Monthly Archives: January 2008

Finished books

There are two books I’ve finished recently that I haven’t yet written about. I don’t put books away in their places on the shelves until I’ve written my final post on them, and these two have been lingering around next to my reading chair for too long.

The first is Mavis Gallant’s collection Paris Stories (I wrote about the first half of the book here). I felt the same about the second half of the book as I did about the first: some stories bored me and others were magical. Most of them I liked; there were just a couple that left me cold — I think, in these cases, the action went by too quickly, and I didn’t have enough time to come to care anything about the characters. Where the stories succeed, they give you the full sweep of a life, but they also linger enough along the way to give you time to get imaginatively and emotionally caught up in the characters’ lives.

One of my favorite stories from the second half is “Grippes and Poche,” a story about the author Grippes who regularly gets called in by the government official Poche to answer questions about his income and taxes. The story follows their meetings as they take place over the course of many years; Grippes is fascinated by Poche and gleans what information he can in the short time they have together. But Poche remains mysterious and distant. Grippes is so intrigued by Poche he turns him into a character in his novels, and it turns out that Grippes depends on Poche for his creative inspiration; when Poche no longer sends for him to inquire into his finances, he feels at a loss.

The story is interesting because of the surprising nature of this relationship — even though they seldom met and hardly knew each other, Grippes depends on the polite but still antagonistic relationship to feed his creative work. I admired the way Gallant could tell so much about Grippes solely through this one seemingly-unimportant relationship.

In another story, “Mlle. Dias de Corta,” the narrator writes a letter to the titular character, a young woman who has lived in her house but is unlikely now to come back, and the letter is unlikely to reach its destination. The narrator reminisces about Mlle. Dias de Corta and their life together, and as she does so, reveals much about herself, much that she probably did not intend to reveal.

There’s lots to enjoy in this book; although I thought it was uneven, the stories that worked worked very well.

The other book I’ve recently finished is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I’m not going to write anything like a regular review, partly because I feel like most people already know what this book is about if they haven’t read it already, but also because I don’t feel I have much to say about it. It’s a book that left me with strong feelings but largely bereft of words.

I will say, though, that it’s a near-perfect book for what it is — what it sets out to do it accomplishes, and it does so brilliantly. It’s a harrowing book, very difficult to take, but a beautiful one too, with gorgeous writing. It’s such a simple story — father and son walking south in a post-apocalyptic world — and not much happens in it, or, rather, the same thing happens over and over again, and yet I found it so compelling, so involving, that it was very hard to put down. I wanted to keep reading for contradictory reasons — because I was caught up in the world of the story and because I wanted to get out of that world as soon as possible. That’s how great books about horrible subjects make me feel I suppose — in awe of them and wanting to get some distance on them very fast.

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A cycling post

Just because I’ve got my new blog where I write about my training doesn’t mean I won’t write about cycling now and then over here — I have to make my blog title make sense, after all. So, now is the time when I need to register for the spring race series that takes place in my town (1 1/2 miles from my house — so convenient!), and I can’t figure out which race to register for. My first race ever was at this series in the women’s field, and I lasted about three laps (less than 3 miles) before getting dropped, at which point I switched to the men’s category 5 field (beginning racers) and did much better. I raced with them the rest of that first season and last year’s season as well.

But maybe it’s time to try the women’s field again. The women’s field has racers of all experience levels, and so is faster. I’m in better shape than I was last time I rode with them, but I’m not sure I’m fast enough, and I’m not sure I want to work that hard. Here’s what I’m thinking:

Reasons to ride with the women:

  • Maybe it’s just time to try something harder, and if I don’t do well I can probably switch back for the rest of the series.
  • I did ride in a women’s race last summer and managed to hang on to the end, and so maybe I can do it in this spring series too.
  • If I don’t, I will probably feel wistful when I see the women race and will wonder how I would have done.
  • Riding with the women will be hard, but that means I will get in shape faster (assuming I can hang with them at all).

Reasons to ride with the men:

  • I’m more likely to be able to stay with the men’s field the whole race and will therefore get more experience riding in a pack, which I need.
  • Last year I was finishing in the middle or even towards the front of the pack (the best I did was 13th place, I think, out of maybe 40 starters). If I can do this again, I’ll get experience being in the finishing sprint, something that has only happened to me a couple times. I don’t know well enough what finishing with the sprinters is like.
  • The category 5 men on my team are my buddies — they love it that I race with them, they encourage me, and they are really happy for me when I do well. The cat 5 captain recently encouraged me to ride with them again this year.
  • I don’t like early season races because it’s just way too early; I’m not in my best shape. Nobody else should be either, but I get the feeling people train specifically for these races and there are lots of very strong people out there. I prefer to focus on races that occur later in the season, which means that I’m only now beginning to train hard. So why not ride with the easier group?

The series doesn’t begin until March, so I have some time, but I really don’t know what to do! I feel unfocused in my training this year, as I’m thinking about competing in triathlons, but I’m not ready for them yet, but I’m also not fully focused on the cycling either. It’s like I’m not really giving my best to anything this year. But that’s okay — I feel like I need some transition time from one sport to the other, and I’m not in all this for the competition, really. I’d just as soon train and not race, except for the fact that races give me something to work toward.

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The weekend

I had a lovely weekend, beginning with dinner on Friday night with two of my favorite bloggers, Emily and Becky, and various spouses, sisters, and friends at a place called Bloodroot, a self-described feminist vegetarian restaurant and bookstore (the website explains their philosophy, particularly in this essay). Every single one of us got lost on the way there, but it was well worth the trouble of finding our way. It’s basically one large room with books at one end, right next to the kitchen, and tables at the other. Hobgoblin and I arrived first and so had plenty of time to look at the books, which was dangerous, because I came across something I couldn’t resist: Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mowbray, an 18C novel that isn’t widely available. In spite of my best intentions, how could I resist?

The restaurant is a cozy, casual place, the kind of place where you can get to know the owner a bit (which we did) and can easily strike up conversations with strangers (which one person in my group did), and where you’ll find a notice that asks you not to inquire about or comment on the number of calories in the food because it feeds into our culture’s dangerous obsession with body image.

The conversation was lively, which was no surprise, but I was a bit surprised to find fellow athletes and outdoors enthusiasts in the company, and we had fun talking about the local parks and cycling culture. It turns out I’ve been riding my bike past Becky’s house for a long time without knowing it.

Then yesterday Hobgoblin and I headed down to New York City to celebrate my birthday (which is tomorrow — unfortunately no good for celebrations, as it’s my first day of class). We headed for the Morgan Library and Museum, an institution I had never visited, and now I’m wondering why not. Many thanks to Emily, who’s recent post gave me the idea to go. It was fabulous, and I recommend you see it if you get the chance. You can look around Pierpont Morgan’s library, which is stunning — actually you can see his study and his librarian’s office as well as the library, and all three rooms take your breath away. It seemed like he had every book published in the 19C or earlier, every one of them beautifully bound.

The rest of the museum had some wonderful items as well; my favorite part was the medieval and renaissance manuscript collection (all those illuminated manuscripts) and the collection of more modern literary artifacts, including a handwritten page of Joyce’s Ulysses and poems by Auden and Eliot in their handwriting.

Then Hobgoblin and I spent some time in bookstores, this time without buying anything (amazingly enough), had a nice dinner, and headed home. Not a bad way to spend a weekend!

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A new semester

So far at least, I think I’m staying true to the spirit of my New Year’s resolutions post, which is to say that I’ve stayed pretty relaxed about what I’m reading and how much and not worrying about whether I’m fulfilling challenges or finishing as many books as I did last year.

I may be taking this relaxed attitude even further in the coming months as I’ve got a busy semester ahead of me and may not have time to do as much reading as I’ve done in the past. The truth is, in pre-blogging days I probably read a lot less than I have been in the last couple years; I probably lingered over books longer and read fewer of them at once. I didn’t keep records then, so I don’t know for sure, but that’s what memory tells me.

The mood I’ve been in lately has me returning to this older, slower mode. This is not to say that blogs have been a bad influence (quite the opposite in fact!) or that I haven’t enjoyed all the reading I’ve done in the last couple years. But I’m looking ahead to the semester right now (which begins on Monday), thinking about the new class I’m teaching and all the work that will involve, about the class I’m sitting in on and all the time that will take, and also about all the exercising I want to do this spring and how I don’t want to quit going to yoga class when things get busy like I usually do, and I wonder how much time I’ll have to read.

I do hate being busy. And you should know that my definition of busy is probably pretty tame compared to most people’s. I like having lots and lots of time to myself that I can fill in any way I want to. I’m not someone who thrives on stress and tension — these things wear me down and make me unhappy.

Anyway, my point is that in order to stay calm and sane, I will need to have very low expectations for myself when it comes to reading and to blogging. If I’m busy I’ll have less time to post, but also less material to post on, as I’ll be reading less.

We’ll see how that goes; I’ve made claims about posting less in the past but have found the number of posts each week creeping up. But I may really need to back off a bit this time.

By the way, the new class I’ll be teaching is a British Literature survey from the Romantics up to the 20C. It should be fun. And I’m sitting in on a class that’s sort of a survey of various art forms — visual art, film, dance, literature, and music — in order to get ready to teach it next year. I’m excited about teaching this class, although not so excited about the time it will take to sit in on someone else’s version of it and the fact that my school is requiring that I do the observation before I teach the class itself (I’ve never had such intense training like this before, not anything like it; I always just figure out what to do on my own). On the other hand, I haven’t sat in on an entire class in quite a while, and it will be interesting to see how another teacher handles things. It may make me want to become a student again.

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Room Temperature

20148924.jpg As you will probably have guessed based on my post from a few days ago, I enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s novel Room Temperature. It’s his second novel, and it follows a similar format as his first, The Mezzanine: both take place during a small chunk of time — in the first novel the time it takes to ride up an escalator, and, in the second, the twenty minutes it takes for the narrator to feed his infant daughter — and they both range outwards and back in time to fill in details of the narrator’s surroundings and his life.

Both have narrators who, much like Baker himself (as evidenced in his essays at least), are extremely observant of and curious about the world around them, especially when it comes to the objects that surround them and fill their lives — the things that most of us take for granted. The Mezzanine’s narrator was obsessed with many things, but I remember, in particular, long passages on shoe laces and on drinking straws, and in Room Temperature, the narrator reminisces at length about glass peanut butter jars and the sound they make when first opened. The narrator is a former music student and aspiring composer and he once dreamed of writing a symphony that began with exactly that peanut butter jar sound.

If books about shoe laces and peanut butter jars sound boring, they are not at all. Instead of boring you, Baker inspires you to look more closely at the world you live in. There’s so much to see and learn, the books imply, so much we don’t even notice that’s right in front of our eyes. In fact, in Room Temperature Baker plays with the idea that we can reconstruct much of our own history and the history of the world if only we looked closely enough at the present. He makes this argument directly in at least two places in the novel:

I certainly believed, rocking my daughter on this Wednesday afternoon, that with a little concentration one’s whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected; that is, that there was enough content in that single confined sequence of thoughts and events and the setting that gave rise to them to make connections that would proliferate backward until potentially every item of autobiographical interest — every pet theory, minor observation, significant moment of shame or happiness — could be at least glancingly covered …

This passage sums up his aesthetic in both novels — to narrow down his focus and in the narrowing to see how his vision actually expands to include a whole life. But the passages continues:

… but you had to expect that a version of your past arrived at this way would exhibit … certain telltale differences of emphasis from the past you would recount if you proceeded serially, beginning with “I was born in January 5, 1957,” and letting each moment give birth naturally to the next. The particular cell you started from colored your entire re-creation.

You will not obtain an objective view following Baker’s method, but you wouldn’t obtain an objective view no matter what method you used anyway; any way you choose to look at the world or your life is going to shape the way you see it.

In a later passage Baker takes up this narrowing idea again, not to describe a life but to describe the world. Thinking about the miniscule currents of air moving through the room in which he’s rocking his daughter, he wonders:

If, using some as yet undeveloped high-resolution technique of flow visualization, I filmed the motion of a cubic yard of air … and if I studied that film for four hours a day, during Bug’s [the daughter’s] two naps — just looked at it, leaned into the idea of it with my entire self — at various speeds, and took the videotape from one international congress on turbulence to another, and made men of science look at it so that I could read in their polite expressions some of the particular complexities it offered their more geometrically manipulative minds, would I begin to feel that I could deduce from its veils of infinitesimal insurgence and reversion the objects in the room around which the air had flowed before it entered this domain of record? Would I deduce the shapes of the half-inflated plastic globe and the cheese grater on the rug, the superball in the fireplace, my dusty collection of mechanical coin-sorts on one of the bookshelves — and infer that a man breathing steadily through his nose in a rocking chair rocking at roughly one cycle every two seconds had held a baby also breathing through her nose on the verge of sleep?

And he goes on from there, wondering just how far he could take the information he’d gather from watching air flow through one cubic yard for twenty minutes. I thought that was rather wonderful — everything is connected to everything else, whether it’s through air or through memory, and one object or patch of air or memory will take us to another and another and another until eventually we’ve covered everything.

This book is intellectually interesting and it’s charming too. The narrator tells stories about Patty, his wife, as well as his daughter; he describes not only the air and the peanut butter jars in such great detail, but also his relationship with his family. The feeling that comes from all this is an infectious joy. This is a book about contentment; it’s curious and searching and about happiness and wonder. You can feel it in the long sentences and paragraphs Baker uses; it’s as though he’s trying to squeeze as much experience and as much life into his book as possible, and the sentences threaten to break apart with the energy and effort it takes. But they don’t — instead those Proustian sentences take you every which way, and you are happy to follow wherever they lead.

That said, I do think The Mezzanine is the better book of the two. Room Temperature takes a while to build up the kind of energy I’m describing; it has a beautiful but rather slow beginning, as though Baker needed some time to generate momentum. It does get that momentum, but overall, it’s a quieter book than The Mezzanine. The Mezzanine had so much of the energy I’ve described that it could hardly contain itself and burst out into those footnotes I wrote about a year or so ago. Still, Room Temperature is a beautiful book, and I’m determined to read more Nicholson Baker novels.

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Post-apocalyptic

I’m reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road right now, and — people read this sort of thing for fun?? I mean, I’m glad I’m reading it, it’s great and all, but I’m more than a little freaked out. I saw the post-apocalyptic movie I am Legend not too long ago, and I’m still recovering from that. I’ll admit I scoot back to bed in a hurry at night, thinking about those horrible zombie monster things. At least that movie didn’t give me nightmares; now we’ll see if this book does.

After this, I’m reading something full of sweetness and light.

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Why I love Nicholson Baker’s writing

From Room Temperature:

But my mother’s informal punctuation in the op-ed letter came as a complete surprise; and the fact that my immediate instinctive response to it was to point out the misplaced commas so harshly that she wept (the only time, as far as I remember, that I ever hurt her feelings — for she understood and was even amused by my teenage request that whenever the two of us walked down the street together, she would please walk at least three yards ahead of me, so that people wouldn’t know we were related; and she even played along in her compliance, whistling, walking with a theatrical solitariness, checking her pocketbook, pausing abruptly to glance at a window display), as if these faulty commas called into question our standing as a family — the fact that I had been instinctively so cruel, made me double up with misery when, after I was married, I came across some sentences in Boswell that were punctuated just as hers had been. Boswell (and De Quincey, Edward Young, and others) had treated the sunken garden of a parenthetical phrase just as my mother had — as something to be prepared for and followed by the transitional rounding and softening of a comma. And such hybrids — of comma and parenthesis, or of semicolon and parenthesis, too — might at least in some cases allow for finer calibrations between phrases, subtler subordinations, irregular varieties of exuberance and magisteriality and fragile conjunction. In our desire for provincial correctness and holy-sounding simplicity and the rapid teachability of intern copy editors we had illegalized all variant forms — and, as with the loss of subvarieties of corn or apples, this homogenization of product was accomplished at a major unforeseen cost: our stiff-jointed prose was less able, so I now huffily thought, full of vengeance against the wrong I had done my mother, to adapt itself to those very novelties of social and technological life whose careful interpretation and weighting was the principal reason for the continued indispensability of the longer sentence.

The longer sentence, indeed. And the longer paragraph, the exuberance, the digressions, the obsession with the comma, the fact that he can write a novel about a man spending twenty minutes with his infant daughter …

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