Monthly Archives: April 2009

Wednesday night worlds

So the summer race series has begun in my part of Connecticut, and I’ll be racing every Wednesday night I possibly can from now until September. These races are my absolute favorite. They are only training races and so don’t count when it comes to rankings and upgrade points, but that doesn’t make much difference to me, since I’m pretty unambitious on the bike. All I want is to have a good ride.

Tonight’s race was entirely uneventful, which is just the way I like it. We rode 18 laps, which works out to about 14 miles — a short race since we were running out of sun. The races will get longer as the evenings get longer. There were maybe 35-40 guys in the pack and one other woman. It was a points race, meaning that riders earn points in a series of sprints and the winner is the one with the most points, rather than everything hanging on the very last sprint. So that meant the last five laps were especially fast, as those were the laps that counted. The pack started to get strung out at that point — a sure sign that the pace is fast — but I hung on to the end.

The one potential problem was that my calf muscles started cramping up on the short hill that ends every lap; in the second to last lap I was afraid my calves were going to seize up on me, and I would have to drop out, but I managed somehow to keep them under control, and once I got up the hill, I tried to stretch them out a bit and give them a rest so I could make it up the hill the next time around.

I love seeing my cycling friends at these races, and I love the low-stakes nature of the whole thing. There’s no way I’m going to win these races, so I don’t have to get too nervous about them. I just sit in and get a really good workout.

I’ve had a hard April as far as riding is concerned, as I’ve written about before — I’ve struggled with sickness and have been too busy to train much and have felt unmotivated. But these races will help me get my usual enthusiasm back, and for that I’m very grateful.

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Another meme!

This is the semester that will not end, and so, once again, I’m very grateful to come across an interesting meme to make posting a bit easier. I don’t want to go too long without posting here, after all. This is also a thought-provoking meme — it inspired an interesting response from Zhiv, and I’m sure I’ll have some trouble answering the questions as I go along. We’ll see how it goes.

1) What author do you own the most books by?

Virginia Woolf, although I only own 13 of her books, which doesn’t seem like a particularly high number for this question. I don’t tend to collect a lot of books by the same author, largely because I don’t tend to read very deeply into any author’s collection.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?

Frankenstein. I own three or four editions of this book because it’s the book I’ve read and taught most in school. I read it once in college, at least three times in grad school, and I’ve taught it several times as well. I like to have the edition a particular teacher is using, and so with each new class, I’d buy a new edition.

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

Not in the slightest. When it comes to grammar, I strongly believe in choosing my battles wisely, and preposition placement is not at the top of the list.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

I’m not secretly in love with any fictional character, but if you forced me to name somebody I could possibly have a literary crush on, I’m afraid I’d have to be boring and say Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children)?

Oh, I’m not sure! I haven’t kept track of my reading for most of my life, so that’s a hard question to answer. It’s probably Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, which I’ve read countless times for dissertation purposes. Frankenstein is high up there on the list too.

6) What was your favourite book when you were ten years old?

I can’t remember exactly what I was reading when, but it could possibly be Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, or possibly Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or possibly Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

7) What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness, which is a book I picked for one of my book groups, and which was truly, truly awful. It’s pretty much what the title offers, a book arguing against happiness, which sounds like an interesting premise, but it’s written in a style I couldn’t stand.

8 ) What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

Possibly Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog or maybe Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?

Oh, I wouldn’t want to force anybody to read anything! Well, unless you’re taking a class from me. But fellow bloggers I don’t force to read books, even hypothetically. To be honest, if I love a book, it’s really hard when other people don’t feel the same way, so if you’re likely to dislike something I love, I wouldn’t mind at all if you didn’t read it.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?

And here we get to a bunch of questions I don’t really want to answer. I have no interest in nominating anybody to win the Nobel Prize. The truth is, I can’t keep track of who has won it to nominate somebody who hasn’t.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

I want to suggest books that would be really hard if not impossible to make into a movie, books like Tristram Shandy (which was sort of made into a movie — sort of) or Nabokov’s Pale Fire. What would they do with that one?

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past has been made into a movie, right? Well, I don’t want to see it.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.

I don’t dream about writers or literary characters. Do you? They mean a lot to me, and I spend a lot of time thinking about them, but they don’t enter my dream world.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?

Hmmm … I listened to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and I think that’s my best answer. I don’t read a lot of lowbrow books. The truth is, though, that listening to Brown’s book was kind of fun. If I’d read it in paper I might have felt differently though.

15) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

Literary theory is a great place to go for this question: Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Spivak were all a challenge. As for novels, Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the toughest I’ve read.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?

The Merry Wives of Windsor.

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

Here we get into these questions with two choices, neither of which I’m actually going to choose. I’ve had a longer history with and a more emotional response to the Russians, but the French are pretty fabulous too, and I’m looking forward to reading some great 19th century novelists such as Balzac and Zola.

18 ) Roth or Updike?

Um … I would pick up Roth if I wanted something searing and raw (I’m thinking of Portnoy’s Complaint here) and Updike for some beautiful writing. The truth is, though, I’ve probably read most of the Roth and Updike I’ll ever read in my life.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

Except for sharing first names, I don’t see what these writers have in common that makes them worth comparing. I really love Sedaris, but — even though I know it’s popular to look down on Eggers — I like Eggers too. I really enjoyed reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. If you think less of me for this, that’s your problem.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

Oh, goodness. They’re all great.

21) Austen or Eliot?

See Zhiv on this one.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

Anything pre-18th century I’m a little shaky on, which is really, truly not good. But I started off interested in 20th-century literature and worked my way back to the 18th, and never made it any farther back than that.

23) What is your favorite novel?

Pride and Prejudice.

24) Play?

I’ve never thought about this before! I’ve taught Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House so many times I can’t help but love it. I also love anything by Samuel Beckett.

25) Poem?

Any of Keats’s odes.

26) Essay?

I can’t pick one — it has to be Montaigne’s collected essays.

27) Short story?

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

28) Work of nonfiction?

I have so many. So a list of my favorite nonfiction writers: Jenny Diski, David Foster Wallace, Geoff Dyer, Virginia Woolf, Janet Malcolm.

29) Who is your favourite writer?

Jane Austen, closely followed by Virginia Woolf.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

No idea. I’ll let you answer this one.

31) What is your desert island book?

One of those big books that’s really a collection of a bunch of books, in this case, the complete works of Jane Austen in one volume.

32) And… what are you reading right now?

I’m about to finish The Recognitions (yay!), and I just began P.D. James’s Cover Her Face for my mystery book group.

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an excellent read, and I’m glad I’ve finally read the third Brontë sister, but I also found a few things dissatisfying and puzzling. First the good: I loved that this book deals with some topics I don’t often see treated with such openness in Victorian novels. Certainly there are other novels of the time that are suspicious of marriage and sympathetic toward mistreated wives, but the amount of detail this book devotes to such problems as alcoholism and physical and emotional abuse I found surprising. There is a whole series of harrowing scenes in the middle of the novel that describe the heroine Helen’s sufferings at the hands of her awful husband, who spends his time carousing with friends and openly having affairs. There are other women who suffer because of their husbands’ gambling problems and abuse of alcohol. It’s not that the women are all martyrs, though; they are also capable of their own vice and casual cruelty.

The novel doesn’t entirely despair of marriage, but it does show just how hard it is to find the right kind of partner, and how easily even smart and good-hearted people can make very foolish decisions. There are men who suffer because they are trapped in bad marriages, but the brunt of the suffering falls on the women, who have very little ability to change their lives when they decide they are unhappy with them.

I liked the ideas the book takes up, and I also thought it was a well-constructed story, one that grabbed my attention immediately and kept me avidly reading all the way through. It has a fairly complicated structure involving stories within stories, in a manner similar to Wuthering Heights, although perhaps it’s not as well-done as Emily’s novel. It starts with Gilbert Markham’s letters to a friend, telling the story of the mysteriously attractive new tenant, Helen, with whom he soon develops an infatuation. Helen treats him kindly but remains aloof until Gilbert catches her in a compromising conversation with his neighbor Mr. Lawrence, at which point he completely freaks out, attacks Mr. Lawrence, and confronts Helen. In order to defend herself, she hands him a large packet of papers, which contains her diary. Much of the rest of the novel is made up of this diary, which tells the story of Helen’s earlier life.

All this is satisfying and fun (as much fun as a harrowing novel about domestic abuse can be), but I found Gilbert to be a troubling character. After reading his letters for a while I began to think that while he could sometimes be a sympathetic character, he was also conceited, self-satisfied, and comically pompous. It seemed clear to me that Brontë was presenting him as an unreliable narrator, and we were meant to see him as a good-intentioned but bumbling and foolish man. But as I read on, I began to sense that Brontë wasn’t taking this characterization anywhere, and I began to wonder if I weren’t wrong about reading him as unreliable, at least intentionally so on Brontë’s part. This led to some disappointment when the novel’s characters took him more seriously than I thought he deserved.

Spoiler alert! You may want to stop here if you plan to read the book — I was disappointed that Helen ended up marrying Gilbert. She’s not a perfect person and has made her share of mistakes (the main one being to marry Arthur Huntingdon), but she struck me as a lot smarter and savvier than Gilbert, and I couldn’t see why she fell in love with him. I can see that Gilbert’s kindness and loyalty would look attractive after how awful her first husband was, but that doesn’t seem like a good basis for a marriage.

It’s nearly impossible not to make comparisons among the Brontë sisters, since I’ve now read them all, and I don’t think Tenant is as good as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.  It doesn’t feel as powerful as the other two novels and its structure and characterization aren’t as complex. But there still are plenty of reasons to read the book, particularly for its detailed look at just how much women could suffer from poor marriages and how ill-equiped they are — more because of social conventions than through their own personal failings — to make a wise choice of whom to marry.

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Blogging house guests

I never expected when I started blogging that it would lead me not only to making new friends from all over the world but also to getting to meet some of them. And yes, it sounds odd to talk about making friends first and then meeting them later, but that’s exactly what happens, and I consider many bloggers friends even though I haven’t laid eyes on them. But this past weekend it happened again: I got to meet fellow-blogger Mandarine and his wife and six-month-old son, who are visiting the U.S. from France.

What a charming family they are. Can I just say that Baby Mandarine is so, so adorable I almost started wanting a baby of my own? And let me tell you, it takes a truly adorable baby to make me feel that way.

I should probably warn you that if you ever visit us, you should expect to walk until you’re in pain. We don’t mean to tire our guests out; it just sort of happens. Hobgoblin and I did it to his mother when she visited a few years ago, to my aunt when she visited last fall, and I’m sure we did it to others as well. This time the Mandarines wanted to do some hiking, and some hiking we certainly did. It just so happened that Hobgoblin was planning to take his class on a hike up Bear Mountain in northwest Connecticut, so we all set off together. I was so impressed at the way Baby Mandarine took it all in stride, so to speak, happily allowing himself to be carried up the mountain and sneaking in a nap on the way down. And I was impressed at the way Mandarine made carrying the baby up and down the mountain seem effortlessly easy. I’m not sure if our hike was what Mr. and Mrs. Mandarine expected, but I know I was left with some sore muscles the next day, and I’m so grateful they were good sports about the experience.

And I’m also grateful for the dinner they cooked for us. We spent a leisurely day on Sunday walking to town to stroll around some shops and then taking naps and visiting the local park to walk the dog (even after the epic hike, the walking continued! Consider yourself warned). And then we enjoyed a fabulous pasta dinner followed by a wonderful chocolate cake, Mrs. Mandarine’s specialty.

So once again I find myself very, very glad I began blogging and very appreciative of the great friends I’ve made this way. I’m also glad I live near New York City, which brings people into my area so I have the chance to meet them. Just remember, if you plan on visiting the city or our part of Connecticut and you want to have a blogger meet-up, that you’d better bringing some good walking shoes.

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On being a student again

So the online course in how to teach online continues; I’ve completed almost six weeks worth of work and have another three weeks to go. For the most part the class is a lot of fun. I enjoy being a student — doing my readings and completing my assignments and getting rewarded with good grades. There’s something very satisfying about the whole process.

But I’ll admit that I did not really enjoy last week’s group project. Or perhaps I should say that while I enjoyed working with my fellow classmates and felt a sense of accomplishment at the project we completed, I found that the most memorable things I learned are bad things about myself. I don’t think that’s what the instructors intended.

I learned, for example, that I am a control freak, or, rather, I was reminded once again of my control freak tendencies, a lesson I’ve learned many times before. I don’t like letting anybody else participate in work I’m going to get graded on. If I’m going to get graded on something, shouldn’t I have the right to do everything myself? I was reminded of my perfectionism, and how hard it is to see ways I could improve on someone else’s work but at the same time to fear that making suggestions would be entirely too obnoxious. I felt I knew exactly how the project should be done, and I had to keep reminding myself that other people’s opinions have merit too (or at least I need to pretend they do).

I was reminded of how bossy I can be. I pretty much immediately took charge of the project, making lists of things we needed to accomplish and signing people up for duties. I got annoyed at the two members (out of six) who did very little work, although I did resist prodding them to do their part. Whenever anybody asked for suggestions or ideas, I posted some right away, politely saying that people could take them or leave them as they wished, but secretly thinking they would be better off taking them.

And I learned once again how obsessive I am. I logged on to our class website constantly to check what other people were doing and to see if there were any new messages on the discussion board. I couldn’t let the thing alone. I spent way more time than necessary on the stupid thing — time I don’t have much of right now.

The class involves discussion boards and reflection assignments that are designed to get us to think about how we will change our online teaching, and this week’s lesson was obviously encouraging us to consider using group projects in our classes. But I have to say I didn’t learn that lesson very well. I do want to do smaller peer review-type assignments, but I don’t think my future students need to worry about a big collaborative project. They are just too painful.

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Notes on various things

I began Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a week or so ago, and so far it’s been great. I do love nineteenth-century novels, and I miss them if I go too long without reading one.  I love their length and the way the best authors can string a story out so it lasts a long time but never feels slow or dull. I’m having an experience with this book that I used to have all the time, which is that it’s the main book I’m reading (I dip into The Recognitions now and then, but mostly it’s Brontë), so I find myself absorbed in it at various points in the day and I feel like I’m immersed in its world. I like reading multiple books at once, but it does diffuse that feeling of absorption.

The story so far is good — it’s got all the typical elements of a 19C novel, a frame narrative, stories within stories, women of uncertain reputation, a marriage plot, intrigues about money. It also has an amusingly unreliable narrator, one who strikes me as silly and petty and foolish but who is absolutely convinced of his own rectitude and wisdom. And now I’m in a section with another narrator entirely, one who strikes me as much more reliable, but about whom I still have some doubts. I like unreliable narrators very much, if only because they offer a reader so much food for thought.

And yes, I’m still plugging away at The Recognitions, at least now and then. I have about 110 pages left to go, and yes, I’m counting. I admire the book and I’ve enjoyed reading at least parts of its, but at this point I have to admit I’m ready for it to be over. I might have fared better with it if I’d read it faster in order to stay immersed in its world, but I’ve put it aside now and then, which has meant I’ve forgotten some of the characters and plot events, and this really isn’t a book where things are easy to keep track of even in the best of circumstances. There’s even a website that offers a plot summary, and yet it’s still hard going. But I will persevere. There’s no way I’m quitting this 950-page book with only a little bit left to go!

And now for a cycling update. Things were going very well right up until about 1 1/2 weeks ago; up until that point, I was riding hard, doing fine in races, and having lots of fun. But then I caught a cold and missed a race because of it. I was hoping to recover quickly, but I spent a week feeling tired and achy. I’m back on the bike now, but I’m not sure how much fitness I’ve lost, and I still haven’t quite shaken the cold.

What interests me about this is how much my feelings shift over time. At the end of March I was completely and utterly enthralled with the riding I was doing. I was determined to find time for it no matter what the cost. After I got sick, that feeling evaporated, and I found myself grateful I couldn’t ride, so I had the chance to get a little more work done. I was grateful I could use the cold as an excuse to sleep in and spend more time lounging around. Now that I’m back on the bike, I’m enjoying riding, but also not quite feeling my former enthrallment. I expect, however, that the enthrallment will return soon enough. Isn’t it odd the way, over the course of a short week and a half, so much can change? I feel like I don’t recognize myself half the time.

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Nothing to Be Frightened Of

I recently finished Julian Barnes’s book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, and I thought it was great, although I also couldn’t help but wonder what it was about an aging man’s musings about death that interested me so much. It’s not a subject I’m generally drawn to or a subject that particular intrigues me. It’s only very occasionally that I feel a mild dread at the thought of my own death, and I’m certainly not haunted by it. I’m pretty good at avoiding the whole subject, which I imagine is what most people do (or am I wrong about this? Do most people spend a lot of time fearfully contemplating their own death, and I’m the one who is stupidly oblivious?).

Either I’m terrified of death on an unconscious level and it’s my unconscious that led me to this book, or I read it for the reason my consciousness believes, which is that I’ve been fascinated by Barnes for a while and that I love essayistic nonfiction and so it made perfect sense to see what this book was all about. And I can report that it’s a great read, no matter what your feelings on the subject are.

The book rambles here and there and has no discernible organizational structure, but this matches Barnes’s subject and mood. He’s grappling with one of the biggest, scariest, most mysterious experiences any of us can grapple with, so it makes sense to me that he wouldn’t manage to be organized about it. It strikes me as perfectly appropriate to wander from topic to topic and to return again and again to the same pivotal experiences. I don’t want to imply that the book is repetitious; while Barnes circles around to the same topics again and again, each time he discusses them, they feel fresh.

These topics include his family history, his relationship with his brother, his process of learning what it means to die, his conversations with friends on the subject, what his favorite writers have written about death, and what the deaths of these writers were like. He weaves the biographical and autobiographical material together with passages that look at the subject from philosophical, religious, and artistic points of view, and the whole thing is charmingly and fascinatingly readable.

Barnes comes across as someone terrified of death but doing his best to stay calm, and turning to the thing he knows best to help him out: writing. The book itself comes to seem like a way of staving off death, a fact that Barnes himself acknowledges. It’s hard not to believe that as long as he keeps writing, surely he won’t die. And yet Barnes isn’t deluding himself — he’s well aware that he could die while in the middle of writing, which would leave an artefact entirely different from the one he wanted to leave behind. He also knows that being a famous writer will only buy him a little bit of time before he is forgotten entirely and loses even that shred of immortality — fame. He thinks about the person who will inevitably one day exist: his very last reader.  He is at first grateful to this reader for the attention he or she is paying him, but then he gets angry: if this is his last reader, then that person by definition has failed him by neglecting to convince anyone else to pick up one of his books.

Barnes looks around at the various sources of comfort in the face of death, searching for some reason to keep from despairing, and yet they all fail him. He’s agnostic, pretty well convinced that there is no God out there of the traditional sort, and yet not wanting to take the risk of deciding it for sure. But even if God does exist, he decides that wouldn’t be much comfort, and if God doesn’t exist that’s no comfort either, and who’s to say that if there is a God, that God isn’t cruel and doesn’t take pleasure in torturing us all? Philosophy brings no comfort either. His brother is a philosopher, but Barnes finds his way of thinking foreign to his own more artistic and less strictly logical sensibilities.

As I was reading the book I began to wonder if it would make me start fearing death in a way I hadn’t before. Barnes is pretty convincing after all. It hasn’t, though, which is good. I think it has made me more sympathetic to those who aren’t as oblivious as I am and who do fear death. I think fearing death is a perfectly logical and understandable response, and I’m lucky not to have felt the fear much myself, and I’ll probably fear it more as I get older, as most people probably do. But for now, I’ll just admire Barnes for doing his best to face the subject head on and trying make sense of the thing that is probably the hardest thing possible to make sense of.

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