Monthly Archives: May 2009

Birthdays, books, and bikes

Yesterday was Hobgoblin’s birthday, and we spent the day doing some of our favorite things — riding, reading, and buying books. We started off the day going on what we came to call the cupcake ride: four cycling friends and the two of us set off on a 50-mile ride that included a stop at a bakery that sells fabulous cupcakes of all kinds. I had what they call — with wonderful redundancy — a “chocolate cupcake with chocolate” and Hobgoblin had one with a pecan pie theme. The cupcakes were great, but the ride itself was even better. We had so much fun zipping around Fairfield county, sprinting at the town line signs, making silly jokes, laughing, and generally being kind of dumb. We rode fast but it didn’t feel difficult — at least it didn’t for me, since I drafted most of the time and there were four guys over six feet tall who provided awesome drafts.

Once we got home we hopped on the train for Manhattan and had a chance to read for a bit; I had the latest Maisie Dobbs with me, which provided excellent train reading. In the city, we headed straight for the bookstores, took a break to go see Star Trek (which I liked quite a lot, and I think that means something, as I generally find action movies dull), headed back to bookstores, got some dinner, and ended the evening at the bookstores again.

It’s a nice way to spend a birthday, don’t you think?

Here’s what I brought home, all from the Strand, although we spent time looking around the Union Square Barnes and Noble too.

  • Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections. It’s the second volume of his Coleridge biography; I already had the first volume on my shelves. After Anne Fadiman’s essay on Holmes and Coleridge, I’m excited to start this one.
  • Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit. Another very long biography that I’ve heard raves about. I couldn’t decide for a while whether to read this one or the Coleridge bio first, but I think I’ll go with the Coleridge. I think.
  • Stanley Plumly, Posthumous Keats. It was definitely a day for Romantic biographies. After reading a glowing review here, I couldn’t resist picking this one up.
  • Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room. This is the next book to read in my Woolf project, and I’d like to get to it this summer, if possible.

I’ve acquired a number of other books recently I think I’ll take this opportunity to tell you about:

  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature. I found a slightly beaten up but still impressive looking hardcover copy of this at a library sale, and have begun to read it already. I’ll report on how it’s going soon.
  • Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, in which he argues that literary scholars should “stop reading books and start counting, graphing, and mapping them instead” (quotation from here).
  • Neil Douglas-Klotz, Prayers of the Cosmos. At the retreat I went to last week, I had a long, fascinating conversation with a very open-minded, super-liberal Christian man who used to be a Unitarian and would probably still be one if his wife weren’t an Episcopal priest. We talked about church and theology and God, and I came away with a long list of books to read. I joked at the retreat that I’ve tried out many different versions of Protestantism and am now trying out agnosticism, which is pretty much true, but I’m still very much interested in reading about theology and church history. Here’s a product description from Amazon: “Reinterpreting the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes from the vantage of Middle Eastern mysticism, Douglas–Klotz offers a radical new translation of the words of Jesus Christ that reveals a mystical, feminist, cosmic Christ.”
  • Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Another recommendation from that conversation, this time about the historical Jesus.

Um, I think it’s time to stop buying books for a while.

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Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small

Anne Fadiman’s essay collection At Large and At Small was a joy to read, nearly as much fun as Ex Libris, her book on books and reading, which I am now tempted to read again. It wasn’t quite as captivating as Ex Libris because it wasn’t entirely about books, but Fadiman is fun to read no matter what subject she takes on.

I will admit that I liked the essays on bookish subjects best, though. Her preface is about the familiar essay, a genre she worries is passing away and that she would like to revive. The familiar essay, she says, was most popular during the Romantic time period, when Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt were writing. Here’s how she describes it:

The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire with their cravats loosened, their favorite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching before them. His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was often so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy.

Now who wouldn’t want to read that? I think essays appeal to me so much because they match the way I like to think and write. Some friends and I were talking the other day about the way we write, and I said that rather than having something worked out in my mind that I want to say and struggling to get it right in words, I tend to start with only the vaguest idea of my point and perhaps without a point at all and to figure out what I’m saying as I write it. Not all essayists write that way, I’m sure, but a lot of times their essays appear to be written that way, with the meandering, digressive, conversational style Fadiman describes. I love the feeling of being in on a conversation with an essayist, or perhaps to be on a journey with him or her, not entirely sure where I’m heading.

In the preface, Fadiman claims that:

Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal — very personal — essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).

I don’t really agree with this assessment; it seems too simple to me, and it’s just not true to my experience, as I regularly come across essays these days that have both heart and brain. But still, I’m glad Fadiman wants to keep the genre alive and that she’s doing her part so well.

The two other pieces that involve books directly are about Fadiman’s obsession with Charles Lamb and her experience reading Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge. both of these pieces made me want to start new books right away — I have Lamb’s Essays of Elia and the Holmes biography on my shelves and would like to read them at some point, maybe soon. Perhaps those could be a summer project?

The other essays were very enjoyable as well, about a whole range of subjects, from butterflies to ice cream to coffee to arctic explorers to the mail. With each subject, she does exactly what she says a familiar essay should do — she tells a personal story about the topic, for example about the butterflies she and her brother happily caught and killed to add to their collection, and she gives information on the topic and offers some kind of analysis of it, for example, analyzing the process she and her brother went through of realizing how cruel their butterfly-killing was.

Particularly useful is the “Sources” section in the back of the book, which gives a brief bibliography for further reading on each of her subjects. I added a number of books to my TBR list based on the sources to the Preface alone, including The Norton Book of Personal Essays edited by Joseph Epstein, William Hazlitt’s Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners, and Stuart Robinson’s Familiar Essays.

You have to love a book that inspires you to read a whole bunch of other books, right?

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Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

Thinking about summer

Here it is, Memorial Day, the beginning of summer, and I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with it. I usually have something planned, but this time, I really don’t. There have been some summers when I had to take exams for grad school or when my job extended through the summer or when I had my dissertation to write. Two summers ago I had a couple articles to work on, and last summer I taught online for the first time, which was a lot of work.

This summer I’m teaching online again, and that will take some time, but I’ll be honest and say that it won’t be too terribly hard. I also have some reports to write and some changes to make to my classes for the fall, but those things aren’t that difficult either.

I feel as though I should have some grand plans for the summer — a writing project or redecorating my house, or at the very least, some ambitious reading project. But I’m just not interested in any of that. Maybe some ambition will come to me as I muddle along, but for now, it’s hard to think past the next day or two.

I will be riding my bike a lot, although even there, I’m feeling unambitious. My race yesterday didn’t go well at all — I got freaked out by a crash that happened in front of me, and when I finally got around the crashed riders and discovered just how far behind the main pack I was, I said forget it, I’m through with this, and stopped riding. I’m still loving my training rides and the Wednesday night race series, but I’ve lost interest in any race I’m supposed to take seriously, and my most serious ambition is to ride 5,000 miles this year, which will be the most I’ve ever done. That’s a serious ambition, I suppose, but it only requires that I do just a bit more riding than usual.

I’ll also be attending my sister’s wedding in August, and afterward Hobgoblin and I will spend a week in Maine. We might take some short camping or backpacking trips, but then again, we might not.

So, I guess I’ll just keep muddling along, doing whatever occurs to me and reading whatever books I feel like. That’s something to look forward to, right?

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Filed under Books, Cycling, Life, Reading

The Razor’s Edge

Well, as much as I enjoyed the last two Somerset Maugham novels I read — Of Human Bondage and The Painted Veil — my latest one, The Razor’s Edge, just didn’t work for me. I started out surprised and intrigued by it, ready to like whatever it was Maugham was trying to do, but as the book went on, I enjoyed it less and less. It suffered from two major flaws that I couldn’t get past — the pieces of it never came together into a coherent whole, and I came to like the narrator less and less. Unfortunately, the narrator claimed to be Maugham himself, which means that I’m left with some unpleasant feelings directed at Maugham, which should rightly be directed at the narrator. I’m trying to keep the two separate in my head, but it’s difficult.

There are a lot of interesting elements to the book (and in the comments on a previous post, a number of readers said they really liked it, so perhaps you might take their word for it!). There’s Maugham as the narrator; I haven’t looked up information on Maugham’s life to see if it matches the narrator’s life, but the narrator refers to novels he’s written, which are Maugham’s, and he generally seems to be writer-like and Maugham-like. I liked his method of drawing attention to himself in ways you’re more likely to see in eighteenth-century novels, for example, saying that he’s going to give the reader a break by starting a new chapter in the middle of a long scene. He also frequently refers to the decisions he’s making as a story-teller, such as when to embellish a bit and when to stick to his memories closely. I like this kind of self-reflexivity and openness about narrative and found the whole idea of the author writing himself into the story intriguing.

There are also various characters and narrative threads I enjoyed. The story takes place during the 1920s and 30s and has a lot to say about America’s place in the world, specifically about the American national character (full of seemingly endless energy and possibility) and its relationship to Europe. One of the main characters, Larry, is an American who fought in World War I and saw some brutal things that left him psychologically damaged. Or, perhaps it’s possible to say that the violence he saw opened his eyes to what really matters in life and left him completely uninterested in material values and social snobbery. He starts off the novel rather mysteriously refusing to take a plum job that’s been handed to him and slowly, as the novel goes on, starts on a spiritual quest that takes him to unexpected places.

There is also Isabel, the woman Larry plans to marry, although soon enough this relationship fails, as the values Isabel and Larry hold are incompatible. Isabel and her family come to stand for conventional values, as Isabel had the chance for a different life with Larry, but rejected it for a much more socially-acceptable marriage. It’s Isabel’s uncle Elliot, though, who is Maugham’s masterpiece in the novel. Elliot is pure, 100% snob, so calculating and ruthless that the narrator has to keep reminding us that he’s really a very nice man — just a nice man who is determined to climb the social ladder at whatever cost. Elliot has never met a titled person he didn’t like or a person of questionable origin he couldn’t snub in the most effective manner possible.

Between Isabel and Elliot on the one hand, and Larry on the other, Maugham gets to critique the social system in two ways — by satirizing Elliot’s snobbishness and Isabel’s conventionality and by admiringly narrating Larry’s rejection of their values.

All this should be a lot of fun, or, when it comes to Larry’s story, it should be moving and inspiring, but I didn’t think it was. One problem is that the pace of the narrative drags too much. Maugham really takes his time, and even I, generally a very patient reader, got antsy. The various stories seem too loosely linked as well; what holds all the characters together is the fact that they all know the narrator, who wanders in and out of their lives now and then. Maugham’s theme of materialism vs. spirituality also links the various stories, but this doesn’t feel like enough either.

Another problem is that I found the narrator less and less likeable as the novel went on. To clarify, I don’t actually expect to like every narrator I encounter and am fully prepared to enjoy an irritating, unreliable narrator, but I don’t think that’s what Maugham was offering. My dislike stems partly from the fact that I never found out much about him and yet had to spend a lot of time with him and his consciousness, and so eventually got bored. I also thought his attitude toward women was questionable. He has an irritating habit of drawing what I thought was undue attention to their physical flaws, would occasionally come out with a judgment based on stereotypes, and was dismissive of women generally. If I thought this unpleasantness added up to something, I wouldn’t mind it, but I didn’t think it did.

I’m certain I’ll read more Maugham at some point; The Razor’s Edge didn’t work for me, but I liked his other books enough to go back again.

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The return

Funny, I’m reading over my last post about how I didn’t want to go on my retreat and am laughing at myself because I’m so silly about these things. I had a really good time. I’m very glad I went, and while I was there I kept telling myself to make sure to go again in future years. I wish I didn’t dread things so much. It’s such a waste of time and energy. But it seems that I can’t help but go through agonies of dread and uncertainty before I go off and have a great time.

The truth is, though, that this retreat has been difficult for me in the past. It’s hard to describe what it’s like. It’s a retreat where about 50 people get together and talk about teaching ideas and challenges and share their feelings about what teaching means to them. It’s not at all the typical kind of conference where you listen to lectures by keynote speakers and attend sessions where scholars read papers. Instead, we make a point of everyone being on the same level and everyone having their chance to speak and be heard.

The hard part is that this can get awfully touchy-feely, and I’m never sure what to think of it. A part of me feels incredibly uncomfortable, and the other part likes the chance to think and talk about emotions openly. The amazing thing about this retreat is that, for the most part, the usual academic posturing and posing just doesn’t happen, and instead you’re more likely to see people hugging and tearing up. When I remember that this is a work retreat, it feels utterly bizarre.

So every year I go, and every year I feel this pull between wanting to mock what goes on and wanting to make sure I stay a part of it. What made this year’s retreat so much fun is that I’m no longer a brand-new participant as I was the first year, or a brand-new staff member as I was last year, but now I get what’s going on and am familiar with all of it, so I can relax and let myself experience things instead of worrying so much.

Now that that’s all over, I’m at home trying to recover and trying to figure out what my summer will look like. I will be teaching an online course beginning next week and was supposed to teach a on-ground course too, but that one got canceled. Even though I would have liked to earn some extra money, I’m hugely relieved I won’t have to commute to campus to teach and won’t have those extra papers to grade. So I’ll have one class for a while, but will have extra time to read and ride and go to bike races. I haven’t thought much about what (if anything) I’d like to accomplish this summer, and maybe I’ll have to spend time this weekend figuring that out.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to a chance to recover from what was a very long semester. Perhaps I’ll come up with a reading list or project for my summer, or perhaps I’ll just do whatever I feel like at the moment. We’ll see.

I hope to be back soon with a review of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge.

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The week ahead

Although I’ve been avoiding it all day, I finally got around to packing for a work retreat — a seminar on teaching — that I have to go this week. I’ll be gone from Monday through Thursday. Believe me, I’d much rather stay home and read and sleep, and it makes me feel worse that this is a retreat I don’t actually have to go on. A colleague talked me into going two years ago, last year they put me on staff, and this year I agreed to be a staff member again. So yes, not only do I have to go to this thing, but I have to be enthusiastic about it.

The truth is, once I’m there I’ll be fine, but at the moment I’m not into it.

Although I won’t have much time for reading, I will bring some books along anyway. I’m taking Anne Fadiman’s excellent essay collection At Large and At Small, which I’m already over half way through. It’s an excellent little book — about all kinds of random things, but it doesn’t matter what she writes about, because she makes everything so fascinating. Her literary essays have made me want to read more Charles Lamb and to start reading Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge, which I have on my shelves.

I’ll also take Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, which I’ve almost finished but won’t quite get to the end of before I leave. I’ve found this a very strange book, and I’m not particularly liking it, although it’s given me a lot to think about. Has anybody else out there read it? It’s just … odd. More on that later.

I’ll also be taking the next Slaves of Golconda book, Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. We’ll see if I get a chance to crack it open.

I’m also taking my bike, which may provide a much-needed escape for an hour or so now and then, although I’m guessing other people attending will also be bringing their bikes, so it may not be an escape at all. If necessary, though, I can probably tell everybody I need to train hard for my next race and then proceed to leave them far behind. That would be kind of fun.

Okay — see you at the end of the week!

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George Gissing’s The Odd Women

51jJQkcy6dL._SL500_AA246_PIkin2,BottomRight,-14,34_AA280_SH20_OU01_ The Odd Women is the first George Gissing novel I’ve read, and I’m now ready to learn more about him and read more of his work. What an interesting book this turned out to be! I wrote a post on the book when I was a third of the way through it, and everything I wrote there about how much I was enjoying it stayed true until the end.

It’s a good story with interesting characters, but for me the best parts were the debates the characters had about what women’s liberation means and how people should go about trying to advance it. What I liked best is that Gissing acknowledges how complicated the “woman question” is all the way through and never descends into preachiness or over-simplification. Two of the main characters, Mary and Rhoda, have long conversations about what approach feminists should take toward marriage: should they encourage young women to stay single because marriage is so often oppressive? Or should they acknowledge that women are going to want to marry anyway and instead focus on making sure they have some education and training so they can support themselves if need be? Should they reject marriage in favor of long-term relationships that don’t have the sanction of church and state?

The book gives a range of types of women with different life experiences, to illustrate some of the most common trajectories for women of the time. There are Mary and Rhoda who, even though they disagree now and then, are united in their revolutionary zeal and who devote their lives to improving women’s lot. There is Monica, who has the chance to receive the benefits of Mary and Rhoda’s education, but who rejects them in favor of marriage with a man she doesn’t love but who offers her a comfortable life. And then there are Virginia and Alice, Monica’s sisters, who never had the opportunity to marry, and when their father dies, find themselves on their own with no way to support themselves. The only skills they have are caring for children, so they take jobs as governesses and companions. They are lucky to find work at all, as there are many, many women in exactly their situation who desperately need work too, but the jobs are awful — ill-paid (if paid at all; sometimes they worked just for room and board) and with families who mistreat them. The other option is to work in a factory or a shop, another miserable life in exploitive conditions. This is what Monica does until the opportunity for marriage saves her — or so she thinks.

The forthright and complex treatment of feminism interested me and I was very much a sympathetic reader, but I found myself reading critically — meaning negatively — as well. For one thing, Gissing has some odd class issues. One bizarre conversation sticks in my mind, where two characters with whom I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to sympathize agree that many women need to be beaten now and then. The idea behind this is that those women of the lower classes who are foolish and uneducated and can’t control themselves need husbands to keep them in line. Their ideal of womanhood — and I think Gissing’s too — is seldom found in real life. Rhoda, in particular, looks down on the vast majority of women, those who can’t or don’t want to live up to her very strict standards of womanly behavior. Because of this, she is capable of harming the very people she claims to want to help. But Rhoda’s extreme views are balanced by Mary’s greater compassion and understanding, and these two characters together show just how difficult it was for women to figure out how to improve their lot in a world so thoroughly dominated by men.

There’s a lot to think about in this book. It’s not a perfect novel by any means, but it is a great way to get a glimpse of what life was like for women at the time and to think through just what it takes to launch a social revolution.

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