On (re)reading The God of Small Things

4 May

I first read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things as a college sophomore in a seminar on women in literature. I remember it distinctly because I’d decided not to read it. I’d planned to read a summary in an attempt to heed the advice of a pragmatic professor concerned about my sleeping patterns (or lack thereof). So what if I was in the honors program with a double major and a minor and worked on the college paper and wrote a weekly news column and held down a work-study job? I was still going to read every single word that I was assigned to read. “Half of college, and graduate school, is figuring out what you need to read and what you don’t,” this professor told me, as he examined my copy of Mrs. Dalloway, which I’d not only read twice for seminar–but had highlighted in eight different colors, tracing patterns of imagery and major themes throughout.* My cheeks flushed as I tried not to smile. Graduate school. I was being told in a backwards way that I could maybe go to graduate school!**

Of course, the moment I’d decided not to read The God of Small Things, I couldn’t put it down. Not only was it a forbidden task–which made it all the more alluring***–but I realized something, then: I couldn’t not read all the words I’d been assigned to read back then because I loved them. Papers and deadlines aside, I quivered in anticipation of doing my readings at night. While peers pored over textbooks and scribbled solutions to problems in their notebooks, or made note cards to memorize terms, I found my favorite chair in the library and read and read and read. Which is all I ever wanted to do anyways. I was in disbelief that they let me do this for class credit and call it a major. I felt like I shouldn’t talk about it too much. As if they’d discover me and force me to study something else once they realized how much it meant to me. I felt like I was tricking someone; surely, it wasn’t possible to mold your life around something you cared about so deeply, was it? Wasn’t ‘work’ supposed to be quotidian, repetitive, and somewhat unpleasant? 

Sometimes, the books I read challenged me. Sometimes they confused me. Most times, I liked them. Sometimes, I disagreed with them and disliked them because of it. Sometimes I loved them so hard their pages wrinkled because I cried on them. Because that’s what I do when I love something: I cry on it a little bit. And then I fall asleep next to it, and the pages get a little bit wrinkled. 

That’s what happened with The God of Small Things when I read it as a 19-year-old. As a 26-year-old, I was drawn into the story again, though I was reading it with a different lens: as someone slightly older, more mature, and with an eye on a 20 – 25 page final paper for a seminar in a class entitled Human Rights and Literature. But I was pulled back into being 19 again as I read. Can’t you always remember where you were, how old you were, how you felt, when you read a book that moved you deeply? The way you felt when you saw the plot unravel for the first time? I stayed up until 3 a.m. reading that book and stared out the window into the pitch black sky for a long while afterwards. The next morning, I had a headache–my version of the college kid hangover–but I regretted nothing.

I continued to do my readings all throughout college because I was idealistic–but also because I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my days, anyways. I was 19, after all. There probably isn’t anything better I could have been doing. 

Sometimes, deep into final papers, reading assignments, and grad school life, it’s nice to be re-assigned a book you once read a long time ago because it makes you remember how you got here in the first place. 

———

*Don’t worry–that was my “working copy” of the novel. I have a clean, beautiful copy in hardcover for pure enjoyment when I’m not thinking about papers.

**Future Kristina would like to punch Past Kristina in the face, right in that moment. Future Kristina is somewhere in the midst of writing her dissertation, and inevitably frustrated with her ninth draft of her first chapter, and wishes she could tell Past Kristina to take that journalism job offer back in ’08. Present Kristina (a.k.a. the one writing right now) is too tired  after M.A. exams and final papers to analyze the interactions between Past and Future Kristina–never mind the weirdness into which this quasi-footnote has devolved. 

***I should try to forbid myself from doing laundry. Maybe that would make me actually do it instead of buying more clothes each time I run out to delay the inevitable. 

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WLT’s Translating Lincoln

13 Feb

In honor of Linclon‘s birthday, World Literature Today has posted a very brief portion of a quote and asked translators around the world to chime in:

Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves . . .

To begin, the magazine had Hindi, French, German, Italian, and Japanese translations. So, my good friend Adriana and I contributed our Spanish version:

Los que niegan la libertad a otros no la merecen…

I’m curious to see how many translations the blog will receive!

Drawing Dinosaurs

31 Jan

Seven years ago, while at Providence College, my good friend Todd Page created what has now become an annual holiday: Draw a Dinosaur Day!

Now in its seventh year, Todd hopes to get 1,000 dinos! He’s well on his way: in addition to the event getting local attention and celebrity endorsements (Pee Wee Herman was on board a few years back), he got the news today that a library in Latvia bought art supplies for a group of children and hosted an event to celebrate the day–and then uploaded all the dinos to Todd’s site, which you can reach here. Or, if Facebook is more your style, here’s a brief post.

I could be reading for my 4 p.m. lecture. Instead, I’m going to stop writing this post… and go draw a dino.

Graduate Writing Retreats

26 Jan

As a graduate assistant for my university’s writing center, I’ve been charged with starting the university’s first series of graduate writing retreats. Writing centers, traditionally funded for and by undergraduates, have been approached by graduate students in recent years. It seems that learning good writing habits and getting support with writing is as necessary at the graduate level as it is at the undergraduate level. The problem: most writing centers are staffed by undergraduate tutors, and graduate student writers’ needs are different than undergraduate student writers’ needs.

This year, part of UConn’s response included: offering sessions of 0-credit, 5-week writing seminars where groups of 12 – 18 grad students gather and discuss writing, critiquing each other’s work under the guidance of a graduate writing tutor;  offering a 4-day intensive dissertation ‘boot camp’ (modeled after Stanford University’s) where students gathered to write for 7-hour sessions; and offering monthly 8-hour Saturday writing retreats. This is in addition, of course, to the one hour writing appointments graduate students have been able to schedule at the center.

Other universities use different approaches. For example, the University of New Hampshire has adapted a system whereby graduate students working on longer projects meet with the director of the center to assess their needs and be assigned a specific tutor for a certain number of sessions in a semester. UNH is clear about its policy: the center is there to help students with the writing process–but not to copy-edit work. In a slightly different way, UConn has been trying to do the same thing with its 0-credit classes, which also foster a creative environment among graduate students and hopefully help them to get an idea for what a writing group would look and feel like. (As part of a writing group which uses the critique-one-week, write-together-the-next approach, I can vouch for the usefulness of deadlines and friendly camaraderie as you write and try to improve.)

Ultimately, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work at writing centers, particularly as a graduate assistant. While I am finishing my second master’s now and hope to begin my PhD in the fall–meaning I won’t be dissertating for some time yet–it’s useful to know what works and what doesn’t in terms of graduate student writing. I find myself not only supervising and planning some of these events but reaching toward them myself and trying to form good writing habits, at least academically.

Listening my way through Woolf

25 Jan

Having read my Woolf novels so many times, and having to read so many other books for my M.A. exams, I’ve taken to listening to Woolf novels–and any others I can find–on my Kindle with Audible.com. Things I’ve learned:

1. A good narrator is key. You’re often going to have to stick to them for 6+ hours. Many classic novels have multiple narrators, and you can sample a few minutes of each. But Audible has a policy where you can return a book if you’re dissatisfied, and while I’ve not had to , a friend of mine has had no problem returning books and swapping them out for different versions if you decide against the first narrator you chose.

2. Read the right way, it’s not impossible to listen to stream of consciousness–and to me, is even preferable to a high-energy, more conventional piece, particularly because I can’t listen to a whole book in one stretch. Tuning in for 20 minutes here and there on a drive, or before bed, or when I wake up, or for 30 – 40 minutes while running at the gym: if I were in a novel that raced forward at lightning speed with too many characters, I’m afraid that in these small chunks, I’d lose the thread of the story.

3. My Kindle, bought in 2010 when the idea of an e-reader still sparked debate among literary types, was among the best purchases I’ve made. I still prefer regular books, but for travel, there’s nothing like the Kindle–and the fact that an ‘old’ model is still compatible with Audible makes me beyond happy. I anticipate one day having to get an iPad for academic purposes, but for pleasure reading–for novels, rather than for critical articles–I’ll be a loyal Kindle user, loving the fact that I can pretend my device is a real book by adding a book-like cover, and appreciating the lack of back-light.

4. You can really hear the repetition of phrases when listening to a book. The lyric quality of certain books (Mrs. Dalloway, for example), is really enhanced by a read-aloud.

5. My friend makes a case for British narrators rather than Americans. Jury’s still out for me: do I prefer something closer to my accent, or a slightly different one, for multiple hours of text?

6. Foreign language books. The selection, much like Amazon’s at first, is as follows: only in Spanish, and even then, not nearly as extensive as in English. That’s great for me–as there are quite a few Spanish books out there, and as I’ve seen some of the books from some of my grad classes online (somehow listening to Don Quijote seems like a good idea… or listening while reading along?). But I sort of don’t understand how other languages aren’t yet involved in the project. Or at least French. I’m sure at some point there will be French offerings, but for now, it’s just English or Spanish.

Thoughts on Audible.com?

Something Unbroken

24 Jan

It’s the kind of day when only Woolf will do:

I went from one to the other holding my sorrow – no, not my sorrow but the incomprehensible nature of this our life – for their inspection. Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends, I to my own heart, I to seek among phrases and fragments something unbroken – I to whom there is no beauty enough in moon or tree; to whom the touch of one person with another is all, yet who cannot grasp even that, who am so imperfect, so weak, so unspeakably lonely. —The Waves

No major crisis; just reverie in the poetry of words.

Good Night Moon: A Critical Analysis

23 Jan

It is past midnight, and I should be in bed. After all, my productivity levels have been steadily waning since 11 p.m., and I’ve got to be up and ready for the new semester tomorrow, bright and early.

So, in my bid to go to sleep, I will say good-night to everything around me.

Good night empty chair of my roommate, Lara, who had the good sense to go to bed hours ago.

Good night vomiting cat across the hall, whose fate I do not envy.

Good night Miguel de Cervantes and Virginia Woolf and Tristan Tzara and Charlie Chaplin; I’ll see you again all-too-early.

And good night, beautiful satire of a Spark Notes version of Good Night Moon published in McSweeney’s in 2011 which includes the following delightful analysis of the title ‘character,’ which is beyond hilarious to an over-tired graduate student studying for exams:

The Moon — The moon in this piece acts as a traditionally feminine sign. Here, the bunny’s final “goodnight moon” demonstrates his completion of his rite of passage and his development into a full man bunny. The moon, which visually appears on every page, grows larger and more pronounced—it is a chanting feminine voice, haunting and disturbing his world. Just as he must overcome his sexual desire for the woman who says “hush,” the bunny must resist the impending femininity outside of his safe confines. In Queer Theory, the bunny’s final admonishment—”goodnight noises everywhere”—represents his full on embrace of a heteronormative lifestyle and a rejection of his “deviant” thoughts, probably about the kittens with the mittens. —Sean Walsh

The case for a day job

18 Jan

T.S. Eliot had to do it. Work to pay the bills, I mean. At a bank.

Writes Robert Fay:

On my own website, in my worryingly thin “About” section, I make no mention of the fact that I work full-time in the marketing department of a software company. Why? Maybe for the same reason that pop singers used to hide that they were married — it just doesn’t fit the image. It’s far more romantic to think of Jack Kerouac working as a railroad brakeman, zipping through the American landscape on the California Zephyr, than it is to ponder Eliot in the basement, Dr. William Carlos Williams treating a dying woman or the former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (2004-2006) working as an executive at Lincoln Benefit Life Insurance Company in Nebraska.

But plenty–almost all, really–writers have to work a day job to pay the bills. He goes on:

And while nobody except maybe Jonathan Franzen and Bill O’Reilly (no political or emotive relationship is implied by this coupling) are making a bundle from book sales, why does it always hurt when you discover that a promising novelist is also the associate editor for Grillin’ Times USA, the official trade publication for the American Outdoor Grilling Manufacturers Association?

It shouldn’t, really. Writing isn’t something you pursue as a money-making activity. We writers all could have had “more useful” majors, or swapped that M.F.A. for an M.B.A.–or better yet, skipped grad school altogether and just gotten a B.S. in engineering. If making money were all it was about, well, then. We all messed up. Because here’s the thing: writing isn’t (or shouldn’t be, I suppose, in an idealist sense) a career. It’s something you do, something you live. Done right, it’s an art.

Maybe I’m reading too much avant-garde literary theory right now. (So help me, my MA exams are looming. I am reading too much avant-garde theory right now). But, according to, well, a lot of critics, when the middle class rises in the 19th century, the standard for art lowers–when people seek to define and extend a relationship between capital and art (be it visual, literary, etc). Art then develops a market value, and when something develops a market value, people start to create it with the express purpose of maximizing that market value. I’m interested in the ways aesthetics, capital, and politics come together and explode in the art movements of the early 20th century (Futurism, Dada, Surrealism)… but, at the same time, how much about what Dada was rebelling against has really changed since Tristan Tzara wrote:

Dada doubts everything. Dada is an armadillo. Everything is Dada, too. Beware of Dada. Anti-dadaism is a disease: selfkleptomania, man’s normal condition, is Dada. But the real dadas are against Dada….

Yes. OK, back to contemporary writing. No more trying to connect thoughts on writing with thoughts on looming comprehensive exams. Except this one last time: maybe we should ‘rebel’ against art (whatever that means) if the task of writing is a career-driven affair. Because, well, if editing a story quickly means getting a much-needed paycheck, how many people are willing to stop for a moment, say: “You know? I could do without food for a week,” and let the story sit so the right combination of thoughts can ruminate over time, so that the story can ultimately be edited well–not just quickly? There’s a lot more bad writing to wade through in journals, magazines, and on bookshelves when writing (in the artistic, not journalistic, sense) becomes a career.

As Fay writes in his piece on Full Stop: if all writers had funding and cushy jobs, then it “would be a world so gentle, and so unrealistic, that maybe we wouldn’t need The Waste Land or The Sound and The Fury or even Shakespeare’s tragedies.”

In other words: a kind of sad world, after all.

So insanely sane.

18 Jan

So said Julio Cortázar:

Creo que todos tenemos un poco de esa bella locura que nos mantiene andando cuando todo alrededor es tan insanamente cuerdo.

In other words:

I think we all have a little bit of that beautiful madness that keeps us walking [moving forward]  when everything around us is so insanely sane.

Exactly, Mr. Cortázar. Exactly.

My favorite Cortázar story: an imperfect but decent English version, and the original Spanish.

On Borges

14 Jan

A thought, from Borges:

I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited.

I would certainly agree–to the extent that novels and poetry have provided the scaffolding on which my heart was built; and the people I’ve met, the family bonds I’ve sustained, the strong female friendships I’ve had and the men I’ve loved have all shaped it further into a real structure; and the cities I’ve visited, near and far, have shaded its parts so as to make it feel whole.

Ah, Borges.

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