Monthly Archives: June 2008

The Glimpses of the Moon

Edith Wharton’s novel The Glimpses of the Moon was an immensely satisfying read; it’s a good story that moves along at just the right pace, and it offers much to think about: it deals with love and marriage, money and society, ambition, work, children, novel-writing, travel, class, isolation, loneliness, and probably more things that I’m not thinking about now.  I don’t think the book is quite on par with The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, maybe because it is more narrow in focus than the other two and perhaps because I’m biased towards books with a tragic rather than a comic structure.  But still, I felt a depth and heft to this book that I too often feel is missing in more contemporary fiction.

The novel tells the story of Susy Branch and Nick Lansing, both of whom have no money but have found ways of living comfortably in high society — they have been sponging off of friends in order to support the lifestyles to which they have been accustomed.  When they meet and hit it off, they decide to marry and live as long as they can off the wedding presents they receive and the offers of houses to visit that come from their rich friends.  The novel opens with the couple beginning their honeymoon at a friend’s villa on Lake Como.  The catch, though, is that they have agreed to end the marriage if one or the other finds someone rich who will marry them.  Their marriage is opportunistic through and through, although they are, without a doubt, quite fond of each other.

With this precarious situation at the novel’s opening, things are bound to unravel, and unravel they do.  First of all, Nick and Susy discover that their intense focus on money is bound to warp their relationship.  It turns out they have different ideas about what manipulation and deception, what “management” — an important term in the novel — is acceptable when it comes to securing money or a house to live in.  They quarrel about whether Susy should take a box of cigars left by their friend, and this quarrel causes a rift that won’t soon heal and that hints at the even greater struggles the two of them will soon face.

This conflict is interesting because of the way it’s gendered; as a woman Susy is more vulnerable than Nick is and therefore needs a moral code that is more flexible to maintain her position.  Nick has the luxury of being a little more discriminating.  Wharton describes this conflict in satisfying detail, especially the way Susy regrets that she has disappointed Nick and longs to attain a higher moral standard, but at the same time fully understands the reasons for her behavior and is able to forgive herself.

From here things fall apart further; friends and their friends’ children intrude into their honeymoon bliss, jealousies flare, misunderstandings arise.  Nick and Susy have much to learn, both about themselves and about the world they live in.  They eventually are faced with the demoralizing realization that the world they worked so hard to maintain their place in is ultimately frivolous and shallow.  Their friends lead silly, pointless lives and are intensely selfish.  They only care about Nick and Susy to the extent that they have something to gain from them.

In contrast to their wealthy but frivolous friends are the Fulmers, a family of struggling artists and many children who lead honest lives but have no money.  Susy and Nick are horrified by these people, by their obliviousness to fashion and their unsophisticated happiness.  But they are innocent and relatively unspoiled by the idleness and silliness of the other characters (at least at first).  Eventually Susy and Nick will learn something from these people; their changing attitude towards the Fulmers will mark changes within themselves.

The novel’s structure is satisfying too (although perhaps a trifle too neat?  I enjoy this kind of neatness though).  I’m going to be discussing plot events from later in the novel, so take care — after Nick and Susy split they each find another love interest and another family to take care of them, and each of them have lessons to learn about themselves and about each other.  Only after they have learned these lessons apart from one another are they able to find a way to come together again.  I found the ending plot twists exciting, although a tad unrealistic, but I was willing to get over this for the sake of the pleasure the ending brought.

Overall, what a satisfying book this is!  Check out the Slaves of Golconda site for other posts and discussion.

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Meme time

A lazy summer Saturday seems like the perfect time to do a meme, something I haven’t done in a while, generally because I’m disobeying orders from Her Majesty, which hasn’t gotten me in trouble yet, but I’m still being careful. This time around, Pete tagged me.

What was I doing 10 years ago?

Ten years ago I was getting ready for my wedding, or, more accurately, helping Hobgoblin get ready for our wedding. I was also studying for my masters comprehensive exams and preparing to begin my Ph.D. I was also preparing to teach for the first time ever. That summer I also went on a backpacking trip and did some house sitting for a faculty member at my school. Wow. How did I have the energy for all that?

Five snacks I enjoy in a perfect, non weight-gaining world:

  1. Hot fudge sundaes
  2. Brownies with ice cream
  3. Nachos
  4. Chocolate
  5. Apple pie

Five snacks I enjoy in the real world:

  1. Occasionally the above, but more often:
  2. Chips, of any sort
  3. Popcorn
  4. Cheese
  5. Apples

Five things I would do if I were a billionaire:

  1. Travel, including visiting other continents, but also hiking the Appalachian Trail
  2. Buy land and donate it to environmental organizations for conservation
  3. Donate money to research global warming and alternative energy sources
  4. Buy bikes and books
  5. Quit my full-time job but get a part-time one so I won’t go crazy with too much time on my hands

Five jobs that I have had:

  1. Babysitter
  2. Salad-bar filler
  3. School supply picker and packer
  4. Assistant Freshman Year Director
  5. Professor

Five habits:

  1. Checking email and Google Reader obsessively
  2. Reading a page or two before I fall asleep
  3. Drinking coffee in the morning — decaf
  4. Recording my cycling statistics (riding time, miles ridden, speed, heart rate, cadence, route)
  5. Recording books I’ve read, including dates begun and finished

Five places I have lived:

  1. Buffalo, New York
  2. Rochester, New York
  3. Chicago suburbs
  4. The Bronx
  5. Bethel, Connecticut

If this meme looks like fun, consider yourself tagged!

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Reading and riding update

Mostly this will be a riding update, and it will be short, as I’m tired! I just got back from a 4 hour 20 minute ride with Hobgoblin and another friend. It was a lovely ride, even more so as we were in danger of not going because the weather forecast threatened rain and storms. But we decided that since it’s not cold, getting wet shouldn’t be a problem, and then all we encountered was a few sprinkles now and then. Perfect!

For those of you who know the area, we started out in Ridgefield and then rode over into New York, up into Putnam County, down into northern Westchester, and then back to Ridgefield. It was hilly (of course), but not ridiculously so, and I rode it fairly fast (for me), at 17.5 mph.

The friend we rode with is training for the Lake Placid Ironman triathlon, and I’m in awe of her abilities. She’s a very powerful rider, and instead of doing what Hobgoblin and I do after a long ride, which is to head for refrigerator, the shower, and then the couch, she heads for the treadmill or out to the road again to do some running. Yikes.

We are planning an epic 100+ ride for July 4th. Perhaps I can break my speed record for a century, which is 17 mph.

On the reading front, things are moving slowly. I haven’t had nearly as much time to read as I thought I would … I think this has to do with the riding I’m doing, but also with the work I’m doing on my online course, and also with having more of a social life than I usually have. Generally Hobgoblin and I spend the summer almost entirely in the house, in the woods, or out racing or riding our bikes, but this time around, we’re actually getting out and doing other things and seeing friends. It’s nice for a change! But it means I’m not flying through the books as fast as I thought I would.

But that’s okay. Believe it or not, I’m happier when I don’t have too much free time, even free time to read. When I have a lot of time, I find I don’t use it very well and can get lazy and listless.

I am having a great time reading Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon, which the Slaves of Golconda are reading for the end of June. What a fun book! It seems to be slighter than her most famous novels in terms of theme and scope, but still it’s insightful into relationships and the mind in ways that I love. More on that later.

I recently checked out the latest Maisie Dobbs mystery from the library, and so may pick that up soon, and Hobgoblin and I went yesterday to our local bookshop to check out mysteries for our next book club meeting. This is turning out to be a year of reading mysteries, which I didn’t at all expect, but which has turned out to be fun.

I’m hugely enjoying my nonfiction reads too, the ones you see on the sidebar; I just don’t have as much time to devote to them.

So once again I’ll remind myself that it really doesn’t matter how many books I read every year — as long as I’m enjoying what I read and finding books that make me think, that’s all that matters.

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Beat Not the Bones

Charlotte Jay’s novel Beat Not the Bones manages an unusual feat: it is interesting and boring at the same time.  It has a lot of ideas, a lot of good things to discuss, but the experience of reading it was dull.  Surely you’ve had that experience before?  I kept wondering why I wasn’t enjoying myself more; I felt I should have enjoyed it, but I found it too easy to put the book down.

I was relieved to read that Emily found it boring too, and to hear that many of the members of my mystery book group agreed (Hobgoblin’s take on the novel is here).  One member wondered if he was reading it under poor circumstances, which might explain why he found it hard to get through, but when others said that they had a similar experience, it seemed clear that it’s a fault of the book and not of the reader.

The book is marketed as a mystery and it won the Edgar Allan Poe award in 1954, but it felt to me like it could just as easily be considered literary fiction as mystery.  There is a mysterious death that gets explained by the novel’s end, but the heart of the novel is really in the changes that take place in the main character, Stella, and there is no way for the reader to figure out how the plot will resolve itself — there are no clues to follow and there is no detective.  I wondered if I would feel differently about the book if I approached it as literary fiction rather than as mystery — when I pick up a mystery, I expect a fast-moving plot at least, but with other kinds of fiction I’m more tolerant of slowness.

The story is about the death of Stella’s husband which took place in the colonial outpost of Marapai in New Guinea.  Stella, who had been living apart from her husband in the time leading up to his death, travels to Marapai to discover what happened to him.  People have told her that he committed suicide, but she believes he was murdered.  In the novel’s opening chapters we are introduced to a potential suspect, Alfred Jobe, who has discovered gold in the jungle village of Eola.  Stella’s husband has blocked his claim to the gold, providing him with a motive for murder.  Stella’s quest is initially to find Jobe, but she soon learns that the situation is much more complicated than she originally thought.

The novel’s colonial context is one of the most interesting things about it; there is the inevitable tension between the white colonialists and the Papuans, and it quickly becomes apparent that most if not all of the colonialists are incapable of seeing the Papuans as human beings.  Racial inequality is a given; the colonialists are there to bring “civilization” to the natives and the natives are there to gratefully accept it — and to work as servants.  The atmosphere is even darker than this description implies, however, as the whites have largely stopped believing in their “mission” and are focused on survival and perhaps on making some money.

All this raises the question of Jay’s own take on the colonial situation and on race relations.  I couldn’t help but feel that the book is meant as a critique of racism and colonialism and that the bleakness of the situation is a reflection on what inevitably happens when one group of people tries to control another.  As the novel progressed, I was overwhelmed by the ugliness of it all, the horror of what the colonizers were willing to do to maintain their position and to protect themselves from any culpability, and I think Jay meant the reader to feel that way.

On the other hand, I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly what to make of Jay’s portrayal of the Papuans.  The book is a little like Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (many thanks to Becky for pointing out this comparison) in the sense that both novels use a colonial setting as the backdrop to the tell the story of a woman’s growth and self-realization, and I can’t help but wonder whether the plight of the natives gets a little lost.  Is this another example of a colonial setting functioning mainly as the spur to change in the colonizers?

And yet while Jay largely keeps her focus on the white characters and their struggles and challenges, she does offer a complex and powerful Papuan character in Hitolo, and in a way it makes sense for her to focus on the colonizers rather than to try to get into the minds of the Papuans, which might feel presumptuous and arrogant.  And what I think ultimately matters is the sense a reader almost inevitably leaves the novel with that the colonial project is hopelessly corrupt and doomed.  The ugliness of it pervades every page.

So with all this interesting stuff going on, I’m sad that the novel wasn’t a more absorbing read.  Part of the problem was that the characters weren’t developed enough to be believable — they tended to do strange and unexpected things, and I never found a way to fit all the pieces of each character together.  The pace was too slow as well, and it had abrupt and uncomfortable transitions that unfortunately invite a reader to set the book aside.

I am interested, though, in the combination of mystery novel and colonial setting.  Can you think of other books that do something similar?  Hobgoblin mentioned The Moonstone as a possibility.  Any others?

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Annoyed!

Today has proven to be a good day to get annoyed (this has nothing to do with today’s mystery book group meeting, which was great as usual), so I thought I’d mention this annoying article.  I know I shouldn’t let the article get to me, as the author is obviously trying hard to annoy people and I’m falling right into the trap, but oh, well.  Sometimes it’s fun to get annoyed.

The article is basically a discussion of authors the columnist, Rod Liddle, thinks are overrated.  There is also a list of authors other critics and writers can’t stand.   Some of the explanations in the list are funny — it can be amusing to watch other people get annoyed — but many of them bother me because of their easy dismissal of authors generally considered great.  I have no problem with someone disliking Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves or the late Henry James on a personal level, but someone writing as though anybody in their right mind would hate Dickens and The Waves and the late Henry James just irks me.  Who are you to say you’re right and everyone else is wrong?

To return to the article, I’ll let you decide just how irritating you think Liddle is on your own (does he have a reputation for being an ass?  It wouldn’t surprise me), but I did want to say something about this bit — Liddle is talking about an informal survey he did asking writers what books they thought were overrated:

The columnist Catherine Bennett chose “the entire Virago imprint”, bemoaning the fact that, for political reasons, she had felt duty-bound to plough through Rosamund Lehmann and the like when there was Philip Roth waiting there, unread.

Okay, so Bennett doesn’t like Lehmann.  Fine.  No one is required to like Lehmann.  But I’m troubled by the phrase “and the like” and by the dismissal of all Virago books.  Virago books are written by a wide range of authors.  You can’t get away with lumping them all together and pitting them against Philip Roth as though all the Virago books are actually just one.  It’s absurd.  If you think Philip Roth could beat Rosamund Lehmann in some kind of a writing contest, fine, but don’t pit Roth against a whole range of women writers and assume that contest makes any sense.

There are other absurd and offensive things in the column, but I don’t want to rant on.  I suppose my real problem is that I expect all critics and columnists to be reasonable, rational people who try hard to be fair.  Yes, I can be a naive idealist, I know.

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Crazy Saturday

I’d thought yesterday that I might write a serious post today, perhaps my thoughts on Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones, which I’m discussing with my mystery book group tomorrow and which I’d hoped to write about soon.

But — what was I thinking? I got up at 6 a.m., left the house at 7, arrived at my bike race around 8, stayed at the bike race until after 7 p.m., and only got home an hour or so ago. Crazy. The problem was that Hobgoblin’s race was sometime around 9 a.m. and mine was scheduled for 5:30 p.m., but it didn’t really start until 6. Last year we drove back and forth to the race course twice to avoid staying there all day, but this year we couldn’t bear the thought of all that driving and gas expenditure, so we brought some books, decided to take Muttboy at the last minute, made sure we had comfortable chairs, and settled in.

I thought I might get a lot of reading done, but it turned out I read only about three pages before I gave up and spent the rest of the day watching the races and talking with friends and fellow racers. In spite of the long hours, I had fun. The truth is, the social aspect of racing is at least as much fun as the racing itself — sometimes significantly more so.

As for my race, it was a bit of a mess. It was, to put it mildly, very poorly run. The race promoter decided to have three women’s groups, and to have them race separately, which makes sense, but to have them race separately on the course at the same time, which didn’t make any sense at all. So after the first group started (the Pro-1-2 field), the second group (Category 3) waited 30 seconds and then started, and then my group (Category 4) waited 30 seconds and then started. So there were three fields out on a mile-long course all at once.

I expected the Pro-1-2 field to catch up to us, but instead we caught up with the Cat 3 riders, the ones who are supposed to be faster than us. We passed them, although we probably shouldn’t have and it was confusing, but everything seemed okay until the Cat 3 riders caught up with us and wanted to pass, and then we couldn’t figure out which way to go to let them get by — people yelled out “move to the left!” and others yelled “on the left!” and others just yelled out “left!” which meant we had no idea where to go. They somehow managed to pass us safely, but it turned out there were three riders in my group that stayed ahead of them, so we spent the rest of the race unsuccessfully chasing.

In spite of the confusion and danger, I was riding well, staying up front most of the time and even riding at the very front for a little while, but on the last lap at the third corner I let some riders get ahead of me and I took the last corner too slow, and my sprint at the end didn’t do much. I ended up getting 14th place. It wasn’t a very good result, but I did get some practice riding near the front of the pack, practice I desperately need.

So yeah, it was a crazy day — not least because I spent much of the day thinking “I hate racing! — why do I do this???” but in the race itself I thought, “hey — this is okay, it’s not so bad” and after the race I thought, “how can I do that better next time?” In other words, I can’t decide whether I hate racing, love racing, or something in between. I think the truth is that as long as I continue racing, I’m going to continue agonizing about it. Something to look forward to, right?

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Riding and math

Let me just say, first of all, that I had a great bike ride today, and although I may have worked so hard I’ll still be tired on Saturday when I race next, I don’t really care. I wouldn’t want to not have done this ride today. Really, great training rides are SO much more fun than races. Sometimes I feel like my racing gets in the way of my riding.

Anyway, I rode with Hobgoblin and two other friends with whom we’ve got a semi-regular Thursday ride going. We rode for three hours, although we were out closer to four when you count the stop at the coffee shop, the stop to fix a flat, and the stops to regroup. It was a fast ride, something over 18 mph (fast for me), covering 56 miles. We rode down to the Long Island Sound and back, and the weather was beautiful — in the 70s and dry. We couldn’t have asked for a better summer day.

But now on to books. I’m really enjoying Keith Devlin’s The Math Gene and am about half way through it. I like math a lot and wish I knew more about it. I haven’t studied it since high school, since I got far enough there to test out of my college requirements. It didn’t occur to me then to study it just for fun, although it occurs to me now; someday I’ll take math classes at my school, since I can do it for free.

But even if you don’t enjoy math or think you aren’t good at it, you can still read and get something out of Devlin’s book. He’s very good at writing for non-math people, and, in fact, large portions of his book are devoted to the question of why some people just can’t seem to do math — or think they can’t. You won’t be surprised to learn that he doesn’t buy the idea that some people simply can’t do math; he argues that those people haven’t been taught to understand what math is all about — they don’t get it because they don’t understand the meaning behind it. They were taught rules but have no idea what the rules mean or why they matter. This makes me appreciate my high school calculus teacher who took great pains to teach us just what calculus is useful for and how it began.

My favorite part so far is where he gets into some actual math instead of talking about it more generally; he has a section of a chapter where he explains group theory and gives the equations that explain some of the relevant concepts. He introduces this section by saying that it’s okay to skip it if the math becomes too hard, although skipping it will mean you won’t understand all of his later points fully. Of course this laid down a fun challenge, and although I struggled a bit, I made sure I understood what was going on with those equations. But I also like the way he takes care to reassure the reader that not getting it is okay. He’s a very kind and understanding author that way.

The book is also fun because it explains things like why lots of people count on their fingers, why parts of the multiplication tables can be so hard to remember (why many people, including me, have to think a bit about problems like 8×7, 8×6, and 9×6), and why Chinese and Japanese students tend to do better at math in school than Americans. This is not entirely explained by the relative quality of education, but it also has do with language: numbers are easier to learn in Chinese and Japanese because the words for numbers are easier. One study shows that most Chinese and Japanese children can count to 40 by age 4, while it takes American children one year longer to reach this point. We know this difference is due to language because, interestingly, there are no differences among these children when it comes to learning numbers 1-12, numbers that are easy to learn in English as well as Asian languages. It’s the numbers 13 and beyond that trip American children up because of the complicated way they are formed.

Devlin is excellent at explaining things — at using clear examples and telling interesting stories. If you aren’t a “math person,” but are at all tempted by this, be reassured that he makes the subject accessible and interesting. I’m looking forward to the book’s second half!

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