Monthly Archives: October 2009

Thoughts for a Saturday

How about a nice, easy bullet format for a holiday Saturday night.

  • I may get interrupted while writing this post to hand candy out to trick-or-treaters. I tend not to do much for Halloween except make sure Hobgoblin and I have some candy on hand and then laugh when Muttboy gets super excited at all the children who stop by to greet him. Well, as far as he’s concerned, they are stopping by to greet him. That’s the only reason anybody ever stops by, he thinks. Actually the truth is that when people come trick-or-treating and see Muttboy, they almost always say “oh, that’s that dog we see walking around town all the time! Now I know where he lives!” People care about Muttboy much more than they care about us. I don’t blame them really; he’s the nicest and most interesting of us all.
  • I’m in the middle of reading Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s novel The Shadow of the Shadow for my mystery book group. Once again, for the millionth time, I’m feeling grateful to book groups for getting me to read books I wouldn’t otherwise. I had never heard of Taibo before he was chosen for our group, and so far I’m really enjoying the book. More on it later.
  • I’m also in the middle of listening to E.M. Forster’s Room With a View, and although I’ll listen to it until the bitter end, the reader isn’t so great. I’m not a terribly picky listener, but this one has a strange accent (when much of the fun of listening to British books is the accent), and the rhythm of her reading seems all off. The volume of her voice varies a lot as well, which means I’m always having to turn the volume up and down, which is a pain. Unfortunately, it’s hard to judge what I think of the novel when I don’t like the reader much. I’m afraid I wouldn’t do it justice.
  • I have a few new books to report: Miklos Vamos’s The Book of Fathers came as a review copy, and I’m looking forward to it because I remember reading Litlove’s post on the book (although I can’t find the link to the post right now — sorry!) and it sounded really great. Also Drusilla Modjeska’s The Orchard arrived through Book Mooch. This is another one to thank Litlove for. And finally Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Various yoga people mentioned this to me, so I thought I’d give it a try.
  • And now for cycling. My goal for this year is to ride 5,000 miles and as of today, I’ve ridden 4,426 miles. Only 574 miles to go! That means less than 300 miles a month for the next two months, which is entirely doable barring all the things that can possibly go wrong, which I won’t dwell on here. I’m very aware that this 5,000-mile goal is kind of silly — a mile is an arbitrary distance and 5,000 is an arbitrary number, and reaching it doesn’t make me a better cyclist at all and possibly the opposite — but oh, well. I’m being stubborn about this. I’ve already surpassed last year’s mileage, so it’s already been a good year for distance.
  • Tomorrow Hobgoblin and I and some friends have an extra-special literary excursion planned, but I’ll tell you more about that in my next post.
  • Happy Halloween!

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The Woman in Black

33044525 I’ll admit I’m a newbie when it comes to ghost stories. I’ve read some, I’m sure, but it was a long, long time ago, and I don’t remember any details. So I don’t have much of a basis of comparison to work with here. What this book taught me, though, is that the circumstances in which one reads a ghost story matter a lot. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is only 150 pages long and probably should be read in as close to one sitting as possible. When I had the chance to sit down with this book for more than a few minutes at a time, I got caught up in the atmosphere and enjoyed myself. When I read only small pieces of it before putting it down again to go on to something else, I became too distanced from the story to feel much of the spookiness and suspense.

I did enjoy the illustrations in my edition of the book (the one pictured above); the black and white sketches helped create a sense of what the almost other-worldly landscape must have looked like. I enjoyed the book’s atmosphere more than the story itself; the story is fairly simple and straightforward and not so difficult to figure out, even for someone like me who is generally very bad at figuring things out. But Hill does atmosphere very well, and I liked the descriptions of the town where the people obviously have deep, dark secrets; the house separated from the town by a causeway that is under water when the tide is in; the absolutely unforthcoming driver who carries the main character back and forth; and the terrifyingly shifty and treacherous quicksand reminiscent of the shivering sands in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.

The story is told by Arthur Kipps, who is surrounded by his happy family but haunted by memories. He decides to write his story down to try to make his ghostly memories disappear once and for all. The story he has to tell takes place when he was much younger, an innocent and confident young man, eager to make his way in the world. He receives an assignment to sort through the papers of a woman who has recently died, a Mrs. Drablow who lives on the coast and whom, he discovers, no one in the town wants to discuss. While at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, Arthur sees a woman who has seemingly come out of nowhere and who suffers from a some kind of a wasting disease. He asks about her later, but it turns out no one else has seen her, and no one will answer his questions about her. He brushes this aside and continues on with his work, but, of course, this is not the last he sees of the mysterious woman.

And then we are plunged into a familiar dynamic: Arthur knows he is getting himself into a very strange, very creepy situation, and the more time he spends at Mrs. Drablow’s house the more this feeling is confirmed, but he is determined to do his work well, no matter what the consequences. Why should he let a ghostly woman dressed in black keep him from completing his task? Why should he be afraid of spending the night in Mrs. Drablow’s house, even when he knows it is haunted?

Well, he learns why. I liked the fact that — and now I will get to some spoilers — the plot revolves around a mother who is forced to give up her child born out of wedlock. To separate a mother and child is to violate the natural order to such a horrific extent that a terrible revenge is sure to follow. Hill makes clear that the fate of women who have made “mistakes” in love may vary, but it is never good:

A girl from the servant class, living in a closely-bound community, might perhaps have fared better, sixty or so years before, than this daughter of genteel parentage, who had been so coldly rejected and whose feelings were so totally left out of the count. Yet servant girls in Victorian England had, I knew, often been driven to murder or abandon their misconceived children. At least Jennet had known that her son was alive and had been given a good home.

The community has a whole has had to pay a high price for this cruelty. Individual families might perpetrate the wrong on an immediate level, but it is a cultural sin and the culture pays.

On a lighter level, I also liked the role the dog Spider played. Spider was probably the character I cared about most, in fact. The scene where she almost gets lost in the quicksand is the most harrowing one in the book. One of the most frightening things I can think of is a dog who is thoroughly freaked out and frightened for reasons we can’t understand. Surely that dog knows something we don’t?

I didn’t think this was a great book, but I thought it was a competent one, and it makes me a little more curious than I was before about other ghost stories and about what else Susan Hill has written.

If you would like to read more posts on the book, check out the Slaves of Golconda blog and the discussion forums. I hope to see you there!

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Revisiting Anne

I’m deep in the middle of the semester now, and in need of shorter books and lighter reading, since my time is limited and when I do have time, I often don’t have energy. So I thought I’d continue my reread of the Anne of Green Gables series, which I began over a year ago with a group of Anne devotees. The second book in the series is Anne of Avonlea, and it takes Anne from her sixteenth year to her eighteenth, during which time she — unbelievably to contemporary readers — becomes a school teacher. How can someone sixteen be in charge of teaching a room full of children of all different ages? It’s a reminder of how different a time it was when Anne was alive (or alive in someone’s imagination).

I enjoyed the book and found it just the thing for my frazzled brain, but … I had some doubts too. I remember reading through the whole series multiple times as a child, but I don’t really remember which books were my favorites and which weren’t. I’m guessing that this one wouldn’t have been a favorite, though, largely because the pace is slower than the first Anne book, and it could use some more narrative tension. Both the first and the second books are very episodic in structure and take Anne through one adventure after another, but in the first book, Anne is a brand new character and this keeps her adventures intriguing. They are often very funny as well. In the second book, we know what to expect from Anne, and that’s pretty much what we continue to get — lots of imagination, impulsiveness, and rash actions repented of later. It’s charming and amusing, but it doesn’t surprise anymore, and there’s no other plot arc or source of tension or suspense.

I’m also not sure what I think of Anne’s brand of imagination, either. She lives in — or at least frequently retreats into — a dreamworld of fairies, elves, dryads, and other mystical creatures, and I have no problem with this whatsoever, but when Miss Lavendar and Paul Irving arrive on the scene sharing similar imaginative fancies, I wonder where they all picked up such similar ways of dreaming. Did they all grow up reading the same kinds of stories? Was every imaginative person of the time dreaming in the same kind of way? All this stretched plausibility a bit, which made me feel more at a distance from the story than I expected to be.

But, that said, I already have the next book in the series on the way through Book Mooch (Anne of the Island), and I’m looking forward to reading it, maybe soon or maybe in a year or two. I do like Anne, and I like the process of reading through the series again. I may read through other childhood favorites as well, as the mood strikes. Doubts and mild disappointments as I reread books don’t bother me too terribly much, and they are always interesting to think about.

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Keats and authorial intention

I’m continuing to enjoy The Story About the Story, an anthology of essays on literature, many of which (although not all) are written from a personal perspective. This is the kind of book I read slowly, an essay at a time, whenever I feel inspired to pick the book up. I’m about seven essays in at this point. I won’t write about each and every one, as not all of them inspire me to write, but Sven Birkerts’s essay “On a Stanza by John Keats” is one I don’t want to neglect.

Birkerts starts off on a lofty level, considering what it means to encounter beauty in art. He decides that:

When we are stirred by beauty in a particular work of art, what we experience is the inward abolition of distance. It is only when we try to put our finger on the source of the sensation, when we try to explain the beauty, that the horizons are reversed. At that moment the near becomes the far, much as it does when we try to fathom our own reflection in the mirror: The more intently we look, the stranger becomes the object of our scrutiny.

He then turns to a more specific mission: “I set myself what seemed at first a simple task: to say why Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ was beautiful.” This mission leads him to embark on one of the closest readings of a poem I have ever read. The essay is about 12 pages long, and about eight pages of it is devoted to looking as closely as possible at the 11 lines of the poem’s first stanza. Birkerts does all the usual things people do when they close read — he looks at the meanings of words and their order and their sound qualities, but he does it in such loving detail and with such beautiful writing that it’s no ordinary close reading. He also looks at aspects of words people don’t often focus on — the way we move our mouths as we recite the poem, and how those movements affect our experience. Here’s what he decides about what makes “To Autumn” beautiful:

I am convinced that the beauty of the ode is to be sought with the fine crosshairs of sound and sense, that it inheres in the subtlest details and is sustained from breath to breath — that generalizations will serve for nothing. We experience such a rapid succession of perfectly managed sensory magnifications that we are, in a strange way, brought face to face with the evolutionary mystery of language. The absolute rightness of the sound combinations forces us to a powerful unconscious recognition: Sound is the primal clay out of which all meaning has been sculpted.

After finishing his close reading, Birkerts briefly considers a question that comes up in my literature classes a lot: the question of whether the author “meant to put that there.” Are these consciously created effects Birkerts is uncovering? Are those effects there but not consciously created? Or is Birkerts just reading too much into the poem?

When these questions come up in class, I tend to answer in two ways — answers that seem contradictory, as a matter of fact, but I’m open about that and don’t mind their contradictions. One is that yes, the author probably did “put that there,” because generally the effect we are discussing that provokes my students’ skepticism isn’t a terribly complicated one and I’m pretty sure the author really did know what he or she was doing. My students just aren’t used to the idea of an author having such great control over language and that’s because they are relatively new at literary analysis. My other answer is that it doesn’t matter what the author intended, both because language takes on a life of its own beyond the author’s complete knowledge and control, and because we can never truly know what an author intended. Even if the author tells us what he or she meant, we still can’t really trust that report because does the author really know what happens at the moment of creation?

Birkerts offers answers to these questions that are similar to mine, but expressed in terms I like and will probably borrow. He says, first:

Let’s not forget that we read poetry in the odd hour, as amateurs; Keats pressed his lines into place with the full intensity of his being. When a poet is composing, the value of every sound is magnified a thousand-fold. His radar is attuned to frequencies that we are not even aware of….I would argue, therefore, that not only (A) if you find it, it’s probably there, but also (B) however much you find, there is sure to be more.

I like that. Keats was a professional! He can work magic with language that we amateurs can only marvel at. His other answer is that as long as you believe the unconscious is involved in the poetic process — which he thinks it obviously is — then:

it is not a case of the poet’s inventing lines, but rather of his finding sounds and rhythms in accordance with the promptings of the deeper psyche. The poet does not rest with a line until he has released a specific inner pressure.

So there’s more going on when a poet writes a poem than he or she is consciously aware of, and it’s impossible to account for what a poet intended or didn’t intend. It’s all part of one big messy process that, as Birkerts says, the poet “presides over.” It’s too mysterious to analyze much further than that.

Birkerts essay is a beautiful one — a fitting tribute to a marvelously beautiful poem.

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Listening to books

I go through stages of listening to audiobooks on my commute to work (about 40 minutes each way) and then not, and now I’m in a stage where I’m listening to them avidly. After finishing Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me, I turned to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and then to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which I just finished on the drive home tonight.

Listening to Rebecca was a fabulous experience; it’s my first encounter with a du Maurier novel, and probably not my last. It’s a perfect book to listen to. It’s from a first-person perspective, first of all, which means there’s an intimacy to the voice (a literal voice, of course, not metaphorical) that pulls me into the story. It’s also such a moody, atmospheric novel, and having someone read it to me increases that sense of atmosphere. I respond to the words, of course, but also to a tone of voice and a manner of pronouncing those words, and that tone and manner enrich the whole experience.

I probably don’t need to tell you what a wonderfully fun book it is — such a good story, such interesting relationships among the characters, such a complex situation and a suspenseful ending.

Murder on the Orient Express was also enjoyable to listen to, but it didn’t go quite as well as Rebecca did. I’m wondering if it isn’t as well-suited to listening as du Maurier’s book is. The problem was that it was very hard to keep the details straight. Murder is one of those puzzle-type mysteries where all the evidence is given and it’s possible for the reader to piece it all together (or at least I think it might be — I could never accomplish such a feat myself, so I can only assume that others with minds better suited to the task could). Hercules Poirot and the two men who work with him go over the evidence again and again, scouring it for information and clues. All this was hard to keep straight when I couldn’t flip back and forth in the book to double-check information.

So now I’m thinking I should listen to books that emphasize character and atmosphere rather than ones that require me to keep track of a complicated plot or remember a lot of information. But it’s also true that I’m drawn to character-driven books anyway, so perhaps the audio format just confirms and perhaps enhances the biases that already exist.

Both books showed me that the audio format makes the techniques authors use to generate suspense much more transparent. Since I couldn’t flip a page or two ahead or even look down to the bottom of the page to see what was coming, I had to sit there waiting breathlessly for the narrator to say the words that would clear up the mystery. When Hercules Poirot has gathered everyone together at the novel’s end to go through the evidence one last time and to reveal the solution to the mystery, I was acutely aware of the way Christie has him stop right before the final revelation to make a digression designed to drive the reader crazy with suspense. The ending of Rebecca felt exactly the same way. With a regular book, an author can’t control the order in which you read the words and can only hope that you experience the suspense he or she was trying to create. You can skip ahead on a CD, of course, but it’s not nearly as easy as flipping through the pages of a book skimming for revealing information.

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Parnassus on Wheels

About a week ago, Hobgoblin handed me a book and said he thought I would like it. This usually means I smile politely and say thanks and then put the book away. Hobgoblin does this to me when I recommend a book, too. In fact, I’ve praised Infinite Jest so highly and told him he should read it so often that now I’m worried he won’t. This time he handed me Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels and said it was about books and that it was a really fast read. I was in the mood for something exactly like that, so I broke with tradition and started reading.

And it turned out to be a whole lot of fun. It’s a book that celebrates reading and the love of books in a humorous, whimsical kind of way that is thoroughly charming. It reminds me quite a bit of Alan Bennett’s book The Uncommon Reader about Queen Elizabeth learning to love reading. The books have a similar sensibility; they portray reading as simultaneously a great amusement and also an activity that can change your life. Once you have begun reading, you have no idea where the habit will take you.

The story is told in the first person by Helen McGill, a woman who lives on a farm in Connecticut with her brother, Andrew. Andrew was once a steady, reliable person, but then he took to reading, and then to writing, and then he became a famous author, and now he can’t be trusted to do his share of the farm work. Helen finds this intensely irritating, and she does what she can to thwart Andrew’s ambitions, and to try to keep him from wandering around the countryside gathering material for his next book.

Helen is a fun narrator; she has a self-confident, matter-of-fact, no-nonsense tone, and she is frequently hilarious. Here’s how the novel opens:

I wonder if there isn’t a lot of bunkum in higher education? I never found that people who were learned in logarithms and other kinds of poetry were any quicker in washing dishes or darning socks. I’ve done a good deal of reading when I could, and I don’t want to “admit impediments” to the love of books, but I’ve also seen lots of good practical folk spoiled by too much fine print. Reading sonnets always gives me hiccups, too.

She is also capable of adventure, although this quality catches her by surprise. When a man drives up to her farm with a wagon full of books claiming that he wants to sell it to Andrew, she realizes she needs to act quickly. The man is Roger Mifflin, and he has spent years traveling around the countryside selling people books from his collection. He has loved his trade, but now he wants to retire to Brooklyn to write the story of his adventures, and he believes he can persuade Andrew to pick up where he is leaving off and become an iterant salesman himself. Worried about being abandoned, Helen makes an impulsive decision and buys the wagon herself, and the next thing she knows, she is off on an adventure, traveling around the countryside selling books herself, with Roger Mifflin for company, at least for a while.

So the novel tells the story of her adventures — how she sees more of the world than she ever had before, sees just how much Roger is in love with books and reading, and learns how transforming books can be.

It’s a light and amusing book, but it argues for a particular way of thinking about reading. Roger Mifflin makes a number of long speeches such as this one about what he is trying to do when he sells books:

You see, my idea is that the common people — in the country, that is — never have had any chance to get hold of books, and never have had any one to explain what books can mean. It’s all right for college presidents to draw up their five-foot shelves of great literature, and for the publishers to advertise sets of their Linoleum Classics, but what the people need is the good, homely, honest stuff — something that’ll stick to their ribs — make them laugh and tremble and feel sick to think of the littleness of this popcorn ball spinning in space without ever even getting a hot-box! And something that’ll spur ‘em on to keep the hearth well swept and the wood pile split into kindling and the dishes washed and dried and put away. Anyone who can get the country people to read something worth while is doing his nation a real service.

It’s the idea of literature pleasing and instructing both — it should be thrilling and fun, and it should also inspire people to be better, more industrious human beings, which will, in turn, make America a stronger country.

Part of the charm of this book is its idealism, and it’s fun to get caught up in the happy mood, even if in my darker moments I don’t buy the idealism at all. The book almost crosses into an irritating naïveté, but it doesn’t quite (for me at least); it is saved by not taking itself too seriously. The humor keeps everything light, and the narrator’s practicality keeps everything in perspective.

And now when I’m in the mood for it, I have the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop to look forward to.

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A bookish day

So yesterday SOC, She Knits, Hobgoblin and I headed out to the Berkshires to spend some time doing bookish things. It won’t surprise you at all to hear that it was a wonderful day. After lunch in Canaan, Connecticut (at a diner where the people are so nice they remember you even if you visit only a couple times a year), we headed out to The Bookloft, an independent bookstore in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Ruth Reichl was giving a talk and signing copies of her new cookbook. I’ve never read her, but Hobgoblin praises her writing highly, and I’ve heard interviews with her on the radio that left me impressed. In person, she was a charming speaker — funny and warm.

In the question and answer session, she fielded a lot of questions about the recent closing of Gourmet magazine, where she has been Editor in Chief for the last ten years. She was obviously sad about the closing, and I was shocked to hear that she found out about it at the same time everybody else did — on Monday morning of last week. I would have thought she had earned some advanced notice.

After Hobgoblin got his copy of the cookbook signed, we all headed across the border into New York to find The Book Barn, a used bookshop in Hillsdale. This is a place Hobgoblin and I used to visit fairly often, back when we lived a bit closer, and so it was wonderful to go back for the first time in a few years. Getting to the shop is fun in and of itself; you have to wind around on some back roads for a while, and then make your way over unpaved roads before you arrive at a cute little barn packed full with books.

We spent a good two hours or so browsing, talking over our finds, and agonizing about which books to take home before we finally dragged ourselves away. And where we dragged ourselves away to just happens to be another town with a great bookstore — Millerton, New York, where you will find Oblong Books. We hadn’t actually intended to go into the shop, but we needed directions to an ATM, and once we were inside, we had to look around a bit. It’s another wonderful store with a great selection of books by small presses and the kind of obscure books you don’t see at your average chain store.

After that, we were in need of a good dinner, which we found at a nearby Italian place, and after that it was time to head home — before we found another bookstore to spend more money in.

So what did I bring home? I found five books at the book barn, although I could easily have brought home three times that many, if I had allowed myself.

  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Aurora Floyd. I read Lady Audley’s Secret not too long ago and really loved it, so I’m looking forward to this one. It’s an example of Victorian sensational fiction, a genre I’ve recently come to enjoy a great deal. I was particularly glad to find Aurora Floyd after reading about it over at the Novel Readings blog.
  • L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between. I know absolutely nothing about this novel except that I’ve seen it around on various blogs and websites. Here’s what Amazon says: “Summering with a fellow schoolboy on a great English estate, Leo, the hero of L. P. Hartley’s finest novel, encounters a world of unimagined luxury. But when his friend’s beautiful older sister enlists him as the unwitting messenger in her illicit love affair, the aftershocks will be felt for years … The Go-Between is a masterpiece—a richly layered, spellbinding story about past and present, naiveté and knowledge, and the mysteries of the human heart.” Okay, now I know something, and it sounds good.
  • Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. After listening to and loving Strout’s Abide with Me, I’m eager to get to this Pulitzer Prize winner. I was surprised to find a copy for only $2.
  • David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More, A Compact History of Infinity. I’d be interested in reading a history of infinity just because that’s the sort of thing I like, but a history of infinity written by David Foster Wallace? Not to be missed.
  • Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading. I love books about books and reading, when they are done well, and I’m curious to see what this one is like. It will be perfect comfort reading for some day when I need it.

Really the last thing I needed to do was spend the day browsing in bookshops, but what fun it was, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else.

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Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica

veronica-2005 I finished this book about a week ago and have thought of it off and on since then, and I’m still not entirely sure what I want to say about it. There were times when I thought it was incredibly moving and insightful, times when I thought it dragged a bit, times when I loved what it had to say about families, and times when I got annoyed because I couldn’t keep the minor characters straight. I suppose ultimately I don’t think this is a perfect book, but it offered a lot ot think about.

The story is a harsh one, and I was drawn to it for that reason. It has a tone I don’t often find in women writers (although I won’t pretend to have done an exhaustive survey) — blunt, dark, bleak, and open about the harsher and seedier aspects of life. It’s not a hopeless book, but it’s one that won’t let you forget how much people can suffer. I wouldn’t want to read sad books like this one all the time, but now and then I find I want to read someone who looks directly at the harsher, uglier sides of life.

The first-person narrator is Alison, a woman in her forties who ekes a living out of part-time jobs. While she once was beautiful, the hard life she has lived has worn her down, and she now has hepatitis and suffers from a damaged arm that gets in the way of the cleaning job she tries to hold on to. The novel follows Alison through the course of one day as she walks to work and then to a friend’s house, and finally to the woods just outside her city in California. Lengthy flashbacks tell the story of Alison’s youth and young adulthood.

Alison became a model at a very young age and found herself swept up into a world where beautiful young women care so much about having great careers and becoming famous super-models that they are willing to do whatever it takes to live out their dreams, and male agents and photographers take full advantage of all the opportunities for sexual exploitation this provides. It’s a life full of money, glamour, drugs, parties, and casual sex. Alison heads to France where her modeling career really takes off, as a fabulously wealthy and powerful agent takes her on as his girlfriend. Her family back home in New Jersey has little idea what Alison has gotten herself into, but they are too passive and caught up in their own troubles to do anything to bring Alison home.

Alison’s meteoric rise is followed by a catastrophic fall as her boyfriend rejects her and she returns home to New Jersey to become a student again and try to turn her life around. She moves to New York to work at temp jobs and to try to work her way back into the modeling world, with only partial success. It’s in one of her temp jobs that she meets Veronica, a woman significantly older than Alison is, and who bewilders Alison with her brash attitude and her outlandish taste in clothing. The two become friends, improbably, and although Alison doesn’t quite understand why she is drawn to Veronica and she sometimes fails to be a good friend to her, the two stay in touch. When Alison finds out Veronica has AIDS, she becomes even more important in her life.

Veronica seems an unlikely character to name the book after, since there are long sections of the book that don’t concern her at all, and we aren’t introduced to her until after we have been reading for a while. But it’s Alison’s friendship with Veronica that provides a center to her story; she is a question the story picks at again and again as Alison tries to figure out what Veronica has meant to her. From her perspective as a more mature woman looking back on her life, it turns out that Veronica has meant a great deal.

There is a lot of beauty in the writing here; Gaitskill describes Alison’s habit of thinking about her life through music particularly well, and although she is distanced from her father, this is something they share. For both of them music is a way of trying to communicate the longings they can’t find words to express. The entire book feels like an effort to express those things that are so hard to put into words. Alison tries to understand the experiences that have shaped her life, but sometimes the most she can do is to ask questions, to speculate, and to marvel at what has happened.

At times the pacing felt uneven, and the minor characters come and go without much definition and sometimes without much interest, but still, there is much to enjoy and contemplate here.

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The Story about the Story, D’Ambrosio and Woolf

So I’ve begun reading The Story about the Story, and although I’ve only read the introduction and the first two essays, those first two essays are really wonderful, and I suspect the rest of the book will be too. The idea behind the book is to gather essays that discuss literature from a personal perspective (it’s subtitled “Great Writers Explore Great Literature”), and as I read through the first two essays, I was reminded of how much I love this form of writing. I love any kind of good writing about literature, whether it’s criticism, theory, book reviews, or blog posts — as long as it’s really good — but writing that combines intelligence about literature with a personal perspective and tone is really the best.

The first essay is by Charles D’Ambrosio, and it’s about how his experience of reading Salinger was shaped by the circumstances of his life. One of D’Ambrosio’s brothers committed suicide and another brother attempted it, and so when he came to read Salinger, he was acutely sensitive to everything Salinger had to say on the subject. The essay combines a number of strands beautifully — D’Ambrosio’s personal experience, academic theories of suicide, how suicide functions in Salinger’s fiction, and Salinger’s mysterious reclusiveness and silence. It’s a very smart, very moving essay.

The second essay is by Virginia Woolf, and in it she tells us what she thinks of Hemingway, and, even more interestingly, she takes a look at her own prejudices and biases along the way. She makes the argument that knowing a critic’s biases may make his or her conclusions seem less conclusive, but also more truthful. She starts off by describing what it’s like to read a piece of criticism. Surely we can all recognize the feelings she describes?

But what reason there is for believing in critics it is impossible to say … They differ in no way from other people if one sees them in the flesh. Yet these insignificant fellow creatures have only to shut themselves up in a room, dip a pen in the ink, and call themselves ‘we’, for the rest of us to believe that they are somehow exalted, inspired, infallible. Wigs grow on their heads. Robes cover their limbs. No greater miracle was ever performed by the power of human credulity. And, like most miracles, this one, too, has had a weakening effect upon the mind of the believer. He begins to think that critics, because they call themselves so, must be right. He begins to suppose that something actually happens to a book when it has been praised or denounced in print. He begins to doubt and conceal his own sensitive, hesitating apprehensions when they conflict with the critics’ decrees.

But, she goes on to argue, critics — at least those who review recently-published books — aren’t necessarily the best readers of literature. They have to review new books without much time to think about them, and they have to deliver a verdict about them, which requires hiding uncertainties they may be feeling and questions that may linger. The rest of us are allowed to have a more complicated response and to let some of our questions go fruitfully unanswered.

And so she will conduct an experiment: she will write about Hemingway and talk about her hesitations, questions, and biases along the way, so we can get a glimpse of the thought process that goes into producing a review, rather than, as usually happens, being left with only the conclusions.

This is really what I love about criticism that is personal — it gives us a chance to see how readers come to their conclusions. Probably it’s only an illusion that we can get into Virginia Woolf’s mind as she decides that Hemingway doesn’t do character very well, but still, I can’t help but trust that Woolf is trying to be honest, and I wish that her openness and honesty (even the illusion of it) were more common.

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When Things Fall Apart

After starting Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart about a month ago, I quickly figured out that it is a book to read slowly. It’s only 150 pages, but it makes sense to take a month to read it. This is partly because it contains a lot of wisdom that is best taken in slowly; it’s a book about meditation, among other things, and it seems appropriate to read it in a slow, meditative kind of way. On a more critical note, it also contains a lot of repetition. If I were reading it fast I would find the repetition annoying, but because I was reading it slowly, the repetition became a part of the whole meditative experience. I came to like hearing similar ideas repeated over and over when they are ideas I need to hear again and again. Reading this book came to feel like reading the Christian devotional books people read — and I did too occasionally — when I was young.

The book is repetitious and it’s not terribly well written, but I find its ideas immensely valuable. It’s not an introduction to Buddhism, exactly, but more of an application of Buddhist ideas to dealing with suffering and pain. As Stefanie points out in her review of this book, the subtitle “Heart Advice for Difficult Times” makes it sound as though the book is aimed at people going through a particularly challenging time, when the truth is that its audience is much broader — it’s really directed at everybody.

It makes the argument that rather than running from bad feelings — anger, irritation, sadness — we can learn to face them directly, and by facing them directly, we can learn to relax into them. We can learn to recognize them for what they are and to see that bad feelings are inevitable and come and go just as good feelings do. As Chödrön puts it, it’s all about seeing the world around us as clearly as possible, which means recognizing that the world is constantly changing, nothing is stable, and good and bad experiences come and go and we have little if any control over them. All we can do is learn to recognize what is happening to us, to acknowledge it, and then just stay there and experience it. She urges us to resist the impulse to try to keep our lives from changing and to create a sense of safety and security. That sense of security is illusory, so it’s better to try to learn to live without it, to the extent that we can.

Meditation is the way she suggests we can begin to learn this. By meditating regularly we start to become more aware of what is happening in the moment, which is a way of becoming more attune to our thoughts and feelings so we recognize why we feel the way we do or act the way we do. It’s also a way to learn how to watch what happens to us without judging it. When meditating, we’re supposed to watch our thoughts as they come and go, and gradually we learn that that’s just what thoughts do — they come and go but they aren’t who we are and they don’t define us:

… the point is not to try to get rid of thoughts, but rather to see their true nature. Thoughts will run us around in circles if we buy into them, but really they are like dream images. They are like an illusion — not really all that solid. They are, as we say, just thinking.

As someone who has often felt hounded by my own thoughts, this idea is immensely comforting. The brain is just an organ whose job it is to produce thoughts, and so that’s what it does. My thoughts are important, of course, but they aren’t, ultimately, who I am, and I don’t have to spend my time obsessed with them.

I also found Chödrön’s chapters on compassion very moving. Although I would have resisted this idea when I was growing up — I would have found it selfish in the extreme — I now agree that the ability to care about others stems from the ability to care about oneself, and if we learn how to treat ourselves with kindness, we will be in a better place to understand and care for others. This is something that, again, we can develop through meditation; the practice of watching and accepting what is going on in our own minds can help us be open to what happens with other people.

As you can see, I found a lot that’s valuable in this book. However, I don’t think it’s the best book to read if you are unfamiliar with Buddhism or are looking for an introduction to the subject. Chödrön tends to use terms and phrases associated with Buddhism and meditation without defining them, and although she gives basic instructions in how to meditate, she doesn’t back up and explain the religious/spiritual background to her ideas. It really is more of an inspirational or devotional book than a methodical explanation of a philosophy. Some years back during an earlier period of interest in Buddhism, I came across books by Joseph Goldstein, who I think would provide a more thorough background. And perhaps Chödrön provides more background herself in one of her other books, I’m not sure. But at any rate, I learned a lot from this book, and I’m immensely glad I read it.

For other takes on this book, make sure to read Litlove’s post as well as Stefanie’s.

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The Honest Scrap meme, blogging version

Courtney recently nominated me for the Honest Scrap award — thank you! — which asks a person to write ten things nobody knows about them. I wasn’t sure how to answer this, as I’ve done this kind of meme before and had no idea what ten new things I could come up with. But then I came across Litlove’s version of the meme, and I’m going to steal her idea. Most of her list is about blogging, and so is mine.

  1. From the beginning of my time blogging, my ideal writing scenario is that I would take a moment before writing to search my mind for whatever it is I’m most concerned about, book-wise, and write about that. I hoped that whatever it was that I had foremost on my mind would be the thing I cared about most and that I would write about it best. I don’t usually do this, though; instead I usually have a book I want to review or some other updating kind of post I want to write, and because these things feel more pressing and time-sensitive, I rarely stop to think about what else I might write about.
  2. I’ve come to find that most people I know in my real life don’t follow my blog once I’ve told them about it (there are some important exceptions though — hi!). I don’t mind this or take it personally. It just seems that people read blogs or they don’t, and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter how much they care about me or my opinions on books; they are going to want to hear about those things in conversation and not online.
  3. One of the major downsides to blogging about books is information overload. There are so many bloggers blogging about so many great books that I am feeling more and more that I have no space left in my head for everything that is out there. If I were a different sort of person this wouldn’t be a problem, and I would have more energy to take it all in, but I’m someone who’s a slow processor of information and I need time to contemplate things.
  4. Possibly the above means that I should post a bit less often and take more time to think through what I want to say and perhaps to write in more depth. But I don’t think that will happen. Giving myself more time to write in the hope that I will write longer and better things feels too much like work, and when blogging feels like work, I’ll stop.
  5. I’ve been thinking lately that I sometimes go about choosing books in the wrong way. I sometimes assume, when I pick up a new book, that this time I will read it really quickly — unlike practically every other time I’ve picked up a book in my life — so it doesn’t matter if I’m not sure the book I’ve just picked up is what I really want. I assume it will be a quick read and I’ll fly through it, and then I’ll be on to something better. But the truth is that I take a while to read things, so I need to pick books I’ll want to stay with for a while.
  6. Speaking of slow reading, I had no idea until I began blogging that some people can read as fast as they do. Hobgoblin is a faster reader than I am, but some of you bloggers out there are way faster than both of us. I have to remind myself that reading fast is not a virtue — and neither is it a failing. But damn, being a fast reader would have made grad school much easier.
  7. As tiring as it can be to write about nearly every book I read, and as crazy as it sometimes feels to have devoted so much time to this enterprise over the last 3 1/2 years, it’s enormously satisfying to be able to produce posts again and again, day after day. That’s why I wrote a blog post every day for so long when I first began — just because I could.
  8. Blogging is like cycling in the sense that I often have more energy after finishing a post or a ride than I did before I began. Writing a post and going on a ride take effort and energy, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned — and I think I learned this more so through cycling than writing — it’s that expending energy generates more energy in return. It’s all about getting started.
  9. There’s nothing that irritates me more than when somebody says “bloggers should do this” or “blogging should be about that.” A lot of the theorizing out there about book blogging bothers me because the writer often has some idea about what book bloggers should be doing differently. I think bloggers should do what they damn well please, and if you don’t like it, read some other blog.
  10. It amuses me that there are publishers out there who want to send me free books. Is it really worth while to have your book mentioned on my little blog? People who work in publishing have assured me recently that it IS worth while to send even small-time bloggers like me free books, but I find it hard to believe. I don’t want them to stop, though.
  11. I’m only supposed to list 10 things, but I’ve thought of another: I periodically write that I’m going to start posting less frequently, and when I write that I genuinely mean it, but it’s also the case that whenever I publicly make that declaration, I find myself making the time and coming up with the ideas to continue posting at the old rate. So it’s probably a good idea not to take me seriously when I talk about posting less often.

I’m tagging anybody who would like to answer this meme in any way they see fit!

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The Black Angel

27889442 So my mystery book group met this past Saturday to discuss Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Angel, and, as usual, it was a great discussion. It was the kind of discussion where many if not all of us left the meeting with different ideas about the book than those we had originally — not necessarily that we liked the book any better, but that we understood new things about it. Or perhaps I should just speak for myself — my understanding of the book is different now than it was before. I still have mixed feelings about it, but they are mixed in a different way.

The book is classic noir (or that’s what the cover calls it) from 1943, written from the first person point of view of Alberta French, a woman whose husband has just been arrested for murder. He has supposedly murdered his lover, and Alberta has the shocking experience of discovering the dead body and her husband’s unfaithfulness all at once. While recovering from the shock, she decides her husband is innocent, that she’s willing to forgive him, and that she wants to do what she can to find out who the true murderer is.

The one clue in the story is a matchbook with the personalized letter “M” on it that Alberta finds at the crime scene. After finding the matchbook, Alberta stumbles across the murdered woman’s address book, and soon she is off on a quest to meet all the people listed under “M.” One of them has to be the real murderer.

I’m a sucker for a good plot device, and I liked this one, at least at first. It’s fun to watch Alberta try to worm her way into the lives of each of her possible suspects. Each encounter with a suspect turns into its own little episode in which Alberta goes places and sees things she’s never seen before, and these stories can be wild and suspenseful. The first two of these episodes work well. Alberta finds herself in some horribly seedy dives on the Bowery (the novel is set in New York City) as she meets the dead woman’s former husband, and then she runs into a doctor who turns out to be a drug dealer — or rather, he expects Alberta to be the drug dealer.

But from there the novel goes downhill fast. I found the next two episodes entirely unbelievable. The plot starts to move too fast, and it feels as though Woolrich started to get tired of his whole scheme and wanted to rush through to the end. I started the book willing to suspend my disbelief quite a bit, since it didn’t seem right to demand strict realism from this book given the genre, but even my low expectations were violated. It’s such a bad feeling to get jolted out of the world of the story like this, one moment enjoying the suspense and the next laughing scornfully at the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

Other people in my book group found Alberta an annoying character and an unbelievable one, but I liked her voice, at least at first. There was something about her straightforwardness and her desperate recklessness that appealed to me. But Becky’s point that she might be an unreliable narrator made me think of her in a new way. She is very young and she seems so innocent and so sweetly devoted to her husband that it’s easy to fail to take into account that over the course of the novel she does some pretty awful things, including the drug dealing and much worse. She justifies it all by saying that it’s to save her husband, but after thinking about the lengths to which she goes, I can’t help but question her sanity. She is so focused on discovering the truth that she is incapable of seeing anything else. What does it mean, really, to be willing to do just about anything for the sake of love? And is that a love anybody in their right mind would want to share?

I don’t know the noir genre very well, but I’m curious if anybody knows any other examples that have a female narrator. This book felt very different to me than the other examples we have read so far, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man, and part of the difference is that it’s a woman who is narrating the story (and part of it, of course, is that the other two are better written). She’s not a very emotive narrator, by any means, but there is a vulnerability and openness to the voice that I haven’t found elsewhere. It didn’t feel very “noir” to me for those reasons, and I began to wonder if part of what it means to be “noir” is to be from a male point of view. But I’d love to hear otherwise if that’s not true.

So, after that very interesting read, we are turning to Paco Ignacio Taibo’s The Shadow of the Shadow. This is an author I’ve never heard of (as Woolrich was as well), and I’m looking forward to discovering something new.

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A Jury of Her Peers

My review of Elaine Showalter’s book A Jury of Her Peers is now up at the Quarterly Conversation. The short version is that I liked it. If you want to hear more, check it out!

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Thoughts for a Friday

It’ll be a quiet Friday night here, as I’m not quite ready to post on the latest book I’ve finished — Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Angel — and there’s not much else to report on, and I’d really rather get reading ASAP. A quiet night tonight is great, but I’m looking forward to a little more excitement tomorrow as Hobgoblin and I will be heading out to a mystery book group meeting to discuss Woolrich. It’s always so much fun finding out what everybody else thinks, and with this book, I’m not sure at all what the consensus will be, if there is one. It’s an odd little book, and I have mixed feelings about it, but more on that later.

I had the fun of choosing another book to read last night, which, since I read slowly isn’t something that happens all that often, and which is also frequently kind of complicated. I’ll sit for a while and ponder what I’m in the mood for: old or new? easy or challenging? long or short? written by a man or a woman? And then I’ll stare at my books for a while and maybe look over my TBR list, and then maybe go back to my bookshelves and pull books off the shelves to see if this one or that one feels right. So last night I finally settled on a book I’ve had around for a while, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica. I remember reading reviews of this book a few years ago and finding myself intrigued by its dark tone and subject matter. I’m not sure what drew me to this book right now, except perhaps a feeling that I wanted to read something by a woman, but not something stereotypically feminine in any way, which Veronica certainly is not. I’m about 70 pages in, and so far so good.

I also had the pleasure of finding a new book in the mail today: Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love arrived through Book Mooch. I read about the book at Novel Readings, where Rohan Maitzen wrote about it so well I couldn’t resist. I also have another book on the way: Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists. Doesn’t that subtitle sound great? When it comes to books, there’s very little more enthralling than a good book about books and writers.

And with those thoughts for Friday, I’m off to go read!

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