Tag Archives: reviews

Week 16: At Semester’s End

by Ayo Khensu-Ra

Monday was the final class period for Forum this semester. In a way it’s hard to believe it’s all over and done with but within a week we (and you) could be holding a copy of the completed magazine, the very thing all that work was for.

Monday was the last class but it was far from typical. We talked about a few things, the upcoming reading, handed in final portfolios, got old work back. It was a quiet evening far removed from all those nights filled with proofreading, discussion and decision. In the past we’ve had food and drink on the last day of class; once we went out for coffee. In other words, this end of semester was slightly anticlimactic as life often is. There is also the upcoming reading at L’s Caffee which should make for a bit of a celebration. I suppose I’m commenting on the strangeness of ending up somewhere that is quite different from where we started. But could it really happen any other way? It was dark when class broke up on the first night and now that it’s another season, it was still light on that final day (also class ended a bit earlier). Time marches on. And cliché as it may sound I certainly learned new things about myself and about the process of producing Forum even though it wasn’t my first rodeo.

Although before I go suggesting the destination isn’t important I should probably say that in this case it is — the destination being the magazine. It’s almost here and again, you can pick up a copy next Thursday at the reading at L’s Caffee. I think I can speak for the entire Forum staff when I say I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Aubrey, Maturin and HMS Surprise

HMS Surprise is the third in Patrick O’Brian’s popular and well regarded series of Aubrey/Maturin novels. The series is centered around the lives of  Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his close friend naval surgeon and intelligence operative Dr. Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic War era. HMS Surprise was the first book in the series I had read and I found the opening a little jarring. It wasn’t that it wasn’t well written it was more a matter of its style. O’Brian was well known for his attention to period detail and period language. This attention to language extends to the the way in which the books are written and in fact, the narrator’s voice is strongly reminiscent of that time; there is something decidedly old-fashioned about O’Brian’s prose. Also jarring was the rather domestic bent of the early chapters. The novel opens with a somewhat technical meeting of elements of the British Admiralty and goes on to relate Aubrey’s efforts to get out of debt and marry his sweetheart as well as Maturin’s thoughts about the woman he is in love with.

As I said, that early part of the book was well written but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, far less action-oriented. Nonetheless I continued. The tone changes somewhat when Aubrey takes command of a sailing frigate — the eponymous HMS Surprise. At this point the narrative becomes immersed in the compressed world of a ship at sea. Aubrey has orders to transport a British envoy to Asia and the voyage that results that is at the heart of the book. It is a long and sometimes difficult trip, one that O’Brian uses to touch on any number of aspects of early 19th Century life — O’Brian’s extreme erudition concerning his subject matter  is clear and his portrayal of that time is completely convincing. HMS Surprise isn’t just a naval or adventure novel but something far more expansive…it is a book that takes in a whole world, a stunning array of places and topics — from rigging and naval gunnery to sloths to life in the streets of Bombay to overland trade between Europe and Asia.

The reader of course sees much of this through the eyes of Aubrey and Maturin and the characters are very well drawn. Characterization runs through the narrative, in subtle and more obvious ways. By the latter part of the book, I felt as if I knew them as I had begun to know the world they lived in. Something which is reflected in the novel when Aubrey talks to the hands just before they engage the French. He addresses them like old friends and by this time, they are, having been together for thousands of miles. In a similar way, I felt as if I’d come to know those characters having experienced that same journey through the page.

Above all, the book was beautifully written. The language is often poetic and beyond the fine details, it is O’Brian’s sublime prose that brings the world of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin alive. From a simple description of a street at night:

“nothing but a row of doorways stretching on for ever under the moon, quite unearthly, strange, inhuman, deserted, and inimical.”

To how routine on Surprise:

“obliterated both the beginning of the voyage and its end, it obliterated even time, so that it seemed normal to all hands that they should travel endlessly over this infinite and wholly empty sea, watching the sun diminish and the moon increase.”

Some critics have likened O’Brian to a Homer of the sea and while such a statement may seem outlandish, O’Brian’s descriptions of the battle between Surprise and French ship-of-the-line Marengo would be at right at  home in the Iliad. One scene describes in perfect clarity the moment before Marengo fires on Surprise, contrasting that last instant of normalcy with what happens after:

“The crash of the broadside, and of the bow-gun, and of the twenty shot hitting her, come in one breath — an extreme violence of noise. He saw the wheel disintegrate…and forward there was screaming.”

There is great energy to O’Brian’s prose and it conveys action especially well, putting across the hurry, the confusion, of the battle:

“The third broadside merged into the fourth: the firing was continuous now, and Stourton and the midshipmen ran up and down the line, pointing, heaving, translating their captain’s hoarse barks into directed fire — a tempest of chain.”

And when Surprise shows her teeth against the Marengo it’s hard not to get caught up in the elation of the men:

“…but at this range not a shot flew wide. The powder-boys ran, the cartridges came up in a racing stream, the gun-crews cheered like maniacs, stripped to the waist, pouring with sweat, taking their sweet revenge…”

Ultimately I found HMS Surprise an excellent introduction to the Aubrey/Maturin series. There ware references to the two previous novels but they were adequately explained and don’t get in the way of narrative. Then novel is a rich mix of historical color, nautical detail, and clear, interesting characterization. By the time I reached the final page, the unease I felt at the beginning of the book was long forgotten — a fantastic read.

by Ayo Khensu-Ra

My Stories Are Ending

by Joseph Ramelo

It’s been said that if Shakespeare were alive today, his bread and butter would be writing for soap operas. Sure, he’d probably still conjure up a Hamlet or Macbeth. But his day job? Probably similar to that of Agnes Nixon, the creator of All My Children and One Life To Live, two longtime daytime television series that last week received the axe from ABC Daytime, their longtime home . The genre has existed since the days of radio broadcasting. The term “soap opera” derives from when the radio series were sponsored by detergent makers. Soap operas seamlessly crossed mediums when television replaced the radio in dominance.

When appreciating the arts and literature, one can like what one likes, but must also leave at least a special appreciation for certain forms that might be outside of the normative realm. Forum and Boeotia aspire to recognize and comment on the arts and literature in their myriad forms, and it is the opinion of this Assistant Blog Editor that daytime television series are worthy of as much literary analysis (and respect) as the classics produced by Austin and Bronte.

ABC Daytime will now only have one soap opera on the air. General Hospital is the highest-rated soap opera out of the three that lived this long into the 21st century and, quite frankly, I don’t have the slightest idea why. Out of the three series, GH was my favorite, but the writing quality declined significantly beginning sometime around the turn of the century. Felicia Scorpio is not a deadbeat mother. Laura Spencer is not a helpless invalid. Her son Lucky is not a philanderer. The mob has no business being in control of the entire city — the show is called General Hospital!

But that’s just me being a fan. I will miss my stories, particularly One Life To Live, which in recent years had made a quiet resurgence — “quiet” because it was overshadowed by the attention the network heaped on GH. Not only does OLTL have the most solid writing out of the three ABC Daytime soaps, the production values are much more impressive than what one might expect from a meager soap opera. Cinematography, scoring, direction: you name it, that series churned it out every week day.

As a literature fan, I am mourning in the same manner as I am for the constantly looming death of print media. But newspapers, magazines, and even book stores are on track to cheat death. All My Children will end this September, One Life to Live by January. An art form has truly come to an end.

Found in translation

Poetry, Poesie, Poesia

By James H. Miller

I have an undying respect for poetry translators. I’ve never had the patience or discipline to truly learn a foreign language myself. I tried Spanish so that I might read Cesar Vallejo in the original, attempted German because I thought Goethe was really rad, and then French for similar reasons—Rimbaud, you bad-ass!

I usually managed to earn a passing grade or better in these courses, but my actual knowledge of any foreign language amounts to funny vulgarities and swear words. So, if you’re like me (my sympathies if you are), those who translate poetry into English are crucial; whether it’s unearthing a master from Argentina, or showing us what, as O’Hara wrote, “the poets in Ghana are doing these days.” In recent years, we’ve been blessed with loads of groundbreaking translations from people like Edward Snow, Clare Cavanagh, and many other erudite guys and gals. I’d like to mention two translators that I’m personally grateful for: Michael Hofman and Jonathan Galassi.

First, Michael Hofman.

Michael Hofman was born in West Germany in 1957. Among other things (poet, free-lance writer), he’s an excellent translator and winner of countless awards. He most recently edited an anthology sensibly called Twentieth-Century German Poetry, which includes fine translations of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Bertolt Brecht, and Paul Celan, along with many obscure others who’ve never, to my knowledge, been rendered into English so handsomely before. Continue reading Found in translation

Nonsense in the current social order

The University of Resentment: Alan Kaufman’s Wild Idea

By Kwame Opoku-Duku, Forum General Editor

“I am very unhappy with current attempts throughout the universities of the Western world by a group I have called ‘the school of resentment’ to put the arts, and literature in particular, in the service of social change…pseudo-Marxists, pseudo-feminists, watery disciples of Foucault and other French theorists…are transparently at work propagating themselves in our universities…I would say that there is no future for literary studies as such in the United States. Increasingly, those studies are being taken over by the astonishing garbage called “cultural criticism.” At NYU I am surrounded by professors of hip-hop. At Yale, I am surrounded by professors far more interested in various articles on the compost heap of so-called popular culture than in Proust or Shakespeare or Tolstoy.” (Excerpted from “Bloom and Doom,” Harold Bloom interviewed by Ken Shulman. Newsweek v124, #15. Oct 10, 1994. PAGE 75.)

Harold Bloom’s interviews in which he speaks of his disdain for the school of thought he refers to as the “school of resentment” have always weighed heavily on my mind. Bloom has always served as a beacon of sorts in my literary journey. I’ve been taught to use him as the primary source for literary criticism since I was 14. As far as I knew, his word was the law.

The “school of resentment” was first mentioned by Bloom in the introduction to his 1994 work, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. He claimed he sought to protect the Western canon from the leftist vigilantes who wanted to infuse the canon with minorities and women, regardless of their aesthetic merit. Of course, this was nearly 20 years ago. But living in San Francisco in 2011, it’s impossible not to question how much water this “school of resentment” holds.

One of the biggest sources of pride here at City College is that the school created the first Gay and Lesbian Studies department in the United States back in 1989 — not to mention the school’s longtime, tireless work to promote equity and inclusion among all students. And the reason we’re so proud of it is that if we didn’t do it, no one might have.
It seems to me that the fear of minorities, women and the LGBT community being read by children is the precise reason why it needs to be done more. I know that reading Go Tell It on the Mountain literally changed my life upon first reading it at the age of 14, and I know it’s something Bloom could probably never understand. Let’s face it; he’s set in his ways. Continue reading Nonsense in the current social order

México: Política y Poética

Modern and Contemporary Works on Paper and Animations

By Katie Dalla, Forum Poetry Editor

It’s not often that an art exhibit representing a country goes to the extent of actually showcasing remains of its own citizens.

No, nobody’s limbs were severed and put on a podium, but Teresa Margolles’ vibrant yet grotesque 2003 piece, Papeles, brings you bodily fluids in a surprisingly beautiful arrangement.

The piece takes up a whole wall and displays large rectangular sheets containing streaked patterns of brown and yellow hues that, juxtaposed together, bring to mind the splendor of a moth’s wings. But the beauty is met with an equal amount of repulsion: Margolles used the post- autopsy water from the victims of narcoviolencia—or those individuals that experienced the fatal repercussions of drug trafficking. The water came right from the Mexico City morgue.

Each paper represents an individual portrait of a person and their remaining traces of life. You can’t help but feel a bit tricked — your first feeling is sheer warmth from the luminosity and size of the work, but as you step in closer to read the details, you immediately get a lump in your throat and feel the need to back away slowly, frantically searching for mutual glances of horror from the other onlookers. Margolles’ bold statement effectively demands a reaction to an ongoing issue that has caused so many deaths and so much strife in Mexico. She also gives an odd vibrance to each portrait as she has, in fact, captured their final essence, and in the most direct way possible, Margolles brings a part of Mexico to you.

Continue reading México: Política y Poética

Curious George Saves the Day

by Joseph Ramelo

“Now they were right in the center of town. There was so much to see that George did not know where to look first.” (from Curious George Takes A Job)

This weekend, the starving student and Bank of America customer that I am paid a visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum for its “Curious George Saves the Day” exhibit, which runs through March 13. Through the Museums On Us program, on certain weekends you can get into certain museums for free, and this past weekend I decided that my free museum visit would be to the CJM.

I was excited the first time, last month, that I saw the streetlight banner ads for this exhibit waving throughout downtown San Francisco. In addition to the fact that the Curious George books were among my favorites (I can distinctly remember first coming across them in the library of my elementary school when I was in the first grade), Margaret and H.A. Rey are key literary figures. In the literary community, children’s books authors don’t always get the kind of recognition that their mainstream peers do, unless they are staples such as Lewis Carroll and Laura Ingalls Wilder. (In fact, the work of both Wilder and the Reys are nearly contemporaneous.) Also complicating matters is when the authors are also the illustrators. Are the authors staples of literature or art? The Reys took as much care with their drawings as they did with their prose. For example, Margaret had once explained the challenge of writing for children: that she had a very limited vocabulary to choose from because the target audience wasn’t yet accustomed to using a wide variety of verbs and adjectives. Personally, I would conclude that the Reys are key literary figures, if not heroes, for mastering this unique narrative structure. Continue reading

Aubrey, Maturin and HMS Surprise

by Forum editor

HMS Surprise is the third in Patrick O’Brian’s popular and well regarded series of Aubrey/Maturin novels. The series is centered around the lives of  Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his close friend naval surgeon and intelligence operative Dr. Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic War era. HMS Surprise was the first book in the series I had read and I found the opening a little jarring. It wasn’t that it wasn’t well written it was more a matter of its style. O’Brian was well known for his attention to period detail and period language. This attention to language extends to the the way in which the books are written and in fact, the narrator’s voice is strongly reminiscent of that time; there is something decidedly old-fashioned about O’Brian’s prose. Also jarring was the rather domestic bent of the early chapters. The novel opens with a somewhat technical meeting of elements of the British Admiralty and goes on to relate Aubrey’s efforts to get out of debt and marry his sweetheart as well as Maturin’s thoughts about the woman he is in love with.

Continue reading

Raymond Carver: Treading on Sacred Ground

by Evan Jones

I grew up reading the stories of Raymond Carver. I have my mother to thank for the introduction and my own good sense to thank for aiding me in maintaining the relationship. I loved the “real life” subject matter and blue-collar characters of carver’s stories, stories that were set in places where such people would believably live, many times smaller towns and cities in the Pacific Northwest or sometimes ones local to my own native Northern California. Almost everything about Carver’s stories seemed somewhat familiar, like they could be about people you knew. I think that’s one reason why they were so hard to put down. The other was that the only thing you often had to reach for in the stories, or at least think about, was the stories meaning to you, which should probably be important to you when you like a story in the first place.

Carver never tells you specifically what or how to feel about his stories and definitely never seems to try and lead the reader to any one conclusion or any such nonsense like that. The stories simply read like slices of people’s lives, just that the slices are carefully selected for the real events that occur in them, events which catalyze some change or revelation in or from the characters. It’s this style, which would later be dubbed by some as minimalism, which contributes to the common (at least for me) effect of the pause after finishing one of Carver’s stories, a lingering moment where you know that some profound connection has been made between your mind and the story because of the sincerity of the feeling you are experiencing, but you still must wait for the waves of the story to catch up and roll over you for a few moments while you try absorb or grasp just exactly what that revelation may be. I love that feeling. It is what really hooked me on Carver’s writing. You can imagine my alarm upon finding out that that feeling may have been caused just as much by the editing of someone else, as Carver’s own writing.

Two new books out recently, Carol Sklenicka’s “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life”, and “Carver: Collected Stories”, a comprehensive anthology of Carver’s work from several different collections of stories, including his breakout collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, but also including the unedited version of this book, which was originally titled “Beginners”, shed new light on the results of the influences upon Carver’s writing, channeled both indirectly through Carver himself, and much more overtly through Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish.

By all accounts; in Sklenicka’s book as well as in the obviously apparent differences between the previously published “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, and the never before published original version, “Beginners” in the new collection, Carver’s editor Gordon Lish, certainly seems to be a heavy handed one. It may have been this way since the beginning. In 1972, Lish changed the title of the second of Carver’s stories to be published by Esquire (which he also profoundly edited the content of) from a more beckoning “Are These Actual Miles?” to much more benign “What Is It?” Carver, eager to be published in a major magazine, accepted the changes. He reassured himself and others by saying that “a major magazine publication was worth the compromise.” This however, may have been the establishment of Lish’s upper-handed power over Carver which would dictate the nature of their relationship for years to come.

Was Gordon Lish a good editor? Well, he was at the very least, a successful one. Lish held the fiction editor position at Esquire magazine for 7 years, and then later a senior editor position at the publishing company Alfred A. Knopf for almost 30. Perhaps his success went to his head a bit and contributed to his tendency for taking liberties with the writing, and writers under his control. After all, Lish is the one who wrote a piece entitled “How I Got To Be a Big Shot Editor” and is said to have bragged that Carver was “his creature”. What appears on the back jacket of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”(1976), Carver’s first published book of stories, is not Raymond Carver’s photograph but Gordon Lish’s name.

Sklenicka’s own account of the changes in Carver’s third collection of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981), is nothing short of heartbreaking. There were, she says, three versions. The first version was the manuscript that Carver submitted. It was titled “So Much Water So Close to Home.” The second was the manuscript that Lish initially sent back. This is where he changed the name of the story “Beginners” to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and of course that became the new title of the book. Although this alarmed Carver, he still signed a legally binding contract with this version as the premise in 1980. Soon after however, a third version, and the version most readers now know, arrived on Carver’s desk. Now even the differences between the contracted version and this latest version “astounded” him. “He had urged Lish to take a pencil to the stories,” Sklenicka writes. “He had not expected . . . a meat cleaver.” According to the poet Tess Gallagher, Carver’s most recent wife, Lish refused over the phone to restore the earlier version and the rest is as they say, history.

Only now, history is being re-written. The truths are finally surfacing, helped in no small way by these two very welcome books which are serving as long overdue correctives. One need only glance at the stories in “Beginners” and the ones in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in the new “Collected Stories” to see the most obvious changes. The prose in “Beginners” consists of more concentrated blocks of narration interspersed with dialogue while in “What We Talk About,” much of both of these are simply…gone. In many cases, the man who is rumored not to have allowed editors to change his own work gutted Carver’s, and on this subject Sklenicka voices her own opinion in “A Writer’s Life” quite clearly, calling Lish’s editing of Carver “a usurpation.” He imposed his own style on Carver’s stories, and the so-called minimalism with which Carver is credited with, minimalism being a good thing or not, must have rested heavily and undeservedly on Carver. I for one hope that the weight upon him has lifted somewhat for his sake, rest his soul. Now all that is left, is for Carver fans to compare the different versions, edited and unedited, and make their own conclusions as this then becomes a very personal realm for Carver fans, and I being one of these, a place wherein I cannot and will not delve in print.