A burst of nonfiction.

From a professional standpoint, this semester has been my busiest yet. I’ve assumed a new role, I had a course overload, and a few of my courses were particularly heavy in terms of reading/prep load. A number of things fell by the wayside because of this new busyness, including my extracurricular reading. But this will not be a post about how busy I am. I refuse to buy into that mindset. I feel as if we are a culture obsessed with the idea of being busy, regardless of whether or not we really are. We are constantly telling others how busy we are, and we’re also always making sure that others feel guilty if they aren’t as busy as us. As a teacher, I’m used to being the recipient of this mindset. Instead of being happy for me, most of my friends display explicit bitterness and scorn at the thought of me getting off four weeks over the holidays or multiple months over the summer. They. Can’t. Believe it. “Must be nice…” is a refrain I hear on a regular basis. Yes, you’re right: It is nice. Thanks for reminding me. If you’re so miserable, pick a career that doesn’t make you mad all the time.

But that’s not the focus of this post.

The majority of my semester was spent in books for my classes. Many of these books were great, such as Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, another re-reading of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and a wild, unexpected ride through Mo Yan’s Frog, a novel about China’s One Child Policy. But, somehow, a couple of weeks ago I found myself starting a book totally unrelated to class–and also totally unrelated to my normal type of reading. As soon as I finished that one, I started another that was equally removed from my norm. I’ve got thoughts about both; I’ll start with the latter.

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Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance (2016)

I’ve been aware of this book since it came out, mostly because it was always on bookshelves close to the entrances of bookstores. I didn’t know much about the actual content, but my familiarity with the cover was a clear indication that this book was selling widely and was being read and talked about by lots of people. I remember picking it up at one point, reading the first page or so, and being struck by Vance’s self-effacing opening lines about how he isn’t special and really has no idea why anyone would even read a book he wrote. I appreciate honesty like this, and I was intrigued, but I never bought it and I never read it. Until last week.

I found out that, via a card at my local library, I have access to free audiobooks. I’ve never been an audiobook person, but given the chance to scroll through titles that were free, I had no reason not to. One of the first books that the algorithm-based app Libby recommended to me was Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and since it was pretty short (under 7 hours), I “rented” it. A few days later, I had it finished. This is perhaps partly because I liked it, but I think more than anything it’s the reality of how easy it is to find time to listen to audiobooks. Between showering, getting dressed, cooking breakfast, and driving to work, it wasn’t hard for me to listen to at least an hour each morning. Throw in a trip to the gym and various other in-between times, and I had the book finished in less than a week.

I can see why the book has been such a big seller, and I also understand why Vance is someone that made the talk show circuits and has been interviewed by lots of various people and outlets over the past couple of years. In many ways, he’s a breath of fresh air. He writes a memoir that is by no means flattering or pretentious. One minute he’s talking about being a graduate of Yale law school, and in the next breath he’s giving a  profanity-laden quote from his hillbilly grandmother or talking about his lack of knowledge about which spoon to use at a fancy restaurant. He seems like someone that would probably be fine going unrecognized, and he’d probably keep to himself at a party. I like this, and many people that write memoirs don’t put off this type of vibe.

At the same time, for some reason, the entire time I was reading the book, I found myself looking for reasons to not like it. And this isn’t because I am anti-hillbilly, nor is it because Vance announces halfway through that he’s a Republican. That has absolutely nothing to do with it. To be honest, I’m not sure why I quickly developed an antagonistic posture towards the book. Perhaps part of what I liked–his honest depiction of what he calls hillbilly culture–is also essentially what I didn’t like. He speaks very highly of his grandmother, and the book makes clear that Vance would be nowhere without her influence. But, for me, the parts that stick out the most to me about her are the ones where she berates an employee at a retail store for very little reason, or the extent to which she has no problem treating people horribly if she so much as sniffs what she perceives to be disrespect towards her family. To put it simply, Mamaw scared me, and I would undoubtedly do what pretty much everyone else in the book does when they confront her: I’d try not to make eye contact and would run away as quickly as possible. Vance makes a great case for why she’s so important to him, and by no means would I doubt his sincerity. But it’s hard for me to like her, and when she’s held up as the moral center of the text, that’s problematic for my own reading.

Ultimately, Vance seems to arrive at the following solution to the problems of working class white America: work harder and stop blaming other people for your problems. This isn’t a new answer, of course. Just because it’s not new, doesn’t mean it isn’t right. And I have no doubt that Vance’s solution is one that many people need to hear, and his advice should definitely be heeded. But I didn’t find the text to be particularly enlightening or jaw-dropping. To be fair, Vance told me in the first page that he didn’t plan on providing anything of the sort. Considering that, it’s my own fault for expecting something from the text that I’m told explicitly I won’t find. It’s the somewhat interesting story of a guy raised in working class Ohio that somehow ended up graduating from Yale law school–despite the odds–and doing quite well with this life. It’s fine. I doubt I’ll talk about it much, if at all, in the future.

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Columbine, by Dave Cullen (2009

This book blew me away. I bought it randomly after listening to a podcast I like (Literary Disco). The hosts were talking about a recent list that Vulture made about the best books of the 21st century, and one of them mentioned Columbine as a blatant omission from Vulture‘s choices. I knew about the book, I think, but not much; the way the host talked about the book simply made it impossible for me to not buy it. I immediately went on Amazon and placed the order, and when it arrived to my office two days later, I casually turned to the first page, as I always do. This rarely happens for me, but that first page immediately had me sucked in. It’s a big book. I mean this literally: it’s physical form is larger than the standard, so the pages are bigger. To put it another way: the audiobook version is around 14 hours or so (twice as long as the 270 page Hillbilly Elegy). A normal book of this length would take me many weeks to read; I read Columbine in less than ten days.

In one sense, the book is very easy to describe: it’s a detailed account of the before, during, and after of the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999. It looks at all parties involved–victims, survivors, parents, law enforcement, and the killers–to give a comprehensive look of what took place. In another sense, though, the book is impossible to describe. Cullen writes in a way that I’ve never experienced, especially in nonfiction. The book is all over the place. It makes quick, large-scale geographical, chronological, and biographical jumps. In the same page you might read about what one victim was wearing, what test a survivor was studying for, and what street a police officer was turning onto. Then, on the next page. you might be in the home of a grieving mother two years later, or in the basement of one of the killers’ houses three months prior. To say that Cullen leaves no stone unturned would be an understatement; the level of research and reporting in the novel is exhaustive, and at times even exhausting. At others, the text reads like a high-suspense thriller–even more impressive considering the reader knows exactly what the outcome is going to be. There are parts that seemed like slugging through minutiae, but others that had me involved as much as any other text I’ve ever read. At one point, I sat down and read straight for two hours on my couch. This is not the way I read. Ever. But I simply couldn’t put this down.

Beyond the reading experience, though, the book is hugely powerful for the manner in which it rewrites the all-too-quickly-written narrative of what actually happened in the Denver suburbs on that benign day in April 1999. I was in 7th grade when the shootings occurred, meaning I’m old enough to remember the media coverage and the worldwide phenomenon the event became. And I am testament to the narrative that that coverage solidified: the two killers were bullied loners intent on killing jocks and pretty girls. They were misunderstood outcasts that had no outlet for their anger and decided to seek vengeance via guns and pipe bombs on a Tuesday morning. Some of that narrative is true: there were two killers, they were intent on killing, and we misunderstood them. But most of the narrative that we have about Columbine is demonstrably false. Ultimately, this is the true heart and value of Cullen’s text, because it points out the extent to which we care less about truth and fact than we do about finding a story to help us explain what happens in our world. Columbine is by no means the first time that this has happened; people have been doing this for ages. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing on television that day, and what we most needed was an explanation. Reporters and journalists knew this to be true, because they have always known this to be true. So, accordingly, they jumped on a few facts–based on interviews with students that were in the building–and gave us what we wanted: the why to explain the what we were seeing.

Cullen’s re-writing of the narrative extends to places that are hard to accept. Specifically, he paints a clear picture of the falsity of the story about one victim who was famously shot because of her affirmative answer to a killer’s question about her belief in God. This story was one of the earliest to catch traction in the Columbine coverage, and it’s a story that still circulates in Christian contexts around the country. One girl was killed because she believed in God, and she became a contemporary example of real faith and belief. According to Cullen, and based on two different eye witness testimonies from inside the library, this faith affirmation never took place. What’s so great about this part of Cullen’s coverage is not that he dispels this myth, but that he perfectly depicts the difficulty for the survivors that knew the truth of the story and the heartache they went through trying to figure out whether or not it was their job to correct the coverage. Anyone writing about this thread of the Columbine story could easily fall into evaluative or even didactic language; Cullen intentionally doesn’t do this. He handles the moment with grace and a notable sense of balance and fairness.

I have no doubt that many reviews of the book criticize the extent to which Cullen pays attention to the killers. It’s true: a lot of the text is focused on Harris and Klebold, much more than the individual victims or survivors. Plenty of time is spent on these people, but the real stars of the text are the killers. This could be problematic in the same way that news coverage of school shootings is problematic for plastering pictures of the killer on screens and covers. I totally get this criticism, and I couldn’t help but wonder at times if I really wanted to know all of this about these two boys. But, overall, I feel as if this attention is warranted in Columbine, specifically because of the fact that all of this attention was necessary in order to re-write that bullied-and-misunderstood narrative that is most commonly accepted about the shooting. Cullen spends pages and pages talking about Harris and Klebold because he wants to show us that these boys did have friends, they had plenty of chances to “fit in” and “be understood,” and that this wasn’t a shooting to kill jocks. It was actually a failed bombing orchestrated by a psychopathic killer and his depressive sidekick. The “real” narrative is by no means more comforting than the other one, but at least it lets us know what to actually look at when trying to figure out “why” these kids did this.

Thinking about Cullen’s text, I cannot help but be reminded of Joan Didion’s essay, “The White Album.” In her opening paragraph, Didion tells us: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . .  We look for the sermon in the suicide. The moral lesson in the murder of five.” This, of course, is exactly what happened with Columbine, and it’s the same thing that’s happened with every mass shooting since. We want to know why. Actually, we must know why. We don’t even care if the answer is accurate or based on any actual knowledge–we just want the answer. Oh, the shooter was bullied. He was a psychopath. He was homophobic. He was abused as a kid. He was a white supremacist. Now that we know that, we can explain it all way. But, as Didion makes clear, this is simply us wanting coherence where it doesn’t actually exist, us forcing an explanation where we can’t find one. More times than not, we’re left with what we got by way of explanation with the Las Vegas shooter: absolutely nothing. We’re left with the “shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience,” as Didion says.

The saddest part about reading Columbine was knowing that, almost ten years after Cullen wrote the book–and almost twenty years after the shooting in Colorado–the only thing that has changed is that we have more mass shootings than ever, and that some of the new ones make Columbine look small-time. It’s as if these shootings are becoming a national pastime. The saddest part of these shootings are the victims and the sadness they create for real people. The most despicable part of these shootings is that we do absolutely nothing about them. We cross our fingers and hope they don’t happen close to home.

I can’t imagine what goes through Dave Cullen’s mind each time a new shooting appears in the news. Is he frustrated? Does he nod his head in fulfilled expectation? Perhaps he cries to himself, softly, heartbroken that his years and years of research and writing have changed no one’s understanding of the real problem? I don’t know how he reacts, but I know that the next time a school shooting inevitably happens, I will immediately think about Cullen’s amazing text, and I will wish that there was something that I could do.

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Recent Bookshelf

Since I’ve been back from my adventures in Asia, I have found some reading momentum. This usually happens for me in the summer, but this year I was scared it wasn’t going to. When the spring semester ended, I was excited to have the chance to get lots of reading done, but it simply wasn’t happening. I couldn’t get into anything, and I floundered through the opening 15 pages of various books, never catching any traction. Luckily, the 50+ hours spent in airports and on airplanes in my Asia travels sort of forced me to do some reading.

During my travels, I read–for very different reasons–Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009). I had purchased Greene’s book because it popped up when I did some Google searching for “novels about Vietnam” and it was the only one I found that wasn’t about the Vietnam War (at least directly). I really, really loved it, especially since I had watched some of Ken Burns’s recent documentary and had some knowledge about the historical and political context of the region before the war. It’s a great novel, but it’s even better considering it was written in 1955 but basically predicts what ended up happening less than ten years later. I thoroughly enjoyed it. McCann’s novel I had read before, and I re-read it because I’ll be using it in a class this upcoming semester. I don’t remember loving it when I read it in the past, and I wouldn’t say I loved it this time. But it checks all of the requisite boxes of a good contemporary novel, and I do really love the interweaved narratives circling around the centering event of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Two Towers. There were some parts where I was flipping ahead, disengaged and hoping for the next chapter to start. But, overall, it’s worth reading, and I *hope* my students have things to say about it. I also started Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995) while I was in Hanoi, but–like an idiot–I left it in the backseat of a taxi. What a waste. I hope whoever found it speaks English and likes to read.

My time abroad gave me some momentum, and I’ve only continued since I’ve been back. I have read A LOT in the past month, and hopefully I can squeeze in 1-2 more books before school starts in a couple of weeks. Here’s a list, followed by some specific thoughts about a few of them:

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (2016)

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

There There by Tommy Orange (2018)

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (2018)

Early Work by Andrew Martin (2018)

The last three I bought based solely on “Recommendations” on Amazon–they were books that kept popping up in my searches, so I went for it. I bought Less because it’s the most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Imagine Me Gone is a book I’ve seen in every bookstore I’ve walked into for the past couple of years. I finally figured that I should stop just looking at the cover and read it.

Of these five, my favorite is undoubtedly There There.

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I try my best to always avoid reading the summaries in the dust jacket flaps or on the back covers, so I’m not sure what this one says. But I would be willing to bet that it says something along the lines of, “A harsh, unflinching look at the contemporary experience of Native Americans.” And, well, this is pretty much the same line I would use to describe the book, too. For some reason I say that hesitatingly. Is it wrong to call this a “Native American” book? If I do, am I relegating it to some sort of margin? If I do, am I unfairly attaching thematic stereotypes and “typecasting”? If I don’t, am I overlooking the book’s central focus and stripping it of its thematic heart? I don’t know.

Regardless of how I would sum it up in one sentence or what syllabus I would/wouldn’t put it on, I loved this book. Fair warning: It’s harsh. But pretty much every book I ever talk about on here is harsh. There are lots of things I liked about it, but I think the main one is its readability. I felt like I was reading Junot Díaz, which for me is a very high compliment. The book is colloquial in ways that seem authentic, regardless of the fact that I am no judge of whether or not a book about Oakland is or isn’t authentic. The group of characters is diverse to say the least, and although there were a few times where I was a bit confused about how each character related to others, or where in the story certain events or people fit, the last 25 pages or so brought everything together in a powerful way. Again, a warning: It’s rough. But it’s fresh, and it’s open-eyed, and it’s human. It taps into that level of reality from which some books always hover too far, and it hits notes that need to reverberate ever more loudly in our society. If you find yourself in a bookstore and you see the book, even if you don’t buy it, sit down, turn to the “Interlude” (about halfway through), and read it. Those 10-15 pages alone make the book valuable, and they are pages that I plan on incorporating into my classes immediately.

As far as the other four books go, I also really enjoyed The Incendiaries and Imagine Me Gone. Well, “enjoyed” probably isn’t the correct word for either. One of them is a graphic, heartbreaking look at the effects of mental illness, and the other is a narrative about the seductive power of religious cults, romantic love, and the overlapping of the two. Considering this, neither is “fun” to read, but both had me engrossed and I read each of them very quickly. I read Incendiaries on a flight to Las Vegas, and I read the other one in less than a week or so. Both of them would make fantastic movies, but not the types of movies that would make very much money at the box office. Let me put it this way: neither movie would star Dwayne Johnson, and at least one of them would probably be released around Christmas and get nominated for an Academy Award and probably never make it to theaters in Abilene.

I had read some quick reviews talking about how hilarious Less is. There are funny parts, and Greer clearly has a quick sense of humor not normally seen in books that win Pulitzer Prizes. A couple of times I laughed out loud at some of the wordplay. But–the Pulitzer? Really? I’m not sure how this book won, and I don’t think this is a book that I will ever think about much in the future. I feel the same way about Early Work. This one  came out very recently, and I don’t think it will be winning any awards. Very readable, with clean prose and some interesting observations for someone like me that went to graduate school and has read lots of the authors mentioned by the pretentious characters. But, in the end, these characters aren’t likable. They are selfish, and aimless, and lazy, and apathetic. I read the entire book in a few days, and then I realized that I’m not sure why I did, nor am I sure what I was supposed to take from it. A look at the empty lives of 21st century aspiring-artists-in-their-late-20s? Okay, I guess.

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School starts in two weeks, which means that meetings start in one week, which means that pleasure reading ends soon. I’ll still be reading a lot–more, actually–once school starts, but reading for class is much different than reading to read. But if giving up pleasure reading means getting back on campus, with new students and new classes and new chances to engage, that’s a trade I’ll take every time. I don’t think you can beat August on a college campus. So much energy, and such a sense of expectation and excitement. It is my absolute favorite time of every year, and I’m getting excited just typing this.

Of course, August quickly ends, and by mid-September that freshness has turned into, “How long until Christmas break?”

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After Asia

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I returned to Texas from my travels in Southeast Asia four weeks ago, and I’m finally ready to think about the trip. I was extremely lucky to get the chance to be in Europe last summer for around six weeks, but I can’t really imagine how a trip could be much more different from that experience than my time in Asia. It was… wild. I think that might be the best word I can think of to describe it. Maybe I’ll think of a better one by the end of this post. I’ll get right to it:

My trip (15 days): 

Houston to Bangkok (layover in Taipei)

Bangkok to Krabi, then a ferry to Ko Phi Phi

Krabi to Hong Kong (via DMK in Bangkok)

Hong Kong to Hanoi

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap

Siem Reap to Bangkok

Bangkok to Houston (layover in Taipei)

Overall, I took 11 different flights, 8 of which were international. I’m guessing that I traveled somewhere around 20,000 miles or so in those two weeks (including my flights to and from Houston). This means lots of time spent in airports, airplanes, customs, and immigration. A lot of time in food courts. A lot of time with headphones in, trying to fall asleep.  Luckily, we never had any trouble at all with immigration. Seriously: There was hardly ever much more than a 10-15 minute wait in any of the lines, which is pretty amazing. I can only imagine how much more difficult the travel would have been if we had had bad luck at one or more of the airports. Thankfully we didn’t.

Most of the flights we took were on budget airlines. If you think that there are lots of options for airlines in America, it doesn’t even compare to Asia. So many different airlines, so many different destinations. The problem, for me, is that many of those budget airlines are quite small when it comes to personal space. I am not huge, but I’m also not small, and I was scrunched into my seat on most of the flights. The worst was a flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong on AirAsia, which was the worst three hours I’ve ever spent on a plane. But, I will say: Many websites warned us that these airlines had strict rules about carry-on bag sizes and weights, and that some of them would make us pay to check the bag. This never happened to us. There were a couple of times when our bags were too heavy, but all we had to do was take a couple of things out, hold them in our hands, and then magically they were no longer too heavy (even though we immediately returned those items back to the bags). Overall, our travel over there was mostly painless.

That being said, my worst experience in terms of travel was a tie between two things: 1) The 2.5 hour ferry ride to Ko Phi Phi, during which half the boat got seasick and a couple of young girls were screaming, “We’re gonna die!” That was supposed to be a pleasant, sight-seeing-from-the-top-deck 1.5 hour ferry ride, but bad weather changed that experience drastically; or 2) The two hours spent in the domestic terminal at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi. It’s one thing to fly internationally over there–most of our time in those terminals was pretty nice and peaceful. Not the case in the domestic terminal in Hanoi. It was a madhouse. The worst speaker system I’ve ever heard delivering nonstop announcements, which were only avoidable because of the even-louder noise of screaming children. It was painful. Horrible. Never been happier to get on an airplane.

Most jaw-dropping experience: The traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. I wish I could adequately describe it. It was simply unbelievable. The amount of cars is incredible, but what makes it truly jaw-dropping is that every nook and cranny around each of those cars is filled in with scooters. I’m not exaggerating. I have never seen anything like the roads in Ho Chi Minh, and I honestly hope I never see them again. The traffic and congestion there almost ruined the city for me.

Most overwhelming place: This would be a tie between two very different places for very different reasons: Hong Kong, and Angkor Wat. Hong Kong is overwhelming in its scope and scale. I’ve been in London, Paris, New York, D.C. I’ve spent time in big cities and been surrounded by big buildings. But nothing really compares, in my memory, to Hong Kong. Everywhere you look are nothing but skyscrapers. And when you get to the top of Victoria Peak (which was amazing, other than the placement of the Bubba Gump restaurant), you realize that there are like ten different city centers that have their own collection of skyscrapers. It’s crazy. Angkor Wat is overwhelming for its scope, too, but also its history. The temples are so old, but they are also never-ending and everywhere. Our guide kept taking us to new spots, and each one seemed to have so many different structures and monuments of some kind. And he made it clear to us that there were even more spots we could have seen. I don’t think we even covered half of what that place has to offer. It’s astounding.

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Best food: I ate LOTS of good meals when I was over there, usually involving rice, noodles, vegetables, and meat. I even had a great Indian meal in Hong Kong at the Queen Street Cooked Food Market, which was one of my 5 favorite places on the entire trip (it was BYOB and full of people and food from all of over the world). But one meal stands out as my clear favorite: bun cha in Hanoi. This is the meal that Obama ate with Anthony Bourdain, and this is the meal that we ate two nights in a row because we loved it so much. You don’t order anything–you simply sit down, and they bring you the food. Greens, rice noodles, and this amazing bowl of meat and vegetables in some sort of vinegar-y type broth. Gosh, it was so good. We loved it, especially washed down with a couple of rounds of Hanoi Beer. Here’s a picture:

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Best bar: We went to lots of different restaurants and bars while we were there. It was during the World Cup, so basically every single night of our trip there was a game at 8pm and a game at 11pm, local time. This gave us a built-in plan each night, so whatever we did during the day, we were always finding a local spot to have some food and drinks while we watched the games. I kept track of all of the ones we went to in each city, and I loved most of them, but my favorite was actually in my least favorite city: Whiskey and Wares in Ho Chi Minh. Very small, very intimate, and very good drinks. We had a couple of great cocktails and local beers there, and we were lucky enough to get to talk to the guy running the place, too, who happened to be an American. If you ever find yourself in Ho Chi Minh and you are absolutely turned off by the traffic like I was, a cocktail at Whiskey and Wares can go a long way to take your mind off of it.

Best view: Like I mentioned before, the view from the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong was really amazing, but my favorite view of the entire trip was at our first location, Ko Phi Phi. There’s signs all over the north side of the village pointing you to a lookout spot, and our last day we finally did it. It was a long, sweaty hike up (we took the long way), but once we got there, it was amazing. It’s an island in the middle of nowhere Thailand, but you only really realize that once you get to the top and look out at nothing but ocean, with some mainland way in the distance. I was blown away, and I think that might have been the moment when it most hit me how lucky I was to be in such a remote spot across the world.

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My favorite city: Hanoi, Vietnam. I’m not really sure what to say about why I loved it so much. There’s juste something about the streets of the Old Quarter that clicked with me. Every street seems to be the exact same there: nothing but open-face shops and restaurants, block after block. I’m not kidding: they all look the exact same. I literally got lost multiple times and had to ask for directions, and I’m usually very good with directions. There’s nothing about it that is fancy, and there’s nothing that would be easy to put on a flyer for why you should go there. But I absolutely loved it. The streets of Hanoi are basically nothing like the streets of Paris, but for some reason I find myself having the same feeling of complacency when I was walking around both of them. I’m not sure why that is, exactly. Nevertheless, unlike Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi is somewhere that I desperately hope I go back. If only to eat more bun cha.

A few of my favorite spots: Here’s a quick list: Hong Kong Park; Viking Beach (Phi Phi); Nan Lian Garden (Hong Kong; picture below); Queen Street Cooked Food Market (Hong Kong); Hoan Kiem Lake (Hanoi); War Remnants Museum (Ho Chi Minh).

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Most uncomfortable moment: Other than that horrible flight on AirAsia to Hong Kong, the most uncomfortable I felt the entire trip was being in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh as an American. I’ve been to war museums before, but I’ve never been in one that was from the perspective of the other side of the story. I have no doubt that you could find all sorts of academic interpretations of the War Remnants Museum, and clearly there are certain biases at play. But whatever you may or may not know or think about the Vietnam War, it is quite the experience to be in that museum as an American, especially in the multiple rooms dedicated to American war crimes, complete with very graphic pictures. I found myself learning a lot in the museum, but mostly I was just unsure about how to act. Was it even okay for me to be there? Was there a place where I could officially apologize? Is there a donation box somewhere? I very different experience from visiting war museums here in the States.

Best deal: Pretty much everything in the category of food and drink. People told me Asia would be cheap, and they were right. Hong Kong wasn’t cheap, and I’m sure there are other places in Asia that aren’t (like Japan). But most of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia was for us. Unless you’re shopping, you can do quite a bit–and eat a whole lot–for very little money. It was fantastic.

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I sent lots of postcards from the various places I visited, because I found myself desperately wanting to spread the experiences I was having to people back home. I said something similar around a year ago after my time in Europe, but I again have the same thoughts: traveling abroad is a hugely influential experience. It makes you appreciate things about home that you previously didn’t, which is important. But I think that an even more valuable lesson that comes from being away is a firsthand reminder that we are not the only people in the world, and our culture is not the only one. It looks stupid to type that out, but that’s honestly the lesson I’ve learned the past two summers: we haven’t cornered the market on how to live in this world. We often think that we have, but we most certainly have not. American society does some things much, much better than other place. There’s no doubt that’s true. If I want to stand in a line that follows logic, or lay down on a comfortable bed, or use the restroom, I for sure choose America every time. But when it comes to appreciating simple pleasures like meals shared with friends, or making the most of time spent with family, other places are much better at this than we are. If I want to work my whole life to get the largest savings account possible, I’m probably best served by doing so in the States. But if I want to really have a life in which I spend as much as my time as I possibly can with people I care about, I’m not sure this country is the ideal location.

If you’ve never been somewhere, go. The cost is worth it. The long plane rides are worth it. The moments you’re lost in translation, or paying too much for a ferry ride, or unsure about which street or subway or elevator to take–they are all worth it. There’s so much world out there beyond the parts you’ve been to. Why not go experience them? You will benefit, even if those benefits aren’t immediate or obvious.

But, in case I wasn’t clear, the bathrooms here are so much better.

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Huge shoes to fill.

In the last 10 days, two huge names in American literature have passed away. Two names that I bring up often in my classes. Two names that were influential for very different reasons in my growth as a reader and as a scholar of literature.

Image result for tom wolfe   Image result for philip roth

Perhaps no book in my reading history stands out to me more than Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

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I read it in college, and it opened the floodgates for a multi-year fascination with the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Reading that book felt like an acid trip–it’s written that way on purpose. It’s a quintessential example of New Journalism; it’s also a seminal text in the history of “hippies,” of drugs in America, and even of the Grateful Dead. Wolfe’s book sent me down so many roads of inquiry that have been influential in my professional and personal life ever since. I never would have read On the Road or Howl if I hadn’t read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I never would have spent so much time watching old clips from and reading articles on Woodstock, which means I also would have never gotten so deep into all of that great music. Tom Wolfe was my conduit to The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and Joe Cocker. Tom Wolfe was the matchmaker for my fascination with Hunter S. Thompson and Hell’s Angels. And, now that I think about it, Tom Wolfe was the bridge that lead me to Joan Didion, someone that is second-to-none in my list of reading influences. I was born in 1986, but I feel as if the 1960s have played as much a role in my relationship with American culture as any other. The music, art, literature, and political turmoil of those years has influenced so much of our culture today. I say this all of the time in my classes, specifically on the day in which I have them read the opening chapter of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The art that I watch, read, and listen to is totally a result of what I learned about those years, and I cannot think of a figure more integral in that relationship than Tom Wolfe. For over five decades he defined literary coolness in this country, and I do not think we will ever have another figure like him.

My relationship with Philip Roth is different. Whereas Wolfe was a big figure in my sort of coming-of-age as a reader, Roth has been a central figure in my years of graduate school and as an academic. Ironically, my most recent publication (forthcoming this summer) is titled “Roth is Roth as Roth: Autofiction and the Implied Author,” which will be a chapter in an edited collection. My chapter looks at contemporary American texts that play with overlaps between authors and characters; specifically, when authors include characters with their own names. In that piece, I look at Roth’s oft-overlooked novel, Deception. Most of the pieces that have come out in the last 24 hours about Roth’s career have mentioned his most famous works: American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater, and of course his most controversial and–ironically–“canonical” text, Portnoy’s Complaint. I have not read all of Roth’s books, and I do not consider myself an expert on his work.

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But the Roth novel that was most influential for me was his work of historical fiction, The Plot Against America, which imagines 1940s America electing Charles Lindberg as president, resulting in the country not joining the Allied Powers in World War II. What I remember most is the vivid reality of the text, which is notable considering how unbelievable the book’s premise is. It’s an astounding achievement, and it’s a book that I’ve given as a gift to many people.

The styles of Wolfe and Roth are quite different. Wolfe’s prose is zany, especially in his early works. Like his subjects, Wolfe’s writing is manic and crazed.  Onomatopoeia and anthropomorphisms are in abundance, and the reading experience feels like what I imagine a serious case of ADHD feels like. Roth’s writing is nothing like this. His prose is expansive. He often has long paragraphs that seem to go on forever. This is not unique in literature, but what is unique is the rhythm and readability of these paragraphs. In all of the Roth novels I’ve read, I’ve consistently been struck by the exactness of his word choice and the seemingly perfect sentence construction. His paragraphs feel like a mix of McCarthy (except without the need for a dictionary close by) and DeLillo (without the emphasis on postmodern linguistic deconstruction). Earlier today I heard Terry Gross describe him as one of the leading voices on what it means to be an American, to be Jewish, and to be a man. That might make it seem as if Roth wrote narratives limited in scope, and while this is accurate in a sense, I feel as if his texts broach universal elements of humanity as well as any. Yes, his characters are usually Jewish American men, but they always deal with existential, sexual, and psychological challenges that resonate with all of us.

Without Wolfe, I don’t know if we would have the type of journalism we are so used to now, or the types of documentaries that we take for granted. Without Roth, we wouldn’t have Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem. Without either of these two authors, so much of contemporary culture and art in America is different. Tom Wolfe was 88. Philip Roth was 85. Two huge losses.

But Toni Morrison is 87. Cormac McCarthy is 84. Joan Didion is 83. Don DeLillo is 81. I hope that I do not have to blog anytime soon about the influence these or any other authors have had on me. Will we get any more full-length works from any of them? I have no idea. Stands to reason that something will come out from at least one of them, just as I’m sure some posthumous texts from Wolfe and Roth will be published in the next few years. I’m sure collections of unpublished letters, essays, and even an unfinished novel will come out. This is usually how things go when major literary names pass away. And, unfortunately, those posthumous texts are usually forgettable. Thankfully we have bookshelves full of titles that are going nowhere.

Regardless of how many more are published, though, a dramatic change in the “big names” in American literature is imminent. The names I’ve mentioned have owned those designations for decades; I am not exactly sure who will be the next ones to do so. Two weeks ago I would have said Junot Díaz, but it seems as if I would have been wrong. We have lots of young-ish authors with a handful of great works, but do we have anyone that comes anywhere close to the consistency and prolificacy of Wolfe and Roth? Are the days of “great American authors” behind us? In a world so saturated with text, is it possible for individual authors to write many texts that catch hold of large audiences in this way? I honestly have no idea. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to buddy up with the big names I’m used to.

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A big trip on the horizon.

Another school year is complete. No more stacks of essays to grade, no more committee meetings to attend (for the most part), and no more hours each day prepping for class. By mid-April of every year, I simply cannot wait for the semester to end. Then, like clockwork, once June rolls around, I find myself missing the classroom and my students. I don’t say that in a cheesy, sentimental way. I say it more in a “the classroom gives me something to fill my time” kind of way. Sure, I’ll get to play tons of golf this summer, and I always look forward to that first tee shot, regardless of who it’s with or how hot it is outside. And yes, I’ll have plenty of time to work on my scholarly work and to get some reading and writing done, which is a big part of summer life for professors. But neither of these is a substitute for the classroom, and I have to deliberately seek out ways to fill that void.

This summer’s solution: Thailand.

Come June 16, two of my closest friends and I jump on a plane in Houston; 20 hours later, we will be in Bangkok, and we’ll then spend the next 15 days flying around southeast Asia, soaking up as much of the experience as we can. Our plan is to basically stack five different 3-days weekends on top of teach other. Here’s the rundown:

Phi Phi Islands

^Just imagine an overweight American man will bad tan lines weighing down one side of that boat and you’ll have an accurate image of what I assume my experience will be.

Hong Kong

^Looks like a pretty small and intimate city. I’m sure we’ll be to see all this place has to offer in three days…

Hanoi, Vietnam

^How many different types of carbs can I eat on one single street? I plan on finding out.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

^There’s a very strong chance I will be involved in at least one scooter accident.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

^Apparently they built this new temple there recently that’s worth seeing. Sort of a Universal Studios meets Machu Picchu vibe, I think. I doubt there’s much history there… sure it doesn’t compare to the Alamo.

Five different places that are totally different and removed from anything I’ve seen or done before. Five different places to jump headfirst into culture. My only plan is to keep an open mind and to embrace all that each place has to offer. So, basically, I’m going to eat a lot.

Once the trip is over, I hope to have all sorts of stories to share, which I’ll be able to do on this blog. That being said, I’ve got my fingers crossed that I don’t use my return ticket. Instead, I’m thinking I might just settle down over there. Meet a nice woman, start a family, and have a novelty “American Steak Finger Baskets!” booth in one of the many, many street markets. Sounds like a totally realistic and reasonable expectation for the trip.

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Also, I turned 32 last week. Here are three new recommendations to start off this 33rd year of my life:

Read: “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. It’s a famous short story by one of the most famous American authors of short stories, and I have no doubt there are many places where you can find a copy for free online. It’s an unexpectedly tender and beautiful story that is well worth the twenty minutes it will take to read it. Go find it. Now.

Watch: May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers (2017) – This HBO documentary follows the band around while they worked on their most recent album, True Sadness. It has all of the things I hope for in a music documentary: backstory, candid moments between the band members, and awesome shots of in-studio and on-stage performances. I have been a big fan of the Avett Brothers for many years, and this documentary only made me like them more.

Listen: Ruins by First Aid Kit (2018) – First Aid Kid consists of two sisters, and their harmonies are as good as any. They make music that’s easy to listen to on repeat.

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Hey Jude

Image result for a little life

I was in Dallas over the holidays, and I made my usual trip to Half Price Books on Northwest Highway. While I was browsing the Clearance section, looking for my obligatory $10 worth of books, I saw a copy of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I was familiar with the book–the cover is hard to forget–and it seemed like a great purchase for $2. I didn’t expect to ever read it, to be honest. It’s 814 pages long, for god’s sake, and I assumed it would take a place next to Atlas Shrugged and Infinite Jest in my collection of “Books I own and can talk about casually without ever having read.” This might sound like a ridiculously illogical view of purchasing books, but that’s a different blog post. Sometime during that day in December, between meals and laughs with friends, I found myself reading the first few pages. There’s nothing particularly stunning or unique about those first pages, but for some reason I remember thinking to myself, “I think I might actually read this book. And finish it.” It’s now February 3rd, and a few minutes ago I finished reading pg. 814 and closed A Little Life for the last time. I estimate that I probably picked up and opened the book somewhere around 100 times over the last month, sometimes squeezing in 1-2 pages between classes, and other times reading in one- and two-hour chunks (which is very long for me). It’s towards the top of the list of longest single works I have ever read (maybe second only to Murakami’s 1Q84), and I’ve got to be honest: I’m sad that there aren’t more pages past 814. Simply put, reading A Little Life was time very well spent.

Usually, when I finish a book, I immediately get online and read reviews (New York Times; Kirkus; The New Yorker). I have not done this yet for A Little Life. Instead, I want to get my own thoughts and reactions down before I’m swayed by what anyone else has said.

The easiest way to summarize the book is that it’s about a group of four college roommates–JB, Malcolm, Willem, and Jude–living in New York City. The novel traces around four decades of their lives, starting as they begin to try and figure out their lives as an actor, artist, architect, and lawyer. Like I said above, the book is 814 pages long, so lots of aspects of each of their lives are covered. Two of them are black; two are white. Two come from affluent families; two do not. They are diverse in their sexuality, their professional successes and failures, and their sense of self-awareness. I don’t mean to imply that the four main characters collectively depict the “Everyman” experience, because this is not the case. Yanagihara does not give us a novel that is malleable to all sorts of American experiences; she gives us a very specific group of characters that have particularly nuanced experiences. All four characters maintain presence throughout the book, but the focus narrows by page 300 or so, when it becomes clear that the central emotional lens of the novel is on the most enigmatic and compelling of the four: Jude St. Francis.

I get teary-eyed whenever I read McCarthy’s The Crossing and re-experience the heartbreak of Billy Parham, and I am still not quite able to handle the emotional realities of the decision that Sethe makes in Morrison’s Beloved, but no character has inspired in me such deep astonishment, sympathy, and sadness as Jude St. Francis. In the first 100 pages of the novel, we know that Jude keeps to himself and walks with a slight limp, but it’s also quite clear that Yanagihara is preparing us for what’s to come in terms of Jude and his past. And what’s to come is, to be honest, some of the most horrific personal baggage you can imagine. Jude’s childhood is belittling, abusive, and destructive in every category, and there are times later in the book where I found myself simply wishing that I didn’t have to learn more about neither the horrible things that were done to him in the past, nor see how these past traumas tangibly affect his daily adult life. A friend of mine used the phrase “suffering porn” when referring to the book, and I’m sure she’s not alone in that assessment. Her take of the novel was positive, but I have no doubt that plenty of readers and reviewers have commented on the extent to which Jude’s life is full of trauma and whether or not a single person could have realistically gone through so much and survived. Does Yanagihara go too far with Jude? A fair question, and there were moments during my reading when I too found myself adamantly denying that any child could go through these things.

Of course, children do go through these things. Adults do horrible things to children, and those children turn into adults that do horrible things to themselves. This is not always the case, but it is the case for Jude. And as difficult as the book was to read at times–as shocking and nauseating and maddening as it was–what ultimately rose to the surface for me was a camaraderie I felt with the rest of the characters in the novel based upon a similar desire: I wanted to tell Jude that he did matter, that he wasn’t disgusting, that he deserved happiness and was worthy of love. This is what Willem wants. And Harold and Julia. And JB and Malcolm. And Andy, and Richard, and the Henry Youngs, and basically every other person in the novel that comes in contact with Jude. For 814 pages, they seek a key to the lock of Jude’s self-hatred, and I find myself still on that same search. I am not happy with how the book ends, nor am I satisfied with what I know–and don’t–about Jude. But it seems as if this is Yanagihara’s point. The most destructive part of abuse like this is the belief it instills in the abused that he or she deserved it. In the final pages of the book, Richard describes Jude as “stubbornly believing everything he was taught about himself.” This is the central tragedy of the novel, and it is one that will not quickly leave me.

All of that being said, the book is full of beautiful moments: moments of hope, and pleasure, and fulfillment. Moments of laughter and simple happinesses with groups of people that love each other. The book is full of touching depictions of the best, most true, and most worthwhile parts of friendship and of romance, of family and of the self. And at the end of this book full of all sorts of horrible things, the last page is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. My favorite line is when Richard articulates how Jude’s impact in his daily life: “And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

For me, A Little Life is a lesson in caring. It is a lesson in relationships. It is a lesson in how I view myself. And, most importantly, it is a lesson in how there are some problems that cannot be fixed by having good friends, but there are many others that can.

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The best movie I’ve seen twice in a long time.

I often complain in my classes about the state of movies. Specifically, I echo many other pretentious people like me in their complaints about how hard it is to find a movie in the theater that I want to go see. Instead, my Century and Cinemark and AMC are loaded with comic book movies, tired remakes, or a story about something that’s haunted (a doll, a house, a Polaroid camera, etc.). I get on my soapbox, make my complaint, and continue with my lecture about Emerson or rhetoric. I get it: I’m a cliche English professor, and I am not that original.

There are lots of problems with this too-sure-of-himself professor complaining about movies, but the one that sticks out the most to me is that I have recently realized that my complaints are simply wrong. Yes, my theaters are loaded with movies that I do not want to see, but there are also LOTS of movies that fit my narrow definition of “good” and “worthwhile.” People are still making great movies, just like people are still writing great books and poems and songs. It’s easy to say that Hollywood has sold out, but it’s also lazy and, to be honest, disrespectful to the people out there that are still telling great stories through film. I saw lots of great movies in the past couple of months–more than enough to prove myself wrong. They weren’t all in the theater, but plenty of them were. Here’s a list:

Paterson (on Amazon Prime):

A Ghost Story (on Amazon Prime):

The Big Sick (on Amazon Prime):

The Disaster Artist (in the theater):

The Post (in the theater):

I enjoyed all of these movies for different reasons. Collectively, they offer everything that I look for in movies. Some are serious, others hilarious, others confusing and frustrating, and all of them are well-made and captivating. I loved watching all of them, and I recommend them to anyone.

But there’s one movie in particular that I saw that convinced me more than any other that my complaints about comic book movies are nothing more than distractions from what I should be spending my time on: finding and seeing movies that are meaningful. The best movie I saw in 2017 (and again in 2018) is without a doubt, hands down, Lady Bird.

I cannot say enough about how much I love this movie. I found myself laughing throughout the entire thing, out loud, which is not normal for me, but I also was totally invested emotionally. It’s hilarious, but that humor is matched with serious, deep emotion. There are serious things in this movie, but the movie does not take itself too seriously. It’s organic in the same way that Manchester by the Sea was, but it’s a much more enjoyable viewing experience. I don’t know how else to put it other than it simply feels real. All of the notes that it aims for it hits in perfect tune. The relationships are authentic, the conflicts are all-too-realistic, and the overall tone is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I’ve never been a teenage girl, but I am convinced that Lady Bird‘s depiction of this experience is the best ever captured on film. It doesn’t miss a beat.

There’s a line in the movie where Lady Bird is talking to her teacher, who tells her that she writes about her hometown (Sacramento) with such love. Lady Bird reacts flippantly, saying that she simply pays attention. The teacher responds, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” What a simple, beautiful thought.

It’s so good. If it’s playing in your town, go see it. If you don’t end up liking it, don’t tell me.

This movie will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in March. It’s better than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s not even close. Ronan and Metcalf should win statues, too. And Gerwig. Basically, it should win everything except for costumes and music and the technical ones.

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Once you get done seeing Lady Bird, I also suggest reading this book:

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated into English in 2017)

This is a German novel (didn’t realize that when I bought it) about a retired professor in Berlin that gets personally attached and caught up in the refugee crisis. The storytelling is much different than what I am used to, and there were times where I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. But once I got traction, I was into it. It’s a book about important things, and the message it conveys is one that needs to be heard. As a lifelong Texan teaching at a small university, I have absolutely zero understanding of the refugee experience or of what is going on around the world with refugees. This book didn’t change that, but it made me much more aware of my ignorance, and it posed questions that, frankly, I was not prepared to answer. It seems to me like this is what all great books should do.

Cheers to a new semester.

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