Monday, November 17, 2008

Poem #5

December Digressions

The street is frosted like a cake.
I cross a vast plane of vanilla,
A pioneer,
Leaving the first impressions upon a freshly made bed
Of buttercream:
A Candy Land dream.
When I was six, my world revolved around cupcakes.
It still does;
Sometimes, anyway.
Some things never change:
My love of sugar,
My love of daydreams,
My irrepressible desire to breathe against the pane
And trace my name across a Norman Rockwell winter.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy

Instead of writing a review of this book, I'd like to provide a few excerpts that particularly had an effect on me. I will offer no context so I don't spoil the story. Instead, here is the text, the simple, unadorned, unanalyzed text, offered in the spirit of a New Critic. It can truly stand on its own.

I should also mention that this book was tragic but beautiful (now that I've read four Hardy novels, I'm not surprised). So yes, I recommend it.

"I don't--know about ghosts," she was saying. "But I do know that our souls can be made to go outside our bodies when we are alive."
"What--really now? And is it so, maidy?" he said.
"A very easy way to feel 'em go," continued Tess, "is to lie on the grass at night, and look straight up at some big bright star; and by fixing your mind upon it you will soon find that you are hundreds and hundreds o' miles away from your body, which you don't seem to want at all."

Her affection for him was now the breath and light of Tess's being: it enveloped her as a photosphere, irradiated her into forgetfulness of her past sorrows, keeping back the gloomy spectres that would persist in their attempts to touch her--doubt, fear, moodiness, care, shame. She knew that they were waiting like wolves just outside the circumscribing light, but she had long spells of power to keep them in hungry subjection there.

They stood, fixed, their baffled hearts looking out of their eyes with a joylessness painful to see. Both seemed to implore something to shelther them from reality.
"Ah--it is my fault!" said Clare.
But he could not get on. Speech was as inexpressive as silence.

Monday, October 27, 2008

From October to November

I have about 20 minutes to write this post. Maybe less. It's like one of those in-class writing assignments I give my students, which they are always so pleased to write. And by pleased I mean, the scribbles on their college ruled paper usually show grudging cooperation rather than enthusiastic engagement. They write it because they have to. They clearly don't want to. If they ended their sentences in prepositions like that, I'd leave them an "end prep" marginal notation. But I don't have to edit my own writing right now. For the next 20 minutes (more like 16, by now), I'm writing because I feel like it. I'm writing because I just dashed into the library and escaped a rain/sleet mixture that signals the coming birth of November.

In my mind, Halloween is a watershed moment. Before Halloween, there may be a day when the temperatures dive into the low 30s, but generally, warm days (or at least pleasant ones) are more common than freeze fests. After Halloween, though, the reverse seems to be true. All of a sudden, the freezing moments outnumber the warm ones, and before you know it, winter has hit you full force in the face. It's that October to November transition -- the dying whispers of autumn that suddenly give way to the howls of winter -- that has the power to fascinate me. It's a changing of the guard, a surrender to the bleakness that ultimately will surrender, once again, to a rebirth.

Just now, navigating my way along the slick sidewalk, I felt an odd rush of excitement as I dodged perilous puddles and felt the stinging wind against my face. The rain-sleet mixture pounded against my umbrella, held carefully at a 45-degree angle to protect both myself and my bag of books. I always feel so protective of my books. Rain and paper is a sorry mixture. Coffee and paper is even worse. But I love the rain. And I love coffee.

And I love feeling the way I just did, for less than 5 minutes, out in the elements and shivering inside my puffy white coat. I was so cold, so nearly saturated despite my umbrella; yet so alive. Strong weather makes me feel close to something other-worldly; closer to God, perhaps.

My fingers are finally feeling less numb. My coat is mostly dry. But 20 minutes have passed. My short respite has expired. Time to get back out there.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


2 a.m. is the loneliest hour.
everyone's asleep but the clock;
its steady pulse sustains me
til sunrise.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

Published in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd is one of Hardy's earliest novels, and perhaps also one of his most optimistic. I say that with hesitation because much of the novel's content is far from hopeful. Yet, considering the pre-conceived notions I had before studying Hardy's work (others had told me how depressing his works are), I must admit that this novel was less depressing than some of his poetry, and certainly less somber than The Return of the Native (which I will write about in my next post).

The main aspect of this book that I'd like to highlight is the beauty and magical presence of nature. Without re-typing passages from the book (which I'm tempted -- but too tired -- to do), I cannot adequately explain the way that Hardy builds images with words and reproduces the fierce, destructive, yet also peaceful and healing properties of the natural world. The English countryside nearly becomes a separate character as its potent force affects people's lives just as much as human beings.

But indeed, this novel does not focus on nature to the exclusion of humans. Far from it. Simply explained, the story revolves around four main characters: Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful, proud, independent young woman who is mistress of her own farm; Gabriel Oak, a solid, responsible man whose loyalty and love to Bathseba are as steady as his character; Sergeant Troy, whose dashing good looks are tainted by his suspect reputation and morals (but his attractiveness has the potential to blind others to his faults); and Farmer Boldwood, a middle-aged, well-to-do man who is respected among his community yet keeps to himself and has successfully resisted the temptation to fall in love -- until now.

These four distinct personalities converge in Hardy's landscape. Their emotions and behavior change as rapidly and violently as the climate (with the exception of Oak, of course). Scorching sun gives way to relentless rain; vivid skies transform into dense blankets of clouds, rent by furious thunder. Seasons of growth give way to periods of scarcity, of tragedy, of hope, and of harvest. Of bitterness and of love. Death. Betrayal. Murder. But seemingly impregnable grief finally surrenders, and Hardy's conclusion arguably offers some semblance of promising renewal.

Commenting upon Time and Fate and the role that Chance plays in our lives, Hardy portrays a world ruled by the chaotic whims of an uncaring Universe. He also critiques the Victorian ideal of marriage and cynically views romantic relationships -- at least those that begin a blinding whirlwind of passion, as opposed to those with a more slow and steady beginning. Despite these sobering themes, I found myself enchanted with the prose and thoroughly enjoying the story. I can do nothing other than give it a very high recommendation.

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

I've read several books over the past month, and I simply haven't had a chance to write anything about them here. I'm currently in the midst of two other books, and will soon begin yet another. So, before I get completely bogged down, I want to at least leave brief comments on the three books I've read since August. The first, Wise Children, is the subject of this post.

This novel is an artfully designed, first-person narrative that lives up to its categorization as "magical realism." Blurring fact with fiction, truth with illusion, 75-year-old narrator Dora Chance tells the story of her life. From England to California and back to England again, Dora's adventures as a showgirl, along with her twin sister Nora, are enchanting, hilarious, heartbreaking, mystical, and at times dubious. True or not, every detail adds up to a climactic conclusion. Literally.

Dora and Nora are the illegitimate daughters of a famous Shakespearean actor. Craving and not receiving his love for most of their lives, the girls nevertheless idolize their father from afar. Meanwhile, they amass reputations of their own as they dance their way from stage to stage, lover to lover, celebration to misfortune. The narrative possesses a distinct theatricality that is consistent with Dora's vibrant and eccentric personality; she puts on a dazzling show for readers, inviting them to partake in her show's -- her life's -- pleasures and pains.

I was engrossed from the first page until the last. I think you will be, too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Poem #4

Sick Day

I'm a hot face against a no-longer-cool pillowcase,
A restless body sinking into a too-soft mattress,
A lost wanderer in an eternal desert, craving
Water, more water,
Until I'm nothing but liquids and fever and cherry cough syrup and frustration.

Digital numbers displayed on my nightstand
Torment my mind as each hour passes,
Until sunlight meets my ungrateful eyes,
And the morning breeze transforms itself into a relentless blanket of humidity.

I'm 24,
But I'm like a child again,
Craving parental pity and attention and maybe even some homemade, simmering soup.
I have no responsibilities,
I have only this room,
This stifling yet liberating room,
That suspends me between innocence and maturity
And lets me pretend that I can be invisible to the world,
If only for a day.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This book has been so heavily discussed, praised, and condemned, that I feel a lengthy description of its basic plot and themes would be fruitless. So instead, I'd like to briefly comment upon the novel's treatment of "love."

First, though, I must mention the prose, which some have criticized as "wordy." I found it to be elegant, well-crafted, and absorbing. A 350-page novel may be considered "long" by some, but this page count is not a reason to attack the book. The lush narrative is, I feel, one of the novel's only laudable attributes.

In fact, this very seductiveness of the prose has led me to reconsider my initial impressions of the novel: that its views of love are not romantic at all, but rather disturbing and repulsive. These initial impressions may sound harsh, but I don't know how else to describe a man who has "622 affairs" (not including his less serious flings), and has sex with a 14-year old girl when he is 70 years old. By no standards can this be considered romantic. Period.

Yet the novel forces us to question that initial shock and horror; maybe Florentino isn't so bad, despite his obsessive womanizing. Maybe he's a romantic at heart, who desires to transcend carnal lusts even as he absorbs himself in them, by maintaining an unflinching spiritual and immortal love for Fermina. The lyrical prose, as mentioned before, as well as the novel's conclusion almost, almost, negate the moral questionability of much of its content. But I cannot go that far. In the end, I'm only slightly moved by the so-called spiritual love that Florentino and Fermina share, and I'm disheartened by the assertions that Marquez makes concerning love.

For instance: "Florentino Ariza learned what he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same sorrow with each, and not betray any of them." (270)

I have contemplated heavily on this passage, and yet I cannot identify it as truth. I assume that Marquez is differentiating between different types of love, as he does elsewhere in the novel; specifically, he contrasts physical love (which Florentino experiences in his affairs) with spiritual love (which Florentino reserves for Fermina). I believe that spiritual love and physical love go hand-in-hand; Marquez polarizes the two and places the former on a higher pedestal than the latter. In fact, he goes so far as to portray physical love as a passtime, an act as ephemeral as the relationships that contain it. Thus, the physical body becomes nothing more than a vehicle of fleeting passion, which can be disregarded as unimportant. I cannot follow this line of reasoning, nor do I agree with it.

I do admire Marquez's attempt to present spiritual love as a means for defying and overcoming death. A fear of temporality pervades the narrative, and Florentino's unrelenting desire for spiritual union with Fermina seems to be dually motivated; he wants to love her, and he also wants to establish something eternal. Physical love ends with physical death, but spiritual love can endure into the unknown. "Forever." This is the final dialogue of the novel, spoken by Florentino. Perhaps there is something that can never die, and perhaps that something is love.

There I go. I'm almost seduced by this book again. I'm almost convinced that it's romantic at its core, and profound and beautiful and hopeful and promising. But almost. Marquez fails to convince me because he juxtaposes physical and spiritual love. If he hadn't done that -- if he'd described the two as a perfect union, as a necessary union -- then I'd have fallen for this text, and fallen deeply. Instead, I'm left wading in a shallow pool of tempting, attractive, yet ultimately unfulfilling words.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Contemplation: Death, Eternity, and the Human Soul

Today I had a very intriguing discussion with Kevin. Interestingly enough, the topics we talked about (and he blogged about) had been on my mind recently, but I hadn't gotten around to actually putting my thoughts into a somewhat-coherent written form. So, here's my attempt at doing that.

A few days ago, I visited my grandma for her 80th birthday. Such a visit, in itself, is enough to get my mind whirling. Eighty years. Such a huge expanse of time, yet so miniscule compared to the broad range of history.

I’m fascinated by the concept of “time.” I remember learning that God has no beginning and no end; he has always existed and always will. But how can that be?? Human minds need limits and boundaries, and to contemplate eternity is to undertake a task that’s as frustrating as it is impossible. That’s why, for all of recorded history, we have divided our lifetimes into measurable units that provide meaning, understanding, and a basis for comparison between humans of the past and present. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years… these are all comprehensible and accessible commodities. Civilization is structured around time, and without it, we would not be able to function as an organized society.

Eternity, on the other hand, is not comprehensible or accessible. What baffles my mind is this: how can finite beings become eternal? God is eternal because he has no beginning and no end. Humans, however, have a beginning; there is a very definite moment when we are biologically conceived. Some Christians believe that from the moment of conception, a soul exists. But where is the soul before that? How can a soul just suddenly spring into being? Have all human souls existed for eternity, with God, just waiting to be united with an embryo? If we are going to endure, spiritually, for all of eternity, then we must have endured before now, too, even though we were not consciously aware of it. Our souls must pre-date our physical bodies.

This leads me to wonder: are souls self-aware? By this I mean, after we die, will we still have a personal and exclusive identity? Or will the soul revert to its pre-physical state, without individual consciousness or awareness, without attachment to the physical embryo/baby/adult? Where does consciousness enter the picture anyway, and does it ever leave? Will we have any thoughts after we die, or will the light just go off permanently? The brain is physical, and thoughts are created by synapses, neuron connections, language knowledge, etc. Thinking is a physical act; is there a spiritual counterpart? After physical death, does the soul think? Can it communicate with other souls?

I’ve been thinking about all of this because while at my grandma’s, I felt the glaring absence of my grandfather. He died two summers ago, and his missing presence seemed especially overt this time. Perhaps it’s because I gave my grandma a copy of my book, which I dedicated in memory of my grandfathers, and I told her, “I wish Grandpa could see this.” My grandma, nearly in tears, reassured me, “He can see.”

Her faith was unflinching. I hated to acknowledge that perhaps for a moment, mine was not. If his physical body is no longer there, then can his soul still witness, observe, and contemplate? And can he actually see us, in the physical world, from wherever he is in the spiritual world?

It’s definitely comforting to think that he can. We want to know that our loved ones can see us; they still love us; they are watching over us. I’ve believed this all my life, and I never want to relinquish my faith in God. I would feel empty and without a purpose if I felt this was all an accident, a cosmic bump, an emotionless creation. But I keep grappling with the distinctions between the physical and the spiritual, and the finite and the infinite. And the most frustrating part is that in this life, we can NEVER, EVER KNOW. The only way to know is to die. And even then, it’s a 50/50 gamble. If the soul is self-aware, then we’ll think, “Oh, so this is what it’s like to be dead.” And we’ll think about our former physical life, and be able to construct a new sense of meaning in the eternal realm. But if the soul is not self-aware, then we will never have the chance to connect physical with spiritual. Our thoughts will end forever.

Notice, I didn’t even mention this option: we have no souls. Because I truly believe that we do. This existence of ours is not just physical. I can never prove it, but I will never deny it. I wish the “dead” really could come back to us and speak. Tell us some answers. Encourage us that physical death is only a gateway into another portion of existence. Turn our timorous faith into concrete truth. Tell us our hopeful beliefs are real. Maybe, just maybe, my grandfathers and everyone else I’ve lost can see me type this right now, and if only for that fantastic possibility, I’ll keep believing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Anne Elliot is a twenty-seven year old daughter of an English baronet. In the summer of 1814, when the novel opens, Anne is rather unhappily situated as the second of three daughters in a family that seems to care very little about her. She's the ignored middle child and the failed seeker of her father's love and favor. She's also the lonely possessor of an unfulfilled heart. Eight years ago, she fell deeply in love with Frederick Wentworth, a man of little financial or familial standing but extensive intellectual and military promise.

Wentworth, who returned Anne's love, asked for her hand in marriage, but a family friend persuaded Anne that such an alliance would be unwise. As a result of this advice, Anne called off her very short engagement and left Wentworth devastated and resentful. For eight years, though, Anne never failed to remember Wentworth and the man who had so captured her heart; every other man paled in comparison, and at twenty-seven, she's still unmarried and seemingly without any new suitors.

All of these circumstances are revealed in order to begin the story's present-day action, which covers the autumn of 1814 and the spring of 1815. (Interestingly, Austen wrote the novel in 1815, just two years before her death).

The story begins when Anne hears word of Wentworth returning to town after years of adventures and heroics in the Navy. He's come a long way since his courtship days with Anne; he's acquired a considerable fortune and much fame, and when he arrives he captures the attention of several young ladies. At first, Anne is determined not to be among his admirers. She's sure that Wentworth no longer has feelings for her, and she hopes that she and he can at least be indifferent friends. However, these hopes are dashed when Wentworth seems to hold a bitter grudge, avoiding Anne as much as possible and instead revelling in the flirtations of other girls.

As time passes, Anne and Wentworth cross paths more often and gradually communicate on a level beyond cool politeness, and both begin to realize that maybe the past isn't gone forever; maybe the future could be beautifully altered by a rediscovery and renewal of former love. On the other hand, perhaps all chances of rekindling that romance are gone forever, as Mr. Elliot, Anne's cousin, pursues Anne with passionate determination.

Meanwhile, Austen introduces a large number of friends and family members, each with their own quirks, motives, and problems. Indeed, there are so many characters, that I decided to draw a character map, listing everyone's names complete with arrows to connect family members. This little map proved immensely helpful as I navigated my way across the Elliots' social landscape.

My initial reaction, upon completing this book, was to compare it with my favorite Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. Specifically, I've been comparing Anne with the hero of P&P, Elizabeth Bennet, and I've concluded that the two bear little resemblance to one another. To me, Elizabeth is a heroine because of the changes she undergoes during the course of the novel; her realization of her own prejudice leaves her a transformed woman, and her romance with Mr. Darcy is made possible because of her admittance to past error. She is changed by her acquaintance, friendship, and romance with Darcy; she becomes stronger, wiser, and more maturely resolute.

On the other hand, Anne does not undergo any change. By the conclusion of the novel, she does not admit past error but rather blames her prior heartache on the actions and advice of others. Without giving away too much of the story, suffice it to say that Anne appears stubbornly self-righteous and hardly as humane as Elizabeth, whose cold-heartedness to Darcy eventually melts away into tender intimacy. Anne loves Wentworth all along, but her heart seems untouched by the circumstances which bring them back together. In short, I have trouble identifying Anne as a heroine. These may be bold claims (I have not yet read any critical material on this novel), but there they are.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of this novel, for me, are the discussions of character merits and defects; what qualities make a person appear strong or weak, attractive or distasteful, sincere or disingenuous? How is hypocrisy identified, and what effects can hypocritical men or women have on others' lives? How powerful are marriage and kinship ties? Who has the power to persuade us to behave in a certain way, and what are the consequences?

Finally, Austen hints at the challenges faced by a female author in the long eighteenth-century in a discussion between Anne and her friend, Captain Harville. In this conversation, Anne notes, "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands" (page 220). Such language surely references Austen's and other women's struggles in a male-dominated profession.

Yet through her creation of determined, independent-minded heroines, Austen creates power for women within the socially acceptable realm of marriage and domestic life; she is not a radical, but her endorsement of women's independence in matters of love is surely a step in the right direction. For this reason, however, I feel that Anne, who fails to be transformed and whose actions seem delimited by those of others, falls short of the feminine ideal established in Austen's other works.

Recommendation to potential readers: This book is relatively short and also enjoyable for its comments on early nineteenth century society; it's worth the read.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

I'm at a loss for words. This is one of the most disappointing books I've read in a long time.

I've been sitting here for quite some time, writing and editing a detailed review. Only a few moments ago, I deleted everything I'd written and substituted it with these current sentences.

I'm frustrated because I can't seem to be productive with my writing tonight. I'm even more frustrated that I spent so much time reading this book only to be met with an atrocious final chapter and epilogue.

This novel contained some positive elements: some romantic scenes, an optimistic view of human nature, and some engaging characterizations. But it was also fantastical to the point of absurd, agonizingly boring for the first 100 or so pages, and filled with an overload of characters who are never sketched beyond surface features. I had a hard time envisioning the scenes, despite Patchett's abundant use of adjectives. I'm not sure why. I guess the story just never came to life for me.

I should briefly explain the plot. A group of terrorists takes a houseful of party-goers hostage. The party is held in an unnamed South American country, at the home of the nation's vice president. An internationally acclaimed opera singer is present to entertain the guests, and both the hostages and terrorists find themselves entranced by her voice and personage. The hostage situation, which is unlikely in many respects, carries on for over four months. During this time, relationships are formed and romances develop among a household of diverse people from across the globe. This unusual scenario, engaging at times, ultimately fell flat. And, as mentioned before, the novel's conclusion is horrific both for its content and its literary merit. Yet the book cover is branded with critical acclaim and awards. Hm.

Time for a new book.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The First Day of Summer

By day, the sun breathes fire against my skin. It’s a life-giving fire. Its warmth seeps inside me and rekindles every exhausted corner of my soul. By night, the backyard beckons me to tread upon its cool blades of green. With each step, the grass conforms to my feet and embraces them. With each step, I curl my toes just a little bit deeper into the earth. I am complete again.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Choice, by Nicholas Sparks

She and Kevin had been a couple since their senior year at the University of North Carolina. He got to know her family, and she got to know his. They fought and made up, broke up and reunited. They balanced each other. They were good for each other. There would be no contest if the choice came down to Kevin or Travis, not even close. Having reached clarity on the issue, she decided it didn't matter whether Travis was flirting. He could flirt all he wanted; in the end, she knew exactly what she wanted in her life. She was sure of it.

--The Choice, page 73

I've been a devoted Nicholas Sparks fan since falling in love with Message in a Bottle. Aside from that novel, which remains a personal favorite, I've read five of his other works (The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, The Rescue, A Bend in the Road, and The Wedding). He has published 13 novels throughout his career to date, with The Choice as his most recent (September 2007).
The Choice, despite my admiration of Sparks, was a disappointment. Before I explain why, here's a brief synopsis.

Gabby, a woman in her late twenties, moves to Beaufort, North Carolina to be closer to her boyfriend, Kevin, and gain some independence from her family. She's been with Kevin for several years and is in love with him; she worries, though, that he'll never be ready to get married. Gabby's new neighbor, Travis, is in his early thirties and a hopeless bachelor. He's dated several women but never felt that spark, and his married friends tease him about his single status. Overall, though, Travis is happy and leads a fulfilling life among his friends and family and in his job as the town veterinarian. He never realized anything was missing until Gabby moved in next door.

Likewise, Gabby never knew her life suffered from a void until meeting Travis. She'd always followed the rules and followed a rather safe existence. Travis, by contrast, unabashedly reveled in adventure and risk-taking. He'd spent some time traveling the world with no set destinations in mind, soaking in various cultures and living in the moment. Even once he'd settled in Beaufort, Travis spent his off-hours water skiing, parasailing, riding his motorcycle, and genuinely enjoying the world around him. His vivid and enthusiastic personality immediately attracted Gabby; Gabby's beauty and previously unsatisfied sense of adventure attracted Travis. Hey now, let's make a love story.

But, wait. Gabby has Kevin. She's in love with Kevin. He's a sweet and caring boyfriend, despite his apparent commitment-phobia. But Travis is handsome and fun, and he won't stop flirting with her. They also share an uncanny connection that seems to defy the short duration of their acquaintance. What's Gabby going to do?

She has to make a choice. Let's recall the name of the novel. And let's read the quote at the start of this review. Hmmmmm.

That's when Sparks throws a wrench into our expectations. The decision-making has only just begun, and when Gabby chooses between Kevin and Travis, the novel is only half over. Travis will soon have an even more agonizing choice to make, and it does not involve another love interest. It's a complete twist in the novel and has the potential to be enthralling and engaging.

However, I feel that this twist is unexpected (as twists should be) yet also unsatisfying (as twists shouldn't be). I'll leave you to make your own assessment of this plot surprise, but I will say that for me, it didn't work. The second half of the novel felt unnatural and somewhat disjointed from the first half. The novel's ending is predictable (as we often expect from love stories) but also unfulfilling (even though, on the surface, it seems to offer us what we wanted). Finding a balance between predictability and surprise is an enigma for the author of love stories; yet sometimes, they find a way to succeed. Sparks usually emerges as a master of this technique, but in this case, he's fallen short.

Furthermore, several of Sparks' characterizations in this novel seem either inadequate or artificial. Kevin, for instance, appears only through phone conversations and Gabby's memories; only once does he actually appear in person to take part in the novel's action. Considering the weight of Gabby's choice in the first half of the novel, this inattention is problematic.

Also, Travis' sister, Stephanie, is portrayed as an outgoing girl who speaks her mind through honest advice and playful quips; however, I found her character to be a bit over-the-top, and her constant banter quickly grew tiresome. Usually, even Sparks' minor characters are endearing and quietly unique, and so these defective characterizations only added to the disappointment created by the faulty plot twist.

I currently own another Sparks novel that I've yet to read: The Guardian. I hope that this novel can restore my high opinion of a long-time favorite author.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Goodness knows I'm no poet. Yet I still engage in poetry writing every now and then simply because I enjoy it. I think that everyone needs some sort of creative outlet, even if the product isn't as stunning as they'd wish. So tonight, upon finishing my book review of The Kite Runner, I decided to read about haikus. I hadn't written one since middle school, probably, and I'd forgotten the syllabic scheme. After skimming Wikipedia and playfully toying with words, I came up with the haikus below. They follow a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, except for the last one. And the first one is purely silly.


The grass is greener
On the other side, perhaps.
But I prefer pink.


Seeping through the cracks,
This wind feels cold and lonely;
Whispers of good-bye.


Independence Day:
Diamond spectrums in the sky,
A blanket for two.


Steal me with a sly,
Premeditated kiss.
They’ll never find out.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

I want to tear myself from this place, from this reality, rise up like a cloud and float away, melt into this humid summer night and dissolve somewhere far, over the hills. But I am here, my legs blocks of concrete, my lungs empty of air, my throat burning. There will be no floating away. There will be no other reality tonight.

--The Kite Runner, page 345


Three summers ago, I spent several weeks absorbing the lyrical prose, profound imagery, and touching characterizations contained within Anna Karenina. This Tolstoy novel remains one of my favorite books, and I've rarely encountered a reading experience that comes close to rivaling it; usually, only "classics" can tempt me to question Anna Karenina's place on my list. However, Khaled Hosseini, with his first novel (published in 2003), has provided such a spellbinding and heartbreaking work of art and shifted the balance of my "favorite books" hierarchy. Its contemporary setting and concerns mesh seamlessly with universal emotions, hopes, and fears. This novel is at once timely and timeless. It is at once devastating and healing.

The Kite Runner is narrated by Amir, who opens the novel by saying: "I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975." This single sentence is the launching point for the rest of the novel because everything -- literally, everything -- that Amir holds important in his life can be traced in some way to that fateful watershed moment. "Today" refers to December 2001, the time frame in which Amir begins his narrative. Thus, after the brief opening chapter, Amir dives into the past and takes the reader on a journey through his childhood, young adulthood, and ultimately the birth of his manhood. This is a tale of memories carefully woven together, of traumas and miracles and tragedies and moments of triumph. This is a tale of guilt born from a buried past; it is a tale of the hope -- however miniscule -- for a redeeming peace.

Even before the winter of 1975, Amir's childhood is far from perfect. His mother died giving birth to him, and his father, Baba, never seems to offer the unflinching love and approval that young Amir craves. Baba is a tall, imposing figure whose intimidating personality and stature command both his household and the family's neighborhood in Kabul. He is well-known, well-respected, and well-feared. Amir, by contrast, is unathletic, timid, and nonconfrontational. Instead of playing sports, he reads books and writes stories of his own. His friend, Hassan, stands up for him in fights with other boys, to the chagrin of Baba.

Hassan, roughly Amir's age, is the son of Baba's servant, Ali. Ali and Hassan have lived in a servant's hut on Baba's property for as long as Amir can remember. Despite the contrast between living conditions (Baba's house is regal), Hassan and Amir are steady companions. However, their differences go beyond economic; Hassan is a Hazara, an ethnic minority shunned and abused within society. Thus, perhaps for this reason (he never fully explicates why), Amir does not refer to Hassan as his "friend" even though he spends all of his free time with him, climbing trees and running through the streets. Hassan, loyal to the core, never seems to mind. The boys' favorite activity is "kite running," a Kabul tradition that involves the flying and "cutting down" of multiple opponents' kites until only one kite remains in the sky. The most talented kite runners chase after the fallen kites, fighting to the finish for the coveted prizes. Of this game, Hassan and Amir are masters. It is the element of their childhoods which they hold most dear, and crucially, they share it together.

However, the winter of 1975 comes along, and Amir is determined to win the yearly kite running competition. He feels that such a feat would finally make his father proud and finally allow him to be seen as a worthy son, a strong young man. All of his energy is focused on this competition; he cannot sleep the night before. The competition proves fortunate for Amir; after hours of battling kites in the sky, Amir finds himself among the final two fliers still standing. Loyal Hassan pledges to run the final kite, and when Amir cuts the last opponent's kite down, leaving only his victorious in the sky, Hassan keeps his promise. Off he runs to capture that kite for Amir. However, when Hassan returns with the kite, and when Amir returns to a proud Baba, everything has been irrevocably changed. One day -- one incident -- is all it takes to shatter Amir's world and leave the twelve-year old reeling, struggling, grasping for any fragments of the life he formerly knew. His decisions that winter have far-reaching consequences, ones which he never could have forseen but which later torment his heart and mind.

Indeed, Amir's battles can be seen as a microcosm of Afghanistan at large. As Amir grows up, his native country is ravaged by the Soviets, internal factions, religious extremism, and every conceivable form of violence. Amir and Baba flee to America in 1981 to start a new life there, free from the instability and danger of their homeland. But even here, in the land of opportunity, Amir cannot find peace. Likewise, Afghanistan is torn apart, its prior beauty destroyed at the hands of captors and power-hungry tyrants. As the 1980s and 1990s progress, these battles rage on, and Amir's fiercest battle is within his own heart and his own conscience. The winter of 1975, and the secrets he holds from that time, gnaw at him and refuse to go away. Finally, a phone call from an old friend forces Amir to face his past, fight a battle he never could have imagined, and either reject or embrace his one chance for redemption.

Throughout the novel, we see the raw pain of reality; we see a nation cruelly dissembled and a man equally torn apart. These realities seem inescapable both for the people of Afghanistan and for Amir. The quote that I selected above, one of my favorites from the text, depicts the bleak sense of resignation that reality can impose upon our lives. But Hosseini offers the hope that perhaps we can be saved; perhaps we can transcend the ugliest, vilest, and most despicable of realities. If this is to be done, though, we must first battle our fears, our insecurities, and the ghosts we carry from the past. We must find faith, whether in God, our loved ones, or our promises. Only then can we hope to walk, even run, forward without the burden of history on our shoulders and within our souls.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Poem #3

Memorial Day Weekend

Barbecue smoke and sunscreen infuse my senses
As I take the first sip of summer
From a transparent Dixie cup.
Horizontal lines are embedded into my thighs
Where the lounge chair has left its tattoo.
I lean to leave a mark on you, too:
Maybelline, red,
On your lips that taste like chlorine.
You wave a temporary farewell
Before tossing your towel over your shoulder,
Your swim trunks dripping
And your feet leaving water marks

On the hot cement.

You’ll be showered and dressed
In ten minutes or less,
Before I can finish the “Celebrity Gossip.”
Page after glossy page,
I envy one girl’s tan,
Another girl’s calves.
As for me?
An hour a day on the treadmill,
The master of sun salutations,
Yet I still frown at my own reflection.

Later, over dinner,
You reach to wipe A-1 sauce
As it slowly dribbles down my chin.
We hold hands as the stars appear.
My thumb traces circles in your palm,
And maybe it’s okay that my nails are unpolished;
Because somehow I sense
That you see beyond
My black mascara,
My silky dresses,
My vanilla lotions.
Somehow I sense that you see to the core of me,
Perhaps even further.

Somehow I need you to.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Love and Glory, by Robert B. Parker

It's my first 'summer of 08' read. It only took a few days to complete. It's an unassuming, tiny paperback containing 200 pages, slightly yellowed since the novel's 1983 publication (I bought a used copy for under a dollar). It doesn't even enjoy an entry on Wikipedia (perhaps I'll write one). The novel is Love and Glory, and on the cover, Publisher's Weekly offers its opinion of the book's contents: "A genuine, haunting love story." If I had any qualms about devoting a few hours to this book, they were erased upon reading that description.

I'm the most hopeless romantic you'll ever meet. Sadly, though, this book did not meet my expectations.

I'm reminded of the summer, several years ago, in which I read some of James Patterson's works. Patterson writes thrilling suspense stories and murder mysteries, though they're often too gruesome for me. I remember being physically revolted by Roses are Red, even though it provided an enjoyable read for the most part. However, Patterson strayed from his traditional suspense stories to write Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas, a touching, heartfelt love story that nearly brought me to tears. This story was so unlike his general canon, but Patterson succeeded with it through his artful mastery of portraying human emotion. I truly wish he'd published more such sentimental novels instead of the murder mysteries.

Anyway, Parker's Love and Glory is also a marked diversion from the author's main canon. Parker is most reputed for his "Spenser Novels," which are detective stories, and Love and Glory is supposed to be a heartfelt love story. I say "supposed" because I feel that Parker failed to accomplish the same feat that Patterson did; and I believe he failed, in large part, because of his over-reliance upon and flawed use of intertextuality.

I knew very little about the concept of intertextuality until this past semester, when we learned about it in my Literary Theory class. Intertextuality, briefly defined, is an author's use of prior texts to create meaning in his own, "new" text. It's when an author borrows themes, plot lines, even archetypic characters, from the immense canon of literature, and resituates them in a new arena.

That probably still sounds too abstract. And it never truly made sense to me until reading Love and Glory and being struck by its similarities to The Great Gatsby, which happens to be my favorite modernist novel; I've studied it in-depth for the past two semesters, and I've read it more times than I can count.

Love and Glory is a first person narrative, chronicling the youth and early manhood of Boone Adams, an English major at Colby University who slacks in his studies yet actually possesses a brilliant and creative mind. At the start of Freshman year, he falls in love with fellow-collegian Jennifer Grayle, and from that moment on, he was determined to make her love him too. Boone and Jennifer finally start to date during Sophomore Year, but Boone is kicked out of college because of his bad grades and prankster ways. Soon after, he's drafted into the Korean War and is forced to leave his comfortable lifestyle and the woman he loves. She promises that she'll love him while he's gone and wait for his return, but months later, she writes Boone a "Dear John" letter explaining that she's engaged to someone else. So begins Boone's quest to win her back and, in his words, make himself whole again.

Already, the similarities between this novel and Gatsby are striking. Gatsby loses Daisy to Tom Buchanan, a rich, socially elite, star football player who has the power and prestige that Gatsby had lacked. Boone loses Jennifer to John Merchent, a rich, socially elite, star basketball player, who has the power and prestige that Boone had lacked. Both Gatsby and Boone lose their women during the war. And both return from the war with a fierce determination to win their women back.

But the similarities don't end there. And I won't even try to extrapolate every single one. But here is a somewhat brief list:

1) Boone, as a character, is completely detached from his family. We never learn anything about his pre-Colby life, and he seems to be completely autonomous from his heritage. Likewise, Gatsby is a lone figure who creates his own identity (even changing his name) and is removed from all familial associations.

2) Both Boone and Gatsby have to hit rock bottom before rebuilding their lives and, in a sense, being reborn. Boone even credits Jennifer with his desire for "rebirth." Gatsby works on the river with Dan Cody, and Boone works as both a carpenter's assistant and a cook's assistant. In both of these jobs, Boone works with Dan Cody-like figures who are strong, manly, and benevolent. These apprentice type situations allow both Boone and Gatsby to "become men" and create new lives for themselves.

3) Gatsby, according to Nick Carraway's narrative, follows Daisy as if she were his "Grail." Boone is in love with Jennifer Grayle and follows her to achieve meaning in life. Enough said.

4) Daisy's marriage is less-than-perfect, and her relationship with her daughter seems artificial. Jennifer's marriage to John Merchent, as Boone eventually learns, is less-than-perfect, and her relationship with her own young daughter is troubled.

5) Daisy is characterized by her thrilling, almost musical voice, and her captivating conversation that nearly entrances the men upon whom she bestows her rapt attention. Jennifer is also characterized as possessing such communicative power, and Boone observes that when she listens to him speak, it's as if she truly cares about every word he has to say. He also suspects that other men feel the exact same way in her presence.

6) After the war, Boone goes west in search of himself (in fact, all the way to California), and after he "becomes a man," he goes East to rebuild his life. Likewise, both Nick Carraway and Gatsby go East to build new lives for themselves because the East seems to hold the promise of glittering dreams and financial fortune. And love.

7) Boone is consistently described by his clothes and his "oxford shirts." Gatsby is characterized by his meticulous wardrobe and his purported Oxford education.

8) Both books contain discussions of racial discrimination.

I could continue with this list, but hopefully the points already noted have made the intertextual elements clear. Perhaps most significantly of all, though, Boone cites The Great Gatsby within his narrative as the book that motivated him to get his life on track and win back Jennifer. He's inspired by Gatsby's rags-to-riches story, and he embarks on his own Horatio Alger-like quest to become a self-made man.

That's where my criticism comes in.

Citing Fitzgerald and his masterpiece within the novel is a huge mistake. By doing this, Parker not only makes it completely obvious who he's imitating, but he also creates a new set of expectations for the reader. Employing intertextual elements, in my opinion, can only be fruitful in two instances. First, the author must employ them so deftly and seamlessly that we are consciously unaware of their presence; we simply fall in love with a story because its archetypal themes ring true on a deeper level without marked identification of their existence. Alternately, the author must employ them so overtly and overwhelmingly that we are consciously aware of their presence but also intrigued and engaged as a result; we fall in love with a story because it follows a familiar pattern, it satisfies some emotional need, or it resituates a "timeless" tale within a modern context.

Parker does neither.

Sure, he over-infuses his text with Gatsby overtones, but by mentioning the classic within the narrative, Parker shows his cards where he shouldn't have. The conclusion of Love and Glory is notably different from Gatsby; I won't describe further, of course, but the result seems unnatural, disappointing, and anti-climactic. Parker echoes Fitzgerald for nearly 200 pages but then at the end, he sharply deviates and creates a new theme that is disparate, surprising, and unsatisfying (even though it is superfically "romantic").

Further, the characters never truly come to life for me. I suppose I felt some sympathy for Boone, but there was just something missing. A true love story must contain that certain sparkle, that indescribable, fantastical magic that makes the reader wistful, yearning, nostalgic, hopeful, and at peace. Some lines from the novel were poignant, but most of the supposed romantic scenes felt emotionally vapid.

I wouldn't recommend this book to those who are looking for a worthwhile love story. However, I do recommend it to those who have read and enjoyed The Great Gatsby because the two novels' connectedness is worth exploring. I'd like very much to hear others' opinions. It's a short and easy read, so give it a shot.

Meanwhile, I look forward to starting a new novel tomorrow.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Poem #2

I can only work on research papers for so long before I need a diversion. Just a few minutes ago, I glanced out the window to gauge how long it'd be before another thunderstorm hit. The sky is progressively growing darker, and the wind is calm as if preparing for a night of tumult. I love the feel of this.

As I gazed out the window, a blue jay came into view. He was beautiful, and it seemed as if he was looking right at me. So I wrote a short poem, changing the setting to morningtime. It's nothing grand (I literally wrote it in less than five minutes), but it was still fun to write about something unrelated to my current scholarly project.


Hello, blue jay.
You peer into my window with
Inquisitive, beady eyes,
Your beautiful feathers displayed proudly,
Preparing for flight.

You’re perched on a power line,
Greeting a timeless morning
Balanced upon the most modern of symbols.

How many of your ancestors
Have graced the windows of women like me,
In years gone by?
How many times have we envied your wings,
Even as we feared the open sky?

Off you go,
Aiming toward the old maple tree
With roots as deep as love.
I think I’d want to land there, too.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Short Story

I recently posted a short story. Since then, I've done a bit of editing. So here is the updated version!



The sun burned at the horizon as I stepped outside, balancing my cup of coffee in one hand while gently closing the door behind me. This condo was more than just a seaside rental; it had turned into a second home, a young lovers’ paradise. We’d stayed there for three consecutive summers, and at the end of each August we bid the place a solemn farewell through car windows nearly blocked by luggage. The location was ideal; walk the length of a football field, and you were at the shore, where the waves tumbled in softly, leaving bubbles and foam on the smooth sand. Every now and then, a thunderstorm would intrude upon our haven’s tranquility, but we never minded. The upstairs bedroom opened onto a balcony, and while the storm raged outside, we’d pull back the curtains and watch as the ocean churned in a wild chaos. We rarely got out of bed on those days.

This morning, though, was quiet as an old churchyard cemetery. I could almost feel the ghosts around me as my bare feet touched upon the cool, stone walkway. The air seemed electrified, but I heard nothing except the whisper of the waves as they approached then fell back, came closer then receded. Tourist season was over. It was the first of September, and another summer had burst into life and then abruptly, tragically died. Only this time, I mourned its loss alone.

I lifted my small, Styrofoam cup to my lips, tasting the overly sweet coffee while inhaling its fragrant steam. The hot liquid flowed down my throat and slowly soothed the burning caused by a sleepless night of tears. Through puffy eyes, I saw old Samuel hobbling down his driveway to retrieve the morning paper. He bent slowly, carefully, to pluck the parcel from the ground, and as he stood back up, his eyes caught mine and his face burst into a smile. I loved the man like a grandfather, and he loved me like the children (and grandchildren) he’d never had. But I didn’t want him to see me like this. I chided myself for not leaving out the back door.

"Good morning, sunshine!” he said in his usual upbeat sing-song.

His voice was raspy yet comforting, and for a moment I wanted to run to him and bury my face against his shoulder and sob. Instead I forced a smile accompanied by my usual, “Morning, Pops, what’s new?”

“Oh, nothing much,” he predictably replied as he began opening the plastic bag with trembling fingers. “The world’s a crazy place. I’m afraid to see today’s headlines.” He feared the state of world affairs, but he compulsively read The New York Times from cover to cover every day without fail. Sometimes I think his anxiety over everyone else’s futures kept him from feeling lonely.

“Yeah, it’s sad to see.” Armageddon could strike tomorrow, and yet no emotion stirred in me. The state of world affairs meant nothing compared to the state of my own. But I had to play the part. “Gas prices are sky rocketing even worse, huh?”

“What’s that? You ate something that gave you gas?”

I forced a half-hearted laugh. “No, no, I meant gasoline. You know, for our cars.” I inched closer. He looked up from his paper and stared into my face with a sage’s perception. Without any words, he knew what had happened, and I recognized his own recognition. But before he could verbalize anything, I turned and walked quickly toward the beach, my feet pounding hard against the stone pathway.

It seemed like five football fields this time, but at last I reached the shore. I tossed my now empty cup into a nearby trash receptacle, and I walked straight into the water. The waves sloshed up against my shorts, and the coolness of the morning ocean gave me goosebumps.

I stood there unaware of passing time, gazing toward the middle of the sea and hoping some solace would come to the shore, especially for me. But there were no boats in sight. There weren’t even any people. The unlikely loneliness of the beach on this morning, along with the cold water, sent chills down my spine, yet I found myself frozen in place. I could not retreat. Maybe I expected him to come up behind me, like he loved to do, and wrap his arms around my waist before snuggling his face next to mine. Together, we’d watch the waves roll in, and I’d never felt more connected to eternity than in those moments. There was something about the ocean, and something about love; and the union of the two gave birth to an almost-miracle.

As I reminisced in this way, I impulsively felt for the ring finger on my left hand. The shimmering golden band, which the jeweler had melded with my engagement band, had become a part of my own body. It had taken on human properties; it had represented life. But now, my heart raced as I tried to locate the tiny circle. All I could feel was flesh. The ring was gone, and I had to raise my pale, naked hand to my face to visually witness its absence. Total disbelief and panic set in, and I frantically splashed around in the water trying to locate the one remaining symbol of “us.”

No longer daunted by the chilly water, or the fact that I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, I dove into the water, eyes open and arms flailing. The ring had to be somewhere. It had to be. I hadn’t gone in too deep, and the waves were gentle this morning. The undertow couldn’t have carried it far. The shifting sand couldn’t have been that greedy. God couldn’t have been that cruel.

People had begun to come out to the shore for their morning walks, and a few gave me strange looks as they passed. Luckily, the walkers were few and far between, though I really didn’t care who saw me sloshing in the water, hair soaked, limbs trembling from the cold and the fear. This was my ring. It was my heartache. No one else could possibly understand.

The sun rose higher in the sky, and the wind shifted. Grey clouds began to obscure the brightness, and I was familiar enough with seaside climate to expect a storm within an hour. Maybe less. I still hadn’t found the ring, and I was exhausted from my attempts at its recovery. Nearly defeated, I trudged from the water and onto the sand, taking a moment to sit down and breathe. I spat sand and dirt from my mouth, and I squeezed water and tears from my eyes. It was a burning, salty mixture.

Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw someone running toward me. It was a little girl, about five or six years old, and she had something sheltered inside her small fist. A tall woman followed from a distance, but the girl’s speed brought her to me just seconds after I first noticed her. “Look what I found!” she exclaimed, her bright brown eyes glistening with joy and her dark curls framing an angelic face.

My heart leapt. I was speechless as she unclenched her fingers from around her precious discovery.

My heart fell. It was a small seashell. But to her, it was the whole world.

“Isn’t it pretty? Mommy says it was home for an animal. But the animal isn’t in there anymore.”

As my heart rate slowed, I carefully took the shell from the girl’s hand and tried to conceal my disappointment. “It’s – it’s beautiful,” I stammered, examining its mother-of-pearl sheen and the tiny points that interrupted its otherwise smooth surface. “Do you know what this type of shell is called?” The girl shook her head. “It’s a conch. And it did hold a tiny animal. This tiny little shell protected an animal’s life!”

The girl smiled and turned as her mother approached. “I’m so sorry she ran up to you like that,” the woman said with an apologetic smile. “She’s never been the shy type.”

I laughed. “Oh, that’s alright.” For a moment, I’d almost forgotten about the ring.

“Well, come on honey, let’s get going. Daddy’s waiting to cook us breakfast.” My stomach sank, but I retained my smile as I bid the woman and her child a farewell.

But then, as they walked away, the girl suddenly turned again, and she ran back up to me. Without a word, she stared into my face, just as Samuel had done earlier, and took my hand. She pressed the tiny shell into my palm, closed my fingers around it, and gave me the brightest, most loving smile. Stunned into silence, I felt her little fingers leave mine, and she walked happily away with her mother.

What seemed like a lifetime later, I pried my lethargic legs from the sand, and rose. I examined the tiny conch as the thunder rolled in. It truly was perfect to observe. No chips, nothing broken. But who knew what had been concealed inside for countless years and countless human lifetimes.

I walked slowly back to the condo, the conch held safely in my left hand. Upon reaching my place, I turned the doorknob and passed through the threshold, feeling the cool, wooden floor beneath my sandy feet. I walked into the living room and sank into my favorite beanbag chair. With the shell still in my hand, I fell asleep just as the first sheets of rain began to cleanse the windowpanes.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson

I have a confession: occasionally, I start a novel without finishing it. By occasionally, I actually mean “very rarely.” I typically feel this inexplicable obligation to finish a novel once it's begun, which often forces me into hours of grudgingly dutiful page-turning. But, as my confession stated, I don't always go through the motions. Sometimes, I get so frustrated with a book, that I toss it aside -- the pages fluttering open in a flourish -- and breathe a sigh of relief as I choose a fresh book to begin.

There are only two books that I've abandoned within the past couple of years. One is The Food of Love, by Anthony Capella. The smooth, tempting paperback cost only $4 at a local outlet store, and because the back cover promised a "delicious" adventure through Italy, I couldn't resist. About a third of the way through, I determined that the book was pure trash with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Toss.

The other book is Pledged, by Alexandra Robbins. Missy really enjoyed this book, so I thought that I would too. However, for some reason, I could not get into it. Again, I read about a third of it before growing so bored that I found myself craving some Tolstoy. Now, I like Tolstoy a lot. But you get the picture. Toss.

A third book threatened to become part of this novelistic waste pile: Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson. I must preface this discussion by noting that I did not elect to read this book; rather, it was assigned for my 18th century literature class. However, I could have closely read most of it and then skimmed the rest. Or I could have tossed it aside partway through and been a "bad" student. I won't lie; I was tempted to toss. At times, the prose was tedious and frustrating. But the guilt of being "bad" combined with the investment I had already put into the first half of the book ultimately persuaded me to complete the entire novel. I can't tell you how glad I am to have made that decision.

Clarissa, in its full text, is over a million words. My professor's unabridged copy is 1500 pages long. Luckily, we read an abridged version (the Riverside Edition) for class, which adds up to slightly over 500 pages. That's the version I recommend.

The novel was first published in 1748 in London. The mid-18th century was a time of textual proliferation in England, particularly in the city. Religious tracts and political pamphlets rivaled proper "books" in production volume, but English citizens still heartily craved a good story. Authors like Richardson seized the opportunity to moralize, producing didactic stories that both instructed and entertained.

Richardson was both a printer and an author. His prior novel, Pamela (1740), is hailed as the first English romance novel. Clarissa has been deemed the longest novel in the English language. It's also known for its epistolary format. This format is at times frustrating, but it allowed Richardson's characters to write "to the moment." The separation between the events, as they occur, and the characters' documentation of those events is minimal, thus providing us with a psychologically in-depth look into the characters that even third person omniscient narrative can sometimes lack.

Allow me to adumbrate the basic storyline of Clarissa; any further discussion would threaten to give away too much. There are two main threads of letters, each between a pair of best friends: one is between Clarissa Harlowe and Anna Howe, and the other is between Robert Lovelace and John Belford. Clarissa is a virtuous young lady who is principled in every way. At the start of the story, she is a beloved favorite among her family. Lovelace is an infamous womanizer whose principles are glaringly absent.

The novel begins with the description of a duel between Lovelace and Clarissa's brother. We thus know, from the onset, that strong tensions exist between the Harlowes and Lovelace. Clarissa's sister, Anabella, had once loved Lovelace, but he did not love her in return; he instead chose to offer his attentions to Clarissa. This rejection incensed Anabella, and when the family began to note partiality on Clarissa's end as well, they felt they needed to take drastic measures to ensure that Clarissa and Lovelace would never be united.

Anabella's personal jealousy combined with the family's general antipathy toward Lovelace created an impenetrable wall of hatred from which a million words of text pour forth. This hatred is the seed of Clarissa's trials and misfortunes. This hatred proves stronger than familal ties and pits Clarissa against her own family, as she fights both to retain her family's love and the right to choose her own marriage partner.

Clarissa's family implores her to marry Roger Solmes, a repulsive and ignorant man whose only merit is his money. She refuses, and they suspect that her feelings for Lovelace have motivated her refusal. Thus, the war begins. Imploration turns to compulsion, but Clarissa still resists.

Meanwhile, Lovelace begs Clarissa to run away from home with him to escape her family's domination; her morals battle with her desperation, but her desperation finally proves stronger. Once she's thrown herself into the power of the infamous womanizer, however, Clarissa feels immediate regret. Yet she is no longer the mistress of her own destiny, and Lovelace's desire for revenge against the Harlowes combined with his insatiable sensual appetite trap Clarissa in a web of dishonesty and deceit.

The novel's conclusion is a powerful, heart-wrenching example of the didacticism which Richardson and some of his contemporaries upheld as the primary goal of writing. The lessons are clear, the virtuous paths are illuminated, and even the formerly evil are given chances for redemption. Who survives -- physically and spiritually -- must only be revealed, of course, through your own journey through the text. The occasional tediousness is outweighed, I feel, by the story's beautiful thematic complexity and its reflection upon 18th century English society, which a historical account, or even a straightforward "traditional" narrative, rarely equals or surpasses.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Poem #1


Burning candles on a birthday cake.
Eyes squeezed shut on a Sunday afternoon.

The wax drips.
The stone is raised.
The flowers return to the earth
In your place.

Come back.

A burst of oxygen and a round of applause.
A wish wages war with eternity.

I’m still waiting.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Kevin posted the following in his blog:

"A cento is a poem composed of verses or passages taken from other authors, disposed in a new form or order. So says Wikipedia."

He also posted a cento he'd written. Intrigued, I decided to try writing one as well. Every line is from a different poem; the only exception is: "Is it really you/rising from the script of waves." I just couldn't separate those two lines, so I kept them both. This was fun.


Love is a shadow.

I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
A Candlemas of moving lights along Route 80;
Glowing like turquoise.

Write this. A word may be shaped like a bed, a basket of tears or an X.
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.

But you were everywhere beside me, masked,
the fission of music into syllabic heat –
enough daubed here and there with a little ink.

Is it really you
Rising from the script of waves?

You take my hand; then we’re alone.
Then I am you and you are me.

The sun burns through the walls.