Tag Archives: reading

Reading Review: The Trial and On the Art of Reading

I have read Metamorphosis, and didn’t really get it. The same goes, now, for The Trial.

Kafka has an amazing style, and conjures wonderfully dreary environments for his characters, but the underlying message — the novel doesn’t really go anywhere — eludes me. At first I thought it was about his take on writing, and how he feels trapped, judged by those around him. Then I thought it was about a girl, a commitment to marriage that he wanted to escape, and everything that happened was a horrible dream. The scene where he makes love with the administrator’s mistress is particularly reminiscent of a dream or fantasy.

Where did these ideas come from? The little introduction, the few pages that a lot of classic books have that talk about the author and the book. From reading this one can then judge what the book is about. From pinpointing exactly when in the writer’s life a certain text was written the reader can discern what the hell they are talking about. Rather than Cliff’s notes, read the author’s biography.

This is one of the pieces of great advice that I took from the book On the Art of Reading, a transcription of lectures given by one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch from around the First World War. Example chapters include Children’s REading, On Reading the Bible, and Of Selection. He restates such virtues as writing every day, and inspires some new thoughts, such as waiting to read Paradise Lost until the age of 30, and using the Book of Job (yes, from the Bible) in literature classes. Not much has changed, and in fact the body of written work has expanded, making judicial choice much more important, and that importance is a matter of subjectivity. To quote Sir Arthur, “Considering for a moment how personal a thing is Literature, you will promptly assure yourselves that there is —there can be — no such thing as the Hundred Best Books.” Read widely, but wisely.

So back to The Trial. Has reading it imparted anything on me? I can’t say, except for perhaps the unique style, that is has. Certainly knowing more of the man may help, but as it is, The Trial is a bleak story and that’s about it.

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Saturday Review: A Quick Catch-up

As I mentioned in yesterdays post, I’ve been rather busy. But not too busy to read, never too busy to read. In fact, my project of 52 books in a year feels as if it has prompted even more reading. I’m currently splitting my time between three books: Finishing off A Farewell to Arms, enjoying the lightness of The Consolations of Philosophy (Alain de Botton), and being pounded by History of Madness (Foucault).

I have remained on track though, and here is what I’ve read in the last few weeks:

The Great Gatsby: Apparently this wasn’t very popular when it first came out, though of course now there’s a movie about to be released, with good ol’ Leo as Gatsby. While I was reading it I certainly felt a contemporay correlation. The affluent lifestyle of the Jazz Age is redolent of our current situation (most definitely in America, though perhaps more and more so in Australia) of opulence and overindulgence.
Issues of privilege and wealth disparity are rife, mixed in among the damned love story and doomed redemption tale. From the Writer’s Devotional, Amy Peters says of The Great Gatsby, “Using a deft hand with language, Fitzgerald creates an allegorical reflection of an America on the verge of descent.” I’d say that’s close to what we face now.
On the subject of language, Fitzgerald does paint a very pretty and precise picture. He uses many adjectives and adverbs, but it isn’t superfluous–it is always purposeful prose. I really enjoyed it, even if the ending seemed to fall flat and wither out, and I’m looking forward to reading The Beautiful and the Damned now that the ebook seems to be working properly.

…it occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.

The transition from libertine to prig was so complete.

The Kite Runner: At first I thought this book was a sort of memoir, fact folding into fiction. But as it went on it became more and more lurid, more unbelievable, and less and less likely. That said, it is definitely a book worth reading, particularly for writers.
Unlike The Great Gatsby, the use of adjectives and adverbs often feels overwrought, cliched at times. The themes are played too strongly, and quite often, letting melodrama slip in between the lines. But the heart of the book is true, and the messages worth nothing.
The Kite Runner gives a glimpse of Afghan life, and perhaps reasons as to why it was/is necessary to have our troops in Afghanistan. It is a story of redemption (at last) and of the stretch between cultures, the gap between rich and poor, and how we should all just get along already.
It is also a book for writers in that it is about the passion of writing. Our protagonist is a story teller from a young age, and of course this becomes his career. I do wonder if it’s necessary to have your characters be writers–that is, after all, what a writer knows best. Of course, our hero’s first book gets published straight away, which is, as we all know, virtually impossible. A big plot hole, that one.

Like so much else in Kabul, my father’s house was the picture of fallen splendor.

A Farewell to Arms: My first Hemingway. I once got told, many years ago, that my writing was “Hemingway-esque”. I think they were just being polite, or confusing my simple grasp of language with Ernest’s mastery of English.
Not a word goes out of place. It isn’t fancy, it isn’t particularly complex, but it is all meant to be there, all meant to be read and savoured.
Now, A Farewell to Arms is based on real events. It’s a very compelling look at war, even if there isn’t an ounce of fighting in it. Our protagonist is shelled before an offensive, sending him away to mend. He travels around in Italy, enjoying a newfound love. He heads back to the front where the Allies promptly retreat. He shoots one of his own sergeants, and his own side kills a friend.
Despite never touching on what you think a war is about–two sides attacking each other–it is a powerful commentary on the fruitlessness of war. It’s luminary in its images, particularly in the opening chapter, about the fall of nature and the destruction of the land by troops. Nothing good comes of war, nothing but idleness and waste.
If I were to choose a writer to be like, it would be Hemingway. His choice of language is delectable in its simplicity. And despite a sparsity of words, he is endlessly quotable.

That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is.

Still nobody was whipping any one on the Western front. Perhaps wars weren’t won any more. Maybe they went on forever.

What you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.

Doctors did things to you and then it was not your body any more.

I also finished up How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One, which is a book I would recommend for writers. The first half (the writing part) is definitely more informative and interesting, whereas the latter part about reading sentences rambles away. If you see it and want to know about the construction of sentences I’d definitely recommend picking it up.

So that’s what I’ve been reading. Until next week!

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Saturday Review: Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

I’m not a man who believes in fate, and despite so many examples that would swing lesser folks towards faith, the only time I let the blithering excitement of serendipity touch me is in a bookstore. Such a breakdown of my moral code occurred when I purchased the Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson in my local second-hand hawker. I was casually flicking through titles and picked up the intriguing On the Art of Reading, when this tome of Miss Dickinson’s insights revealed itself.

Old, with some random's signature on the half-title page!

Old, with some random’s signature on the half-title page!













It’s technically not on The List—I was meant to read the Complete Poems—but when fortune slaps you in the face like that, you take it in both hands and let the warm, fuzzy feeling take over.

It should be noted that I don’t read poetry. The seller even commented that, “It’s good to see people reading poetry.” I felt more than a little guilty. But heck, after the experience, I’m now primed for more. When I can sit shirtless on my deck overlooking St Kilda, glass of Pinot Grigio in one hand, the text in the other, and enjoy the lyrical lilt of a Great, well, who wouldn’t want to keep doing it? All I need is a greasy mo, wayfarers, and a dangling cigarillo to be complete.

On with the words.

Poetry, man. Haven’t touched it since the first semester of my undergrad degree. I tried my hand, learnt the various forms, and promptly forgot  most of it. Never interested me. Now that I’m a little older though, things have changed. Emma is my first excursion since those faithless days.

Emily Dickinson is known as a recluse, and the introduction by Thomas H. Johnson reinforces this. It’s suitably even-handed, a great opener for the poetics to come. On the serendipity theme, the latest issue of the Victorian Writer mag is poetry themed, and I bought Philosophy in the Garden this week, which has a chapter on Dicko (is that blasphemous?). Poetry is the word of the week, it seems.

One thing I took away from my Arts degree is that poetry is usually about simple, everyday things. It’s like clowning, in that it takes something easy and makes it complex. Emily writes about lightning, gardens, and books. Oh, and death. Lots of death, lots of life, the question of immortality rears its head repeatedly. Here’s a great one:

Surgeons must be very careful

When they take the knife.

Underneath their fine incisions

Stirs the culprit, life.

Succinct. Beautiful. Need I say more? Despite this ease of image, Emily sometimes comes across as very haphazard and unconventional. She doesn’t always rhyme, but her use of words is delightful. “Emphatic thumbs,” is one such gem. Here are a bunch more great little stanzas:

Water is taught by thirst,

Land by the oceans passed,

Transport by throe,

Peace by its battles told,

Love by memorial mold,

Birds by the snow.

Fantastic juxtaposition. It also shows Emily’s obsession with certain things, in this case ‘birds’. Birds appear again and again, as well as bees and words like ‘dew’ and ‘Calvary’. When you’re onto something good, I guess…

There is no frigate like a book

To take us lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This travel may the poorest take

Without offence of toll.

How frugal is the chariot

That bears the human soul.

Something that I love, made even more lovely.

A sloop of amber slips away

Upon an ether sea,

And wrecks in peace a purple tar,

The son of ecstasy.

This is interesting because this is the second time I have seen the word ‘ecstasy’, and it’s spelled differently. Also, it sounds great.

Finally, a poem on the theme of serendipity to close.

Faith is a fine invention

When gentlemen can see,

But microscopes are prudent

In an emergency.

Christ, that hits the spot. Which poets do you like, and who would you recommend?

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Monday Musing: Getting Out of My Own Way

I completed my first writing workshop yesterday. To be honest, I was a little apprehensive, even downright sceptical. Thankfully, the people who took part in the one-day event were all awesome folks, and the two “teachers”—Jon Bauer and Rebecca Starford—were splendid. Jon in particular was very enthusiastic and told it bluntly—writing is what you make it (though he did have his own strong opinions).

There were writing exercises. There were heated discussions. There were laughs had by all. The main issue was looking at what makes us freeze-up when it comes to the actual task of writing. A little bit of an oxymoron—a writing class for writers that don’t write—but procrastination is a big thing. It’s not that writers don’t want to put words down, but that the possibility of failure fills us with fear, which means that Facebook becomes our best friend (or foe). I won’t post the exercises we wrote, seeing as they mostly focused on looking at ourselves, but they very extremely helpful and enlightening. The first was writing about a writer that was a version of ourselves, a hyper-realised exaggeration of the ego—then, later, another exercise from the POV of an observant character, watching this tortured portrayal. Probably the best exercise was writing from the voice of Parent, Adult, and Child, describing ourselves from these perspectives. I wrote so harshly about myself as the Parent that I actually felt a pang of emotion. Then I used the Child to cheer myself up (“I really want to play in your worlds!”). If you’re a struggling writer, try to become a narrator and describe your situation. It may illuminate important issues.

The main lesson I took away was patience. Writing takes times. It takes revision and editing. It requires thinking periods. Don’t rush it, don’t blurt out a first draft, make a few changes, and send it off. Let it gestate and bud. The second thing that struck me was almost the opposite: “Fuck it.” It’s fair to say that with the first draft you have to let it go, roll with the words, and see where the story takes you. Get yourself in the right frame of my (don’t write with a frown) and let it happen. The issue of willpower came up, and it really applies to me. Full-time hospitality used to take it out of me, and since going casual I have written far more. However, it does take a lot of inner strength to deal with day to day problems and still find the power to write. On top of that, my main issue is choice, which again saps ones limited supply of willpower. I have so much I want to do, and now I realise that I need to cut all of it out except for a single project at a time. Finish one thing, move on. Other little tips include reading it out aloud, and find a writing group—hopefully the people I met are as interested in forming a critique crew as I.

I walked away filled with hope, a free book, possible new writing colleagues, a bunch of notes, and most importantly, great advice. Hats off to Kill Your Darlings, and Bec and Jon, I’ll definitely keep an eye out for future workshops or mentoring opportunities.

Have you participated in writing workshops? Were they beneficial, and if so/not, why?

Update: A very relevant article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/the-art-of-being-still/

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Saturday Review: Catcher in the Rye

I missed this one at school. I read titles like 1984 and Birdsong (both of which had scenes that went down well in class). It still rings very true despite having made the transition from teenager to young adult. The gap isn’t very large.

The voice is the key aspect of the writing. Salinger utilises the ‘additive style’ of sentence structure. That is, it seems to add more and more and more to the thought that is initially introduced. It’s artful and deliberate in the exhibition of randomness. At one point Holden Caulfield (our protagonist for those who haven’t read it) says that he likes people digressing, in reference to a speech giving class. And that’s what he gives us. Aimless chat. But it shows the reader exactly what goes through a young boy’s head. The frustration and meandering. The babbling on and saying no. It’s the disaffected youth to the letter.

It’s quite annoying, actually. I doubt anyone likes Holden. Sure, they get it, they may sympathise, but no one is going to be on Team Caulfield. I know I wanted to belt him around the ears and tell him to buck up. But that’s precisely the point. His hypocrisy is our hypocrisy; his deceitful actions are ours. It’s also slightly annoying because nothing really happens. It manages to keep us reading because of the voice, but in terms of plot it’s mundane. We’re given this snapshot into the mind of a muddled teenager, but it’s more than enough.

What can I take away? It’s a great example of voice—little words like Chrissake and the constant repetition of ideas. It shows how the right character can make any situation intriguing. And it shows once again that writers love writing about writing.

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