Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book #18: The Elusive Life of Inspiration

“Just across from us, overhanging us, indeed, stood the mesa, a pile of purple rock, all broken out with red sumach and yellow aspens up in the high services of the cliffs…. It was the sort of place a man would like to stay forever.” -Willa Cather, The Professor’s House

I first read The Professor’s House in a seminar on American Modernism, halfway through my master’s. The professor appeared barely older than me – way too young to be a professor. Still, there was something wearied about the first grey wisp in her tendrils and the way she trudged into class, as though the epiphanies of modernism had long grown boring. She didn’t want to be there, and I couldn’t understand why.

But five years later, it was me up in front of the auditorium of students – now they expected me to be waxing lyrical and conjuring pearls of wisdom from the text. Pearls? I was more concerned with controlling the sweat drops on my nose. Dwarfed by their fresh-faced smiles and shining eyes.

It’s a strange thing being a professor. Everyone looks to you for inspiration, but what are you supposed to do when your mood plummets and you want to shut out the world?

This is why I’ve come to love The Professor’s House. It’s the story of a professor who has a mental breakdown. After decades of toil in the badly ventilated “office” of his attic, Professor St. Peter falls out of love with the life of the mind. Suddenly, he wants to break out of his head – he wants to do something real instead. His life of contemplation and critical navel gazing pales in comparison to the lives of the primitive men he studies (his discipline is Spanish colonial history). Sound depressing? Not entirely. For St. Peter has an active imagination. In the midst of his despair, he finds himself fantasizing about what it would be like to be one of his students, a young man by the name of Outland. Outland used to live on a mesa - a life as authentic as his name. As St. Peter gets to know him, Outland becomes his alter ego, casting light on the man St. Peter could have been.

(Since I have been warned by a certain follower not to give away too much – lest my entries turn into SPOILERS – I’ll leave off here. Suffice it to say that The Professor’s House is the perfect bed companion for anyone who has gotten used to going to bed alone, pondering how to go on when life seems to have lost all inspiration….)

There is a way to jumpstart your creativity. It begins with making up stories about other selves, fantasizing your alter ego....

Photo from: here

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Conjuring Books....

"She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain." -Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience

When I started this blog a couple months ago, I was a complete ingenue to the blogosphere. (Still am. A friend told me that most bloggers don't use words like ingenue. Alas, will I ever learn?) You see, for the past ten years I was a geeky grad student and then an English prof, and a lot of stuff happened during that time - Facebook, wikipedia and Survivor happened - and throughout it all I had my head buried in the dusty pages of a rare books library.

When I decided to cash in my chips on that socks-and-Birkenstock profession and rejoin the land of the living, I had some catching up to do. All these acronyms, like LOL, WTH or WTFH, left me feeling like an oblivious wallflower. But now, thanks to the friend who convinced me to start this blog (the therapeutic effects of blogging and sharing my experiences, he said, might be beneficial to my wellbeing) and the support of you kind-hearted readers, I feel as if I've at least got a toe in the twenty-first century.

The other day, a certain Bushpig left a comment that alerted me to a glaring oversight. He (I'm assuming Bushpig is a he) wanted to know where my actual reading list can be found. Considering that I've named my blog "The Reading List," it's a fair question. Thanks for pulling my head out of the dusty tomes, Bushpig.

Initially, when I was toying with the idea of blogging about the books that have uplifted and inspired me at crisis points in my life (moments when my career and love life were going so badly I was getting damned close to the edge of the rooftop), I envisioned "The Reading List" as an ever evolving, notebook-like compilation of scribblings about diverse books. The reading list would be more of an overarching concept than an actual list. Now that I think about it, however, Bushpig is right. A blog called "The Reading List" should include an actual list. So as of this afternoon, I've created on the right hand side a list of all the books I have discussed so far, and gone back to old posts and added the corresponding book numbers to their titles.

And if other readers have suggestions, please, pretty please, let me know - we Luddites need all the help we can get.

Photo from: here

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Am I Addicted to Tragedy?

"And besides, what was there to go home to? Nothing but the silence of her cheerless room - that silence of the night which may be more racking to tired nerves than the most discordant noises: that, and the bottle of chloral on her bed." -Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

The other day I got into a discussion with a new friend on Goodreads (this great site where readers from all walks of life talk about the books they can't put down. Also an excellent place for moral support and pure distraction). Anyway, this friend, this e-friend, this woman I'll never meet but instinctively like, broached an interesting discussion about Thomas Hardy, noting his tendency to favour tragic endings and heroines who remain trapped in their own circumstances. She was somewhat critical of Hardy for condemning poor Tess to sexual violation, backbreaking labour, lost love, and a fate too horrible to fathom. I saw what she was saying... and yet, what could I say? "The most memorable heroines for me," I confessed, "tend to be women like Lily Bart, Tess and Isabel Archer.... Am I addicted to tragedy?"

Recently, I'd re-read the ending of The House of Mirth, and found myself enjoying a good cry, lingering on the pages where poor Lily ends up addicted to this drug called chloral. It's her only escape from the drudgery of her job at the hat shop and the bleakness of the tenement house - a far cry from the ornate ballrooms and late nights dancing that consumed her youth. At the same time, I was finishing Shanghai Girls (I always like to have more than one book on the go), and this story is no more uplifting. Forced to flee their beloved homeland in Shanghai during the Second World War, Pearl and May survive rape, imprisonment and interrogation, before immigrating to America and eking a living in L.A. One thing after another goes wrong. Pearl's miscarriage. Persecution at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities. Tragedy compounds tragedy.

I wonder what draws me to literature that celebrates life as a constant drumbeat of sorrow. Ever since I was a kid, I was aware that something powerful - drug-like, almost - beckoned to me from within the pages of a good depressing book and a box of kleenex. Whenever something went wrong in my life - a friend made fun of me at school, or I didn't get invited to someone's party - there was something very comforting about losing myself in three hundred pages of someone else's turmoil. As I got older and acquired real problems - health problems, career blues, a slew of crappy relationships - I came to depend on tragic literature as my shelter from the world, my sacrosanct retreat from My Own Problems.

It was interesting that some readers wrote on Goodreads that they liked reading about characters pushed to deeper insights at their breaking points. Even though it's too late for them to save themselves, the reader is rewarded with an epiphany. I agree, but I also think there's something more primal at play. Back in grad school, I recall reading the anthropologist Mary Douglas. She writes about how in primitive society, people use ritual and art as a means of representing - and thereby holding at bay - the things that they most fear about themselves. In other words, there's something reassuring about exploring and making concrete the potential crises lurking at the back of your mind.

Lily, Tess, Pearl, Isabel.... If these tragic women embody elements of myself, perhaps getting it out in the open, through literature, holds the key to moving on....

Photo from: here

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book #17: Wayson Choy's Phantom Homeland

"I close my eyes: older, long-ago faces, a few of them barely smiling, push into my consciousness. I hear voices, a variety of Chinatown dialects, their sing-song phrases warning me: 'You never forget you Chinese!'" -Wayson Choy, Paper Shadows

Wayson Choy's memoir Paper Shadows opens with the startling discovery that he was adopted. The woman whom he buried eighteen years earlier turns out not to be his mother - sparking a series of vivid flashbacks. Sometimes idyllic, other times frightening, his childhood growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown appears a mishmash of half-remembered fragments: a violent father, who was away for long stretches building the Canadian Pacific Railway; a vivacious mother, who liked to play mah jong until the wee hours, despite her husband's dark moods; and bachelor uncles and aunties who claimed to be family, for lack of any real blood ties in Canada. As the secrets of this community come to life in Choy's memory, the past appears ever more mysterious, estranged. Despite the warnings of the Chinatown elders, what it means to be "Chinese" seems to be slipping away, even as they speak.

Mother, motherland. Both are elusive. The woman he thought was his mother appears in his memory as a ghost - "a length of warm shadow stretched out along the far edge of the bed." She was his last tie to his ancestral homeland, but even that tie turned out to be based on a concealment, a lie.

Although I'm not adopted, Choy's feelings of loss and disorientation are familiar. There must have been a moment when I came to view my Asian heritage with this mix of fascination and fear. Growing up in Toronto as a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, my connection to Japan never seemed to go much further than dinners at sushi bars - where California roll was always my favourite - and the annual Japanese New Years celebration when we would all crowd around the Formica table in my grandmother's tiny kitchen, the oily stink of tempura and daikon radish filling the air.

And yet, my grandmother insisted that I was Japanese. We all were, in her mind.

The idea of our Japanese homeland was replete with meaning for her. I could sense it in her excitement, as she talked about growing up in Vancouver's Japantown, where she had run her father's restaurant and grocery store, before the place was razed during the Second World War. As she reminisced, her black curls quivered over her pointy ears, the skin smeared with indelible streaks of dye. She longed for the rugged beaches of the Queen Charlotte Islands, where she had been born, shortly after her father immigrated to Canada working as an "explorer" for the Japanese government. Supposedly, the government wanted information about the ways and lives of the Haida Indians.

Years later, I thought back to her stories and wondered whether they were entirely true, but at some level it didn't matter, for her words had caught hold in my imagination. Her memories were charged with the sadness and magic of a place that no longer existed.

Photo from: here

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book #16: Transient Family in Lorrie Moore

"For stray minutes we seemed like a family, laughing and chewing. I felt included. We were all in this together. But family life sometimes had a vortex, like weather." - Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs

When I read The Guardian review of Lorrie Moore's latest novel A Gate at the Stairs last year, I was still raw from throwing in the towel on my career as an English professor. After two years of teaching undergrads in small-town Nova Scotia, I found myself having a breakdown. So what Moore says in her Guardian interview hit a nerve. She talks openly about the transience of university towns like Madison, where she runs the University of Wisconsin's creative writing program, and reflects on still feeling like an outsider after being there for decades. Equally telling are Moore's doubts about whether creative writing should be taught in an institutional setting; she suggests that universities breed "niceness" in students and this is not a good trait in writers.

A Gate at the Stairs deals with this whirlwind of uncertainty and loss in post-9/11 America. The novel focuses on the relationship between Tassie Keltjin, a university student in the fictive Midwestern town of Troy (read: Madison), and Sarah Brink, an aging restauranteur who belatedly wants kids (despite the fact that she has reached the end of her rope with her womanizing husband). When Sarah offers Tassie a job as the part-time nanny for their soon-to-be-adopted, biracial baby, Tassie jumps at the chance. Sarah represents the allure of cosmopolitan sophistication. And in Sarah's eyes, Tassie's farm girl background gives her an air of homegrown authenticity. The two women improvise a household that actually works, in a strange way. For a while at least, until reality sets in.

In Moore's world, there are no simple, happy endings.

Sarah and Tassie's feelings of homelessness and desperate searching for some substitute home and family come through vividly, filling my eyes with tears. I can relate all too well to Sarah's plight as "one of those out-of-staters who'd moved here a while back but only had a pieced-together knowledge of the town." Many evenings I'd spent sitting at the bar of the one good restaurant in my little town, as students and locals walked past the window and stared in. There I was, alone with my martini. My awareness of being an anomaly, as the sole Asian person in town - save a few international exchange students and the couple running the Chinese restaurant - made me feel horribly isolated. As a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, born and raised in Toronto, I don't speak any language other than English. So when shopkeepers greeted me with "Konnichiwa," and other words borrowed from samurai movies, I was left stammering. They knew more about being Japanese than I did.

During office hours, I found myself staring at the wholesome, freckled faces of students who would come see me the day before the exam. While I droned on in a zombie-like voice about modernist aesthetics, all I could think was, I wish I could stop being a professor so we could really talk and get to know each other.

But they were stressed, eager to get their mid-terms over, so they could head home for the holidays. I, on the other hand, was looking forward to a turkey sub for Thanksgiving.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book #15: Selves Like Costumes in Stieg Larsson

"In the bathroom mirror she looked at herself for a long time, examining her angular, assymetrical face, her new breasts. And the tattoo on her back - it was beautiful, a curving dragon in red, green and black." - Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire

No one disputes that this novel is a page turner. The plot is propelled forward by a vigilante rescue of a woman about to be killed by her husband, a crime syndicate importing Eastern European prostitutes, and the murder of the husband-and-wife team investigating the johns and thugs - all this before I've even reached the novel's midpoint. It didn't take long for my heart to start pumping like a piston. I was expecting this adrenaline high based on the reviews I'd read.

But what caught me off guard is the idiosyncratic, original characterization.

These characters have a complexity that gets under my skin. Our heroine, Lisbeth Salander - hacker extraordinaire, world traveller, bisexual Don Juan - is particularly fascinating because she is comprised of multiple contradictory "selves" that she dons with the insouciance of costumes. Indeed, her identity seems to be a mystery even to herself. Looking in the mirror and admiring her newly implanted breasts (bought with the fortune she acquired in a recent heist), she seems to regard her own features as no more real or natural than the artful tattoo on her back. There's something marvellous about how she's able to reinvent herself from moment to moment, conjuring an identity that suits any situation. A hitman attacks her? Her keys turn into brass knuckles. She needs to furnish her new apartment under an alias? She throws on a blond wig, grabs a Norwegian passport and heads to IKEA.

Ironically, her theatrics and adaptation skills stem from how she overcame the sadistic sexual abuse inflicted on her during childhood. While the details of Salander's past remain obscure, we know from the opening scene (presumably a flashback) that she "lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame" for more than 43 days, awaiting her captor's daily assault. Trapped in this horrific state, her calmness and clarity of mind are all the more striking. Although she is afraid, she isn't debilitated by fear, for with every passing second, she is channelling her fear into a plan for settling the score: "She had discovered that the most effective method of keeping fear at bay was to fantasize about something that gave her a feeling of strength. She closed her eyes and conjured up the smell of gasoline." The girl who plays with fire is born.

The abuse that could have easily paralyzed her for life has instead become a source of power and focus. I think this is why I find myself sympathizing and identifying with and above all liking this oddball heroine. Although an extreme case, she appeals to that universal desire in all of us to overcome our childhood traumas and humiliations, of whatever magnitude, and move on. Rather than letting her past control her, she has taken control of her past and transformed it into a new, creative identity.

(By the way, a few days ago I added a page called "What's Your List?" at the top of the blog. This is where you can post a list of your favourite books.)

Photo from: here

Friday, July 2, 2010

Book #14: Chance Encounters through Munro

There is a certain kind of woman whom Alice Munro often writes about, and for better or for worse I identify with her. Sophia Kovalevsky, the heroine of "Too Much Happiness" (the final story in Munro's latest collection by the same title) exemplifies what I'm saying. Sophia is a mathematics professor in late nineteenth-century Stockholm, "an utter novelty, a delightful freak, the woman of mathematical gifts and female timidity." So does Juliet, the Classics grad student at the centre of "Chance," in Munro's earlier collection Runaway. This type of woman, who fascinates Munro, is someone who could be attractive to men and lead a normal married life, if it weren't for one little problem: she possesses a strange, burning passion for some esoteric field of study.

I remember having this moment of recognition four years ago, in the library of the college in small town Nova Scotia, where I had ended up as Visiting Assistant Professor of English Literature (the "Visiting" was an important part of my title, just so I wouldn't forget not to become too comfortable beyond my two-year contract). Au contraire.

It was a Friday night, and I was supposed to be working on my Faulkner article (for I was intent on publishing my way to greener pastures), but instead I found myself sitting in the lounge area, where Runaway had been discarded on the table. Randomly opening the book, I found myself reading "Chance" and immediately I recognized myself in Juliet. Her social awkwardness - hyper sensitivity to when men are flirting with her - leads her to blow off a homely stranger who later kills himself. And then, when she does meet a man who interests her, Eric, her attempts at flirtation go no farther than repartee about Greek tragedy.

Yet at her core, she craves a normal life - the life of a happily married woman.

Or does she?

When Eric asks her why she majored in ancient Greek and Latin, she says lightly, "Oh, just to be different, I guess," but deep down, it's more than that. She considers these languages her "bright treasure." But the closer she gets to Eric and the ordinary happinesses and burdens of domestic life - motherhood, housework - the more her treasure risks slipping away. Juliet reflects:

"Kallipareos. Of the lovely cheeks. Now she has it. The Homeric word is sparkling on her hook. And beyond that she is suddenly aware of all her Greek vocabulary, of everything which seems to have been put in a closet for nearly six months. Because she was not teaching Greek, she put it away."

Tears stung my eyes. Here I was sitting in a deserted library, while all my students were at Piper's Pub getting hammered, and all I could think was: what will become of me?

I had done everything to hold onto my bright treasure - all those brilliant, long dead authors. I had broken up with lovers at a moment's notice to throw my books in a suitcase and jump on a plane. I had moved to a town where walking to the supermarket meant getting covered in slush as I trudged three miles along the highway (I still have not learned how to drive).

Yet flickering in my chest was a rivalrous doubt. Yearning for the life of just an ordinary, happy woman.

Photo from: here


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.