Tag Archives: Saul Bellow

August and Everything After

10 Aug

CountingCrowsAugustandEverythingAfter

It’s August. How did that happen? This summer seems to have flown by. What do I have to show for it? A faded sunburn. An outdoor theatre experience. A few trips out to the boroughs, where it’s much more pleasant to dine al fresco. A writing intensive that resulted in a couple more chapters of my memoir written. But have I lived a life worthy of a new memoir?

Have I seized the day? Have I made it to the Met to see the rooftop installation? Have I stuck my toes into the cold waters of the Atlantic? Have I rode the Wonder Wheel? Have I packed my bags and jetted off to an exotic location? No. It feels like most days I have been bogged down with freelance work. Bogged down with obligations. Bogged down with emotions. Bogged down with rain.

It’s so easy to lose track of time. The older I get, the faster time flies.

In 1993 Counting Crows put out August and Everything After. The album is perhaps the most influential album on my life. My friend lent me the album, and I played it on my walkman over and over and over and over. I remember sitting in the car while my family shopped at a gardening store and just listening to the album on repeat. The melancholy lyrics spoke to my teenaged self. The album got me into the literature of Saul Bellow, who became one of my favorite authors. Years later, a friend in college and I bonded over our adoration of the album. Sometime later, another friend and I went to see the Counting Crows in concert with the Goo Goo Dolls. Years after that, a boyfriend put one of the songs on a mixtape for me. Then years after that, another boyfriend also liked Counting Crows. The years pile up. More memories get made.

And now it’s August and I’m wondering what the “Everything After” is….

 

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The Perfect Novel for My Personality … and Yours!

29 Jul
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Obsessed with Buzzfeed quizzes, I of course find Myers-Briggs types fascinating. Perhaps as a memoirist I’m always on the quest to know myself better. Or maybe it’s because I’m Greek. Wasn’t it Socrates who said, “Know thyself”? At times, the Myers-Briggs test seems to know me better than I know myself. It narrows in on aspects of my personality that I haven’t thought about before even though they’re true.
Maybe that’s because I’m an ISTJ, and “The ISTJ is not naturally in tune with their own feelings.” ISTJ means Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging, or “Introverted Sensing with Extraverted Thinking.” ISTJs are quiet, reserved, loyal, dependable, keep in line with the law, and like tradition. You can read the breakdown here.
When I came across Flavorwire recently published “A Classic Book for Every Myers-Briggs Personality Type,” I was curious what novel would be paired with my personality type. Would it be one of my favorites? Would it be something that resonated with me on a soul level?
Would it be Jack Kerouac’s On the Road?
Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man?
Maybe Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way?
Perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ?
According to Flavorwire, the novel that best suits me is…
ISTJ: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
With interest in traditions and loyalty, and an ability to make a huge impact despite being quiet, ISTJs will appreciate Wharton’s masterpiece of manners.
I actually do love Edit Wharton’s writing. I even have a Pinterest board devoted to a make-believe puppy I created named after one of her characters.
The part about my supposed “interest in traditions” is interesting though, particularly when it comes to my reading habits. I do like tradition. I was the kid in the family who always insisted we HAD to have Christmas at our house and do it a certain way because it was tradition. But, I think sometimes we read to escape ourselves, to stretch ourselves, to live out in our imaginations the parts of our personalities that we are too rule-abiding, too anxious, too conformist to live out in our actual lives.
What personality type are you? Do you find it to be an accurate portrayal of yourself? What book would you pick for your personality?

The Quote that Stuck with Me

19 Dec

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On Tuesday I posted about the 10 Books That Have Stuck with Me. From those books, there is one quote that’s stuck with me the most. It’s from Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man. The truth is, I don’t even remember the book all that well, but this quote spoke to me when I was sixteen and living in the suburbs of New Jersey, my daily life a boring routine:

It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as “the day I asked for a second cup of coffee,” or “the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast,” and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps, eager for consequences.

I wasn’t the type of person back then who would even send back a piece of burned toast. …I’m still not. I was terribly fearful of consequences. Too fearful to even act most of the time. I tried to be invisible, to blend into the background, to not be seen by my teachers or my peers. I was too afraid. Too afraid of attention. Too afraid at failing. Too afraid at even succeeding (no one likes a know-it-all overachiever).

I had actually gotten turned on to Saul Bellow from The Counting Crows. (Hey, I’m not the only one!) In The Counting Crows song “Rain King,” inspired by Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, Duritz sings:

I belong anywhere but in between

I loved the passion of Bellow’s and Duritz’s characters, but they were not me. I related more to another line from Duritz’s most famous song, “Mr. Jones“:

Grey is my favorite color

I wasn’t a black-or-white person. I didn’t like extremes. I liked the grey, the in between–the safe.

But I was bored. So bored. I could relate to Bellow’s character who wanted a life that consisted of more than just a mild aberration of the routine.

I don’t blame New Jersey or suburban life. Though it was really hard to have a life when you go to school for eight hours a day and then come home to several more hours of homework each night, I can’t even just blame that because I can’t say that I did anything extraordinary in the free time that I did have. I went to the mall. I went to the library. I went to Blockbusters and rented videos with my friends.

It really wasn’t until I left and moved out to California and began taking chances that my life changed. I began to feel more fulfilled as I reached for the things that truly made me happy. I began doing more, choosing more.

All these years later, living in “the city that never sleeps,” I worry I don’t embrace New York City enough. I worry that because I work late hours in the office or find myself at the grocery store instead of at the latest hotspot that I’m not living life to the fullest. That my life is defined by the day there was zucchini bread in the office kitchen or the day the lights eerily went out in the subway for a thirty seconds. And yet sometimes I’m at my happiest when I decide to read a book  instead of going out.

I’m not so afraid of living life anymore, but sometimes I still like the grey, the in between, the routine of toast and coffee.

 

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

10 Books That Have Stuck with Me

17 Dec
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The other night I fell asleep thinking about the books that have stuck with me over the years. My friend had tagged me in a Facebook post about the ten books that have stuck with her—not necessarily the best books or her favorite books, but the ones that come to mind first. She then tagged me and nine other friends to do the same. I figured it would make for a fun blog post because some of the books may come as a surprise.
Without further ado…:
  1. Bread and Honey by Frank Asch
  2. Squiggly Wiggly’s Surprise by Arnold Shapiro
  3. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
  4. Gypsy Summer by Wilma Yeo
  5. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
  6. Sins of the Father by Eileen Franklin
  7. The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
  8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  9. The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
  10. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
I could probably write a blog post for each of these titles on why they stuck with me! I could also add so many more books to the list.
There are a few things I’ll point out about the books that actually made the list, though. The first half of the list are children’s books, or perhaps YA. The first two, in fact, are children’s storybooks, but even today their message remains with me. Adult books have a lot more “grey” in them when it comes to morality and message, as we come to understand the complexities and nuances of life, but I think there’s something to be said for the simple and beautiful messages of children’s picture books.
The other thing I’ll point out is that the second half of the list was all read more than ten years ago. Actually, number 6 on the list I read in middle school, and the only book post-undergrad on the list is number 10. It’s obviously not that I haven’t read since then or that I haven’t read good books since then. In fact, I took fantastic literature classes while working toward my MFA and was exposed to books that shaped the way I think about literature and writing. It’s just that when I think of books that have really stuck with me over the years, I was thinking of books that have stood the test of time.
I tag you! What 10 books have stuck with you? Leave them in the comments below.

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Retracing Jack Kerouac Mentions Me

7 Jun

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The other day I mentioned how J. Haeske and I have been talking about the correlation between Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck. I feel honored that the Retracing Jack Kerouac blog linked back to that conversation.

On the blog, Haeske reveals that it’s one of Steinbeck’s books that’s his favorite—not Kerouac’s. Can I let you in on a secret? Saul Bellow is probably* my favorite author. (*It’s hard to pick just one! That’s like picking your favorite child! Kerouac’s obviously right up there among my favorites with Bellow.) It’s interesting to discover that although we primarily blog about Kerouac and go to great lengths to read his works, study his literary techniques, research his biography, and retrace his footsteps, there might be one other author or book that for whatever reason we call our favorite.

Is that weird? Do you have a favorite book? Is your favorite book different from your favorite author?

Life Continues to Be Absurd: Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph O’Niell

11 Apr

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When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher gave our class a list of topics we could do our research papers on. We had never studied Saul Bellow before, but his name was on the list, and I chose to write about his absurd heroes. As Wikipedia states:

In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any.

When you’re an angsty teenager, life is Absurd. Writing out Spanish vocabulary words three times each in a row for homework was absurd. Learning square dancing in gym class while living in northern New Jersey was absurd. Having to do math long-hand when calculators existed was absurd. Parents were absurd. The routine of waking up, eating cold cuts for lunch, doing homework until bedtime was all absurd. Surely, there had to be more to life than this humdrum suburban life?

When I became an adult, working in a cubicle, my personal email address had the following quote from Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man:

It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as ‘the day I asked for a second cup of coffee,’ or ‘the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast,’ and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps, eager for consequences.

It turned out, even when you’re an adult, life is Absurd. I was supposed to be over that the melodramatic apathy of a teenager, but I couldn’t shake that feeling that there had to be more to life. And I don’t think I was living a life more boring than most people. I was working in New York City. I had an enviable job. I had my own one-bedroom apartment. I had a boyfriend. I had a great group of friends. I was happy. But the routine of the day-in, day-out felt so mundane and ordinary … and meaningless. Being happy and successful wasn’t enough.

This is what Saul Bellow’s books capture so wonderfully. At the end of Henderson the Rain King–it came out in 1959; deal with the spoiler–the main character realizes that instead of searching to fulfill his own desires, he should have been helping others get what they want. It’s a long book, and it takes Henderson a long time to get there. Isn’t that just like life? He goes on a road trip of sorts to Africa. He sort of bumbles his way through adventures and has a lot of philosophical mad talk.

It’s because I first read and studied Saul Bellow that I was primed to understand Jack Kerouac. Even though I read it first, Henderson the Rain King actually came out two years after Kerouac’s On the Road, in which bumbling characters frenetically philosophized while road tripping across America. Both Bellow’s and Kerouac’s characters, sensing the alienation and Absurdism of life, have a longing that can best be described as spiritual. The dates of these books’ publications are important to note: Both Bellow and Kerouac had been in the merchant marine during World War II, and these are postwar novels dealing with the philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life.

Tonight, Joseph O’Niell is reading at the Saul Bellow Slam II at Housing Works. O’Niell is the author of  Netherland. This beautiful novel isn’t written in the aftermath of World War II, like Bellow’s and Kerouac’s works, but of September 11. James Wood, however, wrote in the New Yorker, that it has been “consistently misread as a 9/11 novel, which stints what is most remarkable about it: that it is a postcolonial re-writing of The Great Gatsby.” Astute as that revelation is, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a post-World-War-I novel, whose narrator is  war veteran swept up in Gatsby’s boozy parties that allow people to escape the mundaneness of their lives through social interaction. Netherlands, likewise, deals with the human need for connection.

We live in an Absurd world. We live in a sanitized, consumer, over-educated-and-underemployed culture. There are mass shootings and stabbings and an ongoing war. It is tempting to disengage, to “turn on, boot up, jack in,” as Timothy Leary said. Oftentimes, those who do choose to engage fashion themselves as critics and don a coat of irony. They comment on life from afar instead of risking to bumble through it.

I struggle with letting my walls down, with opening up. I don’t like the idea that people might think the most memorable thing about my day is that I had two cups of coffee or ate burnt toast. It’s hard to admit I long for something more, that I’m not satisfied. I keep turning to this literature, though, and I sense that this dissatisfaction or angst is a good thing. This world will never satisfy, and if I am too comfortable or too fulfilled or too put-together then I am probably deluding myself.

Writing Wednesday: Symbolism Is Alright in “Fiction”

25 Jan

I wasn’t a fan girl when I was a teen.  I never really had the audacity to write a letter to an author or musician or to stand in line to ask for their autographs.  These were important people with busy lives.  I didn’t want to interrupt their work with my silly, affectionate musings.  I had too much respect for them—and too much pride.  I would’ve been crushed if they’d turned me down.

That wasn’t the case with sixteen-year-old Bruce McAllister.  In 1963, he sent off a survey to the most famous authors of the day, including my personal favorites, Jack Kerouac and Saul Bellow.  And they wrote him back.

The Paris Review published these letters, in which the authors answer McAllister’s survey about symbolism.

Jack Kerouac’s response:

Symbolism is alright in “Fiction” but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.

I find his use of the word “simply” so fascinating.  The response could be matter-of-fact (I’m just telling a story and not thinking about writerly devices) or it could be methodology (I tell stories in a simple manner and don’t put symbols in it).

A few months ago, someone read a portion of the memoir I’m writing and said they saw symbols pertaining to two of the people in the story.  They suggested I push those symbols further.  It was an interesting conversation because I was simply writing true life events, and the symbol they saw for one of the people just happened to be something central to who they are.  It’s something I associated with the person long before they became a “character” with “symbols,” similar to the ideas I wrote about in my Burnside Writers Collective essay “Coffee and Portraiture and the Associations We Make.”  The dangerous part, though, in assigning symbols in real life stories is that life and people are complex, not easily contained, shifting.  So when my reader pointed out the obvious “symbol” of one “character,” they immediately leapt to the conclusion that the other character was in contrast to that person and deserving of an opposite symbol.  Maybe there’s some validity to that idea in fiction, but in real life people don’t exist simply to define, parallel, or contrast other people.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.