Thursday, March 21, 2013

What I've Been Reading

(For ENG 100 students interested in my thoughts on Michael Pollan and Food Rules, see my blog post from last semester here.)

Last week, my ENG 112 classes finished reading and discussing Jean Kwok's debut novel, Girl in Tranlsation. Kwok is scheduled to visit DCCC next month, and I look forward to attending her reading.

There is a pivotal scene at the end of the novel (SPOILER ALERT), when Kimberly Chang, the protagonist, decides at the last moment not to go through with her plans to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. She makes this decision after viewing the fetus via an ultrasound:

I expected a clump of cells attached to the uterine wall. I kept my mind carefully blank but without warning, an image of the fetus sprang onto the screen and I gasped. I shifted so abruptly that I dislodged her wand. ... I was riveted by the monitor.
He was doing gymnastics. A small tadpole-like figure, he pushed himself from side to side, swam in that enormous space with complete joy. He was defiant and playful, I imagined he was laughing. In that moment, I started to love him...
As soon as I saw him, I had no choice... (Jean Kwok, Girl in Translation)
My students were rather divided about whether or not Kwok was trying to make a moral or political statement about abortion through this scene. For me, the passage brings to mind recent debates about legislation designed to bring about real moments just like this. When a bill mandating transvaginal ultrasounds was proposed, revised, and signed into law last year in Virginia, there was much public debate about the ethics of such a mandate. Proponents of the bill argued that it would help guarantee that each woman who went through with an abortion understood fully just what she was doing. Critics of the bill argued that it was invasive, unnecessary, and emotionally manipulative. A similar bill, known as the "Women's Right to Know Act," was debated in Pennsylvania last year, and Governor Corbett expressed support for it, though the law never passed.

In my American Literature course, we just finished The Great Gatsby, and much of the discussion, unsurprisingly, focused on just why Gatsby so obsessively loves Daisy, such that his whole life seems organized around the foolishly romantic dream of fulfilling his past desire for her. Yet, for me, I am more intrigued by Nick's love for Gatsby--whom he simultaneously disapproves of and adores. Gatsby becomes just as important of a romantic symbol for Nick as Daisy was for Gatsby. Why is Gatsby the only one who seems to genuinely unlock Nick's capacity for love, which is otherwise closed off by his deep cynicism about the modern world?

Who knows.

Today, I read a short story from an old college friend (Dorothy Albertini) that echoes some of Fitzgerald's themes in Gatsby. Check it out--she's one of my favorite writers.

Finally, Spring Break also enabled me to finish reading my FIRST (absurd, isn't it?) novel by Stephen King: 11/22/63. It was pretty amazing, I have to say. I love time travel stories, though there is always something unsatisfying about how writers try to wrestle with the philosophical and technical aspects of it. This novel was the same, but it satisfied me on the more important themes of history and love. 

On to new books! (Sort of but used...revisited with fresh eyes.) I'll be re-reading and teaching Sacha Scoblic's Unwasted as well as Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go over the next few weeks. Both are great--can't wait to dig back into them, and listen to what my students have to say.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What a Waste

This week, my ENG 231 students and I will be discussing the final chapters of The Great Gatsby, and rather coincidentally, I found myself traveling to modern-day "East Egg" (Port Washington, NY) yesterday, to see an art exhibit featuring my aunt's digitally manipulated photography. Although the exhibit was delightful--as was my brief chat with Anne (my aunt) and her husband, Jim--the driving required to get there and back was exhausting and tedious. I just don't have the patience for the degree of traffic and congestion out there. It really puts the Philly suburban traffic (which is also bad, but not nearly as bad) in perspective.

Moments like this make me stop and wonder at how we can be aware of the problems in our world--and deeply frustrated by them--at the same moment in which we are contributing to and reproducing those problems. There is ample public transportation in the greater New York metropolitan area, so there was no need, really, for me to fight that traffic. Yet because of people like me, who chose the "convenience" of their own car over a ride with "the masses," we all sat around in our little metal-boxes-on-wheels, moving nowhere slowly for most of the afternoon, all the while, our engines were idling, burning fossil fuels, and dumping more carbon into the air.

We are a wasteful people. This is not only a theme in The Great Gatsby, but also in the excerpt from Edward Humes's book, Garbology, which my ENG 100 students will be discussing tomorrow. (Click here for my previous blog post on this text.) Humes mentions some distressing facts: Americans, despite only comprising 5% of the world's population, produce 25% of the world's trash. We also produce some of the world's largest landfills, including Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, which is apparently visible from space. (Again, coincidentally, I drove by this landmark on my way back from Long Island and Brooklyn last night.)

For their next essay, my ENG 100 students are imagining that they are college students from another planet, sent to study American society and culture, and then report back on its strengths, flaws, and bizarre obsessions. Wastefulness in any of its forms would be an appropriate sub-topic for this interstellar research paper. We see it; we know it; we do it everyday. How did we become so consumed by our wasteful habits, and what will it take for us to begin to break them?