Monthly Archives: September 2009

Frost in May

I picked up Antonia White’s Frost in May not knowing at all what it is about, and I was amused to find that it’s about a young girl beginning life at a Catholic boarding school — I say I was amused because it seems that nearly everything I’m reading these days has a religious or spiritual theme to it. I’m still slowly reading through Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, which is about a spiritual approach to suffering, and then there is Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me, about a pastor and his relationship with his congregation. And now Frost in May, which is all about intense religious devotion. But White’s book is harsher and darker than the other two, and much more critical of organized religion.

The main character, Nanda, comes from a family that converted to Catholicism, and Nanda feels an ardor and devotion to her new religion that perhaps is unique to converts. It means she is an outsider in her new school, however, The Convent of the Five Wounds, where most of the students come from families who have never been anything but Catholic. She is an outsider for other reasons as well: she doesn’t come from money as most of the other students do. This is a very common set-up for a novel, I suppose — young child struggling to find her way in a new environment that she finds bewildering, surrounded by people who aren’t like her at all — but White does an excellent job making a frequently-told story fresh and fascinating.

The novel’s opening scenes show Nanda trying to find her way through a bewilderingly complex set of rules that governs every part of the girls’ lives. It’s shocking to discover just how circumscribed and controlled the girls’ lives were. Nanda is told how she should walk and eat, and in what position she should sleep at night (on her back with her arms crossed on her chest). She and her schoolmates are not allowed to have “particular friendships,” and if they are caught spending too much time with any one girl, the two are separated. Their reading is almost entirely limited to devotional works, with only occasional indulgences in the most serious and uplifting fiction available. And the list of limitations and requirements goes on and on.

Nanda accepts all this, for the most part, because she really and truly wants to be a good Catholic, and although she is secretly terrified of receiving a call to be a nun herself, she adores the disciplines and practices of her religion.

But she starts the book as an outsider, and she remains one; she struggles and struggles to be the kind of person the nuns think she should be, but she never quite gets it right, and eventually the seeds of rebellion are sown.

White does an excellent job capturing the feeling of the convent school; the book is focused almost exclusively on the school itself, so that it becomes its own world, impervious to everything outside it. The convent is somewhere outside London, but that hardly matters; all that matters is the atmosphere of the school itself. When Nanda’s parents visit, she feels horribly awkward and unhappy at the way her mother does everything wrong — she is too loud, too happy, too willing to mock what Nanda holds dear. She is relieved when her parents leave and the familiar order is restored. Even though the nuns can be cruel, and they do what they can to rid her of her pride and individuality, she rejoices in all her sacrifices and deprivations — until the point when she doesn’t.

The book isn’t perfect — I thought some sections in the middle languished a bit and some of the plot and character maneuverings seemed awkward — but still, it’s a wonderful portrait of what it’s like to be a serious, idealistic, devout child and then teenager, caught up in an intricately-structured and carefully-controlled world, trying to live up to everyone’s high expectations, including her own. And it’s a fascinating picture of one version of the religious life — a particularly harsh and harmful one, although one that’s full of beauty too.

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Abide with Me

I mentioned the other day that I listened to Elizabeth Strout’s novel Abide with Me, and that book has convinced me that I should probably take a look at her other books as well. It’s a quiet, thoughtful character study, and I liked its insights into small-town life and what it’s like to try to be a spiritual leader when one’s life is falling apart.

The novel is set in a small town in Maine in the late 1950s, and the main character is the pastor of the Congregational church, Tyler Caskey, who just a year ago lost his wife and is now trying to cope with his grief and take care of his two young daughters. In a long flashback, Strout tells the story of how Tyler met his wife, Lauren, a woman from a much wealthier, more stylish family, and how the two of them settled into their new life in town. The congregation fell in love with Tyler, but could never quite accept Lauren, with her monied, Massachusetts background, her suspect love of fashion, and her complete disinterest in leading prayer groups. Tyler and Lauren were deeply in love, but it was a young, sudden, and inexperienced kind of love, and it quickly becomes clear that the two of them are headed into trouble, until one day Lauren gets sick and soon she is gone.

So Tyler is left on his own to grieve and to figure out how to lead an entirely new kind of life. And things quickly begin to fall apart. His daughter Katherine has failed to make friends at school and mutters things like “I hate God” in church. His housekeeper disappears under suspicious circumstances. He has trouble writing sermons. His mother pesters him to find a new wife. His congregation has begun to distrust him. And Tyler doesn’t know how to respond to any of this.

The character of Tyler is the triumph of this book; he is wise, kind, earnest, slow but with charisma, and an excellent deliverer of sermons. He believes with all his heart in everything he preaches and tries as best as he can to be a good person and to do his job well. He’s also naive and afraid of conflict, and it’s these qualities that get him into trouble. When his congregation starts to turn against him, he can’t understand why, and he doesn’t grasp that he needs to act quickly to change their minds. He believes that being a good person and doing his best is enough. It’s heartbreaking that these beliefs just aren’t true, and it seems unfair that people like Tyler have to learn lessons in the really painful way he does.

The book’s other triumph is its portrayal of small-town life, particularly small-town life in rural Maine in the 1950s. Tyler’s wife Lauren is a foolish character in a lot of ways, but surely everyone would sympathize with her horror at the boredom and isolation she experiences. Her mother-in-law gives her a book on how to be a pastor’s wife, and when she playfully begins to read it out loud to Tyler, she soon stops, bewildered by the advice she gets. Many of the other women in town are just as bored and unhappy as she is, and when one woman tells another to “just make the beds, then you’ll feel better,” it’s hardly encouraging. The picture of small-town life and 1950s pre-feminist frustration Strout creates is a familiar one, but she treats the subject with subtlety and acuteness and it never feels stereotyped.

So now I’m eager to read more of Strout’s books. Olive Kitteridge would be a logical next place to go, as it won the Pulitzer, and there is also Amy and Isabelle. It’s fun to find another author whose work I’d like to follow.

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Updates

I’ve found myself simply swamped with work lately, and I just haven’t had the time or energy to post as much as I’d like, even though I have two books I’d like to review as soon as I can. Actually, to be truthful, it’s not that I’m swamped with work so much as I’m unwilling to take a moment away from the other things in my life I like to do (bike riding, yoga, friends, etc.), and I spend so much time on those things that it gets a little tricky to squeeze work in. How bothersome work is. So I’ll post as much as I can, but don’t be surprised to see fewer posts than usual.

That said, I did manage to finish reading Antonia White’s Frost in May, which I liked quite a lot, and I also listened to Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me and have become a Strout fan. I’m now eager to get to some of her other books.

And I have a couple acquisitions to report: J.C. Hallman kindly sent me a copy of the collection he edited, The Story About the Story, which looks fabulous and like something I want to dip into just as soon as I can. I got a copy from Book Mooch of The Norton Book of Personal Essays, edited by Joseph Epstein, to add to my essay collection collection. And I have two new book group books: Obama’s Dreams From My Father, which I’ll probably need to have read sometime in November, and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black for the Slaves of Golconda. And I’ve just begun the book for my mystery group: Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Angel. Lots of good stuff coming up, so I hope I have time to write about it!

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The Last Day of a Condemned Man

Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man is fiction written with a purpose, and when someone writes fiction in order to make a point, as opposed to wanting to create great art, I can’t help but have my doubts about quality (although does that great art/political purpose opposition really hold up? Not sure.). Hugo’s book (kindly sent to me by Oneworld Classics) isn’t great art, I think, but it does do some interesting things fictionally, and it makes its political point in a powerful way.

It’s a book about the death penalty, and this edition opens with a preface by Hugo outlining his objections to the practice, so there is no doubt as you begin the story itself where Hugo stands. The novel takes the form of a diary written by a man living out his last days before he faces the guillotine. We aren’t told immediately, but eventually we find out he has committed murder, and there is never any doubt about whether he is guilty or not. The man writes down his thoughts and feelings over the course of the days leading up to his execution, and we follow him right up to the point before he is led away to his death.

What is interesting about the book is the way it allows you to imagine what it must be like to know you are about to die, that you will have a particularly gruesome death, and that crowds will be watching and cheering as your head is severed from your body. Hugo captures the torments his character goes through with enough detail and vividness that you can’t help but get caught up in the fear and turmoil. Here’s an example of what I mean:

They say it’s nothing, that you don’t suffer, that it’s a gentle end, that death is much simpler like that…. are they sure you don’t suffer? Who told them that? Has anyone heard of a severed head covered in blood that got up on the edge of the basket and shouted to the crowds: “That didn’t hurt?”

Are there any dead people who have come back and thanked them, saying: “It’s well designed. Leave it as it is. The mechanism is fine.”

Was it Robespierre? Was it Louis XVI?…

No, not at all! Less than a minute, less than a second and the deed is done. If only in their minds, have they ever put themselves in the place of the one who is there when the heavy chopper comes down and bites into flesh, severs nerves, shatters vertabrae… What! Half a second! Any pain is avoided…

Hideous!

Hugo also does a great job of describing the settings in which the condemned man finds himself, particularly the crowd scenes as the man is shuttled about to various cells before his execution. He makes you feel what it is like to be the center of attention at the point when one of the worst things that could possibly happen is about to happen to you:

In the clamour all around me I could no longer tell cries of pity from shouts of delight, laughter from groans, voices from noises; it was all just buzzing in my head, like an echo in a cooking pot.

Unthinkingly my eyes read the shop signs.

At one point I was seized with a bizarre curiosity to turn round and see where I was going. It was my mind’s last act of bravado. But my body didn’t want to; my neck was paralysed as if in anticipation of death.

I’m against the death penalty, so I’m not sure how someone who thinks otherwise would respond to this book, but if imagining how horrible it must be to face execution could sway anybody’s opinion, then this book could do it. The argument seems to be that execution is too awful a penalty to impose on anyone, and while that may not be the best anti-death penalty argument out there, it certainly is an argument well-suited to fiction. Fiction is particularly good at helping us understand what it’s like to be somebody else and at inspiring us to imagine things we have never experienced, so why not use its powers to inspire pity and terror in readers in order to persuade them to be merciful?

In addition to The Last Day of a Condemned Man, the Oneworld Classics edition contains another anti-death penalty work, a short story called “Claude Gueux.” The story is about how the justice system turns a man who stole something out of desperation, we aren’t told what, into a murderer. Society is arranged in such a way, the story argues, that pushes people toward crime, and then once they have committed that crime, it punishes them cruelly. There are stronger arguments to make against an unjust society than these works offer, but they still accomplish a lot: they make you think and feel and imagine what it must be like to be condemned.

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A couple notes

I have two unrelated things to write about today. I’m sure I’ve said this before, and it’s a banal thought anyway, but still, we just never know what’s going to happen to us, do we? Hobgoblin and I set out on a ride on Saturday with two other friends, and 30 miles into a 50-mile loop, about a half mile from the cupcake shop where we were going to rest and eat, Hobgoblin and another rider collided into each other and ended up on the road. One person thought the route was one way and the other thought it was the other way, and they didn’t have time to sort it out before their bikes hit. Hobgoblin is doing just fine, but we did spend the afternoon in the emergency room and he has a fractured rib and some serious road rash. It was a frustrating crash, because both riders involved are really good, really experienced cyclists, and neither one was riding recklessly or taking risks, and the crash happened anyway. It’s a lesson in how little control we have over anything, I suppose.

So poor Hobgoblin will be hobbling around for a little while until that rib heals.

There’s one more thing I wanted to write about here, before any more time passes. My book group that read Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice met last Friday to discuss the book, and we all agreed that while the book was fairly entertaining in moments, it wasn’t all that great. I felt that the first half was way too rushed and choppy, and it seemed clear that King was having a little trouble getting the series underway, trying to tell too much in too short a space. After Litlove’s post about episodic fiction, I realized that the book has an episodic structure, which is interesting and odd, because as Litlove points out mysteries and crime fiction are quintessential examples of plot-driven novels and are not typically episodic. What this means is that the real tension in the novel, the real plot, is the relationship between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, and the detecting and mystery solving are there solely to further this relationship. All this leads to an odd hybrid of a novel that I don’t think ever comes together.

I did think the interaction between Russell and Holmes was interesting, and I’ve taken to heart all the comments telling me that the series gets better, so I may possibly continue with it just to see how the characters develop.

This book also leads me to wonder why it is that so often the first book in a mystery series isn’t very good. I haven’t read enough to have a reliable sample, so tell me if you think I’m wrong, but it does often seem to happen that a mystery author takes a couple books to really get things going. Why is it hard to get a mystery series going when authors of stand-alone books have to get their own books going without the luxury (in most cases) of having more books in a series to get things right?

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Reading Serendipity

Litlove recently wrote a post in which she used the phrase “the usual serendipity of reading,” which is a great way to describe how books so often speak to each other and to us in unexpected ways. I’ve recently come across my own example. (And, in a nice twist, I’ve just been talking about serendipity in my “Intro to the Arts” course as we discuss how to access one’s creativity.) I’ve been reading Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart where she writes about how we tend to run away from anything that is painful or unpleasant rather than facing it and considering what it means and what it might teach us. She writes:

Most of us do not take these situations [situations that cause discomfort] as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain. In fact, the rampant materialism that we see in the world stems from this moment. There are so many ways that have been dreamt up to entertain us away from the moment, soften its hard edge, deaden it so we don’t have to feel the full impact of the pain that arises when we cannot manipulate the situation to make us come out looking fine.

Those of you who participated in Infinite Summer may know where I’m going with this: Infinite Jest deals with exactly this dynamic — the impulse to run away from pain and discomfort straight into the arms of whatever distraction we can find. People are so desperate for entertainment and distraction, in fact, that in Infinite Jest their lives are at risk. At the center of the novel’s plot (such as it is) is a film referred to as “the entertainment” that is so seductive, so irresistable, that people literally can’t draw their eyes away from it and will starve themselves and die rather than have to stop watching it. And others — lots of others — distract themselves with alcohol and drugs, violence, obsessive work, or really anything that can keep them from having to think. Facing their problems directly is just too difficult.

My favorite character in the book, Don Gately, is a recovering drug addict who has learned all this, in his own way. Now that he is no longer addicted to drugs, thanks to AA, he is finding out what it means to face pain and discomfort directly. He is finding out that all the things the drugs helped him repress are now coming back, and he has become haunted by memories of his hellishly difficult childhood and his horribly violent young adulthood in a way he’s never experienced before.

I love Gately because he’s such a brave soul, and he has no idea just how brave he is. He looks around him at the halfway house where he lives and works and sees people who are just beginning to attend AA meetings and who scoff at all the cheesiness and cliches involved, and he understands why they scoff, but he has learned that facing reality in the way Pema Chödrön writes about is just so difficult that people can’t do it on their own. They need the support of the daily AA meetings, the belief in a vague “higher power,” the motivational cliches and all the rest of it. It’s a practice, really, not unlike meditation. Both practices teach people to take things one day at a time, or one moment at a time, to focus on what’s real, to face oneself directly and admit shortcomings honestly, to admit that we have no control over ourselves and our lives. Gately doesn’t understand why AA works, but he knows it does, and he’s willing to trust it, no matter what. And believe me, this trust gets tested.

I have no idea if David Foster Wallace was interested in Eastern spirituality at all, but I felt its presence in this novel. It may be I read it this way because I’m interested in it at the moment, but at any rate, I love how these two books have had so much to say to me.

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I appreciate book blogs!

It’s Book Blogger Appreciation Week, which means that lots of people are doing a lot of appreciating, and I thought I’d join in. So, thank you so, so, so, so much all you book bloggers out there! I’ve been struck again and again by just how friendly the book blogging world, as I know it at least, has been. I hear things about how ugly the internet can be, how people leave nasty comments all the time and wars get waged and stalking goes on, and who knows what else, but it’s not something I see. I realize that this is because my blog is a small one, and the book blogging world is a fairly quiet place, and if that’s what is required to keep things peaceful, then that’s just fine. My experience has been that book bloggers are wonderfully smart, generous, passionate, clever, witty, and generally awesome people.

I’m sitting in my study right now staring at shelves and stacks of books almost all of which I bought because book bloggers have recommended them to me. Following book blogs is one of the best ways there is to learn about books and to find things to read. People frequently ask me to recommend them books or they wonder how I know about the books I do or they think I’m really knowledgeable about what’s out there. The truth is that I’m not actually all that good at keeping up with book news on my own; before blogging I used to read reviews now and then, but sort of haphazardly and with a narrow focus. But following blogs has introduced me not only to the most recently-published books but also to tons and tons of older books I hadn’t heard of before. Following blogs makes it easy to know what’s going on. When people ask me how to find things they would like to read, I tell them to follow blogs. If you find blogs you like, which of course you will, it’s only a matter of time before you start feeling overwhelmed at the number of new books you’re learning about.

I’ve loved how book blogging has allowed me to feel like I’m an active part of the book world without having to be a professional reviewer or to have a job in the publishing world or to be a writer myself. I don’t have a big place in the book world, but it’s thrilling to find that people do actually read what I write and that I convince people now and then to read something I loved.

So, many thanks to whoever it was who nominated me for a BBAW award, many thanks to those of you who listed me as a favorite blog in the BBAW meme going on today, many thanks to those of you who link to me and read me and leave comments, and many, many thanks to those of you who publish your thoughts about books on the internet!

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