Monthly Archives: August 2006

More Elizabeth Taylor

I finished Elizabeth Taylor’s The Sleeping Beauty recently, the second Taylor novel I’ve read in a few months. I like reading multiple books by the same author like this — I did this also with Muriel Spark recently — but I don’t do it much. Too many other books by new authors I haven’t read before are out there enticing me to try them. But spending a little more time with an author than just one book yields so many insights into the way that author works. To put it in boring English teacher terms, you can do some comparing and contrasting and draw some deeper conclusions.

I’m seeing about Taylor that she writes about middle-aged women very well; both books I’ve read have women of that age at their center. The Sleeping Beauty has a younger woman as a love interest — the sleeping beauty herself, but at least as interesting is Isabella, a widow with a grown son, who hopes to be the love interest and is disappointed. In a Summer Season tells about a woman who has married a significantly younger man and how this enlivens and disrupts her rather sedate life. Taylor writes about middle-class sexual repression and expression extremely well. The Sleeping Beauty isn’t set in a town called Seething for nothing. Isabella and her friend Evalie spend a significant amount of time and money on beauty treatments trying to make themselves look younger and more sexually attractive, all the while interfering when they can in the love lives of others. The class issue arises most clearly when Isabella insults her son’s girlfriend, who is a nanny, and therefore unacceptable for her educated, talented son. Another character, Rose, does what she can to keep her sister Emily locked up in the prison of her home, keeping her from wandering out into the larger world where she might meet a man who will take her away.

And yet the surface of Taylor’s novels is serene and quiet. Both books took a while to get some momentum, and, although events do happen in them, they don’t happen often and they aren’t described dramatically. These are books that you should read slowly, because if you rush through them, you might miss the subtle dynamics of a conversation, which is where the story lies. Taylor excels at writing scenes charged with emotion, but with emotion that is usually kept hidden, below the surface. She is at her best in The Sleeping Beauty describing a particularly excruciating tea with Isabella, her son, his girlfriend, and two other guests, an event that goes so horribly wrong I’m left cringing at the brutality of it, even though no actual violence occurs. Middle-class decorum is forever at odds with jealousy, fear, and fury. And hypocrisy — Isabel and Evalie condemn gambling one moment and the next moment are whispering to each other about what horse to bet on. They both project self-satisfaction and self-righteousness, but their actions are, arguably, the cruelest in the novel.

I like the way Taylor shows the dark side of lives that seem so sedate and ordinary. Behind any normal-looking comfortable small-town or country home can lurk suffering and longing and regret. And most of all — interesting stories.

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The Island of Dr. Moreau

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be posting on this today or tomorrow, but I figure that if it’s supposed to be tomorrow, you all can come back and read this then. I’m also not going to do this book justice, since I read it in a rather distracted state of mind. I felt as I was reading that I should re-read in order to fully appreciate it, but I didn’t have the time.

At any rate, I enjoyed the novel very much. This is my first experience of Wells, and I’m tempted to read the two other novels in my edition, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. I’m curious what people make of the frame narrative – is there something complicated going on here, or is it simply by way of explaining and setting up the narrative to follow? Wells participates in an old tradition of frame narratives, whether it’s the frame story of escaping the plague in Boccaccio’s The Decameron or the multiple frame narratives that encircle the creature’s narrative in Frankenstein, or the explanation Defoe gives at the beginning of Robinson Crusoe that the narrative is a true one that Defoe had stumbled upon and decided to publish. Wells’s use is certainly not as complicated as Mary Shelley’s was, but the frame does give the reader a sense of the mysteriousness to come in the main narrative, and it tells us the interesting fact that Prendick “subsequently … alleged that his mind was a blank from the moment he escaped from the Lady Vain.” Did he find that his attempts to explain what he saw on the island were so impossible that he gave it up and simply said his mind was blank to avoid explanations entirely?

I’m reminded of Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” where Brown journeys into the woods, discovers the horrors that (supposedly) exist in the human heart, and returns home a changed man, unable to live at peace with his family again. And also Gulliver, who after his travels becomes a bitter, cynical man. In both of these books, and in Wells’s novel too, one of the central questions is about what it means to be human: are humans like the houyhnhnms or the yahoos, or neither? The ending of the novel is moving; Prendick lives in fear and horror of his fellow humans and isolates himself from people, devoting his time to scientific studies. He writes:

They say that terror is a disease, and anyhow, I can witness that, for several years now, a restless fear has dwelt in my mind, such a restless fear as a half-tamed lion cub may feel. My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another, still passably human, Beast People, animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert, to show first this bestial mark and then that.


At the heart of the novel, I think, is the conversation between Prendick and Dr. Moreau where Moreau explains the nature of his experiments. This dialogue is all about the relationship of human beings and animals – a topic that has fascinated writers since the time of Gilgamesh, another work that tries to define humanity by considering how people differ from the gods on the one hand and the beasts on the other. The question in Wells’s novel centers around pain – what it means to be able to feel pain and how we should respond to our own pain and that of others. Moreau says:

For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels … A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that [pain] is a little thing.


Pain is an aspect of animal experience, not human, according to Moreau; as humans separate themselves from the animal world, pain will carry less and less significance. That he brushes aside Prendick’s objections to his cruelty shows that he has lost something essential to his humanity and has become much less than an animal, which would never behave as cruelly as he has. By working so horribly on animal bodies and denying the significance of the pain they experience, Moreau shows his abhorrence of bodies in general – he desires to leave the body and all its weaknesses behind. But in denying the body, he perverts human nature into something it’s not – the body is as central to human experience as the mind.

Moreau cannot succeed in turning animals into humans to his satisfaction because he misunderstands what it means to be human and animal both. He says of his animal/human creations that:

Least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch – somewhere – I cannot determine where – in the seat of the emotions. Cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate, or fear.


He wants to drive what he sees as the beast out of the human, and yet what he considers “beast” – the body that feels pain and experiences instincts and cravings – is inseparable from the human. Prendick separates himself morally from Moreau when he recognizes the humanity of one of Moreau’s creations:

It may seem a strange contradiction in me – I cannot explain the fact –, but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes, and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity.


This is a redeeming moment for Prendick, who, rather than allowing this creature to enter Moreau’s torture chamber once again, shoots it. This is an act of mercy.

Okay – there is so much more going on in this novel, but I’ll leave it up to my fellow Slaves to point those things out.

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Colette and her mother

I’m not that far into Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette, maybe 60 pages out of 500, but she’s married already — the early years rush by in the biography, largely because there’s a lot that’s unknown about her early life. The chronology of how she met and got to know her first husband is unclear, for example (she married fairly young, at 20). I’m finding her an elusive figure as I read about her; the time is long enough ago (she was born in 1873), the place and customs different enough, and, most of all, the family dynamics and Colette’s own personality odd enough, that I find myself more mystified than ever about who she is. I feel as though I can often worm my way into someone’s life imaginatively — no matter how far apart we might be in time and place and personality — but not so with Colette, at least not yet. So far, she seems to be an elusive figure for the biographer as well, not least because Colette was known for exaggerating and embellishing and sometimes outright lying about her history. None of this lessens my interest in her; in fact, quite the opposite. I find myself wanting to know more and more about this mysterious figure.

Some of the most interesting parts of the biograhy are about Colette’s relationship with her mother, which, as some bloggers have pointed out to me and Thurman describes in some detail, was extremely complicated. In many ways, it seems, Colette’s mother, Sido, taught her much that was valuable, including a questioning attitude toward traditional morality and the patriarchy. Thurman writes,

If [Colette] never became a professional housewife, it was, in part, Sido’s doing. Her ambitions for her daughter did not include drudgery … the flash of defiance Colette saw in Sido’s garden face became the light she wrote by. It had shown her, very young, that a woman’s domestic burdens are incompatible with her creative freedom. And with Sido’s encouragement she rejected those aspects of her mother’s experience that Sido let her feel were demeaning, confining or sacrificial — including motherhood itself.


Isn’t that a great legacy? And yet, as I understand it, Colette was, at least at times, neglectful of her daughter. Motherhood can be confining, yes, but what to do when you’ve got a daughter who needs you? To learn from your mother that motherhood can be demeaning, confining, and sacrificial is bound to be a difficult, ambiguous lesson, one that could affect generations to come.

And here’s another part of Sido’s legacy: the jealousy and domination of Colette and her siblings. Here is Thurman again, on the wedding night Colette spent in her parents’ house:

In the small house where [Sido's] daughter was losing her virginity, at least officially, the mother had not undressed for bed; had spent the whole night awake, evidently tormented and unhappy. She was unable to bear the thought of Colette’s “going off with a strange man,” or her initiation into an adult sexual life, and Colette was nearly unable to bear her mother’s sadness.

When I came to this scene, I thought of Isak Dinesen’s image for the ordeal of separation — the Bible story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. “I will not let thee go,” says Jacob to the Angel, “until thou blesseth me.” Sido gave her daughter many inestimable gifts, but never the blessing of letting go.

We shall see, as I read on, what Colette makes of this complicated legacy.

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My century

The good news about my century ride: it rained only about half of the time! Or maybe it was 2/3. I was chilly, but not dangerously cold! I had only one awkward run-in with an annoying guy! My neck and shoulders are killing me, but I can still move!

Actually, for all the rain and the temperatures in the 60s (60s make very nice riding weather — when it’s dry), the ride felt okay. It was only in the last 10 miles or so that I started to get impatient to get back to the car, and I know from experience that the last 10 miles of whatever length of ride I’m doing is the time I get impatient to finish up. I rode pretty slowly for me, averaging 14.5 miles an hour, although I think part of the reason for that is my reluctance to take the downhills fast when it’s pouring rain and the road is slippery. I learned all too recently what it’s like to scrape the pavement. That and I struggle to climb hills, needing stronger quad muscles. And since most of this course was either uphill or downhill, I wasn’t going all that fast ever. Do you know how badly rain can hurt when it hits your face when you’re going downhill at 30 mph? Pretty badly, I’ve found.

I rode most of the way on my own, and while having another rider along with me can make the time go faster, I like being able to keep my own pace. Riding 100 miles is stressful enough, but to try to keep up with another rider or to ride slower than I’d like and thus be out on the course longer, just adds to the stress. And until the very end, I’m not bored in the least; I’m happy to look around me, to think whatever I want, or, more often, to think nothing at all. I get into a meditative state when riding, where the most that’s in my head is a song. I think this is one of the things that keeps me riding so much — it lets me escape my brain for a while.

According to my heart rate monitor/bike computer, I burned 3,331 calories on the ride yesterday. Just think of all the eating that allows me to do! Okay, it’s because I believe that cycling equals more opportunities to eat that I’m not skinny. That, and genetics.

The encounter with the annoying guy: I’m riding along and two guys pass me (we ended up passing each other over and over again throughout the day), and one of them turns to me and says, “How old are you?” I get annoyed and say, “Hey! How old are you?” He takes a while to answer, appearing to think that he’s justified in asking me but not required to answer the question himself. He expresses amazement that I’m out doing the ride and I seem so young. This makes no sense to me. I figure since I’m out alone, I’m better off not being completely hostile, so once he tells me his age, I tell him mine, and things pretty much end there. I just make a point of not riding near him again.

The next century is three weeks from today. I’d like to do it, but I’ve already decided that if rain is in the forecast, I’m not.

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Plot and character

In the comments to yesterday’s post, Danielle asked a great question (as she so often does) about plot-driven vs. character-driven novels. I realize, now that I think about those terms, that the distinction is quite fuzzy. When I say “plot-driven,” I tend to think of action stories, and the book that comes immediately to mind is The Da Vinci Code. And when I say “character-driven,” I’m talking about books that go into a character’s mind or multiple characters’ minds in depth and focus on portraying a person or people in a complex way. I think, for example, of Proust. But this shows my biases, of course, because my example of a plot-driven novel is generally not considered great literature (okay, that’s an understatement), and Proust is. Danielle also names Dumas as an example of a writer focused on plot, someone who’s made the canon of western literature, sort of, but he also has a reputation as a super-fast writer who’s fun but not so serious.

I think Danielle is right to question the distinction between these two types of novels because although the distinction may wind up being useful, it has a lot of problems. Plot and character always go together, of course, or you don’t have a novel. Even if we’re talking about Clarissa, which much be the ultimate character-driven novel, it has plot, even if it consists of only three events. In 1,500 pages. In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past, if you prefer) has plot, even if it doesn’t follow any traditional story line (or does it? I don’t know yet). Still, I’m reading along right now in Swann’s Way and I want to know what happens to Swann and Odette. And plot-driven novels have characters, or there would be no plot to begin with, and if they are good novels, they’ll have interesting characters.

But there are lots of novels that don’t immediately strike me as one or the other. I just finished The Island of Dr. Moreau, which on first thought seems to me to be plot-driven, but then I start to think that the narrator in that novel is awfully interesting, and maybe it’s his responses to the plot that are at the heart of the novel? I suppose many, many novels work well because of the way they connect plot and character — the way that the plot comes out of the characters themselves, and then the characters remain interesting because of the ways they react to the plot. They don’t necessarily emphasize one over the other; rather, they integrate the two. And many, many novels emphasize one or the other to a degree, but not so much that a reader could clearly say this one is plot-driven and that one character-driven. Ultimately, I see the terms as useful for making very rough and quick distinctions, sort of like the way we use genre designations that work to a certain extent but when you look at them closely they begin to break down. This novel is “chick-lit,” that one is “speculative fiction,” this one is a “historical novel,” that one a “romance,” this is “plot-driven,” that is “character-driven.” The terms are a good starting place but not a good ending one.

The thing that interests me most is the question of bias I started out with. Am I showing my bias toward character-driven fiction when I name examples of plot-driven novels that people tend not to take seriously, such as The Da Vinci Code? What are some great plot-driven novels? Or would you rather not use the label at all? Do the terms have any usefulness?

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Comfort reading

I realized that I wrote something not quite true in yesterday’s post: I wrote that losing myself in a plot is what I need in stressful times when I’m not reading well. But the truth is, I don’t do particularly well with plot-driven novels. What I should have said is something more like “I need to lose myself in interesting characters or a well-drawn atmosphere or in careful emotional analysis.” Because those are the things I enjoy most; I tend to get impatient with intricately plotted novels. Most often what draws me to a book are people and relationships. I am stereotypically female in this sense, aren’t I? No fast-paced action — give me a relationship story! I feel the same way about movies; I’ll watch action movies, but I can get bored in the middle of them and sometimes fall asleep. But give me an interesting character, and even if that nothing happens to that character, I’ll be happy. There are exceptions — I loved the Phillip Pullman trilogy, His Dark Materials, which has a lot of plot, but it also has a lot of ideas, which is another thing that draws me to a novel. I liked Neal Stephenson’s novel Quicksilver, which has lots of plot and ideas, but I wasn’t so enchanted that I felt the need to pick up the next book in the trilogy. I got a little frustrated trying to keep the details straight in that book. Perhaps it’s my bad memory; I do better analyzing relationships and character than keeping plot details straight in my head.

I liked your suggestions for comfort reading from yesterday’s post very much; I would have picked up Anne of Green Gables immediately if I’d had a copy at home. I made the silly mistake of leaving them with my parents years ago, thinking they were children’s books that I’d outgrown. Oh, no. And I very nearly picked up a mystery novel. We have a ton of Dorothy Sayers books around. I’ve read a couple and liked them. And Jane Austen is the perfect comfort read for me; familiar but never dull. I was tempted to look around to see if we have any Louisa May Alcott, which would have worked very well. But I was scanning the shelves yesterday and came across an Elizabeth Taylor novel I haven’t read, The Sleeping Beauty, and it struck me as just the thing. I’ve read Taylor recently, In a Summer Season, and so I knew what to expect, and that I’d like it. And it’s perfect — set on the seashore and evoking a mysterious atmosphere, with complex characters whose lives seem quiet and serene but as the novel goes along the deeper levels of unhappiness reveal themselves. I like the slow movement of Taylor’s novels, the careful attention to tone and mood and gesture. This sort of thing is much more absorbing to me than something fast-paced. Looking around online I see that Taylor has at least a dozen novels. I’ll have to collect some more to have on hand for the next time I’ll need something comforting.

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Reading and stress

In one sense my reading’s going fine lately — I just finished H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau for the Slaves of Golconda, and I liked it very much; I’m a little ways into the biography of Colette and find her a fascinating subject; I’m nearing the end of Swann’s Way and am eager to find out what happens to Swann and Odette; I’m liking Jane Kenyon’s poems; and Frances Burney continues to write funny scenes in her journals and letters — but in another sense, it’s not. I’m not a very good reader in stressful times. I have trouble sitting still; I can’t concentrate and my mind wanders; I find myself not absorbing very much; I read a page and realize I have no idea what I just read. I need to keep reading during these times — because, really, what else would I DO with my time? — but it doesn’t absorb me in quite the same way.

I should probably pick up something light to get me through, something that I won’t care too much about if I don’t read very carefully. I’m not a frequent “light” reader though. I say that realizing it might sound like bragging, like I’m all great literature all the time, but I don’t mean it to; I tend to be a slow, serious reader, not given to picking something up for the pleasure of losing myself for a while in a plot and tearing through it to the end. And this is a problem in times like this, when losing myself in a plot is exactly what I need, and I’m at a bit of a loss. I’ll have to look around the house; surely we have something that would suit.

I find that in stressful times taking a bike ride is a better option than sitting down with a book. It’s easier for me to lose myself in the physical activity of the ride — to get rid of my worried, obsessive thoughts about whatever it is that’s stressing me out while working hard climbing one of the local hills (or, more likely, climbing a dozen of the local hills) — than to lose myself in a book. But I’ll still be hunting around for the perfect book to pick up after my ride is over. We’ll see what I find.

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Crashes

Well, I’d write a description of my crash in yesterday’s group ride, but why should I, when you can find a great description over here? As far as crashes go, this one was mild, and I hope I’ve fulfilled my crash quota for a while. But, then again, I know that’s not how it works. And I know this because of the Hobgoblin’s experience with crashes.

Anyway, today’s my last day at my old job, its own particular kind of crash, and I’m feeling harried. I’ll be back to books soon.

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Women and cycling

I’ve written before about being a woman rider/racer who’s frequently riding/racing with men, sometimes with no other women along, sometimes with just a few. Overall, my experience with my particular club has been very positive. But I recently read Fendergal’s post on her experience riding with men and recognized what she was talking about: men who compliment women for being strong even when their performance falls below that of the men, men who won’t let a woman pass them but insist on jumping on her wheel or passing her right back, and most of all, men who offer unsolicited advice to women riders, assuming that they don’t really know what they’re doing. These things have happened to me before, and I find it annoying, although mostly I just do my best to ignore it.

The best response is to be strong enough to leave all those complimenting, advice-giving men behind, which is what I’d love to be able to do, but, alas, am not yet good enough to do. It’s tricky for me sometimes when dealing with people who give advice, because I’m a new enough rider to need it, and I have learned things from other riders offering unsolicited advice. So I have to figure out whether a person giving me advice is doing so for obnoxious reasons — because he figures he knows much better how to ride than I do and that he can condescend to offer some tips — or whether the advice is well-intentioned and useful. And getting compliments on my riding is quite nice, and there’s nothing wrong with compliments unless they have the wrong subtext: “you’re strong — for a woman.”

I’m glad to have found Fendergal’s blog because it’s fun to read about another woman’s experiences with training and racing, and I’ve been happy to find Itchy Bits as well — a blog by a woman who’s not racing now, although she has in the past, and trains seriously. I wonder if there are other women cyclists blogging out there?? Fendergal says the ratio of men to women in cycling is 10-to-1, so we need some solidarity.

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A signpost book

Kate S. has written about signpost books, an idea I’m liking very much; the idea is that certain books, not necessarily the best books you have ever encountered, although maybe so, meet you at just the right time and speak to you in such a way that changes your subsequent reading. Here is Kate’s definition, in which she distinguishes between formative books and signpost books:

What’s the difference between a formative book and a signpost book? A single book could certainly be both, but if I’m interpreting the definition properly, an aesthetic focus is central to the latter. Girish writes of films that are breakthroughs in that they help the viewer to better understand film as an art form and that provide lessons to take into future viewing experiences, not lessons to take into life generally. A book may be formative because of its emotional or psychological impact. But it would be a signpost book if it helps the reader to better understand what language can do, how a story or a novel or a poem works, thereby enhancing that reader’s appreciation for literature as an art form, and sending him or her off into the next reading experience equipped with a more discerning eye.


Isn’t that an interesting way of thinking about a particular kind of reading experience? For all my talk about how literature can or can’t change people, it’s nice to get specific about it for a bit.

For me, a recent signpost book has been Virginia Woolf’s diary. It has changed the way I read, and it has done so by aesthetic means. It’s strange, however, to think of a diary as changing how I read because of its aesthetics, since diaries are so to-the-moment and generally aren’t revised or worked over with care. And yet there are passages in the diary that are beautiful, and if they aren’t crafted as a story is, they contain their own structure and attention to detail and innovative use of language. And a diary itself has an important structure to it: the structure of daily or nearly daily writing, with its implication that everyday details matter and deserve to be recorded.

I read this book in small sections, mostly a little bit each night before I went to bed, and I found that this is an excellent way of living with someone’s diary for a while. It’s not reading through their life at the pace they lived it, since I might read several entries each night, but it is reading the life slowly, getting a sense of daily rhythms over time. Some nights what I read wasn’t memorable in the least; other nights I read passages that still stick with me. And this is how life is, with many days that disappear and some that remain in the mind.

I’ve continued reading other diaries, including Frances Burney’s Journals and Letters, and I’m reading it in much the same way as I read Woolf’s: a little at a time before I go to bed. I’m also appreciating the aesthetic value of the book; Burney takes great time and care to reproduce scenes from her life complete with long stretches of dialogue, and I can see how her journals and letters are practice for her novels. So, I think Woolf has taught me the value of reading diaries, a little of what they are capable of doing, and a good way to read them — slowly, to get the feeling I’m living alongside an author for a while.

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On Colette

So I’m reading Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, and already in the introduction I’m coming across all kinds of fascinating information. I’m particularly interested in what Thurman says about Colette and feminism; compared to actresses and courtesans Colette knew, Thurman says:

The feminists had less to attract her. By 1900, the women’s-rights movement in France had a solid history, a daily newspaper, and a distinguished following. But the combination of utopianism and Puritanism which marked so much feminist theory – and the denunciation of women who “collaborated” sexually with their oppressors – deterred many women otherwise eager for liberation from joining the cause. Colette’s antipathy to feminism was, in her youth, outspoken. In 1910, an interviewer asked if she were a feminist, and she looked at him, incredulous. “Me, a feminist? You’re kidding. The suffragettes disgust me. And if any Frenchwomen take it into their heads to imitate them, I hope they’ll be made to understand that such behavior isn’t tolerated in France. You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem.”

And yet it seems to me that Colette did something to advance the cause – or a cause – of feminism through her independence, her sexual adventurousness, and her experimentation with gender roles. I suppose the feminism of the day wasn’t ready for Colette; in its earliest stages, there may not have been room for Colette’s complicated, fierce, and courageous self. When feminism’s focus is on gaining the vote for women, Colette’s subversiveness might have seemed more troublesome than exciting:

What is so subversive about Colette’s first novels is their suggestion that gender, too, is subjective. She perceived instinctively that the child of either sex has desires classified too strictly as masculine or feminine: urges to penetrate, devour, and possess; to be cherished, dominated, and contained.

This strikes me as a fine feminist statement, although not necessarily one that would have advanced the feminist goals of the time. For some reason I find myself interested in women whom I would call feminist, but who rejected the label. Another one from a different time period is Mary McCarthy, who is such a model of strong, independent womanhood and who wrote in powerful ways about women, but who also rejected feminism. I’m not sure what to think about this – are these women failing to understand feminism broadly enough to see that they do, in fact, embody feminism and write in a way that could be called feminist? Or is it a failing of feminism to define itself broadly enough to include these difficult, complicated, powerful women?

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The Fountain Overflows

I have become a Rebecca West fan. The Fountain Overflows is a marvelously moving and entertaining read. I really had no idea what to expect when I picked the book up, knowing little about West or the novel beyond the fact that several bloggers recommended her. What I found is a novel with a captivating voice.

It’s about a family around the turn of the century – 19th to 20th – that is unconventional, musical, and troubled. The father is recognized as a great writer, but he gambles away any money he earns and doesn’t know how to make people happy and keep a job – and he isn’t interested in learning how. The mother had a promising career as a pianist earlier in her life, but now spends her time and energy caring for her family and teaching two of her daughters how to play. There are four children; the eldest, Cordelia, plays the violin and hopes for a professional career although the rest of the family is convinced that she has no talent. There are twins, Mary and Rose, and it is Rose who tells the story, writing as an adult looking back on her childhood. And then there is Richard Quin, the youngest, who has many talents, including a brilliant imagination and an uncanny ability in one so young to smooth out social awkwardness.

Although the story is clearly told from an adult perspective, I often forgot and thought I was hearing Rose’s voice as a child. One of the things I found so captivating about the novel is the way the narrator switches so easily and seamlessly from one mode to another: from what seems to be a child’s voice telling the story as it happens to the adult’s view of a childhood long gone by. When we are in the story, as opposed to getting adult commentary on the story, the novel’s language isn’t childlike exactly, but it does seem to be what Rose would be thinking and saying as a child and the language is such that I could imagine a precocious child using it.

Rose and her siblings are truly captivating characters. The children have witnessed and experienced much uncertainty and trouble, and they do their best to make sense of their situation, and the three youngest children, at least, cling together, comfort each other, and in many ways behave like adults, trying to take care of their mother, who can be more childlike than the children:

We were beginning to understand that Mamma would in some respects always be younger than we were, perhaps because she had not had as trying a childhood as we had had, and that for her sake we had sometimes to treat her with positive low cunning, to get round the fact that she was supposed to be older than us in all ways instead of just a few.

They are future artists in training, devoting themselves to their music. They are also social misfits, partly because of their unconventional family history, partly because of their eccentricity. This is true for everyone except Cordelia; while the younger children take their isolation and their social ostracization as a natural state, Cordelia fights against it.

I often laughed as I read about the children’s imaginations, their games, and made-up stories. And the description of the tight-knit family bond, at least among the mother and the three younger children, was moving – it’s enough to make you want to be a part of this family, as troubled as it is. But most of all, the pleasure of this book lies in following Rose’s childhood – and adult – attempts to make sense of her world. I didn’t want to leave the company of her intelligent, imaginative, passionate mind.

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On reading and life

There have been a number of posts on litblogs lately that are largely about the relationship of literature and life: here’s a post from Dan Green’s The Reading Experience on reading with a kind of aesthetic distance versus reading in order to learn how to live. And here’s a response from Scott Esposito from Conversational Reading. And here’s a post from Stefanie’s So Many Books on the revolutionary potential of literature. The larger question in all these posts seems to be about what a writer can do and what effect a book can have. Do we read for aesthetic pleasure? Do we read to learn something about life? To change our thoughts or actions? Can literature affect anything outside the world of the text?

I don’t know what I think about the revolutionary power of literature, although Stefanie offers a powerful example of revolutionary possibilities in her post. I suspect that the changes that occur from reading and writing are small but powerful, but that figuring out what causes what is too complicated to sort through. It’s not often that a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes along and appears to make a significant change in people’s ways of thinking and in politics. And even the effects of that book are debatable. But who’s to say how the little changes that reading and writing cause work together and what they add up to?

Dan Green argues against the idea that authors can teach anyone how to live or how to act, and says that artists can tell us about art but cannot necessarily impart wisdom more readily than anyone else might: “I’ve never really understood why we would want to turn to poets or novelists for insights on ‘how to live.’ What has given them some special dispensation to pronounce on such a topic?” To a certain extent, I think that’s true: it strikes me as a mistake to see artists as having an advantage in the pursuit of truth and wisdom. This sets us up for perpetual disappointment at an artist’s flaws and weaknesses. But I tend to be someone who hopes for wisdom from artists anyway; I don’t think they have a “special dispensation” to pronounce on how we should live, but they do have something to tell us about life — the question is figuring out what that is.

Dan talks about some things he thinks we can learn from literature: the contingency and mutability of existence, and a manner in which to question the status quo. I think, also, that art can teach us to pay attention to the world. It’s not so much what an author says about life that I find valuable, but rather the awareness an author brings to existence. I might or I might not emulate a moral ideal I find expressed in a book, but I do hope to emerge from a book seeing things that I hadn’t seen before, paying closer attention to an aspect of life I’d overlooked. I think that learning to see is ultimately a moral lesson, since granting someone or something our attention is a step along the way toward acting responsibly toward that person or thing. An author might not be able to teach me how to live, but if she can teach me how to see, I’ve learned something valuable.

I’d question the distinction between aesthetic appreciation and passionate, engaged reading. Why do these two things have to be opposed? Aesthetic appreciation doesn’t have to imply distanced observation and detachment. As I’ve learned from Elaine Scarry, formal beauty can inspire a powerful emotional response that can lead to thoughts about equality and justice. It’s possible that the more I understand an author’s craft, the more capable I am of passionate response to the work and that response can possibly teach me something about life. Those things won’t necessarily take place in the same moment, but I often read a poem and respond viscerally, and then re-read it and begin to understand the crafted nature of the poem, its artistry, but I’m still responding emotionally and my aesthetic insight can add to my emotional response. I don’t see why aesthetic understanding has to imply gaining a critical distance that is never bridged to bring one back to an emotional closeness to the work.

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Poems and personas

Stefanie has an interesting post on the relationship of autobiography and fiction and the “I” of poetry — which, she was taught, is not to be conflated with the “I” of the author. I was taught the same thing, and I have taught that idea in literature classes myself, and I believe it, although I think it’s complicated. I suppose what I really think is that the “I” in the poem is never the same as the poet, but that in some poems the “I” is closer to the poet than in others. I do think there is something to be gained by considering the relationship between poet and poem; I don’t like the idea of walling off the two completely.

I think of Anne Sexton as an interesting case: what do we with “confessional” poets who set out to write about themselves in very personal ways? Even here, in confessional poetry, the “I” of the poem is not Anne Sexton, but the relationship between the poem and the person is awfully interesting and you couldn’t really fully understand Sexton’s work without thinking about her life. But it would also be misleading to assume that the poet and poem fully merge; Sexton still uses a persona. All this makes poetry reading interesting, I think, since a reader can both think about the poems as poems — how do they work or not work as aesthetic objects? — but then can also think about the relationship of the poems to the life, and can therefore have a number of ways of approaching the poem, making the reading experience richer.

Ultimately, I think that fully walling off poem and poet can hide a whole lot of stuff that is really important in literary history: I think it matters that Anne Sexton is a woman writer who is writing against a largely-male tradition of highly formal, abstract, impersonal poetry. She helped open the door to writing that is not only personal (personal in a complicated way, of course), but that discusses women’s experiences in a manner that is new and vital and important.

The other part of the question, for me, is whether there is a clearly-definable “I” belonging to the poet that can match or not match up with the “I” of the poem. In other words, is there even a definable self that can be captured in poetry? You could say that all versions of the self are fictional, and that even if a writer is trying to write about herself as accurately as possible, what she produces is automatically just another fiction, because there is nothing else.

I’m kind of partial to that idea myself. At any rate, Stefanie closes this with question about the wall between poem and poet: “Or should I replace the wall with a split-rail fence covered in morning glories?” Yes!

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Utterly random notes on some things I’m not sure about

I’m not sure what it says about the job I’m leaving that some of my busiest days ever are those spent getting ready to quit. It’s been an easy job, sometimes boringly and unsatisfyingly easy. At times, that’s a good thing, as I’ve had plenty of time for my non-work interests. But ultimately I can’t stay in it. I need to do something that feels more meaningful. That said, I’m extremely grateful that people at my old job are letting me take a leave of absence, so I can return to it if the risky new job doesn’t work out. So all that worry about whether to take the new opportunity? I needn’t have worried. If the new thing doesn’t work out, I’m back at the old, familiar, easy thing. No problems. I realize I’m lucky.

I’m also not sure what to think about the Booker prize long list, so maybe I won’t think anything about it at all. I feel ambivalently about prizes, because on the one hand they are handy ways to pick out a new book to read — hey, why not read last year’s Booker prize winner? A bunch of people thought it was good, after all — and on the other hand, I know that prizes often have little to do with actual literary quality and the whole notion of “actual literary quality” is nebulous if not meaningless. I’m attracted to prize winners because how can I help it after all? The names are everywhere. And yet I don’t feel good about being impressed by them.

I’m not sure about the time trial I’m riding in this evening — I said I would do it because there’s a party afterwards and I don’t want to just show up at the party without having ridden in the race, and would like to go to the party — so I’m racing again when I’d thought I wouldn’t until next spring. It’s just a time trial, me against the clock, but riders leave in 30-second intervals which leaves plenty of time for people to catch up with me and pass me, which isn’t much fun. That’s exactly what I wanted to avoid when I decided to stop racing for a while.

I’m not sure what nonfiction book I want to read next: I picked up Martha Nussbaum’s book Love’s Knowledge which sounds great, but I’m worried about picking up a difficult read when I’ve got a busy few weeks ahead of me. I’m leaning toward the biography of Colette I’ve got as something a little easier, but still very, very interesting.

I am sure there are other things I’m not sure about, but I have to run off to a meeting about the fact that I’m leaving my job …

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Happiness

My latest book of poetry begins this way: “There’s just no accounting for happiness, / or the way it turns up like a prodigal / who comes back to the dust at your feet / having squandered a fortune far away.” I read this, a poem by Jane Kenyon called “Happiness,” and I know I’m in good hands, and the book’s going to be a good read. I’ve only read three poems in Kenyon’s Otherwise, but I know I’m going to love it. I’ve often thought, especially recently, that happiness is not a good goal, it’s not something to strive for, it’s not something that can be obtained, but I still need a reminder. It’s much better to think of happiness as something completely out of our control, something that visits us occasionally and that we are best off being grateful for without clinging to it.

The poem ends this way: happiness “even comes to the boulder / in the perpetual shade of pine barrens, / to rain falling on the open sea / to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.” I like the thought that happiness can come to natural objects and inanimate objects, and that it itself is like a natural force, something that simply happens to us. We have no say in happiness, just as we have no say in the weather.

This poem about happiness makes me think about the nonfiction book I just finished, Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which I’ve posted on so often and quoted from so extensively, I might have a rather large percentage of this short book up on my blog. Scarry has nothing to say about happiness, at least not that I can remember. She may not even use the word in her book. But she does talk about the quality of aliveness that encounters with beauty can create for us: “Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.” This sounds to me like a much better goal than happiness: to fill one’s life with beauty, which can make one feel more alive. This might have something to do with happiness, it might not, but that hardly seems to matter. What are we doing on this earth but living, so why not try to live more fully?

Part of Scarry’s argument is that seeking beauty is not a self-indulgent or solipsistic pursuit. In fact, quite the opposite. Encounters with the beauty can help us get outside our own minds and begin to care about others. She says beauty can cause a “radical decentering”; to explain this, she quotes Simone Weil: beauty requires us “to give up our imaginary position as the center … A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions.” Here is Scarry’s gloss on this: “It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.” There is something very freeing about the thought of giving up the imaginary position at the center of the world; perhaps the best goal is not seeking happiness for oneself, but seeking ways to leave the self behind.

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On book reviews

I’ve found since I’ve begun blogging that book reviews from traditional media sources matter to me less and less. I’ve kept a list of books I’d like to read for quite a while now, many of the books coming from book reviews and some coming from recommendations from friends or my reading in various non-review places. But the list was never very long, and I wouldn’t add to it frequently. Since I’ve begun blogging, however, the list has grown at a frightening pace. I now have 150 books on my to-be-read list, which I recognize isn’t all that many compared to the lists many of you probably have, but is probably five times as long as my list from my life pre-blog. And it’s continuing to grow at that fast rate, so that by the end of the year, my list might have doubled. Hmmm … should I find a way to get that list under control? Maybe not. Maybe it should just be a list of possibilities, not things I’m absolutely going to read so as not to pressure myself, but things I might read, if the time comes when the books feel right.

I think it’s the different sort of writing I come across on book blogs that inspires me to add books to my TBR list when traditional book reviews don’t as often. I’m very interested in what reading a book feels like. I want to know what the experience of being immersed in a particular book will do to a reader. I’m interested in knowing about the story, the setting, the characters, the ideas, the writing, and all that I can get from traditional book reviews, but I also want to know about the book on a more subjective level. What did it do to you? How did you feel when you read it? And answers to these questions I’m much more likely to find on book blogs, where people don’t have to follow conventions of formality and don’t have the same pressure to keep themselves — their personal experiences and stories — out of the writing. Not all traditional book reviews are that cut and dry, I realize, but I’m much more likely to find personal, impassioned writing elsewhere, and that, I think, is what I really want.

Litlove, in her recent post on the blog genre, gets to the heart of what I want when she says that “blogging always offers a pattern of the mind that thinks, reflects, sifts information, analyses, distinguishes, recommends, enthuses. No matter what format the blogging takes, the blog reader receives a very intimate and immediate contact with a vibrant subjectivity, that is engaging with the world in the way that seems most natural and most enlivening to him or to her.” Reading this sort of writing — about whatever it is a writer finds most enlivening — enlivens a reader too. I read book blogs, and I feel like I’m encountering a mind impassioned by reading and generously sharing that enthusiasm, and I’m inspired to respond, sometimes by writing comments, and sometimes by adding books to my TBR list. I’ve always been excited about reading, but now having been a book blog reader for a while, I find myself even more excited about all the great books out there. I’m having that experience in the bookstore less and less where I’ll wander around and feel like nothing is speaking to me, no book is calling out to me to read it. Now I am much more likely to be overwhelmed with the choices.

This is not to say that I don’t read traditional book reviews anymore, because I do, but I’m much more likely to skim and skip articles, and turn instead to the blog world to see what’s out there.

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Litlove’s meme

From Tales from the Reading Room, here’s a new book meme:

1. First book to leave a lasting impression? I think it would be the Little House on the Prairie series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read those books so many times I practically had them memorized. I was so fascinated by life on the prairie, I read them looking for every detail I could find that would shed some light on what the Ingalls’ family life was like. And I learned something about independence and resourcefulness from Laura. I liked the quiet confidence the character projected.

2. Which author would you most like to be? That’s tough because so often authors have interesting lives of the sort I wouldn’t want to live through. But I think Jane Austen would be a good choice. There’s something about living a quiet, uneventful, undramatic life, writing works of stunning genius and not making a big deal out of it, that appeals to me.

3. Name the book that has most made you want to visit a place. Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods, about the Appalachian Trail. Even though he had some terrible times on his hike, the book still makes me want to be on the trail, and to stay on the trail for the months and months it takes to hike the whole thing. Anything I read about the Appalachian Trail makes me want to go there.

4. Which contemporary author will still be read in 100 years time? Of all the questions in this meme, this one has stumped me the most. Perhaps it’s because I’ve read too many books that were immensely popular in their own time, but then fell out of the literary canon. So I think if we could find out the answer to this question, we’d probably we surprised. I’d like for Kazuo Ishiguro to make it.

5. Which book would you recommend to a teenager reluctant to try ‘literature’? In spite of having taught 18-year-olds for quite a few years now, I have absolutely no confidence in any recommendation I could make to a teen who isn’t a big reader. I will say that I read — devoured — Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy recently, and would recommend it to anyone, of any age.

6. Name your best recent literary discovery. Hmmm … Mary Oliver? Jane Hirschfield? Rebecca West? Let’s go with Rebecca West. I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying The Fountain Overflows.

7. Which author’s fictional world would you most like to live in? How about living in the world of Jaspar Fforde’s Thursday Next books? At least people care about literature there. A lot.

8. Name your favorite poet. Right now it would be Mary Oliver. I’m excited to read more though — there’s so much about the poetry world I don’t know.

9. What’s the best nonfiction title you’ve read this year? Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. It’s, well, beautiful. I also liked Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading very much.

10. Which author do you think is much better than his/her reputation? I’m going to answer this in a different way than the question implies: I think there are a lot of eighteenth-century novelists, particularly women novelists, who are dismissed as being merely “pre-Austen,” but are really great writers and deserve attention. Frances Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Hays, and Maria Edgeworth are examples.

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My books are talking

This is getting quite strange. I was reading Elaine Scarry’s book recently where she talks about the gaze: whether gazing at a beautiful person or object can harm she/he/it, and then I turned to Proust for a while, and he was talking about the same thing! Not whether the gaze causes harm or not, but how gazing works for both the gazer and the gazed upon. I’m reading these two books at the same time purely by accident; I had no idea they spoke to each other so well.

Scarry takes up the argument against beauty that “when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object.” She quickly dispenses with the idea that gazing at beautiful objects might cause them harm, and takes up the issue of gazing at beautiful people, which is more complicated. She doesn’t dwell on the exact nature of the problem, but the idea is that by gazing at a beautiful person, the gazer turns that person into an object existing for the enjoyment of the gazer and denies the subjecthood of the person gazed upon. All the power, in this view, is with the one gazing, and none with the gazed upon. She counters this view by reminding us that:

It is odd that contemporary accounts of “staring” or “gazing” place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at, for the vulnerability of the perceiver seems equal to, or greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived. In accounts of beauty from earlier centuries, it is precisely the perceiver who is imperiled, overpowered, by crossing paths with someone beautiful.

And then Scarry gives a wonderful example:

Plato gives the most detailed account of this destabilization in The Phaedrus. A man beholds a beautiful boy: suddenly he is spinning around in all directions. Publicly unacceptable things happen to his body. First he shudders and shivers. Then sweat pours from him. He is up, down, up, down, adopting postures of worship, even beginning to make sacrifices to the boy, restrained only by his embarrassment to be carrying out so foolish an activity in front of us. Now he feels an unaccountable pain. Feathers are beginning to emerge out of his back, appearing all along the edges of his shoulder blades. Because this plumage begins to lift him off the ground a few inches, he catches glimpses of the immortal realm. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the discomfort he feels on the inside is matched by how ridiculous he looks on the outside.

So the gaze, in this account, is not a form of control over the object gazed upon; instead, it is a way to access beauty which can leave the gazer vulnerable and foolish, which can wrest self-control from the gazer, which can transform the gazer into something new.

Scarry says that the encounter with a beautiful person or object can affirm the aliveness of both — the one encountering beauty feels more alive himself or herself and the beautiful person or object “has conferred on it by the beholder a surfeit of aliveness: even if it is inanimate, it comes to be afforded a fragility and consequent level of protection normally reserved for the animate.” She says:

Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness or (in the case of objects) quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection.

Beauty is, then, a compact, or contract between the beautiful being (a person or thing) and the perceiver. As the beautiful being confers on the perceiver the gift of life, so the perceiver confers on the beautiful being the gift of life.

And then I come to Proust. When he writes, “And — oh, the marvelous independence of the human gaze,” you can imagine how I perked up. In the passage where he first sees Mme. de Guermantes, he writes about the gaze as that which transforms the gazer. First, he praises the gaze itself:

And — oh, the marvelous independence of the human gaze, tied to the face by a cord so lax, so long, so extensible that it can travel out alone far away from it — while Mme. de Guermantes sat in the chapel above the tombs of her dead, her gaze strolled here and there, climbed up the pillars, paused even on me like a ray of sunlight wandering through the nave, but a ray of sunlight which, at the moment I received its caress, seemed to me conscious.


Mme. de Guermantes’s gaze, here, does not claim control or power over the narrator; rather, it feels like a conscious ray of light — it is life-giving, instead of life-taking. It is a caress, a recognition and celebration of the narrator’s existence. And then the narrator gazes at her:

I felt it was important that she not leave before I had looked at her enough, because I remembered that for years now I had considered the sight of her eminently desirable, and I did not detach my eyes from her, as if each gaze could physically carry away, and put in reserve inside me, the memory of that prominent nose, those red cheeks, all the particular details that seemed to me so many precious, authentic, and singular pieces of information about her face … I was impelled to consider it beautiful by all the thoughts I had brought to bear on it …

The narrator’s gaze upon Mme. de Guermantes does two things: it bestows on her qualities of beauty and authenticity — it affirms her value and aliveness — and it changes the narrator. It creates in him memories he will carry with him forever. When he sees her, he is moved to say (and beauty does move us to action, in this case, to speaking out loud):

“How beautiful she is! How noble! What I see before me is indeed a proud Guermantes and a descendant of Genevieve de Brabant!” And the attention with which I illuminated her face isolated her to such an extent that today, if I think back to that ceremony, it is impossible for me to see a single one of the people who were present except for her and the verger who responded affirmatively when I asked him if that lady was really Mme. de Guermantes.


The memory of Mme. de Guermantes he now carries with him will affect his perceptions of the world. He will remember, also, Mme. de Guermantes’s gaze upon him, a memory that becomes a part of his being:

Recalling, then, the gaze she had rested on me during Mass, as blue as a ray of sunlight passing through Gilbert the Bad’s window, I said to myself: “Why she’s actually paying attention to me.” I believed that she liked me, that she would still be thinking of me after she had left the church, that because of me perhaps she would be sad that evening at Guermantes. And immediately I loved her …

This is a scene (p. 180-1 in the Davis translation) of the gaze as an action that transforms the gazer and the one gazed upon — it transforms them, as Scarry says, by affirming their value and aliveness. It is a reciprocal event, a compact, bringing benefits to both.

I couldn’t believe my luck in coming across Scarry’s philosophical proposition and then Proust’s embodiment of that proposition in the same day. And I’ll add that as I write about what I read in this blog, I feel that I’m living out Scarry’s idea that beauty provokes people to action, specifically to reproduce or to imitate the beauty they encounter: when I encounter something beautiful in my reading, I can reproduce it here and then reflect on it — it’s a way of being an active rather than passive reader and it’s a way of perpetuating the beautiful books and passages I come across.

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Today’s ride

It was a gorgeous day for cycling; when I set off on my ride it was mid-60s, and when I returned, mid-70s, low humidity, clear skies. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. So it’s good I decided to do a long ride: 65 miles, a little over 4 hours. The route takes me north, skirting a small city at the beginning, and then heading up into small towns and countryside. I had views of fields and woods and farms. I like riding from one town to another; somehow that makes me feel like I’m covering some significant distance (well, my muscles remind me of that too). After the small city, the only part of the ride that isn’t pretty, I rode through or skirted by six towns, and one of those I rode through twice, once on the way out and once returning. The town where I stopped to refill my water bottles was quintessential New England, with a prep school, antique shops, art galleries, pretty colonial houses, the white church and steeple, and the Appalachian Trail running nearby. I didn’t linger long, however; my muscles cool down fast and getting back on the bike can be hard.

I’m training to ride my first century (100-mile ride) on August 27 — this is an organized ride with a set route, food and water stops, and lots of people. I’ve done this ride 3 or 4 times before; I’ve planned to do it every year for the last 6 years or so, but sometimes other things get in the way — bad weather, fatigue, busyness. So that means I have two more weeks to train. My plan is to do 3 or 4 short, easy rides this coming week, to ride another long one, this time 80 miles, next weekend, and then to take it easy the week before the century. I’ve found that if I do at least a couple rides in the 60-80 mile range, I’m fine. There are two more centuries in September I’d like to do; one of them has a 125-mile ride that I’ve done once before. We’ll see about that one.

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