Senior high readings

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  • Sophocles’ Oedipus the King
  • Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot
  • Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters
  • William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
  • Selected poetry of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
  • Selected short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
  • George Orwell’s 1984
  • Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
  • Selected poetry of William Butler Yeats
  • Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes

These were the literary texts I read for my English class in senior year high school. I later got credit in the university for work in this advanced class taught by Mrs. Marilyn Velasquez. Looking back, that was a year in my life when I read lots of literature (I also read many of the “great books” in junior high and undergrad Humanities I). Whereas in Humanities I, my brilliant professor Carolyn Hau taught me how to deconstruct texts, Mrs. Velasquez helped build the foundation for such critical analysis by introducing me to the traditional or formal methods of studying “the canon.”

Just two weeks ago, I watched the film Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. This was my favorite Shakespeare play in high school, so it was great to watch its film adaptation at a time in my life when I’ve already seen the effect of power and ambition- the play’s themes- in real people and societies. I probably would not have watched the movie had I not been introduced to Shakespeare before.

My favorite novels in the list were García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes. They opened my eyes to the possibilities of language- that it could be florid, lush and maximalist as in One Hundred Years of Solitude or restrained, full of silences and minimalist as in Thousand Cranes. Through the years, I’ve experimented with both kinds of writing styles.

I feel lucky to have had great teachers who gave me various tools for the lifelong study of literature.

 

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Orientalism

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I’m done reading Volume 3 of Tristram Shandy. For a couple of evenings last week, I also read Kevin Kwan’s China Rich Girlfriend as a chaser to Shandy Volume 2. It’s fun to alternate between a classic and a contemporary bestseller: the latter makes me feel like a speed-reader.

Kwan’s second book in a planned trilogy is a continuation of the high-flying adventures in Asia of Chinese-American ingenue Rachel Chu. Whereas his first book Crazy Rich Asians represented Singaporean excess, this sequel trains its eye on the outrageous fantasies of mainland China (and Hong Kong).

One writer has described Kwan as a modern-day Jane Austen “because he is writing about the same pride and prejudices that consumed Austen 200 years ago”- pride and prejudices based on class, wealth, and family relationships. Kwan’s books remind me of Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot because of these themes. In fact, he quotes Balzac at the beginning of China Rich Girlfriend Part 3:

Behind every fortune lies a great crime.

Both Lawrence Sterne and Kevin Kwan intersperse their narratives with different kinds of texts that aren’t usually regarded as literary, using a fragmenting technique that I associate with postmodernism. Thus far, from Volumes 1 to 3 of Tristram Shandy, Sterne has inserted a convoluted legal document (the marriage settlement of Tristram’s parents), a Christian sermon on conscience, and a Catholic excommunication document. In China Rich Girlfriend, Kwan uses a cornucopia of texts to advance the plot: newspaper reports, a CNN report, email, text messages, voicemail, society pages, instant messages, a Cyndi Lauper song, a social impact (image) assessment, thought bubbles, GChat, blog posts, diary entries, a “Father of the Year” magazine article and notes.

Since I’m feeling “umay” or sated after a week of exposure to brand names, consumerism, and greed, my next chaser is a Filipino 80s novel that looks social realist: Andres Cristobal Cruz’s Ang Tundo Man May Langit Din (Even Tondo Has a Sky).

Messiness of life

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For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.

These first two lines of My Struggle Book 1 by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard caught my interest, such that I read the book over the holidays till the first week of January, when I stopped on p. 350- the scene in which the author and his older brother remove garbage and feces their recently dead father left behind in their incontinent grandmother’s house- after finding it too depressing to continue.

Here are some more lines that express the author’s worldview:

…but what I learned was that also our ludicrously inconsequential lives, in which we could not attain anything of what we wanted, nothing, in which everything was beyond our abilities and power, had a part in this world, and thus also in the supreme, for books existed, you only had to read them, no one but myself could exclude me from them. You just had to reach up.

One transcends the dreariness, pain and meaninglessness of everyday life by writing (and reading) about it, Knausgaard seems to say. And write about his life he did: My Struggle consists of six volumes or books, 2,600 pages all in all. Although described on the back cover of Book 1 as fiction, the author who is now in his forties has revealed in interviews that the series is autobiographical, filtered by memory but still based on actual people, places, and events in his life. He has said My Struggle is “kind of a midlife-crisis novel.”

Book 1 describes stages in his life that he develops in the subsequent five volumes: his late childhood, when he was cruelly teased by his father for a speech defect (not being able to roll his “r”s); his adolescence, during which he often got drunk on beer and experienced premature ejaculation while making out; his parents’ divorce (he suspected his mother was physically abused); college, when he felt he had no friends and followed his older brother around; and adulthood with the dissatisfaction caused by having kids to look after while trying to find salvation in writing.

Beyond the first person point of view, My Struggle is similar to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in the way it plays with the concepts of time and consciousness. Knausgaard doesn’t follow a strictly chronological narrative. He lingers over details of some events (such as his juvenile attempts not to get caught drinking alcohol one New Year’s Eve) and just briefly mentions others (like the time his mother kicked him out of the house after her divorce). The narrators of both books also claim to have written them quickly without much editing.

My Struggle seems to have gotten inspiration from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past that Knausgaard mentions in Book 1.

Knausgaard’s vivid and easy-to-read descriptions of his external and inner worlds make up for his anxious, depressing tone. Take this description of the Betamax that transported me back to the 1980s:

He pressed STOP and then REWIND….

The video machine click-clacked a few times while emitting some tiny hydraulic whines until it was ready to start, and the tape began to whir backwards with ever-increasing speed and volume until it came to a stop well before the end, whereafter the last part rotated extremely slowly, in a manner reminiscent of a plane which after flying at breakneck speed through the air approaches the ground at reduced speed and brakes on the runway, and then calmly and carefully taxis toward the terminal building.

Perhaps when I’ve already achieved calm with two months of daily Zen sitting, I can finally sit down and read the last 90 pages of Book 1.

A year of great books

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Welcome to my new blog on books!

Last year, I focused my reading on contemporary fiction- my favorite books were Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia (an immersive retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid); Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (an unlikely, comic tale that reminded me of the film Forrest Gump); and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (a bittersweet novel on connections in our global village). I read Shakespeare’s play King Lear, but no classic novels (at least according to my Instagram and Facebook timelines).

This year, I plan to read a mix of current and classic fiction and record them in this blog so I’d remember them. For the classics, I’m getting inspiration from Slate Academy’s A Year of Great Books: every two months, book club members get to vote for a candidate in a list presented by Slate’s literary critic Laura Miller. For January to February 2016, she gave the following intriguing choices, none of which I’ve read yet: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman; Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; and Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education.

To my surprise, my favorite bookshop had copies of all four books. Moreover, the book that I was most drawn to, Tristram Shandy, is downloadable as a free e-book. This novel also got the most votes from Slate book club members.

This is how Miller describes Sterne’s novel:

An almost indescribable comic novel—witty, bawdy, and a tremendous amount of fun—it features the most famous blank page in all literature, and other “postmodern” devices that were not rediscovered until the late 20th century. “Nothing odd will do long,” wrote Samuel Johnson. “Tristram Shandy did not last.” He was wrong.

This afternoon, I stopped reading when I reached this famous blank page (or two blank pages, pp. 31 and 32, in my copy). The book is almost 700 pages long, so I’d need to read around 20 pages a day (or 100 pages each weekend) to finish it by the end of February.

The narrator Tristram Shandy spends the first 30 pages of the book describing his conception- the evening when his parents made love. His tone is light and chatty and he digresses into stories about other people, in much the same way that “chismoso” or gossips tend to free associate, without clear logic nor direction.

Sterne’s book provides fun relief from reading the contemporary fiction/ autobiography My Struggle Book 1 by Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard that I’ll describe in a future post.