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Saturday, April 27, 2013

New reading list

I am not sure how and why books and authors "find" me, but whenever I put out a question into the world, I am led to pick up a book at a bookstore or library and, reading through a few pages, am seized upon by a sentence of such heartbreaking beauty that I have to read the book. Then I go on and read all I can by that particular author, analyzing syntax, grammar, word choice, character, etc. while marveling at the intelligence and immense imagination of the prose.

Currently Reading:

Wallace Stegner - Angle of Repose
Wallace Stegner - Collected Short Stories
James Salter - A Sport and a Pastime

Books on deck:

Phillip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint
Phillip Roth - American Pastoral
Phillip Roth - The Human Stain
Phillip Roth - Everyman
William Faulkner - A Fable
William Faulkner - The Reivers
William Faulkner - The Wild Palms

That should carry me through June :)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A brief exchange between me and author Nina Schuyler

Hi Nina,

From James Salter again, also from his novel Light Years.
> "The air overhead, glittering, infinite, the moist earth beneath--one could taste this earth, its richness, its density, bathe in the air like a stream."
> Before launching into this lovely sentence, Salter first establishes time, "In the morning the light came in silence. The house slept. The air overhead, etc." Then he covers the other elements, "air, earth, water," while expanding the idea of air into something infused with light "glittering," then expands it further into an abstract idea, "infinite," then returns from the abstract to the sensual, "richness" and "density," before utilizing that amazing simile that catches one off-guard, making air and light something you can swim around in, "bathe in the air like a stream."
> Love it,
> S

And her response:

What a beautiful sentence! I also like the surprise of "taste this earth." He's not afraid to repeat--we have "air" and "earth" twice in this short sentence.
Such exuberance here, such a love of the world.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston Marathon Bombers and Our Values

On June 23, 1985, three days shy of my fifteenth birthday, I lost my cousin Indra in a terrorist attack.  Like the Boston Marathon Bombings, my cousin also died because of a bomb.  Air India Flight 182, carrying Indra, left Toronto for England and exploded over the North Irish Sea.  Her body was never recovered.

The bomb that killed Indra was set in a suitcase.  Somehow the suitcase slipped past all security checks and measures and made its way into the baggage compartment of that plane.  Human error, incompetence, oversight, negligence, lackadaisical security standards, broken machinery, all come to bear on the issue of blame.  After all was said and done, no one was truly held accountable for Indra's murder.

Instead of a pressure cooker bomb,  used by the Tsarnaevs to murder three and maim hundreds, the bomb that killed Indra and 328 people, passengers and crew, was constructed out of a radio tuner.  Like the Boston Marathon Bombings, in the Air India disaster, a second bomb placed in another airline bound for Narita, Japan, cleared the Pacific Ocean and exploded at the Narita International Airport.

Indra, like those who perished in Boston, like those who died over Lockerbee,  in Madrid, in London, on 9/11, at Oklahoma City, like all those who die as victims for so-called causes that have nothing to do with them, die for nothing if we forget them.  But the cruel fact is they are as quickly forgotten by the public once our attention shifts to the killers.  We whose interests shift from the tragedy of the attack, to finding the terrorists, then to seeking justice, seem to forget the victims.  Perhaps it's a coping mechanism.  Why remind ourselves of the people that died?  Isn't forgetting part of our collective catharsis once the murderers have been killed?  It's no longer the public's worry.  I don't fault the public for this.  I am not so self-righteous to ask people to hold public vigils year after year after year, for if we did, not a day would go by without memorializing the dead.  It's a sobering thought.I am sure we will construct a memorial. That would be nice. But it still won't stop another attack.  Someday.  Somewhere. 

Remembering the dead are for the families of those victims; it is they who have to truly live with the loss.  But as time lengthens, the families still never quite seem able to move on.  My uncle Rattan, Indra's father, continues to live in the shadow of Indra's memory even now, after twenty plus years. Even I am collateral damage.

Indra, when she died, was a bubbly, beautiful, goal-oriented young woman in her early twenties, who worked two jobs and whose dream was to visit India.  She had friends who adored her, and being the second youngest of six, she had, from what I remember, a spirited personality.  She would tease me, call me her unofficial "boyfriend" (I was twelve), spray perfume on me, terrorize me with her kisses. I loved her as my cousin, but feared her, too.  If I got too close to her she would attack me with tickles that sent me screaming and her chasing me.  Then in one instant, she was gone.

What is it in a person that convinces them to kill?  What persuades them that taking human life is the only option?  I will never understand that mentality.   As bad as my life has gotten, I never, ever, thought of constructing a bomb, or picking up a gun and killing people.  Not once.  I never believed that taking human life was an option.  How does one become so desensitized?  Perhaps in the days and weeks that follow we will learn what went on in Dzhokar Tsarnaev's mind, this nineteen year old child with his entire life ahead of him.  Why did he decide to kill in the cowardly way he did?  Why did he feel it was the only option in his life?  I would love to ask him what he hoped to gain by killing innocent people.  I am sure the authorities will ask him.  I am sure he will tell them something.  

But any answer that we receive from him or others like him in the future (for they will continue to come), will not be adequate.  It will not be adequate because Indra is dead.  She cannot come back. His answers will not bring her back.  His reasons will not bring her back.  His immaturity and misguidance, his inferiority complex, his misdirected hatred form American life, his anti-Christianism, his pro-fundamentalism, his inability to get a girlfriend, his impotence, his deep rooted homosexual tendencies for his brother, his rape as a child by a mysterious stranger, his addiction to Halo 3 or World of Warcraft or the UFC, etc. etc. etc. will never be adequate answers or causes.  For Indra is still dead and those who died in Boston cannot come back.  Whose to say that the next bomber/terrorist/machine gun murderer, won't have similar "reasons"?  Even after we kill Dzhokar, I am afraid justice will not be served.  Families will continue to grieve.  Terrorists will continue to be born.

What I know is this: I am tired of violence.  I am tired of this culture that glorifies violence at the expense of what brings us together.  I am tired of the statements, "He was such a good kid, mild, would never hurt a fly."  I am tired of paranoid gun advocates claiming guns aren't the problem but that people are the problem,  and when it comes to passing legislation on keeping guns out of the hands of crazy people, or criminals, nothing gets done.  I am tired of the 2nd Amendment being misrepresented, for it does not grant the right for people to own bazookas, tanks, missiles, a nuclear bomb, just as it doesn't grant the right for people to own military assault rifles. Give them muskets and have them go at it.  Or if you really want to prove you're a man, hunt your deer and buck, your wolves and bears, your fowl and rodents with a bow and arrow and a knife.

I am not arrogant enough to claim I know what causes a mind to snap.  What causes someone like Dzhokar and his brother to turn into mad bombers? Maybe they do feel that the only way to regain a sense of power is to murder innocent people, for the line between fame and infamy is crossed by  committing one evil deed.  Maybe by punishing people who appear happier than themselves, who own more, who live freer lives, is the only way to make them feel better about themselves.  I don't know. 

If a terrorist simply took one step back and had a pang of conscience, if they simply took a step back and asked themselves, Is this right?  Does the cause I believe in justify this act?  Would God, or Allah, or Muhammad, or Jesus, or Guru Nanak, or whomever it is they believe in, advocate killing innocent people, babies, girls, children, mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers?  Where in their scriptures does it say that killing innocents is sanctioned by God?  What kind of god would support such a message?
There are always lessons to be learned, in fact terrorist attacks like this demand we learn something. But more than learning we must continue to feel in our hearts how lucky we are to be alive.  Of the three that died in Boston, hundreds, thousands survived, and perhaps they, even the injured and maimed, must be taking stock:  Have I done enough?  Have I lived my dream?  Have I taken the time to be a better person?  Maybe it's time to put work aside and take that dream vacation.  I need to call my mother, grandpa, grandma.  I need to tell someone I haven't spoken to in years that I love them and miss them and that I forgive them.  And so on.  These things make us human.  These are our values.  This is what makes our humanity strong: love in the face of hatred, fear, anger. 

I regret I didn't spend more time with Indra, but then, I never expected her life to be cut so short.  I regret also I didn't spend more time with my grandparents.  Now, faced with the fact of my aging parents, I wish for more time with them.  I accept their shortcomings as gifts, their strengths as blessings, and cherish their love.  Human life is precious, something the Tsaernevs couldn't understand.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Beautiful Sentences

Beautiful Sentences

I was advised by several people that if I am going to improve my relevance in the internet world, I better keep up with my blog.  So having been away from this precious forum for a year now, whose anonymous readership held me by the ankles by the edge of a cliff that threatened to pull me into obscurity, I humbly say, thank you for reading, for staying engaged, and keeping me from plummeting.

I have been busy for the past year: I got married last May, I traveled to Iceland and Paris, I settled in a house in Napa where we are putting down roots.  Having locked myself in my writing room, I have managed to "complete" two novellas and continue to work on Somerset, my novel of labor and love, frustration and redemption.  Now on my 10th draft, each successive issue pushes me closer to the real story, which lyricism continues to deepen and strengthen, at the expense of plot.  So be it.  This novel, I know, will take a special reader, one as committed to language, who respects and loves it as much as I do. I know they are out there.  I feel their pulse as I lay down my own sentences, always thinking, have I done enough, gone deep enough, traveled far enough down the roads of my character's lives?   

I have always admired writers whose ability to take the ordinary, the seemingly mundane, the pedestrian, and transform it through lyrical language.  Writers like Virginia Woolf, Alice McDermott, and my favorites, Marilynne Robinson and her protege Paul Harding, hold readers suspended in a daze by their words.  For example, here is one of many gorgeous sentences by Marilynne Robinson, courtesy of her masterwork, Housekeeping:

"A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and drenched grass and fallen branches and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering face and our cold hands."

I won't begin to unpack the brilliance of this sentence, though I have done elsewhere.  For now let it just sit here on the page; allow it to perform its magic.   Read it again.  What do you feel?

Here's another amazing sentence by James Salter from his excellent, yet beautifully flawed novel Light Years:

"For the day to unfold it must in its blueness, its immensity hide the conspiracy he lived on, hide but enclose it, invisible, like stars in the daytime sky."

Wow!  I have so many examples of great sentences that to list them all would turn this blog into a book-length work.  So I'll stop.  Two sentences that have the ability to tear the top off your head are enough for one morning!

The dictum "write what you know," comes with a subclause, "write what you love." Since I love lyricism, language with rhythms, cadences (not overtly musical, sort of subtly so), utilizing the tropes of alliteration, simile, metaphor, metonymy, polysyndeton and asyndeton, et. al. all to nudge prose upwards as artistic language, it's also what I look for when reading a new author.  If the language fails me, if it's too prosaic, just telling me a story about what happens to whom, when and why, then I lose interest, no matter how compelling the tale. But if the language opens a new window on a familiar world, turning the ordinary into a place full of mystery, wonder, then my ears prick up, the hairs on the back of my arms tingle, my pupils dilate as if I am in the throes of first love.

Here's one more, also courtesy of Wallace Stegner, from his beautiful novel,  Angle of Repose:

"The wall spun until Rodman's face came into focus, framed in the door's small pane like the face of a fish staring in the visor of a diver's helmet--a bearded fish that smiled, distorted by the beveled glass, and flapped a vigorous fin."

Gorgeous!  I have so much to learn.  So in the words of my protagonist Somerset, I'll say, "It's not only what we say that matters but how; because style is the perfection of a point of view."