Monthly Archives: November 2009

C.J. Box’s Out of Range

A friend of mind lent me C.J. Box’s mystery/crime novel Out of Range, and it was perfect for what I needed — something entertaining. It’s not a great book, but it’s good enough to provide some hours of fun.

Out of Range is part of Box’s Joe Pickett series. Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming, a profession that’s pretty well suited to the mystery/crime genre, as there are all sorts of people he runs into and places where he travels as part of the job. He’s responsible for patrolling his district, making sure that hunters, hikers, and anyone else out on the land are following the rules. He has to deal with a whole range of people, including many who do not see the point of his job, philosophically and politically-speaking, and who are ready to make sure he knows it. He also has to deal with tensions in the office and with the local sheriff, and since he’s frequently away from home for days at a time, his wife isn’t particularly happy with him either. It’s not an easy job, but he loves it because of the freedom and independence it gives him. He’s pretty much in charge of his district on all his own, and he gets to decide how he’s going to spend his time and how he will run things.

This particular novel takes Pickett out of his own district and moves him to the much bigger, more complicated district of Jackson Hole, where the previous game warden has just committed suicide. Pickett is the temporary replacement, and he is interested in the opportunity because he and his wife may want to move there permanently. This is a chance to see how such a move might go. But as you might expect, things get really complicated really quickly: Pickett meets environmental protesters, hostile hunters, and a land developer who wants to start a community based on the “Good Meat Movement.” The idea of this movement is that people will live among the animals that will later appear on their tables, so that they know the source of their food. This developer, it turns out, has all the required permissions for the new development lined up, except that of the local game warden. He’s ready to put great pressure on Pickett to provide that final approval.

What I particularly liked about the book is the way Box deals with issues of food sources and land use. The “Good Meat Movement” sounds good in a lot of ways — we are so disconnected from our food sources in the west that it is a healthy thing to know exactly what it means to eat meat — but there is something not quite right in the way the developer wants to fence in land for wild animals in order to create a paradise for rich people. And then there are tensions between environmentalists, some of whom are militant in their views and willing to take action, and hunters want to be left alone in the wild landscape, and who resent any intrusions, whether from animal-rights activists or government employees. There are so many ways to use the miles and miles of open country that Wyoming is blessed with, and the state, as big as it is, doesn’t seem big enough to hold everyone.

I don’t think this is a great book — I didn’t always love the writing and I thought his women characters were too stereotypical — but it’s still a good read, particularly if you like the crime genre and would like to read about the American west. It’s entertaining, with some good ideas to think about, and that’s a combination I like.

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Eating, Talking, Reading, Riding

My trip to Vermont for Thanksgiving turned out to be a wonderful and much-needed break from schoolwork and grading, and Hobgoblin and I had a great time hanging out with friends. There were five of us total, and we spent our time eating (a lot), talking, reading, and walking the dogs. I love it that this is what we do when we visit these friends — they live surrounded by the Green Mountains, and although there are places to visit in the area, the best thing to do is a whole lot of lounging around, with occasional forays into the woods. It was very restful.

We did make one trip out into society, though. There is an excellent bookstore in the area, and since we are all very bookish people, we simply had to visit. I had a wonderful time browsing, and came away with a book called The Great Age of the English Essay, a collection of essays from eighteenth-century Britain. As far as I’m concerned, I can never have too many essay collections. I came across Zadie Smith’s new essay collection, Changing My Mind, which looks really good, but I decided to wait until it comes out in paperback to get it.

I spent most of the week reading Obama’s Dreams from My Father and just finished it a few minutes ago. I’ll say for now that I am hugely impressed by it, but will write up my thoughts in detail later.

Hobgoblin and I returned yesterday (Saturday), and today I had a chance to ride my bike, something I’ve neglected a bit in the past week because of my travels. My cycling club had a group ride today, and the plan was to ride for about four hours at a steady pace. That sounded fine, if on the long side, but it turns out that my definition of steady pace isn’t necessarily the same as everyone else’s. I got a little nervous when I showed up for the ride and found a dozen men and no women at all. But I couldn’t back out once I was there, so I decided that all I could do was give it a try. The first half of the ride went pretty well; I worked hard but did a decent job of keeping with the group pace. We rode over a few miles of dirt road, which was a little frightening, especially as the group seemed to fly over the rocks and ruts, but it was also fun and the landscape was beautiful.

It was on the way home that things started to go bad. I’m used to riding two or three hours, but not as many as four, and not four hours of really hard work, so during the third hour I found myself getting slower and slower and falling behind again and again. The group was very nice and waited for me now and then, but after a while I got to the point where I wanted to ride all on my own, so I could go at my own pace without holding anybody else up. So I headed off in a different, less hilly direction, and rode the last 1 1/2 hours on my own, getting slower and slower, but feeling a whole lot better now that I was by myself.

The ride was 72 miles total and was fun in spite of the tiredness. As long as I’m by myself, I can generally keep up my spirits, even if my legs refuse to work hard and my speed gets slower and slower. I know I will get there eventually. So now I’m about 135 miles away from my 5,000-mile goal, and I can probably finish in the next two weeks without any trouble. I think after that I may take a good long break. I will need it as training for the spring racing series will start in January.

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A short vacation

I’m off to Vermont tomorrow to spend Thanksgiving with some friends. I should be back this weekend. I hope all my American readers have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and that everyone else enjoys themselves as well!

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Brideshead Revisited revisited and other notes

First of all, the book for the next Slaves of Golconda discussion has been chosen, and it’s going to be Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper. The discussion will begin on January 31st, and everyone is welcome to join. All you have to do is read the book and then post about it on your blog, if you have one, and then participate in the discussion. All newcomers are welcome!

It seems about right that after I posted the list of books I’d like to read, I ended up choosing something not on the list at all. For me, lists of books I’d like to read are very much works of the moment. They reflect how I’m feeling on a particular day or in a particular hour, and the world usually looks entirely different only a little while later.

I’ve been feeling like reading something from the 19C, and was considering Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, but then when the moment came to pull a book off the shelf I noticed Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley. I’ve had that book sitting around for almost a year. I’m not entirely sure what drew me to it, except that it’s been awhile since I read Charlotte Brontë, but only a few months since I read Collins, and I wanted to read something that felt new and different. So there you go.

I also began reading President Obama’s first book Dreams from My Father, which one of my in-person book groups will be discussing in a couple weeks. I’ve read 60 pages or so in this book, and so far I’m liking it very much. Obama has such an interesting story to tell, and his focus on what it was like to grow up with his complicated racial heritage is fascinating. He comes across as a very smart, very thoughtful person, and so far I very much like the personality that comes through the writing. It’s also fun to read it knowing that he would grow up to be president; I can’t help but wonder what his parents and his grandparents would have thought if they had known what would happen, and what he would have made of it himself, both as a young boy, and as the 33-year-old who wrote the book. I want to tell all the people in the book not to worry, that things are going to turn out just fine, and that “Barry” is going to have a wonderful career. (Although as far as I’m concerned, being President of the United States is surely one of the worst things that could happen to a person.)

And now to Brideshead. Yesterday I met with two friends (including Musings) to discuss the novel, and it turned out to be a very interesting talk. I didn’t lose my feeling that the book is kind of all over the place and lacking in focus, but I did get a better sense of the book as a reflection of Waugh’s ambivalence about Catholicism. None of us thought that the book was proselytizing for Catholicism in any way, and if anything we thought it was more about the ways it can really screw you up. Yes, there is a moment at the end where the main character has a spiritual experience, but it’s unclear where this will lead. Catholicism seems more like a curse than a blessing — a tradition that will shape everything about you and that is impossible to escape, no matter how much you want to.

As important as Catholicism is in the book, though, we all also agreed that many of the problems of the Flyte family come from their own screwed-upness, and religion just happens to be a great weapon to fight family battles with. The novel is at least as much a tale of how impossible it is to escape your family as it is about how impossible it is to escape your religion.

Oh, my, I’m depressing myself. But I like depressing books, so I’ll be sure to read more Waugh. Mostly, we agreed that Brideshead is a book about loss and trying to come to terms with it. The circular structure of the book makes the point that although we can’t leave our past behind, we can sometimes come to see it in a new way. There’s a little consolation at least.

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That’s the Way the Music Sounds

A friend of mine, Laurel Peterson, recently published a chapbook of poetry called That’s the Way the Music Sounds, and I’m so pleased to say that it’s a gorgeous book and the poems are beautiful. It’s so much fun having friends who are writers, as I enjoy reading their work and seeing another side of them than I might otherwise, and it’s especially fun when the work is so good. The poems in this book take up a lot of different subjects and the voice varies in each one, but there is an elegance that runs through them all, coupled with a quiet, but powerful emotional charge, as though the persona could say so much more than she actually does, and you get a glimpse of the depths underneath. It means an intense reading experience, which is the way reading poetry should be, I think.

A number of poems in the book are about religious experience, or more often memories of religious experiences, and these are among the ones I like best. The tone in these poems is sometimes sad, sometimes angry and regretful, and sometimes thoughtfully critical. The persona in “I Have Come to Return Marbles,” for example, looks back at her childhood spent in church services from the perspective of an adult, thinking about the legacy she inherited from the sermons she heard:

Always I picked the needy ones,

boys who stretched khaki’d legs

out on the church floor

and shot their problems

like marbles

toward me.

On those teenaged nights I sat

in the balcony watching

Jack, in the pulpit,

I thought I’d tuned him out.

But Jack, the preacher, knows that his sermons will sink in anyway, even if the teenagers aren’t listening:

Jack’s voice choes

in this empty nave

where I now sit

surrounded by all those

khaki’d boys — husbands and lovers –

demanding stones for a prostitute,

sacrifice of a mother’s first born,

and quiet, quiet

when men speak.

The persona has returned to the church, trying to return those marbles — the burdens she’s been expected to carry — but Jack’s voice is still there. Another poem describes a panic attack experienced while in a church service on Christmas day, where the persona is suddenly taken back to childhood experiences in the church and has to remind herself that she is not the young, vulnerable girl she once was and that she:

doesn’t need to to say she wants to be a missionary,

that she believes the husband is the head of the wife,

to sing “Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth…”

while pretending her toes don’t bend in red impotence.

But the poems aren’t all about church experiences, and they aren’t all sad. The poem “Late Jazz,” which is where the book’s title comes from, describes a night in New York City listening to jazz, and it’s one of those nights where everything is perfect:

And the way the music sounds is

as if all of New York is on fire,

while ice floes crackle on the Hudson

and the morning falls with ice

and the evening rises with heat

and the sparks fly off the floes

into the burning air…

The poem captures that feeling of exhilaration at a time when New York City is as it should be: glamorous, elegant, thrillingly alive. Another favorite poem of mine is called “Mantra,” and it’s about writer’s block. The persona starts with an empty, clean desk with room for words to move around in, and then the words take on a life of their own, and suddenly they are everywhere, and they are overwhelming. Familiar phrases, song lyrics, and advertising jingles float around and repeat in the writer’s mind again and again, until they begin to lose all meaning and empty out, and soon enough, the writer’s desk is clear again and there is an empty space for the words to move around in. It’s a funny and clever contemplation of what it’s like to try to work with words, to conjure them up and control them, when words are all around us all the time, almost taunting us with their omnipresence.

I’ve described only a few of the poems here, but there are many more that capture something true about experience and do it with that evocative tone I’ve been describing. I’ve been discovering as I read more and more that voice is what I really value in writing — of whatever genre — and it’s the voice in these poems I admire so much: insightful, suggestive, in love with language.

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Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is about many things: war, religion, education, love, ambivalent sexuality, class, landscapes, architecture, alcoholism, art, snobbery, friendship, family, nostalgia. I suppose all books are about a lot of things, really, or they wouldn’t be interesting, but this book seemed to have an especially long list, and it’s not that many pages (my edition had 350). I really enjoyed the novel, although I continually felt like I wasn’t quite getting it. I couldn’t decide which things I was supposed to focus on, which were going to be the most important.

Brideshead Revisited seems like an excellent candidate for a rereading because I might understand it better, now that I know what it’s about. I’m not quite sure if this lack of focus is a flaw or not, and another reading might help me figure it out. This is not something I would do any time soon, but perhaps someday. It seems possible that there isn’t a lack of focus at all, but rather that it takes a while to become oriented to what the author is doing, and that a second reading would help me pull everything together.

The novel begins with a war scene: it’s World War II, and the main character, Charles Ryder, is about to move with his company of soldiers to a new camp in England. The soldiers are all tired and dispirited, hoping to see some real action, and disappointed once again. It turns out that the new camp is going to be at Brideshead, a place Charles once knew very well.  The sight of Brideshead sends him back in time to memories of the many days he spent there with the family after meeting Sebastian Flyte at university.

Charles and Sebastian become close friends, and although Sebastian resists it, Charles comes to know the family quite well. It’s an unusual family, partly because Sebastian’s parents have split up, his mother living at Brideshead and his father abroad. Sebastian has two sisters, both of them with very strong personalities. The family is Catholic, setting them apart in an entirely different way. Charles is mildly bewildered by this Catholicism, as he tends to assume everyone is agnostic, but he slowly learns just how much it means to them.

The novel describes how Charles’s relationships with the various family members develop over the course of many years. Sebastian develops a drinking problem and Charles has to choose whether to side with the family and anger his friend or to do what Sebastian wants at the risk of his health. He watches as Julia becomes engaged to a really awful man, and then ends the engagement. He meets both the mother and the father and sees what different paths their lives have taken.

After the opening war scene, Waugh takes us back in time to Charles’s university days, and from there forward, we follow the story chronologically, but we are reminded again and again that Charles is looking back on his life as a young man from the perspective of someone caught up in war and looking out on a changed world. Occasionally Charles will reference an event that happened much later than what he is currently narrating. So although the chronology is clear and fairly well-maintained, there is a strong sense of everything in the past that the present-day narrator has lost. I should add “loss” to my list of themes the book takes up, and it’s one of the most important ones, both on a personal and a national level. Charles revisits Brideshead during the novel’s opening and closing sections, and the changes that have taken place, described in the middle, show how impossible it is to truly revisit the place. It has changed and Charles has changed so much that both have become different beings entirely.

There’s so much going on that I can’t describe it all; I’m ending this post with the same note I started on. Brideshead Revisited may not succeed in developing all the themes it takes up, but it was a pleasure to read such an ambitious and thought-provoking novel.

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Dreaming about books

You will be relieved to know, I’m sure, that I took your advice seriously about not feeling guilty when I acquire books, and I will be acquiring a bunch more of them soon. I’ll tell you about that later. As I don’t have a whole lot of time to read right now, the next best thing is to think about what I will read soon, when I get the chance. So here’s what’s looking most interesting right now:

  • Richard Powers, The Echo Maker. I’ve heard lots of good things about Powers over the last couple years, and have heard about him recently from a friend, and I’m intrigued. He writes about science a lot, and I think I’d like that.
  • Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy/Tacy books. I just received a lovely edition of Heaven to Betsy and Betsy in Spite of Herself in one volume from Kate, and the book is too lovely to let sit on my shelves for too long. I loved these books as a kid, and I want to see how I like them now.
  • Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I really loved Abide with Me when I listened to it recently, and so now I want to get to this one. Plus, a friend recently gave me a signed copy of the book, and that feels like a reason to read the book right there.
  • Wilkie Collins’s Armadale. With all the Collins posts appearing around the book blog world, he has been on my mind a lot. This is the book of his I have waiting on my shelves.
  • Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist. I’ve said I want this book enough times in enough places, that if it doesn’t appear under the Christmas tree, well, I’ll rush out and buy myself a copy the day after. Baker is one of my favorite writers, and this book is about a guy trying to write an introduction to a poetry anthology, so of course I will like it.
  • Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance. I’ve been hearing about Davis for a while and am intrigued. This is a book of short stories, a genre I haven’t read in a while and would like to get back to. Two very good reasons to read this book. I’m curious about the extreme shortness of many of these stories, and also about their poetic quality. I guess since I don’t read many short stories and have been known to complain about overly-poetic prose, this book feels like a challenge, and I wonder if I will like it in spite of my biases.
  • Anything by Lorrie Moore and Margaret Atwood, two writers I have never read, and really should.
  • Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. I’m slowly reading through Woolf’s major works in chronological order (at the rate of a book or two a year), and here is where I’m at, into the more experimental work.
  • Louise Gluck’s Proofs and Theories. I love Gluck’s poetry, and this is a book of essays. I hope I like them as much.
  • Rosalind Belben’s Our Horses in Egypt. I look for this one in every bookstore I go to and haven’t found it yet. From what I remember hearing about it, it’s a good novel that does really interesting things with the writing. It seems to fit into the category “experimental, but not too much so” that I like a lot.
  • John Keats’s letters. I’ve heard these are great, and I need to find out for myself.

I haven’t had much time to read, but I did finish Brideshead Revisited recently, and I hope to write up my thoughts soon.

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Slaves of Golconda choices and a question

It’s time to choose another book for the Slaves of Golconda reading group, so head on over to the blog to vote for your choice. The selections are mine this time, and I hope you find something you like. Everyone is welcome to participate.

My question has to do with TBR piles. I wrote a post the other day about Emily’s “Attacking the TBR Tome” challenge, a part of which is the commitment not to buy books until the challenge books are read. This struck me as a sensible challenge, but then Zhiv wrote a spirited defense of acquiring books without guilt, and I began to wonder what, if anything, to do with my desire to buy books accompanied by my feeling that I shouldn’t acquire them unless I’m planning on reading them soon.

There are two book-owning models I’ve got in my mind, battling each other for dominance and leaving me feeling conflicted. For most of my life, I either didn’t buy books unless I needed them for school, or I bought them only when I planned on reading them right away. This is how my parents handled things and how my friends did as well. My house growing up always had a lot of books, but we didn’t have much space to accumulate many more, and we didn’t have the money to buy a lot of books either. We visited the library, mostly. Then for a long time everyone I knew moved frequently, so it didn’t make much sense to accumulate a lot of books. Even books for school were more of a pain to carry around than anything else. And then when I bought a house and felt more settled, I was happy to accumulate books, but no other method occurred to me other than acquiring them as I read them. Hobgoblin and I visited bookshops regularly, but we did so when we needed something new to read, and we generally came home and read our new books right away.

Blogging changed all that, of course; I read about other people buying books at amazing rates, and it seemed like so much fun, I started doing it myself. Then I joined Book Mooch, and while I gave away some books, I got even more back. I visited library book sales and moved to a town with three used bookshops. If you want to know what happened, check this post out. The piles pictured there have gotten much taller, and a third pile on the floor has sprouted up, somehow.

Zhiv says I shouldn’t feel guilty about this, and I think he’s probably right. I don’t like being an acquisitive person, but surely having a lot of books doesn’t really qualify? And most of my TBR collection is made up of used books, so it’s not like I’ve spent a lot of money on them. And even if I had, isn’t it worth while to support the publishing industry?

But I’m someone who never passes up a reason to feel guilty, and so I do. My question is, how many of you have had a similar experience and feel a similar guilt? How do you deal with it?

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The Shadow of the Shadow

16858303 My mystery book group met this past Saturday to discuss Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s novel The Shadow of the Shadow, which was published in 1986 in Mexico. The discussion was lively, as usual, and opinions were mixed. Mine was one of the more positive views of the book; we’ve started rating our books on a scale of 1 to 10 after we finish the discussion, just for the fun of it, and I gave this one a 7 (and a couple others agreed). To me that meant that the book was a very enjoyable read, but that it didn’t blow me away or leave me determined to read lots of books by this author.

The book is a historical mystery, set in 1920s Mexico, and it deals with the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910. The world of the novel is one where no one can be trusted, betrayal and violence are everywhere, politics make little sense, revolutions inevitably lead to disappointment and further oppression, and the smartest thing to do is to lie low and stay out of trouble.

That’s certainly what the four main characters want to do, but, of course — or this wouldn’t be much of a novel — they can’t. Instead of the usual one main character, in this novel we get four, and none of them ever emerges as the leader of the group. Instead, once they find themselves drawn into political controversy, they work together to try to get themselves out of it. As the novel begins, one of the men sees a murder of a trombonist who is playing with his band in the park. Shortly afterward, another main character sees a man falling out of a window and a woman looking out the window after him. Soon enough, the characters find themselves enmeshed in a complicated, thoroughly confusing web of political controversy and violence.

I won’t even try to describe the plot any further, because it’s very complicated, but I found it fun to follow. Even more fun, though, was following the relationships among the main characters. The novel’s central conceit is that they are avid dominoes players, and that the basis of their friendship is the games they play night after night. They don’t share much with each other, but the game playing has created a bond among them that leaves them feeling loyal enough to go to great risks for each other. Instead of using their given names, Taibo often refers to most of them by their professions — we have a poet, a lawyer, a reporter, and then the last character is a union organizer, but he is usually refered to as Tomas, or as the Chinaman (who was actually born in Mexico but who speaks with a Chinese accent anyway, and the way that accent gets portrayed is the book’s one really annoying attribute). The characters aren’t terribly well-developed, which comes as no surprise once you know they are usually referred to by their professions or nationality, but we’re given enough to make them interesting and to come to care about what happens to them.

There’s a great emphasis put on language in this book, partly through the reporter, who has much to say about the importance of a free press and who at one point gathers his fellow newspaper editors together to get them involved in solving the mystery. They put the idea of the power of the press to an unusual test. And there is also the poet who is inspired to write poetry at some fairly intense moments, and who also writes advertising slogans at a time when people hadn’t quite realized their potential power. He spends much of his time on those slogans, as they are how he makes a living, but his heart is in his poetry and he is taken with the power of language.

It’s possible to argue that this book makes a conservative argument that political change is dangerous and inevitably violent and that all we can really rely on is friendships among individuals. But Tomas undermines that argument with his work as a union organizer. He is the most serious and politically committed of all the four, and he works hard and makes great sacrifices for the union cause. If it weren’t for him, it would seem that political activism is a waste of time in this novel, but he never loses his loyalty to the cause, and that loyalty is portrayed as admirable.

People in the book group described this novel as like a Quentin Tarantino film in the way that both are full of violence and treat that violence in a light-hearted, funny, over-the-top way. Certainly there is much in Taibo’s book that is exaggerated and grotesque; there is so much violence, and so much of it is stereotyped — there are poisoned chocolates, for example. It’s like he is giving us a survey of all the horrible things that happen in thrillers. I think the Tarantino comparison is valid, but I also think it’s a very different thing to watch a movie and read a book with that kind of tone. The book didn’t feel cold and threatening as violent movies feel to me; instead, we’re given enough room to care for the characters.

So, I liked this book, but I should warn you that others in the group found it dull. I think I’ve come to like books that are playful in tone, especially when they are playful about genre, and that was much of the fun for me.

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Rambling on

I’m busy, but I can’t exactly complain about my workload being overwhelming, because the truth is, it’s really not. It’s a reasonable workload. The truth is that I’m busy because I’m insisting on spending lots of time on my bike and on going to yoga and pilates classes several times a week. Okay, maybe four or five times a week. That keeps me busy. So I’m not complaining, exactly, but still, I don’t have a lot of extra time.

So I was hoping to review Paco Ignaco Taibo II’s novel The Shadow of the Shadow, but I’m just too tired. I think I’ll ramble on a bit instead. Come back on Wednesday (most likely) for a proper review of the Taibo.

Even though I haven’t joined a challenge in ages, I’m considering doing Emily’s Attacking the TBR Tome challenge because the number of books I have lying around unread is truly ridiculous. The challenge is to read 20 books from your TBR list between December 1st, 2009 and December 31st, 2010. AND you’re supposed to refrain from buying books until you have read or attempted to read all 20 of your chosen books, unless you need to buy a book for a book group.

If I decide to do this challenge, I’m adding some small changes to make me more likely to complete it: 1. I’ll write a list of 20 books from my stacks I’d like to read, but I’ll allow myself to make substitutions as desired. Having a list of 20 books I feel I need to stick to is too limiting. 2. I’ll try not to buy any more books, BUT I’ll allow myself to get books from Book Mooch and I’m allowed to buy books, new or used, if I happen to be on a trip with friends where the point is to visit bookstores. There’s no way I’m saying no to friends who want to visit bookstores with me, and there’s no way I’m going some place like The Strand without buying books. It just ain’t happening.

So we’ll see. I have a few more weeks to decide. Not having committed to or begun this challenge yet, I was free to visit bookstores over the weekend, and I stopped by one of the shops in town on a whim. I came home with two things, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years. And the next L.M. Montgomery book (Anne of the Island) arrived in my mailbox recently from Book Mooch, as did Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

I suppose if I’m going to commit to a challenge like Emily’s, it’s good to have a substantial supply of possibilities on hand!

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On clichés

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic when it comes to Alain de Botton’s writing, largely because The Consolations of Philosophy left me dissatisfied and wishing for more meaty philosophizing. I liked The Art of Travel quite a bit better, but my doubts have kept me from picking up How Proust Can Change Your Life, although I have a copy on my shelves that I bought after finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. So I was curious to see an excerpt from de Botton’s book in J.C. Hallman’s The Story About the Story.

I’m guessing that de Botton does better with literature than philosophy because I liked this excerpt pretty well, although — and I can’t fault de Botton for this of course — the best bits are quotations from Proust:

Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own “tone” …. I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly. I prefer — and perhaps it’s a weakness — those who write well. But they begin to write well only on condition that they’re original, that they create their own language. Correctness, perfection of style do exist, but on the other side of originality, after having gone through all the faults, not this side. Correctness this side … doesn’t exist. The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!

Yes, yes, to attacking language!

But back to de Botton … the excerpt is largely about cliché and why clichés are so bad for us:

The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones.

Clichés narrow experience because they take emotions and responses that are varied and reduce them to sameness. Using them means covering up what makes a particular experience unique and returning again and again to the familiar and the shallow. Clichés may communicate very good ideas indeed, but it’s the same very good idea again and again, which can keep us from having new ideas:

Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

When we have new experiences, we should strive to use language in a new way to describe them, and being open to new uses of language can help us have new experiences.

All this makes total sense to me, and I’m behind it completely, and yet I was reminded of the very different approach to cliché David Foster Wallace takes in Infinite Jest. There, we find characters who encounter clichés and look down their noses at them, as good intellectuals are supposed to do, but in this case, they do it at their peril. This comes up in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which are, I learned, a haven for clichés. You’ll find what looks like hundreds of them here. The characters who think they are too smart for the clichés are the ones who are most in danger; they desperately need AA and Don Gately, the book’s best character by far, knows that they are the ones most likely to start drinking again.

Gately understands people’s discomfort with clichés, but he has figured out a truth about them: they may possibly oversimplify and hide a complicated reality, as de Botton argues, but they can also function as a window into that complicated reality, a way to begin to understand it. A slogan like “One day at a time” can be the start of a hundred different stories or trigger a thousand different thoughts, and it can come to take on different meanings depending on what has happened to us. It doesn’t have to shut down new thoughts; it can be the start of them. Sometimes what people need is to cling to clichés for all the wisdom they have stored up in them and then find their own particular take on the meaning that lies behind them.

I’m as uncomfortable with clichés as any other person trained to look down on them, but something in me loves the fact that Wallace’s great experimental novel contains a defense of them. I suppose one way to fight clichés is to be willing to defend them if one can say something true by doing so.

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84, Charing Cross Road

A short post for a short book … Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road is a fun little book about books and those who love them. It’s less than 100 pages and is really even shorter than that, as many of the pages have lots of white space. It’s written in epistolary form — a sub-genre I love — and it’s made up of letters between Helene Hanff and a group of people working at Marks & Co., Booksellers. Helene begins the correspondence with a list of used books she wants and a five dollar bill to cover the costs. Frank Doel from the shop replies. They continue to correspond about her book requests, but they also, slowly, become friends. Helene is a funny, witty correspondent while Frank is much more formal and more guarded, but slowly their letters become more personal and a real friendship emerges. It’s a treat to follow the way their letters change as they begin to address each other more personally, to include details about their lives, and to share their love of books.

Frank is not the only one who keeps up a correspondence with Helene; the whole bookshop comes to anticipate her letters and several others from the shop write her back, although they do so behind Frank’s back because he feels as though Helene is his correspondent. The letters begin in 1949, a time of food rationing in England, and to thank the shop for all the books they have found for her, Helene begins to send them parcels with meat and eggs and other things hard to find. Soon Frank’s family is writing Helene to thank her for her gifts. Everyone tries to persuade Helene to come visit London, which she would love to do, if only she had more money.

The book is fun both for all the book talk — Helene has very decided opinions and tastes in books which she is not shy about expressing — and also for the glimpse it gives into London life in the late 1940s through the 1960s. The correspondence continues for over two decades, so we can follow the paths the characters’ lives take as they navigate the tricky post-war time.

I’m not entirely sure whether to call this a novel or not. As I understand it, it’s a true story; Helene Hanff really was a writer who corresponded with the people at Marks & Co. Booksellers, but I’m not sure whether these letters were the ones they really sent. Either way, it’s highly entertaining, and if you are someone who likes books about books, not to be missed.

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A Transcendental Day

Yesterday, Hobgoblin, She Knits, Suitcase of Courage, and I had a most wonderful day: we went on a literary pilgrimage up to Walden Pond and Concord to see the place where so many great American writers lived. It’s a trip Hobgoblin and I had wanted to go on for a while, but we often talk about things for a long, long time before we actually get out and do them. I’m very grateful to our friends who provided some impetus to get us out the door and on our way up to Massachusetts.

The fun of the day began even before we got out of Connecticut, though. Since SOC and She Knits live fairly far from us, we decided to meet at a restaurant along the way for breakfast, and there just so happens to be a place called The Traveler Restaurant that is a restaurant and bookshop rolled into one. And — get this — it offers you three free books when you eat there. You can choose your free books from their selection upstairs in the dining room, and then you can head downstairs where there is a regular used bookshop. I was skeptical that I would find anything I wanted in the free book section, but I did come across some things I wanted, including a book by Nella Larson, a Virago I had never heard of before, and a novel by Georges Simenon.

But soon we were on our way for the final leg of the journey up to Concord. Walden Pond was the first stop. I had heard people say not to be surprised to find that Walden Pond is not exactly in the middle of nowhere and wouldn’t have been even in Thoreau’s time — it’s right next to a fairly busy road and only 1 1/2 miles or so from Concord. So I knew not to expect wildness. What I found was an absolutely gorgeous New England lake where people fish and swim and follow the hiking trails that lead around it. It’s not wild, but it’s quintessentially New England in the sense that you can be fairly close to civilization and yet feel yourself surrounded and engulfed by nature. Many of the leaves have fallen off the trees, but enough remain to create some beautiful oranges and browns:

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As you can see, we had a gorgeous day for our trip. It was raining when we left home, but on the way, the rain ended and the clouds blew away. The skies were beautiful, and the water was surprisingly clear.

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They have built a replica of Thoreau’s cabin where he lived while writing Walden, although it’s not on the original cabin site:

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At the site itself, which wasn’t discovered until 1945, the boundary of the cabin is marked with stones, and right next to it is a rock pile where people add their own rock to commemorate their visit.Concord Trip 033

Standing on the very ground Thoreau walked on was an eerie experience — the first of a series of eerie experiences that day. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that such great things happened in the very spot I was standing on.

After visiting the cabin site, we walked the rest of the way around the pond, admiring the view the entire time. Then it was time for lunch, followed by a cemetery. Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott are all buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in a section called “Author’s Ridge.” Sleepy Hollow cemetery is a wonderful place; it’s gorgeous, with sloping hills and quiet paths. I was surprised to find that Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Alcott are buried all within just a few feet of each other. Emerson is nearby, but it seems he didn’t want to join the crowd. He’s buried under the big rock in the picture below:

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Thoreau’s grave is marked with a simple “Henry” and Hawthorne’s grave just says “Hawthorne.”

After the cemetery, it was time to visit the Old Manse, a house built by Emerson’s grandfather where Emerson and Hawthorne both lived at different times, and where they both did some of their most important writing. Concord Trip 081

The tour of the house was amazing. We got to see the room where Hawthorne wrote most of the stories from Mosses from an Old Manse, and where Emerson wrote some of his essays, including the essay “Nature.” The tour guide told us that Emerson got inspiration from looking out the window at the fields and farms surrounding the house and the river that ran behind it, but Hawthorne found the view too distracting, so he built a desk into the wall looking away from the windows in order to concentrate. The desk is still there.

Among the wonderful things in the house are the words various members of the Hawthorne family scratched into the windows, which you can still read. Hawthorne’s wife Sophia did a lot of the scratching with the diamond from her wedding ring, and it was lovely to be able to read a series of messages Nathaniel and Sophia wrote to each other.

And that’s not all — you can stand in the room where Emerson and Hawthorne wrote and look out at the fields where the Revolutionary War began. Just outside the Old Manse is the North Bridge where the first shots of the war were fired, and where there stands the Minute Man statue with the poem about the “shot heard round the world.” After our tour, we spent an hour or so walking around the grounds and imagining what the beginning of the war must have looked like. Here’s the bridge, with the statue at the far end of it:

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Here’s a more wide-ranging picture that gives you a sense of how open the landscape is:

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After our walk through the area, we started to hit the point where all we wanted was to sit down and rest a while, and when an acceptable dinner hour finally arrived, we gratefully found ourselves a warm, cozy inn with a restaurant, where we discussed books and transcendentalism and ate a great meal.

We did a lot while we were there, but there is SO much more left to see. There is Louisa May Alcott’s house, Emerson’s house, another Thoreau house, as well as the Concord Museum. And there are two bookstores there we wanted to visit yesterday, but which were closed. We will definitely be back!

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Filed under Books, Life