Monthly Archives: May 2007

Rilke in translation

I’m now halfway through Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and am loving the experience of reading it. In an effort to understand it better, I’ve begun to check out other translations online when I’ve finished a section from the book I own, translated by David Young. I haven’t decided whether I like or dislike Young’s translations, not really knowing enough to make a judgment, but I discovered that I could understand the poem much better when I looked at more than one translation. I have the original German too, which I’ve been reading after I read the English a few times, but my German’s not good enough for me to judge translation quality. And, yes, these elegies are complicated enough to require a number of readings (they are relatively short, and this doesn’t take long). I am finding them beautiful and rich and mysterious — they touch on death, love, consciousness, relationships, loneliness, isolation, the world of the mind — they are about everything important, it seems like.

But to show you what I mean about the translations, here’s a short section from the Fourth Elegy, as translated by David Young:

But we, when we’re fully intent on one thing,
can already feel the pull of another. Hatred is always close by.
Aren’t lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other
they who promised themselves open spaces, good hunting and a homeland?
As when for some quick sketch a contrasting background
is made with great care so we can see the drawing. No effort is spared.
We don’t know the contour of feeling, we only know what molds it
from without.

The meaning of the first part is clear to me, and I like the idea — that we have trouble focusing on one thing, on the present moment, and are always in pursuit of what’s next. The bit about the lovers is interesting — they expect infinite possibilities from each other and are disappointed. The next four lines have an image that took me a while to get, but once I got it, I liked it; the artist took pains with the background of the drawing to make the drawing itself clearer, although the drawing itself is only the work of a moment. Somehow, this is like the way we experience emotion; perhaps emotion is like the sketch, which remains fleeting and mysterious; all we can know about emotion is what shapes it — the thing that molds it, like the carefully-prepared background. What’s confusing about this passage is the way the fifth line (“As when …”) seems at first to relate to the image of the lovers, not the lines about emotion. It’s only by thinking through the images carefully, that I can figure out the image of the sketch and the ideas about emotion go together.

Here’s the same passage translated by Robert Hunter:

But we cannot focus on
a single object without
worrying about another.
Conflict is our essence.
Aren’t lovers always
crowding one another,
despite mutual longing
for wide open spaces,
homestead and plentiful hunting?
As when a canvas is carefully
stretched and primed to receive
a spontaneous sketch,
the better to offset it,
we do not observe the
background of emotion,
only what is splashed upon it.

The passages are similar — but not the same; the meaning of each one seems different. Isn’t “hatred is always close by” different from “conflict is our essence”? It’s the difference between something existing outside us but easily available and something that is in us and a part of us. And then there’s the difference between “Lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other” and “lovers always crowding one another.” These are two very different things, aren’t they? It’s the difference between finding something inside the other — some emotional or mental attribute — and bumping into the other’s body. And in the second translation the sketch is clearly connected to emotion, as it forms one sentence, instead of the three sentences of the first.

And here’s another, translated by John Waterfield:

We, though, where we intend one thing, and mean it,
are vexed by shimmering alternatives.
Enmity’s near to hand. Don’t lovers always
come upon fences in each other’s souls
where they expected hunting, home, and freedom?
Then briefly a design that’s based on contrast
comes into focus, carefully prepared
for us to see. (They take some pains with us.)
We do not know the contour of our feeling:
only the thing that moulds it from without.

Now the lovers are encountering fences in each other’s souls — the place of conflict, the soul, is a more clearly defined, and we have a fence instead of a drop-off. And in the parentheses, some mysterious “they” gets introduced; I notice now the other versions used passive voice (“a canvas is carefully stretched,” “a contrasting background is made”). Who is this “they”?

I guess I’m pointing out something that’s fairly obvious if you think about it, which is that every translation is an act of interpretation. Every translation introduces its own meanings and shades of meanings. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time puzzling out different translations, though, so I’m struck by this idea in a different kind of way, actually seeing the various interpretations in front of me at once.

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Filed under Books, Poetry

Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World

12314620.gif It seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve written a substantive post on books; actually, it seems like it’s been a while since I’ve been truly absorbed in a book at all. I read a bit here and there, but mostly I’ve been busy doing this and that (retreats, visits with friends, errand-running), and I’ve been on a manic exercise kick that keeps me busy. For those of you who follow my races, last night’s race went very well; it was the longest, fastest race so far this season, and I stayed with the pack the whole time. I didn’t even work all that terribly hard to do it. Don’t get me wrong — I was definitely working — but it wasn’t kill-myself working. This weekend’s race got postponed, so the next race is Tuesday, which means I have some days available to do some long rides. I hope to begin tomorrow.

But, yeah, I’m going to write about books. I finished Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World last week and can report that I liked the experience very much; this is my first Shriver novel, but probably not my last (I need to read Double Fault next, if only because it’s got women athletes in it). It was a gripping novel, one I was happy reading for hours at a time, and, at over 500 pages, one that lasts a while too. It’s got three main characters, and we stay with them and only them for most of the novel; there are other minor characters here and there, but mostly it’s a lot of time with those three people. So, as you can probably guess, there’s lots and lots of character analysis, lots of relationship analysis, lots of scenes of agonized and agonizing dialogue and critique and confession. There are lots of fights and frustration and anger. It could feel claustrophic, all that time in a fairly narrow world, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Or maybe that’s just the way life is — a lot of time spent thinking about just a few relationships.

The main character, Irina, is practically married, although not quite, to Lawrence — they’ve been together many years but have never gotten around to the ceremony — and early in the novel (I won’t give anything much away) Irina is tempted to kiss Ramsay Acton, a snooker star, on his birthday. What happens is that two versions of the “post-birthday world” arise — one where she does kiss him, and one where she doesn’t. From that point on, the narrative splits into two strands, one following each world and each one narrated in alternating chapters. We get to see how things work out each way.

Shriver has a lot of fun (or it strikes me that it would have been fun) narrating the two worlds side-by-side; things are different in each world, obviously, but not as different as we might think. A lot of the same things happen in each version, but not always done by the same person or with the same meaning. Similar conversations take place, but the dialogue gets spoken by different people; Irina finds some successes and some failures in one world, and mirroring ones in the other; the roles of victim and victimizer, betrayer and betrayed shift around. It’s hard to say which world is better, and surely that’s part of the point — that the decisions we make can seem so very significant and life-changing, but from a larger perspective perhaps don’t make as much difference as we think.

I was struck throughout the novel at what jerks both Lawrence and Ramsay could be; although they are very different types of people, which is why Irina has such trouble making up her mind about them (she says at one point that they would be perfect combined into one man), they both tend to treat her badly, bossing her around, judging her, not letting her be herself. I’m not sure what to make of this — are we supposed to feel bad for Irina, that even though she loves both of these men, and they each make her happy in their own, very different ways, she doesn’t seem realize just what controlling bastards they can be? I wanted her to figure more of that out, to complain about it more, but she tends to accept their criticism and their pettiness and to blame herself, as though she’s constantly making mistakes, when she’s not.  I suppose this isn’t really a complaint about the novel, since the story is told from Irina’s point of view (third person, but following her consciousness), and it’s part of Irina’s character not to stick up for herself as much as she might, but it was painful to read about nonetheless.

At times I thought the writing was a bit sloppy; the point of view didn’t always seem consistent — it was told from Irina’s perspective, but sometimes a voice would intrude, saying things that Irina wouldn’t, in order to get across some information. But that’s a minor quibble. Mostly I was enthralled with this very close look at love and romance, at the varied types of love different relationships can offer, at the effects of time on any relationship.

It turns out that Charlotte has recently read this book too; make sure not to miss her post on it.

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Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction

I hate it when I’m predictable

Well, of the 61 Best Novels You’ve Never Read, I’ve read none of them. Shoot. I do, however, have two of them on my TBR list.  Does that count for anything?

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Filed under Lists

Riding and Hiking

Now is the time when the crazy exercising begins — yay! It’s the time when Hobgoblin and I do day-long hikes and hours-long rides, sometimes for days in a row. I’ve ridden the last four days in a row, including a race today; tomorrow we’re going to hike 14 miles over three mountains (it’s Hobgoblin’s birthday tomorrow!); Tuesday I’m going to race again, and then I hope to ride at least four more times before the end of the week, ideally two of those rides lasting for over four hours. This will be fun.

The race today went pretty well. Hobgoblin and I drove up to Hartford to ride in their criterium; I’d watched races there before, but this is the first time I actually rode on the course. It was a women’s open race, which meant I was riding with women from all categories — which meant it was a fast race. I had no idea how I would do, as the last women’s open race I rode in was last year in my first race ever, which turned out to be a disaster (I got dropped after about two laps).

Mostly I hoped not to embarrass myself, which I most definitely did not; I finished the race with the pack. I got only 30th place out of 42 starters, but the point for me was to finish with the pack, not necessarily at the front of it. I felt pretty good throughout, but going through the corners in the last lap I didn’t have a whole lot of strength left to sprint with — and if you’re nowhere near the front of the pack, it really doesn’t make sense to sprint anyway, since you’d be sprinting for something like 30th place, which doesn’t mean much, and you put yourself in danger of crashing.

What I learned is that I need more practice riding fast through corners; I noticed that I slowed down too much at the corners and began to slip back farther in the pack, and then once I was through the corner, I had to speed up to catch up with everybody else. That takes too much energy. I just don’t have a whole lot of practice cornering; the criterium course in my town doesn’t have difficult corners, so they are new to me. I also need to be a bit more aggressive; I let other people jump in front of me too easily.

So, enjoy your holiday everyone!

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Filed under Cycling, Life

Summer Reading

So I’ve committed to not doing a summer reading challenge, and I’m not going to, but I would like to muse a little bit about what I might read this summer. If I make a list of things I will read, I will feel constrained and will quickly get tired of all my choices. But I can think about some things I could possibly pick up, or, better yet, some categories of things I’d like to read, the exact titles to be chosen later. So this is not a very exact list, and it’s also not one I’m sticking to. It’s just some thoughts for the moment:

  • I am committed to reading Proust and Cervantes. I’d like to finish both of these before Labor Day, although that may not be possible. But I’ll try.
  • Back in the days when I was more likely to sign up for reading challenges, I decided to do Kate’s Reading Across Borders challenge, and it’s one I’m still excited about (probably because there are so many possibilities and I didn’t commit myself to any particular titles). So far this year I’ve read 2 books out of my goal of 5 (these include So Long a Letter and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter). This summer I’d like to read at least one more; possibilities include Mahfouz’s Palace Walk and Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City. But other interesting ones may pop up.
  • I’d like to read some more travel writing. I haven’t read much contemporary examples, but the ones I have I’ve liked (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It; Eat, Pray, Love; The Places in Between). I’ve got Peter Matthieson’s The Snow Leopard on the shelves, and also Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.
  • A literary biography might be fun too; I’ve got a short one of Proust and am also interested in reading biographies of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. I haven’t read that many biographies in my life — largely because they are so often long and I’m a slow reader — but I would like to know more about some of my favorite authors.
  • More poetry — I’m in the middle of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and enjoying it a lot, but I’m trying to decide what poet to read next. Part of me would like to read somebody from an earlier time period, like Keats, for example, and another part of me wants to return to contemporary writers. I’m not sure which side will win out.
  • There are a couple books I’ve been meaning to read because friends recommended them to me (as have other litbloggers); they include McCarthy’s The Road and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, and anything by Geraldine Brooks, although The Year of Wonders is what I have on my shelves.
  • I’d like to read something challenging. I’m not sure what this means; perhaps a long and difficult novel like The Recognitions which Ted recently sent me (thank you!) or something philosophical like the Martha Nussbaum book I’ve got on my shelves, or perhaps William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, which I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. That one wouldn’t be a difficult read, but it would be challenging in the sense of making me think a lot.
  • Perhaps I’ll finally, finally get around to reading the Bhagavad Gita?
  • I’d also like to read as many books as possible from my TBR shelves — not so much to clear them out as to create space for more new books. Here is where my vague plans start to shift into fantasy …

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A Sentimental Murder

I finished John Brewer’s A Sentimental Murder quite a while ago, but still want to write one last post on it (a previous post is here). It’s a wonderful book, in short. It tells the story of James Hackman’s murder of Martha Ray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, in 1779. But it does so much more than that — the first chapter tells what we know of the basic facts, and then subsequent chapters tell the story of how the story got told, how various versions developed, the “facts” changed, sympathies shifted.

There isn’t much we know of the facts, actually; Hackman had fallen in love with Martha Ray, but we don’t know for sure what her feelings were in return. On the night of the murder, he seemed more likely to commit suicide and leave Ray in safety, but something changed his mind, and he shot her just outside Covent Garden Theater. He tried to shoot himself, but failed.  He was tried for murder and hanged.

As the story gets shaped and retold through the end of the 18C and on into the 19C and 20C, the story focuses on different characters and different interpretations; at one point Hackman becomes a kind of sentimental hero — even though he is the murder — and at another, the focus is on Sandwich as an example of the corrupt aristocratic rake, and at another, on Martha, sometimes as an example of a fallen woman and sometimes as an exemplar of loyalty and devotion.

But the book does more than give varying interpretations of the story; it uses the story as a way to examine the culture surrounding it. Brewer includes a chapter on the 18C press, explaining how its openness and relatively amateur status meant that those in power could shape news stories as they saw fit (although those with competing versions of the story could do that too). He explains the late 18C culture of sensibility and how it fed into interpretations of the murder — this is a culture that valued emotional displays and loved to theorize about the political and social consequences of feeling. As he moves into the Victorian era, Brewer explains how writers took the murder as evidence of the decadence of late 18C life, compared, at least, to the moral uprightness of their own time.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the very end where Brewer backs up a bit to discuss theories of history and how his own story fits into them. He describes how, since the 1960s, the discipline of history has moved away from focusing solely on the public world of politics and economics and the big names — kings and presidents and prime ministers — and has moved toward telling the stories of everyday people. Writers of history also began to move away from using a detached and objective voice and wrote in a more subjective, personal, and engaged way. They began to look to new sources too — diaries and letters were sources of information, as well as the more traditional sources such as records of parliamentary debates.

Brewer explains how these changes in the discpline of history shaped his book:

The recent attempt to rethink the practice of historians, in other words, is a challenge not a threat. And it is in this spirit that I have written this book, partly as a certain kind of new history but also as an experiment, to see if it will work. I deliberately foreswore an approach that set out to recover the truth about events between 1775 and 1779, though I, as much as anyone, wonder about what lay behind the miasma of news, rumour, and information that circulated after Martha Ray’s death … I did not want to treat all subsequent accounts of the affair merely as sources of facts or evidence … I took what I considered a less invasive alternative. I tried to treat these accounts as stories or narratives with their own histories — not as databases of facts. The significance of each individual account — whether novel, anecdote, or essay — lay not in what it told us about James Hackman, Martha Ray, and the Earl of Sandwich, but in what it told us about the relationship between itself and the events of 1779, the connection between the past it was describing and its present.

If this book is an experiment in new forms of historical writing, I think it succeeds very well; he talks about history written from the bottom up, and this strikes me as a wonderful example — he gives us a picture of the late 18C century (and Victorian and 20C views of the late 18C) by focusing on one small story and following its development and implications. The story includes an aristocrat, but it’s a love story, not a political one — it’s a very personal story, and yet it tells us so much about the culture of the time. And the point is not so much what actually happened between Martha Ray and James Hackman — so much is unclear — but what the various versions of their story meant, what they reveal about the people telling the stories.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

More on books soon …

Your Score: Pure Nerd

86 % Nerd, 4% Geek, 26% Dork

For The Record:

A Nerd is someone who is passionate about learning/being smart/academia.
A Geek is someone who is passionate about some particular area or subject, often an obscure or difficult one.
A Dork is someone who has difficulty with common social expectations/interactions.

You scored better than half in Nerd, earning you the title of: Pure Nerd.

The times, they are a-changing. It used to be that being exceptionally smart led to being unpopular, which would ultimately lead to picking up all of the traits and tendences associated with the “dork.” No-longer. Being smart isn’t as socially crippling as it once was, and even more so as you get older: eventually being a Pure Nerd will likely be replaced with the following label: Purely Successful.

Congratulations!

THE NERD? GEEK? OR DORK? TEST

Thanks Imani!

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Filed under Life

I apologize profusely

I’m SO, SO sorry for linking to and commenting on this article about how much book blogs suck, but I simply can’t help myself. I’ve wanted to stop posting about these attacks on blogs because it gets boring after awhile, not to mention disheartening and repetitive. But then someone says something so utterly annoying I can’t keep quiet.

So, I’ll keep this short. The author of the article, Richard Schickel, starts off by quoting from a New York Times article that discusses shrinking space for book reviews and the possibility that book bloggers will pick up some of the slack; here’s Schickel’s claim:

“Some publishers and literary bloggers,” the article said, viewed this development contentedly, “as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.”

Anyone? Did I read that right?

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity.

I find it interesting the way Schickel moves seamlessly from the quotation that talks about commenting on books to a defense of reviewing and criticism. He’s assuming that all book bloggers attempt to produce professional reviews or criticism, which isn’t at all the case. What makes Schickel slip from commenting to reviewing all at once, thereby eliding a whole range of possible ways of writing about books? Why do people assume that if you write about books, your only purpose can be to become a professional reviewer?

Of course, there’s no reason a blogger can’t produce reviews or criticism that’s just as good as anything that appears in print (and on this issue you simply must see Dan Green’s wonderful response).

What’s wonderful to me about blogs is the range of writing you can find — everything from formal reviews and criticism, to informal commentary, to highly personal reading responses, to news of the book world and gossip about writers. Why do people who attack blogs assume that all bloggers are aiming at one thing — to produce writing that will “threaten” what appears in print?

Okay, I’m done. Now for an announcement: I’ll be gone for a few days on a work-related retreat (which probably sounds dreadful, although I don’t think it will be). I’ll be back on Friday or thereabouts.

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Race report

I’ve been sitting in my study for quite a while now, reading blogs and aimlessly surfing the internet, wondering if I feel up to posting or even up to pulling a book off the shelf. See, I’m sitting here once again with aching legs. I feel like I’ve complained about the aching legs an awful lot lately. Today’s race was tough, although I had fun and felt okay afterward. But it was a road race with a good-sized hill, which always spells trouble for me.

Hobgoblin and I drove almost two hours, out to the edge of Connecticut at the Rhode Island border, getting up at 5:00 (5:30 in my case) to do it. The race course was beautiful; it was Connecticut countryside at its best, with rolling hills and lots of open space. There was no women’s race, so I rode with the Category 5 men — I was one of only two women out there. The race had a long neutral start — meaning that we rode a section of the course slowly, following a pace car that made sure nobody was pushing the pace. I’m not entirely sure why they do this, actually, except that perhaps it’s safer and more orderly.  The neutral start took us all the way up the course’s main hill, 1 kilometer long, and the race itself started at the top.

I was so grateful for that long neutral start, because without it I would have been dropped immediately. I did fine on all the rest of the course for the first lap, but when we came around to that monster hill the second time — the first time actually racing it — I got dropped. Sigh. Thank God I fell in with a few other riders right away, so I didn’t have to ride the rest of the race by myself — that would have sucked, because there’s no point in driving all that way to ride by myself, when I can do that any time I want at home. But I found 4 or 5 riders riding at about my pace, and we stuck together until we climbed the monster hill for the last time up to the finish line, when I got dropped again.

This is about what I expected to happen, so I wasn’t disappointed, just grateful to have found other people going my speed. I’ve been trying to work on my hill climbing, but I don’t think I’m working hard enough. I climb hills all the time, but it’s too easy to let myself back off rather than making myself push hard. Ugh — I see more hill climbing practice in my future.

Anyway, I wasn’t DFL, as the cyclists say, dead fucking last. That always makes me happy.

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A rambling post

I have all kinds of posts I’d like to write at some point, several on A Sentimental Murder, one on Don Quixote, one on Rilke’s Duino Elegies, but I don’t feel like writing them now. Instead, I feel like rambling. So this will be a rambling post.

This morning, Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I went on a walk in a local park (something like 1,000 acres in size with lots of forest) and found that our usual trail had been completely devastated by a storm that passed through here last Wednesday. I heard rumors of tornados, although I don’t know if any actually developed, but at the very least it was brief but incredibly powerful; I don’t usually get nervous when storms come through, but this time I was, and I was ready to head down to the basement at any moment. Our neighborhood was fine — we didn’t even lose power — but other neighborhoods near us weren’t so lucky; roads were closed everywhere, trees were down all over the place, and people lost power for days. A trip that usually takes Hobgoblin 30 minutes took him 1 hour 40 minutes because he couldn’t find roads that were open.

So, at the beginning of our walk, we noticed a few trees down, but it didn’t seem that bad until we got to a higher elevation, and there we saw that trees were down everywhere. Everywhere we looked, we saw fallen branches, tree trunks ripped apart, roots pulled up from the ground. We had to pick our way around fallen tree after fallen tree that blocked our path. The path gets used by mountainbikers a lot, but it won’t be rideable for a long time, until somebody spends hours with a chainsaw clearing things out, if it even gets cleared at all. I couldn’t help but wish I’d seen the storm come through — if I could somehow have known I would be safe, I would love to have been there, seeing and hearing what it was like. Walking through the forest was sad, with all those damaged trees, but it was dramatic and exhilarating too.

I attended graduation at my school on Thursday, so now my semester is officially over (although it’s never really over — I’m attending a work-related retreat next week …); I’ve been slipping into summer mode, which means there still is work to be done, but at a slower pace and with lots more time to read. I’ve been devouring Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, and today I devoured the second section of my friend’s novel, the one I’m commenting on as she works on revising it. It’s such a pleasure to read without work hanging over my head! As much as I love teaching, I do get tired of always having work to do on the weekends, which means guilt is never far away — the feeling that I should be grading or reading for school or prepping for class. I tempted to make some goals for summer reading, but I’m trying not to, in favor of keeping things more spontaneous. I already have plans to continue with Proust and Cervantes, and probably that’s plan enough.

I’ll end with a question: do you ever have the experience where you decide to read an author and you turn to his or her best work, and you read it and love it, and want to read more, but all that’s left is the work that everybody says is not quite as good, and you’re a bit afraid to try it because it may disappoint you? I was reminded of that problem when I read Ted’s post on Nabokov’s Pnin, which didn’t quite live up to his expectations. I’ve experienced this with Nabokov myself — I adore Pale Fire and Lolita and Speak, Memory, and would happily read more, but, at least as far as what people generally say, I’ve read the best already. This is true for Virginia Woolf as well; after Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, will I find The Voyage Out disappointing? Do I really want to spend time with a book that will disappoint me? With an author’s works of lesser reputation? I know reputation isn’t always a reliable way to decide if I will enjoy something or not, but I still feel a lingering hesitation about picking up the lesser-known things.

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Filed under Books, Life, Reading

Reading like a Writer II

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Litlove’s and Stefanie’s posts on Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, and, if you haven’t read them yet, suggest that you go and read them first, and then return here.

I’ve now finished this book, and agree with Stefanie’s comment that the later chapters are better than the earlier ones. These later chapters cover things like character, dialogue, gesture, and detail, and perhaps these things are more complex and therefore more interesting than the topics of the earlier chapters, words, sentences, and paragraphs. At any rate, although my enjoyment of the book increased as I went on, I still have reservations about its quality.

To be fair, though, I’m not sure how I would have written such a book differently. Litlove confesses that she can be a quotation skipper at times, something I do as well, and much of this book is quotation (sometimes they go on for pages and pages). I got a little tired of quotation after quotation and felt that Prose’s analysis was sometimes a bit short and perfunctory. But how would one write this without the quotations? It’s good that the book was short or I would have found it tiresome; as it is, every time boredom threatened, I found I was near the end of a chapter and so contentedly moved on to another topic.

I’m also grateful the book was short (that sounds mean, although I don’t intend it to be) because what I found most valuable about it was the way it inspired me to pay more attention to the technical aspects of fiction, and that can be accomplished without reading something long. I loved Litlove’s point in her post that Prose is reading in a way that would make authors happy — she is pointing out their brilliance, calling attention to how they have carefully crafted their language — which is only one way of reading; another, perhaps deeper, way of reading is to read against the grain — to pay attention to the things an author may not have been so conscious of, to read subversively, as Litlove says. I’m trained to read in this latter way, and yet I’m intrigued by the former, by Prose’s attention to technical details. All this is to say that I’m grateful for Prose’s reminder of the pleasure to be found in enjoying a well-crafted sentence or bit of dialogue or a masterfully-chosen detail. Also I’m thinking about the technical aspects of writing more and more as I read my friend’s novel and talk with her about it and as I talk with Hobgoblin about his own writing process. All these things have added up to a fun glimpse into a writer’s life.

One more thing — my favorite chapter in Prose’s book is one near the end called “Learning from Chekhov”; here, Prose describes teaching a fiction writing class where her students notice the way she gives them advice about writing but then qualifies it and cites exceptions and backtracks, so much so that this turns into a class joke. She gives example after example of “rules” she has offered her students and then describes the almost eerie way she reads a Chekhov story after class that invariably breaks the rule. She tells a student that he needs to distinguish his two main characters more, and then reads a Chekhov story that has two main characters with the same name, for example, or she’ll tell a student to clarify a story’s point of view and then read a Chekhov story where the point of view similarly shifts.

I like this way of making a point that Prose has been developing throughout: that there really are no rules to fiction writing. It’s not that people sometimes break the rules; it’s that there are no rules. If I were a writer, I might find this idea a little bit terrifying (Prose’s students wanted some guidance, and I can understand why); as a reader, I find it completely freeing — I’m free to enjoy the infinite number of ways a story can be told.

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8 things

I’ve been tagged to do the “eight things” meme — tagged twice in fact. Thank you Jenclair and Sylvia! I’m supposed to list eight random things about me — which strikes me as hard since most interesting things about me I’ve already posted about in other similar memes, but I’ll give it a try.

1.  I never eat cereal with milk. I always have it dry — I can’t stand sogginess in food.

2. I have a diamond-shaped birthmark on my thigh, about six inches directly above my knee.   It’s not quite a perfect diamond shape, but it’s very close.

3. I played on the volleyball team in High School, briefly.  It was a disaster.

4. I am committed to never playing a sport that requires coordination ever again.  Yeah, cycling requires a certain amount of coordination, but not the kind you need to catch, kick, throw, hit, etc.  So, no baseball, football, soccer, tennis, golf, volleyball, softball, or basketball for me.  I might consider miniature golf, but only as a joke.

5. I loathe and despise shopping.  I’ll wear the same clothes over and over again until they are almost worn out before I’ll go buy more (and that’s only if I can’t get Hobgoblin to buy something for me, which he often very graciously does).

6. I’m very bad at remembering the names of trees and flowers and other kinds of plants, but I greatly admire people who can remember them.  There is some essential function missing in my brain that would allow me to learn — I have a bad visual memory I guess.

7. Speaking of memory, I’m very good at remembering my students’ names — I pride myself on this — up until the end of the semester.  Once the semester ends, the names disappear from my brain.  If  class ends in December, by January, I’ll remember their faces but the names are gone.

8. I performed in musicals in junior high and high school — including The Wiz, 42nd Street, and Grease.  I was always just in the chorus though, never in a real part.  I was too shy, I can’t act, and I can’t sing well enough to try for a big part.

Okay, here I break the rules, because I can’t think of 8 people who haven’t done this already to tag.  But if there’s someone who hasn’t done this yet, please do!

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Books and races

First of all, the books: I had to run errands in town today, and since I had a little time, I decided to wander into one of the several used bookstores in my town.  This particular one has a lot of really cheap slightly damaged and remaindered books for sale; they had a bunch for only $1, so I spent quite a bit of time looking through those.  Unfortunately, most of them weren’t the kind of book I wanted to read, but I did find two.

I came home with Elaine Scarry’s book Resisting Representation; since I enjoyed her book On Beauty and Being Just so much last summer, I snapped it up.  This one is about “the complicated problems of representation in diverse literary and cultural genres,” according to Amazon.  I also found a small collection of Katherine Mansfield’s stories called The Garden Party and other Stories.  I read good things about her in Francine Prose’s book, and have heard so much about her because of Virginia Woolf, and I enjoyed “At the Bay,” which I read for A Curious Singularity, so I’m happy about this one.

But on to the race.  Today wasn’t so good.  I dropped out somewhere around lap 15 or 16 out of 25, although I was dropping out in good company; Hobgoblin and a couple other teammates didn’t make it to the end either.  Today’s race was a points race, which means that instead of the usual format, where whoever crosses the finish line on the last lap wins, there are laps designated as points laps.  This means that whoever wins those laps (or the top 2 people or 5 people or whatever the race organizer decides) gets points, and the person with the most points from all the points laps wins.  What that means is that every lap that can earn somebody points is a sprint, so it can be a lot of hard work.

And the way it worked today is that laps 14-25 were all points laps, so every single one was a sprint.  It was too fast for me.  It’s not so bad if there are breaks between the points laps so everybody can have time to recover, but with no break, it was just too much.  Oh, well — there’s always next time.

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New reading

I’ve recently started two new books of fiction that promise to be interesting; one of them is Denis Johnson’s collection of stories Jesus’ Son. This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for so long, that I can’t remember how I originally heard about it or who recommended it to me, but now that I’ve actually read the first two stories I’m realizing it’s nothing like I thought it would be. I didn’t have any concrete expectations, actually, but I still found myself surprised — the first two stories are dark.

The book is a collection of linked stories and is told in the first person by what appears to be the same narrator in each one. The stories tell about car wrecks, drugs, violence, anger, recklessness, death, desolation — and that’s only in two stories, both of which are very short.

But they are also beautifully written. There’s something mysterious and wonderful about them, although I’m not sure what — it includes a powerful use of language, but also something honest and bracing about the narrator’s voice.

I also began Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World; this book is quite long, at something over 500 pages, but I have a feeling that one of these days I’m going to have trouble putting it down and will ignore all my other books to devote all my time to it. I’m enjoying the story, the characters, and the narrative voice; I’m not that far into it, maybe 40 pages, but I’m already won over by the main character Irina, and I really want to know what happens to her. I’ve read that the narrative splits and explores two possible tracks based on a decision Irina makes — I’m very curious to see how I like this narrative experimentation, but my initial feeling is that I will like it very much.

And then I find myself in the delicious situation of having finished a nonfiction book, A Sentimental Murder, about which I’ll write more later, and so wanting to pick up another and getting to decide which one it will be. Should I read Adam Sisman’s book Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, on the writing of his great Life of Johnson? Should I read Edmund White’s biography of Proust? Robinson Jeffrey’s book on walking in the Romantic period? Calvin Trillin’s About Alice? Hmmm …

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Reading and writing in Don Quixote

As I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m reminded of a certain type of eighteenth-century novel, particularly those of Henry Fielding, which I realize is backwards, of course — Henry Fielding’s novels should remind me of Don Quixote, not the other way around — but I came to Henry Fielding first. As backwards as my response is, I’m pleased, because one of the reasons I wanted to read Don Quixote was to understand more about the history of the novel, although, no surprise, I’m ending up with more questions than answers. But I’m seeing the same light-hearted tone in Don Quixote that I learned to love in Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews; the same picaresque, episodic style; the same violence; the same stories within stories; the same type of humorous, vulnerable but also paradoxically invulnerable type of character — the type who gets bruised and battered over and over and over and always ends up being just fine.

If Henry Fielding was hugely influenced by Cervantes, I’m left with questions about Cervantes’s influences. Obviously, he was inspired by those chivalric romances the novel is always mentioning — inspired to make fun of them, that is — but I wonder what other models and sources lie behind this novel. What conventions that Cervantes draws upon come from those chivalric works, what come from other types of books, and what things weren’t conventions at all, but were things Cervantes made up? Perhaps I’ll have to do some reading about this …

I’m also interested in the way both Fielding and Cervantes have a lot to say about writing and reading, and how much they draw attention to their books as artifacts. They are not trying to get you lost in the story and to make you forget you are reading a book; rather, they draw your attention to that fact again and again. Obviously, Cervantes is writing about reading when he makes Don Quixote so very obsessed with romances and determined to become a knight just like the ones he’s read about. Cervantes has so much to say about the pleasures and the dangers of reading in this sense.

But he also draws attention to books and authors in other ways, for example, in the library scene, where the priest, barber, and housekeeper go through Don Quixote’s collection of books to throw out those dangerous tales of chivalry — comically, the priest winds up wanting to keep most of them, finding something of value in them after all. And then between Parts One and Two of the novel’s first part, the narrator interrupts the story to tell us a bit about the text itself. Cervantes has presented himself, not as somebody who has made up a story, but as the one who found Don Quixote’s true history written up by others, and as the one who is putting various texts together into a coherent story. And at the end of Part One, he tells us that he has reached the end of his sources and must look around for others:

But the difficulty in all this is that at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending, apologizing because he found nothing else written about the feats of Don Quixote other than what he has already recounted. It is certainly true that the second author [that is, Cervantes] of this work did not want to believe that so curious a history would be subjected to the laws of oblivion, or that the great minds of La Mancha possessed so little interest that they did not have in their archives or writing tables a few pages that dealt with this famous knight; and so, with this thought in mind, he did not despair of finding the conclusion to this gentle history, which, with heaven’s help, he discovered in the manner that will be revealed in part two.

This passage accomplishes a lot of things: it ends Part One with a cliffhanger — Don Quixote has been battling “the gallant Basque” and we’ll want to rush on to Part Two to find out how it goes — but it also allows Cervantes to talk up his subject. Surely so great a story as that of Don Quixote wouldn’t remain untold? Surely the story that Cervantes has so enjoyed, other people will have enjoyed in the past and will again in the future? How could we, Cervantes’s readers, not love what he is offering to us?

The author becomes a reader too, something we see even more clearly near the beginning of Part Two:

… at that extremely uncertain point, the delectable history stopped and was interrupted, without the author giving us any information as to where the missing parts could be found.

This caused me a good deal of grief, because the pleasure of having read so small an amount was turning into displeasure at the thought of the difficult road that lay ahead in finding the large amount that, in my opinion, was missing from so charming a tale.

Cervantes is acting out what he wants his reader to experience — enjoyment in the story, grief when the story ends.  A bit later, once Cervantes has found another manuscrupt, the continuation of the story, we get this wonderful passage:

I say, then, that for these and many other reasons, the gallant Don Quixote is deserving of continual and memorable praise, as am I, on account of the toil and effort I have put into finding the conclusion of this amiable history, though I know very well that if heaven, circumstances, and fortune do not assist me, the world will be deprived of the almost two hours of entertainment and pleasure the attentive reader may derive from it.

I love this passage. The author steps in and tells us not only that his main character is wonderful, but that he, the author, is wonderful too, having put so, so much work into producing his book. If he hadn’t done it, and if he didn’t have heaven’s help, the reader might lose out on two hours of pleasure. He’s mocking himself and his enterprise a bit, of course, but there’s also a seriousness to it — two hours of entertainment and pleasure may not be such a little thing after all.

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This and that

My legs are aching once again — I took a break from riding yesterday, but today Hobgoblin and I went on a very hilly 60-mile ride that has me beat. It was a beautiful day for it; when we left it was 65 and when we got back it was about 77, with mostly clear skies and not much wind. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that. And the countryside we rode through was beautiful. But oh those hills! I’m not very good at hill climbing, but I’m slowly getting better. I need to do more rides like this one, I suppose.

But on to books … I recently mooched a book that looks interesting; it’s Susan Ferrier’s 1818 novel Marriage. I read about it on some book blog — I forget which one; I’m always happy to find novels from that time period that I haven’t heard of before or know little about. This is what Amazon says about it:

Like her contemporaries, Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, Susan Ferrier adopts an ideal of rational domesticity, illustrating the virtues of a reasonable heroine who learns act for herself. By giving her novel a Scottish heroine who leaves her domestic haven in the Highlands to brave the perils of faraway London, Ferrier reversed the usual trajectory of the female coming-of-age fiction. Challenging the conventions of romance narrative, the novel also serves to expose English prejudice towards the Scots as itself a form of provincialism.

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

I haven’t bought that many books lately — I’ve been trying to be good, and partly succeeding — but yesterday the Hobgoblin and I walked past two of the used bookstores in town on our way home from dinner and couldn’t resist checking them out. What nicer thing is there to do on a Friday evening than wandering in used bookstores on the way home from dinner? I was good and only came home with one book, Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs. This will be a comfort read if I need it at some point this summer. I read Lurie for the first time last year and knew then that I’d be reading more of her books — she’s just the kind of writer I like.

While I’m continuing to feel ambivalent about Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (I’m enjoying it enough to read it pretty quickly — I’m now over 2/3 of the way done — but it feels uneven; sometimes I’ll come across a great anecdote or the perfect example, but at other times I’m irritated at the length of the passages she discusses and the brevity of some of her comments on them), I am finding a number of books she discusses that I’d like to read. Chief on my mind is Henry Green — has anyone out there read him before? She discusses his novel Loving as an example of a novel with particularly well-done dialogue:

How can we possibly choose the passage that best illustrates the subtlety, the depth, the originality and complexity with which Green uses conversation to create character and to tell the mininally dramatic, low-key story that, thanks to the dialogue, seems positively riveting?

That’s my kind of story: minimally dramatic but riveting. Prose is also making me happy that I have some Denis Johnson on my shelves; I’ve got his collection of stories Jesus’ Son, which I may begin soon.

Now I need to go read Don Quixote. I hope to write a post on it soon.

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Eat, Pray, Love, III

I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love a while ago, but I haven’t written about the last part yet. I suppose I won’t say a lot about it, so I can let those of you who are planning to read it discover it on your own. But I will say that while the middle section in India was my favorite, I liked the last section too; it’s set in Bali where Gilbert goes to try to find a balance between pleasure and prayer.

She visited Bali a few years earlier and met a medicine man who told her she would return, and that when she does, she should seek him out and study with him. She takes him at his word, and although she goes through a few scary moments when he doesn’t seem to recognize her, eventually she says the right thing to remind him of who she is, and he welcomes her and invites her to spend big chunks of her day with him. I very much admire Gilbert’s courage here — her ability to take risks, her willingness to tolerate not knowing exactly what she will do and who she will stay with and if the medicine man will remember who she is or even if he meant what he said or if he was just putting her on. Gilbert’s method of traveling is simply to show up somewhere and to see what happens. If I were a traveler, I might do it that way too — I’d get myself into all kinds of problems and have adventures, and I’d love it.

Anyway, there’s lots more stuff that goes on in this chapter — it’s got more action and is less philosophical than the India section. I did want to give you a few of the more meditative passages in the chapter, however; Gilbert reflects on happiness in one section, describing a lesson she has learned from a spiritual teacher:

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment. It’s easy enough to pray when you’re in distress but continuing to pray even when your crisis has passed is like a sealing process, helping your soul hold tight to its good attainments.

Now, I don’t know about you, but makes me feel exhausted. I kind of get what she’s saying — we can’t just expect happiness to fall into our laps, right? — but I shy away from any philosophy or form of spirituality requiring me to put in that much effort. Maybe I’m lazy, but I think it’s more likely that this is a hold-over from my younger days when I felt like I had to strive for perfection and could never, ever quite make it. I’m still exhausted from feeling that way. I used to think that I had to constantly guard my soul against sin, that I was in danger of messing up at any moment, that I needed to be forever vigilant against making a mistake. I’m not opposed to putting effort into a spiritual practice, not at all, but it’s got to come from an inner motivation, not from somebody else telling me what to do. And I tend to think that happiness actually does fall into our laps, that when we strive for it, it becomes elusive, and when we are focused on other things, it appears.

I liked this passage about happiness better:

I also keep remembering a simple idea my friend Darcey told me once — that all the sorrow and trouble of this world is caused by unhappy people. Not only in the big global Hitler-’n’-Stalin picture, but also on the smallest personal level. Even in my own life, I can see exactly where my episodes of unhappiness have brought suffering or distress or (at the very least) inconvenience to those around me. The search for contement is, therefore, not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people.

I like that idea — that being happy means you are out of the way. You are less likely to trip other people up. I think this is a very freeing idea — wanting to be happy isn’t a selfish thing at all; finding happiness is a way of helping to make the people around you happy.

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Cycling report

My legs are aching right now from the ride I went on this morning. I’ve ridden the last three days in a row, which is part of the problem; I ride that frequently quite often, but not when the series of days begins with a race, which happened on Tuesday. I also rode hard today. I didn’t plan on it — this is one of those days I thought I would take it easy — but my legs had other ideas. They just took off up the hills, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.

I don’t really know if the kind of riding I’m doing — the types of rides, the frequency, the intensity — is what I need to be doing; I’ve got The Cyclist’s Training Bible and I sort of follow it, but its training plans are so super-complicated, it just isn’t realistic, and I don’t stick with it. I could do it if I had all the time in the world and the weather were always great. As that’s not the case, I try to follow its general principles and kind of make it up from there.

What I need — but probably won’t have unless I’m willing to pay for it, which right now I’m not — is a personal coach, someone who could help me figure out how to train most efficiently given the time and terrain and weather I deal with. Someone who could help me figure out what my strengths and weaknesses are and how to train to maximize or overcome them.

Anyway, something’s going right, because I had another good race on Tuesday. This one was faster than last week, about 24.5 mph, and longer, about 52 minutes. And again, I stayed with the pack the whole time, climbing up the last hill with everybody else. What was different this week was that the pack was bigger and the riding wasn’t as smooth. I’m not used to riding in a really large pack (for me, that would be anything over 50 people), and I got a little freaked out by the crowd and the closeness of the other riders. This meant I rode toward the back of the pack a little more than I should have — it’s much harder to ride in the back where there’s a lot of slowing down and speeding up instead of a steady pace, and where the squirrely riders hang out. Next week I will try to ride near the front a little more.

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Narration

In the chapter on narration in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, she talks about the problem of figuring out who you are writing for or who your narrator is addressing when you are writing your novel or story:

Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why?  Is the protagonist projecting this heartfelt confession out into the ozone, and, if so, what is the proper tone to assume when the ozone is one’s audience?

She solved this problem initially by writing framed stories — stories where narrators told their experiences to other people.  The listener would appear at the novel’s beginning and end and in the middle now and then to comment on or react to the story. In this way, the audience was obvious and the writing came more easily.  She knew exactly who was talking and who was listening and why the narrator was telling the story and what led up to the telling of the story and what the narrator’s motivations were.  This method led her to the question:

Would anyone imagine that these recounted events would hold another human being’s interest, and would the reader believe that anyone, even a fictional character, would stay focused and pay attention all the way through?

What Prose says after this interests me:

It was fortunate that I had lived so much in books, and especially in the books of the past.  For one thing, I seemed not to know that no one wrote that way anymore.  For another, I was somehow unaware that no one lived that way any longer — that is, in circumstances that encouraged and facilitated the telling of long stories.

She goes on to talk about how we don’t have the patience to listen to other people’s stories these days, and we tend to do our best to avoid them (unless they are telling their story on a TV show), so a story like Chekhov’s “On Love” where a group of men tell long stories to each other about their past love affairs can seem highly unrealistic.

I’m not sure if this is true or not — if we really don’t believe anymore that people will listen with interest to other people’s long stories — but it certainly isn’t true for me.  The kind of book Prose is talking about is exactly the kind I like.  Perhaps that makes me old-fashioned, or perhaps Prose hasn’t got it quite right.  I don’t know, but I think this explains why I like epistolary novels — books that are all about people telling each other stories.  Here it’s assumed that your audience is  interested and will read and respond, and that the time put into reading and writing letters is time well-spent.  Yes, at times books like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa come to seem unrealistic — how could they really write all that?  when did they find the time? — but I like the sense of an ongoing conversation in those novels, that the characters can assume that people value their stories, and that they believe taking the time to shape their stories for a particular audience has value.

Prose gives Wuthering Heights as another example of a book about storytelling, this one “constructed like a series of Russian nesting dolls,” beginning with Mr. Lockwood, who gets Nelly to tell him the story, and then with Heathcliff and others telling stories within hers.  Frankenstein is constructed like this too; it opens with letters from Robert Walton to his sister, moves to Frankenstein’s story, which he tells to Walton, and then moves to the creature’s story, which he tells to Frankenstein.  Each of these narratives is quite long.

Perhaps few write this way anymore (I can’t think of modern examples like this, although they must exist — ??), but it doesn’t strike me as unrealistic.  In the past I’ve been known to write long letters myself, and although I don’t tell long stories or expect that people would want to hear them if I did, I like to hear other people’s long stories, provided they are interesting.  Can you think of modern examples of this type of novel, or is Prose right (excepting her own early work, of course)?

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Reading like a writer

Today was my last day of classes, and I feel like I’m in an in-between state — it’s not quite summer yet, but it’s so close, and so I’m tempted to start all kinds of new books because I can feel some free time opening up in front of me. I’ll have plenty of work to do over the summer (including teaching a class), but I’ll certainly have a lot more time for reading than I do during the semester, and I’m so looking forward to it! But for right now, I still have papers and exams to grade, and meetings and workshops to attend, and so I probably should hold off on starting all those books I’d like to start.

I did, however, begin Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer last night, a book I requested from the library and which came much sooner than I thought it would. As I don’t plan on becoming a writer (in the sense of someone who writes creative stuff for purposes of publication), I’m not reading it for the writing advice, but it looked interesting for what it says about reading.

So far I’m feeling rather ambivalently about the book. I like the advice about reading — I’ve now read the chapter on Prose’s reading and educational history and the one entitled “Words” about how we should read slowly in order to pick up on the significant word choices writers make, although describing it in this way makes her advice seem incredibly obvious and dull. I suppose this sort of book lives in the examples, and her examples are fun to read. She does a particularly good analysis of the opening to Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

The other pleasure in reading this book must surely be in picking up some reading recommendations. So far, Prose has me interested in reading more Katherine Mansfield and has made me want to read and re-read some Chekhov. There’s a fun list of “Books to be Read Immediately” in the back of the book, although a quick glance through it tells me that there’s no way I’m reading all those books immediately; there are many, many of them that I haven’t read.

At some points Prose’s attitude bothers me; I really didn’t like her dismissive attitude toward literary theory. I’m most certainly no big theorist myself, but I get tired of the way smart people bash literary theory in stupid ways. She assumes that people who “do theory” don’t love literature — that the two are mutually exclusive — and that’s an assumption I just don’t buy. Prose sounds as dismissive of theory as she says theorists are of literature. I’ve known too many people who love literature and who use theory brilliantly to help them understand it to believe her argument.

That aside, the book should be interesting, and I’m guessing that besides the pleasure it brings, it will be most useful to me in the way I teach literature — I would like to know more about the craft of writing in order to discuss that more intelligently with students. Prose talks about her own experiences teaching literature, and I was interested to read about her methods — she likes to go through a story or through a passage word by word, sentence by sentence, digging out the meaning slowly and systematically. Now, there’s no way I’m teaching like that because to me it sounds deadly boring (surely she must have ways of making that fun — but what?), but I do like the idea of balancing wide-ranging discussions of themes with close critiques of passages, something I do already, but could do more of, I’m sure.

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