Reading Journal

For me, sometimes stories I read kind of run together, so I decided to start tracking what I am reading. This is a place for me to think through what I’ve read and to share how I felt about a piece.

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

Shame. Shame. Shame. So, a number of years ago, my friend Mark bought me Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried. I knew very little about it. I figured it was some World War II novel, but Mark was sure I’d like it. So, I nodded, accepted it graciously, and put it on the bottom shelf of my night stand.

Turns out, it was not a novel, it was not about World War II, and yes, it is quite excellent. What does this say about me as an English major, I wonder? That I’m a bad one, I think. Oh well. At least I’m willing to admit it and come clean. Sorry Mark.

What kept me interested? Well, immediately into the story, we get to know about a character named Jimmy Cross who happens to be in love with a girl named Martha. His love is not returned (or if it is, she is silent about it), yet he can’t help but imagine himself with her at every possible chance. Why is it that love lost or love unreturned is such an interesting conflict? It always gets me. Maybe we all identify with it. I don’t know.

It’s Jimmy that moves the story along, as he moves his troop through the Vietnam jungles. He has a misplaced sense of duty. He’s escaping at every interval to be with the Martha in his mind, yet, he always reminds himself that she does not share his feelings. She always signs her letters “Love, Martha,” but he knows it it’s just a way to close out a letter.

It’s easy to lie to ourselves … especially about “love” (whatever that word means). Jimmy lies to himself about Martha, yet he is also lying to himself about where he is and how dangerous his life has become.

What about O’Brien? I am getting to that. O’Brien has an interesting style. He doesn’t use quotation marks, and the perspective shifts regularly in the story. It’s like the troop is one entity, and shifting through the different perspectives in the group is as fluid and easy as having a character turn his head.

I found the details of what was being carried to be dry at moments, yet it all has weight (much like the things they carry).

I know to you English majors, Tim O’Brien is old news, but to those who have not checked it out, it’s quite good. I’m looking forward to reading more.

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What Ray Bradbury Meant to Me

Ray Bradbury

This news hurts. I get on Google News this morning, and I see the headline, “Science-fiction author Ray Bradbury dead at 91.” I didn’t even read the piece. I was distraught. I was depressed … I am depressed.

This man meant so much to me in my early writing, and he was the last of the big literary movers in my life that was still alive. I had dreams (naive as they are when the man is 91), that I’d be able to hear him speak, ask him questions, and tell him how important he was to me as a reader and as a writer … but now I cannot.

His influence on me. As far back as I can remember, I have recoiled from the sort of nose-in-the-air approach many academics and self-described “intelligentsia” take to writing, and Bradbury was to me the man who did what he wanted to do and didn’t care what others thought of him.

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.” – Bradbury

His approachable style, plain humor, and unhesitant way of talking about the things he wanted to talk about and on his terms impressed me. He wasn’t a partisan dog, so far as I can tell, and he spoke from passion and fear. He was truly a prophet, and his concerns and hopes are manifested in our daily lives.

He was able to write from a child’s point of view as well, like in his famous novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, and that has played a big hand in me writing my collection of works from a child’s perspective right now.

He made me think of fantasy and science fiction as legitimate literary fiction rather than “low-brow genre fiction.” He influenced me on how to make arguments in my fiction and to not be so cryptic as to miss the point. He showed me that I can’t make stories into darlings, that I need to write and revise and move on.

Bradbury will be missed. He was a last of something to me. He was one of those patriarchs in American literature that moved me to do what I do, and it kills me that he’s gone. I was thinking about which of his works most influenced me, but it’s tough. I guess if I had to say, I’d say that The Martian Chronicles blew me away the most.

In honor of him, I’m going to read a novel of his soon and the next short story I write will be for (and inspired by) him.

Thank you for your life, Mr. Bradbury. You will be missed. The world is a lesser place without you.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

I love these old covers. This particular binding isn’t so great, and the pages have become stiff with age, but the old cover art is brilliant to me. If you look through most of my library at home, you’ll find that most of the covers list the prices of the books somewhere below a dollar. In this case, it reads 95 cents on the top.

Vonnegut is his normal brilliant self in this book. He’s so great about taking what we think, holding it front of our faces, and saying “Nuh-uh, you’re wrong.” And we are then forced to agree.

In this case, Vonnegut calls into question the nature of evil. The main character of the book is an American spy who played the part of a brilliant Nazi propagandist. At first, the reader has sympathy for him, because he was just serving his country, but as the book goes on, we begin to wonder how much it matters that he was an American agent if he was such an effective Nazi.

Let’s face it. Nazi is our standard if evil in the US. We call people of opposing political beliefs Nazis, or fascists, or we paint that stupid iconic Hitler ‘stache across the posters of their politicians (Yes, this happened to Bush as well).

The point is, Vonnegut brilliantly humanizes an effective Nazi, a Soviet spy, a German traitor, Eichmann, a group of white supremacists, etc. In fact, the most villainous man in the book is an American ex-soldier who is hell bent on beating the main character to a pulp. He’s of a single mind, and that is of violence, whereas, these other characters are idealistic, but stupid or misled.

I love a good villain, and this book is full of them. Vonnegut’s humor and wit disarm the reader and force him to reconsider what we so often call “pure evil.”

Buy this book. You can get it on Amazon for less than four bucks right now. You’ll love it and you’ll thank me later.

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Cathy Day’s “Wallace Porter”

I went to AWP this year, and I got to hear and meet a number of famous writers. One writer that I really enjoyed was Cathy Day. She read in a panel that dealt with Midwest Gothic. I was excited to go to this panel, because of late, I’ve been calling my genre New Hampshire Gothic / Magical Realism (can’t decide which).

Anyway, I really enjoyed her story, so last week, I picked up a copy of her short story collection The Circus in Winter. Thus far, I’ve only had a chance to read the first story, “Wallace Porter,” but I thought it was great!

In both stories that I’ve been exposed to of hers (the one she read and the one I’ve read), there’s been this fantastically caged Midwestern culture. People go through some horrific episodes, and they deal with it through repression, avoidance, and just about any means but confrontation.

Ms. Day has a quirky, yet highly approachable Midwestern voice in her writing. It feels very familiar to me (especially since the place of her stories, and I assume, where she works and lives, is only a hop and a skip from where my sister lives).

Both stories of hers that I know include a sick / dying elephant. I don’t know why this image hits me so hard. There’s something awful about a dying elephant. It reminds me so much of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which is an emotionally wrenching story.

I don’t read many, or nearly enough, contemporary writers. I’m glad to have found one that I really connect to, and I look forward to finishing this book.

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Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s “There are no thieves in this town”

I have a great book of collected works by the author Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. He has become one of my favorite authors. It is his work that inspired me to work on my current NH Stories project.

I just read this great story called “There are no thieves in this town.” The title says it all. It talks about mistrust of strangers, of others. In the story, a black man gets blamed and punished (much harder than a native would be punished) for a crime that was committed by a townsperson.

It’s easy to point the finger at others. I see this as a religious person who hears way too often that it’s the fault of some person or group that the world is as it is. I see this as someone who (an independent) pays attention to politics, and I see how much people find identity in party, and these parties spend their days faulting the other side.

The main character in Marquez’s story is a handsome man who is short on brains and mercy. He’s violent and drunk all of the time, yet it’s hard to blame him. He lives in poverty, as does most of the town, and covets things for himself (and for his pregnant wife as an afterthought).

Marquez creates a story where the main character is also the villain that the reader hates. This story (outside of the strange cat character that only shows up when the main character is breaking and entering … guilt?) is not Magical Realism. An interesting break from most of his works.

Though the cat … I need to think about the cat. What’s up with the cat?

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Philip Eubanks and John D. Schaeffer’s “A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing”

As someone hoping to go into academia professionally, I find the problem outlined by these authors to be useful and a little terrifying. I have long struggled with notions of “bullshit” in student writing and in academic journals, yet I did not quite understand from where it came.

These author, Eubanks and Schaeffer, argue that academic bullshit is a product of the tenure track. Essentially, professors need to publish for tenure, and publications favor this sort of writing, because it gives the feeling of credibility, of the ethos of the discipline.

Eubanks and Schaeffer then argue that students become encouraged to mirror this sort of work. This is something I am keenly aware of. I write for the classroom in a way that I do not write anywhere else. It isn’t as though it is more informed or more effectively argued, but it FEELS like academic writing.

Eubanks and Schaeffer say this can be helpful as students look to move on in academia, and while I agree with this, I think it’s a sad indictment of a discipline that is hopeful to churn out “good writers”.

I don’t know. One of the effects of this sort of approach, they say, is to create a disengagement for some students. I feel that. “See the emperor’s new clothes!” they say, and I do. I describe it just as they want, but I don’t believe it. Thing is … I am not so good at keeping my mouth shut, which may not mean bright future prospects for me in academia, but maybe I can shake the system a little.

Doubtful.

Oh well … maybe I’ll learn to shut up some day. Still, a great article.

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Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford’s “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy”

For my honors thesis, I just read Ede and Lunsford’s “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy.” My thesis is all about professor as audience and its affect on student writing.

Very thought-provoking. When they explained the Audience Addressed theory (essentially, audience motivates, critiques, edits, and wholly determines writing creation) did not connect with me at all, and Ede and Lunsford did not prescribe to that notion. The Audience Invoked theory (Audience is imagined or created, is fiction, and we cannot know our audience accurately. Ong suggested that we are writing to the audience that Mark Twain was writing to, and he was writing to the audience of an earlier writer, and so forth back to the origin of writing) connected with me a lot more.

Ede and Lunsford suggested that we invoke an audience as we write, but I wonder how that idea (written in 1984) holds up today in the age of internet publication. Certainly through search engine optimization we can steer the audience some, but when we write on the web, are we not simply throwing it out for all to see? Sending it into the ether?

Also, can we as student writers really invoke the “professor” audience? Do we really write TO the professor? I don’t feel like I do. I write FOR the professor, which means, I write what I’d imagine he likes to see, what he has grown to expect. This expectation feels much more like Ong’s idea of writing to the past idea of audience. I mean, a student can write to a rubric, but it isn’t as though I’m really trying to persuade the professor. I don’t write pieces titled “Why I deserve an A in this class.”

Anyway … audience. Seems like an important topic for potential future professors (me {yes, I will be plural}).

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Philip K. Dick’s “Eye in the Sky”

For my sci-fi lit class, we had to choose a book to read, and since I had not read many Philip K. Dick novels, I decided to go with one of his. I chose the book “Eye in the Sky.” I chose it because I went to the Cross Street Book Store (A great used book store with good selection, and the owner is very interesting. Try this … go in there and grab any book at random and ask him about it. I’ll bet he knows something about it. It’s weird … but I digress) and they only had a few Philip K. Dick novels. Apparently, he’s hot right now, and “Eye in the Sky” seemed to be about an interaction with some sort of God character or whatnot. I don’t know what it is, but if there is some super powerful figure watching, I’m interested (1984 being the best example).

Anyway, I was surprised how bad Dick’s writing was. I mean, if he could add an adverb, he did. And every time he could have said “climbed” he said “clambered.” Frustrating. Still, the story was quite interesting. Turns out, he wasn’t making so much a critique or comment on religion, though he does parody religious fanaticism, but he was critiquing the ideas of 1950s in general, from prudishness, to religious fanaticism, but especially anti-Communist McCarthyism.

I should give him a break on his writing. It was one of his early novels, and … who am I to talk? The story was so much closer to fantasy than sci-fi, except for the fact that the main setting of the piece was the Belmont Bevatron, which apparently housed a giant ray beam emitter. The beam goes haywire as eight on-lookers are standing overhead, and the platform they’re standing on gets vaporized. They fall through the beam, hit the ground, and become unconscious. The radiation in the beam puts them in alternate realities based on one of the eight characters perspectives. Essentially, they live in the imaginations, lusts, and loves of one of the characters.

Intriguing idea, I’ll give him that. The end is super predictable and wraps up a little too nicely, though there is a moment at the end that is a little like the end of Inception, where we’re left wondering.

Thus far, I’m a big lover of Philip K. Dick’s short story work. This is generally true of short story authors. For example, Asimov. I think he’s eternally better as a short story writer than as a novelist. It is not always true though. Flannery O’Connor is my favorite short story writer, but her novels are also fantastic. I just wish she had a chance to write more.

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Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s “The Database and the Essay: Understanding Composition as Articulation”

I am working on a thesis paper for Honors this semester, and for this, I am working with an excellent rhet/comp professor in an independent study. Part of the independent study is reading theories and ideas from other rhet/comp professors, to glean some greater understanding about how technology functions in the classroom.

[Note: my thesis is challenging the idea of the professor as a terminal audience.]

Anyway, one of the essays I have to read is called “The Database and the Essay: Understanding Composition as Articulation” by a man named Johndan Johnson-Eilola. I realize the essay may have been written a few years back, but it already feels terribly dated.

I struggle with a lot of these academic essays. They beat the drum of postmodernism, as though its ideas have gone beyond the four soundproof walls of academia (as though the general public were listening to them anyway), and have become the dominant philosophy concerning art, text, the author, etc. It seems to me that the arguments in these essays are difficult to decipher and sprawling, the prose is cryptic and coded in academic-speak (Thanks Orwell), and the constant digs against capitalism, corporations, and the author are tiresome.

This essay is a perfect example of this. Johndan (as he will from here on out be referred, since apparently we’re on a first-name basis, and I don’t feel like typing out his hyphenated last name) tries to make a connection between changing intellectual property law and the “fragmentation” of texts. He tries to argue that because chunks of text, a part of a collection or anthology, are covered by copyright law and come against fair use, they have marketability, and are therefore somehow valid as a part of a whole … I think that’s what he’s saying. It’s difficult to know because his argument is “difficult to decipher and sprawling, the prose is cryptic and coded in academic-speak.”

He goes on to say that creativity does not spring from the individual, but is from the culture, from the context, and he feels this is proven by the recent changes in intellectual property laws. He concludes his point by saying “What seems clear is that this fragmentation and circulation is postmodernism” (Johnson-Eilola 212). I’m not sure I follow his point or his connections … he spends much more time lamenting the commodification of texts.

He makes these digs at “corporations” (a big evil word there) that seem ignorant at best. For example, he predicts that “we’re moving slowly toward a situation where corporations will hold proprietary rights to collections of information” (Johnson-Eilola 210). When has this not been? He then goes on to praise the fact that the press (that saintly non-profit collection of individuals whose sole purpose is to shed rays of truth-light to our dank, dark, ignorant lives) still has some leeway in the law to use copyrighted information, but complains that “many corporations would also like those rights removed” (Johnson-Eilola 210). I mean, I’m sure glad CNN, Fox, The Huffington Post, The NY Times, NBC, ABC, The Atlantic, etc. aren’t corporations … or wait …

Finally, he makes an assertion that, in my experience as a web designer is utterly false and stupid. He says that “there has grown a bitter debate on the World Wide Web and in the courts about whether or not people need permission to link to someone else’s pages” (Johnson-Eilola 210). Not only have I never heard of this “bitter debate,” but it makes no sense. Searchability and search engine optimization are built on getting other sites to link to your site. He claims that it is again those evil corporations trying to shut people out so they can make people go by their ads and make more money. He refers to this as an “increasing tendency on the party of contemporary corporations to control information” (Johnson-Eilola 211). I am going to assume that this article is quite old … still, this feels just ignorant, and seems to be making false assertions to back his claim.

I’m no corporatist, but I am a capitalist. And so are these people when they peddle their own books.

I think there is a reason no one reads these articles except for the academia. The ideas feel so incestuous, trying to justify the approaches and ideas inside the four walls with the outside world that has left them so far in the dust.

… sorry for venting.

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H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine

Just finished reading H.G. Wells’s classic sci-fi work The Time Machine. Much like Frankenstein, it suffered from some of the methods of the time, for example, the perspective. In this case, the perspective seems to be simply that of Wells being told a story from a character known as “The Time Traveller.”

Overall, the story went as I suspected it would. I was surprised though by the amount of overt socio-political commentary makes throughout the novel. His main issues are that of capitalism vs. communism and evolution.

I’m not sure what comment he was making about capitalism or communism, because it seemed he was not all that glowing about either. Certainly, he saw issues of class and aristocracy, and how he tied that together with the future evolution of man was intriguing.

Concerning evolution, it seemed pretty arrogant (as he seems to lay out) that 19th century Britain was the height of human civilization. In his view, though he spoke rather highly of Darwin and the theory in the book, man would devolve back into apes, killing and eating each other, with little or no intellectual capabilities. What was he saying with this? I’m not sure.

This story fits pretty well with my analogy of groundhog holes with story-telling. The grass (base-level plot) in this story suffers for holes (themes, messages, politics, etc.) popping through the sod. The story was pretty dry (maybe because I’m a spoiled 21st century reader), but what he had to say was interesting.

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