Archive for category Novellas

God Bless You, Mr. Hengeveld

Texts from Mr. Hengeveld's Classes

Late in 2007, I was listening to NPR, and I heard a jazzy-souding cello. The show’s host was talking about the artist, and his singular contribution to jazz, to the cello, and specifically to jazz cello.

I recall speaking out loud to the radio. “If it’s jazz cello, it’s Fred Katz.” And it was. He was, at the time, eighty-eight years old, and a bunch of his work was being reissued on CD. I could not have been more thrilled to hear his voice, and to hear he was still alive and productive.

Fred Katz was one of my two favorite professors at Cal State Fullerton many decades ago, where he taught musicology in the Anthropology Department. And now that we were well into the age of Google, his appearance on NPR prompted me not only to look him up (and order his CDs), but to look up my other favorite college professor as well. His name was Dennis Hengeveld, and he was an English professor.

At first there appeared to be no relevant results whatsoever. Strange. As I scrolled down, however, there were several entries for Mitzi Myers, an authority on the history of children’s literature. Included in the results was her obituary. She had died in 2001 as a result of injuries received during a house fire the year before, her injuries apparently the result of her trying to save her extensive and valuable children’s book collection. At the end of the obituary, I read that Dr. Myers’ husband, Dennis Hengeveld, had died in 1983.

My best guess is he would have been around forty years old then. There was no indication as to the cause of his death.

Until my first class with Mr. Hengeveld, my academic encounters in the subject of English literature had been spotty and unsatisfying. Junior High English was fine, but it was mostly about grammar. High school brought the introduction of Great Literature. Julius Caesar. Moby Dick. Boring. Difficult. I didn’t get it. I was able to slide through with B’s and C’s, but it was a grind. I became quite familiar with Cliff Notes. I continued for fun, though. These extracurricular titles included The Hobbit plus The Lord of the Rings trilogy,  Jane Eyre, and Gone With the Wind. I read all the time, but declared myself “stupid” about English lit.

I remained stupid through my freshman year of college. In spring semester, I was unfortunate enough to have an instructor who spent a chunk of class time warning us students “…not to believe the things they are saying about me in the English department.” How a bunch of dumb freshmen were supposed to have special access to the inner political rumblings of the department was beyond any of us; meanwhile, I knocked my head against the wall, did my best, but could never do better than a B minus. He was the worst English teacher I’d ever had.

By sophomore year, I still had more core curriculum English to take. A roommate suggested Mr. Hengeveld.

It was a survey class of poetry, drama, and prose. Mr. Hengeveld himself was young, short, slender, and sported red hair and a goatee. He had a magnificent, rich voice, and was very friendly and funny. One of the first things he taught was that you don’t have to have a degree, or be particularly brilliant, or wield some heavy-duty literary theory in order to understand what was going on with a piece of fiction or poetry. You only have to read it. Yes, he spoke of structure, and themes, and recurring metaphors, and helped us notice those. Mostly, though, he said, you can do this. We could do it, and it was fun. He made us a promise: he would not grade down for any analysis we offered, as long as our evidence came from the text itself, whether or not he agreed with us. He wanted the work to speak to us, not to impose his view of the work upon us.

Only a few weeks into the semester, I stopped being stupid about English. I began pulling A’s.

Some people keep all their old text books forever; I have kept only those shown above, all from Mr. Hengeveld’s classes. I take them out from time to time and thumb through them, looking for some of my favorites. I find them, and smile. “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” by W. H. Auden, “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and more. Through the study of these works I learned to analyze writing, thereby to enjoy literature more thoroughly, and thereby to demand more of the reading experience. It was the beginning of the end of junky best-sellers for me.

When I learned of Mr. Hengeveld’s early death, I was very sad, and I was left bereft of even the simplest information I’ve grown accustomed to being able to find out about anyone. I really knew very little about him personally. I could put it in a short paragraph: He was probably around 30 when I was taking classes from him. He was madly in love with his wife, whom he talked about frequently. She liked Elton John, and they went to his concerts. He was convinced, after the release of Plastic Ono Band, that John Lennon was the genius of the the Beatles, and based this opinion on the lyrics of two songs in particular, “God,” and “Working Class Hero.” He also loved Bob Dylan. His specialty was Elizabethan drama, but he adored Beat poetry as well. Most of all, he loved his subject matter, and found joy in everything he taught.

Had I not encountered Dennis Hengeveld, I might not have started writing. I might still be reading badly-written best-sellers. This is a teacher who changed the course of my life.

So, thank you Mr. Hengeveld. And God bless you.

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More Kept Books, Perhaps to be Set Free

My previous post did me so much good that I’ve decided to keep going. It is time to be honest about books, to get real about what I am going to actually, honestly want to read. My reward will be bookshelves that can breathe.

Aqueduct Press (www.aqueductpress.com) always snags my interest with their classy offerings. I have two from their Conversation Pieces, a short story collection by Carolyn Ives Gilman, Aliens of the Heart, and a Sue Lange novella, We, Robots. I also have a a third from them, Eleanor Arnason’s Tomb of the Fathers. Each one is clearly worthy of my time and effort. As to why I have not gobbled them up yet, I have to think it’s the form issue. Two of these slender volumes are novellas; one, a short story collection.

Novellas and story collections can be treated as stepchildren, simply not big enough to count as “what I’m reading now.”

Reading has been my principle, number one, way to relax for as long as I have known how to read. Science fiction, kids’ series (The Black Stallion, The Bobbsy Twins), historical fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, lit fix, satire…but mostly novels. Novels of between 200 and 550 pages are the most approachable size. (Note that, if you substitute calories for words, you could say that a novel is a nice, dinner-sized plateful of reading.) 1085 pages (Against the Day) is too much reading-food; 93 pages (We, Robots) is too little to make a meal. So, while I’ve always liked short stories and novellas, they are more like a side dish or appetizer, not my main course.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Literature is more that its word count. I can remember short stories that have had as much effect on me as any full-length work. And I’ve always maintained that the novella is the perfect length to adapt for stage or film, a length at which you don’t have to leave out plot lines or characters.

So, what about these three?

Tomb of the Fathers, is blurbed as a “…witty romp of planetary romance…” I have read Eleanor’s romps in the past, and they are wonderful. She may be the most carefully intelligent writer I know. She is able to make me believe nearly anything, because she has set it up so well, and because she has so clearly thought out all the implications. Of course I’ll keep this.

Aliens of the Heart is a short collection of “…stories of the heartland.” The heartland is something of a mystery to me, socially, politically, and spiritually, and Carolyn is another wonderful writer (Halfway Human) who I expect will illuminate it. Keep.

Sue Lange is a writer I don’t know. I must have purchased We, Robots because of the the subject matter: the story of robots becoming more intelligent than humans. I have a similar issue as a subplot in the novel I’m working on; I need to read this.

Uh oh, I’m sounding like those folks on Hoarders.

Another sweep of the shelves last night revealed two more titles from Aqueduct: one more each from Eleanor Arnason and Carolyn Ives Gilman. Ordinary People is an Arnason short story collection, and Candle in a Bottle is a Gilman novella. And yeah, I’m keeping them all. All five books go back on the shelf. Well, they are skinny.

Well, okay, this second post on unread books hasn’t helped me get rid of anything. What it has done, however, is bring these books to my attention once more. These slender trade paperbacks were overwhelmed by larger volumes around them. That shouldn’t happen to any book.

Maybe I’ll give them their own special corner of the top shelf, so they won’t get lost again.

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