Monthly Archives: October 2007

Nightwood

Happy Halloween everyone! I’m sitting in my living room armchair, a place I rarely sit, so I can hop up and answer the door in case kids are out trick-or-treating. This is the extent of my Halloween celebrations, I’m afraid.

So, I finished Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood last week and have decided to go ahead and read it again right away. My response to the first reading was a mixture of awe and bewilderment. The plot is simple to follow, so it was not the plot that bewildered me, but there is not much plot anyway; rather, it’s the things the characters were saying that I sometimes had trouble following. But their speeches were beautiful and in the moments when meaning broke through, I found myself moved.

I learned pretty quickly I couldn’t read and re-read passages until I understood them perfectly, because that moment didn’t always come; instead, I read slowly and figured out what I could, and kept going even if I didn’t get everything. I did this partly because I knew I’d mostly likely be reading the book again, but also because trying to figure everything out would lead to frustration. I think this is the kind of book where you can read for mood and atmosphere and for the beauty of the language as much as you read for logical meaning.

Here’s a typical passage, a speech from one of the most important characters, the doctor:

Suppose your heart were five feet across in any place, would you break it for a heart no bigger than a mouse’s mute? Would you hurl yourself into any body of water, in the size you now are, for any woman that you had to look for with a magnifying glass, or any boy if he was as high as the Eiffel Tower or did droppings like a fly? No, we all love in sizes, yet we all cry out in tiny voices to the great booming God, the older we get. Growing old is just a matter of throwing life away back; so you finally forgive even those that you have not begun to forget.

I’m not entirely sure what this passage means, but I do like it. The book it not entirely made up of passages like this one; it also has plenty of dialogue and narration that’s easier to follow. The novel tells the story of a group of characters, following them through many years as they wander around, fall in love, marry in some cases, break up, despair, talk it over, despair, talk it over, etc. There’s the doctor, who has most of the eloquent, poetic speeches, who doesn’t seem to do much but talk to the other characters. There’s Baron Felix, who marries Robin Vote, who then leaves him to pursue Nora Flood and then leaves her to pursue Jenny. The conversations that come out of all this loving and leaving are more important than the actions themselves — the book is really about the sense that the characters make of what happens to them.

I do not at all feel as though I have a handle on this book, but perhaps after a second reading, I’ll get more of it. Perhaps I’ll look up some critical work as well.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

Weekend Reading

And now I’m sick! Wonderful, isn’t it? I’ve got a cold that is not quite bad enough to keep me home from school, but just bad enough to make me unhappy about it. It was a beautiful fall afternoon with perfect weather for a bike ride, but I spent the time curled up in bed sleeping. Oh, well, I’m very grateful to have had a chance to take a nap.

The books I took with me on my Albuquerque trip turned out to be different from the ones I listed here. I did take along Sophia Lee’s The Recess, but I didn’t end up opening it; instead I spent my airport time switching among Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel and two new books — Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music and Phyllis Rose’s The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time.

The Lehmann novel has turned me into a fan — score another one for Virago Modern Classics! I am nearly finished and so I’ll wait to say much about it until later, but for now — what a great book. I feel as though in the last couple years I have discovered so many women writers who are new to me — writers including Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Brookner, Alison Lurie, Barbara Pym, Georgette Heyer, and now Rosamund Lehmann. All of these women write similar types of novels, although there are great differences among them as well, of course; they tend to be quiet, character-driven novels about the emotional landscapes of women’s lives. I love this stuff. Lehmann’s novel is about two married couples — focusing mostly on the women (and one of them in particular), although occasionally veering into the consciousnesses of the men — who find their lives disrupted by the visit of a young man and his sister. The book described visits and conversations and outings, but mostly it describes what the characters think and feel; it has Proustian passages on memory and time and Woolf-like analyses of gender dynamics and moments of consciousness.

The other book, Phyllis Rose’s book on Proust, I’m still figuring out. It’s a mix of her thoughts on Proust and her thoughts on her own life; sometimes these two things are clearly connected, and sometimes the connection is more tenuous. I do like meditations on art and life, and I do like essayistic, rambling, all-over-the-place nonfiction books and memoirs, but I’m not entirely sure this one is making sense to me. I need to give it a bit more time. Maybe the problem is that one of her first chapters describes her love of television, a subject I cannot relate to and one only very loosely connected to Proust. And then the next chapter is about collecting ancient artifacts, and although she connects this topic more closely to Proust, it’s another area that doesn’t mean much to me. This may be a matter of a personality clash; perhaps Rose and I just don’t hit it off. But we’ll see.

P.S.  I forgot to describe one of the best parts of the conference, which was the closing poetry reading.  About a dozen of us gathered to read favorite poems from the 18C.  I didn’t come with any prepared, but ended up reading Anne Finch’s “A Nocturnal Reverie,” which is a beautiful poem, and another woman gave a very dramatic, funny reading of Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment,” which I strongly encourage you to read — you won’t regret it!

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Life, Nonfiction

The Conference

Well, can I just say that I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed? I had a nice weekend, but upon returning home last night, I felt that I needed a weekend to recover from my weekend. But I did not get one. No, I had to face one of the busiest days of my semester so far. So I’m tired and a bit disgruntled.

I must say that although I enjoyed myself on Saturday once I got involved in the conference itself, traveling on Friday was kind of miserable. I used to love air travel; I loved people watching in airports, and I loved all the time to read on the plane. Now I just dread it all. I didn’t want to leave home, and I felt the whole trip was stupid — a stupid conference, a stupid paper, and a stupid idea to travel during a busy part of the semester.

But I perked up once I got there. I didn’t see much of Albuquerque, since most of my time was taken up with conference things, but I did get a chance to walk through the old town section of the city, 10 or 12 blocks of restaurants, cute shops, and historical locations. That was on Friday evening.

Saturday I spent the whole day at the University of New Mexico campus, listening to papers and giving my own. The conference was on eighteenth-century women writers, and the best part about it was hearing about books and authors I’m now newly inspired to read. There were a lot of papers on Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, both of whom I’d like to read more of, particularly Haywood’s novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, a book that is a predecessor of Burney’s and Austen’s novels. I also heard a paper on Sarah Fielding’s novel The History of Ophelia that made me want to get a copy ASAP. Both of those books are published by Broadview Press, a wonderful publishing company that puts out editions of lesser-known works; just check out their 18C selection to see how great they are.  I came away from the conference with the feeling that there is so much good reading to be had from the 18C; compared to the average reader, I’ve read a lot in the area, I suppose, but there is so much more!  And I’m still working my way through Dale Spender’s book, which has greatly increased my list of novels I’d like to read from the time period.

My panel went well. People laughed as I read my paper; I find this interesting because I never would have guessed that my paper was funny in any way at all. It wasn’t my writing that was funny, really, but rather the quotations from the novel I was discussing (Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures of David Simple). It’s fascinating the way that having an audience can bring out aspects of a paper I had no idea were there. I didn’t really get any questions about my paper (a part of the whole process that’s quite scary, as you have no idea what you’ll be hit with), but my panel (there were three of us) and the audience had a good discussion afterward, and I got some nice comments.

It was a small conference and very friendly — unlike some conferences where people are snooty and mean and only want to talk with the important people and take every opportunity to show off. So I hung out with some other conference-goers on Saturday night and we had a good dinner and a couple bottles of wine and I didn’t get enough sleep that night.

And now I’m here, back home trying to recover. Maybe I’ll have a chance to rest next weekend??

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Life

Gone for the weekend

Have a wonderful weekend everyone; I’m heading to Albuquerque tomorrow bright and early, and I’ll be back Monday or Tuesday.  I’ll give you a full report then!

8 Comments

Filed under Life

Georgette Heyer’s Lady of Quality

41h3kg3cfyl_aa240_.jpg I finished Georgette Heyer’s novel Lady of Quality last night, and it was such a pleasurable read! I don’t feel like doing a proper review, still suffering as I am from insomnia and general all-around crankiness, but I do want to say that I’ll have to find myself some more Georgette Heyer books because this was just so much fun.

It was a quiet book, about a 29-year-old woman named Annis living in Bath in the regency period, so, say, around 1810-1820 or so. She has recently left the home of her brother and his wife and family and has set up on her own, a mildly scandalous move for a woman people are beginning to call a spinster but who is still quite young. She is smart and beautiful with wit and a satirical sense of humor; she has received several offers of marriage, but none from any man who really impressed her.

Into her life come Lucilla and Ninian, two young people in their late teens; Lucilla has run away from home to avoid parental pressure to marry Ninian, and Ninian accompanies her to keep her safe. Chance brings Lucilla to Annis’s house, and the rest of the novel is about what to do with the girl, who decides she will not return home and who comes to love Bath and the pleasures it offers. She also brings her uncle on the scene, the rakish and rude but still mysteriously charming Oliver Carleton. Annis has never met a man quite like him before.

One of the interesting things about the book is the way Annis seems like an early example of the “excellent woman” phenomenon of which Barbara Pym wrote so well. Everyone wants to turn Annis into an “excellent woman,” one of those unmarried women who spend their lives taking care of others. They believe she should have stayed at home with her brother, enjoying his “protection” and helping to take care of his children. An independent woman who lives for herself is almost too much for people of the time to comprehend. Living on her own and according to her own wishes is acceptable only because Annis has some money and has the stubbornness and high spirits to insist upon it; otherwise, she would surely find herself drawn into other people’s lives and into their houses, away from her own. But she works very hard to keep her independence and to ward off the prying, meddling people who want to take up her time and attention.

In contrast to Annis is Miss Farlow, a single woman, considerably older than Annis and without any means to support herself — she’s an example of the Miss Bates type (from Emma), a genteel woman without much money who depends on the kindness of others to get by. Annis has kindly agreed to hire her as a companion, which earns Miss Farlow’s great gratitude, but unfortunately she repays her with irritating, never-ending chatter (also like Miss Bates) and vindictive jealousy when Lucilla appears on the scene. Miss Farlow is a figure of fun, but she also shows an alternative fate for women — without her money and without her beauty, Annis could easily be another Miss Farlow, alone and penniless.

The pace of the novel is slow and leisurely; there’s not a whole lot of narrative tension, but the sunniness of the mood and charm of the characters kept my interest. Now I’m off to see if Book Mooch has any more Heyer novels …

16 Comments

Filed under Books

Books for traveling

Well, I haven’t done a pooterish, list-y, rambling kind of post in a while, and since I’m feeling fatigued after getting practically no sleep last night and don’t want to think too hard, this evening seems like a good time for one. I’d like to post on Seneca again, and also on Dale Spender, but those posts will have to wait. I suffer insomnia only occasionally, but when I do, it really knocks me down hard. I desperately need my sleep! And hours and hours and hours of it!

So, I’m going away this weekend. I’ll be heading to Albuquerque to attend a conference. This should be fun, right? It’s a literary conference, and I’ll be presenting a paper of my own and listening to other people read theirs; we’ll all be talking about books and learning new things and generally having fun.

Except I hate conferences. I can’t tell you how much I’d prefer to stay home. I don’t like presenting papers of my own — the whole process makes me nervous. I don’t like listening to other people’s papers because I don’t listen well, being an extremely visual person. And I don’t like the feeling that I should be mingling, meeting people, making connections, and generally impressing people with my brilliance, instead of skulking about in my hotel room watching television, which is what I generally do.

So I’ll cheer myself up by thinking about what books I might possibly bring with me. I should be ready to begin a new novel or two, and maybe a new nonfiction book. So what sounds good?

  • I just mooched Margaret Forster’s novel Lady’s Maid, which Litlove recently wrote about; it’s about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid Elizabeth Wilson and their vexed relationship. It’s long and looks fun — perfect for airports, maybe?
  • I’ve been in the mood for another long 18C or 19C novel, especially after reading about so many interesting authors from Dale Spender’s book, so perhaps Sophia Lee’s The Recess, subtitled “A Tale of Other Times”? Here’s what Amazon says: “First published in an era when most novels about young women concentrated on courtship and ended with marriage, The Recess (1783-1785) daringly portrays women involved in political intrigues, overseas journeys, and even warfare. The novel is set during the reign of Elizabeth I and features twin narrators, who are daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots, by a secret marriage. One of the earliest novels to convey the plot from multiple points of view, it was wildly popular in its day.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?
  • But I need to make sure I have some comfort reading with me; I might need to be cheered up if my paper presentation doesn’t go well. I’ve got an Alison Lurie novel on my shelves, The Last Resort; she’s always good for a smart, entertaining read.
  • And for nonfiction? I have a couple short things that would work, books I could possibly finish during the long plane ride, such as Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books or Elizabeth Hardwick’s collection of essays Seduction and Betrayal. Long nonfiction books probably wouldn’t work, as I might tire of them, but these would be perfect.
  • Oh, and I have to bring the book I’m presenting on, of course, just in case I want to remind myself of some of the details; it’s this one, Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures of David Simple.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Life

Novel writing

T.S. Eliot wrote a Preface to my edition of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood, and I thought he had some interesting things to say about fiction:

… most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.

This comes from a section where Eliot is comparing Barnes’s prose to poetry — he says those who are trained on reading poetry are better prepared to fully appreciate Barnes’s work.

I feel ambivalently about Eliot’s claims here. On the one hand, I do want to read fiction where the author pays attention to the writing. I certainly don’t want to read prose that might come from a government official or newspaper writer — unless we’re talking about particularly talented officials or journalists of course. But, really, when I sit down to read a novel I’d like to read something well-crafted, and something well-crafted as fiction.

On the other hand, though, I don’t like the elitist tone of Eliot’s comments. Why separate out “ordinary novel readers” from some special group of readers whose faculties are supposedly sharper than the rest and who pick up on so much more? I’m not sure this category of “ordinary novel reader” actually exists. Can’t just about any novel reader — someone who seeks out and enjoys novels — appreciate prose that is alive? Not to say that they do, necessarily — perhaps they read for other reasons than to enjoy the prose — but they are capable of it.

That point aside, though, Djuna Barnes’s prose is certainly alive, and I’m enjoying it. I’m working my way through it very slowly, but I feel like it’s starting to take shape as I near the end, and I’m still planning on reading it again right away to see what it’s like on a second go-round.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Writing

Judging the Booker

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s an interesting article at the Guardian by Giles Foden on what it was like to sit on the panel of judges that chose the Booker prize winner this year (via). It sounds like the process was messy. One disagreement he describes was between those who “wanted to apply comparative principles across the range of books” and those who “wanted to voice their subjective preferences novel by novel.” As I read the list of comparative principles the first group wanted, I felt a twinge of horror:

The comparative principles, out of which it might be hoped measures of objectivity could be drawn, were not very sophisticated. It was just a simple taxonomy including the following: plot and structure; theme; language, tone and style; characterisation; impact and readability. But even these basic foundations to judging a novel could not be adequately established.

It seems that this approach was quickly abandoned and the judges turned to the more subjective method, judging the novels one by one on their own merits.

I think this “simple taxonomy” is dreadful. Can you really break a novel down into its parts in this way and expect to arrive at a valid judgment of which novel is the best? (Or perhaps the better question is whether it is possible to decide on a “best” novel at all.) Of course, you can break a novel down into its parts and analyze it; this is something I do in my writing and in my classroom. It’s a valuable way to understand how a novel works, to understand it on its own terms. But to use this method as a way to judge a contest or to award a literary prize? To use it to compare one novel to another? It seems like a recipe for choosing mediocrity.

I do not think it’s possible to be objective when making this kind of judgment. This method implies that there’s one correct way of doing things — one correct format for a plot, one best way to create characters, one theme that is inherently better than another, one style that is preferable to another. And “readability”? I’m not sure what that means, first of all, but secondly, is the more “readable” novel better or worse than the less “readable” one?

These criteria remind me of rubrics some teachers use to grade student writing, lists of the qualities of “good writing” that we are looking for, for example, structure, coherence, logical argumentation, correct grammar, etc. I’m not arguing against rubrics for grading here, and someday I may come to use one myself, but I worry that they miss the most interesting thing about student writing, which is some undefinable quality that has to do with originality and voice. Rubrics are useful to judge whether writing is competent or not, but to judge if it is interesting and worth my time to read? Then they don’t work.

A quotation I just came across in The New Yorker is relevant here; in an article on abridging classic novels, Adam Gopnik writes:

… masterpieces are inherently a little loony. They run on the engine of their own accumulated habits and weirdnesses and self-indulgent excesses. They have to, since originality is, necessarily, something still strange to us, rather than something that we already know about and approve.

Is there any rubric that can give this kind of originality its due?

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Links

The Turn of the Screw on stage

Last night Hobgoblin took a group of students to see the play version of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw at a local theater, and I went along. I’d read the novella in college and wrote a paper on it even, so I knew the basic story, although I’d forgotten a lot of the details. I was curious to see how they would handle the uncertainty and ambiguity of the action — was the governess crazy or was she not? Were the ghosts real?

The director chose an intriguing method of staging the story. There were only two actors, a man and a woman; the woman played the governess, of course, and the man, Tom Beckett, played the master, the children’s uncle; Miles, one of the two children the governess is charged with; and Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. He also functioned as a narrator from time to time, filling the audience in some of the background details. Flora, the other child, was played by no one; the other characters simply pretended she was there, and so turned her into a ghostly presence — or absence — on stage. The set was very simple too, only an old armchair, a spiral staircase, and wisps of smoke.

The effect was claustrophobic, in a way that suited the story perfectly. The two actors seemed to be descending into a nightmare, battling each other — even as Beckett switched into different characters — and at war within themselves too. They were stuck in a small space that never changed and where no one new ever appeared. All they could do was retreat into their minds or lash out at one another. It’s the perfect set-up for a ghost story: a creepy atmosphere, some eccentric characters, an isolated location, and no means of escape.

Beckett did a brilliant job switching from one role to another; he would change his accent, posture, and body language and transform himself from a 10-year old boy into a middle-aged housekeeper instantly.

I appreciated all this intellectually, but I must say that at times I found myself bored. I never quite lost myself in the story. I’m not sure if it simply wasn’t the right night for me to see a play — I was tired and distracted — or if there was something else going on. I wonder if The Turn of the Screw isn’t best experienced on the page after all. For me, at least, the play was both too visual and not visual enough. Seeing the governess descend into hysterics, hearing her ranting and raving, I was pushed away from the story instead of drawn into it. Something subtle and delicate from James’s novel was lost. And at the same time, I wanted more to look at. I have enjoyed plays where not much happens but people standing around and talking, but in those cases the dialogue was brilliant, and in last night’s performance, it wasn’t particularly. I suppose what I was missing was the voice of the narrator from James’s novella; it’s her voice that created the mood for me, and without it, the story lost some of its interest.

But, at any rate, even if I did get a bit bored, on some level I enjoy any experience that makes me think, which the performance certainly did. And I was thrilled to see Hobgoblin’s student Hepzibah, who is always so much fun to talk to. It was my first visit to this local theater, too, and I’ll make sure I return again soon.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

Ways of reading

Bud Parr at Chekhov’s Mistress has an interesting post that’s partly in response to my post from a couple days ago about reading difficult books. He argues that reading difficult books has taught him that “it’s okay NOT to understand.” Here’s what he says:

I’m not arguing for aesthetics, I’m arguing for intuition and all the other ways into some level of meaning besides the logical. There are so many levels of experience to be had by a great book that getting at some meaning as perceived by critics or academics or ticking off known references in your head doesn’t have to be a part of your interpretation.

He points out that in my post I privileged reading for logical meaning over other ways of reading, and, as I understand it, his post is a celebration of those other ways — including listening to the language as it’s spoken out loud.

I find this interesting and I agree with Bud’s point that there are multiple ways of reading and getting meaning from the reading. I must admit, as I wrote my post on difficult books I dashed off the line Bud picks up on, the line where I said, about Tender Buttons, “you savor the language and give up trying to pull together a logical meaning,” which implies that logical meaning is more important than the language itself. But in that dashing off, I reveal my bias. I do read first for logical meaning. I do this automatically, without thinking about it. I don’t necessarily privilege critical, academic kinds of reading, which is something Bud talks about as well, the kind of reading where you make sure to get all the allusions and references and where you formulate thesis statements in your head as you read along. But on a first reading of a difficult book, I struggle to put the ideas together, to make sense of things.

Does everyone read this way? I can’t help but want to make logical sense of the words. But I value books like Tender Buttons for pushing me to read in other ways. I’ve read it a few times, and by the second and third time I knew enough about it to know it wasn’t going to make logical sense, and I started to read it for the beauty of the language, for the sounds and rhythms of the words, for the glimpses into meaning it offered and then evaded.

I remember the experience fondly, and I think it taught me to pay more attention to language and to loosen up a bit about wanting meaning. I suspect my reading of Nightwood, where the logical meaning is evading me at times, is more pleasurable because of my experience with Tender Buttons. I’m very happy to have learned this lesson; while there’s something satisfying about feeling that I’ve understood a text thoroughly, there’s also something satisfying about getting lost in language for a while, about dropping my usual expectations and seeing where it is an author will take me.

I also try to be aware that even while reading for logical sense, other ways of reading are happening at the same time — I’m using my intuition and emotions and my ear for language to create meaning. One of the pleasures of reading is that it can be a whole body experience, not purely a mental one.

11 Comments

Filed under Reading

Readers and reviewers

Would somebody remind me please that there’s no reason to expect every author who writes a good book now and then to refrain from saying stupid things? I came across this quotation from Ian McEwan (via):

Publishers seem to be very keyed up to embrace the Internet, but I don’t have much time for the kind of site where readers do all the reviewing. Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.

He wrote this at Time.com back in June, in response to a reader who asked what he thought about disappearing literary reviews in newspapers and magazines. Now, how many problems in logic do we see in his claims? Do I even need to spell them out? Well, why not.

Okay, first of all, why separate “readers” and “reviewers”? Aren’t all reviewers automatically readers? I would hope so. And if what he really means is to distinguish between regular old amateur readers and professional reader/reviewers, I’m not sure there’s such a clear line between the two. I don’t really know much about it, but maybe somebody can fill me in: what are the entry requirements for becoming a professional reviewer? Is there a class you take, a degree you get, a test you pass?

When he says that “reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment,” I agree completely. And, the truth is, I agree with his last line too: “I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.” I’m just not sure how these sentences fit together. To take the first line, aren’t there multiple ways to gain expertise, wisdom, and judgment, and couldn’t a regular old “amateur” reader have those qualities? And, to address the second, can’t you read “amateur” reviews by “amateur” readers and still believe that one person’s view is better or worse than somebody else’s? I think so. To read the work of nonprofessionals is not necessarily to give up one’s right to make critical distinctions. Quality reviewing does not always correspond with whether one gets paid for those reviews or not.

There’s an underlying idea to McEwan’s claims that is not quite so objectionable: that it’s quicker and easier to find quality reviews in traditional sources than it is to find quality reviews online. If you don’t want to spend time hunting down websites you like and filtering out the ones you don’t, perhaps print reviews will do just fine for you. But I’m not sure that it’s that hard to find the good stuff — read a few book blogs and you’ll see the top ones linked to over and over again.  Start there and see what you like.

So, to return to my opening question about good authors and stupid comments — I should just forget dumb stuff like this when I’m reading his novels, right?

10 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Reading

On reading difficult books

I like challenging myself with difficult books now and then, but there are some books that leave me quaking in my boots. There are challenges, and then there are challenges, right? And then there’s a category of book that is quite possibly beyond me entirely. So, to get specific, a challenge of the first sort, the sort that is difficult but doesn’t leave me quaking, would be something like Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, a book that is rather difficult to piece together, but still something I can follow, more or less, that makes a kind of sense, and if I read it a time or two more, I’ll feel like I can understand. Proust was like this too.

The sort of book that makes me quake is something like Ulysses, which I had to read in a college course, although I’m not sure how much I really got out of it. I know I can read this book and get it for the most part, especially with some critical help, but it requires an awful lot of work. I’m not opposed to doing this kind of work, I just want to do it in a time I have tons of energy and enthusiasm for it. I’d put the longer novels of Pynchon in this category, and certain kinds of poetry qualifies here too, like if I were to undertake reading the collected poems of John Ashbery, someone known for being a bit obscure.

The books that are perhaps beyond me entirely? What comes to mind immediately is Finnegans Wake. In fact, this may be the only book in this category. I’m okay reading books I can’t fully make sense of, but a book I can’t make sense of at all? That’s different. Not that I’ve tried, I must say — perhaps the book isn’t as difficult as I’m imagining. But I have my doubts.

I’m thinking about this issue because I just read this article in the New York Review of Books on Gertrude Stein. It’s a review of Janet Malcolm’s new book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. As I understand it, the book is about their lives, most interestingly about their lives during World War II, and also about Stein’s writing. Stein is a writer who makes me quake a little bit. I’ve read her book of poetry Tender Buttons, and I thought it was quite beautiful, even if it didn’t make any sort of logical sense. But it’s the kind of book you just let wash over you; you savor the language and give up trying to pull together a logical meaning.

But her other work scares me a bit, particularly the longer work, such as The Making of Americans, which the article describes as “gigantic and impenetrable.” Janet Malcolm calls it “a text of magisterial disorder.” And the article also says this:

Again, about The Making of Americans, Malcolm calls the book a laboratory for Stein, ponderous and unforgiving, a morass, a nervous breakdown of a novel, swerving between conventional narrative and gibberish, “a work that Stein evidently had to get out of her system—almost like a person having to vomit—before she could become Gertrude Stein as we know her.” But Malcolm admires its refusal to “impose a false order on disorderly complexity,” which might also be said of Cézanne’s art, in all its ambiguity and mystery.

I like that description, “a nervous breakdown of a novel,” but do I want to read it?

I don’t like the idea that any book is beyond me, though. I feel torn between not wanting to spend my time on impenetrable books that would frustrate me and not wanting to give up on any interesting-sounding book out there. I may never try to read The Making of Americans, but I don’t like the way it’s out there, taunting me with its difficulty.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

Booker news and a meme

Well, I see that McEwan did not win the Booker after all; Anne Enright did, for her book The Gathering. The NYTimes describes it as “a family epic set in England and Ireland, in which a brother’s suicide prompts 39-year-old Veronica Hegarty to probe her family’s troubled, tangled history.” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

But what I really wanted to post on is a book meme, one I’ve seen floating around for a while and finally feel the time has come to do my own version of it. So here goes:

How many books do you own? I have no idea, actually. If I were to list them on Library Thing, I guess I’d have a number? But I haven’t ever gotten into that site, and so I just don’t know. Hobgoblin and I together have 3 1/2 full, large bookcases in our living room, I have two large bookcases and one small one in my study, and Hobgoblin two large ones and two small ones in his. Plus I have some stacked on the floor and a few more in my office. How many that adds up to I have no idea. Not that many, probably, compared to what some book bloggers have!

Last book you bought? I mooch books so much, I’ve stopped buying books very often; it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a bookstore — too long, in fact. I need to go soon. Amazon tells me (yes, I had to look it up) that the last book I ordered from them is Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.

Last book someone bought you? Well, the last book someone gave me is Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which Stefanie gave to me for doing well in a contest. I’m not sure how she got it, but does the actual buying matter for the purposes of the meme? I doubt it. Thank you Stefanie!

Last book read? On Chesil Beach, and before that Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively, and before that, Waverley, by Walter Scott. But if you follow this blog regularly, you know that already.

Five books that mean a lot to me:

1. Believe it or not, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson. This book matters because it’s largely what got me interested in the 18C, this book and other wonderful novels like Robinson Crusoe and Tristram Shandy and The Female Quixote. But Pamela is the weirdest, most fascinating of a weird and fascinating lot. And it’s epistolary! I love epistolary novels. Although I may love epistolary novels because Pamela made me love them. I’m not sure where it began.

2. The Little House on the Prairie series. I could mention a number of young adult books for this meme, but I’ll stick with these ones. It’s a series that utterly captivated me; I read them over and over and over again, I don’t know how many times. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls so badly! I learned to love reading with these books, and I also learned how to read closely and carefully — I wanted to know as much as I could about her life, so I scoured them looking for every significant detail.

3. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I’ve read this book several times and each time I’m captivated. I read it first for an undergrad class and enjoyed writing a paper on it so much it confirmed my sense that I should go to graduate school. And I used this essay for my grad school applications. It’s the beauty of Woolf’s writing that draws me to it, but even more so, it’s what she says about women and men and communication and language and art — the combination of all these things — that makes me love it.

4. I’m going to be a bit of a copy-cat and use one of Verbivore’s answers: Montaigne’s essays. I haven’t read them all yet, but I’ve read many, and I hope to read and re-read all of them soon. I studied the essay in college and it was a formative experience — I learned to love the genre, and, of course, Montaigne is the master. He writes so openly and courageously and with such curiosity. I love the wandering, meandering style he has, and the way he uses the essay as a means to discover what he thinks, rather than as a means of presenting a conclusions he’s already thought his way to.

5. I can think of a lot of possibilities for this last book, but I can’t settle on one, so I’ll list a few: The Bible (the book that has shaped my life the most, surely); Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay (which deepened my love of the essay genre — a truly fabulous book); Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (a book important to my dissertation); Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (because you know I can’t do a meme like this without mentioning Austen!); Nicholson Baker’s U & I (a book that taught me to love quirky, unclassifiable nonfiction books); and anything by George Eliot (because the Victorian novel is one of my earliest loves and Eliot is my favorite from the time).

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Links, Memes

On Chesil Beach and the Booker Prize

I’m writing this the night before the Booker winner will be announced, and I’m curious to see if McEwan will win for On Chesil Beach. I haven’t read any of the other books on the short list, so I can’t compare, but I do think McEwan probably shouldn’t win. (See Eve’s Alexandria for a very good run-down of the possibilities.) It’s a very good book, don’t get me wrong, but it would be a pretty boring choice — McEwan is so popular and well-known.

People have argued that he shouldn’t win because it’s such a short and slight book, and I don’t know how I feel about this argument. A part of me agrees, and another part of me thinks, what’s wrong with short? And do I really agree that it’s slight? I’m not sure books have to have large, grand themes and to say something about politics and history or whatever, to be good books. Why can’t somebody write a really excellent book about a wedding night gone wrong? And who’s to say a book about a wedding night gone wrong couldn’t have something significant to say about history and culture? And even if it doesn’t, does that matter? Does every great work of literature have to deal with “large” or “broad” or “grand”?

I’m reminded of Jonathan Coe’s essay on Virago Modern Classics and women writers where he argues that On Chesil Beach is a book dealing with stereotypically women’s subjects — emotions, love, and sex — but is, of course, written by a man and therefore is an example of how writers are undermining gender stereotypes. Here’s what Coe says:

Most of the new writers who have broken through to critical acclaim and big readerships in recent years have been women: Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Lionel Shriver, Marina Lewycka, Sarah Waters and Susanna Clarke, among others. And these writers are, for the most part, writing big, historically and politically engaged novels, not voyaging in “an exclusively emotional and sexual sea” – a phrase that might rather be applied (accurately, but non-pejoratively) to a novel like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. In 2007, it’s Graham Swift who writes a novel focused entirely on the domestic and familial (Tomorrow), while writers such as Rose Tremain and Marina Lewycka examine the plight of low-paid migrant workers in the modern British economy. The old clichés about what distinguishes male writing from female writing no longer stand up to scrutiny.

I wonder, though, what would happen to On Chesil Beach if it were written by a woman. Would it get dismissed by readers, maybe even by more readers than at present, for being minor and slight? Would it be seen as women’s fiction and not of interest to men? Would it get on the Booker prize short list? Or, suppose it were written by someone, male or female, less well-known and popular than McEwan — would it get much attention?

I guess I’d like to think, along with Coe, that our understanding of what constitutes “male” and “female” writing is changing, but I wonder if it’s really true. I rather doubt it.

I haven’t yet written exactly what I thought of the book itself; perhaps I’ll save that for another post.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

19729278.JPG When Litlove suggested I read Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (the Booker prize winner from 1987), I made sure to mooch a copy right away. And I was right to do so; I finished it the other day and enjoyed every minute of it. I read her novel The Photograph a little while ago and liked it quite a lot, so I knew I would be in good hands. She has a quiet, understated way of writing that can work magic on you and leave you moved and wanting more.

Moon Tiger tells the story of Claudia, a woman on her deathbed dying of cancer. She is now looking back over her life, thinking about the things she has done and the people she has known. She thinks about how her life has intersected with historical events and she contemplates history itself — how its narrative gets created and how individuals fit within that narrative. She claims she is writing a history of the world, although it’s clear that this book will never get written, but this is the way she prefers to face death — with a project in mind and work to be done. Her history of the world will be a magnificent book, she hopes, one that will take in the large sweeps of history and somehow have space for her own story. Her view of history is unabashedly personal (the plural “you” in this passage are the English pilgrims to America):

You are public property — the received past. But you are also private; my view of you is my own, your relevance to me is personal. I like to reflect on the wavering tenuous line that runs from you to me, that leads from your shacks at Plymouth Plantation to me, Claudia, hopping the Atlantic courtesy of PanAm and TWA and BA to visit my brother in Harvard. This, you see, is the point of all this. Egocentric Claudia is once again subordinating history to her own puny existence. Well — don’t we all?

She concludes that the pilgrims weren’t entirely wrong when they claimed to know there’s such a thing as eternal life; heaven may not exist, but those pilgrims continue to live on in her mind, gaining their eternity through the attention we still pay them.

The book has a lot of this sort of philosophical rumination, but it also has a good story to tell. Lively introduces us to members of Claudia’s family: her brother, Gordon, with whom she has an unusually close relationship; her daughter, Lisa, who seems not to understand Claudia very well (and vice versa); and her long-time although often-estranged lover Jasper. No one quite understands why the brilliant, beautiful Claudia has devoted so much time to this man, but Claudia merely shrugs and talks about the mysteries of love and attraction. These family members drift in and out of Claudia’s hospital room, and Lively uses their entrances and exits as opportunities to tell their stories.

[Some spoilers here, but I'm not giving away anything that's not on the back cover.] Lurking behind all these relationships is a secret Claudia has kept for many years; during World War II, while she was working as a war correspondent in Egypt, she met and fell in love with Tom, a young and dashing soldier. They had an intense love affair that ended abruptly and tragically. Claudia has never really recovered, and the psychic damage caused by this failure to recover accounts for some of what appears mysterious to her family and friends. It helps explain her attachment to Jasper, the man who will in no way threaten Tom’s place in her memories. But there are other secrets, too, deeper and darker ones, and Claudia eventually is revealed to the reader as a much more complex being than anyone in her life can recognize, perhaps even herself.

Lively uses a shifting point of view; the narrative is told at times in the first person with Claudia speaking and at times in the third person, focused on Claudia mostly, but also getting into the consciousness of some of the other characters, especially Lisa. This constant shifting could come to seem awkward if Lively weren’t so expert at using the shifts to capture the different ways people perceive the same event. She’ll sometimes tell the same scene from different characters’ perspectives, or from an interior and then exterior perspective, and the scene will be slightly different, a phrase or two added or taken away, an emphasis altered and the meaning changed. She’s getting at the idea that how we choose to tell our story shapes the story itself. There are no meaningful facts outside a story told by a particular person in a particular way. This holds true for the narrative of history as well; to study history is to study the manifold ways people have told the story of humanity over time.

I can see why this novel won the Booker, and I hope to read even more work by Lively — has anyone read anything of hers besides the two I mention here?

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

Another Century!

I just got back from eating a huge meal, which I felt I could indulge in because I rode my second century of the season today. It was a completely different experience than the one I did two weeks ago. Instead of riding alone, I rode with Hobgoblin and Fendergal, fellow blogger and bike racer. And instead of riding around the hills of Connecticut, this time I rode from Manhattan, beginning near Grant’s Tomb, into New Jersey and upstate New York.

We crossed the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge, which was one of the cooler parts of the ride; I’d never been across the bridge outside of a car, and the view of the river and of the NYC skyline was spectacular. The ride then took us through suburban Bergen and Rockland counties, eventually taking us out to more rural areas where we could ride on quieter roads through pretty woods and hills. On the way back we rode along the Hudson River for a bit, and it was fun to be able to look out to my left and see the large expanse of water and the hills and trees on the other side of the river with their leaves turning orange. Then it was back into suburbia and back to the bridge and we were finished.

I had a great time talking with Fendergal and Hobgoblin about riding and racing; we also took malicious joy in making fun of some of the other riders, especially those with big heavy backpacks or panniers, which were totally unnecessary, and those who road badly, for instance the guys who kept playing leapfrog with us, passing us and then slowing down so we passed them, and then passing us again. Fendergal is wonderful to have on a ride because she told those guys to stop it, and they did. Such power! There was one guy who decided to ride with us who was wearing an AC/DC jersey and listening to his iPod. There really is no reason to be wearing an iPod on an organized century — why ride with other people if you are going to tune them out? Every once in a while this guy would start bopping around on his bike or would do this ridiculous-looking head-banging move. Strange.

And, no, I’m not always the nicest person when I’m on my bike. Yes, I can be a bike snob, although I’m not nearly as snobby and mean as this guy (or nearly as funny).

Now I can’t decide if I want to try another century, another one all on my own — or maybe even go for 120 or 130 miles, or call it a year and stick with short rides from here on out. We’ll see how I feel next weekend.

10 Comments

Filed under Cycling

Reading On Chesil Beach

Just a short post tonight to say that I’m about 3/4 of the way through Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and I’m finding it quite hard to put down.  I know what it’s all about, I know the whole plot and all the background, and I know what tons of reviewers have said about it.  Normally this would turn me off of a book.  I do get tired of reading reviews of the same books over and over again and sometimes it gets to the point where even though the book might have initially sounded quite good, I won’t read it, because I feel like I already have.  But when I saw On Chesil Beach in the library, I grabbed it, and here I am gobbling it up (after Hobgoblin did the same thing; here’s his review).  It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a book that has made me want to abandon all my other books until I finish it — not that it takes very long to finish McEwan’s book, as it’s a very quick 200 pages.

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

Beginning Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

057123528x.jpgI have begun reading Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, and I can already tell I’m going to need to read it again. I’m considering reading it again immediately after I finish the first time around, although I’ll wait to see how I feel when I get there. It’s a short book, 150 pages with large font, and I’ve already read about 45.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of it or even how to describe my difficulty knowing what to make of it. Perhaps quoting the opening line is the best thing to do:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin in which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms — gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

Yes, that gives you a taste of what it’s like to read this book. The prose is exquisitely well-crafted; I love how this sentence slowly winds its way around to its point, taking in along the way all kinds of information about Hedvig, who turns out not to be a character in the book at all, but is important, perhaps, for the way she sets the tone and gives us information about what kind of person that son will be — who is a character in the book.

The pace of the book is both fast and slow; after two chapters a lot of events have occurred — that son has grown up and now has a child of his own — but the narrator also lingers over conversations at length, allowing the character called “the doctor,” although I don’t think he really is one, to go on and on. I’m not always sure exactly what he’s saying. The characters seem a little like Hedvig, larger than life, not quite real, and fascinating.

You see why I’m going to have to read this book again? It’s not coming together for me in the way books usually do by the time I’m nearly 1/3 of the way through. But this book strikes me as good enough to spend some time with, trying to figure it out.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

The Five Writing Strengths Meme

I saw this first over at Charlotte’s, and have enjoyed reading her answers and answers from all the other participants.  I’ve felt ambivalently about calling myself a writer, but I do write, so that’s really the end of that question, isn’t it?

1. I write clearly.  To the extent that I have a natural voice — which if I do I don’t have a strong sense of it — I think it’s a clear and simple one.  I would have to work hard to be complex and difficult.  I think that comes through on my blog, but also in my academic writing.  I was never one for densely theoretical, jargon-laden prose.  I suspect my teachers appreciated this.

2. I love to revise and I do it well.  This isn’t the case with blog writing where I don’t revise at all (I’ll edit, but not revise), but certainly is for the academic writing I do.  I remember getting praise from my professors for being one of the few people willing to revise a paper in a serious way, so much so, at times, that I’d end up arguing the opposite of what I originally thought.  When I get readers’ reports back from journals asking for revisions, I cringe at first, and then dive in, and I end up enjoying myself.  I love seeing how a piece can take on a new form and end up much better than what I started with.

3. I want to keep learning about writing.  I teach writing, but I by no means think I’ve figured it all out.  I like reading books that talk about how words and sentences and paragraphs are put together (as in, for example, Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, even though that particular book was unsatisfying).  I like noticing how great writers work their magic with words. I like finding new ways to explain things to students.

4. I know my limitations and don’t let them bother me.  I’m completely uninterested in writing fiction or poetry, and I accept that about myself.  Instead of beating myself up for not being able to write the things other people can write, I enjoy what it is I can do.  I’m so glad I discovered blogging because it’s a form that has me writing regularly and that I’ve come to love.  Any writing I’m going to do will be of the nonfiction essayistic sort, which, as that’s a sort of writing I love to read, I’m fine with.

5. I am very good at slow, steady production.  In other words, I’m good at the writing process — I don’t write fast, but I can be steady and methodical and can get things done.  This is how I wrote my dissertation while doing tons of teaching and full-time administrative work.  I wrote a little bit each day and eventually all the little bits added up and I was finished.  This has taught me that I don’t need to be afraid of big projects; if I want to take one on, I have the persistence and endurance to finish it.  I think you can see this trait of mine in my blogging — the daily 500-700 word posts suit me just fine.  I’m nothing if not steady and reliable.

You might note that I’ve said little about my writing itself; it’s hard for me characterize it, and so I’ve focused on the way I go about writing.  But it seems to me that how we go about doing something is sometimes just as important as what it is we produce.

9 Comments

Filed under Memes, Writing

Dear Walter Scott

19792454.JPG I finished! I’m sorry Walter Scott, I really tried. I wanted to like this book; I was patient and gave it time to get better after a slow start. I kept hoping and hoping that the action would pick up, the characters become more meaningful — and more comprehensible — the romances would get more interesting, but it never happened for me. Well, Walter Scott, you obviously have done quite well enough without my approval; you’ve got so many books in print after nearly 200 years, and you have lots of readers, including, as a matter of fact, my father, who reads every book of yours he can find. You don’t really need me.

I wish, though, that you had toned down those accents a bit. Baron Bradwardine was so nearly impossible to follow. His high-flown diction and his Latin phrases mixed in everywhere drove me crazy. The problem is, I stopped trying to figure him out after a while. I could follow the action without understanding every word he said, and so it turned out not to be worth my while to decipher his language. Couldn’t he have talked just a bit more normally?

I found myself having a hard time caring about any of the characters too. They were all types, not real people. Edward was foolish, though not irremediably so; clearly he was going to have to learn a lesson, but, also clearly, he would prove himself capable of doing so. Rose was the perfect young heroine, beautiful, modest, capable but not overly smart. It was crystal clear to me after I encountered her what her fate would be. And the same for Flora and Fergus, the Scottish siblings — there wasn’t much doubt what would happen to them. Both of them fascinate Edward, tempt him, lure him into questionable things, but both of them would ultimately prove themselves too dangerous. There was no suspense! Nothing to keep my interest for very long. And I’m generally very bad at predicting the endings of books. When I can figure it out, you’re in trouble.

And here’s another thing I don’t get: you’re Scottish, right? Why portray Scotland and the Scottish people as unstable and dangerous, and the English as the bastions of safety and normality and order? Why exoticize the Scottish? They lure Edward into all kinds of danger and you portray his attraction to them as understandable but flawed and a weakness he needs to outgrow. Well, okay, let me revise this — you’re really portraying the Highlanders as exotic and dangerous. The Lowlanders are merely odd. So am I supposed to see the Lowlanders as roughly aligned with the English in their “normalcy” and the Highlanders as the dangerous other? I’m not sure I like this.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t read other books of yours. I’m curious about why you were so popular, and I don’t feel I understand it yet. What was it about Waverley that fascinated people so much? Those Highlanders are kind of romantic and thrilling, but, still, even there I thought you could do a better job describing them and their lives. Anyway, maybe I’ll try Ivanhoe next. I’m willing to give you one more shot.

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction