Monthly Archives: December 2009

The best of 2009

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve now, so I guess it’s time to do my final wrapping-up post and list my favorite reads of the year. As always, this list is not about books published in 2009, although one or two from this year may appear here, but it’s about what I liked best and what stands out most in everything I read regardless of when it was published. Links are to my post on the book.

First, the stand-out books in fiction, the absolutely top-notch, amazingly wonderful books:

  1. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.
  2. Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist.
  3. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone.
  4. Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night.

Then other novels I really, really liked:

  1. Bernard Malamud, The Assistant.
  2. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto.
  3. Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
  4. Patrick Hamilton, The Slaves of Solitude.

And now some great nonfiction:

  1. Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions.
  2. Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father.
  3. Anne Fadiman, At Large and at Small.

And one quirky, odd book I really liked: David Cecil, The Stricken Deer, a biography of William Cowper from 1930.

Happy New Year everyone!

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2009 by the numbers

I think it’s time to take a mathematical look back at this year’s reading. I’m anticipating finishing a book I’m in the middle of right now; I’m going to count it in this year’s numbers because I’ll most likely finish it by December 31st, or I will have read most of it in 2009 so it should count for this year anyway.

Books read: 69 (plus 6 audio books, which I’m not including in the numbers below)

Fiction (of any genre or length): 52

Nonfiction: 16

Poetry: 1

Short story collections: 1

Essay collections: 4

Nonfiction books about books, reading, and writers: 8

Female authors: 34

Male authors: 34

Multiple authors, men and women: 1

Books in translation: 5 (France [2], Austria [2], Mexico)

Books by authors from England: 29 and Scotland: 1

Books by authors from Ireland: 2

Books by Americans: 29

Books by Canadians: 1 (L.M. Montgomery)

Books by Russians: 1 (Nabokov, written in English)

Books from the 19th century: 7

Books from the 20th century:  41 (first half: 18; second half: 23)

Books from the 21st century: 21

Books re-read: 3

Books by authors I’d never read before: 42

So there it is. I usually read more books from pre-19C times, but I didn’t this year, although I did read a bunch of essays by Montaigne. I have read only 700 pages of the 1,200-page complete essays, so I can’t count that one. And as usual, unfortunately, I haven’t read many books in translation, although I am up one from last year (but down from the year before where I read 15). I swear I don’t try to get the gender ratio so evenly balanced; it just worked out that way. I didn’t try to get the balance between English and American authors so even either.

I think I have a decent amount of variety in my reading, but I’d like to have even more — more poetry, more books in translation, more short stories, more books from earlier times.

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First Lines Meme

Today I thought I would do the first lines meme I’ve seen recently at Melanie’s and Kate’s. The idea is to post the first line from each month’s first post as a way to wrap up the year. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this post at first because when I’ve looked over my posts in years past, I’ve been struck at the generally boring way my posts begin. But this year doesn’t seem so bad. So here goes:

January: I’m writing this New Year’s resolutions post three days late and having just spent the morning sleeping in until 11:00 because I was out late last night at a surprise birthday party eating way too much sugar and having lots of fun.

February: I just began Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen, and so far it’s been great fun to read.

March: I had a lovely snow day today — well, except for the snow — in which I did a lot of nothing: some reading, some email writing, some napping, some gazing out the window.

April: What stands out most to me about Stefan Zweig’s novel from the 1930s, The Post-Office Girl, is rage.

May: Barbara Pym’s novel An Academic Question turned out to be an interesting read for unexpected reasons.

June: I think I may be a new Patrick Hamilton fan.

July: I posted my thoughts on Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature the other day, and now I thought would share some interesting bits from the book.

August: Zhiv commented recently that I should try to get over the guilt I feel about buying books, and when fellow bloggers, particularly ones as kind and encouraging as Zhiv, offer good advice, I generally try to follow it.

September: I’m SO close to finishing Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone that I will have no trouble finishing it tonight before I drop off to sleep.

October: 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.

November: 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.

December: It’s December 1st, which means it’s time to plan what books I want to read for Emily’s TBR challenge.

These lines give a little taste of what my reading was like last year, and they also say something about my habit of taking time to work up to the point I want to make in my posts, often telling a little something about my life before getting on to the books. I suppose that’s not such a bad habit.

Anybody else want to try this meme?

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Home Again

Hobgoblin and I returned home today, and our trip turned out to be the kind that’s perfect for recovering from a busy semester. I spent most of my time curled up in a chair right next to the wood stove in my parents’ dining room/family room either reading or working on crossword puzzles. In fact, I didn’t set one foot outdoors for a solid two days, and although I’ve become the kind of person who likes being outdoors, that kind of sloth is exactly what I wanted. When I finally stirred out of my chair, it was to go see the Sherlock Holmes movie (silly, fun, good if you don’t take it seriously). The next day I went with seven other family members to hang out in a bookstore and have lunch. And that is everything I did. Oh, I also got to babysit my one-year-old niece, who is utterly adorable. As always, though, I was happy to hand her back to her mother once the crying began.

I finished one book, Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading (which is the perfect book to read during a family holiday, in fact — it sends just the right message, if that is the message you want to send), and I came home with a bunch more. Hobgoblin came through for me and gave me Nicholson Baker’s new novel The Anthologist. I dropped enough hints about wanting this book that even the densest person could have figured it out, and Hobgoblin is anything but dense. I’ll be reading it next, and I’m SO looking forward to it.

Hobgoblin also gave me Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, which is something I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. I’m a bit intimidated by the length and seriousness of the book, but that’s what draws me to it too. It seems like it will be a good book for summer when I have enough time to dig into it.

I also received P.D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction and Joyce Cary’s Herself Surprised as Christmas gifts from a friend, but I already wrote about those.

And then there are the books I brought home from the family bookstore excursion. First there is John D’Agata’s anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay. I’m on a mission to collect every good essay anthology out there, apparently, and this one looks great. The back cover says it’s “an anthology in the service of a wonderful idea: that the essay has been encumbered by its obligation to tell us the facts. It prefers the delicacy of Montaigne’s ‘What do I know?’ to the assertive ‘I know’ of information culture.” It sounds like a concept I can get behind.

And then I picked up Lee Gutkind’s essay anthology The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume I, which I’ve seen in stores before (there are three volumes now) but never felt ready to buy. I’ve read Gutkind’s anthology In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction and liked it, and as I understand it, the three follow-up creative nonfiction volumes are an attempt to collect pieces from lesser-known publications and blogs. I’m guessing it’s meant as competition to the Best American Essay series, perhaps trying to be edgier and less mainstream. I’m willing to give it a try.

And finally I couldn’t resist Dierdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels, which is a gorgeous book with lots of color photos. It gives biographical and cultural background on Austen and her times and then looks at each novel and discusses its context. I’m planning to see the exhibit on Austen at the Morgan Library in a couple weeks, and this seemed like the perfect book to get in honor of the occasion.

So that was my holiday; I hope everyone enjoyed their time over the last week, and I hope to be back soon with some year-end wrapping up.

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Time for a holiday break

So tomorrow Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I will head out to western New York state to visit family and celebrate Christmas. Keep your fingers crossed that we will encounter no blizzards or the infamous Rochester lake-effect snow! I am now off to pack and to decide what books to take with me. I need to find something short because I have this feeling that I may have some new books I’ll be dying to read when Friday gets here…

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Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley was a bit of a rough read for me. I liked it in places, but in others it felt slow and unfocused. It had an entirely different feel than Jane Eyre and Villette; it was less intense, less gripping. Shirley herself didn’t appear for a good 150 pages (out of the 600 or so pages in my edition), and when she did appear, she livened things up quite a lot, but even afterward the novel’s pacing still felt off. What is most interesting about the novel is the issues it deals with, especially the “woman question” and issues of industrialization, but it’s not a book to read for an exciting plot.

The novel’s opening is odd — and thereby sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It describes three rather foolish curates who are spending the evening drinking and talking and teasing each other. These three characters turn out to be minor, though; they appear later in the novel, but only occasionally. Soon they get interrupted and one of them is sent on a mission that is much closer to the novel’s central plot — a mill owner is under threat of violence because local workers fear that his new machinery, just about to be delivered, will take away their jobs. The curate is supposed to help guard the mill. This opening is typical of how the entire novel tends to work — things happen, but the build-up to the action takes a while and it follows such a winding path that I was left feeling bewildered about what I was supposed to be paying attention to.

In addition to the mill owner, Robert Moore, we soon meet Caroline Helstone, a young woman in love with Robert. When Caroline’s guardian — her uncle — becomes angry with Robert and forbids Caroline to see him anymore, she feels she no longer has any interest in life and her health begins to decline. This sounds kind of pathetic, but Caroline’s life is very lonely and it feels purposeless. Her uncle is distant and unsympathetic, and she longs for the ability men have to get a job and to do some productive work. The only possibility she knows is available for women is to be a governess, and she tries to become one, although everyone around her refuses to help.

It’s at this point that Shirley arrives. She is Caroline’s age, roughly, and is an energetic, lively young heiress. Her presence livens up the neighborhood, and it also livens up the book. She is a welcome and much-needed friend for Caroline, but unfortunately, Caroline suspects that there is a romance about to begin between Shirley and Robert, and she becomes jealous and her health fades even further.

At this point I’ll stop describing the plot; unfortunately the back cover of my edition (Penguin) mentions some details that come up very late in the book and spoil a good bit of what suspense there is. It’s bad enough when an introductory essay gives away the plot, but much worse when the back cover does — because who can resist reading the back cover?

At any rate, part of the interest of the novel comes from how this love triangle will work itself out, and also of great interest is Shirley herself. She is regularly described in masculine terms; “Shirley” was a man’s name, first of all, and she likes to make a joke that she is a gentleman:

Business! Really the word makes me conscious I am indeed no longer a girl, but quite a woman and something more. I am an esquire: Shirley Keeldar, Esquire, ought to be my style and title. They gave me a man’s name; I hold a man’s position: it is enough to inspire me with a touch of manhood … You must choose me for your churchwarden, Mr. Helstone, the next time you elect new ones; they ought to make me a magistrate and a captain of yeomanry: Tony Lumpkin’s mother was a colonel, and his aunt a justice of the peace — why shouldn’t I be?

Caroline is much more retiring and ladylike than Shirley, but the two agree that women’s options in life are woefully limited and they chafe against the male characters who refuse to take them seriously because of their gender.

The other issue the novel takes up is technology and industrialization, and this is largely Robert’s story; he is in debt and is struggling to make his mill profitable enough to clear his name, but there are several obstacles against him, including the threat of violence from Luddite protesters and the fact that England is at war, which is disrupting commerce. Shirley isn’t anti-industrialization; Robert’s struggles are portrayed sympathetically, and the technological changes seem inevitable. What matters, ultimately, is whether Robert’s heart is in the right place; he has some lessons about charity and generosity he needs to learn.

I’m glad I read this novel because I was curious about what it was like, and I’d like to read all the Brontë novels eventually (I’ve read Jane Eyre, Villette, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and now Shirley, which leaves me The Professor and Agnes Grey, unless I am missing something), but in spite of some of the interesting issues it deals with, it’s my least favorite so far.

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The Yellow Room

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel The Yellow Room was the latest selection for my mystery book group, and we were supposed to meet this evening at Bloodroot, which advertises itself as a feminist vegetarian restaurant and bookstore. It’s the site where the idea for the mystery group began, so it was the perfect place to hold a meeting. But the weather forecast for this evening called for lots of snow, and we cancelled. (The snow has yet to arrive, though, and it appears as though the weather forecasters may have gotten things wrong. Still, the backroads of Connecticut are narrow, hilly, and winding, and I didn’t want to take my chances.)

It appears from conversations I’ve had, emails I’ve gotten, and Emily’s post on the book that our meeting would probably have turned into a lively conversation about how bad the book is. I can sum up my assessment best by saying that as I neared the end, I didn’t care in the least who the murderer was. That’s a sure sign of a bad mystery novel if there is one, right? I was just eager for the thing to be over so I could move on to something else.

It’s been over a week since I finished the novel and the details are already beginning to fade (another bad sign); what sticks in my mind is the awkward way Rinehart moved her characters around. It seemed like they kept making the same movements from room to room, kept taking the same walks over and over again, and kept repeating the same conversations, covering a little new ground now and then to move the plot along, but not enough to make things exciting. It was wearying. I also found the characters either stereotypical, dull, or completely unbelievable. There’s a romance between two central characters, and maybe this is my fault for being a sloppy reader, but it took me a long time to catch on that this was happening, and when I did catch on, I found it completely contrived and silly. I didn’t understand why he cared about her and even more so why she cared about him.

So what is the story about? A young woman, Carol, travels to Maine to ready the family’s summer home for her brother who is on leave from the war (the novel was published in 1945), and one of the servants finds a woman’s dead body in the closet. This is the sort of thing that never happens in that small coastal Maine town, and the local police force doesn’t seem to be up for the job. Fortunately a neighbor, Jerry Dane, knows just what to do, and he conducts his own investigation, while at the same time recovering from his war injuries and wooing Carol.

The one interesting thing about the book is the way in which it is a product of its time; it’s one of those books that feels very dated, and it’s interesting to think about what makes it so. The class situation is largely at fault; Carol’s family is wealthy and spoiled, and it’s amusing to read about her awful sister who is socially ambitious and utterly heartless, and her horrible brother who is a womanizer who can’t accept that his “youthful exploits” might have some serious consequences. The novel shows how awful these people are, but there’s no sense that Rinehart is critiquing the class differences or the social system that created them. The servants are stereotyped figures, either unreliable and flighty or fiercely loyal, and I had a hard time caring that poor Carol had to manage with so few of them.

So I’m not interested in reading more Mary Roberts Rinehart, even though I did buy an edition that contains two other of her novels in addition to The Yellow Room. Fortunately, I only spent $4.50 on those three novels, so I don’t mind leaving the other two unread.

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New Books

Did I say I was slowly emerging from the end-of-semester fog? Not sure what I was thinking there. My work load is beginning to decrease, true, but the stress of end-of-semester doings is still there and it’s significant. But I should be finished with everything by the end of the day tomorrow, so that’s something to look forward to.

So since I’m not feeling up to writing a book review tonight, I’ll post on what new books I’ve acquired or am about to acquire very soon. Did I write a post earlier on the possibility of not acquiring any new books for a while? Yeah, that didn’t work out. So here’s what I have:

  • Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness. Verbivore reviewed this one at The Quarterly Conversation, and when it appeared on Book Mooch, I grabbed it.
  • Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams. Finally I will get around to reading something by Lorrie Moore. I know she is most famous for her short stories, but I thought I’d start with a novel anyway and move on from there.
  • Joyce Cary’s Herself Surprised. A friend sent this one to me. It’s the first volume of a trilogy and was published in 1941.
  • And now on to some nonfiction. The same friend also sent me P.D. James’s Talking about Detective Fiction, which is “a personal, lively, illuminating exploration of the human appetite for mystery and mayhem, and of those writers who have satisfied it,” as the book jacket says. It will be perfect after all the mysteries I’ve read over the last couple years.
  • Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. I’ll be reading this one with a group of people at work, and I have no idea if it will be good or not. It’s subtitled “Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.” We shall see.
  • And then there are some books I was able to get a great deal on thanks to Musings, including Hermione Lee’s Biography: A Very Short Introduction. A long introduction I wouldn’t want, but a very short introduction sounds perfect, as I do like to read biographies and I like to read about how they get written even more.
  • Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals. I already have the Grasmere journals, but I don’t have an edition with both.
  • John Keats, The Major Works. I already own quite a lot of Keats’s work, but I don’t have many of the letters, and this edition has some.
  • And finally, Jane Austen’s Selected Letters. Being the Austen fan I am, I should own this.

I’m guessing I may be back in a week or so with another list of new books …

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That Guernsey book

I finished listening to that Guernsey book and while I’m still not willing to forgive it its awful title, especially since the potato peel pie part of it is mentioned only once and could easily be dispensed with, I really did enjoy it all the way through. There are other things I’m having trouble forgiving the book for, including being a Pride and Prejudice tribute and updating. There’s no good reason someone’s tribute to Pride and Prejudice should irritate me except that everybody’s doing it these days, but that’s enough reason for me. Everybody’s writing tributes to that book, and I wish they would do something new and different instead. I also think the book goes out of its way at times to set up a cute scene and the plot machinations are too obvious.

But all that aside, my point here is that I really did like the book. It’s the kind of book that makes me confront the fact that in spite of priding myself on being cynical and blasé about heart-warming, feel-good novels, I’m susceptible to them. On the one hand, I really, genuinely don’t like them: they are unrealistic and emotionally manipulative. The characters tend to be too good to be true and the world they live in too simple. Things work out in a way they never do in life, and they encourage unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, if a book is as well-written as this one is, I can’t help but get caught up in the story, which is, as we all know, an intensely pleasurable experience. I found myself tearing up embarrassingly often as I was listening to the story unfold; it’s good I was alone in the car as I listened to it because otherwise I would have had good reason to be embarrassed.

In spite of the varied and conflicting emotions I felt as I listened to this book, I think I kept enough critical distance to be able to say that it’s well-done. It has a good mix of the serious with the lighter material; there was enough darkness because of the post-WWII setting to keep the book from feeling frivolous. The characters were well-drawn (although maybe a little too much on the quirky side now and then), and the epistolary form used well. I really do love epistolary novels, so that was a real pleasure. All-in-all, it was worth overlooking the title for.

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Currently reading

I’m slowly emerging from my middle-of-the-semester fog. Many teachers find the last couple weeks of the semester to be the worst, but I have the hardest time during the middle. It’s in the middle that I spend lots of hours writing comments on papers and helping students improve their work. At the end of the semester I get the chance to say, well, you learned it or you didn’t, end of story. That’s much easier and less time-consuming. So I still have grading to do, but I find it goes by quickly and I have more and more reading time.

I also have more time because I’m spending fewer hours on the bike because … I reached my goal of 5,000 miles! I finished up on Tuesday. I plan to ride some over the next couple weeks, but only now and then, and nothing difficult or terribly long. In January I’ll start thinking about next year’s racing, and in the meantime, I’m spending more time on the couch.

So, about my “currently reading” list. I just finished The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart, which is the latest selection for my mystery book group. We will meet in a week and a half to discuss it, and I’ll write a post soon. For now I’ll just say that … it wasn’t my favorite that we’ve read for the group. Not by a long shot, in fact. It should be interesting to discuss!

With that book finished, I’m returning to Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. I’m not quite halfway through the book, and I’m very grateful that it finally, finally picked up the pace a bit. The first 150 pages or so were pretty dull. Brontë introduces some potentially interesting situations and characters, but she doesn’t do much with them. The focus keeps shifting in such a way as to diffuse any tension she has built up, and there is just no spark or energy. But finally Shirley herself arrives, and at that point, things begin to improve. Now there are some interesting dynamics among the characters, including a love triangle, and I’m more content at the thought of the 350 pages or so I have left.

I also picked up a volume of poetry once again. I haven’t read much poetry this past year; I finished up the Wallace Stevens volume I began the previous year, and I read my friend’s chapbook, and that’s it. I decided it was time to return to the genre, and so I picked up the Faber collection of Ted Hughes’s poetry I have on my shelves, part of their Poetry Classics series. The books are beautiful, but I wish they had more information about each poem. There is an introduction by the editor, but nothing to tell you when each of the poems was published and in what collection. The upside to this is that you are left with just the poem itself; there is something satisfying about confronting the words alone. But I’m someone who likes to know a little more contextual information, especially about which poems were published originally in which books. There might be connections among poems that become clearer if the reader knows they were published together.

But still, the books are beautiful, and I’m looking forward to reading further.

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Hating literary criticism

I’m happily reading along in The Story About the Story, an anthology of essays about literature, subtitled “Great Writers Explore Great Literature.” I’m about 3/4 of the way through, and I haven’t fallen in love with the essays I’ve read recently in the same way I did with some of the first ones in the anthology, but still, the selections are very good. Recently I’ve read really excellent pieces by Michael Chabon, Susan Sontag, and Cynthia Ozick, all of which left me with a longer list of books I want to read.

There’s a selection from one of my favorite nonfiction books ever, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, but the selection is one I don’t particularly like. Out of Sheer Rage is about how Dyer tried to write a book on D.H. Lawrence and failed, and in this section he writes about coming across a book of literary criticism on Lawrence and hating it so much he throws a temper tantrum and burns the book. I was all set to write a post on this passage, but it turns out I already wrote one. Briefly, my point was that I can’t stand it when people throw temper tantrums about how much they hate literary criticism. Usually when people do this they end up overgeneralizing and misrepresenting criticism and critics, and they often sound foolish and anti-intellectual, and they come across — to me at least — as people who haven’t actually read a whole lot of criticism, or as people who have read some bad things and never bothered to look into the field any further.

But I can’t get too upset at Geoff Dyer, since he does end up admitting that he’s being unreasonable, and it’s also the case that he’s writing a book called Out of Sheer Rage, an obvious signal to the reader that some unreasonableness lies ahead. And the truth is that a part of me finds the temper tantrum touching and amusing. Dyer cares about literature, and although I think he’s wrong to believe that criticism can harm literature somehow, at least his motivation comes from a devotion I can understand.

Really, though, what is it about criticism that bothers people so much? Yes, there is bad criticism out there, but in my experience (and I have read lots of the stuff, believe me), much of it is maybe a little dry and pedestrian but also useful and illuminating. Most critics, in my experience, are working out of a genuine interest in their subject and aren’t out to kill it, as Dyer claims many of them are. Why would critics devote their careers to killing the subject they study?

Perhaps my particular field of study biases my view; I specialize in eighteenth-century British literature, and criticism of that time period hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of controversy. People do fight political and theoretical battles over the literature of the time, but mostly it’s a relatively quiet field, one where trendiness and theoretical jargon aren’t required. A person can be an old-fashioned historicist and do quite well.

But still my point stands — when people lash out at criticism, they tend to focus on only a small part of it and ignore the bulk of what goes on.

This gets to my one quibble with The Story About the Story. The book is introduced and framed as a collection of essays on literature that stands in contrast to the usual dry, dull criticism published by academics. That may be true — these essays certainly are livelier than traditional criticism — but why can’t we have writerly, “creative,” criticism and academic criticism both? These essays are marvelously fun to read; they don’t pretend to do what academics do, and sometimes they attack it. But there is a place for more systematic studies of literature, for essays written by scholars immersed in the history of the time and familiar with the books more general readers haven’t read. It’s great to have people who will read in archives, pore over manuscripts and create definitive editions, study how ideas develop and get represented in novels, poems, and plays, and think carefully about what literature is and what it does. What’s wrong with that?

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Dreams from My Father

It’s impossible to read Barack Obama’s book Dreams from My Father without thinking about the fact of his presidency the entire way through. Everything takes on a different meaning knowing that that one big event is on the way, eventually. The uncertainties about his future he describes we now know are unwarranted — everything is going to work out. But other kinds of uncertainties — about his identity, about what it means to be biracial, about how to address racial conflict in America, about how to respond to white and black people both — these uncertainties take on a new meaning, since the person who felt so much doubt and experienced so much conflict is now president and in a position where he can’t speak about his feelings with the same honesty. I kept thinking as I read the book that I would really like to know what he is thinking and experiencing right now, but that’s one thing I can’t know. There is a degree of self-awareness and honesty in the book that no American president could get away with expressing while in office.

I came to like the personality that comes through in this book, and that has made me think about what kind of personality one needs to be president — because I tend to like self-aware, thoughtful people and it seems to me that having that kind of personality would make holding such an important political office a nightmare. When I think about some of the absurd, utterly irrational things people are saying about Obama (those in the “birther” movement, for example), I wonder how hard it would be to keep one’s cool, and when I think about the constant criticism and commentary and second-guessing he receives, I wonder how someone as prone to self-doubt as Obama seems to be can handle it all. I want someone whose mindset and thought processes I understand and relate to in the White House, and yet I wonder how such a person can survive.

I recognize that the book’s persona is a creation and is not Obama himself and also that he has changed since the 1995 publication date, but the book really does give the impression that there is an open, genuine person writing it, a person who has struggled and is now trying to write about those struggles honestly. Obama’s focus is his racial heritage and the problems he faced coming to terms with what it means to have a white mother and grandparents from Iowa and a black father from Kenya, and to have grown up in Hawaii where racial tensions existed, although on a fairly low level, and then to have spent time in California and New York before settling down in Chicago, where racial tensions are much more pervasive and his job is to try to do something about it.

The book is framed as a quest — Obama’s quest to find himself, ultimately, which means an attempt to come to terms with an absent father and to find a place or a way of being or a state of mind he can call home. Dreams from My Father has three sections, the first one describing his childhood up through his college years, the second part describing his years in Chicago as a community organizer, and the third part telling about his trip to Kenya to meet his father’s family. In each of these sections, he is searching for clues as to who he is and how he should behave. He tells of his introduction to racism, his uneasy response to the other black students around him, his rebellion and anger that stem from his self-doubts, and his search for an identity that will help him cope with so much uncertainty. When he gets to Chicago, he tells of the poverty and hopelessness he sees around him and of his struggles to figure out the best way to make some kind of lasting change — a monumental task. And when he gets to Kenya, he tells about his initial relief at being in a place where blackness is the norm and his disappointment that Kenya doesn’t have any simple answers to offer. He does find a resolution of sorts, but it’s a partial and complicated one.

Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I want Obama to succeed as president to such an extent that I don’t like following and often don’t follow the news because I don’t want to hear about the possibility of failure. I’d prefer to be able to look back at this time with enough perspective to know how things will turn out rather than having to live through it. But since I can’t do that, I’ll just take comfort in the fact that we have a president who is smart and thoughtful and who writes well. Dreams from My Father is a well-crafted, engaging, engrossing, thought-provoking read.

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Liking the books I don’t like

I’ve heard a lot about that Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society book, but I never paid close attention to what I heard because I thought the title was awful. I don’t like self-consciously cute titles, or self-consciously cute anything, for that matter. But bloggers I like and respect were writing nice things about it and recommending it to me, so I felt I shouldn’t ignore it entirely, and then I happened to see it in my library’s audiobook collection. I wavered a bit deciding what audiobook to get — did I really want to listen to that book with the awful title? But audiobooks are where I take risks now and then; I’m willing to listen to something I might not want to spent time actually reading, since I’m only devoting commuting time to it.

So I checked it out and began listening to it, and now I’m finding I like it. It is a little too self-consciously cute at times, and who knows what I would think if I were reading it in the usual way, as I’m pickier then, but it’s winning me over anyway. There are multiple readers, which works well, as the novel is epistolary, with a number of different writers. All of the readers have been good, and they capture the characters well. And then the book is about books and reading, much in the vein of 84 Charing Cross Road and The Uncommon Reader, two books I really like. It also tells about what happened on the island of Guernsey during the German occupation in World War II, a history I knew nothing about and which is really interesting.

I prefer it when my suspicions are confirmed, my preconceptions are right, and I can continue to look down my nose at books that seem silly to me. But it’s also fun when I’m wrong and I find something new to like.

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Filed under Books, Fiction

The TBR challenge

It’s December 1st, which means it’s time to plan what books I want to read for Emily’s TBR challenge. These are books I already own that I am going to try to read over the next year and one month (finishing up on December 31st, 2010). I will try to stick to this list as much as possible, but I reserve the right to make substitutions as I feel like it.

First, there are books I’ve been meaning to read for a very long time. These are books that are near the beginning of my TBR list, since I add new ones to the end.

  1. Balzac, Cousin Bette. I’ve never read Balzac, and it’s time I rectified that situation.
  2. Samuel Beckett, Molloy. I’ve never read Beckett’s fiction either, and I’ve owned this book for perhaps a decade, or at least a lot of years.
  3. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. I think this is the first book I got from Book Mooch — the first of many.
  4. The Bhagavad Gita. Seriously, I’ve wanted to read this book forever. It’s about damn time.
  5. Lawrence Weschler, Vermeer in Bosnia. This is an essay collection I’ve had my eye on ever since hearing an interview with him on NPR. At least, I think I heard an interview with him. It was so long ago. I do remember buying the book at a Barnes and Noble near my parents’ place one Christmas, but I can’t remember which Christmas that was.

And now for some books I’ve acquired more recently and won’t want to wait long to pick up:

  1. Rosalind Belben’s Our Horses in Egypt. Since I never see this book in bookstores, I decided to order it online, and I found a cheap copy at Better World Books.
  2. Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I now have a signed copy of the book. I’m curious to see what I think of her when I read her writing on the page instead of listening to an audio book.
  3. Jane Gardam’s Old Filth. Like Rosalind Belben, this is an author I wouldn’t have known of if it weren’t for blogs, and I remember hearing about her from bloggers I admire, so I’m looking forward to it.
  4. Maureen Corrigan, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading. I know one of these days I’m going to get the urge to pick up the kind of nonfiction book that’s highly entertaining and where the pages fly by. This will be perfect.
  5. David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Why have I not yet read this book? I have no idea.
  6. Jane Carlyle, I Too Am Here. This book is selections of Carlyle’s letters. I came across Carlyle in an Elizabeth Hardwick essay and have heard a couple references to her recently, so I think it’s time to try this one out.

And now for some books I would like to get to for various reasons including book groups or because they are part of a series:

  1. Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper. This is the next Slaves of Golconda selection. My edition, very fittingly, has yellow paper.
  2. Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Yellow Room. This is the next selection for my mystery book group, chosen by Emily.
  3. Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Darker Reflections. This is part 2 of Holmes’s Coleridge biography. I read part 1 last summer and have wanted to continue on ever since.
  4. L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island. I’m on a small Montgomery kick these days and want to continue my reread of the Anne series.
  5. Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. I’m slowly rereading Woolf’s major works, and this one is up next.
  6. Elizabeth George’s Payment in Blood. This is the second Elizabeth George book in the series; I read the first at some point this past year.

And now for a few random books:

  1. Miklos Vamos’s The Book of Fathers. I have a review copy of this one I need to get to fairly soon.
  2. Louise Gluck’s Proofs and Theories. I like her poetry, and I’ll probably like this essay collection as well.
  3. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Hobgoblin bought this one a while back, and we both hope to get to it next summer. A nice, light summer reading, right?

As I wrote the list, I tried to find a balance between heavier books and lighter ones, although my tendency when coming up with challenge lists is to go for the heavier books — the challenging ones. But a mix is better.

I’m looking forward to diving into these!

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Filed under Books, Lists