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Global Literature: Fly Beyond the Canon (Final Paper)

Posted by michaelzyskind on December 13, 2010

In all honesty, I’ve spent much of the semester contemplating what I would write for this final paper when I first came to understand that it would be an assignment rooted in our opinions rather than the usual tedious task of scrutinizing the minutia of some book, or books, I really couldn’t care less for. And yet, as I sit before my laptop, ready to set out on this unique experience, I find myself unsure of what route to take. In my blog I touched upon many subjects that I would like to delve deeper into: the power of the literary “canon”; the authority of older writers and works compared with the modern; why movies are better than books; and, most prominent of all, the very purpose of literature. In a standard paper I would take one of these subjects and state it as a thesis and systematically—boringly—build to a point that satisfies the objective but doesn’t truly burrow to the core of the matter. In this paper, I’ve now decided, I’m going to try and juggle all three—try, with the help of some of the texts we’ve covered and with the help of a critical saying by one of my professors, to come to some form of understanding concerning Global Literature … and literature in general, hopefully.

This semester, I took a class called Modern English Grammar, taught by Professor Epstein. It wasn’t exactly what I had been expecting, but it did help me to really understand sentence structure, among other things. I’ve taken Professor Epstein before, for English 252 (British Literature 2), and his knowledge of literature is truly startling. Anyway, he said something during our last class last week that’s been sitting on my chest ever since. We were discussing assertions, and trying to develop an understanding of why people say certain things to themselves: e.g. “There’s someone on my lawn.” He then went on to say that the most permanent form of assertion is literature. The discussion carried on along the lines of … something like: People make assertion to try and solve problems. E.g. “There’s someone on my lawn. Why is there someone on my lawn? Let me do something about this.” Another reason people make assertions, he said, was to further questions you have—to pursue these questions in pursuit of an answer. And then he said, and this is what I want to lift from that course and transfer to this pursuit of understanding: He said that great literature is predicated upon an author relaying to the public troubling questions he or she doesn’t know the answer to—it is the author’s way of asking for help in trying to understand. I have to say, this simple and random deceleration, stated at a time when I would normally be spaced out, thinking about other classes and other finals, really struck a chord in me. It was so simple, and something I think I inherently knew, but sometimes when something is said in just the right way, it can have a great impact on you.

I’ve experienced this several times in the past few years—and you’ll only experience it if you’re not looking for it. I can give two personal instances: one, the watching of any inTreatment episode; and two, during a viewing of Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway. I’m not the biggest fan of psychology or psychologists, as there is something very shady about these people, for they are always appraising you, but I’m pretty certain that one of the largest questions I have in life, and especially when reading literature, has its roots in that particular field. “Why do people do the things they do?”

In Rachel Getting Married, Hathaway’s character is this self-destructive force that has been broken by some event(s) in her past, and it just gnaws on you and gnaws on you until, when at last the answer is revealed, it breaks your heart. I’m going to relay the epiphany here, so if you haven’t seen the movie and plan on seeing it, it might be worthwhile to skip the next paragraph.

The film deals with Hathaway, a very troubled girl, arriving back home to partake in her sister’s, Rachel, wedding. As events proceed prior to the wedding, it’s revealed that their baby brother died in accident some years ago and that Hathaway, who was high at the time, was driving. There is the sense that the family blames her while at the same time forgiving her, but that’s not the truly revelatory aspect of her character. Hathaway reveals that in an explosive confrontation with her estranged mother near the movie’s end. She says that her descent has nothing to do with the fact that the family is so desperate to forgive her for what happened and she is unwilling to accept their forgiveness; it’s that she can’t forgive herself. Again, this may seem like such a simple statement, and so obvious to someone looking for it, but hearing it stated so succinctly has had a real impact on how I view characters.

In the third class of the semester, I brought up a line from Peter Jackson’s King Kong: one sailor asks another, “Why does Marlowe keep going up the river?” The movie offers an answer, upon which I’ve added, from Darkness itself:

“The pre-historic man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us — who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign — and no memories.

“The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his own in-born strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish row—is there? Very well; I hear; I admit, but I have a voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced.”

I could probably write a ten page paper on this paragraph alone, but let me instead draw your attention to the last few words: “mine is the speech that cannot be silenced.” I like to think that, in some manner, Conrad is referring to his own ability to write. With literature he can relate this sequence as he sees it; in writing it down, he asks the questions he doesn’t understand, and still doesn’t understand—even by story’s end. He writes it down in the hopes of trying to make sense of this great unknown; he writes it down with the hope that others will try to help him make sense of what he’s seen. “Why does Marlow keep heading up the river?”

Heart of Darkness, I would say, is a “great” book (blasphemy for me, I know), because, in truth, there is no answer to this question—the book demands to be read again and again, trying to piece together the fractured elements so that they might form some sort of relatable image. Professor Epstein said that’s what separates great books from the rest: ordinary books don’t demand anything of you: like a twist ending in a standard murder mystery, once you know the culprit, there really isn’t a purpose for any rereading in the hopes of grasping more substance from the subject. On this latter point I can’t say I completely agree, for in the better murder mysteries there are great character traits to be dissected, but I can at least hear where he’s coming from: books rooted entirely in plot don’t encourage much thinking once the last page is flipped.

Speaking of psychologists, my brother-in-law is about to get his PH.D. in Social Work. As he was writing his dissertation, I decided to take a look at his opening page. Gibberish. Couldn’t make sense of anything. So I asked him why his paper was deliberately written with the intent to completely overwhelm anyone that wasn’t well-versed in the field. He said something that I find very relatable to the Arts; he told me that he doesn’t want the average person to be able to understand.

Part of my problem with literature—in studying it, to be more accurate—has stemmed from just such an attitude. T.S. Eliot, the prototypical literary snob, exemplifies this ideology most out of anyone that we’ve read this semester—except maybe Faulkner. These two guys wrote their works with a very specific intent: that it shouldn’t be graspable by people not knowing exactly what they’re looking for.

A conversation came up in a class last semester dealing with “great” works of art as opposed to “popular” art. I pointed out that a “popular” movie like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen grossed about 500 million at the box office, while a “great” movie like The Hurt Locker grossed only about 40. Which means … What exactly does it mean? I loved Transformers, but I am well-enough versed in the Arts to know what is “great” and what isn’t. But then again, what is “great”? How has the literary community decided to anoint “great” works and “great” writers? An old professor said that the people responsible for choosing what’s “great” are the critics. This is something that greatly angers me, and something I’ve been fighting against for a long time.

Harry Potter is often on my mind when I think about this. As is Diary of Wimpy Kid—if you haven’t read this animated series for kids, you should, as it’s extraordinary even on an adult level. As for Harry Potter: it’s a darling of the critics; critics love JK Rowling—her stories, characters, writing, etc…. And yet I know that Harry Potter will never attain “great” status—not as The Sound and the Fury and The Sun also Rises has. Neither will Wimpy Kid. I know that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, probably one of the most haunting character studies I’ve ever encountered in literature, will never make its way to a “serious” literature course—or maybe it will, or already has (please correct me if I’m wrong; but my sentiment is still there, I believe). Yet if you ask the average reader what their favorite books are, the chance that one or both of these series will be on their list is likely. These two series, that made readers out of millions of children that found reading boring; that made readers out of people that had given up on reading, that were so disillusioned by literature because of the “canon,” because of the “great” works they were required to read in early school life. For some reason, what has become popular, what is liked by the masses, especially in today’s world, is not deemed “great”—as if nothing produced today could truly be great, as if only the critics (whoever the hell comprises the core of this group) have the right to anoint “greatness.”

I think the “canon” is a teacher’s way of taking the easy way out. Barnes and Noble, upon entering the store, has their stack of classics all neatly displayed, ready to be taken home. I’m not saying these books are bad, because many are great (I absolutely loved Heart of Darkness), but the very reading of them is tainted by the fact that, for whatever reason, they are to be considered “great” by all. The “canon” has become this parasite leaching the life out of literature. I took an Introduction to Literature a few years back, and what were the first two books assigned? Great Expectations and Emma. It’s too easy! It’s lazy! And they are destroying what literary study and criticism can be! Literary study can be a gateway, a window into how people view the world—presented by gifted wordsmiths that know how to state the important questions you’re always thinking about but haven’t the exact skill to properly express. Sure Dickens knew Victorian England, sure Herman Melville knew 19th century New England, but we are not living in those times anymore, are we? That’s not to detract from the concepts they bring up; the struggles their characters go through are universal and eternal, without question, but their authors wrote them for a different audience. Studying them for survey classes are one thing, studying them in terms of historical perspective is another thing, but Global Literature can be so much more. It can break away from British and American ideologies, and show the world that we, today, know and understand—or more importantly, a world we don’t know and don’t understand.

Persepolis showed us a rebellious young girl going through a monumental revolution that shook the world. But the ideas are not confined to Iran or to the Islamic revolution. America experiences conflict in much the same way that the graphic novel represents: a clash of ideals and religious identities that divide nations and make one dig deep within themselves to try and figure out their place in this world. Drown and Woman Warrior are about navigating a world that isn’t yours while still tied to the culture you and your family once belonged to. Like a great piece of literature is supposed to do, these authors pose questions about life that build not only upon their own experiences and ideas and inevitable prejudices, but they allow the reader to take the questions and evolve them, adapt them to personal experiences that, while perhaps not exactly related, touch upon very similar themes. These authors and their stories are trying to reconcile the intrinsic differences between their past and their planned future and they aren’t quite certain how to do it … But that’s the point!

As great a writer as Dickens was, he can’t make me care about London politics and judicial practices. As great a writer as Jane Austen was, she can’t make me really care about the intrigue of social hierarchies. T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner may have been brilliant fellows, but literature shouldn’t be a puzzle—it should make us question what is happening, wonder what questions they are asking us to ask ourselves, but it shouldn’t leave us bewildered about the basics of what is happening. This is snobbish, and it’s alienating, and it’s what turns people off the Arts—something, I suspect after my little chat with my brother-in-law, many artsy types want. They want to have their club; they want great literature to be theirs and to hell with the regular reader.

One of my favorite poems is “Sailing to Byzantium.” Not because I like the rhythm or the wording so much, but because the scene it describes is magical. Byzantium was a magnificent place of Art, where Art flourished and was a massive part of the culture. We live in a world of business today; there is a lot of Art, to be certain, but it is not at the beating heart of society. Yeats imagines travelling to such a dreamy place … I say he’s a victim of the romantic idea of the past. Look at the world we live in today. Look at the level, the sheer magnitude, of Art being produced today. Yeats never visited a Barnes and Noble, could never gaze upon the endless shelves filled with endless expressions of literature.

Literature is magnificent. It can take us to exotic places of unimaginable beauty; it can borrow within the soul, taking a reader within the bowels of his ticking being. It can make us ask questions; it can even offer answers. It can tell us about things we don’t know or might not have ever wondered about. But Art, the ultimate mode of expression, has become more about what is “great”—no! Rather, it has become more about what a certain select group of people find “great.” Teachers should try and operate outside this bubble that is narrowing the limitless vision Art can represent.

In the other survey courses, I expect to be bombarded by select readings that have been deemed “great” and are therefore required reads for any growing English major. But Global Literature can span the globe and expand our minds, make us ask the questions that Junot Diaz asks when travelling to Jersey, make us ask the questions that Maxine Hong Kingston asks as she brutally attacks the girl in the bathroom. There are so many great books, why are so many of the same ones being shoved down our throats time and time again?

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My Last Blog

Posted by michaelzyskind on December 6, 2010

Nearly 13,000 words, about 23 posts, equalling approximately 60 pages worth of writings–double the amount I’ve ever written for a class (one might wonder whether that is enough to pardon them from having to write a final paper; one might wonder if such were possible). The books have been wide-ranging, both in enjoyability and subject-matter. But now we wind this blog experiment down to a close.

The Woman Warrior is easily the best book of English 255. I can easily write another thousand word blog on Maxine’s anger, her madness and her silence and everything in between. I can write how she targets the single most important thing for me in literature: tearing apart the layers of a person to get to the root cause of why they do the things they do and act in the manners they do. I can speak about her life-shattering rant when picking on the girl in the bathroom–probably one of the greatest scenes I’ve ever read.

But this is the last blog, so I figured I would channel all of my pent up energies of semester’s-end, channel all the madness and rantings of all the characters and authors in all the books we’ve come across this semester, and lay it out for you in one of the greatest, most disturbing monologues in movie history.

(Warning: Graphic Language.) Ed Norton: 25th Hour 

Signing Off: Michael Zyskind, aka Lucas Lightning III, aka The Nezovat.

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Adaptable: Not Brave Orchid

Posted by michaelzyskind on December 6, 2010

I’m not so certain there’s such a great difference between the mother we see in “Shaman” and the one we see in “At the Western Palace.” Shifts in point of view, and especially in third and first person, are the reasons these mothers seem so different, but the pulse of their characters appears steady throughout. Maxine’s mother is a sad figure, one easy to sympathize with: her past has become all she is, and this is clear in the two aforementioned chapters.

First let me say: “Western Palace” is probably the best short story I’ve ever read. I know it’s part of a larger narrative in this book, but it can easily be separated from the rest, read by itself, and still pack the punch it does. It packs such a strong punch because Moon Orchid is one of the most tragic figures I can recall reading about in a while. There’s something tragic about a person that the world has left behind, who cannot adapt to change, and in so doing literally loses their minds. Brave Orchid is similar, in a sense, but I’ll get to her in a bit.  

Moon’s tale struck a nerve because some of her actions clearly remind me of my grandmother’s. About ten years ago my grandmother had an aneurism that severely damaged her short-term memory. And after, whenever she would stay at my house, she would engage in many of the things that Brave Orchid’s children called annoying: wandering around the house, pressing close to see what people were doing or how things were being done, commenting aloud on them, etc. All these things that had once been so familiar to her in a certain sense, she no longer held a firm grasp on. Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections also displayed a similar theme with the father-figure, whose Parkinson’s was eating away at his ability to grasp … grasp substance from what was unfolding around him. Moon Orchid’s journey, which started out with such promise, coming to America to meet her family and perhaps be reunited with her husband who’d abandoned her so long ago, is a downward spiraling catastrophe of what happens when you can longer grasp all that is happening around you—one’s inability to understand.

Maxine is not a fan of how China’s culture treats women. I had this nagging feeling the whole time while reading “Western Palaces”; I wasn’t sure what it was, but towards the end I started to maybe understand. Moon’s scumbag husband had restarted his life: he hadn’t told Moon, just continued to send her money (albeit lots of it) to keep her away. And yet … And yet! … Brave keeps pushing her to reclaim her rightful spot in her husband’s household. The chapter is not written in first person, but one can imagine that if Maxine had been narrating in her own voice, her response to her mother’s actions probably would have gone something like this: “Dump that f—ing scumbag, and burn his f—ing life to the ground! Who the hell needs him?!” Because Maxine doesn’t narrate, because Brave is so often bashing America and seems in such a perpetually pissed off mood about everyone and everything—until her sister’s complete breakdown in the end—it might seem that her personality is different from the mother in “Shaman,” who seemed bright and upbeat when speaking about her past in China and the fabric of that culture: being a Doctor, travelling from village to village, buying a slave girl, speaking normally about ghosts and spirits … I would say, though, that there is no discrepancy at all! The longing to return to a culture that made her who she was—for good or bad—and her inability, with so much of her personality already shaped by a world that is so different from the one in America, to change and adapt, drips off the pages.

Not sure if I mentioned Million Dollar Baby, but now is a good a time as any. I’m posting the link of a scene in Baby towards the end—so if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t watch it. In fact, stop reading right now and go see the movie in its entirety. Million Dollar Baby

I believe there are certain events, perhaps a select string of events, that shape a person’s life to a point from which there is no return or chance of change. These events, this life, is forever tied to it, and no matter how much you desire a new life or want to start over, and especially if you don’t, they will stay with you because those events are you. The Chinese culture, the many stories and legends Brave tells Maxine, that is who Brave is—she cannot escape that any more than she can escape her own skin. “Western Palace” is a result of that longing—though it plays out as an angry tirade—of a person trapped in the events that shaped them.

If that makes any sense …

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Posted by michaelzyskind on December 1, 2010

Reading the trippy section in White Tigers relating the nameless girl’s delightful (or Maxine Hong Kingston, rather) dream of being a great swordswoman, a million different thoughts ran through my head. Because of this, I regret that I must veer slightly off of the specified assignment, and pursue a somewhat different course through these opening chapters. Instead of wondering in what way Maxine can claim to be a woman warrior, I’d rather write about the desire to actually be a woman warrior.

First, when I first read her dreamlike sequence, I couldn’t help but to think of the opening scene in Kung Fu Panda: Panda Intro

What really struck me about the warrior sequence, however, was the concept of story, and how it can inspire one to want to do great things.

Neil Gaiman is an extraordinary fantasy writer. His most famous book, which I may have mentioned before, is called American Gods. Another, less popular, is called Anansi Boys. Both deal with a version of old gods living in America, slowly being replaced by a newer breed of gods that are more modern. It’s complicated, and I’m not sure I remember it correctly, or understood it back when I read it (I think I was too young to fully grasp it), but in retrospect, several factors still remain powerful in my mind. Gaiman riddles both books with stories within stories, how the old gods were brought to America by people that still knew them, and how they were allowed to live on by means of their being remembered; but as American society progressed, the old gods began to fade as they were forgotten and replaced by newer ones (gods of technology, etc.)—there follows the books’ plot, as they fight for survival. I could be getting aspects of this wrong, but this is what I recall of it. So for anyone that’s read it, I am in no way deliberately trying to skew the facts. American Gods has a big following; I’d hate to offend.

The Native Americans, the Vikings, the Celtics, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, etc.: What did/do all these cultures have in common? Myths, Legends, Heroes … Each of these cultures has figures that are larger than life and are infused into the very fabric of their societies. Modern European and American culture: not so much. We have fairy tales and superheroes and, recently, wondrous fantasy worlds, but the myth has never been part of American society. The idea of the story, in our society, is just that: story. When children are young they want stories told to them as they go to sleep, they want fairy tales of magical kingdoms, of kings and queens and damsel’s in distress. They are wonderful, but they are isolated, not a significant essence of our culture—nowhere near as powerful as figures such as Achilles and Hector, Thor and Odin, Horus and Osiris. America has no myths, no legends, no heroes. No young girl or boy idealizes Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as they grow up. America is the land of opportunity, a nation of immigrants—that is its beating heart, not stories.

If you’re looking for stories, stories that symbolize a culture, you have to look to the stories that are brought, that are remembered, like with American Gods, by those carrying them in their hearts and minds, by people arriving on these shores. Like Maxine Kingston’s legend of the woman warrior, of her dreaming of being such a warrior in a strange new world, story can carry the essence of a people wherever they are or wherever they are going and give them strength.

Pure story. It’s been so watered down by modernists and critics and those dealing in the extreme abstract….

This is what English classes, what English 255, should be! Story. Stories from around the globe that speak about cultures that most would ordinarily not know anything about or ever will. It should be … I don’t have enough time to finish this right now, but I’ll get back to this topic; if not in the next few blogs, then in the Final Paper. 

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If I shout louder than you, does that make me right?

Posted by michaelzyskind on November 23, 2010

I’ve been lost in thought since starting Dreams from My Father, even more so today since class, and I need some time with Bloggy, who’s my version of a therapist. Brief Tangent: Speaking of therapists, I can’t recommend HBO’s inTreatment enough. Truly outstanding. Season 1 was good, but Season 2 was a revelation. Please see it. I beg of you. I plead with you. It will break your heart, break your soul, break you and everyone you know down to your core components, and then help you piece it back together. A true masterpiece. Anyway, back on point.

If there’s one thing I’ll be able to say I gained from my college career when all is said and done, it will be this: I’m not so quick to judge, to label, something or someone. Last year I took Intro to Political Science, and I thought I knew all the key phrases and what they stood for: Socialist, Liberal, Conservative, Communist, etc. Obama is a radical Socialist and a Muslim and he’s not even an American; George Bush is a looney Conservative, a rampant racist, and blood thirsty warmonger. See, I summed up the entire nature of these people in one sentence. It’s so easy to attach a simple label to someone and then start pulling this random fact or that random fact and fit it into your tiny view of the world. Truth is, no one knows what the hell they’re talking about—myself included. Problem is, people think they know everything, and they’re not shy about arguing—loudly—about it. Because when it comes to Politics and Political views, everyone is right—even though they’re so stupidly ignorant. So in general, whenever political discussions have come up since taking that revelatory class, I keep quiet. There’s no point in arguing an argument you’ll never win, especially when your position is fractured enough as it is.

I said in class today that I wasn’t crazy about the book, to which the Prof replied that I wasn’t really crazy about any of the works. This is not true. I really liked Heart of Darkness, despite the fact that according to Obama it’s a “racist book.” I loved Persepolis and Drown, and Hemingway wasn’t terrible in certain patches. So it’s unfair to say I’ve thrashed the entire booklist—only Eliot and Faulkner, who need to be stripped from mandatory reading lists. I don’t hate Dreams, in fact it’s a very captivating read. Rather, I’m not crazy about the points being made.

There is a problem, however, with describing some of the points I disagree with, and why I believe many either didn’t read the text or didn’t want to talk about it today: try as one might, it’s impossible to separate the Obama from the book with Obama the President—even though this was written a while back. Every word that’s written carries, to today’s person, political implications. Someone that calls Obama a Socialist and a destroyer of the American way would race through the book and quote: “To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets” (100). They would say this is the company he kept, so this is the kind of President he wants to be. Opponents will view this as a major statement of his repeated theme of “change,” and the need to be more open to minorities and different views about life, etc.

Today in class I was trying to think about ways to criticize the book for some of the points it made, but I found it almost impossible to even begin. I started to say something about Obama labeling people, and there was this noise of protest on the other side of the room—maybe it was a desk moving, but it sounded like a voice squealing in protest. It’s become impossible to say anything about Obama that doesn’t tie back to his Presidency and the fact that everyone that didn’t vote for him or disliked him as a candidate was labeled a racist by the left wing. On the book’s cover, there is a quote: “this book will tell you something about yourself whether you are black or white.” I agree and disagree. This is a book about “Race and Inheritance,” no question. But I believe the book is undermined by the divide so blatantly set forth in the pages. Labels of people, Chinese, Hawaiin, white, black, are on every page. Look at the cover: white family on the right, black family on the left, Obama between them. Which is why my opening question in class today was about the intended audience, though I don’t think I stated it properly. It’s not so much about who is the intended audience of this book; rather, what message is this book trying to convey and who is it trying to convey it to?  

Obama seemed to have a good life: not discriminated against in terms of getting into schools or getting a job (I’m only 130 pages in, so this could change); he became the Editor of the Harvard Law Review, and was elected Senator before President—though this is much further along than the book covers. He’s not allowed to some of the parties and the whites look down on him, okay, but is he not living the “American Dream”? What has been denied him, even as a minority?

When he was 15, he woke up and saw a divide: between his skin color and those around him. Racism is a horrendous thing, and it still exists on a large scale, but it can’t be denied that today’s racism doesn’t equal that of thirty years, even fifteen, years ago. This is not fifty or a hundred years ago, where racism (let’s confine this to America) involved mobs and lynchings. I’m only wondering if this book, this mentality of seeing that divide wherever he goes, does more harm than good—because it forever makes it issue. (Al Sharpton is the king of this.)

Look at the Gates incident last year at Harvard, where he was arrested under questionable circumstances:

Obama defended Gates on Wednesday night, while admitting that he may be “a little biased,” because Gates is a friend.

“But I think it’s fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, No. 3 … that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”

The incident, Obama said, shows “how race remains a factor in this society.” (

My teacher last semester confirmed, without doubt, that it was entirely racist driven. Pardon my tone, but what the hell did she know about the incident to say that? Did she know the intentions of the cop or all the particulars of the incident? People that don’t know what the hell they’re talking about are speaking too much!

All I’m saying is that not everything needs to boil down to race, not every problem is race related, as it seems to be broken down in this book. Minorities are called minorities because they are not the same in every facet of their being as the collective whole: Jews, Blacks, Chinese, etc, whether by looks or behavior. I know that I get angrier over Jews preaching Anti-Semitism about stupid things than I do about Mel Gibson saying the Jews destroyed the world or whatever. There are crazy people out there; be confident in who you are and your beliefs, and then what can they do? Despite what writers or extremists have to say, despite the fact that there is racism and prejudices, the world is progressing forward and will continue to do so. There are laws against discrimination in hiring, against firing for such reasons. It’s not perfect, but it will keep improving. It’s time to stop talking about the divide and start living life. You want to see real racism in literature, read the Slave narratives; you want to see real Anti-Semitism in literature, read The Fixer. Dreams is certainly compelling, and a well-told tale, but earth-shattering and ground-breaking and life-altering in its racial observations it’s not.

Of course we must always be aware of these issues, so that they never happen again, but it’s time to stop using them as excuses for a world that will never be perfect. We must stop dispensing these labels whose meanings do little to actually define a person or a situation.

The Democrats, Republicans, Liberals and Tea Party members: these are all example of how easy it is to draw a line and say I’m one or another. That is the real problem, and why Dreams is throwing me off kilter these past few days.

If I’ve somehow offended anyone, I sincerely apologize. These are impossible issues. I’m not how this will read to another, if anyone reads it at all. But as I said, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. So feel free to just dismiss it all.

“If I shout louder than you, does that make me right?!” –Sean Penn, Fair Game

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Posted by michaelzyskind on November 23, 2010

I posted comments for:

John S, Stephanie B, and Michael B.

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Insert Title Here: A Struggle for Answers

Posted by michaelzyskind on November 17, 2010

I have to be honest: I’m burned out. It could just be the end of a particularly trying semester talking, or maybe it’s the three years’ worth of traveling the hour-plus from Rockland to Queens that’s made it feel like I’ve got a 127 Hour boulder on my back, but I’m just about at my snapping point when it comes to Literary Criticism. Because, honestly, I just don’t understand it. What the hell am I, are we, doing?

I’ve always loved to write and read when I was younger, but more than anything I loved to build. Lego was my preference, and to this day, on occasion, I’ll build something. I’ve tried wood and glue, but for some reason those projects always end in disaster. For those that think you’re too old to build, you never fully appreciated the art of creating something from nothing. I think building and writing are very closely linked in that regard.

I wasn’t an artist, but I was good at math and stuff, so when I first entered college (UCONN; I was living in Waterbury at the time), I declared myself a Civil Engineering major. I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to create. At this time I was also writing heavily, probably six-seven pages a day, and reading a ton, so there were a lot of distractions, but nothing crushed my dreams of being an architect like the right jab and left hook of Calculus and Chemistry. Ridiculous by themselves, murder in combo, they made me give up Engineering and focus on something I was doing well with: English. If I couldn’t create with nuts and bolts, I would do it with words.

I moved back to Rockland, and somehow (a long story; don’t ask) I wound up at Queens. Many English majors in Queens College are probably familiar with this fact: Queens College doesn’t have a Creative Writing program. It’s lumped together with English. There are a few classes for creative writing, but the two I’ve taken thus far have been pretty disappointing (210, 211). I’ll give it a shot with 303 and 304 next semester, but I’m not holding my breath. Regardless, I’m now an English major. And it’s killing me.

Last semester, in 211 (Creative Non-fiction), I had to write twelve short essays. Somehow, almost all of them were tied to sports. And, somehow, all these sports-related stories tied in to my struggle with Literary Criticism. And with each one the teacher would grade it and then add a comment along the lines of: “I don’t really know too much about sports, etc.” It didn’t hurt the grade (he was a good teacher), but the sports thing came up a lot in class, and most of the students were in the same group as him. I found it interesting. I still find it interesting, because there seems to be a divide in this world between those that enjoy sports and those that enjoy literature. (I’m not saying everyone, but definitely a large majority.)

It was at some point during one of these sports discussions that the subject of good writing came up, and I commented that there’s no such thing, that there is, as I’ve stated in an earlier blog, “like” and “dislike” and “lazy.” My classmate didn’t understand what I meant, and it sparked a forty-five minute argument, involving the whole class, about the Arts.

Back to the sports thing. As one of those that overlaps the divide, I’m ever pursuing—unsuccessfully—the critical answer to the main question that plagues both: “What’s the point?”

What is the point of sports? Is it exercise? In part, but not in whole. 100,000 people aren’t packing football stadiums for exercise; neither are the millions in front of their television sets. Is it for entertainment? In part. But there is this element to sports that speaks to the heart. See the countless movies dealing with sports that inspire so tremendously. Sure, it’s about hard work and dedication and the battle to overcome great obstacles, yada yada yada, but there’s something more to it … Something indefinable. Something I can’t explain, yet you can feel it when you’re watching a baseball player make the final out or a tennis player drop to their knees after winning a Grand Slam. These are dreams realized for those involved, but what does it do for a spectator? Why are we so awed by sporting events? What is it about them that speaks to us, and why should we be listening?

These questions can be substituted, equally, with Literature. What is it about a “great” book that makes our hearts and minds tingle? There is the entertainment and escapist factors for many; there is a message about the world in some, a window to historic worlds in others. But in the end, what is it about Literature that should prompt every teacher I’ve ever had to say: “Literature is necessary.” I don’t see it, and no one has ever been able to explain it to me. If everyone read a book, the world wouldn’t be all sunshine and butterflies; the stock market would still rise and fall, and people would still kill each other over parking spaces.

Here’s my opinion: Literature (and this goes doubly so for Literary Criticism) isn’t any different from Sports. It’s important to you for whatever reason, but that doesn’t mean it’s “necessary.” Three years I’ve been dissecting characters and plots and word-choices, trying to figure out meaning where there probably wasn’t any and making trivial issues matter. The Literary world is a bubble, as much as it pains me to say, and I thank the powers at be that it’s almost over.

In the car two weeks ago, while I was thinking about plots and characters, the new Kesha song came on the radio. Like Kesha or hate her, her story is an interesting one: basically homeless until some producer got hold of one of her demos—now she’s a millionaire. While I was listening to the song, and thinking about her story, it occurred to me: Life isn’t the stories we hear. Hollywood and the Publishers love to peddle these inspirational stories that make us weep or clap for joy, that make us believe anything is possible if we just work hard enough and believe with enough might that we have what it takes, but in truth life isn’t the stories we hear.

The teacher in Drown had it right: “A few of you are going to make it.” Junot Diaz’s message is that the teacher was wrong for saying so, but does Diaz realize he himself is the one that made it, that accomplished his American dream that he speaks so passionately about while more than half of his fellow countrymen likely became the dope-pushers or the assembly-men he writes about. I love “Drown” (the book as a whole) for how much Diaz makes the reader examine the American Dream—or the “ambivalent promise of the American Dream,” as the SF Chronicle puts it on the cover. The final story, “Negocios” is simply terrific, in my opinion, in how it portrays how difficult life is for an immigrant with nothing coming to this country. I still think the father’s a scumbag, regardless of his circumstances, but many will likely sympathize with him.

“Drown” is stacked full of quotable lines and startling images, but in the end I’m still left wondering why I’m writing an essay about it. It likely opened our eyes to how bad things could be, but will that change us? Will it lead anyone to rethink their lives and how they’re living it? Can a book change the world? My opinion is clear, if probably not fully realized as I continue to struggle with the issue. But I think the literary community likes to think so. And to the establishment I say: Think twice before you so casually dismiss someone that places importance on watching the big game.

In conclusion, I beg you for the answer to this question:

“What is it that we’re doing here?”

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Can it be?

Posted by michaelzyskind on November 10, 2010

I admit that I’ve been fairly critical of the reading selection to this point. Which is why I have to give props where props are do: terrific choice with Drown. Really excellent stuff. This book, along with The Fixer, are probably the only two books I’ve ever been asked to read for a class that I’m actually looking forward to continue on. Gracias.

There are many excellent things to be said about the way Junot Diaz constructs his stories: fast-paced; glorious comparisons and insights; startling content; a sense of urgency with each line passed. But the greatest thing I can say about his writing (I loved Oscar Wao, so I was expecting as much) is that his sentences, while mostly simply stated, pack a jaw-dropping wallop. Man, is his voice authoritative! 

Here are a few, sprinkled about the first four stories, that I really loved:

“I should have reminded her not to feed me but I wasn’t that sort of son.” (25)

“I was famous for my steel-lined stomach. A third-world childhood gives you that.” (29)

“Earlier that year I’d written an essay in school called “My Father the Torturer,” but the teacher made me write a new one. She thought I was kidding.” (30)

“Before each drive Mami would cross me.” (35)

“Papa was a voracious reader, couldn’t even go cheating without a paperback in his pocket.” (36)

“She was the sort of relative who always remembered your birthday but you only went to visit because you had to.” (38)

“Work, Tia said, like it was somebody’s name she didn’t like.” (39)

“Our upstairs neighbors were beating the crap out of their kids, and me and her had been listening to it all afternoon.” (42)

“I lie in bed some more, listening to our neighbors flush parts of themselves down a pipe.” (48)

“I give her a fresh pack. She holds it lightly, debating if she should smoke a few or sell the pack to somebody.” (55)

And lastly, the most important sentence, in my opinion, in the opening stories: “There wasn’t a tree in the barrio I couldn’t climb and on some days I spent entire afternoon in our trees, watching the barrio in motion and when Abuelo was around (and awake) he talked to me about the good old days, when a man could still make a living from his finca, when the United States wasn’t something folk planned on.” (73)

I think this last sentence is so monumental in its implications that I don’t want to write anything on the subject just yet. I would rather finish the whole book, gather all the pieces of this picture, and then delve into it. Which I will. With gusto. The next time. Along with the problems I have with the themes: which are significant.


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My last thoughts on Faulkner …

Posted by michaelzyskind on November 8, 2010

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Three Down, One to Go

Posted by michaelzyskind on November 3, 2010

And thus the life has been all but sucked from me … But I can see the light, and it gives me strength.

Jason ended up not getting the bank job mentioned in Quentin’s section, and is instead working in a supply shop. When Herbert found out that Caddy’s baby wasn’t his, their marriage fell apart and he rescinded the offer.

Caddy wasn’t allowed back home after this embarrassing incident, but her daughter, Miss Quentin, was.

Jason’s a thief, robbing his sister of money (thousands) meant for her daughter. (Where’s Caddy getting this kind of dough?)

And we get some background about the show Luster wanted to go see. Jason had tickets he didn’t want, but burned them. Cruel.

How do you like me now, Faulkner?

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