XVI: Morrison: Sula

I have to say, I had many people warn me against Toni Morrison– and for good reason. This book could easily be read as typical rage-against-the-white-man minority literature (sorry, necessary disclaimer). Having said that, “Sula” also provides a lot of insight into African-American communities in the ’20s and ’30s, and Morrison makes no excuse for their failings. The characters she portrays are fragile, cruel, (at times) ugly, crass, promiscuous, and surprisingly… human. Make no mistake, their circumstances are entirely the fault of the White Man– still, I was taken aback by how her African characters are no Uncle Toms. One mother lights her drunk son on fire (meant to be an act of mercy, since he has become an addict); another mother sleeps with every man in town (which somehow brings the community together).

The story revolves around the lives of two heroins, one who chooses to follow conventions and one who incurs the wrath of the community for living as she pleases. Ultimately, Morrison discloses that Sula, a semi-harlot, cannot be faulted for her actions, since she is merely following her nature. When all is said and done, she is the real hero.

Conclusion: meh. I was a little disappointed by moral ambiguity. Perhaps that’s the point, though: the color of your skin does not dictate that you are an upright person (since dark skin and white skin are both equally evil?) At the same time, Morrison’s conclusion reeks of postmodern indifference.

 

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XV: Bellow: Humboldt’s Gift

Disclaimer: I fully admit that this post is the direct result of my desire to procrastinate.

I really didn’t know anything about Saul Bellow when I started reading the novel (which, by the way, I never finished. Time constraints, paper due. You know the drill.) but I was really surprised at how much I loved his prose style. Reminds me a little of James Joyce in that randomly ranting sort of way, but it was a little more direct and rational than the stream-of-consciousness alternative. And he’s funny, too, so I guess he’s really nothing like Joyce in the end.

Humboldt’s Gift is really meant to be a roman à clef, a story whose plot and characters so closely mirror real life that it can be taken as a direct parallel to true events. Bellow utilizes this clever device as a means to explain (apologize for?) his relationship with his deceased former mentor, literary giant and social eccentric Delmore Shwartz, who died an abject failure in the academic community–which is exactly what happens in the book, except a few of the names have been substituted. Ultimately, the celebrated protege realizes that he has sold out his artistic integrity to be a commercial success, while his friend emerges as the tragic hero. More than anything, though, the novel provides interesting insight into the author’s struggle with his Jewish identity as an American intellectual, as well as the (secularized) Jewish experience in general.

My favorite part: Bellow references everything from Marx to Whitman to 007, from scripture to Tiberius to Dostoevsky to The Godfather— which not only betrays the level of his education, but also gives some serious pointers about his political, philosophical, and social convictions. Forgive the metaphor, but think Gilmore Girls’ rapid-fire references with an IQ of 180. Actually, that’s exactly what it’s like and, not gonna lie, I was pretty proud of myself for catching the majority of his obscure quotes =)

Read it, but with a have a dictionary (or Google) on standby.

 

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XIV: Conrad: The Secret Sharer

If you’re reading this, you’re probably someone who has already seen my recent frustrations voiced on Facebook regarding my Conrad assignment. If you’re not, then let me sum it up this way: my professor has a very unique (shall we say out-there?) take on this novella, a work which I consider to be one of all-time great short stories.

Ack.

So here’s my rendition, minus the I’m-a-Lit-professor-so-my-interpretation-must-be-postmodern garbage. =)

Essentially, The Secret Sharer is a romanticized version of the author’s life as well as a presentation of initiation into manhood and authority. The young and possibly incompetent Captain finds himself a stranger to his new ship and crew… ponderponderponder/lots of symbolism/empty sky/wide ocean/etc. Soon he finds himself harboring a fugitive from another vessel, a former first mate who in all ways resembles the Captain himself. Except, to be blunt, he has balls.

As the story progresses, the Captain grows close to Leggatt, the stowaway–who, interestingly enough, is never actually seen by the crew. Although the Captain refers to his friend as his “secret self” and even his “double,” it is clear that Leggatt represents the assertive personality that the Captain hopes for himself. Eventually, Leggatt plans to escape to a nearby island, and the Captain readies his getaway. Although he risks running aground, the Captain steers the ship into the island so Leggatt can swim ashore. At the very last second, the Captain is able to save the ship, symbolically stepping into his role as a capable and self-actualizing man.

I’ve read this book a few times now and yes, I think it’s a classic, although I’m pretty sure my interpretation may be a little out of left field for some people… I’ve always argued that Leggatt is imaginary, and perhaps evidence of the Captain’s lax/uncentered psychology. Meh. Still a good read.

More than anything, this book proved to me…

1.) that I still have the capability to procrastinate, even at the graduate level. Thank God for Starbucks. and

my "workstation"

2.) My outlining skills leave something to be desired. lol

but it was fun =)

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XIII. Diamant: The Red Tent

So I know this book was all the rage a little while back. I heard some of the reviews, but meh I was too busy for fiction back then (Ha! I wish.) But recently, a mother of one of my students began sharing with me about her Jewish faith. She even loaned me a recorded copy of her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah (which, by the way, was really interesting coming from a musician’s point of view!). I shared with her my love for all things Old Testament… I’m pretty sure I surprised her with my knowledge of OT history, which led to several discussions about Jewish v. Christian literature. Anyway, to make a long story slightly shorter, she asked me to read “The Red Tent” over Christmas break.

A word about the writing: it was a so-so book. Not terrifically mind-blowing, but semi-entertaining. I would not have finished it had it not been for my friend.

The story follows Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob. It posits that she was not raped (See Genesis), but rather, her husband was accused of rape by Dinah’s overly protective and politically-motivated brothers, who then proceeded to butcher the whole city.

(Wow… that paragraph is the epitome of “summary”… =)

Frankly, I didn’t take much issue at first. I tend to give a lot of grace where historical fiction is concerned. If you read the epilogue, the author fully discloses that her entire premise is predicated upon a ritual that never existed in early Hebrew culture (the red tent? ya. nope.), so I figured I’d take it with a grain of salt. However, I found myself more and more put off with the story as it developed. I understand that it was a male-driven society with many pagan influences–I don’t even mind that so much. At the same time, Diamant’s blatant defamation of the patriarchs started to get under my skin, especially since I believe that God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because of their obedience to Him.

Simply put, I was surprised that a book on Old Testament events (especially one written by a Jewish author) would be so quick to dismiss the presence of God with His people.

again, it’s decent fiction. I just wish that there was a little more substance and less preoccupation with feminism.

ok. time to put away my soapbox.

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XII. McCormick and Fisher-Hoch: Level 4

I started to write this review a month ago. Seriously. Then, well, life happened, and it took me forever to finish the last two chapters.

Level 4 was published in ’96, the autobiography of two former CDC virologists. What makes them special… is that they were two of the primary researchers of numerous new diseases discovered from the ’60s to the ’90s, including Ebola, Lassa Fever, HIV/AIDS, Legionnaires, and [later] Hepatitis C, Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, and many others.

Just a little light reading over Christmas break, right? Well, if you know anything about me, you’ll know my exposure to medicine is pretty much limited to conversations with my little sister and nursing-school roommates. Apart from that, my point of reference is more aligned with, say, House MD, so I found myself underlining terms I didn’t understand and getting familiar with our medical dictionary. Not that I can now give you a full summary of Arenoviruses or the importance of RNA v. DNA, but I’m proud to say that I could get by if I had to give a ballpark explanation.

Also, I have a weird fascination with the movie “Outbreak”… which my dad showed me [at age 12] to convince me to cover my mouth when I sneeze.

Originally, I had this huge in-depth review planned, complete with maps. Then I realized that it would take too long and would probably [let’s face it] be too boring to sit through. So here are the basic things that stood out to me:

1. My “working understanding” of African geography… does not cut it. To understand how viruses are spread, it’s important to find the first incident of disease, called the index case, and to do that, you have to understand the geopolitical atmosphere. If you can’t get ribovirin to combat Ebola, you have to send for it from the CDC in Atlanta, because most of the surrounding countries probably won’t help.

2. Culture counts. One of the primary ways disease is spread in the sub-Sahara is through tribal rites surrounding the treatment of the dead. For example, several groups believe that a proper burial includes kissing the body of the deceased. In addition, AIDS is more prominent in urban areas than rural, where infidelity is frowned upon and prostitution is met with dismissal from the community.

3. Truth be told, there are still too many people who simply don’t have access to basic sanitation– and have no knowledge that tics, rats, fleas, bats, and monkeys are not good additions to family life.

not so much.

not so much.

The primary battle faced by health care providers in developing countries is the lack of supplies; even in the year of the book’s publication, sharing needles and dialysis machines was still common practice. Blood for transfusions [always in high demand and short supply] is often unfiltered as well.

All in all, a very informative read. However, the authors’ choice to alternate passages can be pretty annoying… it’s clear that McCormick is a much better writer, while Fisher-Hoch makes even basic grammatical mistakes and overuses the word “literally.” I know that makes me sound like a snob. Sorry. I have a tendency to equate good sentence structure with intelligence, which is not necessarily fair, but it was a little disappointing to see “its/it’s” problems in a book which otherwise was very academic.

Cheers

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XI. Aristophanes: Lysistrata

Just finished rereading an old favorite. Lysistrata was first performed around 4 centuries B.C. by a playwright known for his… well, let’s just say NOT for his modesty. It’s a hilarious (though definitely PG-13) look at the battle of the sexes. Literally.

So the men of Athens are fighting the men of Sparta. As usual. The ladyfolk are sick of the endless war, devastating casualties, and unnecessary absence of their husbands. So they do what all good wives do… go on a sex strike.

SPOILER ALERT: the men cave.

To make matters more interesting, Aristophanes actually uses two choruses (one male, one female) whose role is to constantly hurl insults at each other.

As I mentioned, I’ve read this play before (twice?). Apart from the obvious brashness of the script, Aristophenes does for literature what few other authors had attempted at this time: written a truly ballsy female protagonist. Moreover, the work is clearly anti-violence (again, one of the first). To the playwright, love is absolutely opposed to war, and one must choose between them. This was a pretty innovative take on the ancient world, especially for satire.

Funny. Lighthearted. Witty. Insightful… and unblushingly direct. Even if you don’t speak ancient Greek, most of the euphemisms are pretty clear if you have even a basic understanding of mythology. If you don’t, real the notes by Douglass Parker. Genius.

Quotables:

Koryphaios [male chorus lead]: “No fire can match, no beast can best her./O insurmountability/ thy name–worst luck–is Woman.” [94]

Rating: 5/5, with the understanding of its place in history. Make no mistake, this is a big kid book.

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X. Schaeffer (s)

So. I know it’s been forever, and book-a-week has become more like book-when-i-can. Fortunately, teaching literature means that i do get to read a lot; unfortunately, actually writing about books is a different story. To that effect, I am in the middle of several books (recently cleaned the backseat of my car… total=19), but far from finishing any. I admit, however, that at least half of these are re-reads. Lysistrata, for example, but more on that later.

Currently working on two books by Schaeffer Sr. and Schaeffer Jr. “Escape from Reason” and “Addicted to Mediocrity.” Both re-reads. “Escape” is one which demands rereading, I think, simply because the theology is often way over my head and can only really be read in parcels. “Addicted” is more for my entertainment. It’s not fabulously written, and Franky uses sarcasm to the point of condescension, but it has some good points for Christian artists.

To ease my guilty conscience, I leave you with this spectacular quote from the young Schaeffer:

“Christian posters are ready to adorn your walls with suitable Christian graffiti to sanctify them and make them a justifiable expense. Perhaps a little plastic cube with a mustard seed entombed within to boost your understanding of faith… Of all people, Christians should be addicted to quality and integrity in every area… We must demand higher standards. We must look for people with real creative integrity and talent, or we must not dabble in these creative fields at all.”

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IX. John Douglass: Mind Hunter

A while back, I was chatting with a psych major/honors classmate and I asked what he thought of criminal psychology. You know, all those Agatha Christie novels in my childhood really gave me a skewed perspective, but I find profiling and all that really interesting, even though it’s hopelessly Freudian. Said classmate gave me a book to read, and I believe his words were, “I could only get through the first chapter. It’s too creepy.” Yours truly was oddly excited by this admission. So I read it, cover to cover. And I finished it, alone, in a dark house where I was babysitting.

Holy cow.

“Mind Hunter” (not to be confused with “Mind Hunters,” a truly godawful 2004 production featuring a sadistic Val Kilmer) was written by John Douglass, the former FBI analyst whose career was spent trying to understand serial killers. He was the first to really take a psychological approach, developing what is now known as the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU, for all Criminal Minds fans out there.) Well, in the 60s he realized that there wasn’t a whole lot of data available to study, so he decided to set up interviews with the biggest-name killers. His book is essentially a compilation of those interviews, which range from Marilyn Manson to Ted Bundy to Ed Kemper.

An example of his theories at work: Douglass was the first to speculate about the “triad” of symptoms: bed wetting, animal cruelty, and possible speech impediments. Moreover he was the first to study victimology as a way to understand the offender.

There’s more, but I frankly don’t want to skim the book again to read my notes. Ick.

When my dad was in college, he and his class had to watch the Exorcist to examine the effect of audio/visual synergy. When the film was finished, he turned around and said, “You know what? It’s all real.” He was the only student who slept soundly that night. And that’s the thing about this book. Apart from the fascinating look into the mind of multiple serial killers, the part that sticks with you is that all of it actually happened.

Rating: 4/5. An interesting read, well written even. Don’t open on an empty stomach, or in a dark place, or … you get the idea. Also, this is not a kid’s book. Think Stephen King times ten.

like this. sort of.

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VIII. George Macdonald: The Christian Ministry

George Macdonald is my Jane Austen. I grew up on his stories, of which my dad read several aloud. I compare every work of fiction to his Lost Princess, an allegory that speaks directly to the work of C.S.Lewis. In fact, both Lewis and Chesterton listed the Scot as a primary influence for their writing. If any of you have read The Great Divorce, you’ll remember that when Lewis takes his bus to heaven, George MacDonald is the dude he picks to guide him through paradise.

Segue. I found this awesome site called forgottenbooks.org. It has full texts of… well, a ton of books, essays, poetry, treatises, etc. And then YAY! I found a collection of essays by none other than the great master of allegory himself. I virtually thumbed over to the back, and found this little treasure.

”But it is not so in the kingdom of heaven. The figure there is entirely reversed. As you may see a pyramid reflected in the water, just so, in a reversed way altogether, is the thing to be found in the kingdom of God… The Son of Man lies at the inverted apex of the pyramid; he upholds, and serves, and ministers unto all, and they who would be high in his kingdom must go near to him at the bottom.” [299]

The idea is pretty simple, and I’ve heard it before. But man alive, is it hard to live. Our generation talks a whole lot about our “rights,” and we’re deeply offended if we feel we have been put upon. Misery of miseries. But I love the thought: to be greater, we have to live at the bottom, closer to Christ.

In a word, this means obedience, often interpreted as inferiority. God is calling me to serve as Christ did, a glorious act, not one of shame. “But do you think that he [Christ] was less divine than the Father when he was obedient?… Obedience is as divine in its essence as a command.”[306]

We don’t graduate away from service, we graduate towards a more important service. MacDonald points at Edmund Spenser’s Knight of the Red Cross (Faerie Queen. Read it.) as an exemplary figure for valiant obedience: “What does he do? Run away? No, he has but time to catch up his sword, and, trembling in every limb, he goes on to meet the giant, and that is the thing every man must do.”

real servanthood... what if it actually looked like this?

My favorite works by MacDonald:

Phantastes

The Lost Princess/Wise Woman (Find it at manybooks.net)

The Princess and the Goblin

The Romance of Photogen and Nycteris

 

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Grad App Essay: Status: Feedback Needed!

I’ve been working on this essay for about a week now, and I’ve found it’s really hard to write authoritatively without sounding like a pompous ass. I fully admit I’m working way too hard on this, since it’s just a prove-that-you-can-write assignment. Either way, I’d love to actually get some some input, especially from those of you who write, edit, play music, philosophize, or are generally literate.

Please, do not take this seriously. And yes, I know the Nietzche thing is a stretch. Call it my private joke =) And I already know the introduction has to go. Yuk!

Peace! and Thanks!

It has been said that art imitates life. However, I suggest that art also converges with philosophy, music, literature, and history to give us an informed glimpse at who we are and how we have arrived at this moment in time. Each element serves its purpose, without which our understanding is rendered uneven, lopsided.

My first revelation of the humanities as a holistic field of study came during my junior year at Azusa Pacific University. I was preparing for my senior thesis, which I had ambitiously titled, “Studies in Postmodern Music.” A music major, I was fairly certain that I possessed the necessary knowledge and resources to successfully deconstruct trends in 20th-century composition, a genre rife with dissonant and often disturbing tonalities, non-idiosyncratic instrumentation and performance practice, and a budding dependence on electronic manufacture and synthetic sound. However, an interview with Music Theory and Jazz professor Tom Hynes turned my thesis on its head.

We were discussing Jimi Hendrix’ historical rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” when Dr. Hynes posited that the violent and aggressive imagery of his particular interpretation stemmed from the overwhelming anti-war philosophy so prevalent in the 1960s and ‘70s. This intersection of art and worldview challenged and intrigued me, and I returned to my paper with a new focus. And that was only the beginning: nearly every composer I had chosen to cite in my thesis had an ideological counterpart in literature, fine art, or philosophy. For example, a paper on the influence of Schoenburg in the Second Viennese School revealed a unique parallel between his radical musical innovations and the theological postulations of Frederich Nietzche, whose abandonment of traditional theistic absolutes could be seen to have influenced the composer’s work at the turn of the century. Schoenberg, in the meantime, had side-stepped the modal structure established by centuries of composition and had instead embraced a pantonality found by many to be musically sacrilegious.

A second clarification regarding the role of the humanities in my educational endeavor arrived in the form of a concert. I was a member of my university’s Oratorio Choir which, as the name suggests, specializes in sacred works. The selection for the spring semester was the Requiem by Gabriel Faure. Now it is no revelation that music has long been linked to religious institutions; however, I became increasingly aware of the intersection of ideas (art, music, and philosophy) during the course of my preparation for our performance.

Beautiful, inspiring music aside, the Requiem, like so many masses of its time, is simply constructed on major and minor chords. Specifically, the composer’s intentional avoidance of complex or diminished tonalities speaks strongly toward the philosophies and superstitions of his contemporaries, who were convinced of the satanic qualities of discordance. Perhaps more practically speaking, an accurate performance practice demands vocal “clipping” of the lyrical line, made necessary by the vaulted architecture of the classical period, which prompted sonar amplification and echoing. The influence of art on musical production could not have been made more clear.

A third insight into the complementary nature of the humanities was a result of a conversation with a close friend. He divulged his preference for the poetry of e.e. cummings, known for his irregular approach to structure and punctuation. When my friend read his favorite selection aloud, it became immediately apparent to me that cummings’ odd style could be seen as a parallel to the musical and philosophical trends of his time. For example, the poet’s deliberate deviation from literary morays closely mimicked Schoenburg’s dissemination of tonality at the turn of the century in Verklarte Nacht and Pierrot Lunaire, which stripped the music of a modal center as his predecessors had never even attempted. Furthermore, cumming’s clear use of alternating metered and unmetered verse as well as the implementation of irregular punctuation echoes the equally fluctuating time signature of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 Le Sacre de Printemps as well as the later works of aleatoric composers.

Excited by this discovery, I wrote a paper suggesting cummings’ poem “my sweet old etcetera” as an example of written song, complete with recurring motifs, polyphony, and contrapuntal devices. Moreover, I postulated that the author’s sensitivity to the spoken word could be paralleled to the librettos of the modernist movement. Suddenly, music, art, literature, philosophy, and history were revealed to be inextricably bound up together.

As my undergraduate degree came to a close, numerous conversations with professors from the History, Fine Art, and Music Departments impressed upon me the need for further inquiry into the humanities as a whole. I knew that entailed the pursuit of graduate studies, so I applied to several programs in music and literature; however, none of these degrees provided an interdisciplinary approach. When a friend and graduate of the HUX degree suggested that I look into the Dominguez Hills program, I felt that this would be a perfect fit.

I have high hopes for being a high school history or literature teacher, eventually obtaining my Ph.D. and pursuing employment at the university level. I am convinced that a well-rounded degree in the humanities will more completely train me to be effective and thorough in that capacity. In conclusion, I believe the last few years have prepared and even spurred me to pursue an MA in the humanities. I trust that your program, addressing not one but five related disciplines, will provide a crucial perspective for my future work.

PS Congrats if you actually made it to the end! Thanks again!

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