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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