Category Archives: Literature

“Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.” -John Steinbeck

The Great Summer Reading List

books

The Summer Reading List is a staple of summer vacations. Like beaches, fireworks, and barbecues, books are a necessity for good summers. I’m sure countless psychologists, anthropologists, literary scholars, and social scientists have devoted hour after hour to calculating the best equation for a summer reading list. It should be filled with books one has meant to read but hasn’t had time to yet. It should be diverse in genre, not just balancing poetry, novels, and plays, but adventure, drama, comedy, romance, or any combination of the reader’s personal preferences. Often they have new releases paired with classics. My summer reading list is hefty; it has books I’ve been meaning to get around to for over five years, as well as books I just discovered months ago. Some come recommended by friends, others I picked up off the shelf on a whim. However, it is most important for a summer reading list to be leisurely and enjoyable. I’ve certainly enjoyed my list so far, and have no intention of slowing my reading until I have to get back to work in the Fall.

My list is as follows:

The Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail (Iraqi poetry)

A Dog About Town by J. F. Englert (murder mystery narrated by a dog)

The Long and Short of It by Pamela Painter (short stories)

The Theory and Practice of Rivers by Jim Harrison (poetry)

With a Strange Scent of World by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (Cuban poetry)

The Propheteers by Max Apple (historical fiction novel)

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (novel)

The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry

Literature from the ‘Axis of Evil’ by various authors (anthology of works from Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Sudan, and Syria)

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry 

Fall 2014 edition of Cardinal Sins (literary journal)

Book of Grass by J. V. Brummels (Midwestern poetry)

They Came to Jerome by Herbert Young (Arizona History)

Salt by Earl Lovelace (Trinidadian novel)

Our Father Who Wasn’t There by David Carlin (Australian memoir)

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka (Nigerian play)

Volume 35, No. 1 of Mid-American Review (literary journal)

Healing Earthquakes by Jimmy Santiago Baca (poetry)

Aimless Love by Billy Collins (poetry)

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (South African novel)

The Blizzard Voices by Ted Kooser (Midwestern poetry)

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque (WWI novel)

The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck (novel)

The Business of Fancydancing by Sherman Alexie (poetry and short stories)

Emails from Scheherazad by Mohja Khaf (Syrian-American poetry)

What books are on your summer reading list? Any favorites? Leave a comment and let me know what you’ve been reading.

-jk

The Best Advice From Four Years of College

Works

I now begin what will probably be numerous entries reflecting on the past four years of my life, as I near graduation and shores unknown. Be prepared for a lot of sentiment and confusion. For now, I’m going to let my peers and mentors tell you what I’ve learned; the following quotes are from the people who have inspired me in college, friends and professors and faculty. These little stones of thought cannot encapsulate my experience with the array of teachers I’ve met at college, but this mosaic, I hope, will be enough to show you the diverse voices I’ve had the honor of working with.

“Good writers are simultaneously gifted and burdened with insight and razor sharp observational skills, making them hypersensitive to the world around them. And believe me, if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.” -Professor Armstrong (Creative Nonfiction)

“There’s no one way to do feminist criticism, and at a certain point, no matter what an author does, somebody will call it bad. If a female protagonist is sexually independent and active, a critic will argue she’s being hypersexualized and that she’s a negative portrayal of women; if a female protagonist doesn’t participate in sex at all, another critic will say she’s being sexually repressed and is a negative portrayal of how women should act. And we should remember that there’s no one right answer.” -Professor Renner (Sci-Fi Literature)

“The kind of dizziness people felt when they talked to Socrates is what I feel now after learning and listening to everything around me and trying to take it all in. That kind of dizziness is good. It’s the beginning of a thought process.” -J.E. (friend and writer)

“Online research can be helpful, even digital humanities, even though saying that makes me cringe. But when it comes down to it, the best way a historian can conduct research, to put it one way, is to have boots on the ground. You have to go out and find your sources in person.” -Professor Reese (Islamic Reformist Movements)

“If the story I heard on the radio today about black holes is true, then nothing we do is important, and I’m okay with that.” -Fritz (friend and teacher)

“What will a discussion solve? We can have a really good discussion about history, but if we leave it inside the classroom, it’s just an exercise in academic masturbation.” -Professor Kalb (World War One)

“Everything is problematic. If I hear the word one more time, I’ll flip. Is it so bad to just enjoy a story?” -M.W. (friend and writer)

“Study literature, all literature. You’ll be poor, but you’ll be free.” -Professor Canfield (Postcolonial Literature)

“Stay calm. Just stay here and relax. It’s only an earthquake.” -Mayan spiritual leader

“Studies have already proven that reading literary fiction can make you more compassionate, and being compassionate is really the only hope for humanity.” -Professor Stalcup (Fiction Writing)

“You can only do what you can. We raised so much money for water for migrants; two hundred people are still going to die crossing the border this year.” -A.K. (friend and historian)

“Culture is really the driving force for any movement, and every movement has its own culture. Counter-culture is still culture, still follows the same rules and influences other cultures do.” -Professor Dakan (Resistance and Activism)

“Just asking questions and getting to know people, everyone, can help you out no matter where you go in the world.” -C.T. (friend and traveler)

“I don’t accept the nature of this world. But every so often something warrants a chuckle.” -E.V. (friend and poet)

“There’s no such thing as multitasking. True focus can’t be applied to multiple tasks at once. Everything you do on your phones while trying to listen to a lecture is called serial tasking.” -Professor Sullivan (Asian Mysticism)

“You can do a lot with a B.A. in English. Or one can. You, maybe not.” -Barb (friend and boss)

“Maybe we should stop defining women’s rights so superficially, like whether or not they wear a burqa, and look at bigger-picture issues, like education or healthcare. These are strong, resilient women who survived up to thirty years of war. Let’s treat them as such.” -Professor Martin (Afghanistan)

“A lot of us treat romantic love like it’s a really new thing that somehow never existed in the ancient world. But look at the wording these playwrights use. Look at the anguish and loneliness. I think this is proof that they had a concept of romantic love, similar to ours, at least in ancient Athens. What does that say about humans? About us?” -Professor Kosso (Ancient Athenian Democracy)

“Fuck off.” -E.N. (my muse)

 

A Brief Note About the Best Weekend of the Year*

*or, That Time I Went to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2015 Conference in Minneapolis

Conference 1

“Listen to the language you start with in the first paragraphs. That will shape the rest of the story more than you are aware.” –Pamela Painter on first drafts.

Every year, thousands of writing programs, small presses and literary magazines, publishing companies, writers new and old, writing teachers, and students flock together to share their books, writing programs, new releases, and innovations in the literary community. Thanks to the NAU Honors Program, I joined several friends in attending the conference, and it was one of the most beneficial experiences of my academic life.

“The MFA program is useful because it’s a break from the capitalist shitstorm. It lets you work without giving you black lung, and lets you focus on writing. The problem is that it doesn’t prepare you for life back in the capitalist shitstorm after it’s over.” –Claire Vaye Watkins.

Conference 2

Despite our travel plans going wrong, we made it. Because Arizona does not acknowledge daylight savings time  (but Greyhound does), we missed our bus by an hour. We decided to take a shuttle to Phoenix and ended up taking two different shuttles an hour apart, but eventually gathered in Sky Harbor with enough time to bankrupt ourselves from airport food. By late afternoon and with much applause, we landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, amidst rain and snow.

“One of the hardest things for an Arab to accomplish is to live apolitically.” –Hayan Charara on whether or not writing should be political.

The conference has two features, an exhaustive list of panels and a colossal book fair. I spent most of my time in the less popular conferences, and tried to explore as rich and diverse a selection of topics as possible:

conference swagLiterature from communities in diaspora, featuring Vietnamese-, Korean-, and Arab-American writers; a reading of flash fiction, from six-word memoirs to 1,000-word short-shorts; a reading from Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and a signing of his newest collection With a Strange Scent of World; a set of memoir readings from U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a discussion on translating Brazilian minority poets; a lengthy discussion from MFA teachers about the usefulness of seeking an MFA in Creative Writing in the first place; a panel on the usefulness of historical fiction and the rules one can break with it; a beautiful poetry reading from Iranian Farzaneh Milani, Syrian Mohja Khaf, and Iraqi Dunya Mikhail plus a list of historical women poets in the Arab-speaking world; a panel on writing as advocacy; and a reading of creative nonfiction about the value of speculation in nonfiction works.

“The ‘other’ for the writer is simply everyone.” –Elizabeth Kadetsky on the relationship between writers and the world.

The conference reinvigorated my love of writing, but unmasked a great many myths and expectations upon which I had previously built my understanding of the writing life. I now understand that the MFA racket is not all it’s cracked up to be; though certainly useful if applied correctly, MFAs are neither necessary nor financially sustainable if one wants to be a writer. I now have a greater appreciation for the need for good translators, and how deeply politicized translations can become when meaning and identity are at stake crossing the thresholds between languages. Flash fiction is more than an exercise in economizing language but a growing form of art itself.

Lastly, and most importantly, being a lone writer, while romantic, is terrible; good writing can only ever come from the experiences a writer internalizes and interprets, so I must accumulate as many experiences as possible, good, unpleasant, awkward, funny, humiliating, beautiful, terrifying, or calming. Time is not what I need as a writer; a community of friends, loved ones, people who inspire me, are what I really need. This trip generated more ideas for stories than anything I’ve done inside a classroom, and it is to my friends that I owe my ability to write, if I can say I possess such an ability in the first place.

friends

-jk

In Search of the Perfect Beer Milkshake

Beer Shake

“If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known. But then, a man with a beard, ordering a beer milk shake in a town where he wasn’t known–they might call the police.” -John Steinbeck in Cannery Row.

My favorite author, John Steinbeck, is known for his epic novels about the lives of the working poor like The Grapes of Wrath. While I love his longer works, the Steinbeck novel that has had the most influence on me is Cannery Row, more a collection of interconnected stories than a novel. I first discovered it four years ago, and I have reread it every fall to rediscover the magic of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in Montery, California, which he calls “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

In one story, the main character Doc remembers somebody commenting that he loves beer so much, “someday [he’ll] go in and order a beer milk shake.” Because he is safely out of town, he takes the bet and orders one, providing the following recipe: “Put in some milk, and add half a bottle of beer. Give me the other half in a glass–no sugar in the milk shake.” Because Doc is one of my favorite literary characters, I attempted to make a beer milkshake following Doc’s specifications.

It turned out dreadfully, so I worked on changing the recipe. Because several restaurants have already experimented with beer milkshakes, one can probably find several recipes online, but here, I offer my own.

1 bottle of beer (preferably a flavorful ale or stout)

3 scoops vanilla ice cream

1/4 cup milk

1 tablespoon sugar

2-3 icecubes

Beer Shake

Combine all ingredients in a blender and serve fresh and cold.

Beer Shake I tested numerous variations of the beer milkshake. With dark beers, I tried adding chocolate sauce. With ales, I tried using only ice cream and beer, nothing else. I don’t know what Steinbeck was thinking when he wrote about Doc’s excursions into the world of beer milkshakes; he wrote that “it wasn’t so bad–it just tasted like stale beer and milk.” I may have taken Steinbeck fandom to an extreme, but his work is dear to my heart. For now, I’m content to read my favorite writer, take his jokes too seriously, and remember his reflections on the world:

Cannery Row’s “inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”

Nothing Gets Past Hercule Poirot

PoirotOne of the most influential fictional detectives, Hercule Poirot, achieved a unique fame during his literary life. Created by Agatha Christie, he appeared in thirty-three novels, numerous more short stories, and upon his death became the only fictional character whose obituary was published in The New York Times. Although his creator despised him as a character, Poirot’s fans loved him. Recently, Poirot died a second time with the final portrayal by David Suchet, who played the Belgian detective in an adaptation of every story Christie wrote about him, ending a lengthy career with his final story, Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.

Poirot may not be the most famous fictional detective. He has not entered popular culture the way Sherlock Holmes has; Christie, unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, did not choose to bring him back from his death, making his demise far more permanent than Holmes’s. But he is one of the most important detectives in the genre, relying on his “little grey cells” and watching the world with a meticulous eye. Perpetually calculating, though always a gentleman, he is far from the theatrically awkward, over-the-top socially inept kind of detective so common today, ranging from Batman to Dexter Morgan. Instead, Poirot falls into the believably quirky set of detectives, Miss Marple, Inspector Morse, Nero Wolfe, and Colombo. He is self-assured, confident, slightly neurotic, easily discomforted, and obsessive. His fans love him for many of the same reasons Christie hated him.

For many Poirot fans including myself, it is impossible to think of the detective without also thinking of Suchet’s portrayal. When I read Christie’s novels and stories, I hear Suchet’s light, Belgian accent, his distinct articulation, and his intonation whenever Poirot speaks. I picture Suchet with a curled mustache, cautious eyes, and fine suit when I read Poirot’s descriptions. Like many Poirot fans, I watched Suchet’s final performance with great difficulty because I knew it was his last act. But his adaptation is so fine-tuned after decades of practice, watching Poirot wither away in a wheelchair and struggle to solve an impossible case made me cringe. I know it was only an adaptation, but I would like to think that Suchet would have made Christie admire her Belgian detective, even though she loathed him by the end.

Bringing Poirot to life was Suchet’s magnum opus as an actor, or so I thought. Now I know the importance of bringing a character to death, to place him in the grave with dignity, to do justice to his final breaths and make audiences lament their loss. Suchet prompted such a lament.

-jk