Recently in Maya Alexandri's Novels Category

Beautiful and useful

| No Comments
David_Orr2.jpg
David Orr: a likeable critic in my book.  I've read him in The New York Times Book Review for years now, and I find him reliably worthwhile.  He supports his critiques clearly and logically.  His writing is impartial, light and entertaining.  When he says something's good, I understand why; and when calls a bad poem a bad poem, his judgment seems fair, not mean-spirited or ungenerous.

These wonderful qualities are present in abundance in Orr's book, Beautiful and Pointless.  It's a quick and lovely read, a kind of beach book for poetry lovers, and I mean that as a highest compliment.  The pleasures it affords have more in common with, say, badinage enjoyed at a lively, rejuvenating high tea, than with the rewards of solitary repose in the presence of depths of emotion and intellect.  Which is not to say those depths aren't there: just that their weight doesn't intrude on the fun.

DM_Thomas.jpgAll the same, I do have a complaint.  In Beautiful and Pointless, Orr does not say about poetry what I think is important about poetry.  And I want to have my own opinions reinforced by this delightful and knowledgeable public expert.  I really wish he would have accommodated me.   

What do I think is important about poetry?  I'm glad someone asked.  I read poetry for two reasons.  First, poetry enables access to irrational terrain.  Humans are hard-wired for rhythm, perhaps because of the heart, our fundamental drum.  Rhythm is our sixth sense: it enables us to absorb and process information from our surroundings in a manner similar to the other five senses.  And just as the taste of a madeleine sent Proust into the reverie of À la recherche du temps perdu, perception of a rhythm can guide us into the often-unnavigable regions of our irrational selves.  Music and poetry are our arts of rhythm, and they open us in ways that remain closed when our approach is strictly rational, verbal and logical. 

Second, the relationship between poetry and prose is one of mutual enrichment.  I recall Kay Ryan saying (where, I wish I could remember) that, after waking, she would return to bed with tea and toast and prose, and read until something sparked an impulse to write a poem.  Her description of her method struck me because, at the time, I was reading poems each day before sitting down to work on my second novel, The Swing of Beijing

Stephen_Dobyns2.jpgNor has it escaped my notice that my favorite contemporary writers are poet-novelists: DM Thomas and Stephyn Dobyns being two of the most prominent.  In The White Hotel, Thomas delivers in the long form narrative the visceral experience typically reserved for poetry.  In so doing, he affords modern readers the closest opportunity they're likely to have to know how ancient listeners of epic poems felt.  In Winter's Journey, Dobyns writes deceptive rambling monologues that seem like stream-of-consciousness portions of a novel, but in the aftermath resonate as if one's insides have been washed through a stream and sun dried in mountain air.  I don't know if reading poetry will make me a better novelist, but I'm willing to overdose on poetry in a quest to find out.

While I'm not surprised that Orr fails to list "will make Maya a better novelist" as a reason for reading poetry, poetry's capacities to support a richer and fuller experience of our own lives (through access to the irrational) and to augment our experience of literature (through its dialectic with prose) both strike me as core competencies deserving of mention. 

But Orr's focus is elsewhere.  A person who writes a book called Beautiful and Pointless is, logically enough, not so engaged with the functionality of his subject.  Also, notwithstanding the book's subtitle, "A Guide to Modern Poetry," the book might more accurately be termed, "A Guide to Modern Poets' Motivations."  Throughout his chapters on "The Personal," "The Political," "Ambition," and "The Fishbowl," Orr explains the conditions under which modern poets work and their mindsets and goals (to the extent they can be gleaned).  Orr's empathy for, and identification with, the poets is obvious and engaging. 

All the same, people have been writing, reading, reciting, and enjoying poetry for all of human history.  A medium capable of commanding that kind of attention is unlikely to be pointless.  David Orr is a great person to make that argument.  I wish he had.

Images of David Orr and Stephyn Dobyns from The Poetry Foundation.  Image of DM Thomas taken by Maya Alexandri.

Audiobook recording the hard way

| No Comments
The_face_of_frustration.jpgBack in January, I blogged about recording my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, as an audiobook.  I am sorry to say that the experience has taught me several life lessons in the manner through which I most commonly learn: the hard way.

First lesson: location, location, location!  Eureka, California is about as good a place for recording an audiobook as coastal Japan is for a nuclear power plant.  Quite simply, the audio engineer talent isn't in Eureka.  If you want an audio engineer who is incapable of recording the spoken word inside a booth without also recording himself zipping up his hoodie outside the booth - along with picking up other technical noises, like 60-cycle hums, which shouldn't be on the track - then by all means, record in Eureka. 

Second lesson: notwithstanding my default assumption that most people in the world are basically well-intentioned and doing the best they can, the world is occasionally peopled with unprofessional, unethical scoundrels.  Such folk may be disguised as soft-spoken, physically-pathetic, socially-awkward sound engineers to whom one may be predisposed to show kindness.  But for reasons known best to themselves, the mask slips, and they reveal themselves: in my case, the incompetent sound engineer held my master audio file hostage and demanded a ransom of more than a hundred dollars in excess of the hundreds of dollars I'd already paid him . . . for an ultimately unusable recording.    

Third lesson:  people who deserve to be sued don't have to be sued by you.  I didn't pay the ransom, but I did retain a lawyer.  And another sound engineer.  The lawyer sent a demand letter, which threatened to sue the first sound engineer if he didn't return the master audio file to me.  The second sound engineer meanwhile analyzed some mp3 files made from the master audio file, a process that revealed that the master was hopelessly flawed and useless. 

Thus, when the first sound engineer responded to the demand letter by refusing to return the master audio file, I found myself without much reason to pursue litigation.  I could ask for a refund, yes, and punitive damages, as well; but the impetus for the suit had never been money: the audio recording was my voice, my novel, my creation - and I wanted it back.  If it was, in fact, unusable, then I wasn't much interested in being the instrument of punishment for the Eureka-based, unprofessional, unethical sound engineer: let adult-onset diabetes, or some other lifestyle disease related to his obesity and general decrepitude, finish him off.

Fourth lesson:  the fact that I paid $1,150 to two sound engineers and an attorney and ended up with nothing isn't the kind of fact that I should dwell on.  Financial loss is an unavoidable fact of life, especially for artists, and apparently for me in particular, and acceptance is the only manner of dealing that isn't going to impair my quality of life (to say nothing of my emotional calm).  Instead, I will focus on this soothing, amusing quote from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, in which Aziz says:

If money goes, money comes.  If money stays, death comes.  Did you ever hear that useful Urdu proverb?  Probably not, for I have just invented it.  
The Swing of Beijing will be available as an audiobook at some future, but as-of-yet undetermined, date.

(Photo of Alice Forney personifying the Goddess of Frustration in Relation to Sound Recordings by Maya Alexandri)

Design miracle

| No Comments
SwingOfBeijing_cover_by_Kurt_300.jpg
"Ask and it shall be given you" is not typically a phrase in which I put much stock.  After all, I've been asking for some pretty basic things for an awful long time - a home, financial stability, a family - without having been given in any readily cognizable way. 

Of course, I haven't been asking Jesus for these things, so maybe that's the problem.  On the other hand, maybe the key is to ask for less foundational, more tangible things.

In a prior post, I asked for a better cover image for the audio book of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, than the one I'd come up with myself.  Remarkably, despite the rather conspicuous lack of material reward associated with my request, it has been given.  And not by Jesus. 

My saint in my hour of need is the talented, multi-lingual, well-read and generous Kurt Rodahl Hoppe.  For those of my loyal blog readers who recognize Kurt's name, it's true that Kurt doesn't flirt, but - as the image above demonstrates - what he can do with graphic design software redeems not merely this shortcoming, but that same shortcoming in all his countrymen.  Not quite Jesus-level redemption, but possibly worthy of worship nonetheless.  Thank you Kurt, and amen!

Take this book jacket graphic - please

| No Comments
Swing_of_Beijing_cover.jpg
Book jacket graphics seem to be the locus of all manner of anxiety for authors.  I believe it's a law of physics that authors - universally - are required to hate the cover art on their books.  And, as I've blogged previously (here and here), when dealing with international, cross-cultural or multi-racial stories and / or authors, the visual representations of those stories become extremely contested.

In all these contests, however, the author squares off against his or her publisher.  I have never before known a situation in which the author's nemesis is herself.  Yet that is the situation in which I find myself.

In conjunction with my (shortly) forthcoming audiobook version of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, I need to include a picture with the audio file.  If the book had been published, that picture would be its cover; since the book is not yet published, I need to furnish a "cover equivalent."

The experience of assembling this cover equivalent has given me new empathy for graphic designers who work at publishing companies.  The process seems simple: get a relevant image and juxtapose it in a visually-pleasing way with the title of the book and the author's name.  Duh.  Yet my efforts suggest that the process's "simplicity" is more alleged than actual.

You can see the results above and draw your own conclusions about how lucky the world is that I have not attempted to inflict my graphic design work more widely on the innocent public.  The nicest thing one can say about this proposed cover is, I believe, that it's very DIY.  The font, in particular, comes awfully close to inducing stomach cramps. 

Nonetheless, I have surrendered to my limitations and throw myself on the mercy of my blog readers.  Anyone who wants to send me a proposed cover of their own making will find a happy recipient at maya.alexandri [at] gmail.com.  If I use your proposed cover with the audio book, you will receive - in addition to the privilege of licensing your work to me for free - a free copy of the audio book and my undying gratitude.    

Sisyphus was a writer

| No Comments
Maya_Alexandri_in_a_cage_of_her_own_making.jpgP.G. Wodehouse repeated himself - jokes, similes, motivations, plots, quotes from poetry.  I love him so dearly that the repetitions don't bother me at all.  They're a quirk of a beloved - if soused - uncle, and if he didn't repeat himself, I'd ask him to, "Tell me the one about . . ."  

But I don't repeat myself, I thought.  I'm not writing in a genre, like Wodehouse (even if it is a genre of his own invention); each of my books is new and fresh and different and reflects the stupendous growth I've experienced since I finished my last book.

Well, ha.  Ha.  Ha.  And, for good measure, ha ha ha ha ha.  Rereading my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, this past week during the audio recording, I noted numerous instances of writing that I recognized - with a sigh and a resigned grimace - from later works, specifically my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband.  Certainly, the repetitions didn't rise to the P.G. Wodehouse level in either number or their verbatim quality, but I was plainly writing again, and around, and about, familiar themes.

In particular, a theme that manifested itself in similar terms in both books is the experience of feeling humbled before wonders, and how that humility is, in fact, empowering. 

I was interested to see this idea mentioned in Susan Neiman's recent NYT book review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.  According to Neiman, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that
 
reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times.  These qualities, [the authors] believe, can be cultivated to provide a bulwark against the nihilism they rightly view as threatening our ability to lead meaningful lives in the 21st century.
. . . .
The reason so many of us feel so miserable is that we can neither find meaning in ourselves alone nor give up the longing to find it somewhere else.
. . . .
[The authors discuss] the Greeks, who were less reflective than we are, and less convinced that they were in control of the world. This left them open to experience a world in which things shine as works of art do, to feel gratitude not only for the bounties of nature but for human excellence in all its forms, itself regarded as a gift.
This quest after meaning, and finding its satisfaction in experiences of "reverence, gratitude and amazement" is a major theme in my life (and, unsurprisingly, my writing).  I hadn't thought I was trendy, or part of zeitgeist, but - worse - a cliché, but turns out I'm not only repetitive, but also unoriginal.  I better hope I at least write pretty.

So here's the writing: judge for yourself.  This first quote is from The Swing of Beijing, when one of the main characters, Tyler, is in a club listening to a jazz singer, called the Marquise:

     The Marquise was now doing her delightful version of "Take Five," in which she scat sang the signature saxophone solo.  Tyler closed his eyes again, enjoying the gravel-tinged honey that was the Marquise's voice, sweet and rough, simultaneously coating and caressing, and jutting against and ricocheting off of, the rhythm.  She sang the way she lived, accepting the rhythm - however strict, however unexpected - as a non-negotiable and nonetheless not letting it get in her way.  And, although neither she nor the song were Chinese, the Marquise's "Take Five" embodied Beijing for Tyler, better than any summation he'd encountered in any medium.  In her interpretation of the song - with its bizarre time signature; its odd drafting of the piano to do the work normally assigned the drums; her willful, beautiful occupation of melody; and the unbelievable way it melded these non-conforming elements to roll over Tyler with a soft power that submerged his individual existence into the flow of music - "Take Five" distilled Beijing, a city that in its near millennium of history had defied lack of water resources and a profusion of invaders, had witnessed profound progress in dark ages and starveling stagnation in eras of modernity, and throughout had inspired big imaginations to draw on its leviathan depths of potential and recreate it.  Like the song, Beijing humbled Tyler with the evidence of his meagerness and uplifted Tyler with its grace in enfolding him anyway; but most of all, it impressed Tyler with its capacity for strange and boundary-less change, a flexibility to which Tyler felt distinctly unequal.
Now compare that paragraph to these passages from The Celebration Husband (and this is a selection; there are other passages I could've excerpted), where the provocation for the experience of uplifting humility is not music, but the landscape:

    Looking beyond the station, Tanya absorbed the Eastern Rift Valley: game-rich forest and fertile farmland punctuated by the voluptuous protrusion of the extinct volcano, Mount Longonot, to the west.  Verdant green after the rains and dusty yellow during the dry season, Mount Longonot hid from Tanya's view Lake Naivasha, a vast stretch of fresh water so well integrated into the landscape that it often deceived observers into thinking it was part of the sky.  Augmenting the Valley's grandeur were the clouds, transformed by moody and variable weather into actors in an epic drama, involving much darkening and glowing, rearing up, rolling about, thunder-and-lightning sound effects, and honey-cognac lighting.
    Pitched midway on the escarpment that descends into the Valley, Kijabe afforded Tanya a prime vantage point for this spectacle.  As her eye roamed the scene, grey and gold clouds floated at eye level, so that the capacious sky seemed to arch overhead and then drop below her into the Valley.  Tanya had never before known the sensation of sky beneath her.  Kijabe elevated her; Tanya felt that the scenery demanded that she present a better, more noble self.
. . . .
    Arduously, achingly, she angled herself on her knees so that she faced Mount Kilimanjaro.  On the corridor of plain stretching before her, round white butterflies fluttered, their wings beating like nuns' wimples in a breeze.  Looking on the mountainous sanctum in the distance, Tanya saw that a cloud mass had swept over the snowy peak.  Her view of the colossus now occluded, Tanya remembered von Lettow-Vorbeck's remarks about Kilimanjaro's ability to dwarf an event as monumental as battle.  The mountain was so miraculous that it could remove any vastness from her perspective, even itself. 
    As it is with the mountain, let it be with me, she thought.  Let Kilimanjaro be my cathedral, let my perspective be guided by the light it filters onto me.  If war itself vanishes into the maw of the mountain, let me cast my pain upon it, and let my sorrows dwindle in its immensity.
    Then, still kneeling, Tanya bent her torso forward until her forehead touched the prickly ground.  She had seen Hassan bow this way during prayer, and the action had puzzled her.  She didn't understand how Hassan could willingly adopt a posture of such abject submission.  Now she imitated him intuitively.  She'd had no expectations of the movement; she had prostrated herself unthinkingly.  And yet, with this motion, she gained a sense of power.  Bowing to the mountain, Tanya was blessed with the insight that triumph, too, can emerge from surrender.
Seeing this theme emerge in different stories, in various words, written over four years of my life, I can feel how deeply I want my characters to undergo the liberation of humility, and how persuaded I am of edifying effects of such experiences.  I just hope audiences can bear with me (that I can bear with myself) as I write the same damned thing over and over again, trying (vainly) to pin the ineffable on paper.

Uncle Wodehouse, can you tell me the one about the peak in Darien?

(Photo of Maya Alexandri in the art cage of her own making by Andrew McConnell)

Facing the music in the audiobooth

| No Comments
Maya_Alexandri_audiobooth.jpg
Over the past week, I've been recording an audiobook of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing.  Although I'd last read the book only two years ago, I remembered little of the details, and reading the book aloud has been an interesting experience.

My literary mentor, DM Thomas, wrote about the stresses and discoveries of re-reading all his novels, and his experience was much in my mind as I sat in the audio booth, reacquainting myself with The Swing of Beijing.

DM Thomas had been anxious that, upon rereading his works, he might find that his novels were "dead."  I wasn't worried about that, so much as discovering that the novel was crap.  Roberto Bolaño summed up my concern in one of the many breathtaking passages in his stupendous novel 2666

Ivanov's fear was of a literary nature.  That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives.  Fear of being no good.  Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing.  Fear of the step that leaves no trace.  Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints.  Fear of dining alone and unnoticed.  Fear of going unrecognized.  Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. 
(p. 722.)  I am not immune to reading my own work and thinking, wait a minute, I know why this hasn't been published yet!  It's because it's no good.

Certainly, such thoughts and their variants crossed my mind when I was in the audio booth. 

But on the whole, I think those thoughts were too harsh.  Yes, some scenes were too complicated; writing them, I learned how to write scenes like them better in later novels. 

And, yes, some of the characters posed challenges for the reader - that is, me - in empathizing.  I still haven't fixed that issue to my satisfaction, but I could see my growth as a writer depicting difficult characters in empathetic ways, even from chapter to chapter in this book.

The turning point came in the second half of the novel, with a long monologue by a character named Gao Yi, a Chinese smuggler.  In truth, I'd forgotten the monologue in its particulars, and reading it I was captivated by its freshness, surprise and humanity.  Those characteristics are, of course, relative and - given the way I'd been feeling about the foregoing pages - I won't make any judgments about the absolute quality of the monologue; but I was confident that it wasn't "no good."

And after that monologue, I began to feel similarly about the writing that followed.  The Swing of Beijing is not a masterpiece by any stretch.  Maybe not even worth publishing beyond the audiobook version - maybe not of interest except as a record of my growth as a writer (and possibly only of interest in that respect to me).  But it's not "no good."

Then again, to quote DM Thomas assessing his own novels, "Who could ever trust an author's own view of his work?"

Tarik_Jarras.jpgAt the end of the reading, my sound engineer, Tarik Jarras, said that he wanted to know more about the characters, and that maybe I should write a sequel.  Bless him.      


(Image of Maya Alexandri taken by Tarik Jarras; image of Tarik Jarras taken by Maya Alexandri)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Maya Alexandri's Novels category.

Life is the previous category.

Memoir is the next category.

Categories

Archives

OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04