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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Till tomorrow …

Well, I was going to post on Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan tonight, but I got sidetracked by listening to Barack Obama’s amazing speech, and now I need to finish The Gathering so that Hobgoblin has time to read it before Friday’s book group meeting.  So, until tomorrow …

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The race and the play

My race today got canceled because of snow that never actually materialized (the race promoter had to make a judgment call yesterday and the forecast wasn’t looking good then), but I’m grateful because I developed a sore throat yesterday and needed to take two naps today. It’s safe to assume I would not have done well had I tried to race. My racing season isn’t getting off to such a good start, but I can’t say I care a whole lot — the riding not the racing is the point for me. So far I’ve ridden 930 miles this year, which is just about what I rode last year, and I feel like I’m riding stronger and faster.

So, the play on Friday was a bit of a disappointment. I saw Vigil, written by Morris Panych and thought the play’s premise had a lot of potential that the play itself didn’t live up to. Mostly I was disappointed because I wanted to have the experience of losing myself in the performance, of forgetting that I was in a theater and getting so caught up in the story I didn’t want it to end. The last two times I’ve been to the theater I’ve missed that experience, and I wonder if it happens less often than I think, or if I’ve just had bad luck. I’m not one to lose myself easily in stories when I’m reading; I tend to keep an analytical distance, even when I’m enjoying the book and having an emotional response to the characters or the situation. I just don’t tend to forget I’m sitting there turning pages every now and then. With films, though, I’ll get caught up in the story fairly easily, and I wonder why that doesn’t seem to translate to the theater. Perhaps it has something to do with the way going to the theater feels like an event, as it isn’t something I do that often, and perhaps the unusualness of it makes me keep the self-awareness that precludes getting caught up in the story.

The play’s premise is that a lonely, isolated man, who is also almost unbearably self-centered and misanthropic, quits his job to come take care of his aunt who is on her deathbed. The aunt is not approaching death fast enough for this man, however, an opinion he makes abundantly clear to the poor woman. The first part of the play basically consists of jokes where the man says in a variety of horrifying ways that he wishes his aunt would hurry up and die.

What makes the play interesting is that, at least initially, the aunt doesn’t speak at all. This is not explained (at least not at first); we just accept that for some reason she responds to the man with gestures and facial expressions, but without words. I liked this set-up because it gives the man room to say whatever he wants, to reveal things about himself, to tell stories about his past, and he can do this because he has not just a listener, but one whose only judgment is a stare or a grimace or a smile. His audience never interrupts him, or offers an opinion, or asks him to be quiet.

The man does tell lots of stories about himself and does reveal things about his past and his personality (which is pretty messed up), but the disappointing thing is I never felt these stories added up to much. It was just one funny or moving or horrifying story after another. Now the play’s main plot is about the evolving relationship between the man and his aunt so it does have a traditional story arc that is satisfying in its own way, but so much of the play is taken up with the man’s monologues that I thought for sure all those stories would end up going somewhere. Instead they seemed to be there merely to make the audience laugh and to make the man look troubled and pathetic.

But in spite of my doubts about the play, I did enjoy the whole experience; it’s a pleasure to be able to critique something when it’s finished, after all, and that’s not a pleasure I take lightly.

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Friday notes

I’m going to see a play this evening called Vigil written by Morris Panych, a man the theater’s website calls “one of Canada’s greatest award-winning playwrights.” It’s described as a black comedy, which sounds great to me. I’ll make sure to let you know how I liked it.

A work friend invited Hobgoblin and I to see the play, the same friend I’ll be starting a book group with, which meets for the first time next Friday. I’ve begun reading the first book, which is Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I’m not sure how the discussion will go; it could be interesting because my friend has finished the novel, and while by the end she decided she liked it, in the middle she had some grave doubts. I’ve read maybe the first 20 pages, and I find myself irritated by it. This may be a matter of my mood; I go through stages when I can’t stand much contemporary fiction, particularly of the literary “lyrical” sort. I was irritated by the way the first-person narrator kept jumping around in time, from idea to idea, character to character, taking her time to put things together so I could feel I’m on solid footing. I thought she should just get to the point.

You can see why I chalk this up to my current mood — I’m not proud of feeling irritated by a narrator who asks me to work a little bit. I feel lazy when I complain in this way. But sometimes what I need is some straightforward storytelling, told in language that doesn’t draw attention to itself.

I want to write about Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan, a book that didn’t irritate me at all ... maybe later this weekend. Enjoy your Friday!

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Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key

I’m relatively new to the mystery/detective/crime novel genre, but Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key struck me as different from other examples in a number of ways, most particularly in the way we find out so little about the main character, Ned Beaumont. I just finished Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan for a point of comparison, and although Black doesn’t give us reams of information about his hero’s thoughts and feelings, we do get a little insight into how his mind works. But Ned Beaumont remains a mystery; perhaps he’s the central mystery of the book rather than the murder he’s trying to get to the bottom of.

I don’t say he’s investigating this murder because that might be overstating the case, as Beaumont is not a real detective. He has a man working for him who is a real detective, but he himself is a political henchman, working for a corrupt man who backs a corrupt senator. When the senator’s son is murdered, he wants to find out who did it, not to bring the murderer to justice but to clear his friend from suspicion.

So what do we know about Ned Beaumont? (The narrator always calls him by his full name, never just “Ned” or “Beaumont.”) He appeared on the scene (some unnamed city, possibly Baltimore) only a couple years ago from no one knows where. He has a history in New York City, but no one knows what the connection is. He appears to be a handsome man, although we only know this because of the way other characters react to him; the narrator never describes his looks. People like him, although it’s not entirely clear why. He’s got a powerful attachment to Paul Madvig, the man suspected of committing the murder, but we’re not entirely sure what the basis of this attachment is. He seems like a drifter, a man who will float into a city, stay a while, get in some trouble or get bored, and float away somewhere else. Women fall in love with him, but there’s no indication he has any feelings for them at all.

The world Ned Beaumont lives in is thoroughly corrupt, and there’s no hint that things could possibly be otherwise. No one works to clean things up. Instead, we’re given a world full of violence and betrayal. The novel contains a shocking scene where Ned Beaumont ventures into the lair of a competing political operative believing he can trick this man, but instead finds himself brutally beaten up. He tries to escape again and again and each time he is beaten up once again, but he keeps trying and trying until he comes to embody brute determination itself. Even the man chiefly responsible for these beatings comes to admire his tenacity. It’s as though the novel is saying there is nothing to do in a world like this but to keep fighting until you can fight no more.

This description doesn’t sound like the sort of book I’m generally attracted to, and yet I did enjoy it. At least, I enjoyed it once I figured out what was going on. The first 50 pages or so were confusing, with lots of new characters and lots of intrigue. Since the narrator gives so few explanations of what is going on, the reader must do a lot of work to piece the plot together. It’s not always immediately clear which side Ned Beaumont is on, for example, or what he’s setting out to do. But the world Hammett creates is so chillingly well-drawn, so shockingly consistent in its corruption, so ruthless and heartless, that you can’t help but admire it, even as it horrifies you.

I can’t say I’ll be picking up another Hammett novel soon (although if my book club were to choose another one, I would happily read it), but I’m pleased to have gotten a taste of his work and to have a glimpse into the world of hard-boiled crime fiction.

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Weekend report

What a weekend! I don’t think I’ve quite recovered. First, it turns out I didn’t race on Sunday after all. I got about three, maybe three and a half hours of sleep on Saturday night, and I woke up feeling awful. I don’t know about you, but I can’t function on little sleep. I just shut down. On Sunday morning I felt shaky and I knew I wasn’t thinking very quickly and wasn’t capable of good judgment. So I decided to take it easy on myself and sit out this race. The cold temperature and high winds made that decision a little easier.

I did, however, have fun watching the races all morning. Hobgoblin had a great race on the same amount of sleep I got. I have no idea how he does it. I should have been the one out there racing while he took a break because he’d flown in from El Salvador the night before. But anyway, I spent the morning trying to stay warm, chatting with my teammates, and cheering on other racers. Some of my teammates are so enthusiastic about racing and love to talk about their races so much, I can’t help but have fun listening to them.

But I also wanted to tell you about the book club meeting on Saturday. It turned out to be a fabulous time. There were seven of us, and we talked about Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key for what must have been at least 2 1/2 or 3 hours; we were there for four hours total and spent a huge chunk of that time focused on the book. Surely it’s unusual for a book group to be that thorough? It is in my rather limited experience at least.

I want to do a separate post on the book later, so I won’t get into the details of our discussion, but we covered so many aspects of it — our reactions to the characters and particularly the enigmatic main character Ned Beaumont, the ways this novel fits into the tradition of crime fiction (which I didn’t have a whole lot to say about, as I’m not that familiar with the genre), and the novel’s take on corruption and politics and its general hopelessness about justice ever being served.

So, I think I’ll learn a ton about mystery novels/detective novels/crime fiction (is there a clear distinction between these terms?) from this group. Next up is Marjery Allingham’s Sweet Danger. She’s an author I’m not familiar with at all, so I’m looking forward to it.

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Notes

You’ll be happy to know I’ve finished my reading for tonight’s book group meeting and am set to head out soon. We’re discussing Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, and I’m curious to see what everyone else makes of it. It’s certainly not my usual sort of reading, but that’s good — it’s what makes book groups interesting. I’ll post on the book later.

Hobgoblin returns from El Salvador tonight; his school group will reach campus at some ungodly hour like 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., so rather than picking him up, I dropped a car off on campus yesterday, bringing my bike along so I could leave the car and ride home. It turned out to be a lovely ride; I lengthened it a little bit so I could stay out for a couple hours and I had a great time in the balmy, almost 50 degree weather.

I’m worried about tomorrow’s race, though — it’s super windy tonight and the wind is supposed to continue into tomorrow morning. The wind was bad enough for the race last week, but it promises to be even worse tomorrow. That will make things interesting. Hobgoblin plans to race, even though he’ll only get a couple hours sleep (the situation is made worse, of course, by the time change which forces us to lose another hour).

I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Book groups

I have the chance to participate in a new book group — two new book groups in fact. One of them is a mystery group, whose illustrious members include Emily and Becky from Musings from the Sofa. I’m not starting off with this group very well, though, as the first meeting is Saturday, and I haven’t yet begun the reading. So I’m considering trying to do my relatively slow version of speed reading over the next two days and seeing what I can accomplish. I don’t want to show up with the book unfinished, but I don’t want to miss the occasion either.

So, we’re reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, which, fortunately, we happened to have on our shelves, or I would have had to run out to the bookstore this evening. I believe Hobgoblin has read the book before, which means that this isn’t a case of my newly-developed habit of collecting unread books actually paying off, although that would be cool if it were the case.

The other book group a friend from work and I are starting; that one meets in two weeks and we’re reading Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I’m looking forward to it, as I’ve heard so many good things about the book.

But all this reading means I don’t have time to stay and chat. I may stay away from the internet a little more than usual over the next couple days …

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Bookshelf guilt

A number of people have linked to Scott McLemee’s interesting article on bookshelves and what they say about us. McLemee writes:

For there are, it seems, people who feel stress about owning volumes they haven’t read. Evidently some of them believe a kind of statute of limitations is in effect. If you don’t expect to read something in, say, the next year, then, it is wrong to own it. And in many cases, their superegos have taken on the qualities of a really stern accountant — coming up with estimates of what percentage of the books on their shelves they have, or haven’t, gotten around to reading. Guilt and anxiety reinforce one another.

Ah, if only it were easy to be sensible and avoid this cycle of guilt and anxiety. I’m not proud of it, but I do feel stress about owning volumes I haven’t read. I would prefer not to feel this stress, I think it makes more sense not to feel it, it’s much more sophisticated and intelligent not to feel it. But what can I do? Those books sometimes feel like a burden, and I don’t even own a lot of unread books compared to some other bloggers out there.

But for most of my life I’ve bought books in order to read them right away; I would buy them with the intention of heading home that very evening to read them — or rather, I should say I would buy a book with the intention of heading home that evening to read it, singular. So my newly-developed habit of buying books, sometimes stacks of books, with the intention of reading them at some point in the near but unspecified future doesn’t yet feel right to me.

Of course I could go back to my old habits and slowly work my way through the books I’ve already accumulated until the stack is gone, but then I wouldn’t be able to buy those stacks of books. No more library sales for me, no snatching books from used bookstore shelves whenever they look appealing, no more impulse orders from Amazon, etc.

So, I’ll simply have to find a way to deal with my guilt, or to magically make it go away.  Any advice on how to deal with my stupid “stern accountant” superego that feels owning unread books is wasteful and wrong?

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Race report

The bad news: I didn’t finish the race. The good news: I feel okay about that.

It was a cold, blustery day, just what one would expect for March, and it was only at the last minute that I unwillingly took off my jacket so my race number would show. There were somewhere around 18-20 racers in my field, including one teammate, a woman who is at least a Category 3 racer, or maybe Category 2 by now, which means that she’s won some races and has done very well. I recognized a couple other faces from other teams.

The first lap was fine until the bottom of the hill that comes at the end of the course (it’s around .8 mile long), when someone attacked and the pack took off. That set the tone for the rest of the race — there were lots of attacks and lots of slowing down and speeding up; I felt like I was always either hitting the brakes or accelerating madly.

I really suffered on the hill. I’d work my way up toward the front of the pack on the flat stretches, and then watch people pass me on the hill. A few times I had to work hard to catch up to the pack when we headed back downhill. Must do more hill work.

So, the race was 22 laps, and I hung on for 13 of them. I might have lasted longer, but on lap 13 the official rang the bell that indicates a prime lap — which means the first one across the line at the end of that lap wins something, possibly money or cycling gear. So everyone took off, and I spent that lap trying to keep up with them. By the time we reached the hill I hadn’t yet caught them, which meant it was over, as there was no way I could catch them heading uphill. I rode another lap on my own and quit.

Some of the other riders fell off the back at the same point I did, and they kept riding on their own or in a small group and finished the race, but I have a really hard time continuing to ride once I’ve fallen behind. I don’t see the point, really, as I don’t need to struggle along for miles on my own to get 20th place or something like that. And it’s so hard to ride out there on your own when it’s so windy. In the pack you can draft, of course, but on your own, it’s you against the wind. It’s no fun.

So I got a good workout — I stayed with the pack for about 30 very intense minutes — and I did better than I was afraid I might. The last time I rode in this particular race, I lasted three laps before I got dropped. This was better at least.

What worries me, though, is that our pace was pretty slow — 20 mph — which is a pace I should be able to keep up on that course. During the races last year I started off at 21 mph and worked my way up to 25. The wind might have been a factor, though, and the fact that we had a small pack. I could draft, yes, but there weren’t that many bodies to block the wind.

I also think that the races coming up could be a lot harder than this one was. I have no way of knowing, but other, faster women might show up next week who weren’t there today, and that would change the dynamic completely. I feel like if I rode with these same women again I could probably do better, but against a tougher field, I might not.

Anyway, that’s what happened. It was fun, and I’m looking forward to getting in even better shape over the next few weeks.

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