Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Letting Go

Goodbyes have always been exceptionally hard for me. I'm the kind of person who becomes easily attached to the way things are, the kind of person who clings to what I'm used to, what I've come to know and love. In many ways, I define my past in terms of farewells. I remember saying goodbye to Catholic school and all my friends there when my parents decided to transfer me to public school after third grade. I remember the tearful moment a few years later when my best friend, my almost-sister, told me she was moving halfway across the globe to South Korea. I remember just last year when the girl I told everything to had a strikingly similar conversation with me about her family's imminent move to Georgia. Though saying goodbye hasn't gotten any easier for me over the years, I'm grateful that I've experienced endings enough to know that they aren't absolute, that life goes on and goodbyes aren't necessarily forever.

I've been contemplating this idea of endings a lot lately, which is probably only natural considering the transitional point I'm at in my life. In a few short months, I'll be packing for college, heading off to Amish country, Ohio, where there's nothing but cornfields and foreign faces. I'll have to say goodbye to my family, my friends, my comfy bed. And though I'm frightened, nervous, apprehensive, I've said goodbye enough times before to know that I can handle it.

This theme of endings is also relevant to you. Why, you ask? First of all, because every human being faces a goodbye at some point in their life. Secondly, as senior year comes to a close, I'm saying goodbye to my blog and therefore to you, my readers. Though I may eventually feel compelled to resurrect my blog in order to share my future thoughts on literature and language, as of now, this is my final post.

And so, in the spirit of word-love, I thought I'd leave you all with a list of some of my favorite quotes and excerpts about saying goodbye. I hope that these words of wisdom will be as comforting to you as they've been to me over the years. I've found that there's something about the written word that's reassuring in a way that even human contact cannot quite accomplish. So, without further adieu, here are some bits of language to turn to when you're at a crossroads in your own life.

1. "All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on." -Henry Ellis

2. "Some things don't last forever, but some things do. Like a good song, or a good book, or a good memory you can take out and unfold in your darkest times, pressing down on the corners and peering in close, hoping you still recognize the person you see there." -Sarah Dessen

3. "Our fingerprints don't fade from the lives we've touched." -Remember Me (2010)

4. "How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." -Annie

5. "I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next." -Gilda Radner

6. "We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us." -Joseph Campbell

7. "Every exit is an entry somewhere." -Tom Stoppard

8. "When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us." -Alexander Graham Bell

9. "Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Others stay awhile, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same." -Flavia Weedn

10. "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." -Theodor Seuss Geisel

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: The Lovely Bones

This weekend, I finally finished the bestselling novel The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I say 'finally' not because I put off reading it, but because, amidst the craziness of the final months of my senior year, it's been so difficult to find the time to sit down and read. I'm so thankful that I did, though; The Lovely Bones was certainly worth the wait.

When it comes to books made into movies, the conventional order is to read the book first, then watch the movie, right? Well, in the case of The Lovely Bones, I saw the movie about a year before I read the book, so I was initially skeptical as to whether I'd enjoy the novel after being so familiar with the plot and characters. Thank goodness I didn't let this concern prevent me from experiencing Sebold's literary masterpiece. If you haven't read it yet, run to the nearest bookstore! Trust me; it's worth it.

The most beautiful aspect of Sebold's novel is its ability to deliver a story of death and suffering in a hopeful, even humorous manner. A book about a young girl's rape and subsequent death sounds like the opposite of uplifting, but somehow, Sebold manages to mix vitality with loss, laughter with anguish, so that the reader is ultimately left profoundly affected but far from depressed.

Another notable success of The Lovely Bones is the way it gracefully weaves numerous threads into one narrative, as Sebold strings together the stories of multiple characters' responses to young Susie Salmon's tragic disappearance and death. In addition to these varied perspectives, Sebold gives Susie a voice throughout the novel, as Susie narrates the story from her place in heaven. Witnessing Susie's reactions to her loved ones' struggles to cope with her death is deeply moving, another element that exemplifies Sebold's genius.

And, as you may have guessed, Sebold's writing style is another strong point. The way she paints portraits with her words is truly mesmerizing, as this passage reveals:

"I loved the way the burned-out flashcubes of the Kodak Instamatic marked a moment that had massed, one that would now be gone forever except for a picture. When they were spent, I took the cubed four-corner flashbulbs and passed them from hand to hand until they cooled. The broken filaments of the flash would turn a molten marble blue or sometimes smoke the thin glass black. I had rescued the moment by using my camera and in that way had found a way to stop time and hold it. No one could take that image away from me because I owned it."

Not only does that paragraph masterfully convey such powerful themes as time, loss, and control, but it appeals to the reader's senses so that he or she is drawn in, wholly absorbed into Susie's ethereal world. And is that not what we want from our beloved books? To be wholly absorbed?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Poetics of Songwriting

At a recent family dinner, my grandfather suggested that I turn my passion for poetry into a career as a lyricist. I initially brushed off the idea, but as I listened to music throughout the past week or so, I couldn't help but notice all the poetic elements of my favorite songs. It's undeniable that writing lyrics requires polished writing skills and knowledge of poetry, but I think we often overlook the significant overlap between the two medias. I happened to stumble across this article which explains and emphasizes many important parallels and distinctions between song lyrics and poetry. Have you ever taken the time to criticize the lyrics of the songs you listen to from a poet's point of view?

If the answer is no, I suggest you try it out. Okay, I'll admit that much of our culture's popular music today doesn't fall under the poetry umbrella. I catch myself singing along to Rihanna and Katy Perry as much as the next teenager, but I wouldn't exactly call their songs poetic, per se. Still, there are numerous songwriters out there who deserve recognition from not only music lovers, but word lovers, too.

One of my favorite artists and a perfect example of this is the incomparable Regina Spektor. She writes and performs stunning songs about a multitude of fascinating topics. Sometimes, the lyrics are so abstractly beautiful that the meaning of the song can be interpreted a hundred different ways. A personal favorite is "Braille", a poignant piano ballad. In my opinion, the best part of the song goes:

And it was raining cats and dogs outside of her window,
And she knew they'd be destined to become sacred road kill on the way.
And she was listening to the sound of heavens shaking,
Thinking about puddles and, puddles and mistakes.

I was so moved by Regina's description of a romantic relationship of hers as "sacred road kill". I think we can all relate to the feeling that our connection with someone seems so divine, yet we know it will end painfully, even violently, perhaps. Her use of metaphor strengthens the message of her song, and for this, I believe she qualifies as a poet as much as a musician.

Here's the full song for your listening pleasure:

An equally fitting yet more obscure example is Chris Pureka, an indie singer-songwriter I discovered a few months ago. Her song "Burning Bridges" is pure poetry set to music. The most searing part is the following:

Some fantasies are never meant to be realized at all,
And some regrets could be prevented
If you read the writing on the wall.
Oh, and sometimes you say, "You know, nothing can happen",
And then she leans over and lifts off your glasses,
And next thing you know, you're just tangled and guilty,
And you've got a head full of liquor and perfume.

I'm repeatedly struck by the way she weaves such meaningful images and gestures into her lyrics, such as another "lifting off your glasses " and having "a head full of liquor and perfume". The sensory experiences she describes are so vividly portrayed that, for me, at least, it's impossible to remain unaffected.

You can hear the complete song by watching this live performance:

So, next time you're looking for inspiration for your own writing, poring over poetry isn't your only option. Just pop in some headphones and listen to your favorite song. You just may find what you're looking for.

P.S. If you have any favorite song lyrics or songwriters, feel free to share! I'd love to hear them.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

As I'm sure many of you are all too familiar with, to a high school senior, March and April are dominated by "The Decision". No, I'm not referring to LeBron's earth-shattering announcement to take his talents to South Beach. I'm referring to the phenomenon in which millions of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds around the country are scrambling to decide on their future plans. For many, the acceptances start rolling in, and the challenge is sorting through several prime options and settling on a single place to spend the next four years or so. For the unlucky ones, this time of year is filled with the deflated sensation that follows receiving one (or more) of those tiny dreaded envelopes in the mail. "We regret to inform you..." You know the rest. Some can sit back, relax, and watch their peers' frenzied lives unfold. These select few may have been recruited for their athletic abilities, accepted early decision, or had the choice made for them for family or financial reasons. For the rest of us, March's motto might as well be "Hurry up and wait", which then leads into April, a.k.a "crunch time".

How does this relate to English and literature? I'm getting there, I promise. Regarding my personal college process, I've basically narrowed my options down to two schools. Granted, as of now, I haven't gotten into either, so the choice very well may be made for me, in which case, there's no reason to sweat. But in the event that I'm accepted to both colleges, I'm about to face the most difficult decision of my young life. This is where the English part comes in. The first school, a tiny liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, is renowned for its English and writing program. The second is a bit larger and still academically strong, but its emphasis on the sciences leaves its English program arguably a bit weaker.

I've always imagined myself studying English, as it's the one subject I've been in love with my entire life. This has led me to lean towards the school known for its exceptional English department and writing opportunities. Yet lately, I've started worrying about the career options available to English majors after graduation. Obviously, there's every English fanatic's dream of becoming a published author, but if that fairy tale never becomes reality, what else is out there for us word lovers? In order to inform myself and hopefully ease my concerns, I decided to research employment possibilities for college graduates with English degrees. I thought I'd share my findings with all of you in case any of you have wondered the same thing.

First off, this post introduces the idea of business-related careers as a possible path for English majors. Such areas include advertising, public relations, marketing, human resources, and instructional design. All of these fields require the use of creativity and eloquent writing skills, though they're often overlooked as options for English majors. This article, though brief, mentions teaching and editing as plausible career paths, while this one lists government service, journalism, publishing, law, and financial work. Clearly, there are plenty of outlets for an English degree, though they may not involve the aspects of English that many of us have come to love most. I also discovered this surprisingly comforting blog post by an English major about the advantages of an open-ended area of study. The author puts it perfectly: "And we have something that the other guys don't: they might be traveling at 100 mph down the world's busiest one-way highway, but for us, there's a fork in the middle of a very scenic dirt road. And we can turn around anytime we want just to check out the other options."

My family and friends have attempted to encourage me by throwing out suggestions such as songwriter, speechwriter, or (here's the kicker) poet laureate of the United States. While availability of such positions is undoubtedly limited, a kid can dream, right?

The bottom line is that I'm still unsure of where my English degree will take me. Regardless of the college I end up, there's a good chance I'll take on a double major as a fallback of sorts. But I've resolved not to give up on studying English out of fear. To me, the best feeling in the world is hearing that something you wrote affected someone else, that it aroused sympathy, entertained them, opened their minds, or, best of all, helped them better understand their own lives.

As Henry David Thoreau once said, "I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." I intend to advance confidently in the direction of my own dreams, and I can only hope to meet the success Thoreau promises.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Ten Books Worth Reading

The other day, I was reflecting on my less than stellar junior high years. I remembered that, as a middle schooler, I had a mild obsession with ranking my endless stream of crushes in a top ten list. Thankfully, along with my metal mouth and training bra, those days are in the past. However, my fetish for ranking things has remained, and I've recently enjoyed compiling lists of movies, celebrities, and colleges, among other things. For the purposes of this blog, I thought it'd be worthwhile to narrow my numerous favorite books down to a top ten list that I'd share with all of you. So here goes.

Looking for Alaska is the perfect blend of vivid, believable characters and a captivating storyline. The novel perfectly portrays the trials and tribulations of adolescence in a fresh yet relatable way. From the first few pages on, you can't help but root for the flawed yet lovable Miles Halter, and as Miles falls for the dangerously beautiful Alaska Young, you find yourself falling in love with her along with him. By the end of Miles's whirlwind story, I was left unbelievably heartbroken, but at the same time, surprisingly satisfied. I'd give Looking for Alaska five stars without a doubt.

There's a reason The Perks of Being a Wallflower has generated an almost cult-like following. The novel manages to address sensitive subjects such as homosexuality, introversion, and sexual abuse so tenderly, so poignantly that every member of its wide spectrum of readers comes away profoundly affected. The narrator, Charlie, shares his thoughts and feelings at such an honest, intimate level that an attachment to him naturally emerges while reading. I can attest to the fact that it's difficult to put down.

I'll admit that last year, when we read Beloved in English class, my classmates generally had very mixed feelings about the novel. Its storyline and themes are certainly complex, and I can understand why some readers would struggle to connect to the characters and ideas Morrison introduces. At the same time, the writing is so brilliantly crafted that it became one of my favorite books. Beloved demonstrates that Morrison is a fearless author who doesn't shy from unconventional structures and concepts. As long as you're willing to go into it with an open mind, I'm confident that any reader can enjoy the colorful experience of reading Beloved.

The Help is everything a book should be-- vibrant, stirring, hopeful, and humorous. The technique Stockett implements of alternating viewpoints enables several distinct voices to be represented, which undoubtedly adds to the depth of the novel. It's the kind of book that you can simultaneously enjoy and learn from. I'd highly recommend it.

With a title like "The Book Thief", I knew this story had to be a good one. Turns out I was right. The Book Thief paints a stunning portrait of WWII era Germany, complete with three-dimensional characters and shocking plot twists. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the book is narrated by Death itself. If that doesn't intrigue you, I don't know what will.

For a complete review of Little Bee, check out my previous blog post here.

I've always hated war stories. I can do without the blood, the violence, the rawness, the death. So naturally, I was not expecting to enjoy a single bit of The Things They Carried, a compilation of short stories about soldiers' experiences during the Vietnam War. Yet it became one of my absolute favorite books due to O'Brien's impeccable way of identifying the humanness of war.

The Hunger Games has a little bit of everything-- adventure, fantasy, suspense, romance...the list goes on and on. The world Collins created is the most enticing element of the story, as she fully manges to transport the reader to another time and place. I'd recommend The Hunger Games for anyone with an ounce of imagination.

John Green makes my list a second time for yet another masterpiece. The appeal of Paper Towns is similar to that of Looking for Alaska, but not so much so that they're not both worth reading. Paper Towns comes with its own cast of richly developed characters and compelling plot. It's a great read for any young adult.

Speak is an award-winning bestseller centered on a teenage girl who is faced with a traumatic experience and slowly silences herself because of it. It's a book about the importance of sharing your voice and the danger of losing it. Definitely worth reading.

I hope at least some of these recommendations are helpful. If any of you feel like sharing your favorite books, I'd love to hear them!

Monday, February 28, 2011

A Feminist Approach to "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou

In English class, as we've continued to read Hamlet, we've also learned about various critical approaches to literature, such as the Marxist, new historical, psychoanalytic, and feminist perspectives. The feminist approach to literature particularly struck a chord with me, perhaps because I could relate to the issues as a young woman coming into my own.

As you all probably know by now, I'm a bit infatuated with the art of poetry, so I decided it'd be interesting to take a feminist approach to a poem. I chose to analyze Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman". Right off the bat, with a title like that, you'd probably expect the poem to be a gold mine for feminist issues, and it doesn't disappoint.

The first two lines are already fraught with feminist ideas, as Angelou writes, "Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. / I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size". Angelou is clearly alluding to our culture's connection between thinness and attractiveness in women. From a feminist perspective, I believe that this is a biased societal expectation because women are expected to almost starve themselves in order to be considered 'pretty', while a wider range of male body types are deemed attractive. Yet Angelou, a promoter of feminist themes, challenges this link between skinniness and sex appeal, as the speaker asserts that she is far from model-thin, but still beautiful in her own right. She goes on to claim that her attractiveness lies in "The span of my hips", among other features, and then closes the stanza with "I'm a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That's me." By declaring her own confidence in her more curvaceous body type, Angelou's writing serves as an inspiration to the majority of women who don't fall within the super model classification.

In the second stanza, she continues this tone of confidence and self-assuredness. She writes, "I walk into a room / Just as cool as you please, / And to a man, / The fellows stand or / Fall down on their knees." In this stanza, the feminist themes deepen, as Angelou begins to explore male and female gender identities. From these select lines, I gather that she believes females possess a sort of seductive power over men. Though some women may dismiss such a concept as petty, it is important to note that Angelou portrays the female figure as dominant, as she describes men falling to a submissive position in her presence. She even compares the men who "swarm" around the speaker to "a hive of honey bees". This dehumanization may have also been intended to conjure an image of men as less powerful creatures.

Angelou elaborates on these feminist ideas in the third stanza, as she writes, "Men themselves have wondered / What they see in me. / They try so much / But they can't touch / My inner mystery. / When I try to show them, / They say they still can't see." These lines further support the dynamic she's constructing in which the speaker, the female figure, possesses more power than any man. By asserting that men cannot grasp her "inner mystery", she continues to elevate the female identity in comparison to that of the male, implying that there is a beauty or a magic to women that men are incapable of fully understanding.

In the final stanza, the lines that stood out to me were, "Now you understand / Just why my head's not bowed. / I don't shout or jump about / Or have to talk real loud. / When you see me passing, / It ought to make you proud." I especially liked the line about the speaker not bowing her head. Though the obvious meaning of holding her head high is a physical expression of her sense of pride, Angelou may also be suggesting that the speaker is not "bowing" to men, or, in simpler terms, refusing to submit to men's authority. When Angelou writes "It ought to make you proud", she directly appeals to the female gender as a whole, urging women to embrace their beauty and embody the speaker's quiet confidence.

I think "Phenomenal Woman" is an excellent example of the importance of feminist ideas. While the themes were perhaps more obvious in this poem than in many other literary works, I look forward to the challenge of identifying feminist concepts in everything I read, including Hamlet. I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Philosophy and Theology of Hamlet

In English class, we just started reading Shakespeare's Hamlet. I must admit, Shakespeare has always thrown me for a loop. I often get so caught up in the frilly language that I miss the greater themes altogether. Despite this, I'm hoping to get as much out of Hamlet as possible, as I'm well aware of its prominence as a literary work.

In my quest to understand Hamlet, I came across this blog post that touches on several key philosophical and theological questions raised in the play, and I thought I'd highlight a few points made in the post.

First of all, the blogger introduces the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism present throughout Hamlet. She states that Laertes and France represent the purely Catholic perspective in the play, while Hamlet straddles the line between the two doctrines. In addition to these two primary Christian sects, Hamlet incorporates elements of the Greco-Roman polytheistic theologies. It's interesting to think about how these differing theologies coexist within the structure of a single work, and I'm eager to see whether these varied belief systems will eventually clash.

Throughout the play, several critical Christian themes dominate the plot, such as divine right, crusading, and purgatory. As a Catholic, I found the play's take on the concept of purgatory particularly fascinating. In class, we discussed the role of purgatory in Hamlet in relation to the ghost of King Hamlet. A Catholic interpretation of the ghost would be that he represents a soul trapped between heaven and earth, in the in-between place where sins are atoned for. The blog post sheds further light on this idea, as it claims that, in order for the ghost to be listened to, Hamlet must accept Catholicism as a religion because purgatory, a distinctly Catholic belief, is the only logical explanation for the ghost's existence. This further exacerbates the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Philosophy also shapes the course of the story. The blog post claims that Hamlet was a Stoic and goes on to outline the characteristics of the philosophic branch of Stoicism, chiefly that it involves the "relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will that is in accord with nature". This adds another layer to the play. By the standards of Stoicism, which characters' actions would be considered virtuous? I aim to answer this question and many others as I continue my journey through Shakespeare's great work.