Monthly Archives: January 2010

Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper

Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper was an enjoyable book in moments and a puzzling book in others; it’s one of those books I can’t quite figure out how to respond to, and I’m not sure another reading would help. There’s a lot I liked in the book, but what puzzles me about it is that given the books that appeal to me most, I should love this one, and it turns out I don’t, quite.

I admire its form and structure most; it’s the kind of novel where not much happens and instead we have someone sharing her thoughts with us the entire way through. The main character is called Pompey, and she writes in a way that seems spontaneous, telling us whatever is on her mind at the moment. We hear about her job — she works as a secretary for a certain Sir Phoebus –  her love affairs, her friends, her family — especially her aunt, the “Lion of Hull” — and her thoughts about society, literature, and politics.

Basically, there is no form or structure (as far as I can tell), and instead it’s a loose-flowing stream-of-consciousness monologue. Novel on Yellow Paper reminds me most of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, where there is a structure and plot, but these are so basic they hardly count and the real point of the book is the voice. The pleasure of the book comes from listening to the main character share his thoughts. That’s what we’re offered in Smith’s book — a chance to get inside the main character’s head a little bit.

However, now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure how much we do get inside Pompey’s head. It’s feels a little more like she uses words to charm and entertain us and to tell us about herself, but in such a way that she hides as much as she reveals. Words are as much a shield for her true self, or a cloud in which to hide, as a way to reveal herself.

She certainly is amusing and charming, and she has funny quirks that make her voice very distinctive. This passage illustrates her use of repetition and rhythm and also shows how frank and open she can be (or appear to be):

Oh how I enjoy sex and oh how I enjoy it. There have been many funny things about sex in my life that have made me laugh and so now I will tell you.

There was once a woman called Miss Hogmanimy. That was certainly a queer name. That was a name you would certainly want to get married out of. But this woman was very queer and wrought up over babies and the way babies are born, and she gave up her whole life going round giving free lectures on how babies are born. And it certainly was queer how ecstatic she got about this way how babies are born, and always she was giving lectures to young girls of school or school-leaving age. And all the time it was mixed up in a way I don’t just remember with not drinking, not drinking alcohol, but just carrying on ginger beer, kola and popgass. And so well this Miss Hogmanimy she got up in our school, now I think it was our school, chapel and so there she was in this school chapel, giving a lecture with illustrating slides to young girls on how babies are born …

…to listen to Miss Hogmanimy you’d think just knowing straight out how babies was born was to solve all the problems of adolescence right off. You’d come out straight and simple and full of hearty fellowship and right thinking if you just got it clear once and for all how babies are born. There’d be no more coming out in spots and getting self-conscious about the senior prefect, nor getting a crush on the English mistress, nor feeling proud and miserable like you do at that time, before you get grown up. There’d be none of this at all if you just knew how babies are born. So there she was.

Pompey is great at this kind of amusing light satire. There is a wonderful section on women’s fiction where she describes the typical “Fiction for the Married Woman,” which is all about learning to be happy with housewifely duties. The section is funny, but there is anger underneath the light surface. She decides that describing fiction for the unmarried woman is just too painful:

I cannot tell you about the stories for unmarried girls, the ones that are so cleverly and coyly oh. And they are so bright and smiling and full of pretty ideas that are all the time leading up to washing-up. You will know how they go but I cannot tell you. I am already feeling: No, I should not have said all this. It is the ugliest thing that could ever have been conceived, because it is also so trivial, so full of the negation of human intelligence, that should be so quick and so swift and so glancing, and so proud. And you Reader, whom I have held by the wrist and forced to listen, I am full of regret for you, because I have forced you to listen to this.

As I type out these passages, I’m thinking about how much I like them and how much I liked quite a few sections of the book. The phrase “so full of the negation of human intelligence” is just great, as is the apology to the reader (I wrote about another great section here).

The problem is that in between these sections I felt impatient and occasionally irritated. I couldn’t follow the way her mind worked very well, and the picture of who Pompey is and what her life is like remained hazy. I wanted a more coherent picture to come together, even if that took a while. I love voice-driven novels where plot is not the focus, but I think I need just a bit more coherence, direction, and forward-movement than I got here.

I also just don’t know anybody who talks like Pompey does or who thinks like she does, and I found her a little hard to believe. I suspect, to be really simple and non-literary-critical about things, that Pompey and I probably wouldn’t be friends. With this kind of novel, I want to be able to imagine having a conversation with the main character, and I’m having trouble imagining it here.

So, to sum up, it’s an original, puzzling, strange, frustratingly quirky book I would have loved to love.

You can read other posts on the novel here and join in the discussion at the forums here.

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A bookshelves meme!

Box of Books has a great meme I can’t resist: what do your bookscases say about you?

  • “I think I read much faster than I really do!” I have been collecting books at a fast and frantic pace lately, and somehow I still think that each one I buy, borrow, or mooch I will get to before very long.
  • “I went to graduate school!” I have my share of literary theory and criticism — Foucault, Derrida, Irigaray, Freud, etc., etc. Some of these books have even been marked up and written in.
  • “My husband went to graduate school too!” Although some of our books are on separate shelves, we combine much of our fiction and some poetry, which we keep in our living room. Here you will find not just one, but multiple copies of books like Ulysses and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, in the big Norton Critical Edition. You will also find multiple copies of obscure eighteenth-century novels that almost no one reads unless they went to grad school.
  • “I studied eighteenth-century British literature!” I have books like Augustan Critical Writing, Critical Essays on Laurence Sterne, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry, Women in the Eighteenth-Century, and a copy of Richardson’s Clarissa with lots of cracks in the binding.
  • “I’m mildly obsessive!” But only mildly. I keep our fiction downstairs alphabetized, and the books in my study are arranged by subject. But these books arranged by subject aren’t alphabetized. I only go so far.
  • “I love long novels!” I have lots of long Victorian novels, including tons of Dickens, Eliot, and Austen, as well as some Trollope. And I also have long, long books by Richardson, Burney, Dostoevsky, Thackery, Tolstoy, Lady Murasaki, and Cervantes.
  • “I have traditional tastes!” I’d like to read more widely than I do — from more cultures and from lesser-known authors — but the truth is I spent many years being trained in the canon, and although I do read outside of it, the results of that training are still there.
  • “I can’t get enough of essays!” I have a couple shelves devoted to essays, although I’d have more if I added all my unread collections, which I currently keep separately. I have a row of large collections lined up in a row, and the site is a beautiful one.

Anybody else want to say what your shelves say about you?

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Notes

  • Today happens to be my birthday. 36 still counts as mid-30s, right? It’s not such a bad place to be, I think. My day was fairly low key; it’s a busy teaching day for me, so Hobgoblin and I will celebrate more tomorrow. He did give me my present today, which is a Garmin bike computer with GPS (this one, if you are interested), which will be lots of fun to use on bike rides and for training. He also got me a gift certificate for a massage at the local massage place in town. Yay!
  • I got some books as well. A friend of mine sent me a whole stack, including The Old Religion by David Mamet, The Public Image by Muriel Spark, Shroud by John Banville, and Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson. This last one I’ve already read but didn’t own, so now I have my own copy.
  • Oh, and I got home from work today to find that Hobgoblin brought home cupcakes! I had one tonight and will have another tomorrow. Yum.
  • In other news, I have now finished Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper and am trying to figure out what I will say about it for the Slaves of Golconda discussion this weekend. I’m not sure yet. We’ll see.
  • This means it’s time to pick a new novel. I’m not entirely sure what that will be, but I’m thinking maybe Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. A friend of mine said she has been enjoying it a lot, and I think I might read along with her.
  • Another friend recently lent me Sarah Vowell’s book The Wordy Shipmates. The back cover says “To this day, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Sarah Vowell investigates what that means — and what it should mean. What was this great political enterprise all about? Who were these people who  are considered the philosophical, spiritual, and moral ancestors of our nation? What Vowell discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoe-buckles-and-corn reputation might suggest.” Sounds interesting, right?
  • And now I’m off to watch another episode of Brideshead Revisited. Three more to go.

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Farewell, My Lovely

Today was the first day of classes for me, and I’m still reeling from the day. The first day of classes is never difficult — just introductions and going over the syllabus and maybe an activity or exercise or something — but it’s always a shock to be back in school again. I suppose it didn’t help much that I went on a 50-mile bike ride before heading off to class. That’s maybe not the best way to get myself ready. But it was so much fun. I went with Hobgoblin and one other friend, and we stopped to get cupcakes halfway through the ride, and the whole thing was lovely.

But on to books … my mystery book group met last Saturday to discuss Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, and it was a great meeting, as usual. I was glad to read Chandler this time around because he’s such an important figure in the genre and someone I hadn’t yet read. We had already read a number of books you might call hard-boiled — Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Cornell Woolrich — and it was time we got to Chandler.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and finished it feeling that I’d like to read Chandler again soon (although, of course, it probably won’t happen, given everything else I want to read soon). The funny thing is that this is SO not the kind of book I like. It’s plot-driven, first of all, and without much in the way of character analysis or direct discussion of ideas, and also without any complex, non-stereotypical female characters (well, arguably — there’s one who might count). It’s very stereotypically male and violent.

But still, it’s nice to read something different from the kind of thing I usually like. I won’t even try to tell you much about the plot, as that would be way too complicated. Basically, the main character Philip Marlowe follows a strange-looking, very, very large man into a bar, just because the situation looks interesting, and mayhem and murder ensue. In the course of investigating the violence — Marlowe isn’t actually hired to do this, but he doesn’t seem to have much else going on — he gets himself into a whole mess of trouble. He is attacked, drugged, warned away by the police, seduced (well, seduction is attempted, at least), attacked again, and attacked again.

The great thing about Marlowe is that he just keeps going. I think it’s his character and especially the way his character is portrayed through the first-person narration that I enjoyed so much about the book. There’s a bitterness and anger about how messed up the world is that keeps him going — that and the fact that he has to make a living somehow, although surely there are safer ways? As a private detective, though, he can work on his own, make his own rules, take the cases he wants, and look into things he wants to even if no one has hired him to do it. There’s a jaded, world-weariness about him, along with cleverness and surly quick-wittedness that seem to mask an inner, very well-hidden sentimental side. Why else would he put himself at risk for such an uncertain, ill-paid job, if he didn’t believe in the work, somehow, and think that what he is doing is worthwhile? Or maybe it’s just that he’d be bored otherwise. Or maybe he likes the danger and the excitement of it. There’s something mysterious about his motivation, and that mysteriousness is part of the appeal.

The other great thing about the book is the writing. Chandler gets the tone exactly right — lyrically bitter. He’s especially good with metaphor and simile:

I sat there and puffed my pipe and listened to the clacking typewriter behind the wall of my office and the bong-bong of the traffic lights changing on Hollywood Boulevard and spring rustling in the air, like a paper bag blowing along a concrete sidewalk….

I looked at my watch once more. It was more than time for lunch. My stomach burned from the last drink. I wasn’t hungry. I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief….

A girl passing me on the way from the elevators back to her work turned and gave me one of those looks which are supposed to make your spine feel like a run in a stocking.

He also has a great sense of humor, and I laughed out loud at a lot of passages. Here’s how one chapter opens:

I was sitting on the side of my bed in my pajamas, thinking about getting up, but not yet committed. I didn’t feel very well, but I didn’t feel as sick as I ought to, not as sick as I would feel if I had a salaried job. My head hurt and felt large and hot and my tongue was dry and had gravel on it and my throat was stiff and my jaw was not untender. But I had had worse mornings.

It was a gray morning with high fog, not yet warm but likely to be. I heaved up off the bed and rubbed the pit of my stomach where it was sore from vomiting. My left foot felt fine. It didn’t have an ache in it. So I had to kick the corner of the bed with it.

There’s something exhilarating about the language in the book — exhilarating as Marlowe’s adventures are, maybe. It’s such a pleasure listening to him wise-crack and swagger in such wonderfully poetic language.

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Novel on Yellow Paper

First of all, check out the new Diversify Your Reading blog, a “a clearinghouse of blog reviews of books by authors underrepresented in English-language publishing today.” There are lists of authors and books from around the world with links to the blogs that reviewed them. You are welcome and encouraged to add links to your own reviews on the site. I just added a bunch of links today. I think it’s a great idea for a blog and a wonderful place to find out about books from a whole range of authors.

I want to write a review of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely and write about last night’s mystery book group meeting, but for tonight, I think I’ll post a long passage from Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, which is the next Slaves of Golconda read (discussion to begin on January 31st).

I’m not entirely sure what I think about the novel, but it does have some utterly charming passages. This is one where the narrator talks about what kind of novel she is writing, and I’m a sucker for this kind of metafictional approach.

But first, Reader, I will give you a word of warning. This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came by the left hand. And the thoughts come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and I do not pursue them to embarrass them with formality to pursue them into a harsh captivity. And if you are a foot-off-the-ground person I make no bones to say that is how you will write and only how you will write. And if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation. So put it down. Leave it alone. It was a mistake you made to get this book. You could not know.

And it is not to be proud I say: I am a foot-off-the-ground person; or to be superior that I say: Foot-on-the-ground person — Keep out. It is to save you an exasperation and weariness that have now already hardly brought you to this early page.

But if you do not know whether you are a foot-off-the-ground person or a foot-on-the-ground person, then I say, Come on. Come on with me, and find out.

And for my part I will try to punctuate this book to make it easy for you to read, and to break it up, with spaces for a pause, as the publisher has asked me to do. But this I find very extremely difficult.

For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.

Oh talking voice that is so sweet, how hold you alive in captivity, how point you with commas, semi-colons, dashes, pauses and paragraphs?

Foot-on-the-ground person will have his grave grave doubts, and if he is also a smug-pug he will not keep his doubts to himself; he will say: It is not, and it cannot come to good. And I shall say, yes, it is and shall. And he will say: So you think you can do this, so you do, do you?

Yes I do, I do.

That is my final word to smug-pug. You all now have been warned.

I appreciate an author who warns me about what I will find in the book I’m about to read. As for being a foot-on-or-off-the-ground kind of person, I don’t really know what I am, so I’m coming along to find out.

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Ten Random Books Meme

I saw this meme over at Danielle’s who got it from Simon, and it looked like fun, so here goes. Here are the rules:

1.) Go to your bookshelves…
2.) Close your eyes. If you’re feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.
3.) Select ten books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or… basically, wherever you keep books.
4.) Use these books to tell us about yourself – where and when you got them, who got them for you, what the book says about you, etc. etc…..
5.) Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn’t matter if you’ve read them or not – be creative. It might not seem easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.
6.) Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to…

I went to all my main bookshelves in my study and my living room so I could get a variety of books. I did cheat a little bit when I chose books that belong to Hobgoblin or that … well, that bored me or that gave my list too much repetition. But for the most part, this is what I selected, with eyes closed:

  1. Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker. This is one of the books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. In fact, I included it on a list of books I want to read not too long ago, although it didn’t make it to the TBR challenge list (on my sidebar). It’s one of those books that by the time I read it, I will have been saying I’m going to read it for ages. Oh, well. That’s true for a lot of books.
  2. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. This is one of the longest books I’ve read, if not the longest, period. This book was assigned for a grad class I was auditing; I didn’t finish it that semester, but the Christmas afterward I got to the end. It’s a great book and I wouldn’t mind reading it again one day — but my God, is it long. I just love epistolary novels, and this is one of the most important.
  3. David Richter, ed., Falling Into Theory: Conflicting Views of Reading Literature. This was a textbook for an undergrad class in literary theory, my first exposure to it. Now it’s a little dated, but looking through the table of contents, it still looks pretty good. I’m not sure why it’s called “falling” into theory, though.
  4. Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. This book came from my essay shelves. I read it a year or two ago and loved it. Really, if you want to read some nonfiction and want to read something that’s really, really old (10th-11th century) and from another culture, this is perfect. It’s charming and fun.
  5. Maria Edgeworth’s Helen. This came from my TBR shelves. I’ve read Edgeworth’s novel Belinda and really liked it and have been meaning to read more of her work forever (of course). She’s a really good writer who gets overshadowed by Austen who lived around the same time. If you want more fiction from Austen’s time, Belinda is a great book to pick up.
  6. Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs. I was just thinking about this book because Zhiv wrote a post on academic novels that made me want to read more of them. I really liked this book and made a point of picking up another Lurie novel pretty soon after reading this one (The War Between the Tates). Lurie is someone I hope to return to again — before too, too long.
  7. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This one belongs to Hobgoblin, but I read his copy so I included it in this list. It was an incredibly powerful read, dark and scary, but difficult to put down. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I’m kind of scared of it. I don’t like scary movies, and this is bound to be terrifying. And yet it was such a good book, and I’m curious about the movie version. We’ll see.
  8. Colette’s My Mother’s House and Sido. I read this book a few years ago, but I first thought about reading it back in college when my Advanced Writing professor recommended it to me. That just goes to show that even though I do take forever to get around to reading something, I usually do get there eventually. I loved the book and am glad it stayed around in my mind for so long. Now I just need to get around to reading some of Colette’s fiction.
  9. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I read this one in college, and I don’t think I’ve reread it since then, although it’s possible. I do know that I listened to it on audio during the time I had a 1 1/2 hour commute each way a few years ago, and it was a good companion on the way to work. It’s such a great novel. I love books about people who read, even when bad things happen to them because of it, and this is such an important example.
  10. Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds. Here’s another academic novel I really enjoyed. I read it a year or two ago and thought it was great fun — a good story, an interesting setting (Cambridge), good writing — it has everything.

Anybody else want to try this? My selections are fairly representative, I think. A decent number of classics, a few contemporary books, a couple essay collections — that sums up my reading pretty well.

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Plagiarism?

I’m about halfway through The Best American Essays 2008 and am greatly enjoying it. There are some stunningly good essays in the collection, and even the ones that aren’t stunningly good are still entertaining. There’s one on a lesbian wedding that I liked and one on how often great and famous quotations aren’t quoted correctly — the phrase “nice guys finish last” was originally “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place,” but the longer phrase was shortened to make a better headline.

I also really liked Jonathan Lethem’s essay on plagiarism called “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Lethem argues that our copyright laws are too strict. All art is essentially borrowing and we should be encouraging the free movement of art and ideas rather than trying to turn them into property and to increase profits from them as much as possible.

These aren’t the most original ideas in the world, but, it turns out, that is kind of the point. I enjoyed reading the essay because about halfway through it I decided to flip to the end to see how long the essay was and I noticed some interesting-looking endnote-type things there, although there weren’t any endnote numbers. I looked a little more closely and realized that the endnotes explained where he got his material from — and that much of the essay was plagiarized. I just now looked over the essay to write about it and realized that the essay is subtitled “A Plagiarism.” A big clue I missed, right?

That made the essay even more fun to read because from that point on, I kept flipping back and forth to see what was original Lethem and what was plagiarized. I had to laugh at myself for really liking a certain line that I later found out is plagiarized from the introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, something I’ve read multiple times and should have remembered:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void but out of chaos.

That’s a good sentence to steal for my class on creativity, I think.

Lethem has taken big chunks of text from lots of different sources; I don’t really know what percentage of the essay is from other people, but that percentage is pretty high. But the essay isn’t really plagiarized, obviously, since he documents where his quotations come from pretty carefully. He also says the whole idea of writing a “collage text” isn’t new to him — of course.

One of the most interesting ideas in the essay is about how art participates in a gift economy, in addition to the market economy — the economy we are used to thinking of where things are bought and sold. The difference between the two is that “a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.” We buy things and feel no connectedness to the salesperson, but when we receive a gift, there is an emotional connection between us and the giver.

Art participates in both these economies at once — it can be bought and sold, obviously; we buy books, tickets to plays, and paintings to hang on our wall. But it also means something to us beyond that:

Art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — is received as a gift is received.

The way art participates in both kinds of economies is complicated, but what it means is that while art is a commodity, it can’t be fully reduced to a commodity. The problem with copyright laws as they exist now is that they push art too close to commodity status and try to negate the gift element of it:

But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.

Interesting, isn’t it? Should I give Lethem credit for these ideas? Who knows.

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The Book of Fathers

I didn’t love Miklós Vámos’s novel The Book of Fathers (I received a review copy from the publisher), but I admired it and felt like I learned something from it. It’s the kind of novel that can tell you so much about a culture and a country and how it changed over the course of centuries. It opens in the early eighteenth-century, and tells the story of the Csillag family who live in Hungary, although various family members move elsewhere temporarily. We hear first about Kornél Csillag, whose grandfather returned to Hungary from Germany and brought him along. What they find on their return, though, is a village under threat of violence, and soon that violence overtakes them. What follows is a harrowing tale.

But this is only the first chapter. The novel has an interesting structure: each chapter tells the story of a new generation of Csillags (or Sternovskys, Sterns, or Berda-Sterns, as the family is variously known through the years). The story gets passed down from father to son through twelve generations that bring us up to the present day. So as the family story is told, the country’s story is told too, and it’s a story full of war, uncertainty, and change. The family fortunes rise and fall; there are gamblers, singers, actors, businessmen. At times they have money and at other times they have nothing. Most of the time, the father dies young and violently, sometimes never knowing his son.

All this is very well done; it’s interesting to see how the fate of the country and the family intertwine. Although the Csillag family is not initially Jewish, one of the descendents marries a Jewish woman and converts, and from that point on, the history of the family becomes partly a history of Jewish persecution, on up to the Holocaust and beyond.

The Csillags are at typical family in a lot of ways, but they share an unusual characteristic: each father passes down to his son the ability to see the past and sometimes to see the future. The Csillag sons see visions during significant times or times of stress, visions that turn out to be glimpses into the lives of their fathers. Some of them inherit the whole body of knowledge their ancestors possessed and are able to sing songs and speak languages no one had taught them (no one living, that is). Others have visions of their future, which in some cases causes trouble, as knowing what will happen to them affects the choices they make. This special insight is as much a burden as anything else; the visions of the past and future they see are often troubling. These men do not lead easy lives.

The Csillag fathers also passes down a book — the Book of Fathers — to their sons. Each generation makes its own contribution to the family saga, writing down events, thoughts, and feelings, and the history of this book — eventually becoming multiple volumes — is as varied as the history of the people who write in it.

There was much to admire in the book, but I did find that once I figured out the structure and got into the rhythm of the story, it got somewhat repetitive. The events within each generation varied, but the overall structure of one generation moving on to the next stayed the same, and it was sometimes hard to care about what happened to each character, as I knew I would be reading about him for only one chapter. I prefer the kind of story that takes more time to develop each character and allows me some space to come to know the characters well. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the book; it’s just that it sets out to do something different than what I most enjoy. This is a book about history and ideas, not so much about depth of character or plot. If you know and accept that going in, there’s a lot to enjoy in the book.

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Thoughts for Friday

  • Have you had the kind of day where you start in the morning thinking that you’re going to write a long book review that evening, but as the day goes on, you begin to feel tired and less ambitious and decide to write a shorter note about a really great essay you read yesterday, but then you do more things and get more tired and realize that probably the best you’ll be able to do is disconnected bullet points? That’s me right now.
  • The reason I’m tired is a good one, though. I rode my bike yesterday for two hours up every hill I could find in the neighborhood, and then I went to pilates class in the evening where even though I told the teacher that I went on a hard bike ride and she promised not to do intense quad muscle exercises, she did anyway. And then I rode my bike for three hours today, with Hobgoblin and one other cycling friend, and we rode hard. My muscles were feeling yesterday’s ride every time I went up a hill. And then I went to yoga class this evening. The class was fairly gentle, but still. I’m tired.
  • I’ve been doing some good reading, though (and also spending time writing up class syllabi, but I don’t want to think about that now. I have another week until classes start). I’m in the middle of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, my first Chandler novel, which I’m reading for my mystery book group. It is so fun! I have the Modern Library edition which also has The Big Sleep, and I’m tempted to read that one immediately after (except that I have other books I need to get to, including Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper for the Slaves of Golconda discussion at the end of the month). Hard-boiled detective fiction isn’t a form I have a whole lot of experience with, so it’s nice to be reading a classic of the genre.
  • I’m also reading The Best American Essays 2008, and I just read a fabulous essay on plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem last night. I would like to write a post on it at some point, assuming I get some energy back. I haven’t loved all the essays in this collection (there’s one on cameras that didn’t do much for me and another on 50s pulp fiction that I didn’t like), but there are some really wonderful ones too, so I’d recommend the collection if you would like to read some more essays.
  • Hobgoblin and I finally joined Netflix, after talking about it for years, and I’ve had fun catching up on some movies. I saw Room With a View with Helena Bonham Carter, which I liked a whole lot, and 84, Charing Cross Road, which was fun and moving and did a great job with the book, and now I’m in the middle of the Brideshead Revisited mini-series from 1981. I love how slowly it moves and how it portrays pretty much everything in the novel. The actors seem perfect for their characters too.
  • In fact, I think I’ll go watch another episode now. Enjoy your weekend everybody! I’m going to enjoy mine by not riding for a day or two.

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The Sixties, by Jenny Diski

I read The Sixties by Jenny Diski not so much because I’m interested in the sixties, as because I’m interested in Jenny Diski. I mean, I find the sixties an intriguing time period, but not any more so than, say, the 1930s or the 1790s or the 1660s, other decades when lots of interesting things happened. It’s just that Diski has such a wonderful voice in her nonfiction that I’m ready to read anything she writes. What about you — are there people whose writing you will read no matter what the subject?

The Sixties is short — about 140 pages — and part of Picador’s “Big Ideas, Small Books” series. What makes this book so good, and what makes all of Diski’s nonfiction good (I haven’t tried her fiction yet), is the way she combines ideas and analysis with personal narrative. The Sixties is about the decade as a whole, but it’s also about Diski’s experience of the time, and she has an interesting story to tell. She was very much of the decade, living in London and participating in the drug use, casual sex, and political protests of the time, and she tells her story with appealing openness and honesty. Although she remained skeptical about some of the more extreme political ideas circulating around her, she believed, as so many did, that after their generation, the world would never be the same again.

Diski spends a lot of time evaluating what the sixties did and didn’t accomplish, and although she is aware of how much the world has changed since that time and of how much her generation contributed to the change, she also argues that there is an awful lot that is still the same. Our basic political structures have not changed, our economic system has not changed, nor has our individualism and acquisitiveness. Yes, we are less racist and sexist, at least as far as our laws go, but she wonders just how much attitudes have really shifted. The biggest gains, she speculates, may be changes in attitudes toward homosexuality; this is an area, she believes, of which the sixties generation can be proud.

She also compares how the British and Americans experienced the decade differently (the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement made the decade a much more serious, high-stakes time in America), and considers the extent to which the sixties generation led directly into conservative Reagan/Thatcher era. Here she is quite harsh with her generation for failing to recognize the difference between liberty and libertarianism; there were theorists and politicians saying things about individualism that sounded good at the time but that were actually the opposite of everything the radical sixties generation held dear. It’s one thing to seek personal liberation and freedom to live as one likes, and another thing to want to destroy community and society so that the individual can reign supreme. In the sixties, though, people didn’t always take the time to think about where their ideas might lead or who might warp them for ends they never envisioned.

Diski manages to say an awful lot in 140 pages; the first chapter covers the early to mid sixties when changes were just barely beginning to appear, and then she devotes a chapter each to drugs, sex, politics, education, and psychiatry. Each chapter creates a vivid picture of what the times were like and what Diski herself experienced, and each chapter makes an argument about the legacy of the times, whether positive or negative, lasting or not. And once again I’m reminded of why I admire Diski so much.

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The Anthologist

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am a huge Nicholson Baker fan and that I loved The Anthologist enough to read it twice, one time right after the other. During the first reading I got caught up in the flow of the narrator’s thoughts and read quickly to the book’s end. But this is the kind of book I like to linger over to enjoy the ideas and the language, and so as I was zipping along during the first reading, I promised myself I’d read it again, this time more slowly, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I enjoyed the second reading just as much as the first.

Baker tends to write books that focus on capturing a character’s thoughts, and they often cover a very short period of time, for example the time it takes for the narrator to ride an escalator from one floor to another in The Mezzanine. That book covers a whole lot more than the escalator ride, moving back in time to tell stories and explain ideas, but still the present action of the novel is very short. The Anthologist is another novel about a character’s thoughts, but it covers a longer period of time and has something you might call a plot, or something that borders on it at least. Things happen and there is a bit of narrative tension.

But those things are mostly beside the point (to the extent that the wrapping-up at the end feels perfunctory, almost an ironic, knowing nod to the idea of plot). What really matters is what is going on the narrator’s mind. That narrator is Paul Chowder, a poet who has had some success in his life — he’s published some poems in magazines and has several books out — but now he’s faltering. He’s putting together an anthology of poetry to be called Only Rhyme, the idea being that rhyming poetry is poised to make a come-back, and he now has to write the introduction. But he finds he can’t write it. It just won’t happen.

This means his editor is calling him regularly, sounding more and more ominous each time, but more importantly it has also meant that his girlfriend, Roz, has left him. She has decided that he is just too helpless, too silly, too disappointing, too foolish for not writing that stupid introduction, and she is also unhappy that Paul can’t manage money and doesn’t earn much and then wastes time getting all angsty about writing the introduction instead of sitting down and writing it. I’ll admit I have some sympathy for Roz — and I can also see why she fell for Paul in the first place. He is an utterly charming man who is probably both delightful and difficult to live with.

The book itself is a record of Paul’s thoughts as he tries to write the introduction and as he contemplates how to get Roz back. He thinks about a whole lot of things, and his thoughts sometimes wander rapidly from one thing to the next, often without much of a transition. It’s an attempt to mimic the way the mind works, and it captures perfectly the way thoughts will pop up suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, and the way the mind will keep returning to particular ideas again and again, even if we don’t want it to.

Paul thinks a lot about poetry, obviously, and he tells us what kind of poetry he likes, his history of reading poetry, the kind of poetry he writes (these days it’s free verse, even though he prefers poetry that rhymes), his tricks for getting poetry written, his favorite poetry anthologies, and his theories about why rhyme matters and how rhythm works. He’s convinced that poets and scholars get it all wrong when they say that iambic pentameter is the most natural rhythm for the English language, arguing instead for the importance of the four-beat line, and he explains his point in language that’s clear and funny. He hates teaching, but the way he explains his ideas makes it clear he could be an excellent teacher if he wanted to.

He also thinks about Roz, of course, and the upcoming poetry conference where he will give a talk (which he dreads doing), the process of cleaning out his office, the interactions he has with his neighbors, and anything else that will fill the space Roz has left and that he can’t seem to fill with his work. What keeps this from getting dull — who wants to hear about someone trying to clean out his office after all? — is the absolute honesty with which he records the path his thoughts take, and his wonderful sense of humor.

Here’s a taste of what his voice is like:

People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter! The centrality of the five-stress line! Because “pent” is five in Babylonian, and five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting. They’re going to talk to you about Chaucer and about blank verse — another confusing term — and all this so-called prosody they’re going to shovel at you. And sure — fine — you can handle it. you’re up to whatever mind-forged shrivelments they’re going to dish out that day. But just remember (a) that the word “prosody” isn’t an appealing word, and (b) that pentameter came later on. Pentameter is secondary. Pentameter is an import from France. And French is a whole different language. The real basis of English poetry is this walking rhythm right here.

Woops — dropped my Sharpie.

Right here: One — two — three — four. “Plumskin, ploshkin, Pelican jill. We think so then, we thought so still.” I think that was the very first poem I heard, “The Pelican Chorus,” by Edward Lear. My mom read it to me. God, it was beautiful. Still is. Those singing pelicans. They slapped their feet around on those long bare islands of yellow sand, and they swapped their verb tenses so that then was still and still was then. They were the first to give me the shudder, the shiver, the grieving joy of true poetry — the feeling that something wasn’t right, but it was all right that it wasn’t right. In fact it was better than if it had been right.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to go read some poetry.

I have no idea if Baker writes poetry himself (one would think so reading this book, but who knows), but his use of language is marvelously inventive and fun. Another passage — Paul is talking about old magazines that published poetry “back in the day”:

The magazine is going to have some kind of big thoughtful piece about Teddy Roosevelt, say, and then it’s going to have a bit of serialized fiction, and it’s going to have some “cuts” — that is, some art — and a few color pages tipped in, maybe, if it’s The Century magazine, maybe by Maxfield Parrish, and it’s going to have some poems. The long nonficton piece comes to an end, and it’s about being a stevedore in Baltimore, something like that. And then at the bottom of the page is this poem in two columns, with six stanzas, and each stanza has indentations, and the conventionality and vapidity of it will stun you. “The shades of summer’s bosky hue, o’erlie thy modest floobie doo.” The editors of The Century didn’t expect you to read that poem with your full mind. They knew it was just some rhymes thrown pell-mell together with some cornstarch. They knew full well, because this is America, land of bad poetry. Yes, sir! Bad poetry, sir! Loads of it in the back, sir! Just keeps coming. Tipped in. The shovel eases the soft tonnage of poetry over the rim, and it just pours into the pit, pluth. The pit of what has been said. And the lost gulls are flapping and calling — peer! peer!

And yet we still want more. There’s still that craving. Give us more, give us new. The hope. The hope that really does: it springs eternal. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” That’s clean crisp iambic pentameter. And I have some tips to pass on to you about iambic pentameter, how it’s all a misnomer, as I said. But that’s for later.

Sorry about the long passages. I just get caught up in the flow of the words, and I don’t want to stop …

I’m a poetry fan, so I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think that non-poetry fans would enjoy this book as well. There is an awful lot of poetry talk, but the narrator makes everything clear, and I’d guess he might inspire some non-poetry fans to give poetry a try.

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Austen in Manhattan

Yesterday I got to do what I’ve been looking forward to for months: see the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City. It was a great exhibit and part of wonderful day spent with Hobgoblin and our friends Suitcase of Courage and She Knits By the Seashore (the same couple with whom we visited Edith Wharton’s home on one occasion and Concord, Massachusetts, on another — we have quite a lot in common, but one important thing is obviously a love of literary travel).

Hobgoblin and I took the train into the city, a trip of about two hours, and about 1/3 of the way there we transferred trains and joined Suitcase and She Knits for the rest of the trip, giving us a chance to catch up a bit before we started the business of the day. From Grand Central Station, it was only a short walk to the Morgan Library, although it was such a cold day even a short walk was enough to leave us feeling thoroughly chilled.

When we got there, the exhibit was everything I’d hoped for. It was small, but in a way that let me see everything and read everything without getting too tired (large museums are wonderful, but small ones are more satisfying because you don’t feel like you’re missing lots of important things because you tire out after an hour or two). The highlight of the exhibit was the display of a number of Austen’s letters and parts of handwritten copies of her early novels Lady Susan and The Watsons (this one was never finished). It was amazing to look at the sheets of paper Austen wrote on and to see her handwriting. In some cases she would write her letter in the normal way, and then turn the paper sideways and continue to write in lines perpendicular to what she had just written, to save paper and postage. In one letter she wrote all the words backwards, as a little joke for her niece.

Austen’s handwriting wasn’t the only handwriting on display; the exhibit also had manuscripts from various other authors who either influenced Austen or who wrote about her and her works. I got to see manuscripts from Byron, Frances Burney, Walter Scott (in which he write positively about Austen’s fiction), W.B. Yeats (who also praised Austen), and Nabokov (who wrote up lectures on Austen to deliver at Cornell). There was also a handwritten copy of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, most likely penned by his daughter Lydia.

And there was more — early editions of Austen’s novels, books by writers from her time, conduct manuals and etiquette guides, prints from artists working in Austen’s day, manuscripts of notes written by Austen and her family members. There was also a short film on Austen and her legacy, although I didn’t watch it at the museum because I saw it’s available online.

I thought the whole thing was very well done. It captured Austen’s sensibility well — the chatty, witty letters, the family members she cared greatly about, the close relationship she had with her sister Cassandra, her interest in fashion and etiquette, and the literary world she lived in. It was wonderful to look at the things Austen looked at, wrote on, and read.

When we were finished with the exhibit, we still had the Morgan library itself to look around in. It consists of three rooms, each one full of books, in some cases two or three stories high with balconies (although unfortunately, you’re not allowed to look at the upper floors). We spent time looking through the collection of hardbound volumes and also had a chance to see the Gutenberg Bible on display, and also the manuscript of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, complete with his corrections and additions.

All that right there is enough to make a great day, but we weren’t finished yet. Because we were in Manhattan with a whole afternoon ahead of us, we got some lunch and then headed out to the bookshops. The first stop was The Strand, which was as fabulous and overwhelming as always. I’ll admit that as much as I love that store, it does get horribly crowded and after a while I get tired of fighting my way past people to browse the shelves. I usually head straight back to the literary nonfiction section, a place that’s relatively quiet and has a wonderful selection of biographies, letters, essays, and memoirs. Here I picked up a copy of Readings by Sven Birkerts and A Bolt From the Blue, essays by Mary McCarthy. From the fiction section, I happened upon a collection of four novels in one volume by Sylvia Townsend Warner that I couldn’t pass up, even if it was a heavy book to carry around with me the rest of the day.

Then we wandered across Greenwich Village to find Partners & Crime, a shop devoted to mysteries and detective fiction. At this point we were grateful for the chairs available for weary browsers, but we had fun looking through their selection of mysteries of all types from many different countries. Out of the $1 bin I picked up a copy of Deadlock by Sara Paretsky.

Then we headed just a few blocks away to Three Lives, which is one of the best bookshops I’ve ever been in, especially considering its small size. Its collection of books in translation and books by small presses is amazing. I picked out John Williams’s novel Stoner to take with me.

At this point we were thwarted in our attempts to see more shops; the next one on our list was unexpectedly closed and it was time to get some dinner and head home, which we contentedly did.

There are, however, quite a few bookshops we didn’t get to visit, which means we need to take another trip to the city as soon as we can.

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Happy weekend!

I was hoping to write a post about Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, but it’s 9:00 on a Friday evening, and I’d like to get some reading in before I go to bed, so the Baker post will have to wait. You probably know how that goes (well, maybe all of you are out partying on a Friday night; I shouldn’t assume anybody else stays in). I will say, though, that once again today I found myself trying to talk a friend into reading Baker. That happens a lot with me. I mean, what is everybody waiting for?

Instead of writing about Baker, I’ll tell you how things went this week. First of all, I got some more Christmas presents — all in the form of books. People tend to apologize about giving gifts late, but I like it when they come late, because it spreads the fun out a bit more. First of all, I got a copy of Kelly Link’s book Magic for Beginners, which will work perfectly for Kate’s Short Story challenge. And then I got a copy of Frances Wilson’s biography The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. I’m acquiring a fairly decent collection of biographies of the romantics, which is fun. Eric Newby’s A Traveler’s Life also arrived, and the title is pretty self-explanatory. It sounds exciting.

Also, two books arrived from Book Mooch: Sybille Bedford’s A Favorite of the Gods and Valerie Trueblood’s Seven Loves. Both of these authors come highly recommended from fellow bloggers.

But I’m not just collecting books; I’m working my way through a few, including Miklos Vamos’s The Book of Fathers. I’m about 3/4 of the way through. The book has been intense and full of characters, events, and history. I’ve been enjoying it. I’m also reading the Best American Essays 2008 collection; I almost always enjoy reading books in that series, and this particular volume is not failing me. Adam Gopnik was the editor that year, and he wrote a great introduction to the essay form. How’s this for an opening line:

The essayist, like his friend the hangman, is expected to apologize for his profession even as he practices it.

An excellent beginning to a so-far excellent book. The first essay was wonderful in a gut-wrenching, shocking kind of way, as were the two after it, now that I think about it, and I’m looking forward to reading further.

But there is cycling news too. Because of the snow and freezing temperatures, Hobgoblin and I have turned to our mountain bikes for exercise. For the most part, we are mountain biking on pavement and not on mountains, but when the roads have ice and slush on them, knobby tires work much better than skinny ones, and many days this week, it’s been the mountain bikes that have allowed us to get out at all. I hadn’t ridden on my mountain bike for several years, so when Hobgoblin pulled mine out, I was initially skeptical and uncertain, but I’ve become so grateful he did because without it I would despair at my ability to train for the races that are only eight weeks away. Now, instead of worrying about snow in the forecast, I just look forward to using my other bike. I’ve ridden six days in a row now, four days on the mountain bike, and it’s been so much fun. Today we did some riding on dirt roads and carriage roads in a local park and it was fun in a terrifying, wheels-sliding-all-over-the-place kind of way.

And tomorrow, Hobgoblin and I have a super-exciting literary excursion to look forward to. I’ll be back soon with a full report.

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Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading

Maureen Corrigan’s book Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading isn’t the best reading memoir I’ve ever read (I’m not sure what is, now that I think about it; if this turns out to be my favorite one, there’s a little room for improvement), but it has interesting and entertaining parts. It also makes me think that reading memoirs are fun to the extent that the reader shares a taste in books with the writer, at least to some degree. The parts I liked best are the parts about books I’m familiar with; the sections I rushed through are those where I had no connection to the books under discussion at all.

The premise of the book is that reading has made Corrigan’s life what it is, an interesting and appealing idea that Corrigan returns to again and again. Books kept her company as a child, they took her out of her Irish Catholic neighborhood and landed her in Philadelphia to study literature as a grad student, they led her out of the scholarly world into the world of book reviewing, and they shaped her experience of adopting her daughter. She now teaches and reviews books for NPR’s show “Fresh Air.” I’ve listened to a number of her radio reviews, so it was interesting to learn a little more about the person behind the voice.

The book is divided into four chapters interspersed with short, unlabeled meditations on books. The chapters take up such subjects as “women’s extreme adventure stories,” detective fiction, portrayals of single women, and pre-Vatican II Catholic martyr stories. The women’s extreme adventure idea is that there is a whole tradition of stories about women who spend their lives waiting — for men, for relief, for salvation, for recognition, for children — and struggling at home with, perhaps, abusive men or babies or loneliness. Instead of getting to go out and have adventures at sea or in the workplace, they spend their time enduring at home. Books by novelists such as the Brontës and Barbara Pym argue implicitly that the lives of women who wait deserve recognition as adventurous and valiant.

The chapter on crime fiction argues for the literary merit of the genre and claims that it is for the most part the only novel form that portrays work directly. Other novels take up work as a theme or describe work in brief sections, but crime novels dig deep into the working lives of detectives, showing in detail what it is they do on the job. She argues that part of the appeal of detectives is that their work is so satisfying — it allows them to use both their bodies and their brains, and it gives them an unusual degree of freedom and independence. Corrigan complains about those who dismiss crime fiction as mere “genre fiction” and believes that crime novels are capable of incisive social analysis.

I found these arguments interesting, and they were among the highlights of the book. The chapter on Catholic martyr tales was the book’s weak point, however. It seemed like too specialized a subject to appeal to most readers. The subject comes out of Corrigan’s Catholic education, a part of which was reading uplifting books about virtuous Catholics whose lives were full of sacrifice and self-abnegation. The self-abnegation, however, sits rather uneasily with the books they wrote and published detailing their heroics. The cultural argument Corrigan makes here is interesting, but the books she discusses are obscure and not ones I (and I’d guess most readers) would want to pursue.

That last chapter aside, however, I enjoyed the way Corrigan combines discussions of books with stories from her life; she brings the two together in a way that feels natural and seamless. I would have liked the book more if my reading taste overlapped with hers to a greater extent, but still, there is much that’s worth while here. And, as I said in an earlier post, the title is perfect for sending a message, if “leave me alone, I’m reading” is the message you want to send.

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Case Histories

I’m entirely uncertain what to think of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. There were moments I enjoyed it and moments it left me deeply troubled. The troubling moments were partly aesthetic — there were times, especially near the end, when I found what happened to the characters so unconvincing I laughed — and partly about subject matter I didn’t like. I’m not sure if I can hold this against the book or not, although I would like to.

The subject matter I didn’t like had to do with the way women in the book are constantly under threat and are victims of violence, and the way the men freak out about this to such an extent that one has fantasies of sending his daughter away to a convent. Now, a book that takes up the theme of violence against women sounds interesting to me, but in this case, the picture Atkinson creates is one that is so dark, it felt less like an exploration of the subject and more like a warning — a warning I don’t particularly want to hear.

Okay, but to back up a bit, this book is a mystery, although it’s marketed as literary fiction with mystery elements in it — a ridiculous distinction, really. It has an interesting structure, and Atkinson handles the plotting well. My uncertainties about this book aside, I found the story compelling the whole way through. It starts off with three different “case histories”: descriptions of crimes including kidnapping and murder. Then we are introduced to the detective, Jackson, a private investigator who spends a good deal of his professional time looking for lost cats. As is typical in mystery novels, Jackson has a troubled personal life; his wife has just left him for another man and he tries to spend as much time as he can with his daughter, but he worries he is losing influence over her.

Eventually he finds himself caught up in the three cases. All of the crimes happened years in the past, but in each case something has happened to inspire the survivors to want to look into it again. The police were unable to solve the crime in all three cases and Jackson has serious doubts he will be able to solve them himself, but he has been hired to do a job, and so he tries.

In the course of following Jackson’s investigations, the novel switches point of view frequently, moving from Jackson’s perspective to that of the various survivors. At first this rapid switching from story to story was distracting, but eventually it’s possible to settle into each of the plot lines and begin to enjoy each one. Atkinson does a good job of giving each story its due, and they all feel equally well developed. This doesn’t strike me as an easy feat, and I admire Atkinson for pulling it off, except for those moments where, as I mentioned above, events seemed contrived and I found myself jolted out of the story by some development that didn’t strike me as true.

Jackson is an entertaining detective, but I couldn’t help but feel that he is a rather pale imitation of Rebus from the Ian Rankin novels and of other detectives in other mysteries. The usual elements are there — the troubled love life, the complicated past, the tendency to get beat up regularly, the sardonic view of the world. Jackson spends a lot of time listening to female country music singers — Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch — and this felt like an overly-easy shorthand method of characterization.

So, again, I don’t quite know what to think. At times I was entertained, at times I was irritated, and at times I thought the world Atkinson was painting was a much darker one than what I am willing to accept. I generally don’t have a problem with darkness at all, but here it didn’t seem genuine. It’s not as though all the men are aggressors and the women victims — in fact, one of the cases is about a woman who murders her husband. It’s more that we are reminded again and again that although women can commit acts of violence just as men can, they are still and always uniquely vulnerable and need to be eternally vigilant (and need men to be eternally vigilant in protection of them). That’s not an idea I’m willing to accept.

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Happy New Year!

I started off the new year in what I think is an appropriate way: a little bit of laziness (sleeping until 9:00 or so and reading in bed until 10:00ish), a little more reading (an hour or so in the late morning), and a nice long bike ride (three hours with Hobgoblin down to the beach and back). After I write this post, it’s time for more reading. If only things could continue in that leisurely fashion! Or, rather, it would be leisure mixed with the kind of exertion I like: thinking hard about books and then pedaling hard on my bike.

As for what I’m reading, it’s Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist for the second time, because one time with that book wasn’t enough. I read through it fairly fast on the first reading, and now I’m taking my time to savor the ideas and the language. More on that book soon. I’m also reading a friend’s mystery novel draft, which has been enjoyable. It’s set locally, which is always fun, and it has a good plot and interesting characters. I like having such talented friends.

As for cycling, today’s ride was perfect. Well, it was perfect if you set aside the cold (temps in the 30s) and the damp (puddles and slush, but no ice!) and the fact that I got covered in mud. But I felt strong and managed to stay warm, and halfway through the ride, Hobgoblin and I stopped at a cupcake shop for some dessert and coffee. Yum. My final mileage for 2009 is 5,097 miles total and 5,042 miles outdoors (I rode 55 miles on the trainer last winter).

And now for some thoughts on the coming year. I’m keeping things very simple in both my reading and my riding. I was planning on ignoring all reading challenges, and I ignored a lot of them, but I found two I couldn’t resist. One of them is Emily’s TBR challenge, the books for which are listed in my sidebar. And then I saw Kate’s short story challenge and decided it would be perfect for me as I’d like to read more stories this year. I’m going to try to read five collections, although I haven’t chosen the authors yet. I’m thinking one will be Lorrie Moore, and the others I will choose as inspiration strikes.

Otherwise, I plan to read book group books, books for school, and then whatever else I feel like.

As for cycling, my main goal for this year is to not be so numbers-obsessed. I’m glad I reached my 5,000-mile goal in 2009, but I don’t want any more mileage goals, and instead I’d prefer to focus on the kind of riding that will make me stronger for racing and that will keep me in shape for riding with my cycling friends. The number of miles I ride has little to do with these things, and in fact, I could benefit from riding fewer miles and concentrating instead on mixing low- and high-intensity workouts in a better proportion.

There is a limit to my ability to forget about the numbers though. When I told my friend Megan that I wanted to stop worrying about how many miles I was riding, she sensibly asked me why I don’t just stop keeping track. The idea was so shocking I hardly knew what to say. I can’t imagine not knowing. So I will keep logging my rides, but I’m planning on riding fewer than 5,000 miles, so there’s no point in worrying too much about how fast the total mileage is increasing.

I suppose I should have some racing goals too, but I don’t. Or perhaps I should make my goal something abstract like getting as much enjoyment out of racing as I can while not worrying about the results. As I’ve written here many times before, I feel ambivalently about racing, but I’m not quite ready to give it up, as it has nice benefits like making me strong so that my cycling friends don’t leave me behind, and also making me part of the racing community and allowing me to support women’s racing, which needs it. So I’ll race and get stronger and see what happens.

I think that’s it. I guess I’m not one for complicated and detailed resolutions.

I hope your year has started off well!

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