"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Specimen Days

I read this as background/margin reading for my dissertation, so I was mostly reading for content that related to my main topic. However, I thought I'd write up a few thoughts on the book itself.

Cunningham tells three different stories, which are in some senses the same stories. They cover what some people call the three industrial revolutions - the mechanization of labor in factories in the 1800s, the advent of computers and other telecommunications in the present day, and the future of biotechnology, in this case spreading to artificial human life. Each story has three main characters, Luke, Catherine, and Simon,whose names and general characteristics stay the same across the whole novel, but who also change to fit each story.

This conceit worked pretty well for me, and I found the moments of time well-chosen. For my dissertation, I've been reading a lot of books that use multiple narratives or multiple times and places, or that imagine a near future, or that use reincarnation as a motif. Although it's a very literary novel, it was also a bit of a page-turner. Each story felt like it was heading inevitably toward something that would probably be terrible, but that I couldn't wait to discover (oh, the suffering we put ourselves through in reading!). I suppose I'd say the best thing about this book is the plotting, both in the normal sense of suspense and pacing and meaningfulness of events in the book, and in the larger sense of how Cunningham constructs his three strands and their overlaps.

What was missing for me was a sense of connection to the characters. I did find them pretty interesting, especially the narrators of sections one and three, but the writing felt a bit distanced. The artifice of the entire structure and the concept made it hard to believe in the characters as people, rather than as literary symbols. As they started to repeat, in variations, over the three stories, each previous incarnation of Luke, Catherine, or Simon began feeling less real. I couldn't help imagining Cunningham sitting at his desk inventing these characters and manipulating them so that they would fit equally well into each story - with the result that they don't fit snugly or perfectly into any story.

The other major element of this book is Cunningham's use of Walt Whitman's poetry - in each story, the narrator has a very special relationship with Whitman, and his verses keep popping up throughout the narration. I haven't read him at all, and I caught myself skipping over the longer excerpts because they were a bit opaque. But nevertheless, the repeated lines of verse made a kind of background rhythm for the whole book even as the individual narrator's voices changed - a kind of fourth voice that spanned the whole.

I wouldn't recommend this book to the idle reader who just wants a good book. It wasn't hard to get into, but it was very easy to get out of. The imagery stayed with me more than the voices or the emotions. A worthwhile experience, but not an entirely satisfying one.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

It's been a while...

Wow, this month has gone by fast. I launched pretty much straight from my last semester of school into a summer of dissertation. Well, it hasn't really felt much like summer yet, or even spring. With the exception of a few days of lovely sun, we've had nothing but grey and cold. Still, I've been getting out of the house a lot more than I was over the winter - maybe I'm sort of willing myself into a summery mood despite the weather and the workload.

One thing that's drawn me out of my pile of library books has been an arts festival that's come to town for about two weeks. Although it's a bit overwhelming trying to focus exclusively on work during the day and then go to shows at night, it's also energizing to be seeing great performances and inventive ideas brought to life onstage. In particular, I've seen a lot of circus/dance/theater-type things that inspire me to make more time for both creativity and taking care of my body.

For the latter, I've been striving to get on a great health kick, eating more fresh and raw veggies, making smoothies, going to classes at the gym and doing push-ups at home, etc. It's hard to keep up those habits when the weather makes it feel like its February (California February, that is), but I'm trying. I'm still getting my veg-and-fruit box every week, which forces me to be both creative and healthy with cooking and eating.

It's nice eating salads, because you can throw them together at the last minute, when you're in the middle of studying but need food fast to feed your brain. You don't have to plan ahead for several days, imagining what kind of left-overs you'll feel like eating tomorrow or the next day, because you can just make one portion at a time.

I particularly love couscous because it's so easy and tastes lighter than pasta. And recently I've gotten a little obsessed with tortilla wraps. I eat them with chicken, hummus, feta, and veggies for lunch, and with scrambled eggs for breakfast. Yum.

There's only so much time I can spend cooking and eating, though, because the dissertation really is upon me, even if summer isn't. I'm enjoying the work so far. Somewhere at the back of my mind (or maybe lodged at the back of my stomach, against my backbone) is some nervousness about the eventual deadline and the scope of the project. Just enough to keep me working and moving forward.

Right now my life is about enoughs: reading enough, writing enough, eating enough, sleeping enough, getting out enough, finding enough inspiration, exercising enough, having enough fun, doing enough work. Balancing things out and moving forward. And not forgetting desert, like this delicious apple/pear tart I made the other day :)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

April Things

N.B. I was watching a video by WonderlandWardrobe, who has a pretty cool channel with DIY fashion projects, and I noticed that she has a slightly different way of doing her monthly updates. So this is me being inspired to change things up a little.

Favorite food in April: Breaking news: did you know you can make grilled cheese with olive oil instead of butter?! I made the ultimate grilled cheese today with fresh monzarella, pesto, and sun-dried tomatoes, and instead of butter, I just spread a little of the oil from the tomato jar on the outside of the sandwich before I put it in the pan. Delicious flavor, perfectly even crispness, no burning. A revelation.
Am I the first person to discover this? Probably not. Did I remember to take a picture before I ate the whole thing? Definitely not.

Favorite fashion item or idea: Definitely the shift from my big winter coat (although I LOVE my cozy winter coat) to a lighter jacket. It's so freeing to shed the weight and bulk of a coat. I'm still wearing sweaters and scarves and even half-mittens, but the change feels amazing.

Favorite movie or show: This month I'm re-watching the Harry Potter movies, starting from the beginning. I haven't seen the early films in years and years, but there's nothing better than a trip down memory lane to get you through finals week. Of course I'm thinking all the usual things, mostly how they were all so young! But it's actually really fun to go back and notice the beginnings of Harry's snarkiness and his compulsive heroism - what an amazing experience it's been to grow up with these characters and really see them develop naturally along with us.

Favorite book: I suppose this would be Lolita, sort of by process of elimination because I'm writing a paper on it and haven't had time to read anything else. But this year has truly been a revelation for me vis-à-vis Nabokov. I re-read Pnin and read Lolita and Pale Fire for the first time last semester, and this is my second paper on Nabokov. I was nervous to tackle such a famous and famously tricky novelist, but it has been so rewarding to dive deep into these books. My discovery of Nabokov this year is one of those things that makes me incredibly grateful that I get to pursue my education at this level.

Favorite experience: Finishing my second semester (and the last taught portion) of grad school and realizing how much I've learned and, better still, that I have the energy to keep getting the most out of this degree over the summer. Dissertation, bring it on. I'm excited to tackle you.