Monthly Archives: July 2008

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, written by a court gentlewoman in 10th century Japan, is thoroughly enjoyable.  It’s the kind of book best read in small bits and pieces, kind of like a diary, although it isn’t one, exactly.  In fact, although I didn’t choose to do this, you could take a hint from the book’s title and read a little bit of it as you hit the pillow every night.  The introduction to my edition explains that the meaning of the book’s title is uncertain, but that we can possibly imagine Sei Shonagon:

taking away her pile of paper to keep by her pillow and write, in the form of private jottings and as if purely for her own entertainment, a work that would redound to the credit of Teishi’s court — a work conveying the brilliant wit, exquisite taste and sheer ‘delightfulness’ for which that court had become known and which Sei Shonagon was felt to epitomize.

The book is made up of small sections, some of them as short as one line and the longest ones reaching to 10 or 15 pages.  Many of the entries are lists; Sei Shonagon will list, for example, “Things that make you feel nostalgic,” or “Occasions that induce half-heartedness” (including “Preparations for something still far in the future”) or “Things people despise” (including “People who have a reputation for being exceptionally good-natured”).  She will also list interesting place names or the names of flowers that sound good in poetry or names that are significant for one reason or another.

Other sections tell stories, many of them having to do with love intrigues and flirtation and cultured conversation.  There are many stories about men visiting their lovers at night and women waiting for the note that is sure to come after such a visit.  Sei Shonagon also writes about visits the court members make to one another and about court ceremonies and religious festivals.

An element of almost all these stories is poetry, which plays a surprisingly important role in Japanese court culture.  Again and again, Sei Shonagon tells stories about receiving letters with poetic allusions to which she must respond with a clever reference of her own, or stories about challenges to produce a poem on the spot, a challenge she must live up to, as she has a reputation for her quick wit.  There was a body of poetry that everyone — or at least everyone who hoped to succeed at court — had memorized, and which formed the basis of a whole system of communication.  You were expected to write poetry as well.  To write a bad poem was a deeply embarrassing thing, as was the failure to write one at all when one was expected of you.  To write a clever or beautiful poem could greatly increase your reputation and earn you respect.

The Pillow Book is fascinating for the glimpse it provides into a culture radically different from our own, and it’s also a pleasure to read for the sake of Sei Shonagon’s personality, which shines through every page.  She is an astute observer of the world and the people around her, and she never spares judgment, telling her stories and writing up her lists with a forthright, honest, and often funny voice.  One of the most famous passages from the book (it’s excerpted in my Art of the Personal Essay anthology) is a list of “Infuriating things,” and here’s a taste of it:

A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do and stays talking for ages.  If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation….

A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on….

It’s also quite disgusting to witness men getting noisy and boisterous in their cups, groping round inside their mouth with a finger or wiping their whiskers if they have them, and forcing the saké cup on others.  “Go on, have another!” they’ll cry, and they wriggle and squirm and wag their heads, and pull down the corners of their mouths in a grimace, and generally perform just like a child singing “Going to See the Governor.”  I’ve seen even truly great men behave in this way, and I must say I find it most offputting.

I also really hate the way some people go about envying others, bemoaning their own lot in life, demanding to be let in on every trivial little thing, being venomous about someone who won’t tell them what they want to know, and passing on their own dramatized version of some snippet of rumour they’ve heard, while making out that they knew it all along.

A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something.  A flock of crows clamouring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings.  A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.

A man you’ve had to conceal in some unsatisfactory hiding place, who then begins to snore.  Or, a man comes in on a secret visit wearing a particularly tall lacquered cap, and of course as he scuttles in hastily he manages to knock it against something with a loud bump ….

And I could go on … it occurs to me that this book would make an excellent source of memes.  Perhaps we should start an “infuriating things” meme?  Or how about “splendid things” or “things later regretted” or “times when someone’s presence produces foolish excitement” or “endearingly lovely things”?

Sei Shonagon is someone who becomes a companion as you read her thoughts and stories; I’m sorry to have finished this book and will miss her.

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Training updates

I just got home from another fun Tuesday night race.  In spite of the fact that I am officially burnt out on racing, I still enjoy the Tuesday night races, largely because I have no hope whatsoever of doing well, and so there is no pressure.  I just hang out in the back, watch what is going on, and get a good workout.  I like hanging out in the very back these days because from there I can see clearly what the people up front are doing as they ride around the corners.  That way I keep an eye on where Hobgoblin is — and he’s generally up front somewhere, usually winning or in the top five.  He’s leading the series by a ridiculous number of points.  At this point, I’m much more interested in how he does than how I do.

So my triathlon training is going pretty well, all things considered.  My feet don’t protest the running too much, although I run only a very little way.  I started with a mile and am all the way up to a mile and a quarter!  Yes, it will take me quite a while before I can run a marathon, but I hope to get there one day.  The doctor tells me I can increase my mileage by 10% each week or 15% at most, assuming I have no serious pain, so you can see how slow the whole process is.

But the big news in my training is that I am now taking swimming lessons.  I can get myself across a pool, and can even do it a decent number of times, but I can’t do it with anything like proper technique, so I decided to get myself some lessons before my bad habits get any further ingrained.  My teacher, who was very patient in the face of my occasional incomprehension, gave me some drills to do, and a workout to do on my own, and I’m so happy to have some direction, instead of just floundering around trying to figure out the right way to swim but not really getting it.

My goal is to run and swim three times a week and ride my bike four times a week, or perhaps three if I do long rides.  All that is easy to do right now, although it will be more of a challenge when school starts.  I had my eye on a September triathlon I thought I might be able to do, but I don’t think I’ll be ready for the running part of it.  But that’s okay — if all goes well, I’ll compete in triathlons beginning in the late spring, and that will give me plenty of time to figure out what I’m doing.

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The Boat

Nam Le’s book of short stories, The Boat, has an incredible range of settings, situations, and types of characters. The first story is the most traditional, the most stereotypical, perhaps (although this is not to say it’s not a good story), with its main character who is a student in the famous Iowa creative writing program. From there, though, we take off to Colombia and read about 14 year old hitmen (hit children?) and then to New York City, Australia, Japan, Iran, and Vietnam. Le writes about each of these places with admirable ease and assurance, describing them as though he knows the places and the people intimately (leading me to speculate about the author’s life, although I generally try to be more sophisticated than that).

The stories are all action-filled, each one centering on some highly dramatic moment, often a violent one. For example, the story set in Iran tells of political protests and arrests through the lens of two estranged friends trying to understand each other, and the Australia story tells of teenage love, jealousy, bullying, and schoolyard fights. The last story is a harrowing account of Vietnamese “boat people” on a journey that lasted much longer than it should have.

But these stories aren’t simply interesting for their plot; they are wonderfully written as well. Le’s sentences beautifully capture the characters’ exterior world as well as their interior landscapes; they often startle you with a brilliant image or an unexpected observation. At times the writing veers toward stream of consciousness as Le takes you deep into a character’s mind. Here’s a passage that shows how Le writes about action and consciousness all at once:

Finally the storm arrived in force. The remaining light drained out of the hold. Wind screamed through the cracks. She felt the panicked limbs, people clawing for direction, sudden slaps of ice-cold water, the banging and shapeless shouts from the deck above. The whole world reeled. Everywhere the stink of vomit. Her stomach forced up, swashed through her throat. So this was what it was like, she thought, the moment before death.

She closed her eyes, swallowed compulsively; tried to close out the crawling blackness, the howl of the wind. She tried to recall her father’s stories — storms at sea, waves ten, fifteen meters high! — but they rang shallow against what she’d just seen: those dense roaring slabs of water, sky lurching overhead like a puddle being mucked with a stick. She was crammed in by a boatload of human bodies, thinking of her father and becoming overwhelmed, slowly, with loneliness. As much loneliness as fear. Concentrate, she told herself. And she did — forcing herself to concentrate, if not — if she was unable to — on the thought of her family, then on the contact of flesh pressed against her on every side, the human warmth, feeling every square inch of skin against her body and through it the shared consciousness of — what? Death? Fear? Surrender? She stayed in that human cocoon, heaving and rolling, concentrating, until it was over.

How can you read this and not want to know what happens next and also not want to know more about this young person caught in horrible circumstances?

The stories have an interesting metafictional element too. The first story about the creative writing student seems highly autobiographical (particularly as the character shares the author’s name), and in it, the character grapples with the question of whether he should write about Vietnam. Ethnic lit., he is told, is incredibly hot right now, and he could exploit that trend with tales about his father, a victim of the war, and with stories about Vietnamese boat people. A friend tactlessly tells him:

You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans — and New York painters with hemorrhoids.

Interestingly enough, most of the stories his friend lists appear in Le’s book (the lesbian vampire story isn’t there, unfortunately). So the whole collection becomes an exploration of writing and identity. What should a person write about? Should a person write about his or her roots, particularly if that’s what people want to read about and if it’s more likely to get published? Should a person instead explore other worlds?

Le does both of these things, writing about the familiar (he himself was a student in the Iowa program)  and writing stories about Vietnam (the first story about personal consequences of the Vietnam War and also the closing story about the boat people) and also writing stories about places and situations that seem remote from him. The book seems to argue that a writer can have it all, can write about his experiences and can stray far from them. And why not?

I admire the way Le uses the opening story to prepare the reader for the rest of the book and the way that story gives it a kind of unity, while at the same time the collection as a whole is incredibly diverse. Added to this unity-in-diversity is a self-awareness I admire, a questioning attitude about the relationship of writers to their material. All-in-all, Le has managed to pull off a pretty wonderful feat with this book.

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Annoyed!

Since I’m feeling intensely irritable at the moment (I’m fine, just tired), it seems a good time to point out how much I hated this article on so-called “reader’s block” (via The Literary Saloon).  Let’s just say that I will do my best to make sure I never use the phrase “reader’s block,” and if I ever develop an attitude like the author’s and make the mistake of blogging about it, please tell me and I’ll shut up immediately

There.  Now I’m off to read.

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Thoughts for Thursday

I seem to be having trouble blogging regularly this week. It’s low motivation partly, which surprises me, as I’d expect to have all kinds of energy because it’s summer and my schedule is much slower than usual.  But instead I feel sluggish. It’s also harder to blog this summer because I’m spending more time online than usual with my online class.  After an afternoon of grading papers on the computer, I just want to put the thing away.  Posting may be light for a while, although generally when I write such a thing here, my motivation comes back almost instantly.

My online class is going well, by the way, although summer courses have such a fast pace, I can tell my students’ energy is flagging, as is my own.  It will be over in a week, which is hard to believe, as I feel I’ve just gotten started.  I’ve had a few students not appear in the class at all, and some are there only occasionally, but the ones who are into it are doing a great job.  It’s fun to look through the discussion board and see them politely agreeing or disagreeing with each other, backing each other up, debating things.  I’m generally a nice person in the classroom (sometimes with some effort), but it’s even easier to be nice and friendly online, when I don’t actually have to see people.  I like seeing people, I really do, but it’s nice sometimes not to have to :)

As for reading, I’m almost finished with Nam Le’s The Boat, which I will write more about later, but for now I’ll say that I’m amazed at the range of material he’s got to work with.  The stories are set in various places all over the world and deal with an incredible variety of people and situations.  I’m curious what places and experiences the author has had himself, what ones he has learned about from other people, what ones he learned about solely through research, or what it was he did to get all that material.  I suppose what I want to know is the answer to that obnoxious question I would never ask an author: where do you get your ideas?

Finally, I realize I never wrote my final thoughts on Fingersmith.  I don’t suppose there is any real need for another review of the book, though, as it’s one that most people out there seem to have heard a lot about if not read themselves.  So I’ll just say that it’s a fabulous story, very well told, and if you like historical fiction at all, you’ll be likely to enjoy this.  I thought there were a few places where the pacing was a little off and a few places where the action was implausible, but that was very minor compared to all the pleasure this book offers.  If you read it, you will enjoy the story, but you will also learn interesting things about 19C London and how thieves operate and what it was like to be a woman at the time.  I’m looking forward to more Sarah Waters already.

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The Silent Woman

Thanks for all your comments about how you choose books; I enjoyed reading about people’s methods.  In addition to the Nam Le book of stories (which I’m now half way through and am enjoying a lot), I picked up Adeline Mowbray, a novel published in 1804.  I figured if I’m going to read something from 2008, I should also read something from an earlier century.  Both choices have turned out well so far.

But I never gave you my final thoughts on Janet Malcolm’s book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Silent Woman (first thoughts here).  In short, it was wonderful.  Litlove talked about enjoying nonfiction with “a bit of a twist to it,” and this book fits that description perfectly.  It takes familiar genres — biography and memoir, mainly, but also philosophy and literary criticism — and turns them upside down.  It’s a book about biographies, the various ones written about Plath and Hughes, and also a book about biography itself, the paradoxes of the genre and the trouble it can get people into.

Malcolm places herself in the middle of the book, describing her experiences interviewing the various people involved in shaping the Plath myth.  Each meeting becomes a little story, a vignette that reveals something about Plath or Hughes, or more often about the interviewee or about Malcolm herself.  By placing herself in the center of things, she acknowledges that biography is far from an objective form of writing, and that the biographer shapes the story almost as much as a fiction writer does.

The book is actually a little like a novel in the way that it sets out to tell a story and then keeps your attention so well you can’t wait to find out what turn the action will take next.  I usually read nonfiction slowly, but I flew through this book, drawn in by the fascinating characters — particularly Ted Hughes’s sister Olwyn, a woman you might see as a villain if you find yourself sympathetic to Plath or wanting to write a book about her (she was in charge of the Plath estate for many years), and Anne Stevenson, a writer who had a disastrous time working with Olwyn to produce a biography of Plath only to find herself villainized by Plath advocates (“libbers” as Olwyn calls them because most of them are feminists).

Malcolm says that any writer, including biographers, must take sides, and that she has taken the side of Hughes, defending him against those who have turned his life into a living hell by invading his privacy and pronouncing judgment on his most intimate moments.  But my sense is that in spite of her claims about the impossibility of objectivity and her obvious emotional involvement in the story she tells, she has produced a book as close to objective as is possible.  She may take Hughes’s side at times, but she also describes moments when her feelings toward him harden, and while she writes about how difficult and disturbed a woman Plath is, she also portrays her with great understanding and sympathy.  By being honest about her personal reactions to the players in this story, Malcolm earns the reader’s trust, or at least she earned my trust; I couldn’t help but feel that here was a writer doing her very best to tell the story as accurately as possible, and while she might fail now and then, she has succeeded as much as any writer can.

To give you a sense of what her writing is like (extraordinarily vivid, I thought) and what kinds of conclusions she draws about biography, here is a passage on the subject (lengthy, but worthwhile):

Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world.  The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.  The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity.  The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor.  He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses.  There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.  The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre.  The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.

Even if you are not remotely interested in Plath and Hughes (I am interested in them, although not enough to read traditional biographies; this book does, however, make me want to read more of their poetry), there is much to enjoy here.  Even if you aren’t interested in biography as a genre (which I suppose I am, although that fact surprises me, as I never realized it before), you will still like the book — in short, unless my description leaves you completely cold, read this!

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Moving on

So I finished my two un-put-downable books, and now I am in the slightly angsty position of having to choose what to read next.  Debby asked me recently how I choose my next book, and I have a few different ways, but I don’t use any one of them consistently, and I often find myself agonizing a bit.  The easiest way of selecting my next book is to pick up whatever I need to read for my next book group meeting.  In this case, that means I’ll be reading Nam Le’s The Boat, a brand new collection of short stories.  I don’t know anything about the book except that it’s gotten some good reviews and that my friends have liked it.  I’m excited to be reading some short stories again.

But I will want a novel to read too, I’m suspecting, and so will probably pick up something else as well.  If I’m not relying on my book groups to choose my books for me, the task is a little harder.  Sometimes I go with an impulse; I’ll just scan my shelves and see what jumps out at me.  Sometimes I go with a friend’s recommendation, which is what I did with both Fingersmith and The Silent Woman.  Sometimes I’ll have a desire to read a particular genre or from a certain time period, and I’ll see what I have on hand or can find at the library that fits the category.  Often I will try to think of what book would be as different as possible from what I just finished to get as much variety as I can.

But still, I rarely find the choice easy.  I make too big a deal of it, I know, but it sometimes seems that choosing a book is like making a statement about who I am.  If someone comes along and asks me what I’m reading, what will they think of my choice?  What will they assume about me?

But enough angst.  What shall I read?  Perhaps Adeline Mowbray or Shirley if I want to go with an earlier time period.  Perhaps Thomas Bernhard’s Frost if I want something edgier.  Perhaps Antonia White’s Frost in May if I’m in the mood for a Virago.  Perhaps Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker if I want something more contemporary.

Oh dear, maybe I should put the decision off until tomorrow … how do you choose?

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