Monthly Archives: August 2008

Library sales

A while back I mentioned that there were some local library sales coming up, and, of course, I had to check them out (and volunteer at one — this year I volunteered for the second day of the sale, so I wouldn’t miss being able to buy books on the first day, a lesson I learned from last year).  I came back from both sales with quite a stack, and now I’m hoping to be finished with buying books for a while (but we’ll see of course).  Here’s what I found:

  • Barbara Pym’s An Academic Question: The one Pym novel I’ve read I loved, Excellent Women, so I couldn’t resist snapping up another.
  • Matthew Sharpe’s The Sleeping Father: I don’t know anything about this one, but the name was familiar, and I later remembered he wrote Jamestown, which got some blog attention, I believe.  Anyway, it sounded interesting.
  • Ian Rankin’s Dead Souls: I haven’t yet read Rankin, and he definitely should be a part of my reading in the mystery genre.  A couple friends recommended him.
  • Henning Mankell’s Before the Frost: This one is a Linda Wallender mystery; I knew there were Kurt Wallender ones, but not Linda Wallender ones.  I’ve got one of the Kurt mysteries on audiobook, so these two together will make a nice introduction to Mankell.
  • Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams: This one has been on my wishlist ever since reading Lightman’s book on science, A Sense of the Mysterious.
  • Anthony Trollope, The Eustance Diamonds: It seemed to me like a good idea to have an unread Trollope novel lying around, just in case.
  • Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher: I’m not sure I’ll like this book, but I’d like to read Jelinek just to see what I think, controversial figure that she is.
  • Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls: I’ve read the sequel, The Silver Swan, and now it’s time to read the first in the series.
  • Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch: After having a great time reading Fingersmith, I couldn’t resist another Waters novel.
  • James Salter’s Last Night: This is a collection of stories by an author I’ve heard praised by fellow bloggers; I might have preferred to find a novel, but this will give me a chance to read more short stories.
  • Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches: Eventually I’ll have read everything Baker’s written.  Well, maybe not — his latest nonfiction doesn’t interest me very much.  But thanks to Book Mooch I have The Fermata on the way to me from Verbivore.
  • Jane Gardam’s The People on Privilege Hill: I’ve heard of Gardam’s novel Old Filth and so was intrigued by this collection of stories.
  • Robert Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica: I’m always happy to find NYRB books around, and this one looked particularly good.
  • Jane Urquhart’s Away.  Verbivore is the inspiration for this purchase; she sounds like a writer I will like.

There were many more I could have gotten, but that seemed like enough …

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Virginia Woolf

I just got an email advertising an upcoming exhibition in New York City about Virginia Woolf, This Perpetual Fight: Love and Loss in Virginia Woolf’s Intimate Circle, and I’m really excited about it. It features “over 200 items, including books, images, letters and other manuscript materials, some of which have never been exhibited publicly.It’s open September 17 to November 22. I’m sure I could drag Hobgoblin to see this, but he’s not exactly a Virginia Woolf fan (one of his very, very few failings). Is there anyone out there in the NYC area who might like to meet up one day to look through it? It could be a fun book blogger outing, for sure. Let me know.

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After the accident

Hobgoblin is doing well after his accident, although he’s in pain. I think it’s often true that the day after an accident is worse than the day of the accident itself. The initial shock is over, the body has had time to figure out what has happened and to protest, and new aches and pains and bruises keep appearing. Hobgoblin keeps saying he feels like he’s been hit by a truck and then laughing because he has, in fact, been hit by a truck. We spent today running accident-related errands, sad about the accident, but happy that we both had an air-tight excuse to get out of irritating meetings at school.

It’s odd how most days are completely normal and not much surprising happens, and then all the sudden one day turns out to be entirely different than what you expected. Yesterday and today both were like that, not at all what I thought they would be. I was settling down into an afternoon of work on my courses for the fall yesterday when I got a phone call from an unknown woman who said Hobgoblin had been hit by a car, she’d called 911, and an ambulance was on the way. It was one of those moments when I realized my life could from now on be completely and utterly different — when I asked if Hobgoblin was okay, the woman didn’t really answer me, and so the only thing I could do was imagine the worst. Her mention of a backboard and neck brace and the fact that they were trying to keep him still and that they had stopped traffic all along the road so there was no point in trying to drive out there just made it worse.

It turned out, of course, that the worst hadn’t happened, but for a good hour or so, I had no idea.

This accident has been hard on Hobgoblin and, to a much lesser extent, hard on me, but both of us agree that, short of something awful like permanent paralysis, it’s better to be the one hit than the one who did the hitting. We both feel a little bad for the driver. When we visited the police department today to pick up Hobgoblin’s bike, the officer who handled the incident said that the driver felt terrible about what he’d caused.

The thing is, I can easily see how I could do exactly what the driver did. He wasn’t out to hurt anybody; he was just distracted or absent-minded, things I often am, and he simply didn’t see the cyclist right there in front of him. It’s impossible to stay aware of everything going on around you at all times, so who can possibly say they will never be responsible for hitting someone? For very good reasons Hobgoblin doesn’t want to have any contact with the driver (I would feel the same way too), but I hope he finds out one way or another that Hobgoblin is fine and suffered only minor injuries. In some ways, Hobgoblin is the lucky one — he has a broken bike and some injuries, but the driver has to live with guilt.

Things should be back to normal soon and we will put this behind us, but I hope to remember this enough to stay cautious on the road and I hope I’m lucky enough never to cause such an accident myself.

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What a day …

Hobgoblin is just fine, but it’s no fun getting a phone call from a stranger saying that he will soon be on the way to the emergency room.  We’ve both had better days, let me tell you.

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Death in a White Tie

I’m enjoying my tour through the world of mysteries, both with my mystery book club and on my own, and Ngaio Marsh’s novel Death in a White Tie was a fun, albeit lightweight, example. It’s the first Marsh I’ve read and not necessarily the last, although she is a writer for a particular kind of mood — the kind of mood where you need something calming and predictable.

Set in the 30s, the novel tells of debutantes, balls, and London social seasons; the detective, Inspector Alleyn, comes from this high class world, although having a real job, he’s a little at odds with it as well. The first few chapters introduce you to the cast of characters (it does this very straightforwardly with a chapter entitled “The Protagonists”). We learn of trouble beneath the facade of glamour and luxury; some of the characters are being blackmailed, and one of the novel’s most likeable characters, Bunchy, otherwise known as Lord Robert Gospell, is put on the case. When he ends up murdered, Alleyn is saddened by the loss of his friend but must manage to put his feelings behind him so he can conduct the investigation — an awkward business, since many of those he must investigate are his friends.

The novel follows a very predictable structure, and at times this can get a bit dull; there is a long section in the middle where Alleyn interviews every major character, and these go on a bit. But there is pleasure to be found in following Alleyn as he and his assistant Fox piece the puzzle together, and as we meet some intriguing minor characters, such as the odd, extremely inhibited secretary Miss Harris. It’s the pleasure, I suppose, of knowing pretty much exactly where you’re going and happily enjoying the journey.

There are certainly a number of strange moments in the book, for example the hard-to-believe, at times embarrassingly awkward love story between Alleyn and the painter Agatha Troy. And then there is the bizarre conversation Alleyn and his mother have about gender politics. She argues that

… no woman ever falls passionately in love with a man unless he has just the least touch of the bounder somewhere in his composition.

Alleyn is surprised by this argument in favor of male arrogance and bullying, but then he tries it out on Troy with surprising success. I didn’t like this, but I was amused by the way Alleyn’s mother calls this gender dynamic “savagery” and argues that it is the same savagery that lies behind the church wedding ceremony and behind the season itself:

As long as one recognizes the more savage aspects of the Season, one keeps one’s sense of proportion and enjoys it.

I read this on vacation, and it was a good vacation book — not too mentally taxing, fun in a low-key kind of way. Not everyone in my book group was as easy to please as I was; many of them didn’t like it at all while some others reacted much as I did, with mixed feelings. I don’t know who we are reading next, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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The Quest for Corvo

A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography is forever linked in my mind to Janet Malcolm’s book about Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman.  The books are different in many ways, but the subtitle “An Experiment in Biography” could serve equally well for them both; both of them attempt to lay bare the experiences that go into creating biographies — the moment of inspiration, the research, the interviews, the wrangling over permission to quote, the exciting discoveries.  Both authors describe the emotions involved in researching a person’s life — the obsession, the frustration, the determination, as well as the complicated mix of feelings they develop toward the person him or herself.

Symons’s book was published in 1934, and it opens with the moment a friend hands him the novel Hadrian the Seventh, Baron Corvo’s most famous work.  He falls in love with it, whereupon his friend hands him some of Corvo’s letters, which produce an entirely different reaction — he is horrified by decadence and corruption he finds in them.  The combination of these two entirely different pieces of writing from the same person troubles and fascinates him, and his quest begins.  He discovers that not much is known about Baron Corvo, whose real name is Frederick Rolfe, so he follows what leads he has and soon is uncovering the details of Corvo’s life — some of them inspiring, but many of them pathetic and sordid.

The Quest for Corvo tells multiple stories — it outlines Symons’s research into Corvo’s life, it tells the story of the life itself, it tells of Symons’s response to that life, and it attempts to account for why Corvo is who he is.  Symons soon finds he has become obsessed with a very wonderful and strange man:

… nearly everyone who knew Rolfe thought him the most remarkable man of their acquaintance.

Corvo could certainly charm people and was quick to make friends and persuade people to help him — but he was the type of person who always needed help.  He tried to make his living in various ways, including painting and writing, but he always failed and was always in financial trouble.  His charm would inevitably fade, and a darker side would appear; Corvo was one of those people who seem to be working toward their own success while they are actually in the process of undermining it.  He would misuse money until his current benefactor lost patience and then would be horribly shocked and hurt when that benefactor began to ask questions and make demands.  He would end up in misunderstandings — somehow or other — with the friends he depended on, and would then react in a manner violently out of proportion to any perceived slight he received.  If his friend tried to make amends, he would refuse to consider the appeal as being beneath his dignity, even though he depended on this friend for the very food he ate.

In short, the man was completely insufferable, and yet — and here is the question at the heart of the book — he managed to write works of genius.  (At least, they were works of genius in Symons’s mind; not very many people have agreed, obviously, since Baron Corvo is not a well-known name, and I suspect that if I were to try to read even his most famous work, I wouldn’t like it.)  How does it happen that someone with mental problems we wouldn’t have too much trouble diagnosing these days, someone who made such a mess of his life, someone who managed to alienate every single person he interacted with in his life, could write so beautifully?  Symons offers some answers to the question of what made Corvo the strange person he was, but he acknowledges that the larger questions about art remain unanswered.  Art and creativity and the ability to work magic with words remain a mystery.

I loved this book because of its strangeness — the unusual structure as well as the unusual subject — and I loved it in spite of the fact that I became convinced I would disagree, probably vehemently, with Symons’s assessment of Corvo.  Symons tries very hard to be fair and to acknowledge what a horror Corvo was to his friends, but he is clearly fond of him and wants readers to be fond of him too.  I, however, would stay far away from Corvo if he were still alive, and I found it hard, not having had the experience of falling in love with his writing, to see what could possibly make the man appealing.  But it’s a testament to the strength of Symons’s writing that I found the book fascinating in spite of my distance from Corvo — or perhaps the truth is that this disagreement with Symons made for another interesting layer in an already very rich book.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Walks and books

Well, there’s nothing like a flattering mention by a favorite blogger to motivate one to write … so let’s see, what have I been doing?  Not nearly as much reading as I’d like, but life has been full of other good things instead, such as getting to climb mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire, including a climb up Mt. Washington, home of the world’s worst weather.  Fortunately for Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I, we didn’t actually encounter the world’s worst weather and had, instead, a gorgeous, clear, dry day to hike.  Still, while it was in the 70s at the base of the mountain, by the time we reached the top, the temperature had plummeted to the 40s and my extra sweater didn’t do much to keep me warm.

What a lovely hike that was, well worth the days of sore muscles I experienced afterwards.  All my illusions that my cycling and running would make climbing mountains any easier were shattered — Hobgoblin and I hobbled around like we were 95 years old for three or four days afterward.  Well, we did managed to loosen up our aching muscles enough to climb some smaller Vermont mountains, but once we’d sat around for a while after the climbs, we could barely get up again.  Yes, a little training would have been a good idea.

We also had a grand time not camping.  We enjoyed every one of the many restaurants we visited, every moment in our comfortable bed and shower, every chance to lounge around on the sofa, every stroll around a cute Vermont town.  I do love camping and backpacking, I do, but sometimes it’s nice not to do it.

And, of course, I came home with more books than I left with.  We spent some time in Hanover, New Hampshire, which has two excellent bookstores (at least), one of which is the Dartmouth College bookstore — one of those Barnes and Noble college stores, but one well worth getting lost in.  The other was a used bookstore just up the street from the first.  After a long time spent in both stores, I walked away with John Mullan’s How Novels Work, which I have begun and am enjoying; it’s a good introduction to the technical aspects of fiction.  Also Charles Lamb’s The Essays of Elia to add to my essay collection, Elizabeth Phelps’s The Story of Avis, a 19C American novel, and Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl, originally published in 1806.

There was also an awesome used bookstore in Woodstock, Vermont, where I spent at least an hour combing through the shelves; I brought home a collection of D.H. Lawrence’s literary criticism.

Since I’ve returned home a few more books have arrived through Book Mooch: Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity, Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, and Anne Fadiman’s At Large and at Small.  The book piles threaten to get out of control: there are two local libraries having their book sales soon, at which point I’ll probably be drowning in books.

I did finish one book on the trip, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, which I hope to write about soon.

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