Semester Review, Part I: With Doodles
As my first year of college draws to a close--as I near completing the first quarter of my life here--as I reflect on what I have done in the past nine fleeting months--as I fight back a panic attack at the thought that a whole year is nearly done, and I've been too busy doing too many things to do anything else, and a few of my friends are graduating in three weeks, and in just two short years my friends who are now sophomores will be graduating, and then I will be graduating, and then in the blink of an eye I will be twenty-five, and then thirty, and then fifty, and then in my eighties, and I really need to start living hard and fast so I have wild and crazy memories to entertain myself and my grandchildren and my numerous cats in my old age, and here comes the midlife crisis already, brace yourselves everyone!--as I think back on that, I realize that, actually, I have done quite a bit.
I've already written at length about the Sunshine Scouts, and touched on the Genre Fiction Writing Workshop ExCo from time to time. My other activities, however, I feel I have only mentioned briefly, in passing. I gave my first impressions of my classes here at the beginning of the semester, but I never really came back and described them more fully. So now I'm going to give a more detailed view of what I've been up to.
Since this could very easily lead to large blocks of text, which (as everyone knows) are dry and difficult to read, I will add spice to my entry with photographs of random pictures found in my notebooks. Some are from last semester, some from this. I don't usually draw in class, but both last December and now I've found myself doodling in the margins more and more. It seems to be an end-of-the-semester thing.
I'm actually rather proud of most of these drawings--they're not great art by any means, but for me, they're pretty darn good. The reason there are so many eyes is not because I have some creepy paranoid obsession with them, but because I keep trying to get the shape of the eye right, which I sort of achieved after looking at a diagram of the visual system in my Neuroscience textbook. Perhaps next semester I'll doodle noses, and then chins, and foreheads, and ears, until I can actually draw faces--we'll see.
A very enjoyable class. Professor An is interesting, funny, and encouraging. I may have to take one of her Cinema Studies classes in the future, because I really like her teaching style.
One of my favorite assignments was our first essay. We needed to write about a movie that we'd seen recently that we really enjoyed. I wrote about Sherlock Holmes and what made it so much fun (Robert Downey Jr. being snarky, witty dialogue, steampunk setting, Robert Downey Jr. being funny, good soundtrack, complex plot, the constant bickering between Holmes and Watson, Robert Downey Jr. shirtless....) I was actually able to express all that pretty well in French. Summarizing that crazy plot was tricky, too, I might add!
We also had a unit on fairy tales, during which the entire class came up with what would happen if Oberlin were to be translated into fairy-tale land. Instead of bikes, we'd ride unicorns; finals would be replaced by dragons; Marvin Krislov, the College's president, was either the evil sorcerer or the good king; hipsters would be elves (that was my favorite), Peters Hall (which looks like Hogwarts) would be a castle; the Arb would be an enchanted forest; Oberlin's commitment to diversity would extend to werewolves and vampires, though there was some debate about zombies, I believe... We had to write our own fairy tale on the test instead of an essay.
We read all of L'immoraliste by Andre Gide--a book about a man who totally changes his view of ethics. He's very immature but thinks he's so much more aware and mature than everyone else around him. It's an interesting read, and Professor An told us it's quite an accomplishment, really: we read a whole novel in French.
We also saw a movie, Persepolis, based on the books Persepolis and Return to Persepolis by Marjane Satrappi. I had read the first one last semester for another class (in English, though). It's her memoir, in graphic-novel format, about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. It was made into a great animated French movie. We used it to discuss family relationships and adverbs.
Fencing is not for the faint of heart. The class started with at least twenty people--after a few classes of nothing but endless footwork (in a crouch--if you're doing en garde right, your thighs will be shaking from the strain in about fifteen seconds), the crowd thinned out considerably. For a while, only eight or nine people were showing up to classes; now, it's back to twelve.
I really do enjoy fencing. I hope I have enough time next year to officially join the fencing club, but somehow I doubt that will be the case. It's fun to work on something like that, though, and see yourself getting better. I'm stronger, I can stab more reliably, I'm working on disengages, and I know the thrill of totally blocking my opponent with a circle-six parry.
The ExCo is pretty basic--we learn fundamentals and we practice them, then we spend several classes fencing each other freely for practice while the instructors give advice, then we have a tournament. We only learned foil, but we're (relatively) good at it; in fact, one of the instructors told us that we're one of the best ExCo groups he's seen: "I actually saw some pretty good fencing out there." The individual tournament is next week, and I'm really looking forward to it.
Contemporary American Fiction
My first English class here, taught by Professor Jeffery Pence. It's big for an English class, which led to some classroom changes in the first few days of class. I mentioned that, and the first book we read, in the blog I linked to above, so I won't bother rehashing all that. It's an interesting class, though. All the books we read came out very recently--within the last five years or so. Here's a brief overview of each.
The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich--structured around an unsolved murder, but it doesn't read like a detective story at all. It's a small community--a dying town on an Indian reservation in North Dakota--and everyone is related to everyone else. It's sort of a modern epic, with a sweeping scope over time and multiple families; it's pretty fun to draw out a family tree. It's hard to sum up; it basically deals with all the interactions between families and how any decision has repercussions stretching across generations. The whole thing has a kind of mythic feel, especially when there are stories within stories. There are only a few people who technically narrate, but they relate other people's stories within theirs, so you get so many voices from long ago, all of it feeling like it's happening "now"--the girl listening to her grandfather's stories, the judge reading his great-grandfather's journal, the judge telling the story of a man who cheated on his wife fifteen years ago, the girl punching her second-grade boyfriend in the arm, the judge wooing the girl's aunt--it's all "now." And it all traces back to relationships surrounding the killing of a farm family (all but the baby) and the subsequent lynching of three innocent men. It has coming-of-age stories and the rise and fall of a cult leader, all wrapped into the history of one town.
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon--an identity-theft thriller written by one of Oberlin's Creative Writing professors. There's a fun story going along with that: he was supposed to come in and answer questions one day during part of our class. However, that morning, all the students in the class got an e-mail from Professor Pence, saying he wouldn't be able to make it to class at all, but it's okay because he got the author to sub for him. So much fun. It's a very enjoyable, intellectually intriguing novel, but I don't want to write about it for fear of spoiling it for someone.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin--a bunch of short stories, all linked around one rich man, set in Pakistan. Shows how graft and patronage are shifting forms from the standards of the feudal system to the new (somewhat) democratic methods now in place, and that with the decay of the feudal system, there's social instability. A middle class is just barely beginning to exist. Everything is in flux. People aren't sure quite what they want or how to get it--if one influential person messes up, it's like a house of cards: everything else, all the people whose schemes depended on him, are completely lost. Very pretty writing and interesting to read, but sad.
Chronic City, Jonathon Lethem--Set in a New York that isn't quite our world. It seems that instead of 9/11, there's a huge permanent bank of fog over that half of the city, although that might just be a euphemism, or a mass delusion covering the denial of everyone in the city. I don't mind revealing that denial is a MAJOR theme of the book--these people live in an artificial world and everything is built on some kind of fundamental denial of reality. I think of it as "Post-Post-Modern" because it makes fun of postmodernism. Everything is a reference to some other book or movie or rock song or something, and it's all connected, and that must Mean Something--or wait! What if it means that Nothing Means Anything? In that case, it would just be nothing means anything, not even glorified with capital letters, because capital letters are corny and a commentary, which is trying to summon up meaning in a meaningless world. And what about our cluelessly good-natured protagonist's girlfriend up in space, writing him love letters from the ISS, cut off from re-entry by Chinese mines? What about the "War-Free" issue of the New York Times? And what's going on with his friend Perkus? You'll have to read it to find out, and I can't promise it will make sense outside of its own world even then. But it's addictive and worth reading.
Lark & Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips--about a girl and her half-brother. Family relationships are screwy and there's this emotional incest-thing going on and I freaked out some of my friends by trying to explain it to them ("What are you reading in that class?!"). Again, difficult to describe. Magical-realism style--not quite my thing. Didn't like it much at first; it grew on me as I reread parts to write a paper about it. It's a coming-of-age story in which going home is more important than leaving home, and the crux is that the definition of "home" changes. Also, the struggle isn't to take on responsibilities (Lark's been taking care of Termite for ages), but rather to come to terms with history.
An Atlas Shrugged reference.
Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead--the summer of 1985 from the point of view of a middle-class black teenage boy at Sag Harbor, this summer resort town a few hours' drive from New York City. It's a really fun read; he's a very realistic, likeable kid, on the nerdy side, a bit protective of his younger brother, loves summer traditions, etc. He tends to analyze things a lot, "collecting data" so he can someday metamorphose into someone cool. I find it impossible to not identify with someone who divides up the world according to D&D alignments (his science teacher is Lawful Evil, for example).
Generosity: An Enhancement, Richard Powers--a story about what happens when scientists discover "the happiness gene"--or rather, a combination of genes hinging on a certain allele that makes one's affective set-point incredibly high. There's so much going on in this story, which feels to me the most "contemporary" of all the books we've read, because of the topical subject matter. Powers is an actual scientist, so he knows what he's talking about with bio-engineering and recent ethical debates on the subject, so it's great having that informed viewpoint. It's also a defense of literature in a modern age. The main character is a melancholic writer-turned-community-college-professor who feels that one of his students, a refugee from the Algerian civil war, has no reason to be as happy as she is--he's drawn to her blissfulness, but the fact of that joy unnerves him. The other students take their news and literature in cynical sound bites--they're deeply imbedded in the blogosphere and social networking sites. There's also an anchorwoman for a technology TV show which similarly condenses everything. It's difficult to describe, but the book examines the purpose of literature and melancholy, the human tendency to always feel we're on the cusp of transcending what we are to become something more (which some people embrace and others fear), and how that potential is truly timeless. I don't know how I feel about the book as a story, but as an emotional impact and a collection of ideas, I would say, if you only read one book on this list, read this. Of course, I also love it because it's about science, social science, and writing, three of my favorite broad categories in the world.
Knockemstiff, Pollock--Another group of short stories, this time set in a tiny rural Ohio town where nothing ever goes right. In a way, it's more alien than Pakistan. Everyone is addicted to something (drugs, alcohol, self-destructive behavior) and has grand dreams of getting out that never actually come to anything. What's compelling about it is that these people do at least dream, and make tiny bits of self-realization along the way, even if they forget them again at once. It's based on Pollock's own life experiences--he lived in the real Knockemstiff, Ohio, for most of his life, working for a paper factory for thirty years, living like his characters, until he decided to go to college. Then he wrote this book, his first. Interestingly, he says in the author's note that the real citizens of Knockemstiff are generous, helpful people who would always help a neighbor in need--not at all like the let-it-all-go-to-hell attitudes in the book. It's a good book, but intense, ugly, and unhappy.
The White Tiger, Adiga--set in India, this is a series of letters written by a semi-educated Indian "entrepreneur" to the Chinese Premier about how India really works. The narrator is likeable and funny, though sometimes it's hard to see why. The story is a scathing expose of corruption in modernizing India. Like In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, it shows how society is in flux and people don't know how to behave. Behavioral standards are changing, as are morals: the book charts his transformation from a servant to an independent businessman--via killing his boss. It's not a Dickens "rags to riches" story. The poor aren't noble and they don't benefit in the end: the poor get screwed over by the rich and politically powerful. In that case, the only way to have some self-determination is to kill the boss, right? His ethical system really shifts, and it's fascinating to read--and funny, oddly enough.
This is Where I Leave You, Trooper--Yet another dysfunctional family! This story is about four adult siblings who don't get along too well, drawn together by their father's death. Their mother tells them his dying wish was for them to sit shiva together, meaning they're all in the house together for a week. This does not bode well. The narrator, Judd, has just found out that his wife has been sleeping with his boss for over a year, so his life is already complicated. The whole family has issues expressing emotion, except for the youngest brother, Phillip, the wild-card (Judd describes him as being "like Paul McCartney--better-looking than the rest of us, facing the other way in photos, and occasionally rumored to be dead"). They're all fairly immature but self-deprecatingly aware of the fact. I cannot begin to describe what happens in the book, but it's funny--an enjoyable read. It's being made into a movie, too, apparently. We had a fun class discussion about that.