Monthly Archives: November 2008

The Winner of Sorrow

winnerofsorrow Brian Lynch’s novel The Winner of Sorrow (kindly sent to me as an ARC from Dalkey Archive Press) was originally published in 2005 in Ireland, and is now going to be released in the U.S. this coming February. It’s a fictional retelling of the life of William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), an eighteenth-century British poet.  My studies in the field never took me very far into Cowper’s work, so I came to this novel ready to learn more about the poet and his times, which I did, and I also found a very enjoyable novel, all personal interest in the eighteenth century aside.

Cowper doesn’t get read a lot today, but he was influential and popular in his time and afterward (Jane Austen quoted him in several novels) and in a lot of ways he’s a typically Romantic figure — the poetic genius suffering from depression and teetering on the edge of madness.  In other ways, he’s not at all: he was a devout evanglical and wrote many hymns.  He lived from 1731-1800 and so is solidly an eighteenth-century writer, but many of his interests and preoccupations were picked up by later Romantic writers (a love of nature and animals in particular).

Lynch does a good job of squeezing an entire life into a novel that’s around 360 pages; he begins with Cowper as a old man suffering from insanity, and then he shifts back and forth between old Cowper and young Cowper, eventually settling into the story of the younger man and moving us forward in time.  These shifts require some careful attention, and in fact the novel is full of jumps in time of various sorts without a whole lot of connecting material, but these jumps help you see connections among the various episodes in his life.

In Lynch’s telling, Cowper’s life was shaped by a few important events, including the early death of his mother and his sexual impotence.  In 1763 when he was 32, he had a mental breakdown, attempted suicide several times, and was sent to an asylum to recover.  Afterwards, he settled with the Unwin family and spent much of the rest of his life with Mary Unwin, whose husband died early, leaving the two of them to form a socially suspicious alliance that never quite ended in marriage.  Mary Unwin, according to Lynch, was a mix of the long-lost mother figure and the forbidden bride, a version of the cousin Cowper was once engaged to but couldn’t quite marry either.  Unwin was fiercely loyal to Cowper, longing for a more passionate relationship with him but making do with the affection he was able to offer.  She did her best to fend off the other women who were drawn to Cowper, including a Lady Anna Austen and Lady Hesketh, sister of the beloved cousin.  There was clearly something powerfully attractive about Cowper, because in spite of his depressive tendencies and his complex relationships, he was surrounded by people who desperately wanted to be a part of his life.

As you can see, Cowper is a psychoanalyst’s dream, but Lynch never beats you over the head with facile explanations or easy conclusions.  He also recreates a feeling of the time without going overboard with period detail; this is historical fiction, but it doesn’t feel like a lot of the historical novels I’ve read that pack the detail in to make sure you smell every authentic smell.  Rather, you get a sense of the time from the characters themselves — their thoughts and conversations and letters.  You can tell that Lynch is a poet himself from the way the writing is spare and beautiful, capable of communicating so much in a small space.  He leaves room for you to make connections and put ideas together.  The novel tends to work through juxtaposition; its short chapters ask readers to situate themselves in the story again and again, without providing much to ease the transition into a new scene with new characters.  This can be jarring, but it’s also exhilarating — this is a novel that asks something of the reader but has much to offer too.

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Notes for a Friday

  • I hope everybody who celebrates Thanksgiving had a great day!  And I hope everyone who doesn’t had a great day too!  Hobgoblin and I stayed home, as we usually do, and celebrated Thanksgiving all on our own, with a little help from Muttboy, who really, really likes the Cornish game hens Hobgoblin cooked up (as did we).  We finished our meal with a brownie sundae, which may not be traditional Thanksgiving food, but was delicious anyway.  I just had another one, in fact.  Even all the riding, running, and swimming I’ve been doing hasn’t made up for all the calories I’ve been taking in …
  • Speaking of riding, running, and swimming, my training has been going well, in spite of lingering hamstring/hip area soreness.  I took a week entirely off from training a couple weeks ago, mostly because that’s what you’re supposed to do in the off season, but also to see if my aches and pains would go away.  They didn’t, but they also seem to be getting better, in spite of the fact that I’ve been training regularly for two weeks now.  I just have to wait it out, I suppose.
  • But in spite of the soreness, I’ve been having fun doing all the training.  I’m especially pleased with my running — I’m not running far, only about 3.25 miles right now, but my foot injury hasn’t returned, and I’m able to build up slowly and it all feels fine.  Yay!  My sister completed a marathon a couple weeks ago, and my brother has run one too, and I really want to follow in their footsteps.
  • This afternoon I went on a group ride with people from my cycling club, followed by a party at the bike shop.  The party was fine (although I’m not a rider who can talk about bikes for hours on end), and the group ride was good too, except that if it’s a large, mixed group (mixed in terms of experience level), I tend to spend too much time worrying about people who have trouble riding in a straight line or who like to ride in the middle of the road.  Why do people like to ride in the middle of the road?
  • I’m about to finish a novel about the 18C poet William Cowper, The Winner of Sorrow by Brian Lynch.  It’s fascinating and is teaching me way more than I ever knew about Cowper.  I think I’d like to read more of his poetry at some point.  More on that later.
  • When I’ve finished the Cowper book, I’m going to pick up my next book club book (not the mystery club this time around), Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife. According to the publisher, the book is “a true story in which the keepers of the Warsaw zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.”  I’m also going to be starting William Gaddis’s The Recognitions as part of Litlove’s reading group.  The group website is here; it’s not too late to join if this sounds interesting!  (The reading begins December 1st.)
  • I also found out what my next mystery group book will be: Arthur Conan Doyle’s  “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of the Four.”  I read some Sherlock Holmes mysteries when I was a kid, but not many, and I don’t remember any of them, so I’m going to assume I’ve never read these.  I’m looking forward to reading some early writing in the genre.
  • Okay, now I’m off to finish my Cowper book …

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Overbooked

I’ve felt a little overwhelmed by books and book news lately.  This is not to say that I haven’t wanted to read, but that I feel like I can’t take in any more information about books.  And I’m even reaching a point where I’m not all that interested in buying new books.  I have plenty of excellent books at home after all.  I’m happy to look through bookstores as usual, but that’s not because I want to buy more books or learn about new authors; it’s because it’s fun to be reminded of the authors I already know about.

Have you had this problem before?  The issue is that I have access to SO MUCH information that it’s become too much to handle.  I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t want to know about wonderful new authors or amazing new novels. I haven’t added anything to my wishlist in a long time.  In fact, I’m more likely to look over my wishlist and take books off that no longer sound interesting.

It’s a problem of information overload and also one of time; I’m not sure I would feel this way if I weren’t also feeling overwhelmed by things going on at work and by all the triathlon training I’m doing.  With everything else that is happening, I don’t have time to process information about new books and I don’t have energy for it either.

I do think this is a passing feeling though.  I’ll get my energy back for the book reviews and news again.  But right now I’d rather just tune out all the book buzz and focus on reading instead.

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Ian Rankin’s The Falls

My mystery book club met last night to discuss Ian Rankin’s novel The Falls, and it was very well received; some people had a quibble or two with this or that, but the consensus was that this book is one of the best we have read so far, in competition with Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key for the very best.

I had a great time reading the novel.  I often find it to be the case that when I read good mysteries, the mystery itself isn’t the main pleasure.  The novel did offer a very good story, but I liked the world Rankin has created and the characters who live in that world even more.  It’s set in Edinburgh, and the city is like a character itself; it’s a gloomy, slightly depressed place that is haunted by history but is also in the midst of change that leaves the characters unsettled.  The city’s history is rich, but that history is different for each character — it’s like every person is living in a slightly different place.  While the curator and historian Jean sees ghosts of the city’s famous residents, the main character, Rebus, sees a more personal history — that of crimes committed and bodies found.  Each person in the novel seems haunted by something; the more fortunate characters are haunted merely by the ghosts of past residents instead of by somebody or something more personally ominous.

Rebus is a great mystery-novel hero, or anti-hero, perhaps.  In this novel he is getting on in age, seeing old friends retire and realizing that he is not far off from retirement himself.  His demons are only hinted at in this novel (although those stories may be more fully developed in earlier books), but we learn about an ex-wife and a daughter who is out of the picture at the moment.  And we learn a lot about his drinking.  He cannot walk down a city street without thinking about the pubs he could walk into — and probably will walk into, soon enough.  In one particularly low moment, he shows up at a suspect’s house drunk, and gets himself in some serious trouble at work.

Rebus is someone no one in the police force knows quite what to do with; he is an unreliable partner and a perpetual problem for his supervisors.  He doesn’t care enough about the rules to bother following them, and although he does want to solve his cases, he is going to make sure he does it in his own way, on his own time.  He isn’t even all that great at what he does, at least often he’s not; he’s more likely to stumble into discoveries rather than think his way towards them.

But all this doesn’t mean that he’s unlikeable — far from it.  He’s the kind of person you like almost in spite of yourself.  He inspires these same mixed feelings in his colleagues; one of the most important ones, Siobhan, struggles with the degree to which she is following in Rebus’s footsteps.  She admires his independence, but at the same time sees that working like Rebus does is no way to advance in her job.

But does she want to advance in her job?  The book is very much about office politics, as well as murders and personal demons; Rebus’s colleague are richly described, especially the tension they feel between their ambition and their awareness that career advancement comes with a cost.  Success can mean separation from old friends and the pressure to become more careful, more polished, less open than the others.

I suspect that Rebus is even more fun to read about in series form rather than in an individual novel; book group members who had read more than one Rankin novel said that as you read more, Rebus’s world becomes even more richly described.  It’s a good thing I have two more Rankin novels on hand, and that a local used bookstore owner has informed me they have plenty in stock.  I may not get to more Rankin novels soon, but I will make sure to get back to them sooner or later.

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Consider the Lobster

I finished David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays Consider the Lobster last night, and am ready to pick up more of his work soon.  In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been raving about this book for a while now, which you can read about here, here, and here.

The last essay in the collection is a memorable one.  It’s called “Host,” and is about the conservative talk radio host John Ziegler who, at the time the essay was written, had a show at the Southern California radio station KFI.  The essay describes the environment in which Ziegler works, the ways his show gets put together, the kind of person and talk show personality Ziegler is, the state of contemporary talk radio, and the state of conservativism in America.  The essay does what a great essay should do — it tells a good story, combines personal narrative with larger social/political/cultural issues, and has something smart to say.  One of the points (among many, many others) Wallace makes is that conservatives dominate the radio talk show world because they tend to have a simpler, more straightforward black and white view of the world which is easier to talk about and easier to understand and therefore makes better radio.  Liberals are more inclined to be nuanced and about shades of grey, and that’s just not as exciting.

What makes the essay memorable, though, is the way this liberal nuance and shades-of-grey type of thought is represented in the essay itself.  Instead of using footnotes, which all the other essays in the collection have in abundance, Wallace puts what might be footnote material in boxes that are scattered across the pages, with arrows that point from the word that would normally have a footnote next to it to the appropriate box.  Sometimes there are arrows leading you from one box to another, and sometimes to another one after that.  There isn’t a page in the essay that is laid out in the usual way, with one interrupted block of text; instead, each page has at least one inset box with accompanying arrow.  Many of these boxes begin with labels such as “Editorial material” or “Rather less editorial than it might be” or “Informative + Editorial” or “Just the sort of paralytic dithering that makes the moral clarity of ‘we’re better than they are’ so appealing.”

So as you read, your eye gets drawn across the page in unusual ways, and as you work your way toward the end of a sentence, your progress is interrupted by this box and that box — by a clarification or an elaboration or an objection or a complication — and you find yourself in a jumble of ideas that is as exciting as it can be disorienting.  What is all becomes, I think, is a representation of complicated thought, a picture of a mind working its way through a maze of ideas.  It’s kind of the anti-talk radio.  (I see, interestingly enough, that there is an audio version of this essay collection available, but it’s abridged, and I don’t know if it includes this essay.  I do wonder how anyone would read it and what it would be like to listen to it.)

At first I found this layout distracting and I wasn’t sure I would like it, but as I got further in the essay, I got into the rhythm of moving back and forth from the main text to the boxes.  What reading this essay requires is the ability to hold a bunch of stuff in your head at once, because if you read all the boxes that accompany each sentence, it can take a very long time to get from the beginning to the end of each one.  Sometimes you have to read the equivalent of a page or so of boxed text to get to the end of one single sentence.  This can be mentally taxing, but it’s also exciting.  You could even say it’s stimulating — a word that happens to be very important for John Ziegler and his talk show world.  Ziegler’s goal is to be as stimulating as possible, to get his listeners so riled up they won’t move away from their radios and may even be inspired to call in to the show.  But while Ziegler wants to stimulate your emotions, particularly feelings of anger and outrage, Wallace would much rather stimulate your brain.

Writing an essay like this is dangerous — it’s easy to dismiss as gimicky and contrived.  But I think it works.  It’s clear that Wallace is appalled by much of what he sees in the talk radio world, but the essay doesn’t critique it directly.  Instead, he lets the evidence speak for itself, and he lets the organization of the essay speak for itself too — and what it says is that careful, nuanced, layered thought is a very good thing.

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Essays in Idleness

I’m sorry to say I was disappointed by Kenko’s Essays in Idleness. I loved the book’s prologue, which I’ve quoted on my sidebar, and I had high hopes that I would enjoy reading Kenko’s “nonsensical thoughts,” but too often I found them inscrutable, dull, or annoying.

I couldn’t help but compare Kenko’s work (from the 14th century) to Sei Shonagon’s earlier (10th century) Pillow Book, and find it lacking.  Everyone else makes this comparison too, or at least the writer of the introduction to my edition did, and Kenko himself had Shonagon in mind when he wrote his work.  The writers are doing something similar — they both record their observations of society, their thoughts about political and religious figures, the interesting gossip they have heard.  But Shonagon is witty in a way that Kenko is not, and her occasional mean spiritedness is highly entertaining, while Kenko is more inclined to be serious and a little stuffy.  Shonagon has her odd moments too, but the rest of the work more than made up for those.

I am glad I read Kenko, however, if only for a glimpse into a society radically different from ours.  Kenko was a Buddhist priest, and many of his essays touch on Buddhist beliefs such as the impermanence of all things and the pain caused by attachment to the material world.  Some of the better essays describe the beauty to be found in impermanence and imperfection:

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless?  To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring — these are even more deeply moving.  Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration.  Are poems written on such themes as “Going to view the cherry blossoms only to find they had scattered” or “On being prevented from visiting the blossoms” inferior to those on “Seeing the blossoms”?  People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say, “This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms.  There is nothing worth seeing now.”

I would have liked the book more had there been more passages like the above, and fewer about, say, the uselessness of women.  But even harder to deal with than the misogyny, which is part of the culture, after all, is that so many of the essays simply don’t make sense to me.  They too often tell stories the significance of which I don’t grasp, and I’m left shrugging my shoulders and thinking that it must have meant something to people at the time.  Perhaps I could have found an edition with better notes that would fill in some of the information I’m missing, so this could simply be an editorial problem, but I fared better in this respect with The Pillow Book, which also didn’t have extensive notes.

But then there are essays like this one (“essay” isn’t the right word, since the passage is so short, but it will have to do), quoted in full:

A certain hermit once said, “There is one thing that even I, who have no worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up, the beauty of the sky.”  I can understand why he should have felt that way.

And I can understand this too.  Reading a book that is so far removed from our day and time as to be completely incomprehensible would make no sense, but there is surely a value in reading a book that has its beautiful moments but its bizarre and disorienting ones too.  Even if I sometimes got frustrated at what I wasn’t following, I was aware at getting a glimpse into a world far from mine, and I’m glad I could experience that.  There has to be a reason, after all, that this book remains in print and that people still read it.

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The blogger meet-up

Yesterday I spent the day with an international group of bloggers, and what fun it was! Okay, most of us were from the U.S., and the majority of us were from Connecticut, but we did have one person from Germany, one from Indiana, and one from Pennsylvania.

It was Charlotte, Cam, Emily, Becky, Marcy, Hobgoblin, and I, and we met at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, right across the street from the magnificent St. John the Divine cathedral.  This was my first meeting with Charlotte and Cam; I’d seen pictures of Charlotte on her blog, so I recognized her right away when I saw her with the group, but none of us knew what Cam looked like, so we had to keep an eye out for someone who looked like she was keeping an eye out for us.  We all felt a little relieved when we found each other and the group was complete.

The pastry shop was cute, cozy, and crowded, and it looked like we might have to stand, but we managed to find some tables to put together and got down to getting to know each other a bit.  I’ve had a few experiences of meeting bloggers in person now, but it continues to feel just a bit strange — in a good, fun way of course.  It takes a little time to adjust the mental image I have of a person with the reality and to settle into a new way of communicating — in real time, with real conversation, instead of the slow pace of blog posting and commenting.  And it’s a little odd trying to keep straight what fellow bloggers know and don’t know about me, what I’ve posted about and what I haven’t, and it’s even odder when I’m with such a mixed group — one person who knows me mainly in real life but gets some information about me from the blog (Hobgoblin); a few people with whom I interact more often online than off, but with whom I do have a face-to-face friendship (Becky, Emily, and Marcy); and two people who up until that moment I had known exclusively through blogging but now had a chance to talk with in real life.  What a mix of histories and relationships!  It’s mildly disorienting (in a good way!).

So, after some time in the pastry shop, we headed off to The Strand (in a cab that made me car sick, which I guess is about right, given what NYC traffic is like and the way cabbies drive), one of the best bookshops around.  Here we lost ourselves in books for an hour or two.  I headed straight for the literary nonfiction section and spent the entire time checking out literary biographies and essay collections.  I loved browsing through the books, but I wasn’t in a mood to buy many — oddly enough; it does happen sometimes though — and found only one I couldn’t resist, Janet Malcolm’s book about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Two Lives.

Afterward, we all assembled out on the street and shared our finds, and then got lunch, enjoying mimosas and macaroni and cheese while listening to a lot of Depeche Mode (Hobgoblin was able to tell us the year each and every song was released, having a good memory that way).

At that point we were feeling ready for an afternoon nap, and some of us decided to head home and take one, while everybody else hopped on the subway for one final trip, this time to The Mysterious Bookshop.  This is a marvelous store, with a mix of new and used books, and lots of books signed by their authors.  Again I didn’t find anything I couldn’t live without, but I happily looked through the shelves, thinking about all the Ian Rankin, Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, Henning Mankell, etc., etc. books I have to look forward to reading.

And then we went our separate ways, tired but happy, having had a great time and collected a lot of books. It’s marvelous to meet fellow book bloggers — you may be very different people but you automatically have a lot in common because of the hobby you share — and I highly recommend it!

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