Monthly Archives: July 2007

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

11357909.gifI’ve been trying to decide what to say about Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick for quite a while now, and I’m still not sure. I feel conflicted not so much about the book itself but about what I actually feel and what I think I should feel about this book. I want to like non-traditional, experimental fiction. And I’d really like not only just to like it but to unequivocally enjoy the reading of it. But that doesn’t always happen. With Wittgenstein’s Mistress I appreciated it and thought about it a lot and am glad I read it, but I didn’t savor the experience. I didn’t mind putting it down after a while.

With Sleepless Nights I felt something similar. I appreciate what she’s doing, and I enjoyed the reading of it — more than I enjoyed Wittgenstein’s Mistress — but I also didn’t mind putting it down after a while. I read this book in short chunks — and the structure of the book makes that easy, with short “parts” and shorter sections within those parts — and I don’t think I could have read it fast if I’d tried.

Maybe the most damning thing I have to say about it (in my mind) is that I find myself not having a whole lot to say about it. With Wittgenstein’s Mistress, at least, I felt like I had a lot to say. As I sit here and try to pull together my thoughts on Sleepless Nights, what comes into my mind most often is the question of how I felt as I was reading it. I have already forgotten many of the book’s details, and I don’t have a strong sense of the book’s mood or atmosphere or a strong sense of character that might make me look back on my reading experience with pleasure.

But — enough of this navel-gazing. The book is short, about 130 pages, and is a collection of the thoughts and memories of a woman named Elizabeth. This is way the book opens:

It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today ….

…..

If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can take it down like a can from the shelf.

This makes a suitable introduction to the book, as it introduces the narrator and her task — to gather her memories and write them down. But it also warns us that what she remembers may be distorted, that she is not giving us a history of her life, but rather a picture of her life as she remembers it now. Everything is filtered through her present consciousness.

The narrative doesn’t follow chronological order, skipping around from place to place and year to year, as our memories do. So we get glimpses into her life — a youth spent in Kentucky and adulthood in New York City, Boston, Maine, and Amsterdam. She describes lovers, friends, and acquaintances, events and observations. There isn’t any connective tissue to any of this, no transitions that tell us how one story relates to another; instead they are simply bump up against one another, again, as our memories tend to do.

The narrator’s mother haunts many of the pages; early on she describes her life:

My own affectionate, tireless mother had nine children. This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature. It was a thing, a presence, and she seemed to walk about encased in the clear globe of it. It was what she was always doing, and in the end what she had done.

The narrator makes sure that she does not share this fate; instead her own story is of freedom and independence, of writing and travel and experience. She rejects her mother’s femininity (“an ineffable femininity, tidal”), and yet she’s aware of how it shapes her writing:

Tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more: these came about from reading many books. So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian — all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness. Is that sufficient — never mind that it is the truth. It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, “I” am a woman.

She is not writing an adventure tale of the type that men can much more easily experience and record; rather, her life and therefore her book are shaped by the domestic and by the reading she has done in those domestic spaces. This passage declares her refusal to write a traditional novel with a clear beginning and end and with action and adventure and drama; the novel that will portray her experience as a woman cannot be traditional. Instead it experiments with the elements of storytelling that have been passed down to her, in an attempt to write something new that can capture the memories circling around in her head.

There were moments when I read with pleasure, enjoying a portrait of a character Hardwick drew with skill. Her description of Billie Holiday, for example, is devastating. The book didn’t sustain that level of interest or pleasure, however.  I’m very curious to hear what other people thought!

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Filed under Books, Fiction

Novel reading, continued

There were so many good things people wrote in answer to my questions from yesterday, that I want to highlight them up here in a post. My blog readers never do let me down! I might as well put my responses into a regular post, because otherwise I’ll be burying a post-length piece of writing in the comments section.

What Susan had to say cracked me up: “My mother always maintained that she didn’t want to waste her time reading something that was made up. She watched 3-and-a-half hours of soap operas every afternoon, though, and one of her favorite papers was the National Enquirer. It’s awfully easy to get a story fix without ever cracking the pages of a novel.” That’s true! If part of what we need from fiction is narrative, we can find narrative in all kinds of places. To claim that you don’t read fiction isn’t to claim that you don’t enjoy those aspects of it you can find elsewhere. Not that the narratives you find elsewhere are necessarily going to be satisfying beyond a basic level (the soap opera).

But what’s wrong with enjoying narrative on a basic level? And if people choose not to read fiction, I can’t exactly call it a moral failing, or even a failing of the imagination. What I object to is the attitude that reading fiction is a waste of time. That attitude shows a failure of imagination, I think.

But that brings me to a point several other people made, which is that nonfiction works are narratives too, and that the line between fiction and nonfiction is not entirely clear. Litlove says that “history, science and autobiography are all beholden to the laws of narrative,” and Sylvia says, “non-fiction can be crafted into a story as well, which of course involves real people and real events.” If you claim you read only nonfiction and never fiction, that’s true only in a narrow sense, because the nonfiction books you pick up contain stories and elements of narrative and often fictionalized elements.

Some of my favorite books, in fact, walk the line between fiction and nonfiction; I’m thinking of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book I’m not at all clear how to categorize, or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which is clearly a novel, but contains long sections of writing that could easily appear in a nonfiction text, and which also contains footnotes. How do you categorize Sophie’s World, a story and a history of philosophy all in one?

I liked Fendergal’s point that fiction writers face the problem of the ending – of wrapping things up (although some choose not to wrap things up, of course), because wrapping things up can sometimes seem awkward and maybe jolting after you’ve read a novel that up until the ending seemed very life-like. Stories in real life don’t end very often like stories in novels, do they? If a writer wants to provide the reader with the type of satisfying ending where everything seems fully concluded, all connections made, all lose ends tied up, then the writer pulls us away from what we recognize as real life. But that brings up the question of what fiction is supposed to do – to capture real life or to do something else entirely.

And then there’s the point to be made that fiction can tell a certain kind of truth that nonfiction may not be able to; Imani writes, “it’s entirely possible, if not probable for a novel like Middlesex by Eugenides (for example) to present a more truthful account of gender issues, that resonates, than an “autobiographical” account from a so-so writer.” And then there’s Emily who wittily says, “I don’t believe anything I read except fiction.” That’s probably not a bad idea, actually. The person who says that she doesn’t read fiction because it’s not true surely has a narrow understanding of truth. If I’m seeking out specific facts nonfiction is probably better, but surely there is much we learn from reading novels?

I just realized that I have my very own test case in front of me, if I choose to take it up: I just finished Geraldine Brooks’ novel The Year of Wonders, about the plague, and I have on my shelves John Kelly’s nonfiction book, The Great Mortality, also about the plague. I don’t recall ever reading fiction and nonfiction in tandem like this (except reading criticism of a text along with the text itself, but that’s different). While I haven’t read Kelly’s book, I imagine it’s chock full of information on the plague, and also that it’s full of stories, and I know that the Brooks’ novel has a good story, but also a lot of (horrifying) facts about the plague. And Brooks’ novel captures the feeling of living during plague times – what it might feel like to have your world crumble all around you. Maybe Kelly’s book does that too.

I suppose ultimately I respect people’s decision to read only nonfiction if they have good reasons for doing so (although personally I find that preference hard to understand), but what really bugs me is the implication that reading fiction is a waste of time.

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Filed under Books, Reading

Novel reading

Today I have a couple of questions: first of all, have you ever heard somebody say that they only read nonfiction, that they don’t read novels because they aren’t true?  That they want to learn about the world and therefore read only nonfiction?

Then, what would you say in response?

I remember hearing somebody say this a while back, and she said it with a dismissive sniff, as though she couldn’t be bothered with fiction and doesn’t understand why anybody else could be.  But the person wasn’t talking directly to me and so I didn’t give any response.  But I’ve thought about her claim now and then.

I suppose if somebody isn’t in the habit of reading novels, then any argument anybody gives them isn’t going to change their mind — it seems like a habit you have or you don’t.  But I have a hard time imagining being a regular reader (which I think this person was) and not reading novels.  I understand reading mostly nonfiction and only a few novels now and then, but to never read a novel?  And then to think that you don’t learn anything from novels?  It kind of boggles my mind.

But then again, if your goal is to learn about the world, perhaps nonfiction is the way to go?  Does anybody out there read novels in order to learn about the world, instead of reading them to enjoy it and learning something along the way?

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Jane Austen in Context

11278509.gifJust a quick post to say that I picked up Jane Austen in Context yesterday and am enjoying it very much. It’s a collection of essays by various critics, edited by Janet Todd; the essays fall into three categories, “Life and Works,” “Critical Fortunes,” and “Historical and Cultural Contexts.” I didn’t want to put it down to go to sleep last night; it felt like reading a novel, I was so into it. I am so very fond of Jane Austen, which you know if you’ve been reading me much, but I don’t know and haven’t read a whole lot about her life, and while I do know a bit about her “context,” I’m excited to learn more.

What I learned last night is that Austen most likely revised several of her works over a long period of time; Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were written in different versions early on and revised much later for publication, and during one period of her life, between 1811 and her death, she was often working on several novels at once. I knew about “First Impressions,” the early version of Pride and Prejudice, but I hadn’t pictured Austen laboring over her manuscripts for quite so long, or working on multiple ones at the same time. This doesn’t fit with the picture I had of her producing one elegant novel after another in a more orderly fashion.

I also learned that “Northanger Abbey” isn’t necessarily the title she would have chosen for that novel, had she lived to see it published, and she may not have chosen to call her last novel “Persuasion” either.  She called what became Northanger Abbey first “Susan” and then “Catherine,” and Persuasion had the working title “The Elliots.”  Can you imagine those novels with different names?

I’m sure I’ll read more in this book over the weekend; I’m also reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s short novel Sleepless Nights, for the Slaves of Golconda discussion on Tuesday. Join us if you like!

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Why I blog

The “why I blog” meme, which Emily tagged me for, is a good subject to take up tonight because I’ve been feeling uninspired by the blog lately, and I’m hoping that by writing about blogging I can get some inspiration and enthusiasm back. I’m as excited as ever to read everybody else’s posts, but often these days when I sit down to write my own, I find that I have no energy for it. I’m sure this is a passing phase, probably caused by my illness, and I’ll get back into it sooner or later.

But this brings me to one reason I blog, not the most important one, definitely, but a reason nonetheless: I like the discipline of it. I like it that I have a pattern of writing 5 or 6 times a week that I’ve kept up for over a year now, and that I do it even when I don’t particularly feel like it. I like it that people are out there who read me and would notice if I stopped and would wonder what happened to me. And I also like it that when I don’t feel like blogging but I sit down to do it anyway, almost always as I write I start to enjoy myself and by the end of the post, I’ve got more energy than I had when I started. Right now, as a matter of fact, I’m feeling better than I was when I started my first paragraph. Riding my bike works this way too; I’m often reluctant to start, but once I get going, I’m happy I did.

There are also book-related reasons I blog, many of which Litlove described in her own response to the meme. I blog because I want a record of the thoughts in my head and my responses to the books I read. I blog because I want to be a part of the book-blogging community I’ve found. I blog because I want to offer other people my book suggestions just as I get suggestions from so many of them. I want to be a better reader and I hope to become so by writing regularly about what I read. I want to take part in book groups, which get me reading things I wouldn’t otherwise.

There’s another reason I blog, which isn’t so high-minded as the previous ones: I like the attention. I’m thrilled when people read my posts, subscribe to my blog feed, leave comments, link to me, pick up on ideas I’ve written about. In person, I’m not an attention-seeker; in fact, I’ll go out of my way to avoid drawing attention to myself. I’m not a particularly good talker, and I’m dreadful at getting people’s attention in large groups. I talk as a teacher, yes, and lots of people pay attention to me in the classroom, but — and maybe this is why I like teaching — they pay me attention automatically, without my having to work for it. Even as a teacher, though, I tend to deflect attention from myself, trying to get students to discuss and debate, for example, or having them work in groups.

So, all that to say, blogging is a way I can get people to pay attention to me without me having to talk. It’s a wonderful thing, I think, that almost everything that goes on online is written (I will almost certainly never do a podcast). I like having the time to think about things before I post or comment or add something to a discussion board. Discussions happen quickly online, but I still have enough time to ponder and reflect.

Okay — much better now! I’m ready to soldier on.

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Riding and reading

Yes, I rode my bike yesterday. No, it wasn’t a good idea. I thought I’d try, just to see what it felt like, particularly since I’ve felt the tiniest bit better because of the medication I’m on. But it will take longer than a week on medication to feel well enough to ride, I’m seeing. I was able to ride for 45 minutes or so, but my heart rate was high the whole time and I felt achy and sore. I’m sure I’ll try again in the next few weeks — I’m always curious to see whether I’ve improved or not and I don’t feel like I’ll know unless I try to ride — but no, I’m sure it’s not a good idea. I don’t see my endocrinologist until August 23rd, though, and does anybody really think I’m going to wait that long to try riding again?

But what I really want to write about are two books I’ve recently finished. The first is Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way, a book of criticism on In Search of Lost Time. I recommend this if you are looking for an overview of the novel. I don’t recommend it if you don’t want plot spoilers, because he talks about the book as a whole, including much discussion of the ending and plot developments in the middle. But plot spoilers aside, it’s got background information on Proust; an overview of the plot, characters, and setting; chapters covering Proust’s main themes, as Shattuck sees them; and a number of cool charts and diagrams.

Some parts of this book are rather odd (I give another example in this post); toward the end of the book, he includes a fictional element — a made-up dialogue between a radio journalist and producer, a Proust scholar, and a grad student in French. These people are supposedly putting together a radio program on Proust. Shattuck says he included this section because he believes that usual expository prose can’t say everything. I rather like this idea — that some things are better said in fictional form — but I can’t quite see that this is true in Shattuck’s case. Instead, the dialogue struck me as so highly improbable that I almost laughed my way through it. Shattuck should stick to his expository prose. But still, the book is worth picking up to start to get a handle on In Search of Lost Time.

The other book I wanted to mention is Geraldine Brooks’ novel The Year of Wonders, which turned out to be a fascinating and enjoyable read. I say it’s fascinating because it takes place in a small town in England in 1666 that gets hit hard with the plague — and I find the plague fascinating. It’s not a book to read at the dinner table, let me make clear.

The story is about Anna Frith, a young servant girl who grows and matures as she deals with the ravages the plague brings to her village. She has been fortunate enough to learn how to read and write, and she has a sensitivity and openness perhaps unusual to one in her station in that time period. She’s an interesting narrator (it’s told in the first person); she admires the intelligent, knowledgeable women in her town but fears them also as they are always in danger of being branded witches. As well as telling about the plague, the novel tells how old customs — midwives who presided at the birth of babies, women who possessed ancient folk remedies and healing powers — were both enjoyed and feared. When times were good, the townspeople would welcome women’s knowledge and powers, but when times turn bad, they lash out at these women and destroy them — at their peril.

The ending is a bit odd, but otherwise, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book — it’s great history and a good story all in one.

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Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction, Nonfiction

I needed something funny today

Via The Little Professor — check out limericks here and here. The idea is to write limericks based on famous poems. Some of the ones people have come up with are hilarious (especially in the second link).

It’s a gray, rainy, gloomy day, and I needed a laugh. I like rain, but not when I’m already inclined to be sleepy and I was hoping to take a walk and wake myself up …

Anybody want to try their own limerick?

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