Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Five-Paragraph Essays

I don’t usually blog about teaching and I have no intention of starting. Nonetheless, in honor of the end of spring term, I wanted to share this lovely little parody from the current issue of College Composition and Communication. The whole piece, five paragraphs long, is worth a look if you can get yourself to a research library database (CCC 59.3, Feb. 08, 524-5). Xerox it. Paste it on your door. Distribute it widely amongst all the young writers you know.
My Five-Paragraph-Theme Theme
Ed White
Since the beginning of time, some college teachers have mocked the five-paragraph theme. But I intend to show that they have been mistaken. There are three reasons why I always write five-paragraph themes…”

Ah! Music to my ears.

Years ago, an undergraduate humor magazine at Harvard published a parody of the compare/contrast essay by “Duffy Sasser.” Now that was choice satire. It compared Hamlet to Romeo and Juliet contending that they were similar in that they were both plays, with characters, in five acts, by Shakespeare, that ended with characters dying, and had the theme of time and death but that they were different in that one was set in Denmark the other in Italy…

Sadly, I lost my copy of that, but if any one can dig it up for me, I’ll be very grateful!

In the meantime, happy essay writing….!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I love Lynda Barry

Oh, she makes me so happy! She was the main reason to read The Rocket back in the day before The Stranger overtook it as Seattle's best free weekly.

Once, I was visiting a friend. I was 20; my friend, 30ish. A woman came across the street and they started an urgent chat about husbands, babies, pregnancy--all very intimate and fascinating and beyond me. The woman, the neighbor, apologized for interrupting our tea, and left.

It was Lynda Barry.

I still rue my shyness, my uncertainty that it really was her.

Anyway, the NYT slideshow, showcasing her new writing book is very exciting: just the kind of writing workbook to inspire. And she sounds very kind.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Cloak and dagger

When I sought to build a literary life, I imagined fame. What’s come to pass is smaller but maybe more delightful. This weekend, surrounding the PEN Festival, I learned three secrets. That is, I learned that three semi-anonymous or pseudonymous people with cool jobs are actually friends of mine: 1) I know the pseudonymous blogger over at “Of Books and Bicycles”--we chatted at the Eco-Rushdie-Vargas Llosa event and she revealed her blogging identity to me!, 2) not PEN-related but very cool, an old friend and former teacher emailed this morning, apologizing for not having gotten in touch when she was briefly in New York--to testify as an expert witness on J. K. Rowling’s behalf in this month’s Harry Potter trial, and 3) I have been good friends for decades with the translator of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, an exposé on the mafia.

Who knew my friends were leading such cool double lives?

As for me, when I’m not blogging here, I tend to be negotiating t.v. privileges with beloved but demanding daughters--“No, honey, you got to watch Dora all morning. It’s your sister’s turn to pick a show.”

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

PEN Projections: Translation and Original

I want to underscore my support for this new(ish) plan of having writers read in their native language whilst a screen projects the English words. I am totally with Garth on this one:
In what I believe is a new twist, writers read in their first language, with a translation projected onto a screen behind them. I applaud this, in theory; in a festival that prides itself on a global outlook, it seems questionable to force readers into English. That said, the projectionist's manic-depressive speeding-up and slowing-down of the scrolling text added a rather surreal dimension to the evening.
This would have been such an asset for Francesc Seres, the Catalan writer whose work I wish I understood better. And, much as I enjoyed Eco’s reading, I was really bothered by the fact that the projectionist scrolled through the English at such a breakneck pace that we reached the end of our text a full five minutes before Eco had done reading. If PEN can get this system to really work, with projectionists who speak the language, can follow along, and scroll without making our stomachs lurch, then I think the festival will really stand a chance to become a much richer celebration of World Voices. There is something deeply moving about hearing the writer speak in her own tongue: you get an intuitive connection to them that makes trekking off to auditoriums in parts of Manhattan unknown worthwhile.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

From the PEN blog

There are many wonderful accounts of PEN events I’ve described here, both at MetaxuCafe and the PEN blog. You can read them for yourself, of course, but I wanted to highlight a couple entries on events that I, too, attended if only to document for myself the resonances between their reaction and my own:

Thus, Joshua Shenk seems to share my sence that the Crisis Darfur event was a big success:
it was Farrow’s attitude toward it that was my big lesson for the night. On the one hand, she was resolute clear, and specific. She made a very plain and concrete case, for example, for using the Olympic moment to pressure China, which pumps the Khartoum government full of cash and arms. After the event, she was on her way today to Hong Kong to for an Olympic torch protest.) But her indignity was accompanied throughout by a palpable humility before the vastness of the subject. That’s precisely what I feared would be missing from the event, and it was refreshing to get it.
More surprising and delightful to me was Laban Carrick Hill on Hub/ event: he, like me, seems to feel that we witnessed something truly remarkable:
As author Kashmira Sheth, a native of India, spoke of her grandmother being forced to marry at age eleven, I was reminded of my own grandmother marrying at fourteen in the rural South. I can remember when my oldest daughter turned fourteen and my realizing with sorrow and horror that she had reached the age my grandmother had married. Like Sheth’s grandmother, mine was denied education and made sure her children graduated from college. My father was the first in the family to graduate from high school, let alone college. I mention this story because as Americans we think that human rights abuses occur only the Third World. The testimony of the high school students in the room brought home just how close to our daily lives human rights abuses can be.
And Joshua Shenk agrees:
There were two distinct highlights on this morning's program. The first was learning a little about the Hub , which is a community video site (like YouTube) for human rights and which co-sponsored the panel. The second was watching Uzodinma Iweala turn a polite but lethargic field-trip crowd of high schoolers into living illustrations of the Hub’s abstract potential — to energize a community with self-respect and empathy.
I hear from my translator friend that Roberto Saviano’s events were smash hits and you can read about them in Italian here.

Monday, May 05, 2008

PEN World Voices: 3 Musketeers, Again

Others have posted their reports, so I’m indulging myself with impressions. There was a time when I might have scoffed at the false glamour of going to hear three literary giants read and talk. This year, I jumped at the chance.

After all, when Mario Vargas Llosa came to Yale when he was running for President of Peru, my Peruvian ESL students (dishwashers, new immigrants) went, but I stayed home and read.

And what do I remember of Umberto Eco’s visit? Only that his accent was hard to understand and, more vividly, that a fellow graduate student with a flamboyant style of dress and a Cantonese accent thicker than Eco’s Italian one, pushed herself to the head of the line of admirers, chatted with Eco, and returned, triumphant, to announce that she had secured the right to publish his talk in The Yale Journal of Law & Humanities. We--the other student editors and I--were amazed and impressed.

But in the spring of 1989, my professor for Anglo-Indian Narrative announced that, when we got to Shame, Salman Rushdie himself would be joining us to talk about his book.

The fatwa was declared a week later and I had never been in the same room with him until Friday. So, while Rushdie-spotting has become old hat to many, it was a really big deal to me.

His best work may be behind him, but I must say that I was really excited by what he read: not the rock stars and modernity of recent books but a turn back to the court of the great Mughal Emperor, Akbar. This is the kind of mythography that Rushdie excels at, and this fairy tale of the glory days of Muslim India seems really promising. He read a passage in which Akbar discourses with a young princeling who poses some interesting philosophical questions on kingship and what it means to rule--the kind of questions one’s philosophy professor might ask in a class on Plato. Akbar beheads him for his impertinence but then strokes his chin and wonders, hmm…, what if we did permit free speech?

I thought this was poltically pertinent and hilarious, moving and exciting. What more do you want in a novel?

And I thought the event overall was great: lots of fun to watch those giant egos on display, to hear the readings, to see them talk with each other. Like Dorothea, over at Books and Bicycles, I felt like the vibe was good from the get-go. My press pass worked magic and I got into the hall, the second attendee! I had a great seat on the aisle, Dorothea spotted me, we chatted, and I got to watch the anxious literary ladies of the 92nd St.. Y power-walk down to the front rows only to discover the seats were reserved. Eventually, a really handsome woman sat next to me and we fell into conversation: she is a high school English teacher in Madrid, visiting the city for a few months and drinking in the culture. We had a great chat about being a working mom and working to balance doing stuff for yourself and caring for your kids. (At 16, her daughter’s cool with her being away for two months; my daughters accept one late night a week, two max.)

Then, the reading began, and unlike almost every other event, the introductions were blessedly minimal. As in, the interim director of the Poetry Series thanked us, made some announcements, and then said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Umberto Eco.”

He read, walked off stage. Rushdie walked on. When Rushdie finished, out came Vargas Llosa. No baloney. Just great, professional, funny, and beautiful readings.

At dinner with other bloggers afterwards, some expressed disappointment in the degree of narcissism on display. They were shocked--shocked!--to find that three male literary lions, coasting on the crest of their careers, still virile but no longer striving, had big egos.


I noted that not one woman writer was mentioned all night long, but Mary Reagan rightly corrected me: one was: J. K. Rowling (!), whom Rushdie mentioned with humorous, ironic approval as a good-bad writer who seems to have learned from Dumas how to fill up pages with delightful nothings. So we learned something else: Rushdie is a Harry Potter fan.

So is Keith Olbermann. So am I.

In any case, I think my point still stands: these are great big male egos. Woolf, Stein, Sarraute, Arendt, Morrison, Sor Juana, de Pisan, etc., do not loom--large or small--in their imaginations. Still, they are unabashedly liberal, cosmpolitan, educated, historicist and forward-looking. I admire them.

As Levi notes,
The three eminences then gathered for a loose and lively chat about why they liked to call themselves the “Three Musketeers” (Rushdie even mulled over “The Three Tenors”, which I had suggested in a blog post on Thursday, and I was also starting to think up other alternatives including “The Traveling Wilburys” and “Velvet Revolver”). With Alexandre Dumas pere now in play, Rushdie, Eco and Vargas Llosa now began batting The Count of Monte Cristo back and forth, debating whether or not such “bad writing” as this can also be great writing. All three seemed to agree that bad writing could be great writing and that this often happens (it’s not hard to guess that all three authors were thinking of their own excesses here, as well as those of Dumas pere).

The panel was great fun to listen to because the writers were loose and rambunctious, eagerly speaking over each other at times, fully devoid of the stiff politeness that too often mars these gatherings.
The only downside, alas, was the usually intellectually agile Leonard Lopate kept trying to get a word in edgewise. I’m with Dorothea:
I would have preferred that he just let the writers keep up their debate and their jokes because the minute he asked a serious question the energy fell and the mood changed.
The Dumas conversation was a highlight: if you’re going to watch anything online, I’d watch the first fifteen minutes of the roundtable. But later, when they talked about the role of the writer in public life, many interesting things were said, too. That was where a lot of my dining companions heard too much ego, but I’m inclined to be forgiving towards great novelists who are also political commentators or presidential candidates or objects of a global fatwa. They have achieved greatness in more than one arena and it would be strange if they didn’t know it. Looking past that, and past the fact that in their world women still mainly exist as muses, gorgeous fleeting visions of Selma Hayek or Scarlett Johansson or…, I heard some interesting things: most interesting to me was Eco’s point that the US lacks public intellectuals in part because our universities tend to be cordoned off from the city itself. I certainly have found that the change in my life from teaching in rural Indiana to teaching in midtown on a campus that is really just a single building has made me a more engaged citizen.

You can see Mary’s gorgeous photos here.

And see the whole event at the PEN site.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

PEN World Voices: Reading the World, again

If Resonances rambled like an old jalopy, Reading the World clicked along with all the professionalism and friendliness of a Volvo.

I don’t have much of an ethnicity nor a lot of ethnic pride, but what little I have lies in being half Scandinavian by heritage. And the sleek, modern room, the friendly manner of the staff (the first of four events where I just entered, got smiled at by volunteers, and sat down), and the handsomely friendly old lion in charge of Scandinavia House who welcomed us reminded me of why it’s not nuts to take some tiny pride in having ancestors from Norway and Denmark.

In any case, the readings were a delight: three powerful, professional readings of intense familial stress, ably and cheerfully introduced by NYT Book Review editor Rachel Donadio (wearing a really cool Mondrian-y skirt, appropriate to the Scandinavian design ethos).

I haven’t read Peter Carey, but I was so interested in what he said about His Illegal Self on WNYC a couple months ago, that I gave it to my mother-in-law for her birthday. She returned with a positive report. And Carey got up, joked about the intimidating podium (with only a slender stalk, there was no place to hide one’s legs), and said “All right. I’ll just start at the beginning and read for twelve minutes.” And so he did. He read from this story of a boy whose hippie mom is on the run, being raised not on the Upper East Side, where his grandma feels most at home, but, for safety’s sake, in “ a town of 400 people where no one lived.”

A brilliant phrase, “ a town of 400 people where no one lived,” capturing the anger, fear, and isolation of that woman, so at home in Bloomingdale’s and Zabar’s and luncheons with the ladies who give to the Met.

Hafdan Freihof’s reading from Dear Gabriel was an excruciatingly patient account of a dinner party interrupted by the temper tantrum (is that even a fair term) of an autistic son. Like Geoff, whose experience of the event seems to have been markedly similar to mine, I was under the very strong impression that this is memoir. For me, the great moment in this riveting story was of the father, wandering the rural neighborhood, in the dark, looking for his hiding son, “wherever you are you want to be found like a treasure,” he wrote.

That brought all the desires and pains of girlhood running away flooding back: wanting to be found “like a treasure” and reconciled with mommy and daddy, needing to be reassured that you are treasure, even when naughty. Gorgeous.

Like Geoff, Janet Malcolm’s reading from Two Lives was the highlight for me--for just the reasons he states.

It was nice to end with the reading from the hunky Catalan author Francesc Seres, but I longed to hear him read in Catalan and to have the chance to read a screen or handout in English: his accent was so strong, that too much passed me by.

PEN World Voices: Resonances

Well, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad.

I thought the Crisis Darfur event was informative and worthwhile: as enjoyable as being lectured at on genocide can rightly be. And the Witness event was a model of how to engage students in reading and activism: I was moved and amazed.

The Resonances Event at Baruch, by contrast, was dull, dull, dull.

I was so disappointed.

I arrived a little early and sat down in the middle of a row only to have a professor come up, stand right before me, ostentatiously count the empty seats to my right and left and ask if I was bringing my class. (Do I look that much like a teacher?)

No. I just thought it was a good seat and, if I sat in the middle, I wouldn’t have to keep getting up as people file in.

Ok, she said skeptically, but you’re going to be surrounded by my students.

Oh, sorry. So I got up and moved. She seemed confused as to why I didn’t want to stay and insisted that she hadn’t meant me to move….

Things went downhill from there: the moderator had gathered an impressive group of writers from all over the globe--Charles Simic, Antonio Munoz Molina, Fatou Diome, and Ma Jian--to speak about canonical works that continued to resonate for them. Of these writers, I know and admire Simic’s work quite a lot and was looking forward to learning more about the others. But they got up and rambled and rambled; the mic didn’t work well; Simic read his remarks on the eroticism of Ovid with all the panache of John McCain; the next two writers’ choices were predictable and nationalistic (Molina chose Cervantes; Diome, Cesaire and Senghor); each writer lectured us about basic facts and then rambled.

In short, the event was really disappointing and I was not sorry that mild illness gave me an excuse to cut out early.

I hear from others that Ma Jian was great on Kafka, but even that would have been too little, too late for me.

It’s so disappointing because, as a reader of old and new books, a scholar, and a professor, I welcome the notion of this event: I was excited to hear what these writers made of their precursors and excited to have contemporary writers speaking about reading. It should have been an event to inspire. Alas, it was not.