Sunday, November 22, 2009

59. A Taste of Adventure by Anik See

Finally! Finally! I got in some pleasure reading! Anik See is a Canadian journalist who travels around the world on her bicycle and writes about her travels, the people she meets, and especially the food she eats. The book includes recipes for every place she writes about, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Patagonia (a region in southern Argentina/Chile), northern Argentina, Georgia, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, and Mexico. She seems to favor southeast Asia and South America and eschews traditional Europe.

The language is simple, and the book is a fun and easy read. For me, the book's biggest asset was See's choice of particularly exotic and unusual locations, and I naturally enjoyed the emphasis on food. I intend to make time to try out some of her recipes, particularly the curries from Malaysia and Indonesia, and her descriptions of Argentina and Chile gave me a yearning for dulce de leche and yerba mate.

Unfortunately, See uses similar effusions to describe each place, and after hearing her declare how she is forever drawn to Patagonia, no place moves her like southeast Asia, no place is more special than Iran-the praise falls flat. I have no doubt that See genuinely felt these intense, life-changing connections to all of these places, but as a reader, I am skeptical because as close as the book can bring me, I can't feel what she's feeling, and on the page, she just looks repetitive and insincere.

Her descriptions also take on too much of a tone of "explaining things to the outsider." I realize that is what she's doing, but I like travel writing to be more subjective, more tied only to one person's experience, because generalizations are so hard to make, and it takes a lot of study to really understand the history and culture of any society. Before she talks about Armenia, she mentions the genocide because she "feels she has to." In my opinion, she doesn't have to. It's a part of history I'm aware of, though that doesn't mean all her readers would be. I just think, instead of discussing it from a historical perspective, when she isn't a historian, she could have brought it up as a conversation between her and an Armenian. She mentions in her paragraph that none of the Turks she met mentioned it at all, while nearly every Armenian did.

She also said something about how Canadians feel defined by their big neighbor to the South, and I didn't really think that was true at all. Maybe they feel it a little bit, but I actually think Canadians are much better liked and respected in the world at large, so I don't know why she would suggest they have an inferiority complex. Of course, I wouldn't be an expert on that. I'm American and I've been to Canada a few times and know some Canadians, but that's it.

For those interested in food and travel, this would probably be an interesting book. It could have been better written, and I hope to find similar books by better writers in the future.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

58. The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht

We learned about Brecht's theories and the epic theatre movement in my Theatre and Society class, and then we read The Caucasian Chalk Circle and watched the current production of it at my school.

The plot of the story is about a kitchen maid, Grusha, in the 1940s Soviet Union. The Governor, whom she works for, is killed in a revolution, and his wife flees, leaving their infant son behind. Grusha decides to save the boy and care for him as her own. When a counter-revolution occurs, the Governor's wife comes back and accuses Grusha of kidnapping her son. The judge Azdek, notorious for drunkenness and judgments in favor of the poor, decides on the case.

The story is a parable, meant to illustrate the Communist-type idea that whoever puts effort into a piece of land or raising a child, deserves ownership, rather than the one who merely 'owns' the thing in a capitalistic sense.

While it's a benign message now that we know Communism doesn't work, I've been thinking about how the play applies to today. The idea behind epic theatre is that the audience realizes the play is a play, which they are welcome to analyze. Brecht's tactics include narrators, signs, and interrupting song-and-dance routines. The director of this production used props in a symbolic and obvious manner; a watermelon for the decapitated head of the Governor, two actors holding a rope for a bridge, a stagehand literally droppping paper snowflakes on Grusha's head, and last but not least, a shopping cart of bubble wrap for a bath!

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is interesting in a theoretical sense, but not very relevant to today, and in the end it's a retelling of Solomon and the story of the two women and the child. It's worth seeing, but not really worth reading unless you're a scholar of epic theatre or theatre in general.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair

This weekend, Fri. Nov. 13-Sun. Nov. 15 is the 33rd annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair.

Hours are listed on the web site. I went last year, and had a fantastic time. In particular, I noticed a LOT of Mark Twain as well as Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, Melville-the usual New England suspects. It's amazing just to see these works up close and think about who bought them and read them and owned them, and how they're a part of history and literature. There were also quite a few bookshops from overseas, particularly Britain, but also France, and some of the Scandinavian countries.

I don't think I'll make it this year, since $8 just to see isn't worth it when I've probably already seen most of it and unfortunately can't afford to buy. But if you're a book lover in Boston, and haven't been, definitely go!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Other Reading

I was much comforted to have some responses to my last post! I agree that it is important to re-evaluate why I chose to be an English major, even if I had negative feelings associated with it.

I have not been able to do any reading outside of class in the past few weeks, but I decided to list some of my in-class readings, though none of them are novels. That is about to change actually, I'm on schedule to start reading Gargantua and Pantagruel for Sixteenth Century tomorrow.

In Sixteenth Century, we've covered:

The Defence of Poesie by Sir Philip Sidney, which I greatly enjoyed, even though poetry isn't always my cup of tea. Sidney, one of Elizabeth I's best known courtiers (also Leicester's nephew), wrote this essay defending the occupation of poetry that he has fallen into, first, because, obviously, his occupation must be the best, and then a host of other reasons including that all learning (philosophy, math, science), originally stemmed from the writing of poetry, which stemmed from written language, which stemmed from language itself.

Sidney's Astrophel and Stella sonnet sequence, in the grand Petrarchan tradition. Some of them are pretty funny, I did an analysis paper on Sonnet IX where Astrophel compares his beloved Stella's face to "Queen Virtue's Court," basically saying, "Hey, your face is a building, but I'm
your straw anyway."

Edmund Spenser's sonnet sequence, Epithalamion, also in the Petrarchan tradition. In this one though, the lover actually gets the girl. Ooo subversion! Spenser, also an Elizabethan courtier (sort of, I think he wrote for one of her courtiers, but he was associated with the court), is my old friend from The Faerie Queene, which I haven't yet read in its entirety. I appreciate it, is dense, and very metaphorically confusing.

Shakespeare's sonnets to the Golden Boy and the Dark Mistress. I've read them all before. A lot. But I do think they're better than Sidney's or Spenser's.

Christopher Marlowe's epyllion Hero and Leander. I sort of just read it without thinking about it, and then my teacher made us re-read the descriptions of Hero and Leander, and it's ridiculous. Hero has little mechanical birds chirping on her boots that her maidservant fills with water, a veil of artifical flowers, and bees constantly swarming around her. What a beauty.

In Theatre, we read parts of Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed.His writing style is very clear and well-organized, but that doesn't make his ideas that traditional theatre is oppressive much easier to understand.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Do You Do With a BA in English?

My Advanced Writing teacher punched me in the gut this morning. Not literally, of course. But, as is his wont, he likes to question and in class he likes to question the structures of literary education and literary criticism and what we as students are used to.

Today, he decided it would be a great idea to show us a list of undergraduate students who received research grants at our university. We made the observation he intended, that is, in at least the past three years, no English majors have received grants. The majority of recipients were engineering and health sciences majors. Of course, in perspective, there are many more engineering and health sciences students at this school than there are English majors. He didn't even have data on how many English majors had applied versus been rejected for grants.

It's just that then, the conversation devolved, as I'm also sure he intended, into a discussion of how English majors are marginalized at this school, the English department doesn't encourage undergraduate research, and in literary criticism, there's a general turgidity and a perception from the world at large that literary criticism is irrelevant and literature is too accessible or irrelevant to require a profession surrounding it.

I fell right into the trap. The discussion dredged up all my feelings and insecurities about not being considered relevant, being jobless and hopeless and voiceless, all because I'm bad at math, and while I love and respect science, I could never be very successful in it as a career. I just don't work that way. So what's left for me? Is my life meaningless?

I'm pretty sure my teacher didn't intend THAT to happen, but it's the natural progression of questioning English as a field. It's questioning my choice to be an English major and my ability to contribute to the world.

I thought about it and came up with an existential answer. If the world blew up tomorrow, who was more important, the engineer or the poet? Neither, they're both dead and everything they worked for is gone.

I just read an entry on Reading Dangerously from Tales from the Reading Room. It was just what I needed to hear. She's talking about how some books force you to think and evaluate yourself, and how literary training helps to understand difficult literature. She reminded me how books can shock you, hurt you, make an impression, and open your mind. That's why I'm an English major, that's why I love literature. Reading (and writing) is how I work through, process, and deal with life, and how I learn to relate to others.

I want to use this blog to connect with other readers and writers. Thus far, I have been content to keep a record of book reviews, mostly for my own amusement and posterity. From now on, I plan to read and comment more on other literary blogs and hope they will return the compliment. Because we share something precious and we need to contribute to the preservation not only of literature, but discussion and understanding of literature.