Friday, October 31, 2014


Picture Day Friday: Musical Instruments of Africa


Here is a small smattering of instruments from among a vast array of music-making devices of Africa.








Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Big Fat Book October Update: The Game of Kings


Reporting progress on my Big Fat Book Project. I have now finished 12 of 25 hours of The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. This means I should've read around 250 out of 554 pages in the paper copy.

BUT Dear Reader, I cheated. The book got too exciting for me. I raced ahead and devoured the paper copy. Or rather, the story devoured me.

My exercising was hijacked by an old injury on my right knee flaring up and worsening. As a result, the audio part of the BFB Project went kaput. As I have mentioned before, without a mindless activity to occupy my body, my mind doesn't merely wander, it roams far and wide. Sitting in a chair listening is not an activity for me. So while I have now thoroughly enjoyed, finished, and digested the paper copy, I have given myself till December 31 to finish the audiobook. I sincerely hope I can achieve that goal comfortably, and I'm not up late in the week between Christmas and New Year's swotting.

As I read ahead, I—guiltily—abandoned reading with the dictionary and Google at my elbow. Even assiduous googling didn't always yield satisfactory results. In the comments of my September post, reader simhedges had recommended The Ultimate Guide to Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings by Laura Ramsey as the perfect companion guide to the book. I had planned then on reading it as a side-by-side-third-go-through of the main text. That book has been bought, but remains largely unread.

I gave up on understanding every word and every phrase and every nuance. There were far too many of those pesky references to historical events, movements, and people; literary allusions; and foreign languages. I was too engrossed in the story to take the time to slow down and really understand every word. I hope to read the companion book next month as I continue with the audiobook.

I really wonder what Dunnett's personal library looks like for her to be able to sprinkle all these into her narrative.

I do understand that some books are like a thin-crust pizza: everything is visible on the surface. And yet others are like onions, you peel and peel and peel and uncover something more you hadn't noticed before. Discovery is the joy of re-reading books such as these. While this is certainly the case with Dunnett's book, it did cross my mind a time or two that it was striving to be so more than being organically so. A minor quibble in an overwhelmingly fabulous read on many levels.

For a tome with a huge cast of characters and movement of said people hither and yon and involved in this or that, the book is paced perfectly. It's neither so fast as to be overwhelming and discombobulating, neither does it drag. That was my primary fear of taking on a big book: Would I have to slog through the book page by torturous page just to say, "I did it"? I did not want this to be my Crime and Punishment.

Fortunately, that hasn't been the case, in fact, far from it. It was engrossing reading whether or not Lymond was in the scene. The Lymond scenes were admittedly slightly anxious reading/listening ones for me: I was always anticipating his perpetrating some other outrage on some other hapless head.

At the beginning of the month, I remember thinking: I am eagerly awaiting the scene where something or someone is going to give Lymond his comeuppance. Oh, certainly not bring him to his knees—that would be too common—but just put a check in his arrogant, insouciant stride and give him a moment of mental discomfort.

Let me tell you that there was karma even in Lymond's world!

Last month, I had written: "This has got to be one heck of a character arc for Lymond. My imagination fails me in picturing Lymond's transformation from anti-hero to hero."

Well, let me also tell you, Dunnett delivers! By God, she does.

[For reference, here are my July, August, and September updates.]


Friday, October 24, 2014


Picture Day Friday: Himalayan Mountain Peak


Magnificent, isn't it? Chomo Lonzo Peak of the Kangshung Glacier in the Himalayas.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Tolkein's Poem: Winter Comes to Nargothrond


Winter Comes to Nargothrond is a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien as scribed by Thascales. I don't have a blog posted this week yet but wanted to share this poem with you that I love.

The summer slowly       in the sad forest
waned and faded.       In the west arose
winds that wandered       over warring seas.
Leaves were loosened       from labouring boughs:
fallow-gold they fell,       and the feet buried
of trees standing       tall and naked,
rustling restlessly       down roofless aisles,
shifting and drifting.
           The shining vessel
of the sailing moon       with slender mast,
with shrouds shapen       of shimmering flame,
uprose ruddy       on the rim of Evening
by the misty wharves       on the margin of the world.
With winding horns       winter hunted
in the weeping woods,       wild and ruthless;
sleet came slashing,       and slanting hail
from glowering heaven       grey and sunless,
whistling whiplash       whirled by tempest.
The floods were freed       and fallow waters
sweeping seaward,       swollen, angry,
filled with flotsam,       foaming, turbid,
passed in tumult.       The tempest died.
Frost descended       from far mountains
steel-cold and still.       Stony-glinting
ice hung evening       was opened wide,
a dome of crystal       over deep silence,
over windless wastes       and woods standing
as frozen phantoms       under flickering stars.


Friday, October 17, 2014


Picture Day Friday: Bali, Indonesia


Bali is famous for its beaches and its temples. Here's a picture of ancient ruins of a temple that is still in use as a holy site.



][Image copyrighted by www.capreform.eu.]


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


2014 TBR Reading Challenge: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan


As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan.

I freely admit: I would not have read this book unless at the insistent urging of my daughter. I do not read middle-grade books. However, she persistently, and creatively, advocated the merits of the book, and I was convinced to give it a go. I warned her that if I found it boring, I would drop it. She accepted that with grace. But from the get go, I was hooked. The story and characters were engaging and the plot moved at a cracking pace.

The Titan's Curse is book three of the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. Percy Jackson is a half-blood, i.e., the son of the Greek sea god Poseidon and a mortal woman from NYC. During the school year, he resides with his mother, but during the summers, he lives at Camp Half Blood, which is a camp for the sons and daughters of gods and goddesses as well as satyrs (half man, half goat), centaurs (half man, half horse), pegasi (flying horses), nereids (sea nymphs), dryads (tree nymphs), hippocampi (fish ponies), and other such magical beings.

This series leads into the Greek wars between the ancient Titan lords and the later Olympian gods. The cruel Titan Kronos had been destroyed before the story begins and his pieces had been cast into Tartarus, the underworld. However, evil monsters were trying to knit him together so that he could rise again. All the half-bloods' quests in this series play a role in attempting to prevent this from taking place.

In this story, Chiron, the centaur, and Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, rule over Camp Half Blood. Annabeth (Athena's daughter), Thalia (Zeus's daughter), Grover (the satyr), Zoë Nightshade (lieutenant of Artemis's hunters), and Bianca and Nico di Angelo are the cast of heroes supporting Percy in his quest to save the goddess Artemis (and Annabeth who gets captured during the quest). Zoë's, Bianca's, and Nico's parents play a part in the surprising twists and turns of the story.

Grover sends Percy, Thalia, and Annabeth a message about locating two very powerful half-bloods with unknown parentage. While they go off to rescue Bianca and Nico, they meet up with a spike-throwing manticore monster and Annabeth gets captured. The other heroes are rescued from the monster by Artemis and her immortal hunters, including Zoë. Artemis accepts Bianca into her band of hunters and grants her eternal youth. There's a fun and hair-raising ride for the heroes back to the camp with the bad haiku-spouting (heh!) Apollo in his red-hot Maserati sun-chariot.

In the meantime, Artemis heads off on her own to capture one of the most terrible monsters who's stirring back to life—monsters don't die, they simply lie dormant when defeated in battle till it is time to rise again. Unfortunately, Artemis gets captured, hence the heroes are back on a quest to rescue Artemis and Annabeth. Of course, the previous half-blood turned traitor, Luke, is involved in this up to his nasty ears.

Beyond this, I cannot say, because in the telling, I'd be revealing spoilers that'll destroy the whole story. Surprises are revealed at every plot turn, and it is impossible to narrate the rest of the story without knowing the spoiler.

I loved the story. I loved the writing: fresh, fast, complex (plotting details and characterization), age-appropriate and yet great reading for adults, too.


Friday, October 10, 2014


Picture Day Friday: Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet


Potala Palace, in the capital city of Lhasa, Tibet, is the home of the Dalai Lamas of Tibetan Buddhism. Here are views of the palace in different seasons.






Tuesday, October 7, 2014


A Perspective on the Masters of Fine Arts Programs


I was at the library picking up an interlibrary loan book that was on hold for me, when naturally, I couldn't resist perusing the new books shelf. Lo and behold, I came across a book that compares the literary cultures of the Masters of Fine Arts university degree and the literary fiction trade publishing houses of Manhattan, New York City. I had to pick it up and bring it home: MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach.

And as serendipity has its way, when I arrived home, I ran across an article in the New York Times asking: Can Writing Be Taught? The authors of the article were Zoë Heller, whose book Notes on a Scandal was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Rivka Galchen, a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction.

My comments here are restricted to the NYT article, the introduction to the book, and some of the essays in the book: "MFA vs NYC" by Chad Harbach, "A Mini-Manifesto" by George Saunders, "The Fictional Future" by David Foster Wallace, "Money (2014)" by Keith Gessen, "People Wear Khakis" by Lorin Stein with Astri von Arbin Ahlander, "How To Be Popular" by Melissa Flashman, "The Disappointment Business" by Jim Rutman, and "Basket Weaving 101" by Maria Adelmann.

The "MFA" part of the title of the book refers to the rapid flourishing of creative writing programs offered by universities, leading to lucrative academic careers for writers and other graduates of the MFA program that rival, and far often exceed, publishing earnings. The "NYC" part of the title refers to Manhattan's trade publishing industry.

I talk here about the MFA program and its pros and cons as presented by the essays.

As is quickly established, the editor Chad Harbach's antipathy towards academe is illustrated with choice words, such as: A system with problematic elements "in their very American way of charging large numbers of students large sums to pursue a dream achieved by a few, economically." This is echoed in the NYT article: "An M.F.A. is not a passport to becoming a great novelist, or even a published one," says Zoë Heller. "The former depends on something numinous called talent; the latter has to do with the exigencies of the marketplace."

Harbach claims that MFA programs are not rigorous; in fact, they're easy and laissez-faire. This is echoed in Mary Adelmann's description of her experience with the program. While she worked and reworked many drafts of her stories, they were written with workshopping them with her peers in sight, not publishing or the reading public at large and not even art for arts' sake. And the sheer quantity of output for a two-year program was low.

People debate whether creative writing can be taught. Both Heller and Galchen believe that there are certain rules and techniques to writing in the English language that can certainly be taught. But I ask the question: Can creativity be taught? Should it be taught? To some critics, the workshop method of MFA learning is the kiss of death to creativity. The grading of assignments and workshop method of peer-critique-based writing lends itself to a certain converging-to-a-mean type of storywriting. To others, the MFA reading and writing assignments are a way to learn and absorb from the greats who have come before. Yet, does this teach creativity?

"The question of why it is, when thinking about writing, we are disproportionately detained by the question of teachability," asks Rivka Galchen. "Is it just that it's somehow flattering to feel one's endeavor is more gift than labor, and are writers more in need of such flattery than others?"

According to David Foster Wallace, the MFA program attracts certain types of students: ones who "(1) Determine what the instructor wants; and (2) Supply it forthwith." Those students who choose to deviate from the norm are either expelled or face opprobrium from the faculty. However, those who "the minute fanny touches chair, make the instructors' dicta their own" are encouraged with financial inducements and teacher approval. "They begin producing solid, quiet work, most of which lands neatly in Dreary Camp #3, nice cautious, boring Workshop Stories, stories as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down."

George Saunders, an MFA professor, writes a defensive piece in support of MFA programs. He claims that the homogenization that happens in an MFA program is not different from societal and cultural homogenization that happens daily. This is disingenuous at best. The forces at play in society are far more varied and far more numerous. The microcosm that is the MFA has few variables at play and very few people in charge. This top-down approach will, by definition, have a flattening effect on the peaks of creativity of a sizeable class of students.

This is borne out by Keith Gessen's essay on how he interacts with his students. Before I get to that, I found his lack of teaching knowledge, his indifference to learning basic teaching techniques, and the lackadaisical way he approached his preparation for class to be playing into the criticism of the MFA programs. In his interaction with students, one predominant theme was his disappointment with the students if their answers to his questions didn't match his expectations. If what they wrote was not to his taste, he was unable to see the merit in them. "I had read their first exercises and they were not for me. They were obscure; rather than less self-involved than traditional first-person writing, they were more self-involved. I should have said [to them]: 'You are not ready to do this sort of work.'"

(An aside: I found this statement by Saunders troublesome in its defiance: "If someone wants to go to a CW program, then goes [sic] to a CW program and [if] it sucks, she probably won't die from it.")

So why are MFA programs so popular? Harbach believes it is a way for students to feel that they're doing some positive towards their writing career and that it is an easy degree. Writer-teachers, themselves graduates of MFA programs, are drawn towards teaching, because it provides a lucrative steady income in salary, guest lectureship, paid talks, etc., in addition, tenure provides job security, all of which publishing books through NYC cannot guarantee. So the MFA program is a circular system: generating writers who in turn return to teach more writers.

What the writers in the programs are learning are to write short stories. Short stories are workshopable, if you will; novels aren't. Many of the top-notch stories go on to be published in university literary magazines and periodicals; some may be published in literary magazines of NYC, however, that number is small. Stories in university publications are assigned for reading in that university's MFA program as well as in a reciprocal arrangement with other MFA programs. As a result, rising popularity of certain short stories can lead to their canonization, which is a proud accolade to have.

So despite the cons, the pros seem to outweigh the balance in favor of the flourishing of MFA programs.

Edited 3/7/2015: A hateful essay by a former teacher of the MFA program about his students.


Friday, October 3, 2014


Picture Day Friday: Idealized Children's Library