Monthly Archives: March 2008

Race report

Not only did I finish the race today, but I got 10th place! I’m not sure how many people started the race, but it was something like 20-25. My result isn’t that impressive when you consider that I finished in the middle, pretty much, but when you remember that in my last race I made it only half way before getting dropped, it sounds much better.

The day was about as cold as my last race (which was four weeks ago), but it was much less windy, and that made for a much nicer ride. The race started off pretty fast, in exactly the same manner as the last one did, with a fairly smooth pace until the bottom of the hill when a couple women attacked and we all had to haul ourselves up the hill as fast as we could. Those two women stayed at the front of the pack and pushed the pace whenever they felt like it, and before too many laps went by, they had broken away from the main pack. We chased after them for a while, but eventually they got far enough ahead of us and the pack gave up. After that, it was a race for third place.

I was only vaguely aware that there were two people off the front, though; I was spending every moment concentrating on making sure I got up the hill each and every time without getting dropped. Two things helped me out; one is that we had a prime lap early on, before I got tired. In the last race they rang the bell for the prime a little over half way through when I’d begun to wear out, and when the pack took off, I couldn’t keep up. This time I wasn’t as tired, and the pack didn’t speed up quite as much, so I had no trouble hanging on. The other thing that helped was that once the pack gave up chasing those two women off the front, it slowed down and I had a chance to rest. A couple times I looked down at my heart rate monitor and saw that my heart rate was 155, which is low for a race.

So I found myself in the middle of the finishing sprint, which has only happened a few times in my race experience. I didn’t really know what to do. There are strategies to follow, such as positioning yourself in just the right place to get the best angle heading up the hill to the finish line, or starting your sprint at just the right place so you won’t wear yourself out before the end but won’t get left behind by those who started earlier than you. I’m aware of these things, but I don’t really know what to do about them. And I don’t really know what kind of sprint I have — how much I’m capable of accelerating up the hill at the end of a race. So I just did what I could to keep up with others around me; I think I passed someone on the hill and someone else passed me, but for the most part I was in the same place at the bottom of the hill as I was at the top. I got 8th in the field sprint, which meant 10th overall.

I’ll learn about sprinting with experience, of course, and hopefully I’ll develop more power to get me up the hill faster. I suspect my strength might be sprinting, if I were a strong enough rider to have strengths, which maybe I will be one day; at any rate, my strengths do not include hill climbing, that’s for sure.

Our speed was slower than I thought it would be: 20.6 mph. The category 5 men rode at something like 22 or 23 mph. Perhaps riding with them wouldn’t have been the easier option after all. For the curious: my average heart rate was 169, my maximum heart rate was 181, and our mileage was 16.9.

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Wuthering Heights, second time around

I’ve read Wuthering Heights before, although I can’t remember exactly when — at least 10 and maybe as many as 15 years ago. I have vague memories of a dark, disturbing, confusing book, and that’s about all I remember. This time around what I’m noticing is the novel’s complicated structure. I find the love story, well, not much of a love story. It’s a story less about love than about deranged, violent compulsion. These characters don’t love; they go crazy with obsession.

But the structure is worth looking at closely, both in terms of narrative form and in the pairing and repetition of characters, places, and action. Much like Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights has multiple narrators; it starts off with Lockwood, a complete outsider to Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, the two major settings, and then moves to Nelly Dean, a servant who has worked at both houses. Nelly tells most of the story to Lockwood in conversation as they sit up late at the Grange. Lockwood somehow — we’re not told how — records or remembers the long tale and is repeating it to us, although at one point he says he has “condensed” her tale a little bit.

So we get two narrators, each telling the story from what could be an unreliable memory, neither of whom we have any particular reason to trust. Lockwood, in what I now realize is a mildly humorous opening chapter, sees Heathcliff and thinks he is a sympathetic soul, which he most definitely is not, a fact Lockwood must soon learn the hard way. He also thinks he may develop a romantic attachment to Cathy and prides himself at least once on what a good catch he would be for her. Nelly’s status as unreliable narrator is harder to sort out. Her loyalties shift as she tells her tale; at several points, for example, she feels attachment to Heathcliff but at other times is disgusted and frightened by him. She becomes involved in the plot, hiding or revealing information at important points, but she never acknowledges just how much she influences events. She pretends to be an outsider who is merely telling a tale, when she really is one of the most important characters in the novel.

These two narrators provide a frame for the story of the Earnshaws and the Lintons, but in doing so, they call into question any possibility of an unbiased, objective point of view. All we have is gossip and hearsay. I must say I do like this sort of novel, the sort that foregrounds issues of interpretation. Lockwood becomes a little like the reader, trying and failing to make sense of the characters he meets; as he gets his bearings in the world of Wuthering Heights, so do we as readers begin to figure out what is going on, although we may, perhaps, be a bit smarter about it. Just as he is both tempted to flea the place and strangely drawn to it, so we as readers are likely to be ambivalent about these larger-than-life characters who don’t behave like anybody we know.

Equally as satisfying as all the ambiguity introduced by the unreliable narrators is the way Brontë structures the story itself. It’s made up of pairs — Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, which come to be associated with civilization and wildness respectively; the Earnshaws and the Lintons; Lockwood and Nelly; Catherine and Heathcliff; older Catherine and younger Catherine; Heathcliff and Edgar; Catherine and Isabella; younger Catherine and Linton; Hareton and Linton, and on and on. Each character has at least one other alter ego or double or love interest or foil, and possibly several. There’s also the first half of the novel, with its love story between Catherine and Heathcliff, and the second half, with its love story between Catherine and Hareton; there’s the way the first half shows the breakdown of order and the way the second attempts, at least, to restore that order.

But although the novel sets up all these pairings and oppositions, it also emphasizes how no pairing or opposition, no boundary, wall, or exclusion can last. Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights begin as separate entities, each with their own metaphorical significance, but as the novel goes on, the boundaries between the two begin to fall apart as the two families meet and then marry and produce offspring that combine traits from both places. Heathcliff tries to control the movements of the other characters, ordering them around and locking them in or out, marrying them to one another or keeping them apart, and yet ultimately they escape his grasp. There is no end of breaking in or out, of jumping over walls, of invading enemy space, or of creating new alliances.

So although the novel is structured by pairings of various kinds, it really is about how these pairings dissolve. It’s about how nothing is permanent or reliable or certain.

Wuthering Heights describes such a murky world, one where wild emotion flies out all over the place and violence continuously erupts, but it’s also murky in the sense that nothing settles down into neat patterns or into clear meaning. I have to say that as I was reading, I referred to the genealogical table at the front of the novel constantly; I clung to it for some clarity and relief from the confusion of a novel where the same names get used multiple times and the story isn’t told in chronological order.  The genealogical table isn’t part of the novel itself, though; Brontë seems to want us to be confused.  She forces us to live without solid ground beneath us, at least for the length of time we choose to spend with her.

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Reading notes

I have begun a new book of nonfiction, Alan Lightman’s A Sense of the Mysterious, a collection of essays that look at science — what it is, how it works, and what its connection to language and the arts is. Lightman is both a scientist and a novelist, so he’s got some intriguing ideas about how, for example, metaphor works in science as opposed to literature and about the creative process in science and in the arts. He starts off with a personal essay telling about his love of both science and writing and about how he’s managed to make both disciplines work in his life. He started off with science because he figured out that most scientists do their best work while they are relatively young, and many novelists produce their best work when they are older. Science, he points out, doesn’t require much experience of the world; you need agility of mind, but not necessarily years and years of living. Novel-writing, on the other hand, benefits from that experience. So he made a career for himself as a physicist, and then later began writing essays and eventually novels. His novel Einstein’s Dreams was a bestseller, and I’m very curious about it, as I like his essay writing. Has anyone read it?

I’m also still reading Wuthering Heights, or rather looking it over again as I teach it. I’m learning to love the book as I’m spending so much time thinking about it; it’s so wild and gothic and deeply weird. My students seem to be enjoying it too, somewhat to their surprise, I think. One student asked what makes this book anything more than a potboiler, and in response we generated a list of ideas it deals with and themes it takes up, and I think this student ended up surprised and impressed by our long list.

I’m looking forward, though, to picking up a new novel, and I have no idea what it will be. I alternate between wanting something challenging (Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives maybe? or another Brontë novel? — I have three unread ones on hand after all), something more familiar (another Alison Lurie novel? another Rosamund Lehmann?), and something new and fun (Clare Clark’s The Nature of Monsters?). We’ll see what mood hits when I’m finally ready to pick up something new.

I have also acquired a couple new books, including Edward P. Jones’s collection of stories All Aunt Hagar’s Children, which I’ve heard wonderful things about and am looking forward to. I’ve been wanting to read some more short stories, after all. I mooched a few books, including William Gass’s book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, which promises to be wonderful, and two Georgette Heyer books, Venetia and The Masqueraders. I feel lucky to have gotten these, as they get snapped up quickly.

But now I’m off to do a little reading before bed …

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The Uncommon Reader

At the library the other day I couldn’t resist picking up Alan Bennett’s novella The Uncommon Reader, and I devoured it over the course of an afternoon. It tells the story of how the Queen learns to love reading, opening with a funny scene where she asks the president of France about Jean Genet only to get a rather blank look in response, and from there moving back in time to the point where she stumbles across a mobile library near Buckingham Palace. She had always read, of course, “as one did,” but was not a book-lover: “liking books was something she left to other people.” Out of politeness, however, she picks out a book to borrow, an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel. She doesn’t like it particularly, but she borrows another one, this time Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. She’s optimistic because, as the narrator says, “novels seldom come as well-connected as this.”

She loves the book, and from there goes on to become a voracious reader, picking up books indiscriminately at first and more knowledgeably later on. She finds a mentor in Norman a palace page and learns the joy of talking about books with fellow book lovers. She soon begins to find it hard to do the things she used to do without complaint; receptions and parades and parliament openings now become merely distractions from her reading and she begins to run late, having trouble tearing herself away from her book. She learns to read and wave to the crowd at the same time while she is driven by in her car.

One of the things I found charming about the book is the way it describes what it’s like to love reading. The fact that the main character is the Queen makes the story especially amusing, but the story in its basics could describe many people. Reading is something that can take over one’s life; it changes the way one thinks and acts, and one’s relationship to it changes over time:

To begin with … she read with trepidation and some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had no idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time. The next stage had been when she started to make notes, after which she always read with a pencil in hand, not summarizing what she read but simply transcribing passages that struck her. It was only after a year or so of reading and making notes that she tentatively ventured on the occasional thought of her own. “I think of literature,” she wrote, “as a vast country to the far corners of which I am journeying but will never reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up.”

She begins to develop her own taste in books, wondering:

Am I alone … in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?

and:

I can see why Dr. Johnson is well thought of, but surely, much of it is opinionated rubbish?

While she shares many characteristics with other, more ordinary readers, she is an uncommon reader, after all, and some of her insights come from her unique position. She’s particularly drawn to the democratic nature of reading:

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included.

She loves the way she is anonymous when she is reading; the book doesn’t know who she is and doesn’t care.

Her reading gets her into a little bit of trouble, though; no one in the palace likes the fact that she reads, and her private secretary and her aides are suspicious of the new development. One day her private secretary, Sir Kevin, tries unsuccessfully to explain why:

“I feel, ma’am, that while not exactly elitist it sends the wrong message. It tends to exclude.”

“Exclude? Surely most people can read.”

“They can read, ma’am, but I’m not sure that they do.”

“Then, Sir Kevin, I am setting them a good example.”

Although her servants hide her books and her secretary tries to separate her from Norman, her reading friend, they can’t make her lose her passion for reading. She’s hooked and that’s all there is to it.

I loved the way the Queen comes across as innocent and inexperienced, in spite of her years on the throne; she’s also shrewd, though, and open-minded, ready to experience with pleasure whatever comes her way. She’s a sad figure, too, one who only late in life discovers a pleasure she now realizes she could have enjoyed for many years past. She’s not one to dwell on lost time, though, and she simply relishes the pleasure of reading all the more while she can.

The book is witty and its sense of humor is dry. In my opinion, Bennett gets the tone exactly right — it’s light and fun and charming, but it’s also got some interesting ideas about the way reading can enhance and disrupt any person’s life, common or not.

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Anne Enright’s The Gathering

I’ve been trying to figure out why I struggled with Anne Enright’s The Gathering; the best I can come up with is that I started off badly with the book, and that bad start was too much to overcome. I did begin to like the book more as I went on, and now that I’ve finished it I have come to admire it, but the experience of reading it wasn’t pleasurable.

The first chapter irritated me with its elusiveness, its refusal to make complete sense, its jumping around from character to character and time period to time period. And the first chapter is not even two pages.

I don’t particularly like saying that in another mood, at another time, I might have liked the book — it feels like a cop-out to me: if I didn’t like the book I should just say I didn’t like it — but in this case it’s probably true. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with this particular narrator and her troubled and troubling voice.

The story is told by Veronica Hegarty, one of twelve children in an Irish family; her older brother Liam has just been found dead and throughout the novel she’s preparing for his funeral — the gathering of the title. Much of the novel, though, is taken up with what appear to be memories and flashbacks to Veronica’s youth and adolescence — her memories of her distant and mentally ailing mother, of sibling fights and violence, and especially of her grandmother Ada, her grandfather Charlie, and their mysterious but ever-present friend Lamb Nugent.

I say these “appear” to be memories and flashbacks because we learn early on that Veronica doesn’t really know much about her family and especially her grandparents, so instead she imagines a history for them, conjuring up, for example, the way her grandparents may have met and how Lamb may have ingratiated himself into their lives. There’s very little, when it comes down to it, that we as readers can say for sure about what the novel presents to us; what we know is what Veronica tells us of her attempts to make sense of her past, but these attempts are so tenuous, we are never on solid footing.

Veronica’s voice is a dark, troubling one; she’s grappling with some shocking memories of witnessing a sexual molestation, although even here she’s uncertain about how and whether it actually happened. She’s going through some marriage troubles herself, spending her days sleeping and her nights writing and driving around the city, feeling in complete isolation from her husband. She’s trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with her and with her recently-dead brother, to think through who is at fault, and even whether such a question is answerable at all. Her rage at the world comes through in almost every page, and I came in time to admire her attempts, floundering though they may be, to understand what has happened to her.

I kind of wish I hadn’t reacted badly to the novel at the beginning, as I came to like the book more as I thought about it further. It’s so direct and unsparing, and beautifully written too. But sometimes I’m not in the mood for beautiful writing, strange as that may sound. Or perhaps I should say that it struck me as self-consciously beautiful writing, and that’s what irritated me, the way the language drew attention to itself. That kind of writing I’m not always in the mood for.

At any rate, our book group discussion is tomorrow, and I’m curious to see how the conversation will go. Certainly don’t let my doubts scare you away from the book if you are at all interested in reading it — you may come to love it. Hobgoblin liked it quite a bit, in fact.

I’ll close with a quotation from an interview Enright gave; I thought it was a very astute way of thinking about James Joyce and his influence on contemporary writers:

Q. Almost every review of an Irish writer’s work makes comparisons to James Joyce. Is it hard to get away from him?

A. I don’t want to get away from him. It’s male writers who have a problem with Joyce; they’re all “in the long shadow of Joyce, and who can step into his shoes?” I don’t want any shoes, thank you very much. Joyce made everything possible; he opened all the doors and windows. Also, I have a very strong theory that he was actually a woman. He wrote endlessly introspective and domestic things, which is the accusation made about women writers – there’s no action and nothing happens. Then you look at “Ulysses” and say, well, he was a girl, that was his secret.

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History and fiction

There’s a very interesting article in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore on the relationship of history and fiction as it has played out over time, touching briefly on the recent scandals over fake memoirs such as the one by Margaret Jones (aka Seltzer). I love this article because it reminds us that ideas we take for granted now were not always seen as true, and, as many articles of this sort do, it uses the eighteenth century as a reference point.

The argument is that while today we take for granted the differences between history and fiction — one tells us facts, the other makes things up — in the past and particularly up until the eighteenth century, history was a place where invention was expected and encouraged:

Invention was a hallmark of ancient history, which was filled with long, often purely fictitious speeches of great men. It was animated by rhetoric, not by evidence. Even well into the eighteenth century, not a few historians continued to understand themselves as artists, with license to invent. Eager not to be confused with antiquarians and mere chroniclers, even budding empiricists confessed a certain lack of fussiness about facts.

Eighteenth-century novels, on the other hand, were often labeled “true history,” even though their contents were fabricated. Writers like Defoe and Richardson claimed that they were presenting genuine, real-life, historical documents they found, not ones they made up. Novels were also considered truthful in the sense of containing human, universal truth, if not the literal, factual “truth” we accept today. Lepore writes that for Fielding:

… there are two kinds of historical writing: history based in fact (whose truth is founded in documentary evidence), and history based in fiction (whose truth is founded in human nature).

Lepore points out that the history we’re familiar with today developed around the same time as the novel, interestingly enough, and so is a relatively new discipline. Lepore then connects these developments to gender; she points out that from the novel’s beginning (more or less) in the eighteenth century it has been associated with women, and that history has been associated with men. This dynamic continues today, with most fiction buyers being women and most history buyers being men. In the early days of the novel, when people (usually although not always men) worried about the time women were “wasting” reading novels, they recommended that women spend their time reading history instead. Over time, history came to be seen as the professional discipline, the domain of seriousness and truth, while fiction was seen as frivolous.

All this is interesting, isn’t it? Lepore doesn’t say that much about the “fake memoir” genre — she compares Margaret Seltzer unfavorably to Henry Fielding, arguing that while they both claimed their fictions were truthful:

“Love and Consequences” is a fraud; “Tom Jones” is not. Fielding was playing; Seltzer was just lying.

Yes, Seltzer’s book is a fraud, but the point remains that the differences between fact and fiction, history and novel, have never been all that easy to sort out and people have not always understood these terms in the way we do today. Our outrage at Seltzer and people like her is partly a product of relatively recent developments in the way we think about genre. I must say I find it rather silly when people denounce Seltzer with great seriousness and claim that she represents the degeneracy of our times. I’d rather just think of her as another example of the way we can never say exactly what it is we’re holding when we’ve got a book in our hands.

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Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan

51b2wtfid-l_aa240_.jpg I enjoyed Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan (my copy sent to me by the publisher), although I also thought it was a bit strange, most particularly so in its ending, which I won’t describe here. I’ll just say the ending struck me as unconventional. I find it hard to talk about conventions in crime novels, as I’m not that familiar with the genre, but the ending — while perfectly satisfying — seemed unusual.

I do rather wish I had read Christine Falls first, the book that opens the series; while The Silver Swan stands on its own, it does spend a lot of time reviewing and referring to what happened in the first novel, and I felt I would have been able to follow along better with that context a little clearer in my mind. I’ve read series books out of order before and felt a little less disoriented in those instances. Still, it’s a fine read no matter what.

The main character is Quirke (a delightful name, isn’t it?), an appealing protagonist, a man who (along with many other crime novel heroes I’m finding) has been thwarted in love, struggles with drinking, and is driven by a sense of curiosity that rarely does him any good. His wife Delia died quite some time ago, but the woman he truly loved, Delia’s sister, is recently lost, and Quirke is haunted by the failure of both these relationships. He also has a daughter, Phoebe, who only recently learned Quirke is her father, and she hasn’t yet forgiven him for keeping the secret. Quirke’s life and the lives of those around him are filled anger, resentment, and regret, and Quirke himself is surrounded by an air of melancholy. He’s a former alcoholic, haunted just as much by his longing for a drink as he is by his sense of his mistakes.

The mystery itself concerns an old school friend of Quirke’s who unexpectedly appears and asks Quirke, who works as a pathologist, to ensure that his recently dead wife, Dierdre Hunt, otherwise known as Laura Swan, does not receive an autopsy. Naturally, this sparks Quirke’s curiosity, and it comes as no surprise when we learn that Dierdre died under mysterious circumstances.

The novel’s point of view switches back and forth among the characters, moving from Quirke’s story back in time to tell Deirdre’s story and later moving into the point of view of other characters as well. We learn that Deirdre, in her Laura Swan guise, ran a beauty salon with the mysterious and slightly sinister Leslie White and that both of them visited the equally mysterious and slightly sinister Dr. Kreutz, who is a “spiritual healer,” an occupation that provokes suspicion in a number of the characters, and rightly so, as it turns out.

As Quirke investigates Deirdre’s life and her connections to Leslie White and Dr. Kreutz, he notices that his own daughter Phoebe has connections among these people as well, and then the plot begins to get interesting.

I enjoyed the book for its plot, but even more so for the relationships the novel describes; as happens in some of the other crime novels I’ve read, the crime seems almost like an excuse to throw some characters together in difficult circumstances to see how they behave themselves. I would like to go back and read Christine Falls now to see how Quirke began his life as a crime novel hero, and I would also like to read future installments, whenever they might appear, especially in light of The Silver Swan’s strange ending.

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