Monthly Archives: January 2009

Not Really About Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry

I’m trying to warn you that this post says very little about Winterson’s book Sexing the Cherry, so if you want a discussion of the actual book, as opposed to an analysis of my feelings about it, I would check out the posts over at the Slaves of Golconda blog.  There is just something about this book, and about Jeanette Winterson’s writing generally, that doesn’t sit very well with me, and I suspect this problem has more to do with me than with the writing itself.

To back up a bit, I first read Winterson during my very first semester in grad school when we were assigned her novel The Passion.  I liked the book, and I decided to write a paper on it, one which made some connections between Winterson and Virginia Woolf and drew some conclusions about modernism and postmodernism.  That was interesting, and I was pleased to be able to write about Woolf, whom I had fallen in love with just a couple years before.  And then I read a couple other Winterson books, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Written on the Body, and while I liked Oranges, I liked Written on the Body a little bit less, and then as time went on and I thought about Winterson now and then, I started to like her work less and less, and then I became profoundly ambivalent about it, and now after reading Sexing the Cherry I’m beginning to think Winterson is just not a writer who works for me.

I now think I was trying to like what I felt I was supposed to like, back when I read The Passion in grad school.  I did experience some genuine pleasure in reading the book, but I felt some uncertainty about it too, and I didn’t listen to that part of my response because … well, because everyone else loved it and because it seemed so smart and hip.  Winterson has a lot to say about our unstable identities, the uncertainty of space and time, the mixing of past and present, and all that stuff is so very postmodern, and I was all into postmodernism, and so of course I was going to like this book.

But … there’s something about Winterson’s writing that doesn’t work for me, and I’m trying to pinpoint what it is.  It has something to do with the fact that her books seem like they are written for the sake of the ideas rather than for the sake of the characters or plot, and I’d prefer it if they all fit together seamlessly.  But this can’t be the entire story, because I do like idea-driven novels very much, and if the ideas are interesting enough and the writing is good, I don’t mind if characters or plot are sacrificed.  And, actually, Sexing the Cherry has some great, memorable characters (I liked Dog-Woman quite a lot) and is mainly lacking plot, and plot is most often the last thing I care about in a book.

Another factor is that I’m not really fond of the fantastical, magical-realism stuff in Winterson’s work.  I’ve read some Rushdie and Garcia Marquez, and now that I think about it, I felt the same sense of queasy uncertainty when I read them.  Yes, they are smart, yes, they are great writers, and yes, they are important, but no, I can’t say I love their work.  I guess — and I kind of wish I didn’t feel this way — that I want realism to be realism and fantasy/science fiction/fables/fairy tales to be their own thing.  Generally I’m all for people breaking the rules, but it appears there are limits to my tolerance of disorder and rule-breaking and boundary-crossing and genre-bending.

And then there’s the mean-spirited, grouchy, cynical side of me that doesn’t like the light-hearted, playful, celebratory tone of the book.  The moments I liked best were the darker ones — the passages about how Dog-Woman and Jordan misunderstand each other or the descriptions of religious violence.  I wasn’t so fond of Jordan’s fantastical travels or the twelve princesses or the speculations about the fluidity of identity and the centrality of love.  And I don’t really like the prettiness of the language either.

But here I’m starting to go off the deep end a little bit, and you can see how I just don’t get along with this book and should probably just stop now.  I do understand, in an abstract, detached kind of way, how other people can like it; maybe this is just one of those matters of taste, kind of like the way I don’t like potatoes but I understand that most people do, and I’m fine with that.

Check out other people’s  posts here and the group discussion here.

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Seduction and Betrayal

Elizabeth Hardwick’s collection of essays Seduction and Betrayal is fascinating reading.  She has essays on the Brontës, three women from Ibsen’s plays, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Jane Carlyle, and she finishes the book with the title essay, an examination of the figure of the betrayed woman in fiction.

Hardwick’s style is clear and direct; she writes forcefully, in sentences that seem to get straight to the point.  I’ve read Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights, and while the prose style may be similar (I don’t remember well what the sentences were like), the novel seems much more diffuse, more wandering and suggestive, than the essays.  I have to say I like the style of her essays much better.

Hardwick’s sentences are direct, but she still takes time to build up her argument about each author; she tends to make her case slowly, looking at instances from the life, some examples of the writing, and then slowly putting together a picture of how the life and writing fit together.  It’s as you reach the end of an essay that the picture comes into focus, and one of the most satisfying parts of the book is how this picture is both crystal clear and complex.

One of my favorite essays is about Dorothy Wordsworth.  In this essay, Hardwick describes Dorothy as extraordinarily dedicated to her brother, William; her life was focused on helping him write his poetry — taking long walks with him, reading and talking about poetry together, sharing descriptions of local landscapes and people:

Dorothy Wordsworth is awkward and almost foolishly grand in her love and respect for and utter concentration upon her brother; she lived his life to the full.  A dedication like that is an extraordinary circumstance for the one who feels it and for the one who is the object of it; it is especially touching and moving about the possibilities of human relationships when the two have large regions of equality.

As the essay goes on, Hardwick adds to this description of Dorothy a more troubling picture — she could be peculiar and intense and something like a Brontë heroine.  She was vulnerable and needed an outlet for her great amounts of energy.  We learn from De Quincey that she sometimes stammered and that her education had large gaps in it; he implies that she might have been happier had she not been quite so dependent on William to be the center of her life.  Hardwick ends the essay discussing the very impersonal tone of Dorothy’s journals, questioning why it was Dorothy revealed so little of her inner life:

One of the most striking things about the record she left of her life is her indifference to the character of her “dear companions.”  She could not, would not analyze.  There is more to think about the poets in a paragraph of De Quincey’s Reminiscences than in all of Dorothy Wordsworth …. We cannot imagine that she was incapable of thought about character, but very early, after her grief and the deaths, she must have become frightened.  Her dependency was so greatly loved and so desperately clung to that she could not risk anything except the description of the scenery in which it was lived.

And so we end up in a very different place than where we started, with a full and complicated understanding of what motivated Dorothy to write what she did.  Many of the other essays proceed in this manner, including essays about real people and about fictional characters.  Hardwick argues that Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is wrongly seen as foolish and flighty and suddenly turning serious at the play’s end, when really she is full of energy and a love of life and freedom all the way through.  Her carefree attitude at the play’s opening is an expression of this energy, as is her final dramatic decision at the play’s end.  Hardwick’s conclusions about Sylvia Plath are powerful and convincing:

In the end, what is overwhelming, new, original, in Sylvia Plath is the burning singularity of temperament, the exigent spirit clothed but not calmed by the purest understanding of the English poetic tradition.

Hardwick is also good at dealing with literary groups; she captures the spirit of the Brontë family and of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set very well.

All in all, if you like reading well-written literary criticism, this is an exellent book to pick up, and if you are unfamiliar with the genre and want to get a taste of it, this is a good place to start.

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Monday or Tuesday

First of all, the dramatic reading of Edna O’Brien’s play about Virginia Woolf was very enjoyable.  It took place in a little theater in the basement below the Drama Bookshop, and I got to chat with some students who are in the grad program I graduated from.  Anne Fernald started off the program by reading a beautiful personal essay connecting her family reading history, her scholarly interests, and Virginia Woolf.  And then three actors read the play, which basically covered important events in Woolf’s life, most memorably her relationships with Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.  I would like to read the play, partly because this performance didn’t include the entire script, but mostly because it was beautifully-written, capturing Woolf’s spirit and her brilliant use of language.

I recently finished a book by Woolf herself — her short story collection Monday or Tuesday.  It doesn’t feel quite right calling it a short story collection, because many of the works are more like sketches or essays, and only one or two have anything like a plot (and that’s a bit of a stretch).  The book is very short — less than 60 pages in my edition — and it contains eight stories, some of which are only a page or two.  Each piece is experimental in some way; some of them are like prose poems and others, my favorites, follow a character’s thoughts or Woolf’s own thoughts, as they move from subject to subject.  The story with the strongest sense of narrative, “A Society,” is a humorous take on patriarchy.  It tells of a group of women who agree that “the objects of life were to produce good people and good books,” and decide they will go out into the world to see just how well men have done with these tasks.  They meet periodically to discuss their conclusions. Monday or Tuesday is very short, but I like the way it reveals many of Woolf’s preoccuptions — feminism, consciousness, and the power and beauty of language itself.

As I read along, I thought about how I would have reacted to the pieces if I’d read them when they were first published or if I had read them without knowing anything Woolf.  It’s impossible to know what I would have thought, but my guess is that I would have fallen in love with a few of the pieces and found others bewildering or off-putting.  The shorter, more poetic pieces (“Blue and Green,” “Monday or Tuesday”) left me a little cold.  I can see that Woolf is experimenting with language, but I had trouble piecing together exactly what was going on in them.  The feminist tale “A Society” is amusing and light, although with a serious point to make, and “Kew Gardens” interestingly widens its focus to describe the world from the perspective of a snail.  There are people in “Kew Gardens,” but they don’t have their usual privileged position and have to share the spotlight with the natural world.

The ones I liked best, though, the ones I would have fallen in love with even if I hadn’t known a thing about Woolf, are the stories specifically about consciousness.  There is “The String Quartet,” which follows the thoughts and perceptions of a person at a musical performance.  The narrator offers her own wandering thoughts, interrupted now and then by the conversations of others.  There is also “An Unwritten Novel,” a story about a train trip where the narrator observes a fellow-passenger and creates an entire life story for her, one that would explain her strange twitch and the unhappy look on her face.  The story is about the power of the imagination and of sympathy — and it’s about the way life is sometimes very different from what our imaginations conjure up.

The masterpiece of the book, though, is “The Mark on the Wall,” a personal essay that tells of Woolf’s thoughts as she sits near the fire and notices something on the wall, something she can’t quite place.  As she sits there wondering if it is a nail or a smudge, her thoughts roam from the small — wondering about the people who lived in the house before her — to the large — the mystery of life itself.  She wants to lose herself in her thoughts and so starts to tell herself a story, which she soon abandons to consider the complications of identity, and soon she returns to the mark again, wondering what it is, but too happily lost in thought to get up and investigate.  I love the way Woolf follows the stream of consciousness — this requires such a carefully crafted, contrived style and yet Woolf makes the flow of thoughts on the page seem utterly natural — and the way she uses the stream-of-consciousness style to contemplate thought itself.  As she records her thoughts, she makes an argument for the multiplicity and complexity of identity and the way art will reflect this in the future:

As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes.  And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted …

After reading the stories, I turned to the relevant chapter in Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and she talks about how the stories in Monday or Tuesday are like warm-ups for Woolf’s later experimental fiction.  “The Mark on the Wall” is more than that, but it does indicate what Woolf hoped to do in her own work and it helps us understand how to read what came later.

I’m slowly reading my way through Woolf’s fiction, which means that Jacob’s Room is next.  I’m a little frightened of this book, as I tried to read it a long time ago and didn’t do very well, but I’m counting on greater age and experience to help me out.  I’m excited to see what the second time through will be like.

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Reading Notes

I’d meant to write about Virginia Woolf’s collection of short stories Monday or Tuesday, but that isn’t happening this evening.  On the subject of Virginia Woolf, however, I’m going to see a staged reading of Edna O’Brien’s play Virginia at The Drama Bookshop, performed by the Shakespeare’s Sister Company.  The play “encompasses Virginia Woolf’s mercurial inner life, as well as the relationships of her three great loves: her husband, Leonard; her lover, Vita and her greatest writings. Ms. O’Brien touches the heart and captures the essence of Virginia’s character and brilliant mind.”  Fellow blogger Fernham will be there giving a brief talk about Woolf.

And that’s not all — next weekend I’m going to see a performance of Woolf’s own play, Freshwater.  Until recently, I didn’t even know she had written a play.  It’s a comedy about Woolf’s aunt, Julia Cameron, a photographer.  I don’t usually connect Woolf with comedy, so it will be interesting to see what it is like.

And what else is going on in my reading world?  I recently finished Elizabeth Hardwick’s collection of essays Seduction and Betrayal; it’s a very enjoyable book that makes me wish more literary criticism were written as well as Hardwick writes it.  I’ve also finished Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, the Slaves of Golconda group read for January.  It’s a very short book (160 pages in my edition), so you have time to join us if you would like.  And now I’m reading another Jeanette — Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, for one of my in-person book groups.  So far it’s a very good read, rather harrowing in an un-put-downable way.  It’s a memoir of Walls’s childhood; normally I wouldn’t go in for that sort of book, but Walls’s story is captivating.

But there’s more … I’m still plugging away at William Gaddis’s The Recognitions; in fact, I’m approaching the halfway point in the book (it’s about 950 pages).  I’m not finding the middle sections as captivating as I found the beginning, but there is still much to enjoy and ponder.  There are moments of confusion, too, I’ll admit — it’s a challenging read — but I can generally understand what I need to to keep going.  I’ve also begun reading Montaigne’s essays as part of my ongoing essay project (the idea being to read as many essays as I can).  Montaigne is such a wonderful reading companion; he’s even interesting when he’s writing about battles and ancient history, two subjects that don’t generally interest me all that much.  But he is most fun when he is writing about himself, and I think he begins to do this more and more as the book goes on.  I have a lot to look forward to.

Finally, I’m slowly making my way through Wallace Stevens’s poetry collection Harmonium (I have the collected poems, but am only reading the first part of it, for now).  Stevens is an odd poet.  I didn’t realize that when I was familiar only with his most famous poems, but reading deeper into his work, I’m coming across lots of unusual vocabulary and strange images; I have had the experience over and over again of reading a poem and thinking it’s utterly bizarre, and then re-reading it multiple times and realizing that it’s beautiful in its strangeness.

The reason I’m a bit too tired to write a proper review this evening is that I spent the afternoon shopping — clothes shopping.  This is highly unusual.  I love book shopping, but any other kind leaves me feeling weary and miserable.  But I really, really need some new clothes and my birthday is coming up, so Hobgoblin arranged for the clothing-shopping expert at Musings From the Sofa to take me on a shopping spree.  If you hate clothes shopping as much I do, this is a great way to fill out the wardrobe a little bit; it’s so much better shopping with someone who can tell you what colors and styles work for you and can give you ideas and take you straight to the right shops.  I came home with some nice new things — and, very importantly, a promise that we can do it again.

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Recent Acquisitions

I’ve gone on a bit of a Book Mooch spree over the last couple days, something I haven’t done in a long time.  But I can only let those points sit there for so long before the fact that each point can get me a book for free (or for “free,” since I earned points by mailing books to other people) becomes too much to contemplate, and I break down and use them.  I requested seven books recently, and that still leaves me with nine points — plenty left in case some really cool books become available.  Here’s what I got:

  • Henry Green’s Loving, Living, Party Going.  These are three separate novels, collected into one volume.  I’ve never read Green, but he’s someone I hear of now and then, not frequently, but just enough to keep him in mind.  I believe Francine Prose praised him in her book Reading Like a Writer, which brought him to my attention once again.  I could love him or hate him — I have no idea.  It will be interesting to find out.
  • Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  Here is another author I have never read and don’t know much about, so I am taking a bit of a risk with her.  It’s a memoir of her relationship with her mother.
  • Maria Edgeworth’s Helen.  I’ve read one Edgeworth novel (Belinda) and am looking forward to reading more.  She is an early 19C novelist; she sometimes writes about Ireland and Irish/English relations and was also known in her day for her children’s writing as well as her adult novels.  Helen was published in 1837.
  • Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault. I enjoyed Shriver’s novel The Post-Birthday World, and this one looks fun — it’s about a tennis-playing couple who become rivals and suffer from competitiveness and jealousy.  I’m not suggesting, let me be clear, that this is at all parallel to the experience Hobgoblin and I have racing bikes together!
  • Emile Zola’s Germinal. I’ve never read Balzac, and I’ve never read Zola, and this book seems like a good place to start.  I’ve been saying I’m going to read those two for years — maybe I’ll actually get around to it this year.
  • Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings. I like reading travel writing now and then.  Here’s a description: “In a 35-foot sailboat Raban traverses over 1,000 miles of often treacherous waters … Passage to Juneau is a lesson in comparative literature, the history of the Northwest’s Indians and the first European explorers, and a sociological treatise on class and technology. But most of all, Passage to Juneau is a fascinating navigation through Raban’s psyche — a brave interior exploration of family, relationship, and mourning.”
  • Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence.  I do already have one unread Pym novel on hand (No Fond Return of Love), but Pym is so good, it’s impossible to have too many of her books around.  And I’ve heard such good things about this one.

Now that my Book Mooch spree is over, maybe I can let my remaining points sit for a while …

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Two reviews

First of all — yay for President Barack Obama!  I watched the inauguration at school with a crowd of faculty and students, and it was exciting.  It’s amazing how much optimism I see and feel out there, and it’s wonderful to have something to feel hopeful about and proud of.  I thought his speech was great.  I was also immensely cheered to read this article from the New York Times about how important books and reading have been for Obama.  There is a lot I don’t know about Obama, but that article makes me feel like he’s someone whose mindset I can understand, unlike a certain former president of ours (it was such a relief to hear the words “former president George W. Bush”!).

But on to books.  I thought I would write briefly about two books today, in an effort not to fall too far behind in my reviews.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia are two very different books — one of them is quiet and serious and dark and the other is bright and comic — but they have a surprising amount in common.  They are both set in small, isolated towns in England where tradition reigns and newcomers are held in suspicion, and they deal with how tight-knit communities define and redefine themselves when change threatens them.  They also have similar types of characters — in particular, the gossip mongers and the matrons who pride themselves on supporting the arts.

But their differences in tone are striking.  Fitzgerald’s book tells the story of Florence Green, a widow with enough money, although barely, to buy a bookshop.  Her town has never had a bookshop and seems like the perfect place for one, given its distance from other town centers and its summer tourists.  Florence has settled on Old House, a building in need of repairs but with some promise, as the perfect place for her shop, but, unfortunately, Mrs. Gamart, the town’s most powerful woman, has had other ideas about how Old House should be used.  She wants to see it as an arts center, and she has ideas about who should run it and how.  But Florence takes her chances and bucks Mrs. Gamart’s wishes, and her bookshop opens.

The book is only about 120 pages long, and it’s tightly focused on Florence and her bookshop’s fortunes.  I’ll admit I found the tone of it a little uneven and I had trouble orienting myself in the story, but I’m not sure I was reading the book under the best circumstances and may not have done it justice.  I’m planning on reading Fitzgerald again to see if I can do better with another novel.  Eventually, though, the story clicked with me, and I was thoroughly involved in it when I got to the ending — which I won’t say anything about except that it’s incredibly powerful.

I’m wondering if this is a book someone English might be better suited to understand.  It took me a while to figure out just how to understand the characters, just what to make of the glimmers of humor that appear in an otherwise somber book, and I wonder if there isn’t something about the tone and mood that could be hard for an American to pick up on.  I’m not sure.  I’ve got Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which I’m looking forward to reading.

As for Queen Lucia, the book was also very English, but in such an over-the-top way that anybody who knows anything about the English and stereotypes of the English will find it amusing.  Queen Lucia, otherwise known as Mrs. Lucas, reigns supreme in her little town, dictating the artistic sensibilities and the social calendar of anybody who has pretensions of being anybody.  She plays piano, puts on tableaux, talks Italian with her husband, and is so very proud of her performance in all these things.  Her admirers, most importantly her two best friends Daisy Quantock and Georgie Pillson, glimpse now and then the fact that Queen Lucia is not quite as talented as she likes to think she is, but they are still reasonably happy to live in her shadow.

Until, that is, a guru shows up in town ready to teach them all yoga and universal benevolence, followed by a spiritualist ready to perform seances and communicate with the dead, followed, most devastatingly, by Olga Bracely, the famous opera singer.  With each of these intruders a fight breaks out over who will “own” them — who will get credit for introducing them to their small town and who will take charge of their social calendar, dictating who can see them and when.  Benson has a wonderful time delicately skewering all the characters with his light, satiric tone — and the characters really do do some ridiculous things, especially Queen Lucia — but it’s clear that he’s also fond of each of them, and no one is seriously hurt by the satire.  It’s just a lot of fun for everyone involved.

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A lovely day

Yesterday was a lovely day, the kind of day that does a lot to pull one out of the winter blues, even if it means spending a little more time than is ideal in temperatures in the teens.  Hobgoblin and I spent the day in New Haven with some friends, visiting the Beinecke library and then browsing through bookshops.  It was the first time I’d visited the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and it turned out to be a lovely place to go — it’s a modern building with marble panels that let the light shine through so it feels light even though there aren’t many windows.  There are special exhibits open to the public that wrap around the outer edge of the building with the middle part taken up by stacks and stacks of very old books.  This middle section is behind glass, so you get a view of some of the shelves.

The main exhibit yesterday was about alchemy, so we saw old textbooks on the subject, some of them complete with charts and models and pictures of very early chemistry labs.  I particularly liked seeing books where the reader had taken notes in the margins (writing in books is a good thing!  People in the future will be interested in your marginal notations, maybe!).  My favorite comment was something like this: “There is neither worth nor merit to be found in this chapter.”  Ouch.  There is also a Gutenburg Bible on display, which was marvelous to look at.

After staring at old books for a while, we went off to find old-but-not-quite-so-old books at the Book Trader Cafe, and after a couple hours there (it’s not a huge store, but the selection is great), we spent another hour or so at Atticus Bookstore.  I had a grand time looking through the books and an even better time talking about them, but I was remarkably restrained and bought only two books.  When I came across Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey I knew I would be bringing it home, given my developing Janet Malcolm obsession and Zhiv’s intriguing post on the subject.  I also couldn’t say no to the eighteenth-century novel Nature and Art by Elizabeth Inchbald.  I’ve read her novel A Simple Story and found it a very interesting treatment of mother/daughter relationships and problems with women’s education, and I’m looking forward to reading another of hers.

It was so cold yesterday, I really couldn’t help but have a couple lattes to help keep me warm, and those two large chocolate chip cookies I ate went so well with my coffee I couldn’t resist.  And what’s wrong with a little indulgence now and then, right?

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