Monthly Archives: August 2009

Dance Night

Dawn Powell’s 1930 novel Dance Night has me thinking about what it would be like to live in a small town with very little education, very few job opportunities, and only vague ideas about what life is like in other places. The characters in the novel go to the movies regularly, but other than that, the chief source of information they have about the world outside their town comes from traveling salespeople and a dancing master, and the reach of these people is very small. The people who travel the farthest and would therefore have the most information are also the book’s most despicable characters. So everyone else is left with vague dreams and a strong pull to stay right where they are, doing the things their parents did.

Dance Night tells the story of Morry Abbott, a young man who is trying to figure out what he wants to make of his life. He lives with his mother behind the millinery shop she owns where he feels increasingly uncomfortable with the overwhelming femininity of the place. He is trying to find his way into the masculine worlds of the factory and the bar, but his youth and inexperience leave him uncertain and embarrassed. The novel also tells the story of Jen, a 14-year-old who has been abandoned by her mother and taken in by a local family. She feels isolated and alone and misses her younger sister, left behind in an orphanage. She turns to Morry for some companionship, and he is drawn to her, attracted by her hero-worship, but also repelled by her obvious neediness.

What has stayed with me about the book is all the unhappiness and the longing and the misunderstandings that haunt just about every character. Morry doesn’t know what to make of the young women who surround him who make fun of him but also, very confusingly, flirt with him. Morry’s mother is married to a man who is hardly ever home, but who makes her life miserable when he is. She is also desperately in love with the dancing master, who is hardly aware of her presence. The mother’s friend is having an affair. Her assistant torments Morry but also wants to be seen with him. The most important man about town, the one with all the money and property, moves through a series of superficial relationships. No one, it seems, is content, and nobody has much of an idea of what to do about it.

The townspeople do have one outlet — their weekly dance night, which begins with a dancing lesson, followed by the dance itself. Everyone, from old to young, looks forward to these evenings as a time to bring some lightness into their lives, but enjoyable as they are, they are also scenes of sexual competition and jealousy.

And there is also the problem of work. Morry gets a job in the factory and feels proud of himself for a while, but before too long he sees how builders are developing the town, has his own ideas of what kind of houses the town needs, and joins forces with a local architect to try to make his dream houses a reality. He becomes a big man about town himself, making plans and talking them up to the townspeople, shuttling about from person to person trying to make things happen. All this is immensely satisfying for a while, but it’s also precarious and uncertain, and for all Morry knows, it could collapse on him.

Morry senses that his world is changing and that there are opportunities out there — opportunities that could transform his life, if only he could get a proper hold on them. It’s a place where hard work and industry and vision can take him places, but he just can’t quite seem to make things work for him. His friend Jen is also full of dreams; she wants to sing and dance on stage and to live a busy and exciting life in some big city. But the problem, again, is how to make it happen. How can these people escape?

The picture Powell paints of a small town in changing and uncertain times is a grim one, but the portrait seems so real and the characters are so compelling that the book is a fascinating read. It makes me very glad I’m fortunate enough to live in an entirely place and time. Of course, we have our own uncertain times to deal with, but I think for a lot of people, it’s become easier to imagine a way out of claustrophic small towns.

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On Borrowed Wings

6a00d834515bbc69e2011571051d1e970c-120wi I finished Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings nearly a month ago, and so the details are beginning to get vague, but I did want to write at least a few words about the book before putting it away. I picked it up in the bookstore because I was in the mood for something easy and fun and comforting, and I remembered the title from Danielle’s very positive review. It served the purpose nicely; it was an entertaining read that was also smart and thought-provoking. It did just what comfort reading should do — comfort, without making me cringe at bad writing.

I was drawn to the book for another reason as well — it takes place in my state, Connecticut, and it’s about undergraduate life at Yale, and I always enjoy reading books about academic life, whether from a student’s or a professor’s perspective. The book also has cross-dressing and lots of feminism — two more points in its favor.

It tells the story of Adele Pietra, a young woman in a small mining town outside New Haven. It’s the 1930s, and life is difficult for the working-class people in Adele’s town, Stony Creek, and it’s particularly difficult for a smart young woman whose best opportunity in life seems to be marriage to someone she barely knows. Adele loves to read and study, but it’s her brother Charles whose education everyone cares about. His mother is helping him prepare to apply to Yale, a possibility that seems like a long-shot, but one his mother has pinned all her hopes on.

All future plans are destroyed, however, when Charlie and his father are killed in a mining accident. Adele and her mother mourn their loss, but when Charlie’s acceptance letter from Yale arrives, it occurs to Adele that she just might be able to seize an opportunity and make something incredible happen. Women were not admitted to Yale at that time, but Adele decides that she’s going to go anyway — by dressing as a man and taking her brother’s place.

And so begins an adventure. Adele has many obstacles standing in her way — not only must she dress and talk and act like a man, but she has little idea how to behave in a setting that is entirely new to her. As a working-class, small-town girl, she has had little exposure to the big city and to the privilege and comfort of life in a prestigious university. The scenes describing Adele’s arrival in New Haven and her first weeks on campus are suspenseful ones, as she has to figure out how to deal with unexpected problems such as the swim test all freshmen are supposed to pass. How can she take a swim test without revealing her secret?

Fortunately, she runs into another new student who is just as bewildered by his new surroundings, and through him, she manages to make a group of friends, and she also does well in her classes and manages to find a job and she even makes friends with a working-class family in the city.

She manages to do pretty well for herself, but the question always remains — how long can she keep her secret?

It’s fun to watch Adele live a life she never expected she could and do things nobody believed a woman should be able to do. Prasad does a good job making this fantasy believable and resolving the suspenseful situation she created. All in all, it’s a satisfying book.

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Giving up on a book

I haven’t done this in ages, but for the first time this year and for who knows how long before that, I’m setting aside a book I’m not getting along with. I should give up on books I’m not loving more often, I know that, but I generally don’t anyway. I want to give a book a chance before I quit reading it, and once I’ve done that, I usually find myself far enough into it that it doesn’t seem too hard to just carry on.

But I was reading Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children before I left on vacation, and while I found it interesting on some levels, I also found myself on page 150 or so out of 500+ pages wondering if I was ever going to be able to finish the thing. I felt like I’d already plowed through a lot, but that tons more was waiting for me, and I wasn’t sure the book was going to change or develop much to make the plowing on worth while. And then vacation intervened, and I had a lot of other books to read, and I haven’t picked it up in a few weeks now and will put it back on the shelf soon.

The book is a family story. It’s about a woefully mismatched couple with a large brood of children, and it describes the family dynamics, including the horrible fights the parents have and the way the children try to keep peace in their family. It captures the father’s highly imaginative use of language and the games he plays with his children, as well as the mother’s longing for a different kind of life and refusal to accept the circumstances she finds herself in. The eldest daughter, Louisa, is a child from the father’s previous marriage, a fact her step-mother never lets her forget. Louisa, in the heartbreaking way of children, accepts this and doesn’t question it, although she has also begun to explore the world outside the family more and is retreating into the private world of adolescence. There is cruelty in the way the parents treat the children, but, somehow, there is also love and moments of happiness. What else can young children do but make the best of the situation they find themselves in?

I liked the way the book explored this dynamic —  the problem of children trying to understand what is going on in their family when it both nurtures and harms them, in ways they aren’t grown up enough to comprehend. Certain kinds of dysfunctional families are very interesting to read about, and this family reminded me very much of the family in Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. In both cases, the parents have wonderful things to offer to their children, but they can’t seem to grow up enough themselves to be capable of taking care of others.

The problem, though, is the pacing. I read and read, and not much happened, and there wasn’t enough narrative tension or tension among the characters to make me want to keep going. I think I can be a patient reader, but there wasn’t enough to reward my patience.

It’s a memorable book, though. Even if I never pick it up again, I’ll remember the family. Maybe I’m missing a really great ending, and if you have read this book before, you can let me know if I have, but I think with some books you don’t have to read the entire thing to get something from it.

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Life According to Literature

I just posted this meme over on Facebook, and it seemed too good not to post here too. Give it a try if you like!

Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It’s a lot harder than you think!

Describe yourself: Loving (Henry Green)

How do you feel: At Large and At Small (Anne Fadiman)

Describe where you currently live: Among the Mad (Jacqueline Winspear)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go? The Other Side of You (Salley Vickers)

Your favorite form of transportation: On Borrowed Wings (Chandra Prasad)

Your best friend is: Jane Austen: A Life (Claire Tomalin)

You and your friends are: The Odd Women (George Gissing)

What’s the weather like: Gaudy Night (Dorothy Sayers)

You fear: The Great Mortality (John Kelly)

What is the best advice you have to give: Nothing To Be Frightened Of (Julian Barnes)

Thought for the day: An Academic Question (Barbara Pym)

How I would like to die: A Great Deliverance (Elizabeth George)

My soul’s present condition: Harmonium (Wallace Stevens)

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On Reading Gertrude Stein

There are two books from before vacation I haven’t yet written about here: Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives and Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings. My memory of these books is getting a bit hazy, but I don’t want to ignore them entirely here.

So first, Gertrude Stein. I’ve been meaning to read Three Lives for a very long time; in fact, I’ve probably owned the book for well over a decade. Stein is a fascinating figure, but I’ve always found her intimidating and need to work up a bit of courage to pick up one of her books. Three Lives is certainly one of the easier, more approachable books she’s written; it may take me another decade or two to work up to reading something more challenging, if I ever decide to do it at all. I don’t feel that I’ve ever really understood Stein, but then again, lots of people feel that way, I know for a fact, and my tendency with writers I don’t quite understand is to keep returning to them to see if one more try will make a difference.

Three Lives is a straightforward read, not intimidating at all it turns out, with simple sentences and vocabulary, without much plot and with just a few characters. In fact, it’s such a simple, straightforward, non-astounding read that one might reasonably wonder why Stein is read at all, if it weren’t for the time period she lived in and the contrast between what she was doing and typical novels of the time. The book was published in 1909, and the contrast between her writing and other novels of the time is sharp. She has taken the sentence and pared it down, often using a series of simple sentences or short phrases strung together with conjunctions. She also uses a lot of repetition, repeating words from sentence to sentence and repeating ideas from page to page. For example:

Melanctha Herbert had not made her life all simple like Rose Johnson. Melanctha had not made it easy with herself to make her wants and what she had, agree.

Melanctha Herbert was always losing what she had in wanting all the things she saw. Melanctha was always being left when she was not leaving others.

Melanctha Herbert always loved too hard and much too often. She was always full with mystery and subtle movements and denials and vague distrusts and complicated disillusions. Then Melanctha would be sudden and impulsive and unbounded in some faith, and then she would suffer and be strong in her repression.

Stein piles bits of information on top of each other to build portraits of her characters; I suppose this is what every author does in order to create a character, but Stein draws attention to the piling on by repeating her character’s full name and using “and” in her lists, instead of commas. She uses repetition on a larger scale too. Her story moves forward in a jerky back-and-forth motion; she will tell you new information, and then she will circle back and repeat old information, perhaps with some variations, before moving on again.

It’s not a very exciting style, and at times I felt bored with the book, but she does manage to capture something that feels true about her characters. It’s an incantatory style; it’s almost like she’s chanting her way through these characters’ lives, conjuring them up and capturing their full history in a fairly short number of pages.

The book does exactly what the title promises: it tells the story of three women’s lives, none of which connect to the others in any way except that all three of her subjects live in the same town. She tells their full life stories, although most of the information we have on their childhoods comes through flashbacks. All three are ordinary working- or middle-class women, and the focus in all three stories is on their relationships — friendships, and in the case of the middle story “Melanctha,” romantic relationships. The Melanctha section is the most famous one, partly because of how it deals with race; Melanctha is a black woman and some see it as a sympathetic portrait of blackness, arguably forward-looking for its time (it’s a controversial point, though).

So, Three Lives is an interesting read, a good book to analyze stylistically and think about contextually, although it’s not engrossing or emotionally compelling, at least for me. I’m very curious and I wish there were some way of knowing how Stein’s reputation will fare in decades and centuries to come. I suspect she’ll remain known, at least for a while, although it’s hard to tell whether that will be because of her writing or because of her life story. I’m looking forward to reading Janet Malcolm’s book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice to learn a little more about that life.

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New books

So I promised I’d write about the new books I bought on my travels. I didn’t do much reading while we were gone — Hobgoblin and I seem to have trouble sitting still while away from home — but I did collect some good things. We visited two bookstores in Portland, although there were others we didn’t have time for or that were closed while we were there. The first one was Longfellow books, which calls itself a “fiercely independent bookstore.” In addition to its other admirable traits, Portland seems to be especially devoted to its local, independent shops. So I was glad to support them by buying The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud, an experimental French novel, and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, a book about Buddhism both Stefanie and Litlove have recently reviewed.

We also visited Cunningham Books, which is a used and rare bookshop. We were running out of time and so I didn’t get to look through the store thoroughly, but I did find a copy of Adam Sisman’s The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge. I really enjoyed Sisman’s earlier book Boswell’s Presumptuous Task about the writing of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, so I’m looking forward to this one. I like how he writes biography that isn’t straightforward biography; instead, he chooses some angle of his subjects to focus on and tells something about their lives that way.

We also visited two bookshops in or near Bar Harbor, one of which was a used bookshop specializing in mysteries. I didn’t find anything there, but it was great to look through. And then I stopped at Sherman’s bookstore at least twice, once with Bob and Emily, and once when two sisters who hiked the Appalachian Trail barefoot were doing a book signing. So of course we had to get their book and ask them to sign it. It’s called Barefoot Sisters: Southbound, and it looks really impressive, both the book and their accomplishment.

And finally, we visited Northshire Bookstore, a really fabulous bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont. It’s pretty big and has a fabulous selection; we spent a good amount of time browsing, but there were still sections I didn’t make it to. I decided to come home with Patrick’s Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, which I just discovered is a trilogy of interconnected novels centering on a London pub. After reading Slaves of Solitude, I became an avid Hamilton fan. I also bought Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, a book about photography that I picked up not so much because I’m interested in photography, but because I like Dyer’s writing a lot (Out of Sheer Rage and Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It are both great) and also William Gass’s A Temple of Texts, a collection of his writing on literature.

And now I’d better get on with the actual reading!

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Home again

I had a lovely vacation, but let me tell you, returning home right before the fall semester is about to begin is not much fun. I wish I could hop in the car and head out again. But instead I’ll tell you about what we did.

The first part was a trip to my parents’ home outside Rochester where the middle of my three younger sisters got married. It was a great family reunion, a gathering that just keeps getting larger and larger. We were a big family all by ourselves with two parents and seven children, but now we have four spouses, including the most recent addition, two significant others, and one 8-month-old baby, my first niece. Plus two aunts and an uncle joined us. Here I am with my adorable niece. I spent as much time holding her as I could:

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In addition to attending the wedding, Hobgoblin and I went walking on the shore of Lake Ontario, visited wineries along the Finger Lakes, walked along the Erie Canal, and watched my brother win a 5K running race. Here’s a picture of Chimney Bluffs on Lake Ontario:

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After the family time, we headed out to Portland, Maine, where we spent a much-too-short 1 1/2 days. It struck me as a fun, liberal, artistic, bookish, dog-friendly city, and I found myself wanting to live there, although surely the winters there are tough. We managed to do quite a lot in our short time there: we visited the Victoria Mansion, toured the Longfellow House, shopped in bookstores, went sailing on the Bagheera around the Portland harbor, and ate in as many restaurants as we could.

After that we drove to Mount Desert Island to see Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor. Bar Harbor is cute, if incredibly crowded, at least in August, and Acadia is breathtaking. I love how the park offers both mountains and the ocean:

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Here’s what the coast looks like:

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The mountains are very rocky with lots of pink granite, which means when you go hiking you do a lot of rock-hopping. We climbed up and down some very steep hillsides:

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We hiked every day we were there, and we also went sea kayaking and spent lots of time exploring the Bar Harbor shops and restaurants. It just so happened that Emily and Bob were on the island at the same time we were, so we met up for an afternoon hike followed by dinner and blueberry martinis (everything has blueberries in it when it’s August in Maine). It was lovely to see friends and have a chance to talk about books and to celebrate Emily’s new job.

Muttboy really likes the hiking in Acadia:

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We were sorry to leave Acadia, but were cheered up by being able to make a little bookish pilgrimage as we drove through Bangor, where Stephen King lives. Hobgoblin found his address online somewhere, and it was only a short side trip off the highway to find it:

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We weren’t the only ones there — a couple motorcycles and another car were lingering on the road just as we were.

We had one more stop to make before heading home — Vermont, where some friends of ours have a summer home. They live near Bromley Mountain, a part of the Appalachian Trail we’ve backpacked through, so it was familiar territory. Rather than staying in the mountains this time, though, we got to see the towns and farms in the area, and rather than carrying everything on our backs, we got to live in luxury, with showers, couches, a comfortable bed, and lots and lots of good food. We took walks through the woods and around Lowell Lake, which Muttboy and his friend Phoebe really liked:

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And then it was time to come home.

I didn’t read much while we were gone, but I did buy a whole stack of books, which I’ll tell you about sometime soon.

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