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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James Hogg, part 2

6002370.gif So, back to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It’s interesting the way people shorten the title into Confessions of a Justified Sinner; I understand not wanting to repeat the whole thing, but chopping off the first four words makes the book sound more religious than it may be — there’s tons of religion in the novel, definitely, but there’s a more secular way of reading it that the “private memoirs” part captures.

But first, I think the introduction-writer made the rather ridiculous claim I wrote about the other day because of the complexity of the book’s structure, i.e. the two narrators and the ways their stories overlap and diverge. But this makes up a big part of the fun of reading the book and doesn’t mean it’s particularly hard to follow.

The story is basically this: Robert Wringhim is raised by his mother and her severely-pious friend (or “friend” — their relationship is ambiguous) to believe that he, according to a Calvinist belief in predestination, has been chosen as one of the elect — he has received salvation and is guaranteed a place in heaven. He is taught that salvation comes not through works but by faith alone. The novel, written in 1824, takes place during the end of the 17C and the early years of the 18C in Scotland, and in the context of religious controversy, which gets played out in Robert’s life through his pious mother and her husband who cares little about religion. Robert’s parentage is uncertain; many believe that his mother’s friend is his real father (and this seems likeliest), although, of course, the friend denies it.

Into this situation comes a strange figure who quickly enmeshes himself deeply into Robert’s life. Exactly who this figure is never gets clarified. He doesn’t want to reveal any information about himself; he only reluctantly tells Robert to call him Gil-Martin, although it seems clear this is not his real name. He prefers to see Robert only when they are alone.

With the entrance of Gil-Martin, the book only gets stranger and stranger; when Robert first sees him, he is astounded because he looks exactly like Robert. He looks exactly like Robert at that particular moment, but his appearance changes. He can look like whoever he wants to at whatever moment he wants to. He also holds strange powers of attraction over Robert:

I felt a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him, something like the force of enchantment; which I could not resist. As we approached each other, our eyes met, and I can never describe the strange sensations that thrilled through my whole frame at that impressive moment.

They soon begin to spend all their time together, devoting hours to deep theological discussions. Gil-Martin appears to hold many of the same beliefs as Robert, but soon he pushes them to extremes that make Robert uneasy; he begins to argue that since Robert is part of the elect and his salvation is assured, he can do whatever he likes with no consequences. He can even commit murder — in fact, he may have a duty to commit murder, according to Gil-Martin, because if humanity is divided into two categories, the saved and the damned, and if they can tell who is who, then why not murder the damned? Why not rid the earth of them and make it a better place?

Robert at some level knows how twisted this logic is, but he is under Gil-Martin’s spell and whenever he is in his presence he loses his ability to think clearly. He is trapped.

Robert doesn’t seem to understand who Gil-Martin is, at least at first, but the reader quickly realizes that he may very well be the devil, tempting Robert to commit horrible deeds. On the other hand, and here is the more secular reading, he may be Robert’s own creation, a product of a diseased, schizophrenic mind. The two figures blend strangely and Robert begins to lose hold of his sense of self:

I generally conceived myself to be two people. When I lay in bed, I deemed there were two of us in it; when I sat up, I always beheld another person, and always in the same position from the place where I sat or stood, which was about three paces off me towards my left side. It mattered not how many or how few were present; this my second self was sure to be present in his place; and this occasioned a confusion in all my words and ideas that utterly astounded my friends … The most perverse part of it was, that I rarely conceived myself to be any of the two persons. I thought for the most part my companion was one of them, and my brother the other; and I found, that to be obliged to speak and answer in the character of another man, was a most awkward business at the long run.

By this point, Robert is a complete wreck, and the reader is on shaky ground — who is who and what is happening and what does it all mean? And then there’s the business of the two narratives. The story is not told in a straight-forward manner; rather, an editor tells what he knows of Robert’s life — his information coming partly from research but largely from tradition and so therefore suspect — and then Robert tells his story, covering some of the same ground the editor already covered and branching off in new directions. So there’s an editor who claims to be reliable but probably isn’t entirely, and there’s Robert who clearly is not reliable but who has most of the information we want, if only we could believe him.

To add to the fun, Hogg includes a page of Robert’s handwriting in the front of the text; it’s a page supposedly from Robert’s confessions. Hogg had a friend imitate handwriting from Robert’s time period to give the book a greater air of authenticity. Detracting somewhat from this sense of authenticity, however, is an appearance in the novel by James Hogg himself and by a servant of Sir Walter Scott’s. It seems that Hogg is having a little postmodern fun with his readers, blurring the boundaries between fiction and real life, refusing to offer any solid answers, drawing attention to the unreliability of history and the artificial nature of any text.

The more I write, the more complex the book seems. I still do not agree with David Groves when he says that “no one will understand very much about Hogg’s Confessions on first reading,” but I do believe that the more you think about this book, the murkier it gets. Perhaps the true situation is that the reader understands the book best on a first reading, but subsequent readings only undermine that confidence.

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James Hogg, part 1

6002370.gif I have finished James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself, with a detail of curious traditionary facts, and other evidence, by the editor. I love long titles! I couldn’t resist including the whole thing here. I won’t review the book tonight, but I did want to say a couple things. I loved it; it’s crazy and fascinating and weird. The long version of the title hints at its complexity: it’s got two narrators, and is a good example of the perspective-shifting technique Charlotte recently wrote about. It begins with an editor’s version of events, and then turns to the “confessions” of the justified sinner himself, and then closes with the editor again. They retell many of the same events, so part of the fun of the book is comparing their two versions.

Yes, the book is strange and weird, but I’m not sure that justifies this sentence from David Groves, the guy who wrote the introduction to my edition:

No one will understand very much about Hogg’s Confessions on first reading.

Am I wrong, or is that not the best thing to say in an introduction? It seems to me an introduction should get the reader excited about reading the book, not turn the reader off. And it’s not true. I’m sure I’d understand much more on a re-reading, but, still, I got an awful lot on the first go-round.

Okay, more on the novel soon …

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A Compendium of Imaginary Saints

Ella from Box of Books recently sent me a copy of A Compendium of Imaginary Saints, a book she not only wrote and illustrated, but one she made, as in, created the covers and bound the pages. I am in awe — the book is extraordinary.

It’s small and easy to hold in your hand, with gold varnish on the covers. You can see pictures of it here and a description of its contents here. The inside cover tells you that the book is published by The Absent Classic publishing company: “Printers of Unexpected Books.” For those of you who don’t know about The Absent Classic series, it consists of a series of blog posts Ella created, each one featuring a made-up classic complete with a picture of the book’s cover, some excerpts, and information about the author’s life. I loved this series; I wished the books actually did exist so I could read them. Ella’s first TAC book was called Great Victorian Zombie Stories. How could anyone resist that, assuming there actually was a book to resist? Many of the books in the series came from the nineteenth century and captured perfectly a certain kind of Victorian sensibility — serious, pious, and deeply odd. (I can’t seem to find where these posts are now — help me Ella!)

Next there is the title page (also pictured in the post linked to above), which tells you that the Compendium is by Eleanor Hofstead and illustrated by Gloria Glass, Ella’s authorial and artistic pseudonyms. Then there is a brief note by Thaddeus R. Windrow, the editor-in-chief of The Absent Classic, which gives a brief biography of Hofstead — she is “a Catholic schoolteacher and amateur hagiologist,” who “spent her lifetime absorbed in the rich tradition of Christian saints.”

And then the main text begins, a one-page biography of each saint, with the saint’s portrait on the facing page. The portraits are perfect, what Ella calls “imitation medieval,” flat, simply-drawn faces in black and white, surrounded by a golden halo. And the biographies are fascinating — they are also portraits in miniature, telling about conversion experiences, visions, good works, and horrendous deaths. Each one ends by telling you what the saint is patron saint of, and this is where Ella’s sense of humor comes in, because these saints are patrons of some odd things. Here’s one of my favorites, quoted in full; it’s the biography of St. Eve of Aquitane:

St. Eve of Aquitane was born in France around 1645. As a young girl, she was noted for her extraordinary beauty, and also for her quiet, humble disposition. Although her mother, a near-destitute widow, arranged several wealthy matches for Eve, she refused them all. By the time she was in her twenties, her beauty was so famous that people came from all over the countryside to look at her. Finally St. Eve rubbed her face with nettles and thorns until she was scarred, whereupon she was left alone as she desired, to pray and meditate. She is the patron saint of acne sufferers.

There are also bios of the patron saint of reformed prostitutes, of school principles, of rescue workers, of male nurses, and of divorce lawyers. These are extraordinary saints indeed. I love the way the book mixes the realistic — the portraits, the horrific details — with the amusing and slightly absurd — there’s a patron saint of tatto artists!

Included with the book is a flyer about The Absent Classic publishing company, this particular title, and the next title to be printed: “Selected Works of J.E. Echwell,” which will “offer the best stories, drawings, and essays of that celebrated Victorian moralist, the founder of the Society for the Improvement of Literature.” I’m looking forward to it already!

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The Novel

First of all, Muttboy is feeling much better and wants to thank those of you who offered your good wishes. He was out running around by this afternoon and behaving in such a way as to make his owners wonder whether his yelps last night weren’t the tiniest bit theatrical in nature. But no, he just heals quickly.

So, on to books. I have begun looking into The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture, edited by Franco Moretti; I’m not sure to what extent I’ll read this straight through or pick and choose — the book seems made for picking and choosing, but I really don’t like to read that way, and all of the essays do look interesting. The first one offered a good start, at any rate.

The book is divided into sections on various aspects of the novel, although the section titles aren’t always crystal clear, so it’s hard to say what they are about; I’m not sure why the first section is entitled “The Struggle for Space,” for example, although maybe when I read further into it, it will become clearer. A short introduction by Moretti helpfully explains that there are three types of pieces in the book. First there are “Essays,” which are:

… works of abstraction, synthesis, and comparative research: they establish the great periodizations that segment the flow of time, and the conceptual architecture that reveals its unity.

“Readings,” the second type, “are shorter pieces, unified by a common question, and devoted to the close analysis of individual texts.” Finally, there are sections called “Critical Apparatus,” which:

… study the novel’s wider ecosystem, focusing, for instance, on how the semantic field of “narrative” took shape around keywords such as midrash, monogatari, xiaoshuo, qissa – and, why not, romance.

Hmmm … I’m not sure what some of those words mean … I’ll look forward to learning about them.

The first essay, “From Oral to Written: An Anthropological Breakthrough in Storytelling” by Jack Goody, begins by discussing the extent to which storytelling was as important to oral cultures as people generally believe it was. Goody argues that it was not:

Indeed, I want to argue that, contrary to much received opinion, narrative … is not so much a universal feature of the human situation as one that is promoted by literacy and subsequently by printing.

Images that we might have of people in purely oral cultures quenching their thirst for narrative by listening to a bard recite long stories of heroes and war might not be realistic — rather, epic and other forms of narrative seem to require the development of reading and writing:

…the societies of the Heroic Age during which the epic flourished were ones where early literacy was present. By contrast, in the purely oral cultures of Africa, the epic is a rarity, except on the southern fringes of the Sahara, which have been much influenced by Islam and by its literary forms.

The reasons for this scarcity of narrative — particularly long narrative — include the difficulty of listening to long recitations — the attention they demand. But also narrative, in the sense of fictional storytelling, was mistrusted because of its complicated relationship to truth; fiction is, after all, lies, even though it may have a particular kind of truth to tell. But fiction was, if anything, associated with childishness and so existed most commonly in the form of folklore meant for children.

After this opening section, Goody turns to the development of writing and the novel. It’s writing that makes longer narratives more likely to arise; in writing, it’s much easier to understand and digest a long complicated story and the writer doesn’t have to deal with interruptions from listeners. But the problem of fiction and lies remains, and this is why, Goody argues, the novel developed fairly late and unevenly across cultures. Early novels tried to get around this problem by claiming that they were truthful, even though they weren’t; Robinson Crusoe, for example, is presented as an autobiography featuring real events that Daniel Defoe is merely presenting to us, not writing himself. Slowly, over time, fiction became more acceptable, although even so it tended to be relegated to “frivolous” women readers, while the men focused on serious nonfiction.

And the uncertainty about fiction remains today; we still get upset when lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurred, as the James Frey debacle will attest. Goody believes that even today nonfiction is taken much more seriously than fiction; this may be true, although it’s hard for me to see, novel-lover that I am.

So, after this interesting start, we’ll see where the rest of the book leads …

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Notes and news

Today is one of those days that should have been excellent but wasn’t — my semester hasn’t begun yet, so though I still have work to do preparing syllabi and such, I’m not terribly busy. What do I have to complain about, right? Except I could never rouse myself to do much today and so had the sense that I was wasting time but didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. I’ve been enjoying my books but even they weren’t satisfying me. The weather is lousy too — wet and cold. But the worst thing is that poor Muttboy hurt himself out in the woods this afternoon; Hobgoblin noticed him walking slowly but didn’t think much of it until they were both home a couple hours later and Muttboy started whining. When he tried to stand up, it was obvious that it hurt and he would yelp now and then. A suffering dog is a really sad thing, isn’t it? Hobgoblin called the vet who basically said to give Muttboy two aspirin and call her in the morning — good advice, I’m sure, but not terribly comforting. Now he’s curled up on the couch sleeping.

But I don’t want this post to be one long whine, so I’ll mention a few things besides my troubles. For one, Litlove’s new book, The Best of Tales from the Reading Room arrived in the mail today, and what a nice looking book it is! It’s got a picture of Litlove and some comments from blog readers on the back and an introduction that tells the story of how she got into blogging. The book itself is made up of many of her best posts — ones on Rilke, Julian Barnes, Virginia Woolf and many other authors and topics, and some more personal posts as well.

And one more thing about Litlove — her new edition of The Best of New Writing on the Web is up, so go check it out!

In other news — Harper’s has an essay by Ursula Le Guin called “Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading,” unfortunately not available online. It’s interesting, though, so if you are in a library or bookstore and see it, it might be worth a glance. In the article she says some very sensible things, in particular her point that we tend to forget that for most of history people didn’t read all that much:

… I also want to question the assumption — whether gloomy or faintly gloating — that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?

For most of human history, most people could not read at all. Literacy was not only a demarcator between the powerful and the powerless; it was power itself. Pleasure was not an issue.

Of course, it’s a shame that many people choose not to read today, but I think the point is right that we tend to think that reading is in a crisis that has never existed before. While Le Guin has no kind words for those who choose not to read, the real villain of her essay is the publishing industry. She lambastes it for seeking never-ending growth in profits in an industry that just can’t sustain it:

To me, then, one of the most despicable things about corporate publishers and chain booksellers is their assumption that books are inherently worthless. If a title that was supposed to sell a lot doesn’t “perform” within a few weeks, it gets its covers torn off — it is trashed. The corporate mentality recognizes no success that is not immediate. This week’s blockbuster must eclipse last week’s, as if there weren’t room for more than one book at a time. Hence the crass stupidity of most publishers (and, again, chain booksellers) in handling backlists….

But capitalists count weeks, not years. To get big quick money, the publisher must risk a multimillion-dollar advance on a hot author who’s supposed to provide this week’s bestseller. These millions — often a dead loss — come out of funds that used to go to pay normal advances to reliable midlist authors and the royalties on older books that kept selling. Many midlist authors have been dropped, many reliably selling books remaindered, in order to feed Moloch. Is that any way to run a business?

Finally, I’ve begun looking into Franco Moretti’s The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture and have found much to learn. I’ll post more on that later.

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For the TBR pile

Which theologian are you?
created with QuizFarm.com
You scored as Paul TillichPaul Tillich sought to express Christian truth in an existentialist way. Our primary problem is alienation from the ground of our being, so that our life is meaningless. Great for psychotherapy, but no longer very influential.

Paul Tillich
 
73%
Friedrich Schleiermacher
 
60%
Jürgen Moltmann
 
53%
Anselm
 
33%
Charles Finney
 
33%
John Calvin
 
27%
Jonathan Edwards
 
20%
Augustine
 
13%
Martin Luther
 
13%
Karl Barth
 
0%

Thanks to Emily.

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Paris Stories

For the most part, I am enjoying Mavis Gallant’s book Paris Stories; I say for the most part because my response to them has been a bit uneven — I’m not sure if this is my fault or the stories’ fault. But at the halfway point of the book I can say I’ve liked most of them, especially the one I just finished, “Speck’s Idea.” The story is about a gallery owner in Paris, Speck, who is trying to revitalize the gallery and earn some money to keep himself going; he gets the idea to revive the work of the artist Hubert Cruche and spends much of the story negotiating with Cruche’s widow, a woman who has some surprises up her sleeve. Although the story is a little sad — Speck seems like someone who will always dream of success and never quite find it — but it’s charmingly told. Gallant’s wit shines through and she has a brilliant way of describing her character. Unfortunately, I failed to mark any of the brilliant passages so I can’t reproduce them here, but trust me! They are brilliant.

The stories I’ve liked best in the collection are the ones where Gallant slows down the pace a bit and takes some time to describe scenes and dialogue. Some of the stories give the full sweep of a character’s life, from birth to mature adulthood if not beyond (such as “The Moslem Wife”), rarely stopping to linger on any one moment, and these leave me a bit cold; what I find myself wishing for is more detailed interaction among the characters. I do admire Gallant’s way of summing up a life, however; in just a few phrases, she can capture the essence of a person.

Many of the stories in the book are on the long side, but two of the shorter ones are particularly good; “In Transit” describes a couple as they wait in an airport — the story manages to give you a sense of their entire history while concentrating on a brief period of time. The other one, “From the Fifteenth District” is a playful tale of haunting — except it’s the living who haunt the dead rather than the other way around.

S0 — we’ll see what the second half of the book brings.

Cross-posted here.

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Final thoughts on Out of Sheer Rage

While I liked Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage a lot (a lot — my previous posts on it are here, here, and here), the last 50 pages or so had some irritating sections. I suppose when you read a book as raw as this one, some places are bound to irritate you. Dyer says some strange things about women, he sounds more whiny than he did earlier in the book, and he begins to write more about his rage, which is interesting I suppose, but what he describes is so far outside my own experience I began to tune out a bit.

But, still, I loved this book; I love this kind of quirky, non-categorizable nonfiction, the kind that takes you interesting places, although along the way you have no idea where you’re going. I want more books like this one! (If you know of any, please say so.)

I’ll leave you with a passage, one that captures something I’m familiar with — the way our desires and regrets shift and change:

I accept the consequences of doing things which I will later regret. In a sense then I regret them before I do them. Instead of resolving to learn to cook I regret to inform myself that by the end of the year I will still not know how to cook (because I hate cooking) even though learning to cook would improve my life no end. Instead of doing the exercises which will save my right knee … I resign myself to regretting not having done something about what will, in a few years, be a debilitating, potentially crippling ailment. I resign myself to things: this is my own warped version of amor fati: regretting everything but resigning myself to this regret. However things turn out I am bound to wish they had turned out differently. I am resigned to that.

Take this book which is intermittently about Lawrence. Right now I profoundly regret ever having started it. I wish I hadn’t bothered. But if I hadn’t started it I would have regretted not having done so. I knew this and so I got on with it and now that I have got on with it I regret that I got on with it in the way I did. I regret that it will not turn out to be the sober, academic study of Lawrence that I had hoped to write but I accept this because I know that, in the future, when it is finished, I won’t want it to be any different. I’ll be glad that this little book turned out how it did because I will see that what was intended to be a sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence had to become a case history. Not a history of how I recovered from a breakdown but of how breaking down became a means of continuing. Anyone can have a breakdown, anyone. The trick is to have a breakdown and take it in one’s stride. Ideally one would get to the stage where one had a total nervous breakdown and didn’t even notice.

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For those of you worried about the demise of the book

Check this out.

(via)

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The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen

19599946.jpg I thought I might fall in love with this book, and it turns out I didn’t, but I don’t want to hold that against it. It is a very good novel; I’m glad I read it, and I’d like to read more Bowen. There’s something cold about the book, though, that made me admire more than love it. Its subject matter is rather depressing, and although I generally like depressing books, this one … well, it left me sad and didn’t dazzle me in a way that would make me feel better. But, really, I do admire it, and I believe I don’t need to fall in love with a book to recognize that it’s quite good.

It’s a story of lost innocence; Portia, a 16-year-old girl who is newly-orphaned comes to live with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, and while she is there she learns some harsh lessons about the world. Her new family doesn’t really want here there; they took her in because it was Portia’s dying father’s request and because it seemed like the right thing to do. But Anna particularly resents having Portia in her home — the opening scene reveals that Anna has secretly read Portia’s diary and found that Portia has written some unflattering things about her and her friends. It’s as though Anna feels like she is competing with Portia; we learn that Anna had a love affair when she was much younger that ended disappointingly and it’s implied that Anna has never really recovered — now she sees Portia with her youth and beauty and attractiveness and resents the life she has ahead of her.

Portia meets a young friend of Anna’s named Eddie and the plot gets more complicated from there. The two quickly begin a relationship, but this relationship means something quite different for each of them. Portia in all her innocence believes she has fallen in love, but it’s clear that Eddie is merely interested in having some fun.

Poor Portia. She doesn’t fit in anywhere, and she clings to Eddie as the one she feels she can trust the most. She attends what sounds like a dreadful school and makes one friend there, but this friend doesn’t really satisfy, and she only gets in trouble while trying to make it through the school day. In the book’s second section, Anna and Thomas head off to France and leave Portia behind at the house of Anna’s old governess. Here, too, Portia feels like an outsider, and when she invites Eddie to visit her there, events head in a direction she never anticipated.

It’s Portia’s innocence that causes so much trouble, or, rather, it’s the world around her that causes the trouble, not knowing what to do with her innocence. Portia isn’t trained to deal with proper London society or with boys who make rash promises or with the isolation she endures. Anna and Thomas live dull, sterile lives; they have carefully cordoned themselves off from any real interaction with other people or even with each other:

Callers were unheard of at Windsor Terrace. They had been eliminated; they simply did not occur. The Quaynes’ [Thomas and Anna's] home life was as much their private life as though their marriage had been illicit. Their privacy was surrounded by an electric fence — friends who did not first telephone did not come.

In this atmosphere Portia dries up; it’s no wonder she turns to other people, even harmful people, to try to find some liveliness and love.

Bowen is very much interested in psychological states. The back cover describes her style as Jamesian, and I think that claim holds true; Bowen describes her characters’ inner lives in depth, capturing the ebb and flow of their feelings and responses. It’s a thoughtful book, one that moves slowly — although not in a way that might bore — and tells its story with pleasing thoroughness. If you like books with emotional and psychological insight — ones that capture the complexity of character, then you may like this book.

On another note entirely, I began James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner last night and am enjoying it so far — the first 20 pages at least. I may begin another novel soon — The Road, most likely. I am also enjoying Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories. So it looks like my indecisive period may be over — which is a relief.

Cross-posted here.

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Indecision

I feel completely incapable of making a decision about what novel to read next. I’ve thought about it ever since I finished Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart two days ago, but have come to no conclusions. It’s rare for me not to be in the middle of a novel, and usually I have one lined up to go the minute I finish the previous one. It’s the variety of possibilities that’s paralyzed me. Should I read a classic? If so, from what century? Something obvious like Balzac’s Cousin Bette or a little less so like James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner? Or should I read Virginia Woolf? Or something contemporary? If something contemporary, should it be challenging or comfortingly familiar? By a man or a woman? American or British? Something written in English or translated?

One thing is certain — it’s good that I’ve finished Geoff Dyer’s book Out of Sheer Rage, because as much as I liked the book, his chronic indecision is rubbing off on me, I’m afraid.

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The beach loop

I had a very nice ride in the 60 degree weather today; actually it was 47 when I left, but 61 when I returned. I’m so used to bundling up for rides these days that I felt very underdressed — I wore only very light covers over my shoes and could probably have gone without them (most people call these booties, but the word seems ridiculous), shorts, tank top, short-sleeve t-shirt, jersey, arm warmers, knee warmers, and cycling gloves — short fingered! — and that’s it. Oh, and a helmet of course.

I rode for 3 1/2 hours, down to the Long Island Sound and back, following what my cycling club calls the beach loop. Or one version of the beach loop — there are many, many ways to get to the beach and back (Compo Beach for those of you from the area).

I did run into some troubles, though, minor ones. Heading south I went straight when I should have turned right and unnecessarily climbed a huge, steep hill, the sort where I was standing up in my easiest gear. I had written down the roads when I did a slightly different version of this loop a year ago, but I mistakenly wrote “left” when I should have written “right” and never corrected it, so when I saw the right turn I should have taken, I went past it because according to my paper it wasn’t correct. And I didn’t remember making any mistake last year. The thing is, my intuition told me I needed to turn right, but Connecticut roads are so tricky that intuition (especially mine) doesn’t generally help much. So even though I sort of knew I needed to turn right, I thought I was doing the best thing by ignoring what I “knew” and just riding on. So now I have no idea whether I should follow my intuition or not if I find myself in a similar sitution — either way, I’ll make the wrong decision probably.

The rest of my troubles were solved by friendly police officers — two of them! I got to a tricky intersection I hadn’t ridden through before and wandered around for a while, annoying the many drivers around me. Luckily for me, there was construction going on just up the road and a police officer watching over things, and he gave me directions. He called out as I began to ride away “I’m jealous!” Yes, I was lucky to have enough free time today to go on a long ride by the beach.

The second police officer was very friendly too; I ran into him while trying to ride down a road that was closed because of a fallen something or other, and he gave me directions around to where I needed to go. This one yelled out “enjoy your ride” as I pedaled away. Very nice!

I also had a rough last 10 miles or so; I think I hadn’t recovered from a hard ride I did on Sunday, and my quad muscles were rebelling. I was also getting hungry; I’d eaten two Cliff bars, which should have been plenty, except I was riding during my lunch time when normally I’d eat more than that and burn a lot fewer calories.

But otherwise, it was wonderful to be out in the spring-like weather. I’m trying not to think about how far away spring actually is.

Cross-posted here.

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Novels and notes

I was never terribly won over by the novels of D.H. Lawrence, and Out of Sheer Rage is not making me change my mind about that, but it is interesting me in Lawrence’s other works, his letters and criticism.

(I was trying to trick you with my post title into believing that I’d finally moved on to something besides Out of Sheer Rage, but I haven’t — sorry! I will post about something else soon — the Elizabeth Bowen novel I just finished, for example.)

Geoff Dyer himself feels ambivalently about Lawrence’s novels; he knows he should re-read them for his book, but he really can’t bear to, and so he doesn’t. It’s not that he disliked them that much; it’s just that he has no desire to re-read them. Instead, he’d rather read more in the other material — the notes to the great works rather than the great works themselves:

As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author’s reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings. This is not simply because, as an author’s stature grows posthumously, the fund of published texts becomes exhausted and we have to make do not only with previously unpublished or unfinished material but, increasingly, with matter that was never intended for publication. It is also because we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being …. A curious reversal takes place. The finished works serve as prologue to the jottings; the published book becomes a stage to be passed through — a draft — en route to the definitive pleasure of the notes, the fleeting impressions, the sketches, in which it had its origin.

I have not experienced this myself, or perhaps I haven’t yet reached that stage, except possibly in the case of Virginia Woolf, but I do find what he has to say about Lawrence’s notes and letters intriguing. He quotes from Lawrence’s wife Frieda to explain his attraction to these more ephemeral forms of writing:

“Since Lawrence died, all these donkeys years already, he has grown and grown for me … To me his relationship, his bond with everything in creation was so amazing, no preconceived ideas, just a meeting between him and a creature, a tree, a cloud, anything. I called it love, but it was something else — Bejahung in German, ‘saying yes’.”

Dyer goes on to write that he finds this “saying yes” most clearly in Lawrence’s letters — it exists in the novels but comes through most excitingly elsewhere. There’s something about Lawrence’s writing that makes a reader wish to have known him, in a way no one, he says, really wishes to have known E.M. Forster.

Dyer then connects these ideas about Lawrence’s notes and letters to his own writing:

If this book aspires to the condition of notes that is because, for me, Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it comes closest to notes.

I do like this reversal of the traditional genre hierarchies, the “rules” that say that novels are more important and literary than letters and certainly more so than notes. I love the idea of aspiring to the condition of notes and would say that Out of Sheer Rage does have a note or letter-like quality; the ideas are developed, yes, but there is a rambling nature to the book, a spontaneity that you don’t often find in nonfiction.

Dyer gives Lawrence’s book Sea and Sardinia as an example of fine Lawrentian prose; Lawrence took no notes while visiting Sardinia, and wrote his book a few weeks afterwards based on memories:

The lack of notes, in other words, accounts for the book’s note-like immediacy. Notes taken at the time, on the move, and referred to later … would have come between the experience and the writing. As it is, everything is written — rather than noted and then written — as experienced. The experience is created in the writing rather than re-created from notes. Reading it, you are drenched in a spray of ideas that never lets up. Impressions are experienced as ideas, ideas are glimpsed like fields through a train window, one after another. Opinions erupt into ideas, argument is conveyed as sensation, sensations are felt as argument.

I wonder about this, actually — couldn’t it be the case that writing that seems the most spontaneous and impressionistic might be the writing the author most labored over? Wouldn’t spontaneity more likely be an illusion than a reality? I wonder if Lawrence really wrote the book in the way Dyer describes, and if, in fact, Dyer really wrote his book the way these passages imply he might have — carelessly, lazily, on-the-fly. Perhaps he labored over every transition, every seemingly-spontaneous and emotion-filled fragment and exclamation point.

At any rate, Dyer closes this particular section with an intriguing paragraph:

“A book which is not a copy of other books has its own construction,” warned Lawrence and the kind of novels I like are ones which bear no traces of being novels. Which is why the novelists I like best are, with the exception of the last-named, not novelists at all: Nietzsche, the Goncourt brothers, Barthes, Fernando Pessoa, Ryszard Kapuscindki, Thomas Bernhard …

A future reading list perhaps?

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