Monthly Archives: February 2007

A Good Man is Hard to Find

First of all, if you haven’t read the Hobgoblin’s post on his father and on what’s happening to war vets, do go check it out.

I taught Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in my classes yesterday and had such a fun time doing it; I’m not sure I got the students to like the story as much as I do, but that might be because it’s a story that grows on you with every reading. For me, the story gets funnier and funnier each time (and I’ve re-read it quite a few times now).

The story describes a family on a trip from Georgia to Florida; they get side-tracked down a dirt road and run into an escaped convict called the Misfit and violence ensues. Now that doesn’t sound like funny material at all; in fact, when I talked about how funny I think the story is, a number of my students were shocked. But that’s the genius of O’Connor, and what makes her so strange: that she can write a funny story about violence that also has a profound and beautiful religious element. This paragraph will give you a taste of O’Connor’s style:

The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

This last line just kills me; it captures the grandmother perfectly, with her primness and properness and her failure to recognize that if she’s dead on the highway, she’s not going to care what she looks like. And the bratty children crack me up:

“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley said.

“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”

“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a lousy state too.”

“You said it,” June Star said.

What sends the family down the dirt road is that the grandmother remembers a nearby plantation she visited as a young woman and she gets the children excited about stopping there. They set off down the side road, and it’s then that she has a terrible thought. This terrible thought makes her jump, which lets the cat out of the basket where she’s been hiding it, which then jumps up onto the father’s shoulder startling him and causing them to veer off into a ditch. This is the grandmother’s response:

As soon as the children saw they could move their arms and legs, they scrambled out of the car, shouting, “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her all at once. The horrible thought she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.

The grandmother is just such an awful person. She’s self-centered and irritating, and not so different from her bratty grandchildren, and this is what makes her such a great character — O’Connor gets her perfectly. And yet, in spite of being so awful, she has a wonderful moment at the end of the story, a moment when she manages to be someone different from who she’s been up until that point. There’s something wonderful about the extremity of this story, the violence and the humor and the suddenness of the grandmother’s moment of insight at the end. O’Connor isn’t interested in the subtle shifts in thinking we often see in short story characters; she gives us drama and lots of action and the possibility of sudden transformation.

I’ve read all of O’Connor’s fiction, I’m pretty sure, unless I missed a story or two. But it was quite a while ago I read it, and I think it would be fun to read her again — she’s someone whose work it wouldn’t be hard to read in its entirety, as she has only two short novels and a couple short story collections. She’s someone I might read differently now that I’m a bit older; I feel like with a little age I can better appreciate her sense of humor.

I found myself reminding my students that this is fiction we’re talking about; yes, there’s violence in the story, and yes, it’s gruesome, but that’s not really the point. It’s not as though it’s the kind of gratuitous violence you frequently see in the movies; it’s violence that gets you to think about God and grace and what the point of trying to be good is. And since it’s a truly horrible person who leads us into all of these serious thoughts, why not make that horrible person and her family as funny as you can? You can get a sense of O’Connor’s rather wicked sense of humor from the story’s closing lines:

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

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Filed under Books, Short stories

My latest audiobooks

10744574.gifLast time I wrote about audiobooks, I was in the middle of listening to Jennifer Egan’s The Keep. Well, now I’ve finished it, and I have to say I wasn’t all that terribly impressed. The story never quite came together for me; I never really came to care about the characters all that much. And then there was a strange shift in narrators near the end, along with a new reader, so I felt like I was listening to a completely new book and it was jarring. The thing is, on the back of the CD case were pictured two readers, a man and a woman, so I knew another reader would be coming along at some point, but since it didn’t happen until near the end of the novel, I spent quite a long time wondering when the reader would shift. I found it irritating. This is not the fault of the book, of course, just some unfortunate circumstances that kept me from giving it a fair chance, I suppose.

The novel is about two stories that intertwine; one is about Danny, a tough, New York City guy who gets into some trouble and so jumps at the opportunity to go visit his cousin in Europe. This cousin owns and is renovating a castle somewhere on Germany’s border. The other story is about Ray, a guy in prison who is taking a writing class and is falling in love with his instructor. I liked the beginning of the novel, which has a harrowing scene from Danny’s childhood where he and some friends abandon his cousin in a cave, but the rest of the novel doesn’t live up to this beginning. It’s got some odd, fantastical, magic-realism elements to it that I didn’t really get the point of and I wasn’t all that interested in the novel’s ideas. It’s a reworking of the gothic, with the castle and some mystery and a frightening Baroness, but Egan didn’t convince me that there was a larger point to this reworking, besides the chance to have some fun writing about Baronesses and castles.

But I’m now listening to Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, and so far I’m liking it much better. This book also has multiple narrators and multiple readers, but it’s got more of a regular pattern to it, which works just fine. The only problem is that one of the CDs is damaged; I’m having to miss maybe 5-10 minutes of the story. I’m liking the book enough I considered buying a paper copy and reading it the regular way, but not having been at a bookstore lately, I haven’t had the chance. We’ll see if I can piece together the story.

I liked the first narrator very much; he’s Leo Gursky, an old man living in New York City, who has only one friend, Bruno, and who is lonely. Leo and Bruno check every day to make sure the other person is still alive. Leo feels so isolated he goes about the city making scenes and being difficult to make sure that people notice him. He doesn’t want to die on a day nobody has seen him. He is so desperate to be seen, he volunteers to be a nude model in a drawing class; he is happy to think that people will be staring at him for hours and creating images of his body. Leo has a wonderfully humorous voice, and the man who reads this section does a wonderful job. After Leo, the book shifts to Alma, a young girl who is trying to find a boyfriend for her depressed mother. We shall see where this book takes me …

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The upcoming race season: a cycling post

I got home just a little while ago from a 37-mile bike ride that felt like it was at least 50.  It was a good ride, just very hilly and therefore slow, and I was convinced at one point that I was lost, and so I spent at least 20-30 minutes in a panic, certain I would have to turn around and retrace my route, which would involve climbing up more hills.  I didn’t, thank heavens — I eventually came to a place I recognized and realized I was on the right route all along.  But that kind of experience makes a ride feel much longer.

The race season begins next Sunday, and I have no idea how ready I am.  I’ve been riding regularly through the winter, but not terribly intensely — which I think is how I should be riding; the intensity can come later.  The problem is that the race season here begins ridiculously early.  I’m torn between wanting to be ready for the first race so I don’t embarrass myself horribly, and worrying about working so hard I get burnt out.  If I ride too intensely now, I won’t leave myself enough room to add intensity later.  But if I don’t ride intensely now, I’m running the risk of not having enough strength to finish the first races.

I rode with my cycling club yesterday; they were practicing race tactics to get ready for next week, doing things like working together to catch a sprinter who’s made a break from the pack.  I didn’t actually directly participate in these drills, as I’m not strong enough; I just rode at the back of the pack, trying my best to stay with everybody.  This could be an indication that I’m not ready to race, but it was a mixed group — some beginners and some more advanced riders (categories 4 and 5) — and so I still don’t know how I match up against riders in my category.  There were other guys who looked about as tired as I was.

As usual, I was the only woman in the group; there is at least one other woman in my club who races (and maybe more, depending on whether a couple new people decide to give it a try), but she doesn’t train with the guys much.  There will be a women’s race next week, but I’m not going to ride in it — the women’s race is usually very fast because women of all levels ride in it, whereas the men’s race I’ll ride in is limited mostly to newbies, and so a bit slower.  That was a lesson I learned very well last year.

So who knows.  I’ll give it my best shot next week, but if I don’t do well, that will be okay, because it’s the beginning of the season and I have plenty of time to get myself into shape for races later on.

And the real truth of the matter is that I race because I like riding and I want a challenge.  I don’t care much how well I do.

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Blogging personas

Litlove’s fascinating post on Borges and on her relationship to her blogging alter ego has got me thinking about my own relationship to Dorothy, how I am and am not her. When I first started blogging, I thought in terms of a persona; I thought that I was creating one, and that that persona was not me, and that I was happy to be creating a persona because it would give me more freedom, freedom to write in ways that the “real-world me” might not, and therefore freedom to explore parts of me that I don’t normally express. This is partly why I chose to take on a pseudonym, so that my online self could be substantially different from my regular self, if I wanted it to.

But that hasn’t happened really — I feel instead like Dorothy is really me, just with a different name. She’s not a separate person, a mask, or a persona; she’s me, but she’s not quite the “me” I think of as my real-world self. The writer of this blog doesn’t feel like a fictional creation at all, although, in a sense, she is a fictional creation, because our selves are all fictional creations of sorts. Writing this blog has made me more aware of how fictional the various versions of myself are, since it is so easy to shape my online self by giving out certain bits of information and not others, and this makes me realize that I’m always communicating different versions of “myself” to the people I meet, online or in-person, and I’m even communicating a version of myself to myself. The mental image I have of Dorothy is incomplete — I see one version and you see another — and this is also true for image I have of the “real-world me.” My image of myself matches no one else’s image, and who is to say whose image is the more accurate one?

Anyway, Dorothy is calmer than I am, than the version of “me” I’m familiar with. She’s much less busy than I am, and more certain, less nervous, and more chatty. She’s nicer and more open. She’s not as critical and she’s much more optimistic. She’s a little less self-conscious and more willing to try new things. She’s more of a group person, more willing to participate. She likes people more. She’s just as serious, but occasionally more willing to be silly. She’s more willing to talk about herself (or she wouldn’t blog of course!), and less concerned with what people think of her.

All that sounds quite nice, doesn’t it? It makes me want to be Dorothy … and perhaps the interesting thing about blogging is that it might help me become a little more like her. Perhaps after our online selves have been in existence for a while, we begin to merge with them.

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The Life

I have been reading such good posts on 17C and 18C topics, that I am inspired to add something from my own 18C read, Boswell’s Life of Johnson (I’m speeding my way toward the halfway point right now). First of all, here’s Johnson on literary criticism. When a friend says about a new tragedy called Elvira, “We have hardly a right to abuse this tragedy; for bad as it is, how vain should either of us be to write one not near so good,” he responds with this:

Why no, Sir; this is not just reasoning. You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.

There’s a certain amount of sense to this, although I think having tried to write a tragedy might give one better insight into how hard it is to write one. But if we think of writing as a craft that some people have taken special pains to learn, then why not expect the best and be critical if we don’t get it? Johnson’s attitude implies that we can recognize quality in something even if we can’t produce that quality ourselves. I kind of like the idea of writing as a craft that a writer sets out to learn, just as a person might set out to learn carpentry. This strikes me as a very 18C, pre-Romantic way of thinking about writing, and, not having been one to buy into the myth of the larger-than-life Romantic artist (or having been thoroughly disabused of that notion in my education so that I forget ever having believed in it at all), it appeals to me.

And here is a conversation on the difference between Richardson and Fielding (and if you want to know something about the 18C novel, you can’t do better than to read Richardson’s Pamela followed by Fielding’s Shamela and Joseph Andrews, which will give you two very different views on what the novel can do, two views that remained in tension with one another for a long, long time):

Fielding being mentioned, Johnson exclaimed, “he was a blockhead;” and upon my [Boswell] expressing my astonishment at so strange an assertion, he said, “What I mean by his being a blockhead is, that he was a barren rascal.” Boswell: “Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?” Johnson: “Why, Sir, it is of very low life. Richardson used to say, that had he not known who Fielding was, he should have believed he was an ostler. Sir, there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson’s, than in all ‘Tom Jones.’ I, indeed, never read ‘Joseph Andrews.’” Erskine: “Surely, Sir, Richardson is very tedious.” Johnson: “Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.”

Although I love Pamela and Clarissa, I can see why others don’t — if people don’t read for the story, in order not to feel like hanging themselves, they aren’t likely to read for the sentiment, since the sentiment is much more likely to annoy contemporary readers than please them. The class stuff here is interesting, since Richardson was fairly solidly middle class (although the term isn’t historically accurate) and Fielding was a member of the gentry, and yet it’s Richardson who sounds snooty here. Richardson is not so different from his character Pamela who (according to one interpretation) struggles mightily to raise her social standing. Fielding, with his social standing secure, is freer to write about low life and to be, or appear to be, a rascal. It’s interesting, also, that some in the 18C found Richardson tedious — it’s not as though everyone at the time fell in love with seemingly endless novels with hardly any action.

And one more bit of Johnsonian criticism, reported by Boswell:

I wondered to hear him say of “Gulliver’s Travels,” “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.”

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More on Sebald

Brad pointed out an excerpt of an interview Joe Cuomo did with W.G. Sebald back in 2001; I checked it out and found it quite interesting. Cuomo’s first question starts off this way:

A friend of mine, a writer, a very good writer, said to me that as soon as he finished reading “The Rings of Saturn” he immediately started from the beginning again, because he couldn’t figure out what had just happened to him. I was wondering how you approached this in the writing of it, the idea of narrative form.

This makes me feel better because it describes my reaction entirely — “this book is great, but … what is Sebald doing exactly? What is it that I just experienced?” That I didn’t start from the beginning again says something about my lack of discipline, not my lack of interest. I do want to read this book again, but not immediately, although I may read other Sebald books soon, and I think reading those will help clarify what I’ve already read.

In the course of answering Cuomo’s question, Sebald says this about the writing of Rings of Saturn:

I had this idea of writing a few short pieces for the German papers in order to pay for the extravagance of a fortnight’s rambling tour. So that was the plan. But then, as you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian which is in a tiny little museum somewhere, and which you would never find in London. And in that you find odd details that lead you somewhere else, and so it’s a form of unsystematic searching, which, of course, for an academic, is far from orthodoxy, because we’re meant to do things systematically.

I love this — this is what is so wonderful about walking, and about reading books about or inspired by walking. Taking a walk can be a way of opening yourself up to the world; if you pay attention, you will find things, things will happen to you. They will happen to you sometimes even if you are not paying attention.

About researching, Sebald has learned much from watching dogs:

But I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.

He goes on to say that after you’ve discovered things in this seemingly random, dog-like way, you have to use your imagination to connect all those things you’ve found, and that way you’re more likely to have something new to say, rather than covering the same old ground, so to speak. This is a great explanation of what it’s like to read Sebald — he takes so many disparate stories and weaves them together in unexpected ways and you find yourself seeing the world in a new way.

I can’t resist giving you another quotation about dogs from the interview; speaking about Kafka, he says:

If you read a story like “Investigations of a Dog,” it has a subject whose epistemological horizon is very low. He doesn’t grasp anything above the height of one foot. He makes incantations so that the bread comes down from the dinner table. How it comes down, he doesn’t know. But he knows that if he performs certain rites then certain events will follow. And then he goes, this dog, through the most extravagant speculations about reality, which we know is quite different. As he, the dog, has this limited capacity of understanding, so do we.

This makes me want to read more Sebald (I love the way he is so inspired by dogs) and the Kafka story — has anybody out there read it before?

And one last Sebald quotation:

Certainly, my own life experience is that when I thought I had things sorted and I was in control, something happened that completely undid everything I had wanted to do. And so it goes on. The illusion that I had some control over my life went up to about my thirty-fifth birthday. Then it stopped. Now I’m out of control.

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Book blogs

I came across this at The Valve; it’s an excerpt from an article called “The Blog Reflex” from n+1:

People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think and say. They could have posted 5,000-word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, on-line, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. In practice, blogs reveal how much we are unwitting stenographers of hip talk and marketing speak, and how secondhand and often ugly our unconscious impulses still are. The need for speed encourages, as a willed style, the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested. (Not for nothing is the word blog evocative of vomit.) “So hot right now,” the bloggers say. Or: “Jumped the shark.” The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satisfaction – “The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!” – or displeasure – “I shit on Dante!” So man hands on information to man.

Why, when I read these kinds of articles about blogging, do I never recognize the blog world that’s being described? Does anybody out there who reads book blogs recognize what’s being described here? Why do I feel like the people who write these kinds of articles are looking at a different internet than the one I see?

Okay, sucky book blogs are out there, but — they’re not that hard to recognize and then avoid. And people do write great stuff, they do write long critiques, they do respond intelligently to the world. The main criticism here seems to be that book blogs don’t really talk about books and reading and ideas; they are all about publicity and popularity and making quick, undigested judgments on the latest new thing. I just don’t buy it.

I don’t subscribe to n+1 and I don’t know if the full article will ever appear online, but I am interested in trying to read it somehow. Or maybe I shouldn’t — I will just get more annoyed. (Do check out the Valve post; it’s kind of funny.)

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The Rings of Saturn

1525990.gifI finished W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn yesterday, and it has won me over; I admire this book, although I still find it a bit baffling. But this is not a bad thing, not at all. First of all, how do I categorize this book when I’m counting up the things I’ve read this year — is it fiction or nonfiction? How do I categorize this post? The book’s publishers have labeled it “fiction,” this word appearing on the back cover to tell bookstores where to shelve it, but I wonder what Sebald would think of this. To me, it feels more like nonfiction, an account of someone — someone like Sebald — who takes a walking tour on the eastern coast of England and writes about it and so much else. It has the feel of a long, meditative essay.

Sebald describes the stages of his narrator’s journey, telling us about having walked a certain number of hours on a particular day and about getting lost in a maze on another day and about looking out across the sea, but these things are only small parts of the story. He also digresses into long stories about many other things. And here is a central question of the book — how do all the stories fit together? Why did he choose to tell these particular stories?

These stories include the history of the herring industry; a short biography of Joseph Conrad and an account of the devastations of colonialism in Africa that Conrad witnessed; an account of how the production of silk spread from China to Europe; histories of Swinburne, Chateaubriand, and Edward Fitzgerald; massacres in Bosnia; the opening up of China to the west, and many others. Most of these stories (all of them? I’m not sure) connect with the landscape and the towns the narrator is walking through; his location is the starting point for meditations on far-flung times and places.

The narrative veers off in different directions without much warning; I often found myself looking up from the page trying to figure out how I’d gotten to some new subject and then having to go back to hunt down the path the narrator follows from story to story. This is partly why I felt a bit baffled and disoriented while reading; I never knew where I’d end up, what person or what century I’d be reading about next.

Many of these stories tell of the violence humans inflict on one another. It tells tales of horror and destruction that cover the globe. The tone is very matter-of-fact, though; the writing is unemotional, letting the stories themselves do the work of creating an emotional impact on the reader. Now and then, but only very occasionally, the narrator will comment on what all these stories add up to, and the picture is bleak (these quotations are in different places in the book):

If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end.

It seems to me sometimes that we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.

Within the overall context of the task of remembering, such colorful accounts of military spectacles and large-scale operations form what might be called the highlights of history which staggers blindly from one disaster to the next.

This last quotation sums up the book, in a way — it labors on the “task of remembering” and tells some of the “highlights of history,” not to gain perspective on them or to draw conclusions about them, but simply to recount them and fix them in our memories. If history staggers blindly from one disaster to the next, we can do little better as we attempt to understand it. Looking at the Waterloo Panorama, a reconstruction of the battle site, the narrator says:

This then, I thought, as I looked around me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.

The book both tells how things are and denies its ability to tell how things are. This is why I’m not troubled by my slightly bewildered and baffled response to the book; it purposely fails to guide the reader through it, to offer the comforting conclusions and the larger perspective.

I must mention the beautiful and haunting photographs; these are sprinkled throughout the book — pictures of the landscapes the narrator sees, of historical figures, of manuscripts and handwriting, of maps. Sebald himself is in one picture; he’s leaning against a huge cedar tree, a tree he tells us will soon collapse in a hurricane. He is a figure of innocence and ignorance — what we all are in the face of an unknown future.

I would like to read this book again sometime; I don’t know when, but it’s that kind of book, the kind that is worth coming back to.

Update: There’s an interview with Sebald here if you are interested; thanks to Brad for pointing this out to me.

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More essays

After my post in which I complained about the mediocre selection of essays in The Best American Essays 2006, I’ve come across a couple very good ones. One of them is Adam Gopnik’s “Death of a Fish,” which appeared originally in The New Yorker, and which I’d already read there. The essay was good enough to reward a re-reading, and I liked it just as much the second time as I did the first. The essay is about the death of Bluie, Gopnik’s daughter Olivia’s fish; it starts off with these irresistable sentences:

When our five-year-old daughter Olivia’s goldfish, Bluie, died the other week, we were confronted by a crisis larger, or at least more intricate, than is entirely usual upon the death of a pet. Bluie’s life and his passing came to involve so many cosmic elements — including the problem of consciousness and the plot line of Hitchcock’s Vertigo — that it left us all bleary-eyed and a little shaken.

Poor Bluie gets stuck in a fishbowl castle and no one and nothing can get the thing out. The family scrambles to keep Olivia from finding out, and the ten-year old son ponders what it means to be a fish: “Does Bluie know he’s Bluie?” The parents wonder what is going on in Olivia’s mind, and this is what Gopnik concludes:

Olivia loved Bluie because it is in her nature to ascribe intentions and emotions to things that don’t have them, rather as Hitchcock did with actresses. She knows that she is Olivia because one of the things that she is capable of doing is imagining that Bluie is Bluie. Though you read about the condition “mind-blindness” in autistic children, the alternative, I saw, was not to be mind-sighted. The essential condition of youth is to be mind-visionary; to see everything as though it might have a mind. We begin as small children imagining that everything could have consciousness — fish, dolls, toy soldiers, even parents — and spent the rest of our lives paring the list down, until we are left alone in bed, the only mind left.

I love this characteristic of the essay — that it can take a small life event and turn it into an opportunity to reflect on large philosophical issues. The essay can be a way of ordering and shaping life, drawing lines and putting pieces together, connecting large and small, relating the private event to the public concern.

The other essay I liked is Michele Morano’s “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood.” This has a clever structure that does not feel overly clever or gimmicky; Morano takes nine reasons to use the subjunctive mood in Spanish and makes them the outline for her essay, using her failing relationship with her boyfriend as an example to illustrate each of the nine reasons. As she explains the grammar, she explains the relationship. As she explains the grammar, she writes about what can and can’t be said and known, what is certain (the indicative mood) and what is uncertain (the subjunctive). For example:

In language, as in life, moods are complicated, but at least in language there are only two. The indicative mood is for knowledge, facts, absolutes, for describing what’s real or definite. You’d use the indicative to say, for example:

I was in love.
Or, The man I loved tried to kill himself.
Or, I moved to Spain because the man I loved, the man who tried to kill himself, was driving me insane.

The indicative helps you tell what happened or is happening or will happen in the future (when you believe you know for sure what the future will bring).

The subjunctive mood, on the other hand, is uncertain. It helps you tell what you could have been or might be or what you want but may not get. You’d use the subjunctive to say:

I thought he’d improve without me.
Or, I left so that he’d begin to take care of himself.

Or later, after your perspective has been altered, by time and distance and a couple of cervezas in a brightly lit bar, you might say:

I deserted him (indicative)
I left him alone with his crazy self for a year (indicative)
Because I hoped (after which begins the subjunctive) that being apart might allow us to come together again.

Morano’s use of the grammar rules gives the reader some distance from what is a pretty harsh story, and it allows her (her persona) a way of talking about the story that’s not self-pitying or whiny. The distancing tactic keeps the story from sounding melodramatic, but it also increases the power of the reader’s response: the voice of the essay is restrained, held back by the organizing structure, but behind and underneath that restraint is some very powerful feeling.

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Experimental writing

The Literate Kitten asks: “What do you think about so-called ‘experimental’ work? What types of experimental fiction have you read, that you would recommend to one who does not prefer to be working in the laboratory?” (This last bit refers to a Robert Frost sentence, “Experiment belongs to the laboratory.”)

As to what I think about experimental writing, I’d say it depends; I’ve read some things I’ve liked and some I haven’t. I suppose what I really think is that it’s dangerous to praise or dismiss a type of writing wholesale, as though it’s all exactly alike. Experimental writing does have a reputation for being intellectual at the expense of the emotions, but is it all like this?

For me, whether I like something or not often comes down to whether I like the authorial sensibility coming through in the writing. Now that’s a very vague thing to say, I know, and I’m not entirely sure what I mean by authorial sensibility. It’s sometimes the narrator or the speaker, but not always. But as far as experimental writing goes, this sensibility is crucial. One of the first things I think of when I think about experimental writing is Tristram Shandy (which will surprise no one who reads this blog — I know I write about that book, like, once a week), a book that has such a lively, energetic, and funny voice I find it irresistable. Yes, Sterne plays around with form, the book is idea-driven, it’s a story about not being able to tell a story, but I don’t find it particularly heady and it’s full of emotion.

And then there’s another book I write about frequently, Pale Fire, surely fitting the definition of experimental, and one that I found rather sterile the first time through, but on a second reading I managed to get into its spirit, and now I find it beautiful and full of feeling. I feel similarly toward Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot — it’s experimental, surely, but doesn’t dwell solely in the brain. And Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is the same. All of these books have a certain zest to them, a love of language, that I’ve come to find immensely appealing.

Other experimental books haven’t worked for me, though. As much as I love Virginia Woolf, I had a hard time with The Waves. It was a while ago when I read it and perhaps I should try again, but it was too abstracted from a story, too hard to follow, for me to enjoy. I tried to read H.D.’s novel HERmione once, and I found it tiresome. I love H.D.’s poetry — I had a great time reading Trilogy and Helen in Egypt — but my enjoyment didn’t carry over into her prose. I wouldn’t say these books took themselves too seriously, but they did have very serious tones to them, and I’m realizing now that the other books I’ve listed that I liked have a certain amount of humor in them, or at least a playfulness. I like my experimental fiction on the light and playful side, I suppose.

As for experimental poetry, I love Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and I liked William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, although I’m grateful to have read both of these for a class where I got lots of help in understanding them. For this same class, I was asked to read Harryette Mullen (her books Muse and Drudge and Trimmings), whom I liked a lot, and Leslie Scalapino, whom I did not. With all of these books I was able to follow some of what was going on, and the rest I was either willing to enjoy on another level besides the logical one (I’d enjoy the sound of the words, even if I wasn’t sure of the meaning they were supposed to create) or I wasn’t willing to do this and I decided I didn’t like the book. As to why I was willing to make in some cases and not in others, it came down to whether I liked the voice or not.

So for me, I prefer to take experimental writing on a case-by-case basis.

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Snow day! (notes on reading)

We had our first major snow storm of the season today, and school was cancelled — yippee! It would have be a perfect Valentine’s Day gift, except that the Hobgoblin is sick, so we’re not really feeling celebratory. And how did I spend my day off? Working, of course. I read ahead in my classes and graded quizzes, although I had some time left over for a nap and some fun reading. That and some snow shoveling.

I’m nearing the end of Proust’s The Guermantes Way; I know I haven’t written much about this (maybe I haven’t written anything), but I am enjoying it, just in a low-key kind of way. I’m not as thrilled by this volume as I was by the first two; it’s more about social dynamics and less about the subtleties of the mind — although the subtleties of the mind are there too. The narrator is making his way in high society and finding out what this society is not what he expected it to be. The book is full of accounts of conversations and people’s comings and goings and gossip and wit, or people’s attempts at wit. While at times I wish I were through with Proust so that I’d have more time for other things, I’ve been surprised at how I’m generally content to keep reading him, a little bit at a time, absorbing it slowly and really living with it.

And I’m about 1/3 of the way into Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which, if you follow this blog, you’ve gotten many quotations from. I’m amused at the way Boswell rushes through the first 54 years of Johnson’s life in 240 pages (the rushing being relative, of course — my edition is over 1,200 pages) until the time when Johnson and Boswell meet, at which point he slows way down and gives all kinds of detail of their every interaction. They discuss in a few conversations how the best biographies are those written by someone who has known and interacted with the subject, which explains Boswell’s odd pacing in the book — he’s not trying to be thorough about every part of Johnson’s life, but is focusing on the parts he knows best. The first 240 pages before their meeting were interesting, but not nearly as much as the sparks that fly in the pages afterwards. Much of this part consists of loosely-connected (or completely unconnected) anecdotes of witty conversations, political and literary debates, copies of letters, and descriptions of what Johnson is writing.

I’m making my way through The Best American Essays, 2006 and so far I’m not feeling terribly impressed. I suppose that irritating introductory essay set the tone for the whole book. Some of the essays I do like; one in particular is Emily Bernard’s, “Teaching the N-word,” about, as you can surmise, dealing with race in the classroom. Of the six other essays that I’ve read, however, two were okay but ultimately unsatisfying, two just didn’t reach me at all, one I find whiny, and another I thought was full of cliches, very earnestly described. I’m going to stick with it, hoping the essays improve, but I’m disappointed because I remember being enraptured with previous editions of this series. It makes sense, though, that the editor is going to set the tone of a collection, and if I’m not impressed by the editor, I’m not going to be impressed by the collection.

And lastly I’m reading The Rings of Saturn and finding it an interesting experience; I feel like I’m not really taking it in, that I don’t really know what I have on my hands and so don’t know exactly how to process it and make sense of it. I’m enjoying it, but I don’t feel like I’ve quite got a handle on it. This would be a good candidate for a re-reading, or perhaps (or additionally) further reading in Sebald’s other books, to get a better sense of how to understand him. If a book teaches you how to read it, I haven’t quite learned the lesson yet. More on this later.

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Austen it is!

1127015.gifI’ve counted the votes, and Jane Austen’s Lady Susan will be the next Slaves of Golconda read. I’m excited about reading this, in spite of my misgivings about giving up the pleasure of having an unread Austen novel that I can forever look forward to reading, which is a silly attitude anyway. Lady Susan is quite short, so if people are interested, perhaps they can read some more of her lesser-known work and fill the rest of us in on it — the edition I’ve linked to and that’s pictured here has The Watsons and Sanditon, two unfinished novels, and there are numerous shorter fictions Austen wrote that are available in modern editions and sometimes in the same volume as Lady Susan. For myself, I’d like to read the three works I’ve mentioned, as the edition pictured here is the one I own.

Lady Susan is available online for free here, if anybody would like to read it that way.

It looks like there will be some new people joining the group this time, which is wonderful — all you have to do is post on the book on your blog if you have one and then head over to the forums at Metaxu Cafe for the discussion. There is also a Slaves of Golconda blog where people have posted their responses; could somebody remind people of who to contact if they want their name added to that blog? I’ve forgotten.

Discussion will be begin on March 31st — should be fun!

I’ll close with a quotation from Boswell’s Life of Johnson (you can look forward to more of these in future days):

[Johnson] recommended to me to keep a journal of my life, full and unreserved. He said it would be a very good exercise, and would yield me great satisfaction when the particulars were faded from my remembrance. I was uncommonly fortunate in having had a previous coincidence of opinion with him upon this subject, for I had kept such a journal for some time; and it was no small pleasure to me to have this to tell him, and to receive his approbation. He counselled me to keep it private, and said I might surely have a friend who would burn it in case of my death. From this habit I have been enabled to give the world so many anecdotes, which would otherwise have been lost to posterity. I mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. Johnson: “There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.”

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The Emperor’s Children and other things

I’ve come down with a cold; it’s not a serious illness by any means, but it’s highly annoying and I’m afraid my box of kleenex is about to run out. I refuse to believe that me catching a cold has anything to do with riding outdoors in freezing temperatures; in fact, I probably catch colds as seldom as I do because I do my best to toughen my body up with outdoor rides in freezing temperatures (now that I’ve said that, this cold will probably stick with me for weeks …).

I had to decide this morning if I was well enough to ride; I think I remember a rule that says if you are sick from the neck up it’s okay to exercise, but if you’re sick from the neck down, you should stay home. As it was just my head that was feeling badly, I went. I felt okay on the ride, but let me tell you, riding with a cold is really gross. Let’s just say not having kleenex on hand creates a bit of a problem. I’m trying to learn not to be too delicate and ladylike about snot (me, delicate? ha!) and am mastering the art of … oh, never mind.

I want to write about Claire Messud’s novel The Emperor’s Children, so we’ll see if I can finish this post before I drift off to sleep — I’ve taken cold medicine, and although it’s non-drowzy, the stuff still can knock me out. Maybe I can find the magic moment between the medicine starting to work and my eyes starting to close.

I liked this novel quite a bit; it didn’t completely bowl me over or stun me, but it was a good, satisfying read, very well-done, with a good story and interesting characters. It’s about a set of three friends in their early 30s who are trying to figure out what they want out of their lives. You’ve got Marina who has a famous father who is an important character in the book; she’s been working on a book about children’s clothing for years and people are beginning to wonder if she will ever finish it. There’s Danielle, who makes documentaries for TV; she tries to make intellectually serious ones, although her boss nixes some of her most interesting ideas. And then you’ve got Julius, who’s running out of money while trying to establish a freelance writing career, and who’s gay and looking for a serious relationship.

The novel follows these three characters, and also Marina’s parents and her cousin Frederick, called Bootie, who is 18, has dropped out of college, and shows up in New York City hoping to live with and learn from Marina’s father, the famous writer. There’s also Ludovic Seeley, a recent arrival in New York, who is planning on taking the NYC intellectual scene by storm with a new magazine dedicated to debunking myths and exposing frauds.

I won’t say much more about the plot — these characters’ lives get intertwined in complicated ways, and the plot lines are satisfying to follow. The one thing that comes toward the end of the novel that I’ll give away — so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know — is that September 11th happens and disrupts the characters’ lives. I thought this part was well done; the focus is not on the event itself, although that is described quite well, but on how the characters make sense of it, how they negotiate feelings about the magnitude of the event for the whole city and nation and the fact that it has created disasters, small in the larger scheme of things but huge for the individual characters, in their personal lives. How can one complain about career plans derailed and love affairs disrupted with thousands of people having died a horrible death? And yet those personal losses are the losses that feel most real.

I enjoyed this novel as a novel about New York — you’ve got a native New Yorker, Marina, who enjoys privileges her friends both envy and despise, and you’ve got New York transplants, Danielle and Julius, fleeing their midwestern upbringings, and Bootie, coming to the city from upstate New York, trying to leave the nickname Bootie behind and transform himself into Frederick. The book captures the feeling of the city as a place of privilege for some and great opportunity for others, although these opportunities are fleeting and can carry a high price.

Okay, I think it’s time to go take a little rest …

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Book notes

I haven’t done one of these “book notes” type posts in quite a while, so I figure on this slow Saturday I can get away with it. I have lots of stuff I want to write about — my thoughts on Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, more Boswell/Johnson quotations, and some other things — but tonight feels like a good time for a listy, pooterish post. So here goes.

  • I’m listening to the audiobook version of Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep and I’m not quite sure what I think of it yet. It’s bizarre in a way I didn’t expect; the main character is a tough New Yorker guy and he ends up in some castle somewhere on the border between Germany and some other country, where he meets a very old Baroness. This character is obsessed with staying connected to the world on his cell phone and the internet. It’s strange, but so far I’m enjoying it. I’m a little worried, though — I just read on Amazon that parts of the novel deal with claustrophia, and I can get claustrophic at times, so I’m imagining myself driving along to work, listening to this novel, and completely freaking out because I’m listening to some all-too-vivid scene set in a cave. I can feel my heart beat faster just thinking about it. The Amazon page I linked to has a brief interview with Egan where she discusses her influences, and they are great ones — lots of 18C novels, including, as you would guess based on a description of the book, lots of gothic novels.
  • Last night I began W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I haven’t gotten that far into it, but I can tell I will like it; it’s thoughtful and rambling and rich, and it makes me want to read some Sir Thomas Browne. I read him in a couple classes years back, and responded excitedly to my professors’ enthusiasm for him, but I’m not sure I really got what makes Browne interesting. I think that means I need to re-read him now that I’m older and probably not wiser, but at least better-read. He’s a writer I wanted to love and hadn’t yet found the right time to.
  • The Hobgoblin and I stopped by one of our local used bookstores today; I went to find a copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out which their website said they had in stock. I didn’t buy the book because it was in pretty bad shape, but I did spend some time looking around and came home with a Virago Modern Classic, Radclyffe Hall’s Adam’s Breed, which doesn’t appear to be in print anymore. I didn’t know anything about Radclyffe Hall, but I picked up the book because I like Virago books and this book looked interesting. It turns out she was born Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall and is most famous for her 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, which, because of its lesbian themes, was the subject of an obscenity trial in England and was published in the US only after a court battle. I found out Adam’s Breed was popular among critics and sold well, and it won two prizes, the Priz Femina and the James Tait Black prize. How quickly we forget so many of the authors that were popular in their day (well, I should speak for myself — perhaps other readers know who she is?).
  • Back to Virginia Woolf: yesterday I came across Julia Briggs’s Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life on Book Mooch, and it will soon be on its way to me. I have no idea when I will read this, but I’ll be happy to have a Woolf biography on my bookshelves.

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Hills Like White Elephants

Here is my late post on Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” for A Curious Singularity; I couldn’t quite find the time to read it when everybody else did (short as it is), but I taught it in my Composition and Literature classes this morning and so thought I could write about it now. I’ve taught this story in many freshman-level literature classes and I like it for teaching; there are so many things to talk about in such a short short story — the symbolism of the white elephants, the significance of the setting, the exterior point of view, the concision of language, the troubling dynamic between the two main characters.

Invariably students are confused by the story and they don’t figure out on their own that it’s about an abortion — which I wouldn’t have figured out either most likely; they tend to think it’s about the two characters deciding whether or not to have sex — although the textbook I’m using this semester gives this information in the discussion questions following the story and sometimes students look up the information on the internet. A couple of students, upon hearing that it’s about an abortion, got a look of enlightenment and relief on their faces — it does make sense after all! — and said they would now have to re-read the story.

I ask students in this class to give a short presentation in small groups and to lead class discussion for a while, and the student who was responsible for this story wrote me a slightly panicked email last night saying she couldn’t understand what was going on, and so we met this morning to talk about it and she ended up doing a fabulous job in class. She’d spent some time thinking about white elephants and led the class into a good discussion of their various meanings. My early morning class was a little reluctant (or too sleepy) to talk much, but my later class did such a good job with the story that I kept telling myself to keep my mouth shut and let them do the work of figuring out the story, because eventually they cover pretty much everything on their own. When that happens, I have the fun of sitting in the back of the class and just taking it all in.

Anyway, one of the textbook’s discussion questions was about the significance of the number two in the story — the number gets mentioned ten times, apparently (I didn’t count) — and my students had a great time playing around with the meaning of this. Two is important, of course, because the couple has to decide if they will remain only two or if they will add another person to become three, but also we have the two parallel train tracks that don’t meet and the two strings of beads that Jig holds, both illustrating the two main characters traveling together, side-by-side, but never meeting, never really communicating.

My students can be fairly quick to personalize their readings and to make sweeping generalizations as they’re grappling with the story — about gender in this case; as some students began to describe how weak and pathetic the man comes across in this story, some of the men in the class began to get a bit uncomfortable and wanted to defend their gender from what they felt was an attack. I start squirming in my seat when the conversation takes this kind of turn, wanting both to let students have the fun of discussing what the story means to them but also to step in and point out that we can talk about the character’s weakness without making broad claims about human nature that are distressingly vague and that distract us from the story itself.

I’m happy when students make a personal connection with what we’re reading, but I’m often unsure what to do when their personal connections lead them into interpretations of the story I don’t agree with or toward conclusions I’m tempted to argue with. Figuring out how and when to correct students when we’re talking about something as complex as a short story is difficult.

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Jane Austen

The Literate Kitten has posted the following:

Just for fun, I decided to get a little dialogue going over the Powers of Austen … Which one is your favorite and why? Which haven’t you read? Are you not as in love with Austen as most readers — why? How has Jane influenced your reading or writing? Let’s get plain about Jane!

Okay, I’ll play. I’m curious to see if the Slaves of Golconda will choose Austen’s Lady Susan or one of my other choices (vote in the comments to the post below! Right now Lady Susan is tied with Johnson’s Rasselas) because I feel conflicted about reading it. On the one hand I’d love to because it’s Jane Austen and she’s one of my favorite writers ever in the whole entire world. But on the other hand, there’s something wonderful about there being a Jane Austen novel out there I haven’t yet read. Isn’t there something to be said for not reading a novel in order to keep the pleasure of anticipation always before me? Once I’ve read Lady Susan, there will be no more Austen novels for me to read, except for the unfinished ones and the short fictions. But since I love Austen so much, how can I refrain from reading more?

I’m surprised it took me so long to figure out Lady Susan exists. Somehow it took me forever to figure out that there are more than the big six novels.

Anyway, I’ve read the six main novels, and of those, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite, with Emma, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility coming in somewhere after that, and Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey last, although I believe I’ve read Northanger Abbey only once, so I haven’t given it enough time to really grow on me. I have no idea how many times I’ve read the other novels besides Northanger Abbey. Mansfield Park I may have read only twice, but the others I’ve probably read something like 3 – 8 times each. Some of them I’ve studied in class, some of them multiple times. So at this point I can’t keep count of my readings, and I can’t keep the reading experiences separate. It all blurs together. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite because it’s just so much fun — Elizabeth is the best heroine ever and Darcy is an irresistable hero. Mansfield Park is at the bottom of my list because it’s a bit slow, but I still find it fascinating — the pleasure of that book is probably more intellectual than emotional. I like the sharp, biting narrator of Sense and Sensibility and also the way Elinor and Marianne play against each other, I like the quieter tone of Persuasion and find Anne utterly sympathetic, and I like the richness of Austen’s characterization of Emma.

And how has she influenced my reading? I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that she pretty much defines what a novel is for me. A novel should provide a long, satisfying reading experience, it should have deep, complex characters, it should have a satisfying plot, it should have an interesting narrator (one who perhaps becomes a kind of character him/herself), and it should be about at least some of the following: family, love, sex, money, class, social interaction, and the experience of living in one’s mind.  I’ve read and enjoyed novels that don’t do these things, but still, this understanding of the genre is what comes to me most naturally, and that’s because I’ve absorbed so much Austen.

I’m sure I’ve written before about how I would find it hard to write anything critical about Austen — I don’t mean critical as in negative, but critical as in literary criticism — because everything she does seems natural to me. I would find it hard to try to look at how she does what she does; actually, I’m happy to have other people point these things out to me, but I wouldn’t want to have to figure it out myself. She’s someone I prefer to experience in a more elemental way, if that makes any sense.

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Book choices

It’s my turn to choose a book for the next Slaves of Golconda read, and what else can I do but pick something from one of my favorite centuries, the 18th? I thought I’d pick three things and let people vote. The group is open to everyone, so if you haven’t participated before you are free to join — all you have to do is read the book and post on it on your blog and/or participate in the discussion at Metaxu Cafe and in comments on other people’s posts. If you plan on participating let me know in the comments which book you’d like to read by, say, Sunday night, and I’ll tally the votes then.

So here are the possibilities I’m thinking of:

  1. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. I’ve read this before, but I’m happy to read it again, especially since I’m learning so much about Johnson through Boswell’s Life. Here’s the first sentence: “Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.”
  2. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. This work is very short (it looks like about 60 pages), but if you get the edition I linked to, it comes with another novel Ennui, which could make a good bonus read. I’ve read Edgeworth’s most famous novel, Belinda, and liked it a lot, so I’m eager to read more of her work. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the book: “Castle Rackrent, a short novel by Maria Edgeworth published in 1800, is often regarded as the first true historical novel and the first true regional novel in English. It is also widely regarded as the first family saga, and the first novel to use the device of a narrator who is both unreliable and an observer of, rather than a player in, the actions he chronicles.”
  3. Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. I’ve read all of Austen’s major novels but have yet to read her earlier work. This one is also very short, and the edition I linked to includes The Watsons and Sanditon, an unfinished novel, which would also make good bonus reads. Here’s a description from Amazon: “Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression.”

What do you think?

If we keep our current pattern, posts on the chosen book will be due on Saturday, March 31st.

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What I want to read

My semester is pretty well underway, and although I’m not to the busiest part of it yet (that’s when the papers come in to be graded), I’m beginning to feel the pressure of prepping for class and attending meetings and holding office hours and answering student emails. And it’s at this point when I become acutely aware of all the hundreds and hundreds of books out there that I want to read now. Even though deep down I know I would probably go insane or become thoroughly depressed if I didn’t have a job to keep me busy, I do often think it’s cruel to have to work all day, when all those books are waiting at home for me to read them. Here’s what I’m particularly longing to read these days:

  • Books about walking. I wrote about this interest not too long ago, but I haven’t had a chance to actually pick up a book about the topic. These include Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Jeffrey Robinson’s book The Walk: Notes on a Romantic Image and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. And there are lots of others that wonderful blog readers suggested to me as well.
  • Books for the Reading Across Borders challenge. I’ve read one in this category, Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, but I’m eager to get to more, especially Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City and Mahfouz’s Palace Walk. I particularly like the Literary Saloon, a blog that focuses on world literature, and I’m both fascinated and overwhelmed by the number of books that blog discusses.
  • Long 19C novels. I’ve listed Balzac, Anne Bronte, and Elizabeth Gaskell as authors I’d like to read this year, but I’d also love to read others, more Trollope, some Turgenev, maybe some Zola. Alas, I don’t think I can handle all this …
  • Interesting, smart, literary nonfiction. I’m thinking here of things like Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary, and the short biography of Proust I’ve got, and Nicholas Basbane’s A Gentle Madness, and a biography by Richard Holmes, and Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov, and something by Jenny Diski, and Geoff Dyer’s book on D.H. Lawrence (I’m not sure what I think of D.H. Lawrence, but who can resist a book described as “the best book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence ever written”?), and The Oxford Book of Essays, and Lawrence Wescher’s Vermeer in Bosnia and Karen’s Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth. I could go on and on.
  • Travel writing. I have Peter Matthieson’s The Snow Leopard and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia on my shelves and I’m on the lookout for some Jonathan Raban, Robert Byron, Robyn Davidson and others.
  • Pre-20C poetry. I’m not sure when I’ll actually sit down to read some of this, but lately I’ve gotten a hankering to read people like Keats and Shelley (inspired by Richard Holmes, most likely) and Browning and Rosetti.
  • Ancient stuff. Stefanie’s reading of Hesiod and Homer is so inspiring I want to try a little of it myself, although I’m not sure where I’d begin. But wouldn’t it be great to know more about classical literature?

This list doesn’t even touch on all the contemporary novels I want to read, and the mystery stories and the poetry and the essay collections. You can see, probably, why it’s so hard to accept that I can’t spend all my time reading, and why it’s hard for me to believe that if I could spend all my time reading, I’d probably go crazy and start longing for some work to do.

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My trip to NYC

Okay, so I wrote yesterday that I spent the day in Manhattan with Emily and others; what we were doing was going on a book group field trip to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East side. This book group likes to read books that have some local connection and then visit the place. We read (or were supposed to read) two books, Triangle, about a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 where 146 workers, mostly immigrant women, died, and Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, a novel about an immigrant girl growing up in the NYC tenements. I’d read Bread Givers a few years ago for a class, but didn’t have a chance to read Triangle.

The museum consists of actual tenements that tour guides will take you through; we saw two apartments, both of them tiny. Each apartment consisted of a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom, all of them very small, and each apartment housed a family with five or so children. One of them was also converted into a garment shop during the day, when several women would come in and piece together dresses. The building was dark and claustrophobic; in some rooms electric lights had been installed, but in others they had only gas lights to give us the sense of the gloom people lived in until electric lights became available. I spent the tour trying to imagine what it would be like to live in these conditions; what’s most memorable about it is how cramped the housing was and how impossible it would have been ever to be alone. As someone who values privacy very highly, I simply can’t comprehend what it would be like to have none. This is an important theme in Bread Givers, which describes the crowding in the tenements and the streets and the main character’s striving to find some space for herself — both physically and mentally.

There’s a little bookshop across the street from the museum, and although I didn’t buy anything (I really don’t need it!), I was tempted by its collection of books about NYC.

After the tour, we went on a trek to find lunch; Emily and her husband Bob knew of a very authentic, neighborhood Chinese place where lots of good food could be had for very cheap. This was one of the nicest parts of the day as we sat around for what must have been a couple of hours talking — a bit about the books, but as not everyone had completed the reading (in fact, I don’t think anybody had completed the reading), we wandered off into other topics. Is there anything nicer than sitting around for a couple hours with a group of smart, friendly people, talking about books and about life? In that moment, at least, there wasn’t.

I often say that I should spend more time in NYC, although when the weekend comes and I have the chance to go, I begin to feel lazy. The city is close enough to be easily accessible for day trips, although far enough for the trip to take up most of the day. But there is so much to see …

If you’re in the city and have the time, I do recommend the Tenement Museum tour, and if you’re interested in the area and in immigrant histories, you will probably like Bread Givers.

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Just a few notes …

Just a few notes on some things before I doze off … I’ve just come back from a day in New York City with Emily and other friends; I will certainly tell you more about it soon.

  • I finished listening to Tobias Wolff’s Old School on audiobook, and I liked it all the way through (I posted on the first half here). It was a little like a male version of Prep, but a lot shorter and more elegant, and much more about books and writing. The novel’s ending went off in a direction I didn’t expect, which, of course, I won’t talk about in detail here, but I did like it. I must read more Wolff; I’ve read This Boy’s Life already and enjoyed it a lot.
  • Speaking of Emily, she was kind enough to get me a copy of Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz as a birthday present (thus extending my birthday even longer, which is always fun). She gave it to the Hobgoblin when they met with their writing group with instructions to bring it home to me — don’t you all wish you had Emily living so close by to you? I’m thinking I’ll read it this year as part of the Reading Across Borders challenge.
  • I’m about halfway through The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud and so far so good. I do like reading novels set in New York City. I’ve spend a decent amount of time there, enough to get to know parts of it and to get a feel for the culture (or some of the cultures, I should say), and it’s a pleasure to recognize things. Messud’s characters strike me as quite realistic NYC types I’ve known or known of.
  • From Boswell, here’s a Samuel Johnson quotation: “Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study.  I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.  A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.  A young man should read five hours in a day, and so may acquire a great deal of knowledge.”  (You can look forward to months of posts with Johnson quotations … I think it’s fair to warn you.)

More later!

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