Monthly Archives: July 2009

Richard Holmes’s Coleridge

Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Early Visions is a fantastic book. I found myself enthralled by the story the whole way though. This is only the first volume and I haven’t had a chance to begin the second one yet, but I’m eager to get to it when I can. I don’t usually enjoy biographies quite this much; I like reading them now and then, but when I’m in the middle of them they can sometimes feel the tiniest bit like a chore, especially when they are long. I’m not particularly good at retaining facts, so I sometimes read biographies wondering how much of them I will forget very shortly. But Holmes does such a good job here those uncertainties didn’t bother me.

In his preface Holmes discusses one of his techniques that makes his biography stand out: he has:

attempted, from the very start, to set Coleridge talking, to tell his story through his own magnificent — and constantly humorous — flights of phrase and metaphor. I have tried to make his voice sound steadily through the narrative, and indeed in the end to dominate it.

And this is exactly what he does, using quotations from poems, letters, journals, and essays liberally throughout. It helps to create a rich picture of who Coleridge was and what he must have been like to know.

But Holmes was helped by having such a wonderfully interesting subject to write about. Coleridge was a great poet, but he was also a great personality and managed to wrap nearly everyone he met around his finger, at least for a while. Holmes tells the story of Hazlitt’s obsession with Coleridge, a story that illustrates what seems to have been a common dynamic: Hazlitt met Coleridge when he was a young, very awkward boy and was immediately overawed by Coleridge’s colorful personality. As he got older, though, he changed his mind, deciding that Coleridge’s mystical and metaphysical turn of mind was just a lot of balderdash and becoming thoroughly disillusioned and bitter. Coleridge had a history of very close, very intense friendships that eventually went awry, with Hazlitt, but even more famously with Robert Southey and William Wordsworth.

Coleridge was a great talker, both in private conversation and in his popular, if politically controversial, public lectures. He also had a flair for political journalism, for literary criticism, for letter-writing, and for private journal-keeping. Holmes greatly admires his poetry, but praises his prose style almost as highly. He also was one for big schemes and plans, including one called Pantisocracy that would have taken him and his family and a small group of friends over to America to found a utopian society on the banks of the Susquehanna. It didn’t work out, but Coleridge never lost his idealism and Holmes argues that Pantisocratic ideals shape Coleridge’s thinking for the rest of his life.

He was a genius, Holmes makes clear, at coming up with brilliant ideas and plans, but rarely did he follow through on them; in fact, he became notorious for his lists of ideas and dreams that remained unaccomplished. He held so much potential, so much of it unrealized, although Holmes emphasizes the brilliance of the things he was able to accomplish and argues that his ability to dream is in and of itself worthy of admiration.

This first volume takes us through the first 32 years of Coleridge’s life, from 1772 to 1804. The second volume is ominously subtitled “Darker Reflections,” although we can already see the beginnings of the darker part of Coleridge’s life in the first volume. He began taking opium in the first volume, the habit that will shape the second half of his life in dramatic ways. He also struggled with unhappiness in his marriage, uncertainty about his career path, and uncertain finances, although he did receive financial support from patrons who had great faith in his abilities.

I also admired Holmes for doing an excellent job of placing Coleridge in his intellectual context, describing his contributions to the literary and philosophical trends of the time. Coleridge knew so many important people and was good friends with many of them, so learning about Coleridge is a great way of learning about the time period itself.

So when I can, I’ll be on to volume 2, and I’ll have to prepare myself for some difficult times.

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Recent Acquisitions

I don’t have nearly enough books, so Hobgoblin and I checked out a library sale yesterday evening, and I came home with five new novels. It’s a good thing I don’t hear about all the library sales in my area, because there must be dozens of them, and if we knew about them, we’d visit them, and then … well, then we’d be in trouble.

Here’s what I got. It was an evening for women’s fiction:

  • Barbara Pym, An Unsuitable Attachment
  • Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings
  • Elizabeth Von Arnim, The Enchanted April
  • Monica Dickens, Joy and Josephine
  • Anita Brookner, A Family Romance

But that’s not it. From Bookmooch I recently got or will soon receive these:

  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
  • Jessie Fauset, There is Confusion
  • George Gissing, New Grub Street
  • Elizabeth George, Payment in Blood

I didn’t particularly enjoy the first Elizabeth George book I read, but enough people said the series gets better and enough people I respect have enjoyed her books that I thought I’d give her another try.

But that’s still not it. Oneworld Classics sent me a copy of Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man, and I bought Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings (based on Danielle’s post) and Dawn Powell’s Dance Night (for the Slaves of Golconda) at local bookstores.

Oh, dear. I’m probably going to Manhattan with Hobgoblin this weekend, where we will probably venture into some bookshops, and I’m going on vacation starting next Thursday, during which I will probably visit some bookshops, and then there are a couple more library sales coming up, which I will almost certainly visit. Time to buy some more book shelves?

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Sunflowers

I had a lovely time yesterday spending the afternoon with Hobgoblin and two blogger friends, Suitcase of Courage and She Knits By the Seashore. We took our bikes out to eastern Connecticut to go visit Buttonwood Farm, famous for its sunflowers. They have been planting and selling sunflowers for several years now, and all proceeds go to the Make-a-Wish foundation.

It’s a gorgeous place in the countryside with gently rolling hills, farms, and fields, and it was a lovely place to ride. We parked our cars a couple miles from the farm and took a back road to the farm itself, where we gazed at the flowers and took some photos:

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Isn’t that gorgeous? Here’s another shot:

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And now for a close-up:

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And a close-up of Hobgoblin’s bike (I didn’t think of getting one of mine):

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And, what the hell, the first-ever picture of me I’ve posted on this blog (where I’m showing my face that is). I’m in the white and She Knits is in pink:

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After getting our fill of the flowers, we rode up and down some hills for a while, and eventually made our way back to the farm, where they sell ice cream. I had what I think is called chocolate brownie batter or something like that. Yum. It doesn’t get much better than a bike ride with friends through beautiful countryside with ice cream as a reward.

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Maurice

14757842 E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice is an intriguing read, largely because of the time period it was written in and the way it treats its subject matter, homosexual love. Forster wrote it in 1913 and 1914, but he resisted publishing it, and it didn’t appear in print until 1971 after he died. He was worried that people would have a hard time accepting what turns out to be a vexed but positive portrayal of homosexuality.

I’ve also read Forster’s Howards End and Passage to India, and if I’m remembering correctly what those novels were like, this one is more psychological and emotional in its focus. The other novels are psychological as well, but this one emphasizes interior worlds even more than the others, capturing the mind and emotions of a young man as he struggles to figure out the world and his place in it. Maurice is more abstract, taking less time with context and setting, and spending more time describing emotional states.

It tells the story of Maurice Hall, a schoolboy at the beginning of the novel, whose teacher introduces him to sex by drawing pictures in the sand during their last conversation together before Maurice heads off to public school. He dreams two highly symbolic dreams, and finds himself unexpectedly emotional when he learns one of their servants, a young man named George, has left their service. These early experiences haunt him as he moves through public school and then university, trying to understand his complex reactions to his classmates. His most significant relationship at university is with Clive, a young man much more worldly and more intelligent than he is, but one who returns his interest and, soon enough, his love. The novel charts their relationship as the two make their way through Cambridge and then move out into the larger world. The Cambridge scenes are particularly enjoyable to read, as campus life is endlessly interesting, for me at least. Once the characters leave university, their lives become broader, but also much more uncertain, and Maurice is finally made to take stock of who he is and to act upon that knowledge.

I was interested in the way the novel keeps a certain amount of critical distance from Maurice. He is largely a sympathetic character, but at the same time, we see the limits of his intelligence; Clive can talk circles around him, and Maurice is not the best abstract thinker out there. He is also unpleasantly obsessed with class and uncertain about his own status. Here is Forster’s description of him:

In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad businessman and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, and finally saves him.

I like the fact that Forster makes his protagonist so obviously flawed, while at the same time showing so much compassion and understanding. It would be easy in a book that explores such a vexed and complicated subject as sexuality, particularly homosexuality in the early part of the twentieth century, to make the protagonist more admirable and heroic and pioneering than this one is. Instead, Maurice is just an average person, flawed in perfectly normal ways and no more heroic than most of us are.

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Categories of reading

So I’ve been feeling a little … frustrated might be too strong a word, but something along those lines, maybe more like overwhelmed … at the fact that there are so many different types of books I’d like to read right now, and I can’t do it, even though I’ve got more reading time than usual at the moment. I’m not even talking about individual books; I’m talking about categories, within which there are dozens if not hundreds of individual books I want to read.

This is partly an issue of feeling pulled between reading widely and reading deeply, both of which I’d like to do, of course. But if I read widely, I will only read occasionally within each category, and if I read deeply, a lot of categories will get ignored. So what do I do?

I thought I’d compile a list of the categories that interest me at the moment, just for fun. This list might look entirely different on another day though. I won’t even try to make these categories mutually exclusive.

  • Eighteenth-century and Romantic novels, such as the Mary Brunton one I read recently, and also Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith, and Elizabeth Inchbald, plus earlier novelists like Eliza Haywood and Sarah Fielding;
  • Victorian novelists — more Trollope, Eliot, and Gaskell, plus Harriet Martineau, Margaret Oliphant and late Victorians such as Galsworthy and Gissing;
  • Contemporary fiction of all sorts, whatever strikes my fancy;
  • Lesser-known modernists, particularly modernist women of the sort discussed here (especially Stein, Larsen, Mansfield, and Smith);
  • Persephone and Virago books, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Antonia White, Radclyffe Hall, plus tons more;
  • Mysteries — for my book group, but also just for myself, including finding good series and reading them all the way through;
  • Random classics I’ve missed, such as Russians like Oblomov, Turgenev and more Chekhov, French writers such as Balzac and Zola;
  • Okay, nonfiction. Good literary criticism, especially of the novel. More books like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, critical essays by people like D. H. Lawrence or Forster, and more contemporary criticism by people like Nancy Armstrong or Michael McKeon, also more philosophical stuff by people like Elaine Scarry;
  • Essays and more essays — Montaigne, Bacon, Lamb, Hazlitt, Woolf, Orwell, McCarthy, Wallace, etc. etc.;
  • Books on theology and spirituality, particularly ones that look at the subject from a comparative perspective;
  • Science books — Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, and others;
  • Biographies, particularly of writers, and most especially those by great biographers such as Richard Holmes and Claire Tomalin;
  • Quirky, unclassifiable nonfiction, such as the kind of thing Geoff Dyer and Jenny Diski write;
  • Poetry — Romantic and Victorian poets among the older things I’d like to read, and also contemporary poetry by writers such as Louise Gluck and Mary Oliver.

What would your own list look like?

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The Trick of It

I enjoyed reading Michael Frayn’s novel The Trick of It quite a lot, although ultimately I’d say that it’s clever rather than really brilliant. But there’s nothing wrong with clever at all, particularly when it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s an academic novel, which is another reason I liked it. I can’t seem to get my fill of novels about professors and campuses and scholarly pursuits.

Another point in its favor is that it’s an epistolary novel, although the letters come from only one person and we don’t get any replies. But Frayn has a whole lot of fun with these one-sided letters, as the letter writer, a literary critic in an English university who is writing to a friend in Australia, spends a lot of time imagining what this friend might say or how he might look as he is reading. He creates whole imaginary conversations between the two of them, refuting arguments his friend hasn’t yet made and in some cases, telling lies and then admitting to the lies he just told and apologizing profusely for them. I’ve never come across a more playful and amusing letter writer in an epistolary novel before.

But it’s what the letter-writer is writing about that makes the novel particularly interesting: he describes meeting and then falling in love with the woman whose novels he has built a career on studying. It all begins when he convinces this writer to come visit campus to talk with his students, and the novel opens with the narrator’s uncertainties about whether this was such a good idea or not. Perhaps it would have been better to keep his distance? What will it be like to actually lay eyes on the person he has thought so much about and whom he knows quite well, in his distanced literary-critic kind of way?

These questions get much more complicated and fraught once he finally admits to his friend that he slept with this author. The round-about way he tells this story is very funny, and even funnier are the stories about how he pursues her to her London flat and makes a fool of himself as he tries to keep her attention and gain her love. The narrator is incredibly good at making a fool of himself, which must have endeared him to the novelist, because eventually he succeeds and they begin a relationship in earnest.

From their very first meeting, the narrator is preoccupied with questions about the nature of fiction and of the people who produce it — he is fascinated with the way the novelist transforms her rather dull life into exciting fiction. He is also preoccupied with the relationship of fiction and criticism. How much can he know about this woman and her writing, even once he marries her? Can knowing her in person make him a better critic? Because he has spent so long studying her fiction, is he in a good position to give her advice on what to write? Their relationship becomes a way to explore how mysterious fiction and the writing process are; the narrator is so obsessed with the object of his studies that he marries her, and yet she always remains distant and mysterious. The critical, academic impulse, Frayn is saying, is to work toward total and complete understanding, but this is impossible, nothing but a fantasy.

The book is short, under 200 pages, which I think was a wise choice on Frayn’s part, because the device of the letter-writing narrator would be difficult to sustain in a believable way for much longer. But as it is, the book works very well as a funny, amsuing, and very smart meditation on writing and writers.

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Thoughts for Friday

I just got back from a lovely yoga class and am feeling all … relaxed. This class was a great follow-up to a book group meeting this morning where instead of discussing a book, we watched the documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, a film about quantum physics, spirituality, emotions, the brain, and changing one’s way of thinking. If those things sound at all interesting to you, I recommend the film highly. It really can change the way you think, if you are in the right frame of mind for it, which, at this point, I am.

It also got me interested in reading more books on science, such as Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos and Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages and a book by one of the scientists in the film, Joseph Dispenza, called Evolve Your Brain. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll actually pick up one of these books very soon, but the film was a good reminder that I do want to read them at some point.

Today was a good day for another reason entirely: I received six beautiful volumes of poetry in the mail. I was incredibly lucky and won a contest over at Nonsuch Book to receive these books published by Faber in celebration of their 80th anniversary.

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The volumes are by W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and John Betjeman, and each one is gorgeous.  I haven’t read any poetry in a while, and I think it may be time to start again soon. I think I will begin with Ted Hughes.

In other bookish news, I have two books to review, although time is slipping away from me, and it is taking me forever to get to them: Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, and E.M. Forester’s Maurice. I enjoyed both of them, and we’ll see if I can manage to gather my thoughts to write reviews.

The deeper I get into summer, the harder I’m finding it to do anything much at all. However, I did ride 80 miles on my bike yesterday, a ride which started inauspiciously with a downpour that didn’t last long but which left me feeling damp for the rest of the ride. But once that passed, I had a great time riding around the back roads of Litchfield County, seeing some farms and some cows and a few small towns. It left me feeling a little beat today, but pleasantly so.

I now have a bit of catching up in Infinite Jest to do, but only a little, and the other book I’m reading is Richard Holmes’s biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which I’m loving. Holmes is such an excellent storyteller, Coleridge is such an interesting person, and he lived in such interesting times, that there is no way I’m not going to like this book. I love the way that Holmes quotes liberally from Coleridge’s letters and lectures and poetry so we can really hear his voice, and I love how Holmes does such a good job of situating Coleridge in his context, so I get a sense of what it was like to live in England at that time. The biography is two volumes long, and I expecting to enjoy both of them fully.

I have picked up Gertrude Stein’s novel Three Lives, and it’s interesting, although the truth is, I’m not entirely sure this is the best time to read it. But the truth is also that my opinions change rapidly from day to day, so all I have to do is wait a while, and it will be a good time to read it. I’m not giving up just yet.

I hope you all enjoy your weekend!

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Bloggers, this is your fault

Recently people have been posting pictures of their to-be-read piles, so I thought I’d show you mine. First of all, though, here’s a picture of my TBR shelves from 2 1/2 years ago:

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Just a couple shelves and a little pile on the floor. Not too bad! But here’s how things look now:

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There are about seven books on the left side of the top shelf that I’ve already read; the rest are all patiently waiting for me to get to them.

I really think I can’t be blamed for this situation, as just about every one of you reading this post has tempted me to read one book or another at some point. Tempted me beyond what I can bear. So yes, this is entirely YOUR fault.

Here is a closer shot of the piles on the floor, complete with one of Muttboy’s many abandoned bones strewn around the house:

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And now I need to go read …

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Infinite Jest update

I read 20 pages of Infinite Jest today and now I’m all caught up with the Infinite Summer reading schedule, which is to say, I’ve read up to page 232 (out of over 1,000 pages). I continue to love the experience. A lot of what I said in an earlier post remains true: there are lots of short sections that introduce us to many different characters, some of whom know and interact with each other and some of whom don’t. Everything is going to connect up with everything else eventually, I’m betting, and in a way, everything already does, if only in vague and tangential ways, such as shared themes or tropes or images.

There are a few plot threads that we return to again and again, such as the story of the students at the Enfield Tennis Academy (Hal, whom I wrote about in my earlier post is a student there), the family saga of the Incandenzas (including Hal; the adults in this family run the academy and the children attend it), and the residents of the Ennet House, a halfway house for recovering drug and alcohol addicts. The Ennet House is located right next to the academy, which is appropriate, because one of the major themes of the book is drug use and abuse, and many of the students at the academy spend their free time getting high.

And then there are other plot lines as well — a political thriller thread with two comic characters whose loyalties are nearly impossible to figure out, a couple different stories of drug dealing and violence, a really harrowing story of a deeply depressed woman, and lots more. There are also sections that don’t advance the plot much, but are informative or funny or there for some other reason, including one really great section on why video-phones failed.

I think the best way to read the book — at least for me — is to enjoy each section without getting too worried about how everything fits together and whether I’m remembering everything or not. Sometimes beginning a new section can be bewildering, but soon enough I find myself getting oriented to what’s happening and then I can enjoy it, almost like I would a really great short story.

I love the variety in this book, and not just the variety of characters and situations, but the variety of styles and points of view. Wallace takes on different voices now and then, using dialect or giving us a monologue by a particular character, or including transcripts of emails and articles and a paper that Hal wrote for school. There is just such abundance here.

The book is also laugh-out-loud funny (and I don’t usually laugh out loud at books), and also heart-wrenching in moments. And it’s really not that difficult of a read, in spite of the many characters and stories. I find it a much, much easier read than The Recognitions was.

Lots of people on the forums have said that you just have to make it through the first 200-250 pages or so, and then the stories and and ideas begin to come together more and it gets easier to read. If that’s the case, I think I’ll be doing just fine for the next 800 or so pages!

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Discipline, by Mary Brunton

Mary Brunton’s 1814 novel Discipline turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. I’ve really enjoyed other early nineteenth-century novels such as Susan Ferrier’s Marriage, Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mowbray, and I was hoping Discipline would be equally good. The novel has some good things to recommend it, but I found it too long, too predictable, and too moralistic. Although, to be fair, a lot of novels from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century feel too long to me (nothing against long novels at all, but some seem too long for the story they have to tell), many are predictable (if you know the conventions, you will not be surprised by any of Austen’s plots), and lots of them are moralistic. And what else should I expect, picking up a novel called Discipline?

The novel tells the story of Ellen Percy, a young girl who has been both dismissed and spoiled by parents who are generally well-meaning but make some serious mistakes. Upon observing her intelligence, all her father can say is:

“It is a confounded pity she is a girl, If she had been of the right sort, she might have got into Parliament, and made a figure with the best of them. But now what use is her sense of?”

Her mother responds:

“I hope it will contribute to her happiness,” said my mother, sighing as if she had thought the fulfilment of her hope a little doubtful. “Poh!” quoth my father, “no fear of her happiness. Won’t she have two hundred thousand pounds, and never know the trouble of earning it, nor need to do one thing from morning to night but amuse herself?” My mother made no answer: — so by this and similar conversations, a most just and desirable connection was formed in my mind between the ideas of amusement and happiness, of labour and misery.

Ellen’s father never finds much time for her, and her mother is too passive to try to rein her in. Her mother soon dies, leaving Ellen with a close friend who has the patience of a saint, but who also fails to instill Ellen with sound principles. Ellen grows up, goes to school, and learns to love luxury, idleness, snobbery, and gossip. In spite of this behavior, she is lucky enough to draw the attention of Mr. Maitland, a number of years older than she and a model of Christian gentlemanly behavior. He falls in love with her, but she is too busy enjoying her first taste of social success to pay him much attention.

This dynamic continues on for a while, Ellen growing more and more insufferable and Mr. Maitland looking more and more sorrowful. Ellen finds herself drawn into a flirtation with a man of uncertain principles who tries to lure her to Scotland where marriages are quick and easy. Before this can happen, though, disaster strikes — her father, it turns out, has just lost all his money and shot himself in despair. Now Ellen finds herself in an entirely new situation — she has no family, no money, and little idea what to do. Absolutely nothing in her life so far has prepared her in any way for this.

So Ellen is finally required to learn something about the world outside her former privileged social circle, and finally she is forced to learn some discipline. There are some interesting elements to this plot, in particular, the portrayal of how difficult it is for a woman to survive on her own and how little society prepares women of the monied classes to do anything useful with themselves. Ellen goes through some harrowing experiences that show exactly how vulnerable, powerless, and abandoned women without family and without money are. This is an idea that comes up again and again in novels of the time.

Also interesting is the portrayal of Scotland. Brunton is Scottish, and her heroine ends up there towards the end of the novel. There is a marked difference between the way the English and Scottish scenes are portrayed: London remains a rather vaguely defined and described place, but the Scotland scenes are described in lavish detail, the Scottish characters are given lots of space in which to tell stories about their family heritage and their culture, and the Scottish sections even have footnotes documenting the historical background of the novel. It’s no surprise that it is here where poor Ellen finally finds some peace and reaps the reward of her hard-earned discpline.

But I was disappointed by the way the characters’ motivations were often vaguely-defined and difficult to believe; in particular, it makes no sense to me why Mr. Maitland fell in love with Ellen in the first place, and Ellen’s behavior in the early parts of the novel is so foolish and so stupid, it’s hard to sympathize with her when things begin to go badly. And although I know that people of the time didn’t necessarily feel this way, as a 21st-century reader, all the moralizing gets old pretty quickly (and surely some 19th-century readers felt that way too).

But I’m glad I read the book anyway because I’m fascinated by the time period and I like to read as much as I can from and about it. Brunton was popular, at least for a short while (you can read Jane Austen’s brief comments on her here), and the Victorians liked her strongly moral writing, so the book gives a good idea of what people of the time were drawn to.

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Time for a meme!

Both Musings and Cam nominated me for an award and tagged me to do a meme asking me to describe seven personality traits. I’m not sure what the award is for, but that’s okay! I’m happy to accept awards for whatever reason. And I’m also happy to write about myself. That’s what blogging’s all about, right? (Okay, maybe not, but it can be.) So here goes:

  1. I find it very hard to describe myself. Maybe to others I seem like a coherent, consistent person, but I don’t feel that way. I can’t decide if I’m industrious or lazy, organized or a mess, sociable or isolated, calm or anxious, judgmental or tolerant (probably judgmental). Maybe it would be better to have other people do this meme about me, and then I might recognize myself in what they say. I suppose the best way to put it is that I’m very aware of how changeable I can be.
  2. What I can say about myself with a great degree of certainty is that I’m a worrier. I worry about everything. This means I’m (generally) organized and well-prepared (except when I’m not) because it’s too stressful to be otherwise, but it also means I waste a lot of mental energy on worrying. One of the many benefits of yoga, which I’m trying to practice regularly this summer, is that it helps me calm down a bit. Except in a lot of ways, I already am a calm person (back to #1).
  3. I’m athletic, but I’m also very surprised I’m athletic. I never thought of myself as athletic growing up, even when I was on the track team in high school, because I was always absolutely, completely horrible in gym class. But, all sports requiring coordination aside, I love being active. I’m having a great time riding a lot this summer, as well as doing yoga and pilates, and if I could run without injuring myself, I would do that too, and if I could run, I would swim and do triathlons. But then I’d be in danger of having no reading time whatsoever.
  4. I can be stubborn. But, back to #1, only stubborn about some things. I’m not stubborn about having to win bike races, but I am about riding lots and lots of miles. I was stubborn about finishing my dissertation, but I’m not about having a fabulous academic career and publishing a lot. I’m stubborn about finishing books, even if they aren’t going well. I’m not stubborn about winning arguments.
  5. I try very hard to understand why people think the way they do and do the things they do. I try so hard sometimes, that I find myself persuaded by their arguments and begin to lose a sense of what I think. I find it disturbing when I can’t figure out what someone’s thought process is. Who knows how often I get this right, but I have a strong need to try at least.
  6. As a follow-up to #5, there’s nothing I like better than a good conversation analyzing people. Sometimes this means a long gossip session, which I will admit is a whole lot of fun, and sometimes it means a kinder conversation trying to understand why people are the way they are. But either way, much more fun than a party is a post-party analysis of everything that happened.
  7. As a follow-up to the last two items, this is one reason I like character-driven fiction so much. I don’t care a whole lot about what happens; give me some interesting people and some interesting ideas, and I’m happy.

Wow, that was hard. It took me longer than I thought it would. That said, I’d love to hear answers from these people, if they are interested (no pressure of course! I ignore tags from other people sometimes and don’t mind if you ignore mine). I nominate:

Eva

Frances

Debby

Hobgoblin

Arti

Lisa

Iliana

Here’s the picture associated with this meme:

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Christine Falls

My mystery book group met again this past Sunday to discuss Benjamin Black’s novel Christine Falls. As usual, it was a good discussion, although people had negative or mixed opinions of the book, which interests me, because from what I’ve read of blog reviews, a lot of people liked it. A common opinion in the group, though, was that it was an enjoyable read, but when we stopped to think about the plotting and Black’s use of mystery novel conventions, the book began to fall apart.

It was an odd reading experience for me because I had already read the sequel, The Silver Swan, and so I knew some of the major revelations that came in Christine Falls. In a lot of cases with a mystery series, it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot if you read the books out of order, but in this case, I think it makes a difference. The two books felt less like two individual books, each with their own separate stories even though the characters are the same, and more like one novel with two different parts. So knowing what I did about what happens to the characters later, I had some of the major plot points spoiled for me, and that took some of the pleasure out of it.

That aside, I did find other things to enjoy in it, particularly in the main character Quirke, a pathologist who, in the novel’s opening scene, finds his brother-in-law Mal tampering with some documents in a highly suspicious manner. Quirke is compelled by forces in himself he doesn’t really understand — in that way so many characters in mysteries are — to find out exactly what Mal was up to, and from there he winds up embroiled in a plot that involves powerful people in the Catholic Church and extends all the way to America.

Quirke is a stereotypical mystery hero in a lot of ways — he has a troubled personal life and a drinking problem — but I liked him anyway. I suppose there’s no reason being stereotypical should make a character unlikeable, and there’s a reason such characters are popular. It’s interesting to think about the dynamic between the troubled personal life and the type of work these characters do. Quirke can be brutally honest about a lot of things, particularly about death, which makes sense since he is a pathologist and works with corpses all the time, but in other areas, he’s an expert at dodging painful truths and uncomfortable conversations. He’s a damaged guy trying to make his way through life with a minimum of fuss and trouble, but outward circumstances and, even more so, something in himself won’t let him off so easily.

A number of people in my group didn’t like the rather uneasy relationship this book has with mystery conventions, for example, the way it’s not entirely clear what the mystery is, even near the end of the book. The plot Quirke is uncovering isn’t terribly interesting as a plot, and some of the characters and events just don’t need to be there. I am less concerned about mystery conventions than others, as I don’t really care whether authors follow “the rules” or not, but I was bothered by the way so much seems nebulous in this book — the relationships among the main characters weren’t explained as well as I would have liked and the motivations among the bad guys for doing what they did seemed obscure. The novel is set in the 1950s, but this never felt real to me. Somehow, Black doesn’t make the time period concrete enough.

But I will say that I enjoyed myself as I read the book, even though I had some doubts later; it’s well-written with engaging characters, and I was curious to know what was going to happen to Quirke. I may have liked it even more if I hadn’t read The Silver Swan first.

We are reading Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone next (my selection). I’m excited to return to an early mystery story and to think more about the genre’s roots.

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A quick note

Happy Fourth of July to all of you who care! To those who don’t, I hope you are having a nice Saturday. I spent much of the day helping out at a big library event and working on my suntan. When I say I was working on my suntan, I mean I was making some of my funny fan lines worse and some of them better. Because I spend most of my outdoor time on my bike, I have suntanned arms and white hands, with a pretty distinct line on my wrist and some lines on my fingers you can see if you look closely. Today my hands finally got some sun and now they don’t look quite so ridiculous, although I did develop a new watch line. The line at the bottom of my neck and on my upper arms is now worse, though. I’m afraid I won’t look normal in the summer as long as I continue to ride my bike. Oh, well.

The library event — a big party for the library’s 100th birthday — went well, although it was windy and one of our tents flipped over on us. Mostly I sold coffee and bagels to hungry people, and I also helped kids make cat puppets. They had fun.

The other thing I’ve been doing is finishing Mary Brunton’s novel Discipline, and I also recently finished Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls, which means I get to choose a new novel and maybe a new nonfiction as well. Yay! I’m not sure what I’ll read, but I’ve considered picking up Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories and also Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It. And I’ll probably consider others before deciding on something.

One other thing I did today: I spent some time checking out these two posts from Fernham about books she might teach in her Transatlantic Women Modernists grad class this fall. There are a bunch of authors I’d never heard of in those lists, including Betty Miller, Gertrude Bell, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Jessie Fauset, as well as other authors I’ve heard of but know next to nothing about. The class looks fascinating, and my wishlist just got longer.

Enjoy your weekend everybody!

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Reading with one’s spine

I posted my thoughts on Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature the other day, and now I thought would share some interesting bits from the book. It begins with an introductory lecture called “Good Readers and Good Writers” in which he lays out his argument that “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” This quotation is the simplest way to describe Nabokov’s method, really, as it sums up what he does in each of the main lectures — he looks closely at the details in order to examine the novel’s structure. Isn’t the word “fondle” an interesting one to use here? It captures his very involved, careful, intimate, and emotional style of reading:

So what is the authentic instrument to be used by the reader? It is impersonal imagination and artistic delight. What should be established, I think, is an artistic harmonious balance between the reader’s mind and the author’s mind. We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy — passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers — the inner weave of a given masterpiece.

There is a lot to like here, especially the mix of the personal and the impersonal in reading: he calls for an attempt to enjoy passionately while at the same time keeping enough distance to notice what’s going on. I’m not entirely sure how that works, exactly, as passion seems to imply the loss of critical distance, but I know subjectively what he means, or at least I think I do. I also like the idea that there should be a balance between the author’s mind and the reader’s mind — that the reader and author are working together in good faith and with good will to try to create something meaningful.

I’m also amused at the way Nabokov sounds a little like an eighteenth-century woman of sensibility, one who prides herself on her exquisite emotional sensitivity and her ability to cry at affecting scenes in novels, when he talks about “tears and shivers.” But he only sounds like that for a moment, before he moves on to discuss what else besides emotion and imagination are required. Here’s how strong emotion connects to a novel’s detail:

What I mean is that the reader must know when and where to curb his imagination and this he does by trying to get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal. We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people. The color of Fanny Price’s eyes in Mansfield Park and the furnishing of her cold little room are important.

So detail is a check on emotion, as it keeps us grounded in the specifics of the world the author creates. In fact, Nabokov has already outlined several wrong kinds of imagination and emotion to be found in readers — including the kind that is solely personal because we relate the book only to our own experiences, and the kind that leads us to identify with a character. In an odd kind of way, our imagination and emotions are supposed to lead us beyond ourselves:

We all have different temperaments, and I can tell you right now that the best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgment will temper the intuitive heat. If, however, a would-be reader is utterly devoid of passion and patience — of an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience — he will hardly enjoy great literature.

I like all these ideas a lot, even if they are abstract. Nabokov ends this chapter with a metaphor, which I also like, although it doesn’t clear up the abstractness:

In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.

I like very much the idea of reading with one’s spine, even if I’m not entirely sure I know what it means. I also like the way a castle of cards can turn into a castle of steel and glass. We know the entire time we are reading that it’s a castle of cards — we know the work is a fiction — but through the magic of a writer and a reader working together that fiction somehow becomes real.

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