Monthly Archives: March 2007

Lady Susan

1127015.gifPosts on Lady Susan aren’t due until tomorrow, but as the Hobgoblin and I are going on a long hike, and I’m not sure I’ll feel like posting when we get back, I’m going to write on it now. I enjoyed this book very much; it was a pleasure to read something by Jane Austen I hadn’t read before. I’m very familiar with her six major novels, but there is still a lot of shorter stuff I haven’t yet gotten to. My edition of Lady Susan includes The Watsons and Sanditon, the first of which I’ve now finished and the last of which I’m going to read next.

I’ve heard many people talk about the limitations of the epistolary form, and it’s probably true that there’s a limited number of things you can do with it, but I do like the form anyway. Perhaps it’s all the reading in the 18C I’ve done, a time when the epistolary novel flourished. What I like about it is the way you can see different versions of a character in the letters written to different audiences, and the way reading an epistolary novel gives one the sense of the importance of words and writing and how people can do battle with language — and other, less violent things, of course. But I think of doing battle with language when I think about Lady Susan, as Susan seems to be at war with much of the world.

Here is what she says in the very first letter of the novel:

I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill … I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into your delightful retirement.

And this is what she says in the second letter of the novel:

I take town in my way to that insupportable spot, a country village, for I am really going to Churchill. Forgive me, my dear friend, it is my last resource. Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it.

Already we know so much about Lady Susan. She presents herself in very different ways in these letters, but even within one letter, her language can be interpreted in multiple ways. She writes the following to her brother-in-law, the owner of Churchill:

I am determined you see, not to be denied admittance at Churchill. It would indeed give me most painful sensations to know that it were not in your power to receive me.

As this is the novel’s first letter, we might interpret this to mean that Lady Susan wants to visit Churchill very much because she is genuinely interested in seeing those who live there, and this is the meaning she expects her brother-in-law to find. Upon knowing something more about Lady Susan, however, we can see that these sentences hint at her real feelings: she must leave her current residence, Langford, home of the Manwarings, because she has gotten herself into trouble there, and if she cannot stay at Churchill, she will experience “painful sensations” because her escape route will be blocked.

It’s this kind of facility with language that makes Lady Susan a very fun heroine — or villain, rather, except that, as Margaret Drabble, author of the introduction to my edition, points out, there really is no satisfactory heroine here, so Lady Susan steals the show. She prides herself on her ability to talk herself into and out of any situation (“If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence”); this is how she keeps Reginald, her gullible young admirer, by her side for so long. When Lady Susan can no longer convince people to believe her version of events, the novel ends — there is no more story.

The difference between appearance and reality, and the time and trouble it takes to learn to tell the two apart is a very common plot line in 18C fiction, and Lady Susan has much going for her as she tries to fool nearly everybody. She’s beautiful, and even Mrs. Vernon, her most serious enemy, is susceptible to it:

She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older … Her address to me was so gentle, frank and even affectionate, that if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend.

Lady Susan is a symptom of a larger problem:

One is apt I believe to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will necessarily attend an impudent mind; at least I was myself prepared for an improper degree of confidence in Lady Susan; but her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild.

We expect people’s insides to match their outsides, in other words — to be beautiful only if their hearts and minds are beautiful, and to act mildly and kindly only if they have mild and kind minds. Someone who combines a beautiful appearance and pleasant manners with lying and deceit is dangerous.

So Lady Susan depends on her pleasing appearance and behavior to keep her out of trouble and to get her whatever she wants. Besides the appearance vs. reality theme, there’s the juxposition in the novel between public reputation and the impression a person makes in private. Lady Susan counts on the power of private impression to overrule reputation; of her enemy Mrs. Vernon she says:

I hope [she is] convinced how little the ungenerous representations of any one to the disadvantage of another will avail, when opposed to the immediate influence of intellect and manner.

The novel shows, however, that reputation does mean something, and that the “ungenerous representations” of Lady Susan are a better source of truth than anything she herself says or does. You are better off trusting public concensus than trusting your own instincts — collective wisdom outweighs the individual’s insights.

Opposed to Lady Susan’s doubleness and deception is her daughter Frederica, whose simplicity Lady Susan cannot stand:

Her feelings are tolerably lively, and she is so charmingly artless in their display, as to afford the most reasonable hope of her being ridiculed and despised by every man who sees her. Artlessness will never do in love matters, and that girl is born a simpleton who has it either by nature or affectation.

Frederica’s artlessness is held up for praise in the novel; her mother’s criticism is a sign that we are to admire her, and yet she is a boring and lifeless character. All the interest in the novel belongs to Lady Susan. So we are left to deplore Lady Susan’s cruelty and deceitfulness, and yet we can’t help but admire her energy and intelligence and, yes, her artfulness and artifice. After all, Lady Susan’s skill with language is a skill she shares with her creator.

If you’d like to join the discussion of Lady Susan, come on over to Metaxu Cafe!

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Recent Acquisitions

This time of year makes me feel so conflicted — it’s beautiful outside and I’m happy about that, but it’s one of the busiest times of the academic year as the semester gets near the end (it’s not nearly close enough though), and that makes me feel tired and listless. I can’t go outside because I have so much work to do, but I can’t seem to bring myself to do my work …

Anyway, in this post, I’ll console myself by thinking about the books I’ve acquired recently that I’ll be able to read soon enough — maybe before the semester is over, but if not, certainly after.

  • I’ve got Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task on the way from Book Mooch — this comes highly recommended by bloggers, so I’m looking forward to it, and it’s the perfect follow-up to reading Boswell’s Life, of course, as it tells the story of how the Life got written.
  • Also through Book Mooch, I recently received John Brewer’s A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century. Isn’t that a great title? Sandra wrote so eloquently about this one, I couldn’t resist. It tells the story of a murder, but goes on from there to meditate on history and storytelling and eighteenth-century culture.
  • I got a copy of Denis Johnson’s book of short stories Jesus’ Son; a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while and which I’ve heard wonderful things about. This book is part of my attempt to read more short stories; I’d like to read at least two collections this year, if not more.
  • I ordered the last two volumes of Proust, The Prisoner and The Fugitive combined into one volume, and Time Regained. I’m getting close to finishing Proust! Well, sort of. Actually I’m a little over half way, in the middle of volume four. I had to order these last two from the UK, and they look nothing like the first four in their American versions, unfortunately.
  • Cam recently sent me a selection of W.B. Yeats’s poetry. I’ve read some Yeats, but he’s a wonderful poet I need to read more of. Thanks Cam!
  • And, of course, there’s Don Quixote, ready for me when I’m ready for it. Here’s the template I set up for the group reading blog; I’ll get invitations out to people during April so we’ll be ready to begin in May. Let me know if there’s cool Don Quixote stuff on the web you know of so I can add some links to spice up the site a bit.

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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

I recently finished Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which turned out to be a fun read — it’s a light, comic novel, but it also plays around with ideas about writing and the writer and stories, which gives the book some depth. Apparently, the book is somewhat autobiographical, based on the relationship leading up to Vargas Llosa’s first marriage, and the real-life Julia wrote her own side of the story in a book called What Little Vargas Didn’t Say. I don’t know anything about Julia’s book, but judging by the title, Vargas probably didn’t like it.

The novel tells the story of Mario, an 18-year-old university student in Lima who works at a local radio station preparing news bulletins. Part of the story is about how he falls in love with “Aunt” Julia — she’s related to Mario only by marriage — but their relationship is still scandalous because she’s 32 and divorced. The other part is about Pedro Camacho, a scriptwriter recently come to write serials for the radio station. He soon becomes hugely popular as radio listeners find themselves enthralled by his stories, but then the stories start to take some very odd turns and nobody knows what to do with Camacho anymore. Camacho is a very odd character, with strange ticks and mannerisms, a unusual physical appearance (he’s almost short enough to be considered a dwarf), a self-centered and imperious manner, and some disturbing prejudices against Argentinians and against women generally.

These two plot lines unfold slowly over the novel’s course; every other chapter, however, gives the story of one of the serials Camacho is writing, appearing in the novel as regular prose, not in script form. These stories are soap operas, dramatic, shocking, and fun. But as Camacho’s serials start to turn strange, so too do these interpolated chapters. Characters get interchanged with one another, plot lines get mixed up, characters from one story begin to appear in another, and eventually the authorial voice has lost control of the stories entirely. By the end of the book we don’t have straightforward stories anymore, but attempts at plot filled with questions about the plot direction and the characters’ fates.

Camacho has become overwhelmed by his own productivity; he had been producing scripts at such a wild rate, that he begins to forget his plot lines and characters, collapsing under the strain of his long hours. It has turned into a battle between the author, trying to give form and shape to life, and chaos, undermining the very possibility of coherence and order.

Meanwhile, Mario himself dreams of becoming a writer. He watches Camacho with interest, trying to figure out the secret of Camacho’s amazing productivity:

Riding back to Miraflores in a jitney, I thought about Pedro Camacho’s life. What social milieu, what concatenation of circumstances, persons, relations, problems, events, happenstances had produced this literary vocation (literary? if not that what should it be called then?) that had somehow come to fruition, found expression in an oeuvre and secured an audience? How could he be, at one and the same time, a parody of the writer and the only person in Peru who, by virtue of the time devoted to his craft and the works he produced, was worthy of that name?

Mario thinks about what it means to be a writer, and whether he’s capable of becoming one himself.  Camacho is very nearly the perfect definition of a hack writer, churning out the melodramatic stories day after day, but, at this point in the story at least, Mario can’t help but admire his energy and his ease with words and stories:

It was becoming clearer and clearer to me each day that the only thing I wanted to be in life was a writer, and I was also becoming more and more convinced each day that the only way to be one was to devote oneself heart and soul to literature. I didn’t want in the least to be a hack writer or a part-time one, but a real one like — who? The only person I met who came closest to being this full-time writer, obsessed and impassioned by his vocation, was the Bolivian author of radio serials: that was why he fascinated me so.

So this is a love story, but also a story about stories and about writing as a vocation. It’s a novel of the writer-in-training, about a character who lives through the excitement of teenage love and rebellion but who also gets a chance to watch a writer at work and to think about what kind of writer he wants to be.

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Literary friendships

Inspired by Stefanie, many bloggers are posting lists of books they’d like to read right now if they weren’t in the middle of other books and had the time for it (one lucky person has posted about books she’d like to read on her upcoming vacation — I’m so jealous); I’m not going to give you a similar list here, but I just finished an article (unfortunately not available online) from the New York Review of Books that’s got me adding books to my list of things I’m longing to read. It’s Richard Holmes’s “The Passionate Partnership,” a review of Adam Sisman’s book The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Now first of all, Richard Holmes himself is someone I’m longing to read more of; he’s the author of Footsteps, a book I enjoyed immensely not too long ago, and he’s written biographies of Coleridge and Percy Shelley and a book on the friendship between Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage. This last one I’m certainly going to need to read.

And Adam Sisman’s book on Wordsworth and Coleridge sounds quite good; Holmes gives it a slightly mixed, but overall fairly positive review. It traces their friendship from the time they met in 1797 through their estrangement in 1810, telling the story of their collaboration on poetic projects; at times they worked so closely together that scholars aren’t sure who wrote what. There’s one poem, “The Mad Monk,” that appears in the Collected Works of both poets.

Here are some good passages from Holmes review:

All this leads to wider reflections which Adam Sisman’s book prompts but does not have time to pursue. There have been many famous “literary friendship” or double-acts. Each has its own dynamic, usually of love and loyalty, followed by trouble and strife, and finally some sort of reconciliation (if only from beyond the grave). Johnson and Savage, Goethe and Schiller, Victor Hugo and Sainte-Beuve, Gautier and Nerval, Fitzgerald and Hemingway come to mind …

But for emotional intensity, one almost needs the parallel of a literary love affair (as Sisman hints). The great Coleridge scholar John Beer has written provokingly in a recent essay: “It may be suggested that [Ted Hughes's] admiration for [Sylvia] Plath bore strong resemblances to Wordsworth’s for the equally mercurial Coleridge.”

….

It may be, paradoxically, that the “sacred” nature of Romantic friendship is most truly revealed in the pains of its rupture. Coleridge’s nine-page letter of grand remonstrance to Robert Southey in November 1795 expresses a lover’s outrage: “you have left a large Void in my Heart — I know no man big enough to fill it.” Similarly Wordsworth, as restrained in his declarations of friendship as Coleridge was “gushing” (a new liquid word for sentiment), was nonetheless quite capable of expressing his feelings of rejection with vivid simplicity …

Also mentioned in the article is Adam Sisman’s earlier book Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, about the writing of The Life of Johnson, which sounds fascinating.

And then there’s this intriguing passage from Holmes’s article:

Coleridge’s Notebooks, still insufficiently known, may be considered as an inspiration to all confessional writers, and may even become — in their wild informality — the secret bible of Internet bloggers. (Apparently there are over fifty million of these.)

Since I’m not a “confessional” blogger, Notebooks is unlikely to become my secret Bible, but I’m intrigued, nonetheless.

Oh, there are so many good books to read …

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Race report

Last week the races were cancelled because of a snowstorm, but today the weather was much better, although the race course was damp and covered in sand and grit. But we had no snow and no ice like two weeks ago when the race got delayed because the roads were so dangerous. Spring is really on the way!

Today’s race was one of my best; I felt calm going into it, I had just the right amount of time to warm up, I felt a little anxious, as I suppose I must in order to get the energy up to do well, but I wasn’t really nervous. And after we started, I had no problem staying with the pack; in fact, I think because of the dampness of the roads and the sand and grit, the pack moved very slowly at the beginning. We were testing the roads, seeing how safe everything felt. And it didn’t feel terribly safe, actually — as we rounded the corner to head into the backstretch on the first lap, we nearly ran into a flock of turkeys, maybe a dozen or so, that decided to cross the road just at that moment. We managed to slow down enough and yell loud enough so they moved out of the way in time. That could have been a gruesome scene — what would it look like if a pack of cyclists ran over a flock of turkeys? I don’t want to know.

After the first few laps, things sped up a bit, but I had no trouble keeping up, and in fact, as the race went on, I found myself up close to the front fairly often. Someone in front of me would begin to slow down, and I would ride around him and speed up to catch another wheel and stay in the middle of the action. This is something I need to do more often; I tend to hang out in the back of the pack, but often it’s harder to ride back there, as there is a lot of slowing down and speeding up in the back that can sap your energy.

As we crossed the start/finish line at the beginning of the last lap, I thought to myself that I’d done an unusually good job of staying with the pack and that if I fell behind at this point it wouldn’t matter a whole lot — no point in killing myself — but I heard the Hobgoblin yelling, telling me to work my way up to the front so I could get myself in a good position for the final sprint, and I thought, eh, why not. So I worked hard on the last lap, moved up a bit, and was with the pack on the final hill — something that almost never happens to me. Almost always at this point if I’m still in the race, I’m slowing down, falling behind, treating the last lap as a cool-down.

The only bad part of the race happened on the last lap at the bottom of the hill that leads to the finish line — I heard some yelling, saw a body flying, and felt the pack swerve to the left to avoid a fallen bicycle. One of my teammates had crashed, jostled by another rider — he was fine although after the race I saw his front wheel was now pointing in the wrong direction.

I was a bit shaken by the crash, but the rest of pack was rushing on ahead, so I kept going up the hill to the finish, doing a sprint of sorts — I was tired enough by that point I’m not sure I was really going all that fast — but I ended up finishing in 14th place, the first time I’ve ever gotten a place of any sort at this race series (my best ever was a 13th place finish last summer in a different race). When they post results shortly after the race, they list the top 20, so I got to see my name up there.

This isn’t an impressive result, by any means, but for me it’s pretty cool. It means I’m improving — I never got close to doing this well last year — and improvement is all I’m looking for.

And I must say I have the awesomest teammates — even though three of them had gotten 4th, 5th, and 10th place, they seemed more pleased about my finish than they did about theirs.

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A Doll’s House

One of my reading goals for the year was to read a play, which I have now completed, as today I finished reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I was hoping, however, that the play I read would be one I hadn’t read before, which didn’t turn out to be the case, as I’ve read A Doll’s House multiple times. I read it this time around because I’m teaching it in my Literature and Composition class. Perhaps I’ll still read a new-to-me play this year. We’ll see.

But I do love A Doll’s House. The thing I appreciate about it most, having read it I don’t know how many times, is the way Ibsen doesn’t waste a line. Everything is so tightly structured, so carefully crafted, that every line every character utters furthers the plot or the themes, and it’s a delight to see the way he leads the plot toward the stunning conclusion.

Is there anybody who hasn’t read this play? I read it in High School and have taught it so often that I feel like it’s an educational staple, but I might be wrong. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a couple, Nora and Torvald, who act in the first scene as though they have a perfectly happy marriage and family, but right from the start you pick up on some warning signs, and as the play goes on, you learn that Nora has a secret, that she’s desperately scrambling for money, that Torvald has little understanding of and respect for her, and that their family life is about to fall apart.

Here’s where I give away the ending, which is the best part of the play — Nora realizes just how little her husband knows about her, how much he cares about his own reputation even if she has to suffer for it, how poor of an education she has gotten and how little she knows about herself and the world, and she decides to leave Torvald and go live by herself until she has a chance to grow up. She leaves the doll’s house, and she leaves it dramatically; the play closes with these stage directions, “The sound of a door slamming is heard from below,” and the play is over. The play was first performed in 1879, and, as you can probably imagine, audiences found it shocking.

Ibsen doesn’t follow the classical unities of time, action, and place exactly, but he’s very close; the play takes place over the course of a few days around Christmas time, it’s all set in Nora and Torvald’s apartment, and it tells one unified story, that of the dissolution of the marriage. There are three other characters beside Nora and Torvald, two of whom, Mrs. Linde and Krogstad, operate as foils to the main couple; they have lived difficult lives, lost reputations and family members, and suffered in ways Nora and Torvald can’t really understand. But by the end of the play, they have found happiness, while Nora and Torvald have found their lives ripped apart; as the fortunes of one couple fall those of the other rise.

The other character is Dr. Rank who appears to have little to do with the plot; he’s the one character who is possibly expendable, if one is concerned about keeping the action unified. But Dr. Rank brings together many of the play’s themes. He’s suffering because of his father’s excesses — his father contracted a venereal disease which he then passed on to his son — and so introduces the idea of inheritance and the legacies, both good and bad, that parents leave for children. We learn that Nora’s father supposedly passed on his spendthrift ways and dubious moral character to her, and now Nora is deathly afraid of passing along her own errors to her children. As Dr. Rank says,

“To have to pay this penalty for another man’s sin! Is there any justice in that? And in every single family, in one way or another, some such inexorable retribution is being exacted.”

Nora’s decision to leave at the play’s end is partly an attempt to break this chain of heredity; she wants to live on her own until she has figured out what she believes and how she will live, and only then will she consider living with a family again.

But, of course, her leaving is also about her refusal to live with a man who won’t recognize her as a human being and who treats her as a child instead. Although Ibsen backed away from the claim that this is a feminist play, it’s very hard to read it otherwise; what Nora walks away from is a very narrowly defined role of wife and mother — she walks away from the husband who, when Nora talks about the sacred duty she has to herself, can say, “Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.” I noticed this time through that Mrs. Linde talks eloquently about the value of work, and Nora herself speaks of enjoying the little work she has been able to do, sewing to earn a little extra money. She’s longing for a taste of independence, for a challenge, for something to push her so that she can discover who she is.

So, yes, I enjoyed this play, and I think my students are enjoying it too. We’re discussing the conclusion to the play this week; we’ll see what they make of Nora’s dramatic exit.

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And the winner is …

Amanda from The Blog Jar!

Thanks to everyone, once again, for spending some time at this blog — I’m so glad you do.

Amanda, send me an email (ofbooksandbikes at yahoo dot com) with your address, and I’ll put Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals in the mail ASAP.

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Books and reading: your weekly Johnson post

I’ve come across a number of passages in Boswell’s Life of Johnson on books and reading that I thought you might like. For those of you with large libraries, there’s this passage:

Dr. Johnson advised me today to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. “What you read then, (said he,) you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you have again a desire to study it.” He added, “If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination.”

Here’s justification for having a book on hand, just in case! Have as many books around you as you can, because you just never know! I do like the idea that we’ll remember things better if we read about them right away when we get the impulse — if I’m curious about something I should read it now rather than waiting until I’ve read all the things I’ve got planned to read first. Although I’m susceptible to reading plans and complicated programs of instruction, I should probably make sure I’m willing to set them aside when they lose their interest. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think there must be a middle ground here, because surely there’s something to be said for learning something methodically rather than always following the whim of the moment. But the method can’t outlast a reader’s ability to profit from it.

And Johnson has more to say about reading and education:

“I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal, when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get better books afterwards.”

I like this idea. To have learned that reading can be fun is the first thing, and once a person has learned that, then they can learn how to have fun with more complicated kinds of reading. I have come across the idea a number of times recently that to say “it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you are reading” isn’t true — that it does matter what you read and reading easier kinds of things like commercial fiction isn’t just as good as other, more challenging kinds of reading. I feel ambivalently about all this, being uncertain what is meant by “good” reading and what it is we’re talking about that matters so much. I’m certain Johnson wouldn’t say that any kind of reading is always just as good as any other kind of reading, but he does recognize that very often people need to go through a period of reading regardless of quality. Johnson sees this trashier kind of reading as a stage one progresses through; I don’t see it as a stage one necessarily has to pass through or that it’s even a stage at all (a person can read lighter things alongside heavier ones), but I do agree that the enjoyment a person feels while reading any sort of book is a thing to be celebrated.

And about the glut of books out there available for us to read, Johnson says this:

“It has been maintained that this superfetation, this teeming of the press in modern times, is prejudicial to good literature, because it obliges us to read so much of what is of inferiour value, in order to be in the fashion; so that better works are neglected for want of time, because a man will have more gratification of his vanity in conversation, from having read modern books, than from having read the best works of antiquity. But it must be considered that we have now more knowledge generally diffused; all our ladies read now, which is a great extension. Modern writers are the moons of literature; they shine with reflected light, with light borrowed from the ancients.”

It amuses me to think that complaints about the overwhelming multitudes of books waiting for us to read them have existed for a long, long time. We so often think our complaints and worries are brand new. Women readers are apparently the answer to the 18C problem, another amusing thought; I suppose the more readers exist, the more likely it is that someone will be appreciating those ancient works in danger of neglect.

It’s comforting to know that we are not the only ones who have struggled with the problem of what to read first — that brand new book we can brag about having read at a party or that classic we have been meaning to get to forever.

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A little bit on books and bikes

It feels like a really busy week to me, but that’s mostly because I’m trying to get a lot of riding in. The weather is finally warming up a bit, the snow from last weekend’s snow storm is melting, and I’m trying to ride as much as I possibly can. Last weekend’s race got cancelled because of the snow, which is why you have no race report. I can, however, link to the blog of the guy who runs the Spring races I ride in. His name’s Aki, over at Sprinter della Casa; if you do jump over there (and this is totally self-indulgent of me — I don’t blame you if you ignore it), you’ll find a race video shot from Aki’s helmet. If you watch it you can get a taste of what it’s like to ride in a race, and you can see the actual course I ride on (yippee, right?).  He’s not riding in my race, or the Hobgoblin’s, so you won’t see us, although that would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it?  Or maybe not, if I look like a dork out there, which is entirely possible.

And now I have just the tiniest bit of book chat before I close up the computer and start reading for the evening. First of all, my copy of the Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote has arrived, and I love the way the book looks. There’s the cool cover, of course:

7075756.gifAnd then there’s the way the book feels in my hand, heavy and solid, but soft and flexible too, so that it will easily lie flat. It’s got those rough uneven edges I like, and the print isn’t tiny. I’ve discovered that it’s important to me not to read a book with tiny print. Maybe I’m a bit superficial about this, but I find it discouraging to feel like I’m reading and reading and reading just to get to the bottom of one page. Reading Proust would be an entirely different experience if I had an edition with tiny print. I’m so grateful for the six not overly-large volumes of Proust I’ve got with pages that don’t go on forever.

I’ve got the Don Quixote blog on my mind; by the beginning of May, I’ll have it set up, and we decided it will be called Tilting at Windmills. Do let me know if you want to join in the group reading — I posted on it here.

And two other reminders. If you’d like to read Jane Austen’s short novel Lady Susan with the Slaves of Golconda, you’ve got until March 31st; it’s very short, so there’s plenty of time to join in. And, let me know if you’d like your name entered in a drawing for Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, which I’m giving away to celebrate my first year of blogging. Leave a comment over here if you are interested. By the way, I have absolutely no problem mailing the book overseas. I do it all the time for Book Mooch, and other bloggers have generously done it for me. So don’t let geography keep you from participating!

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Filed under Books, Cycling

I’m tired of blog spats

I’ve been following the whole fight between n+1 and The Elegant Variation and the post and comments at The Valve, and I’m not going to comment on it much — don’t worry! — but it does make me think about what it is I’m doing here. Imani has a post in which she talks about having gone through multiple identity crises as a result of following this controversy, and I know just what she means. There’s nothing like a heated argument about what blogs should do and if they are any good or not to make a blogger feel all self-conscious and uncertain.

I’m particularly torn because I’ve read a number of academically-minded bloggers who wish that book bloggers in general would be more academically-minded and write something more like literary criticism than book chat, and since I’ve been known to write academic things in my non-blogging life, this kind of comment seems directed right at me. But you know what? I don’t want to be an academic blogger, and I’m interested in writing literary criticism on this blog only when inspired to do so, and I’m not going to if I don’t feel like it. And you know what? I don’t think all book blogs have to do the same thing, or even that one particular book blog has to produce the same kind of writing day after day. And I don’t get why those who don’t like reading book chat (which I love) feel the need to criticize those who do or the blogs that produce it. There’s a mean-spiritedness in many of the comments I’ve read recently that doesn’t make any sense to me.

But I said I wouldn’t comment much on this, and I won’t (I’m getting bored of blogging about blogging and you may be too). I think I need to go read.

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Filed under Blogging

Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It

7544847.gifI’ve finished Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, and let me say, first of all, that it’s not about yoga. At least, it’s not about the poses people think of when they think about yoga. It does have something to do with the philosophy that lies behind yoga, but more on that later.

Let me say, second of all, that I enjoyed this book very much. It’s uncategorizable, which is my favorite kind of book — it’s part travel narrative, part personal essay, part memoir, and part philosophical meditation, although the more philosophical sections are short. What philosophical meditations we get are moments in the midst of the stories, moments that come out of the stories and lead back into them.

Many of the blurbs on the book mention how funny it is, but except for one or two moments when I laughed out loud, I didn’t find this book very funny. But it was so many other interesting things, I didn’t miss the humor. There are ten chapters, each one set in a different location, including New Orleans, Rome, Libya, Cambodia, the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert, and others. Dyer tells stories about the people he meets, the parties he attends, the love affairs he has, the drugs he does — at this point you may be wondering why I like this book, since I’m a boring, stay-at-home kind of person who wouldn’t know how to find drugs if I wanted to.

But the persona here is appealing. He’s got an open attitude toward life; he’s willing to try just about anything. He’s frequently depressed and despairing, but also capable of finding moments of peace, and his meditations about himself and his life are always interesting. He’s thoughtful but also reckless, hard on himself but also forgiving.  He’s brutally honest about himself and the world:

… I looked up from my notes and was confronted, in the mirror above my desk, with the awful reality — grey hair, bulbous nose, scrawny neck — of my appearance. I have often been disappointed by my appearance, but I have never looked so utterly repulsive as I did then … “Life,” said the face in the mirror, “is taking its toll. All the disappointment and regret, all the bitterness and rage that you have tried to keep hidden, is now breaking out, eroding the last patina of handsomeness, and hope. You are no longer a handsome man. This is the fate of all those who place an undue value on physical attractiveness. You will become one of those people — one of the hundreds of people to whom you paid the bare minimum of attention simply because you did not like the way they looked.”

Maybe his attitude can be best summed up in this conclusion to a chapter spent describing a visit to Roman ruins:

… at some level I knew I had been kidding myself: that all the intellectual discipline and ambition of my earlier years had been dissipated by half-hearted drug abuse, indolence, and disappointment, that I lacked purpose and direction and had even less idea of what I wanted from life now than I had when I was twenty or thirty even, that I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that that was fine by me.

Ultimately, the book is about what to do after you realize you’re turning into a ruin. Do you despair, or accept it, or both? Dyer’s travels seems to be a response to this realization — he’s traveling as a distraction from pain, seeking out new people and new experiences to pass the time as comfortably as possible, and yet he’s aware at the same time that everywhere he goes, he finds only himself. There is no escape. Travel as distraction and escape leaves him all the more burdened with the weight of himself:

I felt disappointed, cheated. As the gloom settled I saw that I had spent the last fifteen years dragging the same burden of frustrated expectation from one corner of the world to the next.

And so the only thing to do is to try to make peace with yourself, even if only for a moment. And here we come to the meaning of the book’s title, because yoga’s true meaning is not the poses you might do in a yoga class, but has more to do with the search for insight and enlightenment. The term “yoga” comes from a word that means “yoke” or “union”; it’s really about finding unity with God or with something larger than oneself, or, perhaps, finding unity within oneself.

So, in the midst of the sometimes manic movement from place to place, Dyer is looking for a sense of unity and coherence of experience, for moments when he can just be where he is:

“What I want,” I said, “is a place where we can sit down, where we can just chat for a couple of hours before we go to Matt and Alexandra’s lavish suite. A place with nice music, comfortable seats, and nice tea, and so forth.” I went on and on about this, and as I did so I had a dim sense that I was working through something, some neurosis that refused to manifest itself plainly. And then it came to me.

“D’you know,” I said, “I have just described exactly the place we’re in. I’m already in the place I want to go to.”

“Well done, darling,” said Dazed. “You’ve escaped from samsara.”

This exchange (Dazed is Dyer’s current girlfriend) sums up the book beautifully — it’s about learning to want to be in the place you’re in, and it’s an insight expressed with a little bit of self-mockery and mild sarcasm. Dyer takes up some heavy subjects in this book, but he never takes himself — or anything else for that matter — too deadly seriously.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

One-year blog anniversary

7790606.gifOne year ago today, I began this blog, and what a wonderful experience it’s been. I think back to the time before I began the blog and before I read blogs, and I wonder how I managed to survive — it’s hard to believe that I read books regularly without writing about them and without telling anybody about them, and that I had only a tiny little list of books I’d like to read, instead of the multi-page one I’ve got now, and that I’d wander the bookstore sometimes not feeling inspired by anything. These days as I look through bookstores, I’m reminded of this blog and that blog as I see things that look familiar, and I think “oh, so-and-so really liked that book” and “let me look for that other book so-and-so recommended.”

Blogging has changed my reading habits tremendously. I’m still reading a lot of the same stuff I would have read anyway, but I’ve also tried a lot of things I wouldn’t have — books for the Slaves of Golconda reading group, for example, or books about books like Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading that I hadn’t heard of before, or Proust for Involuntary Memory. I’m reading new types of books, such as poetry, which I’ve finally picked up again after a long period of not reading it, and short story collections, which I have unfortunately neglected in the past.

But more than that, the writing I do about books has changed my experience of reading — the posts themselves which get me to think a little deeper about my reading than I might otherwise have done, and the comments here and on other blogs that allow me to participate in a conversation about books I didn’t have before blogging. I love sharing my enthusiasms about books and reading about what books have gotten other bloggers excited, and all this has made an already wonderful thing — reading books — that much better. I know that blogging or reading blogs isn’t for everyone, but I’ve had so much fun with it that sometimes I wonder why every reader out there isn’t doing it (and then I’m grateful that they don’t because I’m already overwhelmed with the number of great blogs out there I like to read ….)

I like participating in something that feels new and exciting and that has the potential to change — is changing right now — the culture of books and reading and reviewing and publishing. Sometimes with horror, always with interest, I follow the debates about what blogging is and can and should be and about the quality of blogs and the relationship of blogs to print publications and how blogs are or aren’t changing everything, and I’m happy that there’s this medium that anybody can participate in and shape in their own large or small way. I’m very curious to see how blogs and blogging will develop, and I hope all the changes will be good ones.

So, as a little thank you to all of my blog friends and acquaintances, all you people who have made this first year of blogging a great one, I’d like to have a book give-away (also to recognize that many of you have kindly sent me books!). I have a copy of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals to give away; she, if you don’t know this already, is the source of my blog pseudonym. Just leave a comment letting me know you’re interested in the book by next Friday night (the 23rd) and I’ll draw a name on Saturday.

Thank you!

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Some thoughts and a meme

  • I think I may be spending too much time on the internet: the tip of my right index finger is sore, and I think it got that way from too much typing and too much use of the touch pad on my laptop. Yeah, and too much time holding on to a pen to grade papers. That last one must be the culprit. I need to cut back on my grading, not on my internet time.
  • I’m now reading Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and I’m enjoying it quite a bit, but I’m also intrigued by his book Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, which has been called “the best book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence ever written.” I have very little interest in D.H. Lawrence (well, not quite true. I just don’t really get him. I’m wondering if this will change one day, like I need to reach a certain maturity level or something), but I’m interested in a book about the inability to write about Lawrence. I like books that this, ones that are about the process of doing something or the attempt to do something, or the failure. It’s why I liked Footsteps so much.
  • This also explains why I find Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev intriguing. (See Dark Orpheus’s post on the subject as well.) I’ve never read Turgenev, although I’ve been meaning to forever, but this book sounds interesting because it’s about Dessaix’s travels to research Turgenev’s life and about his attempts to puzzle out some of the mysteries of Turgenev’s life. Along these same lines, I’m also curious about Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov, which is a mix of biography, criticism, and memoir.
  • I recently got myself a dual-language edition of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, which I’m quite excited about. I studied German a long time ago, and although unfortunately I don’t remember all that much, not having used it in years, I’m looking forward to having the German there so I can at least read at least some of it in the original and can puzzle out words I don’t remember. I’m always meaning to improve my German, although it’s one of those things I never get around to, not having enough to motivate me, I suppose.
  • I have a blog anniversary coming up on Saturday; be sure to check back that day for the chance to win a book I’m giving away in celebration …

And now for the meme. Susan had a great post on theme reading she can do chosen entirely from books she already owns. I can’t resist thinking of the ways I can organize the books I’ve got on hand:

The Virginia Woolf books:

  • Virginia Woolf: In Inner Life, Julia Briggs
  • Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf
  • The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf

Eighteenth-century books:

  • Roderick Random, Tobias Smollett
  • The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, Tobias Smollett
  • Journal of a Plague Year, Daniel Defoe
  • Captain Singleton, Daniel Defoe
  • The Recess, Sophia Lee

Books about walking and travel:

  • The Walk: Notes on a Romantic Image, Jeffrey Robinson
  • The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthieson
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
  • In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
  • Travels into the Interior of Africa, Mungo Park

Books about religion:

  • The Bhagavad Gita
  • The Varities of Religious Experience, William James
  • The Jefferson Bible
  • A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong

Essay collections and memoirs:

  • The Oxford Book of Essays
  • Quarrel and Quandary, Cynthia Ozick
  • The White Album, Joan Didion
  • The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters, Wendy Lesser
  • About Alice, Calvin Trillin

Books for Kate’s Reading Across Borders challenge:

  • Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz
  • Soul Mountain, Gao Xingjian
  • Love in a Fallen City, Eileen Chang
  • Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar
  • The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki
  • The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Lists, Memes

Your weekly Johnson post

I think it’s time for another post on Boswell and Johnson. I’ve been marking interesting passages with post-it notes and after I blog on those passages taking them out, so when I see a lot of post-it notes accumulating in the book, that means it’s time to write about it again.

First of all, I can’t resist giving you Boswell’s description of Johnson’s extremely odd mannerisms:

…while talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand. In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth; sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, too, too, too: all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile. Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a whale.

Johnson is someone I wish I could have seen. Much if not most of The Life is taken up with accounts of conversations; Johnson, Boswell, and friends sit around and talk about literature and politics and the latest gossip (and they do love to gossip!), and while reading Boswell’s accounts of it all is great, surely it’s nothing compared to actually being able to witness these bull sessions.

Boswell describes Johnson getting angry, violent, and vociferous, but then quickly calming down, realizing he’d gone too far, being willing to make peace with whomever he was angry at. Can you imagine, Dr. Johnson getting furious with you? I’d be terrified.

And, unfortunately, I’d have every reason to be terrified of Johnson if I’d had the chance to meet him because he hated Americans (and, also unfortunately, some of the things he says about women I’m not too keen on):

From this pleasing subject, he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American:” and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he “breathed out threatenings and slaughter;” calling them, “Rascals — Robbers — Pirates;” and exclaiming, he’d “burn and destroy them.” Miss Seward, looking to him with mild but steady astonishment, said, “Sir, this is an instance that we are always most violent against those whom he have injured.” — He was irritated still more by this delicate and keen reproach; and roared out another tremendous volley which one might fancy could be heard across the Atlantick.

I don’t remember just what caused this hatred, if it has any explanation at all. From this safe distance in time I can be amused at this moment of irrationality from so rational a man, but I’m still extremely grateful I wasn’t there to witness it. Boswell describes trying his best to calm Johnson down and divert him with some other, safer topic; in fact, he fairly regularly needs to do this. Johnson sometimes seems like a man who needed a little managing.

But the extent of their regard for each other comes through very clearly. Boswell is always praising Johnson to the skies and worrying that Johnson is angry with him, and Johnson clearly loves Boswell in return and tries to reassure him, although somewhat impatiently. This is Johnson speaking:

Nay, Sir, you are more likely to quarrel with me, than I with you. My regard for you is greater almost than I have words to express; but I do not chuse to be always repeating it; write it down in the first leaf of your pocketbook, and never doubt of it again.

And here is Boswell’s justification for recording many little details of Johnson’s life:

I cannot allow any fragment whatever that floats in my memory concerning the great subject of this work to be lost. Though a small particular may appear trifling to some, it will be relished by others; while every little spark adds something to the general blaze: and to please the true, candid, warm admirers of Johnson, and in any degree increase the splendour of his reputation, I bid defiance to the shafts of ridicule, or even of malignity. Showers of them have been discharged at my “Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides;” yet it still sails unhurt along the stream of time, and as an attendant upon Johnson, “Pursues the triumph, and partakes the gale.”

And in another letter Boswell says this:

I vow to thee an eternal attachment. It shall be my study to do what I can to render your life happy; and if you die before me, I shall endeavour to do honour to your memory; and, elevated by the remembrance of you, persist in noble piety.

What a friendship! I am enjoying reading all the details about Johnson’s life, but I’m enjoying even more reading this record of affection.

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What the Living Do

I recently finished Marie Howe’s book of poems What the Living Do, published in 1998. A friend of mine sent me the book for Christmas; she’d described the poems as not terribly innovative with poetic technique, but interesting in their emotional complexity, and now that I’ve read the book, I agree. I thought the collection was powerful. I don’t usually find myself compelled to keep reading in a poetry book; I’m content to read a couple poems and then put the book down, but with this volume, I found myself wanting to read on.

This might be a good book to read if you’re not terribly familiar with or comfortable with poetry but would like to try it — one of the blurbs on the back of the book says that it has “the fierce galloping pace of a great novel,” and it strikes me that a volume of poems with a bit of a narrative might work for people who are most familiar with fiction.

The poems don’t really set out to tell stories, but they are clustered around events in the speaker’s life, so that we get a series of moments or scenes that have shaped the speaker in some profound way. The subject matter of the poems is often harsh; the speaker describes abuse she experienced as a child, the death of her brother and the deaths of two other friends, and her rocky relationship with her husband, or at least some rocky moments in their relationship. This list of topics might make you think the poetry is confessional in the tradition of Anne Sexton, and while I admire Sexton, I’m not sure I would have liked the book if that were true. But the feeling of Howe’s book is different — there’s a calmness to the voice, a clarity and simplicity that I found appealing. Even when she describes terrible events, it’s not anger that comes through; rather it’s something like an urgency to describe as clearly as possible, a desire to understand.

I find myself wanting simply to give you a couple of the poems, so instead of trying to describe them further, that’s what I’ll do. Here are two I liked that stand on their own reasonably well:

“The Copper Beach”



Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,


with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where


I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.


One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.


Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,


watching it happen without it happening to me.


“My Dead Friends”



I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question


to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.


Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child
in my middle age?


They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling — whatever leads
to joy, they always answer,


to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy’s ashes were –
it’s green in there, a green vase,


and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
Billy’s already gone through the frightening door,


whatever he says I’ll do.

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Race report

Today’s race was odd. The oddness started while I was on my way over to the course; it’s only about two miles over there, so I rode my bike to do some warming up on the way. As I went around a very sharp corner near my house, I crashed. I was riding along fine, and next thing I knew, I’d hit the pavement. I was fine and got up immediately, looking around furtively to see who’d noticed me being an idiot. The only spectator I saw was a guy in a pick-up truck who slowed down to see if I was okay, but as I was so quickly back on my feet, he took off again.

I couldn’t figure out why it happened, except that I’d taken a sharp corner too fast. As my only injury was a scrape on my elbow and a bruise on my hip, I got back on the bike and continued on to the course. I considered not telling anybody and saving a little face. As I rode, I thought to myself, “you don’t deserve to be on a bike, much less race on one!”

But when I got to the course I figured out what the problem was. Black ice. This was odd because the temperature back at home was in the mid-30s, and it hadn’t occurred to me that the roads could be icy when the temperature is above freezing. But the course was covered in black ice too. I felt a little less like an idiot, although I probably still looked like one to the guy in the pick-up. I decided that the crash would actually make a good story, a nice illustration of how awful the roads were.

Because of the ice, the race was delayed an hour and a half, so I ended up spending almost two hours warming up and then waiting, warming up and then waiting, while the race officials figured out what to do. They did a little sweeping and scraping, but mostly they just waited until the sun got high enough to melt everything.

With all that, it’s a wonder the race went decently. I didn’t do as well as I did last week, dropping off the pack a little earlier, but the race was faster this time around, and I think all that warming up and waiting actually tired me out a bit. Mostly I’m grateful I didn’t have another embarrassing meeting with the pavement.  There were no crashes in my race, or the Hobgoblin’s, right after mine.

Although I never like crashing, if I have to crash, this is exactly how I’d like it to happen.

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

10745276.gifI feel decidedly so-so about this book, Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. For one thing, I thought it was too long at over 500 pages; I have no problem with 500-page novels generally speaking, but the pacing of this particular long novel struck me as odd. It meandered along for 300 pages or so, with some interesting events and character interactions but without a strong sense of forward motion, and then at page 300, something really exciting happened and the book took off in a new direction. I won’t even hint at what the exciting event or the new direction is, so don’t worry about continuing to read this post if you plan on reading the novel in the future. But before this exciting event I found myself putting the book down without too much trouble, and after, it was much harder. I suppose the good news is that the book does eventually take off, but the bad news is that it does so so late.

The story is about Blue Van Meer, a teenager, and her father Gareth, a Political Science professor; Gareth is constantly taking on new Visiting Professor positions and so the two of them move just about every semester. Blue has learned very well how to make her way in strange new schools and new towns and talks about the dynamics of the High School social scene in jaded, cynical terms. But during her senior year, her father finally takes a year-long appointment, and Blue settles into the St. Gallway School, an elite private school known for sending its students to the Ivies.

Here Blue meets a beautiful, mysterious film studies teacher, Hannah Schneider. Blue notices that Hannah spends a good bit of her free time with a clique of five students whom Blue calls the blue-bloods; they have a meal together every Sunday, and soon Hannah invites Blue along. From this point on, the story is about the agonizingly slow way Blue befriends the blue-bloods, although her status in this group is always tenuous, and about the fascination the students have with Hannah’s personality and her past. Hannah seems suspiciously careful not to give away any details of her life before she began teaching at St. Gallway.

But none of this tells you much about how the book is written, and here I come to some of my other doubts about the novel. First of all, Pessl uses a syllabus format to organize the story; “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is the name of the course and the course readings become the titles of individual chapters. Every chapter is named after some work of literature; we begin with Othello and end with The Metamorphoses. The novel’s introduction explains that Blue couldn’t figure out how to tell her story (the novel is in first-person from Blue’s perspective) until she hit on the syllabus idea, which gives her an organizing structure. The novel ends with a final exam. This format is original and amusing, but I found it only incidental to the unfolding of the story; sometimes I’d notice parallels between the chapter title and the chapter’s content, but often I’d forget I was supposedly reading through a syllabus, and I don’t think I missed anything by it. The structure struck me as more clever than useful.

As part of the “academic” format of the book, there are citations sprinkled throughout the book. Sometimes these take the form of documenting books mentioned in the narrative; for example, Pessl will give us something like this:

One Sunday, I watched in awe while Hannah fixed her own recessed doorbell with electrician gloves, screwdriver and voltmeter — not the easiest of processes, if one reads Mr. Fix-It’s Guide to Rewiring the Home (Thurber, 2002).

Often, these citations are of books not mentioned in the narrative, but provided as “documentation” of whatever point Blue is making. Usually these citations are an ironic counterpoint to the story’s details, for example:

It was the first Friday of November and Jade had gone to considerable lengths to pick out my outfit: four-inch malevolent gold sandals two sizes too big and a gold lame dress that rippled all over me like a Shar-pei (see “Traditional Wife’s Bound Feet,” History of China, Ming, 1961, p. 214; “Darcel,” Remembering “Solid Gold,” LaVitte, 1989, p. 29).

All this means the book has a very odd narrative voice. There are really two voices at work in this book, the knowledgeable, hyper-educated, fledging academic voice, and, hiding behind it, the voice of a lonely and scared teen. Blue comes across as incredibly well-educated, as old and experienced and world-weary, although, of course, she’s very young. But she also comes across as extremely vulnerable, and the novel’s rather bizarre ending bears this out. The academic trappings of the story come to seem like a coping mechanism, a way of finding order and meaning in a very chaotic life.

I feel like I can appreciate some of the things Pessl is doing here, especially with the narrative voice, but ultimately all the playfulness and experimentation didn’t come together for me. I just didn’t feel engaged, or at least consistently engaged, with the story.

I am curious to hear about other people’s experiences with the book, however, because I can see how other people might have enjoyed it very much.  It just didn’t work that well for this particular reader.

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Blogs that make me think

thinkingbloggerpf8.jpgSusan from Pages Turned has nominated me for a Thinking Blogger Award — thanks Susan! I do my best to think and I guess sometimes I manage it!

The idea is that I’ll now nominate five bloggers who make me think (who can then, if they like, nominate five more). While there are many, many blogs that make me think, these ones are on my mind right now:

Tales from the Reading Room

Telecommuter Talk

The Public, the Private, and Everything in Between

The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

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The History of Love (and other things)

I’ve just checked out this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, and I’m seeing that it’s good I’ve got Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss on my shelves, as she won for fiction, and the awards have also reminded me that I’d like to read Daniel Mendelsohn’s book The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which won for autobiography and that I must, must, must read Lawrence Weschler soon, whose book Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences won for criticism. I’ve got his book Vermeer in Bosnia on my shelves. I don’t like letting prizes dictate my reading — I like at least to pretend that I make book choices based on my own insights rather than other people’s, although surely that’s largely an illusion — but the awards are reminding me of books I’ve been interested in lately (the hundreds and hundreds of them — there’s little likelihood I’m getting to any of these really soon).

I finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics a couple days ago (post on that to come), and so now I’m working on finishing up some of my other books and will then choose another novel. I can’t decide exactly what I need right now — something old, perhaps Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, or something new (and shorter) like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Or something entirely different. We’ll see. I’ll let the impulse of the moment guide me.

But for now I want to write about having finished the audiobook of Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, which I enjoyed very much and highly recommend. I find it hard to write about audiobooks because I don’t have the book in front of me to look at, and I can’t refresh my memory of the plot details or give you quotations, but I can say that this has some great characters and an intriguing plot, it has humor and pathos, it’s about people who write and who love books and reading, and although the book’s title makes it sound like it might be hopelessly and annoyingly sentimental, it’s not.

The novel introduces you to various characters and then throughout the story brings them closer and closer and reveals unexpected connections among them. It feels a little bit like a mystery. There’s Leo Gursky, an old man living in isolation in New York City, who has loved one woman in his life, named Alma, whom he knew when he was a boy in Poland, and then lost when she moved to America. He had written a novel called The History of Love before emigrating to America himself, but, because he left his hometown fleeing the Nazis, he lost the manuscript. There’s another Alma who’s a 14-year old trying to deal with her mother’s depression and her brother’s worrisome obsession with religion, who becomes fascinated with a novel called The History of Love, which her mother is translating. Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from the way it unravels the mystery of what happened to the manuscript and how Leo’s and Alma’s lives are connected.

I really liked Leo’s character; he’s funny and wise, and the narrator who read the sections devoted to him had a wonderful voice and accent. The narrator who read Alma’s sections had a voice I found a little grating, but she’s a wonderful character too, odd and quirky and smart in a way that can make teenagers’ lives a misery but turns them into fascinating adults.

This book is a pleasure, plain and simple.

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Filed under Books, Fiction

Why write? (or read? or ride my bike?)

I’ve found enough essays I’ve enjoyed in The Best American Essays 2006 to keep me going, although I’ve had lots of grave doubts about the overall quality of the book. My ambivalence has continued with my latest essay “Why Write?” by Alan Shapiro. I found myself irritated with Shapiro’s silly sense of humor through the beginning of the essay, until I got to one extraordinary page that redeemed the whole thing for me.

Maybe something is wrong with my sense of humor, but I found these opening sentences intensely irritating:

Some years ago, I went to a child psychologist. (If Henny Youngman had written this opening sentence, he would have added: “The kid didn’t do a thing for me.” But I digress.)

Anyway, the essay begins with the story of how Shapiro gets diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder as an adult, having been tested when one of his children was diagnosed, after which the doctor tells him that his writing can be seen as a “compensatory behavior” for his disability. In response, Shapiro says something genuinely funny:

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I write books in order to make up for my inability to remember the names of the people I meet at a party, or because I come home from the grocery store with a red pepper instead of a tomato?”

He goes on from there to consider the various reasons he’s sought a career in writing, since, after all, the money’s no good and fame is so fleeting. After some irritatingly silly joking, Shapiro gets to a serious answer to his question about why he writes, by way of Elizabeth Bishop, and along the way he addresses the question of why we read (it’s a long passage, but a great one):

Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making; your identity — the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites, and interests — has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve.

Now as far as writing goes, this passage doesn’t ring true to me, as I can’t really remember ever feeling that absorbed in my writing; or, if I have felt that way, it’s not something that has “stuck,” something I need to return to again and again. This is probably why I tend not to think of myself as “a writer,” although I do a decent amount of it. Shapiro speculates that writers may have a reputation for suffering from melancholy, not because good writing requires sadness and depression, but because after feeling the absorption and attentiveness of writing, Bishop’s “perfectly useless concentration,” their non-writing lives seem lacking and they feel haunted until they can return to that trance-like state.

This passage does ring true to me when I think about reading, however; and I like how Bishop describes both writing and reading as activities that can create this happy absorption. Bishop portrays reading or viewing a work of art as a creative act in itself and her formulation excludes nobody; everybody can interact with art and be self-forgetful for a while.

What really made me happy about this part of the essay, however, were the next lines:

Athletes know all about this nearly hallucinatory state. They call it being in the zone. They feel simultaneously out of body and at one with the body.

Yes, I know exactly what he’s talking about. Sometimes when I’m riding or hiking I feel like a truly whole human being, no separation between my mind and my body. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing; I’m just doing it. I’m just a being walking or riding a bike, wholly focused on the present moment.

And then, to add to all this goodness, Shapiro writes a passage that dovetails beautifully with Litlove’s recent post on the symbolic and the semiotic, the symbolic being straightforward language and the semiotic being the musical, poetic quality of language. Shapiro talks about how infants experience a form of the concentration he has been describing, expressing it through their babbling babytalk. Of his children as infants he says,

He or she would be talking, but the meaning of the words were indistinguishable from the sensation of the sound, and the sound was part and parcel of the mouth that made the sound, of the hands and fingers that the mouth was sucking as it sang.

In other words, the symbolic and the semiotic are one and the same.  And from there, he moves to how we as adults continually seek out this lost relationship to language, the lost connection of the symbolic and the semiotic:

No matter how sophisticated our poems may be, or how deadly serious they are about eradicating or exposing the terrible injustices around us, I still think that we are trying — by means of words, of consciousness — to reawaken that pre-verbal joy, to repossess, reinhabit what someone else has called the seriousness of a child at play. Bishop says this concentration’s useless because it is its own reward, the mysterious joy of it. It is singing for the sake of singing.

Isn’t it beautiful how this all comes together? Writing and reading, and walking and riding for that matter, are ways of finding unity and wholeness — of the body and the mind, of the adult self with the child self. The close of Litlove’s post brings it together wonderfully:

Great writers know how to tap into and express the semiotic in their works, and so what they say speaks to us at a profound level. I like to think of this layer of other meaning, beyond and within communication, as the defining characteristic of the literary. And our ability, from birth, to hear and express it, to tap into it and to play with it, is what makes us all fundamentally literary creatures, in a basic instinctual way.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction