Monthly Archives: September 2008

Ruth Hall

Fanny Fern’s 1855 novel Ruth Hall surprised me a little bit, partly in terms of its plot, but even more so in terms of how it is written.  The plot has a fairly traditional structure to it — a heroine happy but precarious, a heroine in trouble, a heroine in more trouble, a heroine in new kinds of trouble, a heroine saved — although within the traditional structure are some innovations.  The novel begins with a marriage rather than ending with one, which is a twist on the coming-of-age novel so popular at the time.  Fanny Fern actively resists ending the novel with a marriage, in fact, as she could easily have had Ruth accept Mr. Walter’s hand, but instead Ruth insists on staying single and supporting herself.  Also innovative, of course, is the way that Ruth engineers her own salvation, instead of relying on a suitor or a family member to save her.  The very point of the novel is her claim of independence and the success she has at insisting on it.

To me, the novel’s style is most striking, though, particularly the short chapters and the juxtapositions of varied scenes and character sketches.  The style is disjointed, with abrupt transitions from one character to another. Fern’s newspaper writing must have influenced the development of this style, as the chapters are similar in length to the essays Fern published (my book has a sampling of these essays, although I haven’t yet read them), the type of essay her character Ruth Hall became famous for.

This disjointedness works for me because of the way it offers a kaleidoscope view of the story, all the little pieces fitting together to create a sense of the society Ruth moved in.  The style also fits with Fern’s relative lack of interest in extensive detail or psychological depths; instead of long sections of text that delve into the details of a scene or the depths of a character’s mind, we get a quick sketch of a conversation or a dramatic moment, and then we are on to the next one.  Fern is very good with the telling detail and the revealing conversation that informs you of everything you need to know without belaboring the point.  This is not to say that the characters have no depth or that the narrative isn’t fleshed out, but what depth and complexity there is (and really Ruth is the only character that is coming to mind right now that has some psychological substance to her — or am I missing something?) is created through quick flashes of insight.

The book has some odd moments.  I couldn’t quite figure out the point of the phrenology chapter, one of the longest chapters, in fact, except that Fern wanted to make a joke about phrenology, which seems like an odd thing to in the middle of a novel.  And I didn’t understand the characters’ obsession with puns either.  The fact that Hall’s daughter Nettie likes puns makes sense, since this is possibly a way of indicating that she has inherited her mother’s facility with language, but Mrs. Skiddy likes puns as well, and she’s not exactly one of the sympathetic characters.

But I like the book’s oddness; it seems to fit with its comic tone, and it does have some wonderful comic scenes, especially those describing just how horrid Ruth’s family and her in-laws are.  You could not possibly have a worse extended family than Ruth has — they are people you can rely on to behave in as selfish and mercenary a manner possible.  Even though these people cause much of Ruth’s suffering, their ridiculousness is so unbelievable that they provide a kind of comic relief to all the gloom of Ruth’s life.

In a way, Ruth’s story is at odds with the rest of the book — her story is about suffering, hard work, sacrifice, and triumph; it’s very serious and sentimental stuff.  The rest of the book, though, is about the humor and the folly of humanity, with Hyacinth and his narcissistic preening, Mr. and Mrs. Skiddy and their marital battles, and those letter writers who foolishly hope Ruth will write their school compositions for them.  For me, all these disparate parts work together to create a lot of energy; in formal terms, the book is a bit of a mess, I suppose, but it’s a fun mess.

If you like, feel free to follow and contribute to the discussion of Ruth Hall over at the Slaves of Golconda blog and the discussion board at Metaxu Cafe.

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The Aging Meme

Becky tagged me for this meme, created by Zoesmom.  Sometimes I ignore tags (sorry!), but this time I think I’ll be a good sport, so here goes.

At a certain age women should stop listening to what everybody else is telling them to do.

At a certain age men should stop listening to what everybody else is telling them to do.  (I ignore gender differences whenever I can!).

When I was a kid I thought I would be a teacher.

Now that I am older I am glad I’m a teacher (but I’m glad for different reasons than I would have expected as a kid.  As a kid I would have talked about wanting to help people.  Nowadays I talk about loving my summers off.  I was a better person as a kid).

You know you are too old to try something new when you’re in your grave.

You know you are too young to give up when you’re still alive.

When I was in high school I listened to the music of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, Beck.

Nowadays I find I spend much more time listening to audiobooks and NPR than listening to music.

On my last birthday I had to go to school to begin a brand new semester.

On my next birthday I want to take the day off (although I probably won’t — sigh) .

The best birthday present I ever got was my engagement ring.

The first time I felt grown up was when I taught my own class (terrifying!).

The last time I felt like a kid was … I don’t remember.  I was kind of glad to grow up and leave childhood behind.

When I read for the first time it changed my life. (And did it ever!)

Last year was pretty okay.  Bad things happened, good things happened … it was kind of normal.  It won’t stand out as a memorable year, I don’t think.

Next year I hope something really cool and wonderful and unexpected will happen.

If you’d like to do this meme, please, help yourself!

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Intro to the Arts

I wrote last January about sitting in on an “Intro to the Arts”-type class in order to learn how to teach it myself, and now I’m actually doing the teaching.  So far it has gone well.  I wasn’t particularly pleased when a student I’ve taught in several classes and who is taking my Intro to the Arts class now figured out that I’m teaching it for the first time; I prefer to act as though I’ve got experience in the classroom even when I don’t.  It’s not that I need to be an expert all the time — I have no problem telling students when I don’t know something or acknowledging that in some fields they know more than I do — but it’s easier to feel like an experienced authority when the students think I am one, so the pretence helps.  And this particular class requires that I teach fields I’m not an expert in, so I need all the help projecting authority that I can get.

The class starts off with discussions about creativity (what it is and why we need it) and the creative process — how we go about fostering creativity and trying to find moments of inspiration.  Those discussions were fun, if a little abstract, but now we’re getting into the nuts and bolts of various art forms: visual art, music, dance, literature, and film.  We spend a few days (such a short time!) on each area, breaking it down into its elements (line, color, shape, space, and texture in the visual arts, for example) and learning how to use those elements to analyze various works of art.  Here is where I have to work hardest to know what I’m talking about because in some cases the students will know more about areas such as music or painting than I do.  But all those piano lessons I took as a kid are paying off, as, thank God!, I have some idea about things like 4/4 time and what a quarter note is.

The first major assigment the students complete is to look at one example of each of the five types of art we study and to write a response to it where they discuss their first impressions and their sense of the work’s meaning.  I’m reading through their papers now and am pleased.  The papers are fairly informal, which means they have the chance to respond personally, discussing emotions the work conjures up or memories it evokes.  The students who produced the best papers take this seriously, using their personal experiences to say interesting, new things about the art.

I’m also pleased at the way some of the students are trying their hardest to keep an open mind about the art.  I’ve asked them to watch a dance that they find challenging, mostly because it doesn’t have a clear narrative to it and so is hard to interpret.  They have to look closely at the dancers’ movements and use their imaginations to figure out what they think it means.  Several students described the process they went through while watching it — surprise, bewilderment, and frustration at first, and then after another viewing or two the inkling of an idea, and finally some confirmation after they came to class and figured out other students were thinking along the same lines they were.

It’s hugely satisfying to watch them go through this process and realize that some art takes time and patience to understand, and that the more they understand it, the more likely they are to enjoy it.  I don’t kid myself that all students are responding this way, but teaching is always like that — you reach some and consider that a success, and then you try to reach more.  The class scares me a little bit, I’ll admit, but it’s a good kind of scared.  It’s probably not so different from what the students themselves feel.

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Craziness!

This triathlon training … it’s fun but crazy.  For one thing, while I’ve been a regular weather forecast checker for a while now, I’ve become utterly obsessive about it.  If the weather this weekend doesn’t clear up, I won’t be able to get my rides in, and I really need to ride! Would it be too uncomfortable to ride in the rain when it’s 65 degrees out?  Am I that dedicated??  Probably not …

And another thing — this training means I’m out at all hours taking swim lessons.  I’m swimming with a masters group right now and the lessons are from 8:30 to 9:30 pm, which doesn’t seem that late, except that I like to be in bed by 9:00 or so.  And when I go to a late evening class, I usually can’t sleep afterwards because I’ve built up so much energy and adrenaline. It would be nice if the class tired me out and made me ready to fall asleep, but instead it perks me up and makes me feel wide awake.

And then I have days like today, where I got to school at 9:30 or so, stayed until 7:00 when my last class ends, drove home and stayed for about 15 minutes before heading out again to the pool.  And tomorrow I hope to wake up early enough to run before heading out to school again … all this means  not enough time for reading, I’m afraid.  I need somebody to agree to pay my salary so I can quit my job and train and read full-time.  Any takers?

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The Dogs of Riga

Now that the school year is underway again, I’m back to listening to audiobooks on my drive in.  I started the year off with Henning Mankell’s crime novel The Dogs of Riga, which I snatched up at the library after remembering that Kate from Kate’s Book Blog praised this series highly.  I think Kate was right — I enjoyed the book, both for its plot and for the main character, Kurt Wallender.

Wallender is a police officer in Sweden, and is the kind of character who seems much too nice and normal to get caught up in the kind of violent plots he finds himself enmeshed in.  He comes across as unassuming — he’s not particularly ambitious; he’s competent but doesn’t seem brilliant at what he does, or at least he doesn’t think he’s brilliant at what he does; he can make mistakes and bumble along like any average person.  And yet when he finds himself caught up in a plot involving international politics that could potentially put his life at risk — yes, he hesitates and agonizes over what to do, but ultimately he jumps into the fray.

The story begins with two men out on a ship who see two dead bodies afloat on a life raft; they pull the life raft closer to shore and then abandon it for the police to find.  Wallender is assigned the case.  Initially the case moves slowly, and Wallender has little idea where their few leads will take them.  But then the dead men turn out to be of eastern European origin and are traced to Latvia, at which point the situation becomes an international one and suddenly much more complicated.  Wallender travels to Latvia and has to negotiate a world that is entirely unfamiliar to him — it’s set during the time when the Soviet Union’s grip on eastern European countries is loosening and new forces are beginning to take its place.  The situation is complicated further when Wallender falls in love with the beautiful widow of a Latvian police officer.

The Dogs of Riga offers a satisfying plot, but it also offers much to think about, particularly in Wallender’s musings about the way the world seems to be falling apart around him.  The book has a mournful tone to it — Wallender himself is quietly sad — and much of this sadness comes from Wallender’s feeling that it no longer makes sense to be a police officer and to try to carry out justice in a society that cares about it so little.  He toys with the idea of applying for a job as a security officer and leaving his police work behind because of this loss of confidence in society and because of the toll his job takes on him personally.  He’s drawn back to the fight for order and justice, however; as much as he longs for a life that is simpler, he can’t quite leave his idealism behind. He’s a reluctant romantic — he wants a simpler, less complicated life, but at the same time when the chance comes along to be a hero and help a woman in distress, he can’t say no.

Listening to this book on audio worked particularly well because of the way the reader’s voice helped to create a sense of atmosphere.  I respond more emotionally to a book when I’m listening to it, and this means I get caught up in the character development and the excitement of the plot twists and turns that much more.  Now I’m left hoping that my library as more Mankell books on CD …

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Stupid articles about books

Now and then I love to criticize people who write stupid articles about books in well-known newspapers, and I have another chance today; if you want to scoff a bit, go check out this article fromThe Times on books you shouldn’t bother to read (via).  It’s by Richard Wilson, the author of Can’t Be Arsed: 101 Things Not to Do Before You Die, which is a book I’m pretty sure I don’t need to read before I die.  Yes, the author is trying to be offensive and stupid in his list, but even if you enjoy that sort of thing, it’s not particularly well done — the best he can say about War and Peace is that “it’s way, way too long.”  And he’s got Jane Austen on the list, complaining that he gave up on it after fifty pages because “the characters spoke in a very oblique way and it seemed to be all about hypocrisy and manners and convention.”  Actually, Austen’s dialogue isn’t particularly oblique (you’d think the author would love Hemingway’s relative straightforwardness, but he doesn’t — Hemingway’s on the list too) and hypocrisy and (bad) manners can make for very good reading. Here’s what he says about The Iliad:

The Iliad is one of the most boring books ever written and it’s not just a boring book, it’s a boring epic poem; all repetitive battle scenes with a lot of reproaching and challenging and utterances escaping the barrier of one’s teeth and nostrils filling with dirt and helmet plumes nodding menacingly. There’s a big fight between Achilles and Hector and that’s about it.

Why do people like this get published?  Why?

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a moving, beautifully written, emotionally taxing, very well-told novel.  It’s the kind of book that’s difficult, not because of the way it’s written, but because of the direction you know the story is headed in — you get caught up in the novel’s world and want to stay in it, and yet you know things are going to go bad at some point and you dread the thought.

The novel is a retelling of Hamlet, a fact that shapes your experience of it one way or another.  If you are familiar with the play, then you have the pleasure of trying to figure out which character in the novel corresponds to which character in the play, and which plot event is a version of the play’s events.  The novel doesn’t follow Hamlet exactly, but it’s close enough that there are plenty of convergences to pick up on. You also have a general sense of the direction the plot will take and it’s satisfying to watch exactly how Wroblewski works everything out.

The risk of retelling a well-known story is that the reader might lose a sense of urgency or feel that what happens is too expected and familiar, and I did feel a laxness now and then when the novel followed the play particularly closely.  But the method offers plenty of other pleasures (although perhaps “pleasure” isn’t quite the right word, since we’re talking about a tragedy here), not least the experience of hoping against hope that things will turn out differently than you are afraid they will.

If the reader isn’t familiar with Hamlet, there is another possible risk, which is that some of the plot events may seem a little strange and out of place.  I read this book for a book group (which hasn’t yet met) and another member who hadn’t realized that it’s a version of Hamlet was a little startled to find that a ghost makes an appearance in a novel that is otherwise very down-to-earth and realistic.  But this friend said it was only a small jarring moment in what was otherwise a good experience.

If you do get the Hamlet reference, there is the intellectual pleasure of seeing just how Wroblewski reshapes a story originally set in a very different time and place.  He does this wonderfully well; with the possible exception of ghosts, there is no awkwardness in having a Hamlet who lives on a farm in Wisconsin in the 20th century and grows up raising dogs.  Wroblewski handles the relationships among the Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude characters marvelously well, and his take on Ophelia is astonishing.

But to set the Hamlet issue aside, the world of the novel is remarkably well-realized and his main character an appealing one.  Edgar’s life is simple — he attends school but spends most of his time working with the dogs his family is known for, the Sawtelle dogs, distinguished by their unusually strong ability to communicate with humans.  He and his mother and father raise and train the dogs, pouring their energy into them so that they are among the best-trained dogs available.

Edgar’s life is also shaped by the fact that he was born unable to speak, although he can hear normally.  This is a mystery to the doctors, who conducted test and after test on him but could never figure out the problem.  Something about this inability to speak gives him an unusually close rapport with the dogs, so close that his ability to train them sometimes suffers.  His companion, Almondine, is always by his side; she is trained to keep an eye on him and to alert the others if he is in trouble.  Her devotion to him — and his to her — is almost too moving to bear.

The novel’s point of view is most often focused on Edgar, with some chapters that shift to other characters and now and then even to Almondine, and Wroblewski often tells us what Edgar is thinking and feeling, but he rarely tells us what Edgar thinks of his inability to speak.  This fact is simply a given, something Edgar seems to accept.  (The one exception to this general rule is horrifying, however — all the more horrifying because of this earlier reticence.)  We also don’t learn much about Edgar’s life off the farm.  We know he attends school, but what his experience is like there we have no idea, and we never hear of any friends or outside interests or future plans.  For such a long novel, it’s remarkably focused on just a few people in a constrained setting.  This narrowness of focus intensifies the sense of doom that slowly settles over everybody; if things are going to go wrong, they are going to go spectacularly wrong and it will be a horrifying sight.  The farm is all that Edgar knows — it’s his whole world, and this gives him a strength and a vulnerability that are wrenching to behold.

This is Wroblewski’s first novel, and I’m very curious to see what he will publish next; this is a wonderful debut from a writer I hope gives us many more books in the future.

(If you decide to read the hard cover version of this book, I’d suggest not reading the front flap, as it gives away way too much of the plot.  After all I’ve said about Hamlet, you might think I’ve given away too much too, but the description on the front flap gives many more details than I have here, and I wish I hadn’t known them when I was reading.)

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