Sunday, November 23, 2014

Best books list

Since I'm a literary type guy, people often ask me what my favorite books are.  Here's a list I recently produced for a class I'm taking.  Enjoy; they are all gems.

A Sense of Place-- Travel Writing, Storytelling and the Journey: An Annotated Bibliography

Franzen, Jonathan. How to Be Alone: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,                  2002. Print.
            Franzen’s essay collection gives his distinctive voice a platform             through which to launch his characteristic vitriol regarding subjects ranging           from the state of the publishing industry, the fate of fiction, and the    increasingly pervasive voice of technology, to more personal subjects like   Alzheimer’s disease, aging and the role of fiction in coping with personal        history.  The first essay in the collection, “My Father’s Brain” provides         interesting background on his novel The Corrections, and is a truly great         example of personal narrative.  The essay is interlaced with factual         research based information, but also includes a lot of personal recounting of             events in the author’s life.  The combination serves to create a piece that is          both informative and laden with pathos. 
            Franzen has been accused at various times of being an elitist because his       work is sometimes seen as less than “accessible.”  Franzen’s high-minded approach has influenced my own style and given me confidence in my           conviction that good fiction should always be experimental in some ways.  In       my own writing, I am always trying to experiment with style and form.  I                    firmly believe that any writing that attempts something fresh and new is           inherently successful, regardless of whether it ends up being a critical            success or appealing to large audiences.

Pamuk, Orhan, and Maureen Freely. The Museum of Innocence. New York: Alfred A.    Knopf, 2009. Print.

            The celebrated Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk undertakes a project of a        qualitatively different order with this ambitious novel.  Set in the Istanbul of           1970 and spanning to the present, it is the tale of Kemal and his young lover            Fusun.  The plotline is not remarkable among Turkish dramas, and many                         critics have remarked that Pamuk is engaging in parody in the collective        clichés of a culture.  However, the story of Kemal’s obsession is told in such a           fashion—through the objects that Fusun touched—that the novel becomes a             very unique thought experiment quite unlike anything else in fiction.  In       addition, Pamuk has taken a bold new step and created a physical museum in Istanbul where visitors can see the scenes and objects from his novel             displayed in picture boxes, blurring the line between fiction and reality. 
            The Museum of Innocence has affected my outlook and my work in the sense that I want readers to wonder whether the characters I have created were             real people.  I want to take actual scenes from the world and from the places I          choose for my settings to come to life in such a vibrant fashion that the       reader will believe that what I have written is non-fiction.  Really I am a         travel writer, an essayist and an artist of creative nonfiction.  However, in   certain cases, fiction is better suited than non-fiction to tell a particular tale   with brighter colors and more believable actors.   These are the rare cases           where fiction is more “real” than non-fiction.  I also admire the way Pamuk   chose a concept and carried that concept throughout his entire work.  The      idea of telling a story through objects is singularly fascinating and             imaginative.  Pamuk has achieved the goal of using objects to create a             narrative and has proven his ability not only to relay the story of one couple,   but to define the history of an entire group of people within a nation.    

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York, NY: Meridian, 1956.     Print.
            Campbell’s work on archetypes is monumental.  Many writers have    incorporated the stages of the “Hero’s Journey” into their work, and although         James Joyce was probably the first writer to understand that all great heroic             stories stem from the same “monomyth,” Campbell’s work is the definitive    explanation of this archetype.  Campbell identifies the stages of the journey that the hero of a work must undergo and gives examples from classic mythology.  Campbell’s plot structure is greatly useful when considering the             story arch of a heroic journey. 
            The fictionalized memoir I have been working on for this class (MCW 630:    Seminar in Fiction) will employ some of Campbell’s storytelling patterns.            Regardless of whether or not the “hero” of my work will follow the basic        stages of Campbell’s heroic journey is irrelevant to the overall meaning of           this work in my writing.  The element of Campbell’s work that is most             germane to my writing is the simple conclusion that a “hero” does not need          to be “fresh” in every way.  The classic archetype of the hero’s journey will    always form an appealing story, regardless of how many times this tale has             been told. 

Troost, J. Maarten. The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific. New        York: Broadway, 2004. Print.

            Troost’s narrative is part adventure story, part travelogue, part memoir, and             part comedy.  He combines these elements skillfully to tell the tale of a few years living in Kiribati, a small series of islands all part of the same atoll.         Troost’s story starts when his wife accepts a position as a volunteer on    Kiribati and he accompanies her as an amateur journalist.  His reporting is    accurate, but rings with a sarcastic and humorous tone.  The book does not           qualify as purely a travelogue because it contains conventions of memoir and           is suffused with Troost’s characteristic editorializing on the affairs of the            Kiribati natives.   
            The book has had a profound affect on my travel writing and on the   fictionalized memoir I am currently working on.  I admire the way that     Troost was able to represent the facts in a compelling manner, but also shed             light on cultural differences without “othering” or demeaning the          anthropological identity of Kiribati.  Readers of my work should undergo a    learning experience that is based in truth, but I hope to increase the           readability of my travel writing through the use of humor and personal         narrative. 

Eggers, Dave. What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2006. Print.
            Eggers’ account of Valentino Deng’s exodus from Sudan as part of the            infamous group of Sudanese “Lost Boys” bends genre as a biography written     in first person.  Deng is a real person who underwent weeks of interviews in             order to create this book alongside master writing craftsman, Eggers.              However, despite the factual nature of the events described, Eggers’ suffuses           the work with vibrant description until a glowing work of fiction emerges.  I   admire the way that Eggers took on the socially conscious subject matter and             addressed current and pressing world problems. 
            Eggers has long been a literary hero of mine.  I hope to someday emulate his            work and write stories that take place within a cultural context that will be             “foreign” to most American readers.  I am inspired by his ability to write well,           in an engaging style, about problems that may not come to light otherwise.   Eggers is a champion of genre, having written memoir, fiction, biography,       nonfiction, essays, criticism and even children’s stories.  I hope to be as      versatile.

Hessler, Peter. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. New York: HarperCollins,          2001. Print.

            Hessler is unsurpassed as the preeminent expert on modern China from the            foreign perspective.  He worked as a correspondent in Beijing for many years         and produced many great works, but River Town is singular among his many            books.   Hessler discusses China with both candor and the compassion of a            genuine “Sinophile.”  He is sympathetic, but by no means an apologist.  River             Town is his account of his two years in the Peace Corps in Fuling, a town    along the Yangtze River, which was (at the time of his writing) beginning to             disappear under the rising waters of the river.  The controversial “Three       Gorges Dam” was expected to displace millions of people and destroy           centuries old villages.  Hessler writes in an elegiac style about a disappearing            people, a vanishing culture. 
            Hessler’s work is admirable and speaks to many of the sensations I have        personally felt while living abroad.  As Hessler starts to learn Mandarin, he             attains a Chinese identity when he is given a Chinese name—“Ho-Wei.”  The             disparity he feels between his Chinese self and his American self reads like a       version of “Borges and I” with the dual identity theme of “author-self” and   “self” taking shape for the visitor to a foreign land. Hessler’s personal           descriptions of the alienation and fascination of living in a foreign land ring   true to the style I would like to create in my travel writing. When I lived in           Taiwan, the students laughed at my Chinese name, "Yue Han" (约翰) which             consists of two characters--the first means "promise" and the second means             "writing." It is a good name for a writer.  The idea of a “foreign self” and a   “local self” is an idea that I take from Hessler and regularly use in travel        narratives. 

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse 5. London: Panther, 1970. Print.

            No writer has influenced me more completely than Kurt Vonnegut.  My current        work revolves around shift in time and place.  Slaughterhouse 5 used a shift in narrative point of view from first person to third person, and includes many   temporal space and time shifts as the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes          “unstuck” in time after being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.       No one has told a truer story of war through a science fiction platform.  Vonnegut     was a visionary and he was not afraid to experiment.  To read and re-read this           book in particular will cause us to admire a work of true brilliance. 

Greene, Graham. The Quiet American. New York: Viking, 1956. Print.

            Greene was a travel writer and a fiction writer, but he was arguably the best at            combining the genres.  He knew Vietnam so well that he was able to concoct a     believable novel that was so filled with a sense of place so as to be cited as actual      history in discussions of the Vietnam War.  Greene knew the politics of Indochina          so well in 1955 that his work almost predicted the events that would unfold there      over the next 18 years. 
            Greene’s work has been influential for me in creating a sense of place and in            creating characters.  The protagonist of this novel is a journalist whose main     character motivation stems from the journalist’s creed of the “fairness doctrine.”     He reports the facts as they happen and does not intervene.  It is with shame that     he interferes with a CIA plot in Vietnam.  By the end his character changes and he    learns that sometimes it’s necessary to “pick a side.”  This template for character      change over the course of a story is as relevant now as it was then. 

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Viking, 1999. Print.

            Disgrace is the story of a South African Literature Professor who is ousted     from his University employment because of an affair with a student.  When          he moves in with his estranged daughter he is the victim of a home intrusion            and racially motivated violence.  Coetzee brilliantly creates a character that is          so violently ensconced in his rationale for racial and gender superiority          that he fails to see the changes occurring in his world of post-Apartheid                        South Africa.              Coetzee does remarkable work with a character and the novel   is filled with a sense of place. 
            Coetzee’s use of literary allusions is something I wish to emulate.  A well-read           and literate person is a compelling narrator because they are skillfully able to      use and explain allusions throughout a story and lend metaphorical   resonance to the novel.  I also admire Coetzee’s ability to present the nuances         of a complicated situation with ambiguity.  He crafts his narrative and his      character in a way that makes the work as a whole thoroughly debatable, and   the work becomes a reflection of the reader, not the author. 

Chatwin, Bruce. What Am I Doing Here. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Viking, 1989. Print.

            Bruce Chatwin is an icon in travel literature.  His unpretentious and humble             scribblings, compiled in this anthology, stand in marked contrast to the         writings of genre-defining travel writers like Paul Thoreaux.  Chatwin’s          account of being imprisoned and tortured in Africa is among the most          chilling pieces of travel narrative I have ever read. 
            Chatwin is another author who bends the form of the narrative into seldom seen thought experiments.  Many of his musings seem tangential if the         purpose of a travel narrative is to create a sense of place.  Chatwin is the       travel writer who underscored most fully the idea that the travel piece can          also be personal. 

Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: Anchor, 1997. Print.

            Again, Krakauer is an author who integrates personal narrative into his         nonfiction reporting.  The story of Chris McCandless, a histrionic 20- something who disappears into the Alaskan taiga wilderness to die in an        abandoned van, is described alongside parables from Krakauer’s own wide-          ranging climbing and exploration experience.  Krakauer also uses the novels             that McCandless reads as a way to investigate the nuances of his troubled             soul, making the book remarkably literary. As a life-long English teacher, I      have always looked for connections between what I am able to write and the          things I have read.  I believe that good writing will be interlaced with             allusions.  Some of the most compelling pieces of literature are those that       continually reference other literature.  The way Krakauer uses the          transcendentalist writers to explain the actions of the young McCandless is a            truly brilliant stylistic device which functions well within this nonfiction   book which has attained the status of “modern classic” in the last 15 years. 

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

            Ever since I read his comical postmodern description of the most         photographed barn in the world, I have been interested in DeLillo’s work.   This one book did more to help me define my sense of humor in writing than           any other piece of fiction.  Postmodern irony can be the most effective way to     approach the changing realities of our age.  This novel concerns a professor of “Hitler Studies” who is often overtaken by his fear of death.  The novel            concerns itself with the interplay between plotline and digression, which I     find interesting.  Most of the tale is told through vignettes that are entirely         tangential, but which contribute to theme and character, if not plot.  In my    own writing I want to get away from plot-driven narratives and move toward       creating a snapshot of an era or a place.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Haunted Chios

The Ancients Fasted to say these things

The “feribot” to Chios, Greece from Turkey spews a cloud of black smoke into the blue Autumnal sky.  My friends and I sit huddled on the aft deck where the noise of the engine drowns out our ipods.  The first rays of sun warm the deck and we sit huddled there, anticipatory grins on our faces.  The dark smoke from the sputtering engine billows up into the sky and dissipates against a backdrop of clouds and marine birds. 
This is my first time to Greece, but many of my co-workers are familiar with the place.  “We go there all the time.  We have family over there” they say.  There is very little ill will or resentment in their voices when they speak of the history between the Greeks and the Turks.  “That was a long time ago” says my friend whose name in Turkish means “favorite courtesan of the red-light-district.”  But at the same time, there is a distinct tension.  Downtown in Izmir there is a statue of Ataturk expelling the last of the Greeks and all of the rest of the “foreign invaders” after World War 1.  The history hangs like smoke from an ashtray. 
We disembark under a banner of unfamiliar lettering.  The math teacher in the group knows the names of the Greek symbols and announces them as the officials lazily slap our thickened passports with an inky insignia.  I recognize only “kappa” and “gamma” because those were the symbols I knew from my girlfriend’s sorority in college.  We begin walking and the first sight that catches my eye is an old military bunker right next to a row of businesses.  It is crumbling from disuse, but the symbol is clear.  “Stay out” it says.  But as Oscar Wilde reminds us “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”  I glimpse what might be a coffee shop in the distance and move on without taking a photo. 
We plod along the waterfront esplanande which is decorated and substantially improved with expensive stone-work. At once it is clear that deficit spending has at least been kind to public works.  A café beckons, and we slump into wicker chairs to enjoy an espresso.  It’s notable for what it’s not—it’s not Turk Kahve, that sludgy cowboy-coffee-on-crack beverage which we chew several times per day.  The wireless network at the café informs me that nearby there is a UNESCO heritage sight, an 11th century monastery knows for its tile mosaics.  We rent a scooter and motor up there. 
The monastery is closed until the late afternoon, so we trudge up the hill for a view of the ocean, and Turkey, our home for the next few years, in the distance.  A fire has swept up the hillside, cracking the ancient limestone, once a sea floor now uplifted, burned, blackened and cracked.  Charred trees stand like actors in a tableau of the wastelands after a horrific war.  The air is still but the occasional breeze rattles through the stand of snags and shakes branches upheld like angry  arthritic fists to the sky, cursing a now absent deity.  Our feet shuffle over charcoal and the trail beneath or feet crunches and creaks, the landscape a dead memory.  Ruins dot the hillside where once stood the houses of monks and shepherds.  My friend motions me over to a crumbling edifice and motions for me to poke my head inside an enclosure.
At first I’m not sure that what I’m seeing is real.  Through a hole no bigger than a book cover, I peer inside at a row of objects in the darkness.  My eyes adjust to the light and I step back when I realize that they are human skulls piled on top of one another and lit by a faint candle.  At first my reaction is to try to play a joke on a friend, but it doesn’t take long for my heart to settle into its questioning routine.  What was the story behind these deaths, and more relevant still what rhetorical machinations can explain the need for these morbid skulls to be on display here?  
A hike up the hill allows my mind to settle a little, but the footsteps plodding is a noise like Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.”  It seems that nothing lives here—no birds, no insects, no noises except for those which come from ourselves within this coffin of a silent world. 
The hilltop brings us to a more modern monastery where a bearded monk with a Rasputin look slouches and sweeps the dust of the afternoon away from the empty doorstep.  I reach up to pluck a dried fig from the branches above my head but find that the fruit has dessicated away in the summer hilltop heat and the fig crunches and becomes inedible grainy sand in my palm.  The monks eye us suspicisuly as we reach for the borrowed clothes that visitors use to cover themselves out of respect for the observant.  An eerie pall descends and a few photos of a half bnurned tree satiate the urge for further meanderings.  We slide down the scree back toward the rented 50 cc motorcycle. 
On the way out a man points to a door and we step inside the old cathedral which has cracks running down its supports from an age old earthquake.  More skulls—this time inside a glass case that informs us—in many languages for the foreign visitor—of the cruelties of the long ago Ottoman Empire.  The sign informs us that an estimated 80,000 occupants of Chios were slaughtered by the Ottomans as a wave of anti-Turkish rebellion swept across far flung islands formerly belonging to Greece.   These are their skulls. 
The Turks left the hillsides burned. Tales circulate around the island like ocean currents of the women and children who leapt off cliffs to avoid capture.  The Sultan enslaved many of those who were left to work in the mastic farms.  Mastic is sold now in the convenience stores in the form of peculiar tasting chewing gum.  The firebranded hills tell of the roots of these trees which leeched the soil of their nutrients and now are bare, the hills framed through the halo of burned out sunlight.  Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and was sentenced to having his liver eaten repeatedly by an Eagle, left this fire, this martian landscape.  And we have knowledge; we suffer.  The Greeks have a saying—“the ancients fasted to say these things”—and some choose to ensure that this suffering is not forgotten.
We mount the scooter and glide down the hill.  My passenger and I are having pleasant conversation as the last lights fade to the west over the hills, and beyond that the sea; we are talking of a road-trip down the California coast.  My mind is there, and then suddenly around a hairpin corner we are on the ground.  The violence of the crash is over quickly, brain synapses firing all too rapidly make time slow as we check for injuries.  Mine a chafed elbow in a borrowed sweater and hers a ruined pantleg and a painful knee.  Strangely a hollow and haunted sense invades me and I feel nervous, as if the next danger is right around the corner.  We are not safe in these harbors. 

I sleep to troubled dreams, but a coffee on the sunlit porch is a welcome start to the morning.  Breakfast brings us to the village of Pyrgi, a medieval town which is famous for narrow alleyways which were built for defense against Ottoman Turks and pirates. The alleyways are reputedly so mazelike that invaders would be led into corners where they could be easily attacked.  We drive past cottages, farmhouses, desiccated bushes, parched beasts of burden and the strange walls of Pyrgi come into view.  The walls are painted with otherworldly designs called Xysta which are created by applying black sand to the walls of buildings, covering it with plaster which is then painted white.  The artist or homeowner will then use a scraping tool to carve geometric designs out of the white plaster so that the appearance is a black etching atop white background.  The designs are oddly symmetrical and eerily perfect. 
We sit in a center courtyard and order a pizza from a friendly Greek named Costas who blasts Metallica from a room behind the brick wood-burning oven.  He is jovial and friendly and soon brings what is easily the best pizza I have tasted in years.  We devour, and as the check is paid and we are getting ready to leave, we strike up a conversation.  He asks if we got a chance to look at the town, and I said that I did and that I noticed the narrow alleyways. 
“Those are for the pirates.” 
“And by ‘pirates’ do you mean Turks?”
As this query comes out of my mouth it instantly occurs to me that I have asked too much, overstepped the boundaries of our relationship.  The idiom in Turkish is “kishinin bashina gelen agzindan chikandir” which means “what a man suffers is the outcome of what goes out of his mouth.” I see a change in Costas’ face, and he gets defensive.
“I don’t believe in that stuff man.  I’ve got kids.  I think of the future for them.  What kind of world am I bringing them into?  Do I want to raise them to hate other people?  To think of the past? I live for them; I live for what comes next.”
His answer shocked me as it bespoke opinions far deeper than were warranted by the question.  I smiled and shook his hand as the rest of my group was readying themselves for departure.
We wind around bends on treacherous sandy roads again, slow, slow.  Past the cliffs where the women jumped, past the dimly lit bone filled museum, past the vacant vast golden beaches and the sunsets of the ages, the 50 cc “dink” bears us onward.  We pass the old barracks and the bastions of the defense that once was and are oceanbound again to Turkey. 
Later I asked a Turkish colleague.  What’s a saying that has to do with conflict? She thinks for a moment and says “Ish amana binince kavga uzamaz” –When one side surrenders, the fight is over.  

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Young Turks

The old windmill stands unused and overlooks the windless waters of Foça. The town is silent on a Sunday and from the top of the hill where the windmill sits, the sounds of the call to prayer waft over the still water through the afternoon haze.  A soccer game is starting nearby.  The field is clear from atop the hill and the players scuttle about like crabs along the shore, tiny from this vantage point. 

There are some youths loitering near the windmill, aimless.  They smoke cigarettes to make themselves feel older, more in charge of their own destinies, confident that they will never die.  The posture with each other and slap each other into their places in the pecking order of Turkish masculinity, a loud and confident type of movement that is unapologetic and unafraid. 

Recently in my class a student had to memorize a 5 line poem and he chose “We Real Cool.”  He found it on the website I gave them, one of the few who followed instructions.  I asked him why he liked it, and he said that it reminded him of the older boys he knows.  But when he recited the poem, it became clear to me that the ironies were lost on him.  “We die soon,” he said, with a huge smile. 

The Turkish kids by the windmill overlooking the bay of the town of Foça wish to escape this little fishing village where their headscarf wearing mothers and grandmothers coax gelatinous squid out of the water near the dock each night for their dinners, defeated squid that turn angry colors and discharge inky blackness that mingles with the emptiness of the small town, no lights on, nothing doing.  They are inhaling something inside a bag, breathing deeply in and out, their faces melting into expressionless puddles staring at the ground.  Empty bottles of sealant and glue lie there sticky in the sand at the base of large sandstone boulders that sit as witnesses. 

The soccer game is starting, and the first notes of the Turkish national anthem float out into the air across the boulders.  Its plodding dirge copulates with something inside the boys and they stand quickly erect and form a line.  One stands at attention with a salute, but they all stand silent and face the noise.  The bags and the glue and the cigarettes, broken bottles and tossed rocks sit silently on the ground.  The last note sits plaintively and seems to hang in the haze of afternoon.

I climb off my stony perch and march past the truculent gang of boys.  They stare at the girls that I am with and then address me, the man of the group, as is customary.  They say “where from?” and I tell them America.  But I walk past and pretend that I have somewhere to go.  “Problem?” he says.
“problem YOK! Memnun Oldum.” Nice to meet you. And then I motion to his bag and say “Afiyet Olsun.” This is not really appropriate as it basically means “enjoy your food” or “Bon appetite” but it is something I say when I’m leaving a place where I have to speak Turkish—often a restaurant or a place where people are eating.  This comment seems to shame him or anger him or something and he tails me for about 20 steps, then watches me go and turns away.  I don’t look back.  These kids make me think of school, which is something I don’t want to do on a Sunday. 

The trail snakes down the hill next to a big tin cutout of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk trudging uphill wearing his World War I uniform, his shoulders burdened by many obligations, a definite weight which is seen in his posture.  He is younger in this picture, which I see often, then in the photos you see in offices and in private homes—an image of the elder statesman conducting the duties of office.  There is an old cannon that rests beside a big pile of horse manure.  The date reads 1857-- engraved on the weathered steel.  It points out toward Greece, toward the island of Lesbos, which is not quite visible in the distance.