahead and ditch all the economists (I struggle some with Locke because of my ridiculous patriotism--hey, I'm an Army brat...). You know what else? I would hold a book burning for Hobbes (not really an economist himself per se, but I think the perfect example of what manifests from economist philosophies). How's that for snapish, brutish and short (you Hobbesians know what I mean!!)?!?!

On the one level, it's simple: they are boring and UGLY! Let's be real. These are not riveting reads. So if something is requiring discipline to get through, I think there should be a payoff. That's right: tedium is NOT its own reward, and at the end of it I want to better appreciate beauty. I want to be given more reason to stand in awe before my God.

Bare Bones
There it is. The bare bones of the matter. Perhaps I could have articulated a more philosophical lack of appeal or even a spiritual oneupmanship. AKA can we, as Christians seeking God's kingdom, really use economists to undergird our thoughts and behaviors? I know people who say we can and even should, but hmmmmmmm, I wonder...