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Wednesday, May 19, 2004
  If it were not for the appealing title and author’s name which caught my eye when the list of books was going around the room earlier this year, I would have probably never read this book. In many respects the content of the book itself appealed to me in the same way. The book is a collection of eight short stories that are all about African-American life experience. When I started reading the book I was initially focused on the fact that the stories were from the perspective of an African American, and I wondered if I would be able to appreciate the book the same way an African American would be able to. This is not to say that it is impossible for someone to appreciate stories whose characters are of a different race or ethnicity, but sometimes when a reader experience is significantly different if he or she can identify with certain aspects of the characters in a story. However, when I finished the first story called “Brownies” which was a preteen angst tale about a girl scout troop away at camp, my enjoyment of the story and enthusiasm to read on were clear illustrations of Packer’s ability to connect with readers who might not identify with the characters.
The book is infused with vivid and bold prose that captured me at moments when the storyline itself did not appeal to me. This made reading the book an interesting experience because I found myself going back over phrases and descriptions that for some reason or another just struck me. When Packer describes black skin as both “yam colored” and “the color of good scotch,” I couldn’t help but chuckle. These are the kinds of descriptive phrases successfully connect with a wide array of readers, and I’m a perfect example. As a 22 year old college student I’m confident only that a yam is in someway related to the potato family and thus is kind of brown? But with all my macho college bravado I can describe for you the different shades of brown which color scotch whiskey depending on the region in Scotland from which it originates. More importantly, I can picture it perfectly. Not perfectly because I can picture it the way the author may have pictured it or other readers pictured it, but because the picture is fresh and vivid in my own imagination. I don’t think that Packer consciously aims her language at specific audiences or that her wide variety of language is necessarily aimed at engaging as many readers as possible. Instead, I think that the Packer’s demonstrated natural creativity causes her to instinctively employ these unique linguistic tools to further invigorate her story.
I will admit that I was skeptical at first that I would not enjoy the book because African American fiction is a subject matter I have read a significant amount of during high school and college. The books distinct descriptive quality reminds me of the descriptions in Toni Morrison’s Sula, which was also a book I enjoyed reading. One of the advantages I think Packer has in her stories is that children are great characters to use for descriptions. Packer capitalizes on this advantage giving us the world through the eyes of the children in most of her stories. Parker’s use of the children in her story to provide great descriptions is a more difficult task then it might seem. When I tried writing a story earlier this year with a child as the main character I found myself constantly hitting walls unable to fully take advantage of what using a child as a main character can offer a story. The most important lesson I have learned from these stories however is the benefit of linguistic appeal in prose writing. In fact, I may even look back on occasion to Packer’s writing for pointers when I write some fiction for fun hopefully in the future!
 
  During study week I attended the "Plug" literary magazine reading in the AD White House. I got there about ten minutes late, but the readding was really enjoyable. The books with the poems being read were provided in the back of the room, which I actually think took away from the experience in the end. I noticed while I was listening to the reading that a lot of people were reading along with the people speaking, which I thought was unfortunate because I found reading along to distract me from listening to the speakers. Some of the readers I also found were reading too closely from their poems. It's certainly difficult to memorize poems, even ones you've written yourself, but the readers who were able to look up more and who had the poems more substantially memorized had a better effect on the audience. One of the poems was called "wasted" which in a very college humor way I thought was pretty funny. The poem basically described being wasted in a playground, and it was appropriate for the college audience. I also thought the poem was lyrically(not sure if that one's a word) fun. It was an entertaining poem in content and wording. The many different sense stimulating things that are in a playground make it an interesting place to be when you're drunk, not that I'd know from experience. There was also one very long poem that really sounded like almost like an essay rather than a poem. I don't remember the title of it, but it was essentially a stream of thought by a female poet. I really enjoyed her reading of the work, and I actually found in the end when I was looking at on of the books in the back that reading the poem to myself really didn't do it for me the same way listening to her read the poem did. There was a lot of personal honesty in her poem I thought, and it the poet really got into reading the poem which gave it more emotion. There was also one poet who was not there, but had his/her work read by someone else. It was an interesting contrast I thought because though the reader clearly had practiced a couple of times before the reading, it didn't seem as natural as some of the other poems that were read by their authors. 
  My town is one of the many commuter burbs outside NYC. I guess you could say it was refounded by English settlers who displaced (to put it mildly) an obscure Native American tribe that I think is technically part of the Iroquois Nation. The little town logo of a Native American and I guess what’s supposed to be an English settler nicely portrays the elementary school text book version of events whereby all the white people and the red people ate dinner together in November and by the end of dinner the white people had graciously moved into town. There may still be some decendants of the settlers in my town, but I’m pretty confident we haven’t had anyone related to the original inhabitants there for quite some time. I guess more recently my town, which is called Scarsdale by the way, is best known for the Scarsdale Diet. It’s a great story actually, the doctor who created the diet started sleeping around with his patience whom he was advising about weight loss (I guess the diet was a real success, and some of the patience were just showing their appreciation) and his wife found out and killed him. When the story of the doctor’s murder hit the news the diet took off, though I’m not sure who’s making all the money off the diet. I don’t know that much of my town’s history has shaped my life, I never even learned what the actual Scarsdale diet entails, just the story behind it’s success. Not much else has happened in the town, though Bill Clinton was looking at houses for a while when he was looking for a place in New York to move to.  
  This is in response to Anna’s Blog dated 3/19

I liked your piece about truth. I actually found myself making the same point to a history professor of mine the other day after I expressed my disillusionment with one of my classes. The professor assigned a textbook that we read recently for the first time and we all realized that it’s a 7th grade textbook! It’s filled with ridiculous stuff that is either completely off base or just factually false. The professor claims he only wanted to use the book for an exercise on document analysis it has in it, but we’re all pretty confident he just randomly picked the book accidentally.
Anyway, back to my more direct response. Something I’ve learned, often painfully, from being a history major at this school is that for almost every historical fact or story you learned before you got here, there is some other account or fact which contradicts what you’ve learned and that rival historians spend all their time arguing about. These arguments can often be very boring, especially when one historian sounds out of his mind, but every so often a great controversy will come up and historians will reverse longstanding historical beliefs. We actually just had a professor visit with us from Emory I think, and he has recently demonstrated that the subject of the first slave biography that was published in the United States and Europe most likely made up a significant portion of his biography. He hasn’t been received as the most popular guy in the world by many academics, but it’s pretty neat to hear him speak about his quest to learn more about his targeted subject. In any event, your post made me think of my conversation, and the idea that it’s important to keep studying areas such as history because that is the only way to counter the filtered history we are taught in high school.
 
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
  This was not my first visit to the Johnson museum, though my four years at Cornell outnumber the times I have actually set foot inside the museum. The last time I visited the museum I walked through it a bit more quickly, and I don’t really remember any work having such a great impact on me. This most recent visit was a bit more enjoyable for me, and I even found myself sauntering about beyond the time I had originally planned on leaving the museum. I’m not sure if it was the bad weather that we have been having, or the amount of time I have been spending in front of computer screens lately, but something about being surrounded by art put me at ease more than ever before.
I was more drawn to the Rembrandt painting than I remember being the last time I visited the museum, though I’m never sure if it’s the actual painting or the fact that I’m looking at a Rembrandt that has an effect on me. I was particularly drawn to the painting of Villa De’Este by Isaac De Moucheron especially since I traveled through Italy this past summer. I am sure that the painting was more appealing to me because the landscape subject matter had greater significance for me. The painting speaks to me (to be cliché), but I wonder if I had not traveled to Italy this summer whether I would have had the same or any reaction to the painting. Just like when we apply our past experience in our interpretation of creative writing, I wonder if my past experience and association of the painting to my wonderful trip in Italy overwhelms my ability to appreciate the painting objectively.
I am normally a big fan of photographic art, and though I thought the new exhibit “Girl Culture” was interesting, it just didn’t quite do it for me. First off, I found myself a touch uncomfortable walking through the exhibit, since it seemed to me to be something that females could of course relate to in most instances better than guys. I also found myself frustrated at times throughout the exhibit. Every so often I just wanted to shake the girl in the picture and say “look at what your doing to yourself,” and “stop caring so much about what you look like.” Now I know that’s a very insensitive guy thing to say, and I am not going to lie and say that I haven’t in some way reinforced this cultural overemphasis on thin=beauty etc, but that was my gut reaction. I would imagine that other people had a similar reaction to the exhibit, but the same aspect of our culture that allows us to criticize these cultural flaws while almost daily perpetuating them in pop culture, also makes my reaction socially feaux paux.
Well now that that little rant is over, what has the art taught me about writing. Well first off, I think an important issue I reevaluated during and since my visit is how does past experience and personal subjectivity effect both what the writer writes and what the reader reads. If a writer and his reader have very different backgrounds, it is logical that a reader could takeaway a message from a literary work that the writer never even considered. As active readers we bring something to whatever piece we read. Though some of the works were appealing to me, nothing hit a homerun for me. It’s hard, if not impossible to describe what kind of art really “does it” for me, but like pornography, “I know it when I see it.” But regardless of the fact that nothing at the museum had such a strong impact on me, I still found my experience very pleasant and relaxing. It is always nice to be confronted with an extraordinary work of art, but just as in writing, even works that are not extraordinary can be successful.
 
  Literary Review: Iowa Review

The Iowa Review is a very diverse literary magazine. Even I’m not positive what I mean there, but it is the first thought that comes to my mind. My choice to review the magazine was really no more than a combination of most of the other options already being taken and my curiosity as to what the people in Iowa write about. The Iowa Review is published three times a year by the Department of English and the Graduate College of the University of Iowa. Unfortunately because the library only has one copy of each issue of the magazine, and it had sent the most recent copy to be bound in hard cover for storage (which apparently takes more than a month to accomplish) the issue I reviewed was winter ‘02/’03.
The diversity of the magazine to me, lies in the type of writing it contains. In addition to varying styles of prose and poetry, the pieces also cover a varied array of subjects. I also found some of the pieces more intensely intellectual than others in the magazine. For example the first piece, “The Literal and the Literacy,” is essentially a treatise about linguistics. The piece is interesting in many parts, and very intellectual, but after a while anyone who is not “nuts for linguistics” easily loses interest. This piece was the most strictly academic piece in the magazine and even contained a “works cited” section at the end.
I found many of the creative pieces in the magazine very enjoyable. One of the poems titled “Cow” was very reminiscent of a narrative by Tim O’Brien we read earlier in the semester. The poem describes the destruction of a cow by soldiers in a war, and after reading it I right away thought of O’Brien’s narrative which describes soldiers killing a cow in Vietnam. I found the spacing of the poem appealing since the words are somewhat scattered around the page without any real pattern lending to the chaotic nature of the scene the poem describes.
The prose piece I enjoyed the most in the magazine was “On Aesthetics” by Lia Purpura. The piece is a personal narrative of a mother during the time she is pregnant, and after she has given birth. The narrative does not include an actual description of the mother giving birth, rather it focuses on how pregnancy and motherhood effect the mother’s observation of the world surrounding her. The narrative does a great job of expressing the angst and nerves of the expecting mother about motherhood, and how motherhood is constantly on the mother’s mind. By providing the mother’s observation of parent – child interaction the author illustrates the mother’s own thoughts and worries about parenting without directly stating them. The most appealing part of the piece for me was the introspective nature of the piece.
Another interesting aspect of the magazine was that several of the authors included well known quotes on the first page of their pieces. The quotes do not always bare direct relation to the piece and do not appear before all of the pieces, but every so often they provide the reader with a refreshing break from the full form works of literature.
In addition to the literary content of the magazine, the Iowa Review also has a section in the beginning titled “Human Rights Index,” which is prepared by the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights. The index provides numbers and then a description of the significance of the numbers. For example in the first subsection of the index it says “21,793,300: Estimated number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons worldwide.” The index is made up of two pages and has subsections titled “Refugees,” “Asylum-Seekers,” and “Internally Displaced Persons.” At first glance I found the index a curious part of the magazine, and I began reading with the thought in the back of my mind that magazine would be very political in nature. It’s not. After reading through the magazine I came back to this section and looked at it more carefully. Though at first I was uncertain about the inclusion of the index in the magazine, after reading the magazine once through I decided that the index, though not very in depth, added substance to the magazine. The small amount of extra documentary knowledge that the reader takes away from the index is an added bonus to the magazine’s primary function as a literary resource.
The piece in the magazine that I enjoyed the most was a poem called “Ask Martha,” written by Elizabeth Thelen. The poem is a parody of the “Ask Martha” column in the felonious Martha Stewart’s magazine Living. The poem starts out with a three line question from a “reader” which asks about mildew. Right away Thelen provides humor starting the response:
“Dear Reader,
Mildew is your punishment
for not being the woman
you should be.”(p. 116)
If that were the type of real response Martha gave in her magazine I might actually read it sometime. This humorous mocking tone continues throughout the letter which is written in a meter of some kind with anywhere from 5-10 syllables per line. The poetic twist combined with the humorous tone of the letter make it a really fun piece to read. The poem also reminded me of the assignment from earlier in the semester which incorporated some sort of pop culture format.
The magazine is long, and though enjoyable I certainly did not fly through it. I came away with a couple of pieces I really liked, but nothing blew me away. I would recommend the Iowa Review to anyone who wants a really varied array of literary works, but it is certainly not a light read unless you are very selective about the pieces within the magazine you chose to read.
 
Saturday, March 27, 2004
  When I am looking for truth, such as a truthful account of an event, I go to whatever source of information about the event is most disengaged from the event. Personal accounts of people involved in a situation almost always contains some sort of bias, and so any source that is less involved in the situation and more objective is the best source for truth. In my studies in history I have often found that the only way to determine the truth about the past when working with primary documents is to find opposing biased documents use them to balance each other out in determining what actually occurred. Though technological mediums such as video and still photos can serve as an important source in determining truth, they too can be misleading or not provide enough information for us to determine the truth. Though it seems logical to believe that there is always one truth, differences in interpretation of data and perspectives makes it difficult to determine absolute truths in situations that are not overly simple. 
  Because of the amount of writing I now do on the computer I have found that my writing has a much more physical dimension than it ever had before. When I am typing I find myself consumed with the need to fill the entire white computer screen with black letters. I also find myself paying more attention to the actual geometric shape of my writing on a page. When I write by hand on a pad of paper I feel a greater need to fill each line as much as possible and often find myself curving the last word of each line so that I can just fit it on the line. I have also found that because I can type much faster then I can write by hand, writing by hand is more difficult for me since my mind is working faster then I can write the thoughts down on paper. As a result I often leave out letters or entire words when I am writing by hand because I am rushing to keep up with my thoughts. There is also a rhythmic dimension to my writing that I almost subconsciously try to achieve. When I try to stray from the rhythmic pattern that I am used to it is very difficult for me to write, and I often find myself in a writing rut. Where I actually do my writing often depends on the type of writing I am doing. When I am writing a history paper I often like to write in an older room that resembles a traditional study such as the AD White room in Uris library. When I am writing creatively I like to be outside if possible, or I like to be somewhere with other people to provide some sort of distraction/inspiration. 
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
  It’s a rectangle about three feet tall, two feet wide and two feet deep. The outside is smooth and white, and it has Haier written on it. It is probably one of the most important objects I have owned in my college career. Inside it is very cold, and depending on how recently I have cleaned it, it doesn’t smell too bad. On weekdays it is filled with fruit, some meet, and occasionally a left over meal. On weekends it is often stocked with light beers; generally cans because they fit best in the bottom shelf. The bottom shelf has an interesting pattern of food crust that appears to be permanently stuck to the bottom surface. Because of a small chip on the side of the interior that happened my sophomore year the first level metal grate sits on an angle and as a result any food on that grate sits in the back left corner. On the exterior of the fridge are also magnets each with a different word that when combined together make a variety of different sentences.  
  Before my sophomore year at Cornell I had heard and read the famous Gettysburg address many times. Though I understood the significance of the address I was never truly moved by the address until it was recited by a history professor, Richard Polenberg, in his course American Constitutional Development. In fact it was professor Polenberg’s recitation and reaction to the address which motivated me to become a history major. In many of my previous experiences listening to teachers and actors recite the address the performers often overly dramatized the address by using a forceful tone of voice. When professor Polenberg recited the address, rather than dramatize the address with his voice the professor allowed the words to be dramatic instrument of the address. Pausing at moments when he found the language truly moving, the professor’s recitation was one of the first times I have ever really concentrated on the dramatic language of the address rather than the dramatic style in which someone performed the address. The professor’s reaction to the words of the address also had a strong impact on me.  
  When I was in elementary school one of my favorite songs that we learned in our music class was called “The Opposite Song.” The song was filled with lines that had opposite meanings for example: “I went to the movies tomorrow, and I took a front seat in the back. I said to the lady behind me I cannot see over your hat.” At a time when I was being taught to express myself through clear succinct sentences, I always found this song a great release because of its intended pattern of nonsense. Every so often I still think about the lyrics of the song, especially when someone talks about the importance of clarity in writing. In each sentence the inclusion of two parts which have meanings that are opposite to each other has a rhythmic nature. Though singing the song was always fun in elementary school, I no longer remember how to actually sing the song, I only remember the lyrics because of their rhythmic pattern. 
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