Monthly Archives: March 2009

Winner of Sorrow review

I’m coming out of my blogging break momentarily to send you over to a review of Brian Lynch’s novel The Winner of Sorrow I published over at The Quarterly Conversation. I’ve written about the book here, but I wanted to do a more formal review and The Quarterly Conversation seemed like the perfect place. Check it out!

I hope to be back soon to write about Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl for the Slaves of Golconda group, but it’s been so busy around here, I may be a little late …

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A brief break

I think I’m in need of a blog break. Litlove is taking one, and it sounds so nice, I think I need one too. I love blogging and all, but sometimes … I’m out of energy.

I do have a habit of announcing that I’m going to back off on posting and then immediately finding myself inspired to write, so who knows how long the break will be — possibly not long at all. But at the moment I feel a need for some more room in my life and blogging is the thing to go.

Before I go, though, I want to encourage everyone to go congratulate Hobgoblin on his good news.

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Saturday thoughts

  • I am resolutely ignoring the fact that I will be racing tomorrow, and, even worse, riding in two races. I find that denial is the best way to manage nerves. So — tomorrow will be a quiet day where I sleep in, spend lots of time reading, see some friends, and that’s it. Yes, it is.
  • I am the kind of dork who does homework on Saturday nights. I just spent a good bit of time reading through material for the online class I’m taking on how to teach online classes. It was interesting, although now my head is spinning with educational and technical jargon, including ugly words like “chunking,” which refers to the practice of breaking up text into manageable bits.  Apparently in an online class you are not supposed to simply upload your lecture notes for students to read, but instead are supposed to break the material up into separate shorter pages that are easier to process and then to intersperse activities and assignments and such to help students understand and remember everything. Makes sense to me.
  • I finished the book for my next mystery group meeting, Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers. I’ll post more on it later, but in the meantime, I’ll say that I liked it, although it’s very different from the sort of thing I usually like. It’s fast-paced and focused on the action, without a whole lot of character development or analysis. But the style fits the subject it covers — the dark, crime-ridden side of Harlem in the 1950s. What interests me about the book is the fact that Hobgoblin read a chapter or two and declared he couldn’t stand it and thought the writing was horrible. I picked it up thinking I’d probably agree and found I didn’t at all. So now I’m really looking forward to the discussion next week.
  • I couldn’t resist wandering over to the town library the other day and there I found a few nonfiction books I’ve been meaning to read, including Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking and Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil. What I brought home, though, is Julian Barnes’s book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which is sort of a memoir, sort of an extended essay on death. So far (I’ve read maybe 30 pages), it’s rambled around and touched on his family history, his relationship with his brother, his religious history, and his fear of dying. So far, so good — this is exactly the kind of book I like, and Barnes is such a great writer.
  • I’m looking forward to picking up Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl very soon for the Slaves of Golconda discussion beginning at the end of the month. As usual the group has chosen a book that sounds great and is one I’m happy to read although I probably wouldn’t have gotten to it soon on my own. That’s precisely why I’m so happy to be a part of that group — it gets me reading things I might not otherwise.
  • I’m going to try to finish the William Cowper biography I’ve been working on before I begin the Zweig, though — I don’t want to have too many books underway at once or I might start to feel overwhelmed.
  • And no, I’m not racing tomorrow … no, really …

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Elizabeth George’s A Great Deliverance

Well, this one didn’t work out as planned. Several people whose taste I respect recommended Elizabeth George to me, so I was happy to pick up the first installment of her Inspector Lynley series, A Great Deliverance. There are lots and lots of books in this series, and I thought it would be fun to have a series to read that I could turn to whenever the mood struck. I’m not in the habit of reading through a series of mystery novels in an orderly way, and I thought it would be fun to try.

So what am I missing? I’m willing to admit in other circumstances I may have liked this book more, but as it is, I just never got caught up in the story. Those of you in the know, does she get better as she goes along?

The main problem is that I just never really “bought” the characters. I didn’t feel as though I was given enough information to make them come alive. Inspector Lynley struck me as annoyingly perfect. (But really, “annoying” is a word I’ve been using a lot lately, so perhaps I’m not being fair, and I can see that in another mood I might not mind unrealistic perfection at all.) He’s the 8th Earl of Asherton, and not only is he an earl, but he’s smart and charming and handsome and understanding and a great detective, etc., etc. He has some experience of suffering, but rather than making me pity him, this makes him seem even worse — he seems even more annoyingly perfect because his less-than-perfect life means he’s capable of compassion and a deeper understanding of other people. I think if I’d had a chance to get to know him better, his charm might have worked on me, but the novel’s introduction to him seemed too rushed, so I was left feeling distanced and unimpressed.

Given all of this, I might have been drawn to the other main character, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who resents Lynley’s perfections with a passion. She comes from a troubled family and a difficult past, and she is solidly working class. She is also very, very angry at the world, an anger she takes out on nearly everybody, but especially on Lynley. When she is assigned to work with him on a case, she is certain disaster is about to happen.

But I wasn’t particularly taken with Barbara either. Again, I didn’t have enough information about her to be able to care all that much about her pain. Instead, her self-sabotaging behavior just got irritating and her anger seemed excessive. Her psychological problems seemed overly obvious and contrived.

The story seemed fine, but the truth is, I never care all that much about the story; I look, instead, for some interesting people and ideas to think about. I’ll admit, things did start to get interesting right at the very end with the resolution of the mystery, but that’s much too late. The interesting ending makes me wonder if her later books take off in good directions — it seems there’s some potential there — but I’m not sure I want to take the time to find out.

I wonder if this is a matter of a new writer not having everything figured out yet, or perhaps the problem of getting a series underway — surely, if you envision a series based on your characters, it’s not easy to write a book that is complete on its own but also paves the way for future books.

Oh, well — if Elizabeth George isn’t for me, that’s okay! There are surely other mystery series that I will find more satisfying.

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On biography

I decided to take Zhiv’s advice and continue reading David Cecil’s The Stricken Deer, a biography of William Cowper (I also wrote about the book here). I am maybe a third of the way through it at this point. It’s been interesting to read so shortly after finishing Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen because it’s allowed me to compare biographical styles from the 1930s and the 1990s, and they turn out, no surprise, to be very, very different.

Cecil, for example, is much more likely to make blanket statements about what humans are like than Tomalin is.  Tomalin does a little of this too, but Cecil is strikingly willing to tell us just how people in general behave, with a confidence that I don’t think many writers today share or at least would be willing to express. It seems we’ve become (to make my own blanket statement) much more hesitant about our assertions. Cecil says things like this:

Youth can not take a consistently pessimistic view of its lot, for it thinks of its mode of existence, not as real life, but as the preparation for it. So that, however much it may deplore the present, it is hopeful about the future, which must be different, and will probably be pleasanter. But with maturity hope begins to flag. One has grown up and settled to a profession and made one’s friends, and the course one’s life will wend is clear before one. If one is still weighed down the the burdens of youth, it seems likely that one will carry them to the grave.

Now this seems like a very reasonable observation to make, and yet I can’t imagine many modern biographers going on about what happens to “one” quite so long. And there are lots of passages like this, passages that project a calmness and a confidence powerful enough that it makes one wish things really were that simple and obvious.

Cecil also never bothers to tell the reader where he got his information from or to express doubts about whether his interpretation is correct or to acknowledge other possible interpretations or conflicting views out there. This is another manifestation of the confidence that can pronounce on “how things are”; the style implies there’s no need for justification or explanation. Cecil doesn’t include notes or a bibliography either, although he explains in a short preface that he didn’t intend this to be a “definitive and documented” biography, so that exclusion makes some sense. But even so, I would guess that a modern biographer doing something similar to Cecil would mention what sources information came from and would make a point of discussing uncertainties of interpretation, as Tomalin does regularly. Instead what we get is a smooth and uninterrupted narrative, one written as though it were a novel or autobiography where the author had no need to offer verifying background information.

Generally this highly self-confident style would annoy me, but here I like it. It’s fun to listen to a voice of authority now and then, rather than having to grapple with questions and uncertainties all the time. And when the voice of authority is as charming and beguiling as Cecil’s is, that makes it even more enjoyable. In the back of my mind I know, of course, that what Cecil is telling me about Cowper might very well be open to debate, and I do wonder how much is speculation and how much comes from reliable sources, but still, I don’t mind a little simplicity and straightforwardness now and then.

Another difference between Cecil and modern biographers is how they handle issues of sexuality; in fact, I’d like to find a more modern biography of Cowper to see just how that biographer deals with Cowper’s possible impotence. Here is what Cecil says on the subject:

… obscure hints reach us of a more somber cause for Cowper’s youthful sufferings. It is alleged that he suffered from an intimate deformity, and from early years the thought of it preyed on his mind. The whole subject is mysterious. In later life his emotional experience was normal and developed perfectly spontaneously. On the other hand, he never was a passionate man; and there are certain facts in his later life for which such a deformity would offer a convincing explanation. If he was deformed there is no doubt that he must have learned about it early, possibly from the deriding lips of his tormentors. The effect on him must inevitably have been disastrous. Boys dislike above all things to be different from other people; nor was Cowper of an age to estimate coolly the relative importance of his abnormality.

The next paragraph begins, “at any rate,” and continues on with the narrative. Cecil refers to this subject a couple times in later passages, but always obliquely, and as though he’d prefer not to.  Can you imagine a modern biographer discussing impotence without ever using the word itself and without getting precisely anatomical, not to mention psychoanalytic?

I have to rush through the rest of this book to get it back to the library, but the truth is, it’s an enjoyable, quick read, and I’m learning a lot — about Cowper and also about biography itself.

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Race report: two races, 53 miles, lots of fun

I did something today I’ve never done before — I rode in two races. I see other people doing this all the time, but usually I feel so beat-up after just one race that I can’t contemplate doing another. But my racing buddy said last week that doing two races would be a good challenge, and I thought, well, if she’s up for it, then why can’t I be too? Unfortunately she couldn’t race today, but I thought I’d give it a try on my own.

The first race is the women’s race, and it went well, although not quite as well as last week — I stayed with the pack the entire time, but didn’t get a top-20 finish. They only list the top 20 finishers, so I don’t know how I placed. Most of the pack stayed together the entire time, so the finish was a pack sprint, and I’m not terribly good at those, not having much of a sprint, and not liking to fight my way to the front of the pack. I’m just not aggressive enough to be a really good criterium racer. But still, it was a good race, and I worked hard, but not so hard I was in serious pain.

The second race was right after the first, with maybe a 20-minute break. It was a master’s race, which means in this case it’s for men 40 and older, but women are allowed to ride in these races and they can race ten years older than their real age, so my 35 years qualified me to ride. You might think that a race for older people would be easier, but that’s not true at all. In bike racing, years of race experience make you a much stronger rider — many people gain more from years of experience than they lose from getting older. Plus, people from any category can ride in the master’s races, so you’ll find category 1 riders (near pro) as well as category 4. Master’s riders are fast, and they know what they’re doing.

My initial plan was to ride 20-30 minutes, just to get a little extra workout and a few more miles. I rode 20 minutes and thought okay, I’m doing all right, no reason I can’t ride 30; once I reached 30 minutes I realized that the race was only going to last maybe 15 minutes more, so I thought, why not finish? It sounds so much better to say I finished than I rode for 2/3 of the race. So I hung on until the end.

I spent much of that race in a fog — I was watching what was happening, to stay safe and make sure I didn’t do anything stupid, but I got in this zone where I wasn’t really thinking about anything, where I was just hanging on, not even feeling any pain or much fatigue, just hanging on and watching the laps fly by. It’s an odd feeling. I expected to struggle, and instead I just settled in and rode.

Interestingly, while the master’s race was significantly faster than the women’s — 25 mph vs. 22 mph — it didn’t feel harder. What happens is that the bigger pack in the master’s race makes going faster a lot easier — there are more people to draft on, and I have more protection from the wind and more momentum going up the hill.

The 53 miles comes from the two races plus all the miles I rode warming up and cooling down. 37 of those miles were from the races. There’s a good reason I’m feeling so exhausted right now! But it’s a good kind of exhaustion.

Update: Here’s Hobgoblin’s account — we rode the master’s race together.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

33092233 Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog has me thinking about the ways plausibility and realism aren’t necessarily that important in fiction.  Sometimes, with certain kinds of books, yes, they are important, as some books set up an expectation that the events they describe could possibly happen and the characters in them are ones you could possibly meet. But sometimes all that is just beside the point, and I think that’s true in Barbery’s book.  As I read the first few pages I felt some resistance because the voices were unfamiliar and the feelings the characters described struck me as odd and unbelievable. But as I read on I began to change my mind, and by the time I reached the middle I was entirely won over and stayed won over all the way through.

There are two narrators in this novel, and the book moves back and forth between them. We start with Renée, a woman in her 50s who works as a concierge for a building populated by wealthy families. She looks and behaves exactly as people seem to expect a concierge will look and behave — dumpy, unattractive, slow, uneducated — but secretly she spends her free time reading literature and philosophy and watching art films. She is remarkably intelligent and knowledgeable, but is determined no one will ever find that out. She is lonely, with only one friend who visits her regularly, but she prefers to be lonely than to risk the kind of meaningful interaction with other people that terrifies her. So she puts on a blank face and mangles grammar whenever any of the building’s residents are nearby and labors her way through Edmund Husserl and phenomenology when she is alone.

The other narrator is one of the building’s residents; she is 12 year-old Paloma, also utterly brilliant, who hates her family, hates her prospects in life, and plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. She has thought this through carefully and sees nothing else for it but suicide. She is a much-smarter version of Holden Caulfield — she sees the phoniness of the world around her and loathes the phony adults in her life, most particularly her mother and sister, and refuses to join in. Her narrative sections take two forms; one is made up of her “profound thoughts,” in which she records her best thinking so she can do something valuable with her life before it’s over, and the other is called “The Journal of the Movement of the World,” in which she makes a point of focusing on the body so as not to get too caught up in the mind. Here, she records moments of physical beauty.

Until fairly late in the book, these two characters know of each other only in the vaguest way, and they could hardly be more different in their place in life and their age and appearance, but they turn out to have similar preoccupations and ways of thinking. And here is where we get to the book’s real charm — the ideas these two characters explore and the meaning they try to make out of life. This is really a philosophical novel about the quest to understand how best to live, how to make meaning and find beauty, and how to reconcile the coexistence of beauty and suffering. What makes these ideas so interesting is that you come to care about the people thinking them — over the course of the novel their struggles move from abstract philosophical problems to vital personal ones that you feel you yourself have a stake in solving.

I loved the fact that this novel isn’t afraid to be a novel of ideas — it’s unabashedly philosophical. One of the things that makes it so interesting, I think, is that it combines passages of abstract thought with a focus on the physical world and sections that capture the comedy of bodily life. It never gets so abstract it leaves its real people with their real bodies behind. Renée is particularly amusing in this way; as long as she is caught up in her thoughts, she is comfortable, but as soon as anyone reminds her of her physical being, she is flustered and lost and messes everything up. Both narrators are exquisitely aware of the physical world around them, even if they aren’t always comfortable in it, so the book manages to be both cerebral and down-to-earth at once.

And the book is beautifully-written as well. The only criticism I’ve heard of this book that made me pay any attention at all is that its characters aren’t realistic, but given all the wonderful things to be found in this book, I don’t think that matters one bit.

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