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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Filed under Books, Fiction

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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Filed under Cycling

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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Filed under Blogging, Writing

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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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

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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Filed under Books

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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Filed under Blogging