Monthly Archives: March 2010

W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this book. Vertigo is my second book by W.G. Sebald; I wrote about The Rings of Saturn here, and I liked that book quite a lot, even though it left me feeling a little bewildered. Now that I have read Vertigo, which is written in a style similar to The Rings of Saturn, I’m less sure what I think of Sebald. Both books are very smart and very thought-provoking, but in both books there’s an emotional distance that leaves me a little cold. This seems less true in The Rings of Saturn, but in Vertigo I found it hard to remember what was going on and to keep track of my place in the various stories; this has a lot to do with the fact that Sebald moves quickly and seamlessly from narrative to narrative in a way that is disorienting at times, but I think it also has to do with the emotional distance of the narrator(s). There wasn’t enough drawing me into the stories and making me care about what was going on.

Now, I love idea-driven books, whether fiction or nonfiction, so I feel like Sebald should be a favorite writer of mine. But Vertigo makes me realize that an idea-driven book needs to be emotionally compelling as well, because it’s when my emotions are involved that I’m most inspired to take time to consider the ideas the writer is working with.

But to back up a bit, Vertigo has four sections, each one telling a different story, or, more accurately, a different series of interconnected stories. Each section is different, but they all deal with memory, sadness, and feelings of disorientation and uncertainty — the kind of vertigo created by feeling all the sudden alienated from oneself and the surrounding world. The first section describes Stendhal’s life, touching on his experiences in war and in love (Sebald never uses the name “Stendhal,” though, calling him by his real name, Marie Henri Beyle, and it wasn’t until I had finished the section and finally got around to reading the book’s back cover that I realized who I had just read about). As a young boy, Beyle marched with Napolean and his army, and as an older man, he tried to remember details of that march. Sebald describes the difficulties Beyle encountered reconciling his memory with the landscape he sees as an older man, thus setting up his theme of the unreliability of memory.

From there the book moves to the story of an unnamed narrator (most likely Sebald himself) who travels around Italy, exploring history (we learn about Casanova, among others) and trying to manage his feelings of uneasiness and uncertainty. Then in the third section we follow Franz Kafka for a while (also suffering emotionally), and finally we return to Sebald as narrator as he describes a journey back to his hometown in Germany. Again, as in the Stendhal section, the narrator describes what it’s like to return to formative places as an older person and to confront the difference between reality and memory.

Many of these sections describe powerful emotional experiences — panic, disorientation, sadness, despair — and yet it is all described in a flat, emotionless tone. Perhaps what this does is call upon the reader to do more imaginative work to fill in the blanks and to realize for him or herself just what it is the narrator is going through. Certainly the book asks for the reader’s participation in figuring out how the four sections connect and what the various vignettes within each section contribute to the overall meaning. And yet I didn’t feel inspired to do the work the book seemed to be asking me to do. Perhaps this is my fault, perhaps not, I’m not sure.

At any rate, Sebald is certainly doing interesting things in his writing. I haven’t yet touched on the pictures that he includes — black and white photos that relate to the surrounding text but are without captions, so the reader gets to think about the relationship of narrative and picture. Again, Sebald gives us material and then asks us to do the work of fitting it all together. The project is an interesting and admirable one, and I only wish I had fallen in love with the results.

If you are interested, come check out the discussion here.

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Maisie Dobbs and other reading notes

The Mapping of Love and Death is Jacqueline Winspear’s latest Maisie Dobbs novel. I’ll admit at this point that this series isn’t wowing me, exactly, although I do want to keep reading the latest installments, just to see where it goes. The Maisie Dobbs books are good ones to turn to at this particular point of the year, when I’m tired and busy and ready for the end of the school year, but the end of the school year is still so far away. At this point I need something familiar and absorbing and not terribly challenging, and Maisie Dobbs is just the thing.

The series doesn’t wow me for two reasons, basically, one of which is that the plots have begun to feel lackluster. I’m not one to read much for plot, though, so this is okay. The historical context and the character development are more interesting, so that’s good. The other problem, though, is that I get irritated by the way Maisie uses her unusually strong powers of intuition to figure out who committed the crime. This feels too much like cheating. Yes, Maisie is smart and has the powers of deduction we would expect of a detective, but still she relies too heavily on feelings of foreboding that come over her whenever something significant is about to happen.

But, on the other hand, I do want to know what happens to Maisie, having followed her story this far, and the book is satisfying in that regard. Significant things happen to her, and I’m glad I know about them. For a much better, much more thorough review, read Danielle’s thoughts here.

On to other bookish things: I finished Balzac’s novel Cousin Bette and never wrote much about it, and at this point, I’ve forgotten too much about the novel to have much to say. I’ll just say that I didn’t like it much and move on. I’m not ready to give up on Balzac entirely, though, as surely I’m missing something? I’m not one to dismiss a classic author quite so easily just because I failed with him once. So some day perhaps I’ll pick up a shorter novel of his, if there is one, and see if my mind has changed.

I just now finished W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, but more thoughts on that later, as the Slaves of Golconda are discussing the book this Wednesday. I am also in the middle of David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I am enjoying it immensely. I have read five of the book’s seven essays (many of them quite long), and I think every one of them is great. Wallace is a writer who can make any subject interesting. I just finished an essay on the film director David Lynch and I loved it, even though if I’ve ever seen a Lynch film I don’t remember it. There’s another great essay on the Illinois State Fair and another one on tennis, math, the midwest, and wind. The other two I’ve read are more literary in nature, one of them a pre-Infinite Jest essay that shows Wallace thinking through some of the ideas that made their way into the novel. It’s all excellent, and I haven’t even gotten to the title essay yet, probably his most famous essay of them all. It’s crossing my mind now and then that I might want to reread Infinite Jest soon. I don’t know if I will, but I am tempted. It’s just such a fabulous novel.

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Some really excellent nonfiction

I’m not sure at all what I would think of David Shields’s book Reality Hunger, were I to read it. I’m sort of tempted, and sort of feel as though I’ve heard enough about it already. The fact that it’s subtitled “A Manifesto” is a strike against it, as the thought of reading a manifesto makes me yawn. I had only the vaguest idea what the book was about until I read this article by James Wood in The New Yorker, an article that is ostensibly a review of the latest Change-Rae Lee novel, but is really more of a meditation on the novel itself. Wood introduces Shield’s book as an argument “against the traditional novelistic machinery” and includes this quotation from the book:

I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always “about what they’re about”—which may sound a tad tautological—but when I read a book that I really love, I’m excited because I can feel the writer’s excitement that in every paragraph he’s manifestly exploring his subject.

I feel two ways about this passage. In some ways I agree, because many of the books I love the most are ones that don’t have traditional plots or traditional novelistic devices. These books I love are forms of thinking and consciousness and deal with ideas directly. I’m also someone who can’t remember charaters’ names or plot details. On the other hand, I love stories too and am far from ready to dismiss “traditional” novels. In fact, writing a manifesto dismissing “traditional” novels strikes me as a highly silly and annoying thing to do. Expressing one’s personal preference strongly is fine, but I have a feeling Shields is doing more than that.

Ultimately Wood’s discussion of the book is mixed; he calls it “imprecise and overwrought” but also finds Shields’s skepticism towards traditional narrative useful. (Amusingly, in this interview, Shields says that he hopes Wood will review his book “because he’ll hate it. And it’ll be hilarious.” He got his wish, and I wonder if the review is as hilarious as he expected. It seems that Wood might have pleasantly surprised him.)

So, who knows if I’ll read the book or not. As I read the Wood piece I thought the one really excellent reason for reading it would be to see what books Shields praises, since it sounds like we share similar tastes in some areas at least. And then I came across this list of 26 “shifting nonfictions” Shields recommends. And oh, did this list make me happy. It’s exactly what I wanted. By “shifting nonfictions” Shields means books that explore “our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world.” The only thing that would have made the list better would be if he had dropped the nonfiction label entirely and made a list of books, fiction or non, that are explicitly idea-driven and have things to say about truth and reality.

But as it is, it’s a really awesome list, and I know that because it has a handful of some of my favorite books ever, enough to prove that we have similar tastes, and then it has some books I’ve been meaning to read forever, which confirms my desire to read them, and then it has some books I’ve never heard of. Perfect! The ones that are among my favorite books ever are Nicholson Baker’s “U&I,” Geoff Dyer’s “Out of Sheer Rage,” Mary McCarthy’s “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood,” and David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” I also loved an essay by Joe Wenderoth I read recently, and his book Letters to Wendy’s is on the list. Other books I’ve been meaning to read forever include Blaise Pascal’s Pensees and Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is there as well, and although I’m not a huge Sebald fan, I do admire him. And I’m intrigued by a bunch of other names included there. So much to explore!

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American Wife

I didn’t expect to love Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife as much as I did. I liked her first book Prep quite a lot, so I know she’s an author whose sensibility speaks to me, but I thought this book was even better than the previous one. Now, I listened to this on audio, and I tend to like books I listen to more readily than those I read, so I’m not sure how reliable my response is, exactly, but still, I spent several weeks looking forward to the time when I could get in the car to listen to a little bit more of the story.

As I wrote about here, reading this book was an odd experience because I never expected to enjoy being in the company of characters who are modeled on George and Laura Bush. But, while the George character was often irritating (though not as much as I would have expected, given how I feel about the real-life person), Alice, the one modeled on Laura, was a fascinating person whom I came to admire.

Alice is a first-person narrator, and she tells her life story up until about 1 1/2 years from the end of Charlie’s (George’s) second term as president. I was talking to a friend recently about how knowing the trajectory a novel will follow — that we will move from Alice’s childhood up through the time she becomes first lady — can get dull, but in this case it wasn’t. As soon as she met Charlie, I knew who he was and that she would marry him, and, of course, I knew that he would be politically successful beyond her wildest dreams. But the story of their journey to the White House was enthralling the entire way, all because of Alice’s thoughtful, careful, measured, and balanced voice. That description doesn’t sound enthralling, I know, but when extraordinary things happen to someone who thinks and talks kind of like I do and whom I feel I could be friends with, I’m drawn in.

The first extraordinary thing that happens to Alice is something tragic: at 17, while driving to a party, she ran a stop sign and hit a car driven by a high school classmate, Andrew Imhof, with whom she was just beginning to realize she couldpossibly fall in love. This tragedy follows her for the rest of her life, not just because she was responsible for someone else’s death, but because she could never know whether their relationship would have blossomed into romance, had he lived. What, she thinks later, if she and Andrew had married and she had become a farmer’s wife? She may never have met Charlie in that case, much less married him and become the first lady.

But marrying Andrew is not what happened, and instead when Alice meets Charlie, the two fall for each other hard. They are engaged in six weeks and married in a few months. In so many ways, Charlie is perfect for Alice — he is funny and gregarious and light-hearted, to balance out her seriousness and thoughtfulness. He is confident and carefree, to balance her worried and insecure nature. She makes him a little more serious, while he helps her loosen up. Their differing traits attract them to each other, but, not surprisingly, they become a source of conflict over time, and eventually Alice comes to question the choice she made.

Or was it even a choice? There is a sense in which Alice was pulled into that relationship by forces beyond her knowledge, or perhaps it was her unconscious that led her there. At any rate, she thinks deeply about why she did what she did, and why people do what they do, and the extent to which any of us have any real say in the course of our lives.

These questions become even more urgent when she finds herself as First Lady and wife of a husband who has taken the country to war, in highly questionable circumstances. How in the world did she end up there? And what is she supposed to do now? What are her responsibilities, given that she’s not entirely sure that the war is right — or that it is wrong? And what exactly does she owe her husband’s administration? Should she hide her true feelings if they conflict with administration talking points?

American Wife covers a lot of ground, moving from small-town middle-class Wisconsin to the upper-class Wisconsin sanctuaries where Charlie’s family resides (Sittenfeld changed some key details — I don’t know how many, in fact, and it would be interesting to know), to the campaign trail, to the Governor’s mansion, to the White House. The wonder of it, to Alice, is that she is the same person through it all. How does an average middle-class midwestern woman who never in her wildest dreams would have thought she could become as powerful and famous as she became end up where she did? This question never ceases to puzzle Alice, and I loved the book’s implication that this is only an extreme version of the question that plagues us all. How in the world did any of us end up in the places we did?

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The Racing Season Begins!

Sigh. Spring is just about here, and this week has been particularly warm and beautiful, with temperatures in the 60s and lots of sunshine. Spring is wonderful. I’ve been thinking about how spring is almost as much fun as summer because there is so much possibility ahead of me and so much room for planning and dreaming. When summer, the end of school, and more free time arrive, it’s great, but I start getting anxious about using the time well and about how it will end before I know it. Right now I’m still in the middle of the semester and I’m working hard, but the end is in sight, not quite here yet, but on the horizon. I have much to look forward to and none of it has begun yet.

And then there’s the racing season. I love going to the races. It’s exciting, it’s dramatic, there are people to see, conversations to have, stories to tell. There’s standing out in the warm spring sun, and also in the cold spring rain, the latter of which is not nearly as fun as the former, but which is enjoyable in its own character-building way. I’m not so sure I love the actual racing part, though, as I’ve written about here again and again. It’s stressful in a way I don’t like. I don’t like the competition or the worry about crashes. I don’t like the feeling of not having done well. And yet I’m always there at the line, each and every week, ready for a little more of the stress and competition and danger. I may well give up racing one of these seasons, but apparently I’m not quite there yet.

I’ve raced twice so far and both races have gone well. In the first one there were maybe 25 riders and most of us stayed together the entire time. A few people tried to attack off the front to shake things up a little bit, but they never got anywhere. The race ended in a pack sprint, and I got 13th place. That was fine, but I could do better, I think, if I were better about fighting for position in the pack during the last lap, so I’m in a good position to sprint. But it’s exactly that kind of fight I don’t like.

Last Sunday’s race was an odd one. It was a rainy day, and while it didn’t rain during the race, it rained during my warm-up, so I was wet and cold when the race started. That was no worry, though, because racing always warms me up enough to be comfortable. One woman attacked early on and spent quite a few laps off the front, but the pack caught her eventually and we were together up until the last seven laps (out of 22 total). At that point, three women attacked. I tried to grab their wheels but couldn’t and so fell back with the rest of the group, at which point we spent the last laps arguing about who was going to pull out front and into the wind. Most people were taking their turns out front, but one woman absolutely refused to do her part. Tempers flared, people yelled at the woman, she yelled back, and it got ugly. And then we were at the end. The pack was very small, hardly a pack at all, and so it wasn’t hard to get myself in a good position to head up the final hill. I started sprinting in third position, which is an excellent place to be, and I was able to pass the two riders ahead of me (including the woman who refused to play nice) and win the field sprint, taking fourth overall (and winning a little bit of prize money). It was my best showing at this race, and I was pleased.

I had fun during that sprint, but it wasn’t enough to make me completely enthusiastic about racing. What I am enthusiastic about is regular old riding, of which I have been doing a lot. I’ve ridden over 1,200 miles so far this year, all outdoors, in all kinds of weather, and I don’t think I’ve done a ride I haven’t enjoyed.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley

My mystery book group met last night to discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, a book that indicates we are branching out a bit from mystery fiction to crime fiction more generally. Detectives appear in Highsmith’s book, but only briefly, and they aren’t very good. They are pretty foolish, in fact. The real star of the book is Tom Ripley, the murderer.

What a wonderful, difficult, bizarre book this is. I loved it, but it left me feeling anxious and vaguely guilty, as though I’d done something wrong myself. The reason for this is that the story is told from a very close third-person perspective that leaves the reader in Tom’s consciousness the entire time, with no relief. It’s such a disturbing consciousness that I was both fascinated by the person that Tom is, and deeply unsettled.

As the novel opens, Tom finds himself followed by a man who turns out to be the father of an acquaintance. Tom was worried that the man was following him because of the tax fraud Tom had recently committed (he sent out letters to people telling them they owed more in taxes — just for fun and to see what would happen), but it turns out he wants Tom to travel to Europe to try to bring his son Dickie back home to run the family business. Tom soon figures out that even though he doesn’t know Dickie as well as his father thinks he does, this is a great opportunity to live in the lap of luxury for a while.

He meets Dickie in a small, coastal Italian town and quickly becomes a part of his life. He and Dickie’s friend Marge spend their days swimming, sunbathing, and eating long and luxurious meals. Tensions soon develop, though: Tom is devoted to Dickie but jealous of Marge, while Marge decides that Tom is a bad influence on Dickie and treats him coldly and suspiciously. This love triangle of a sort (Marge is in love with Dickie, although he appears not to return the feeling, and Tom is obsessed with Dickie to a degree that is obvious but ambiguous in nature) gets more and more complicated until one day Tom, in a fit of jealousy and worried that Dickie is pushing him away, kills him in horrifically bloody fashion in a boat on the ocean.

What’s so awful about this murder is that it’s so senseless, so horrible, and yet to Tom it’s simply an unfortunate action that he had little control over. Once the idea entered his mind, he knew there was little he could do except follow through. He’s not remorseful at all, just cautious about what to do next. What he does is become Dickie himself, stepping into his shoes, forging his signature to collect his money, and living the life that Dickie might have lived.

Tom not only lacks any moral sense, but he lacks any sense of himself at all; he’s a cipher, an empty shell who is incapable of caring for another person. He is extremely isolated. The people around him are pawns in his personal game or they are nobodies to be gotten rid of if necessary. What Tom has — or what he wants to have — in place of any sense of self or any emotional connection to others is objects and money. Once he has taken Dickie’s place, he enjoys himself extremely well wearing Dickie’s clothes, eating fabulous meals alone in expensive restaurants, and traveling across Europe seeing the sights. As long as he has the objects that make up the right kind of identity, it doesn’t matter to him that the identity is a sham. For him, it’s real, or, at any rate, it’s enough.

He slips into the role of Dickie frighteningly easily, and not only that, but he quickly forgets what it was like to be Tom:

It was a good idea to practice jumping into his own character again, because the time might come when he would need to in a matter of seconds, and it was strangely easy to forget the exact timbre of Tom Ripley’s voice. He conversed with Marge until the sound of his own voice in his ears was exactly the same as he remembered it.

It’s possible to say that this is a psychological exploration of a sociopath, but I think the book resists psychological explanations and is therefore even more chilling. The narrator explains that Tom lost his parents when he was young and that he was raised by an emotionally abusive aunt. But this history is told so quickly, with so few details, that it’s almost as if Highsmith is playing with our need for an explanation, making fun of it by providing us with one so unsatisfactory. There’s no real reason for Tom, no way of explaining him or of avoiding him.

As other members of my book group said, I loved the book, but I don’t necessarily want to read more of the book in the series or even more of Highsmith’s work at all. It’s good — very good — but so disturbing it’s hard to subject oneself to it.

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A little more self-help

It is interesting to describe Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity to friends to see what they say and to read the comments on my post about the book — interesting for a whole bunch of reasons. One is that I used to be the sort of person who would make fun of the sort of person I am now — one who is vaguely spiritual, a westerner interested in eastern religions, one who reads self-help books and throws around terms like “positivity” without sarcasm. So when people express the same doubts about the concept of positivity that I once would have expressed myself, I remember that version of my self (which was around up until quite recently and still sort of exists) and have to laugh. I have my doubts about the whole thing too. And I agree with those who say that the positive psychology movement has its dangerous side and can be misused or warped into something that’s about repressing negativity in a harmful way.

And yet it doesn’t have to turn dangerous or be harmful, and I think Fredrickson does a good job of staying balanced; she argues that negative feelings are useful and important, and we should pay attention to what they mean. But people also tend to focus on the negative to such an extent that we block out the positive, and she urges people both to dwell on the positive more and to learn to distinguish between negativity that’s useful — the sort that tells us to get out of a bad relationship, for example — and the negativity that isn’t — the sort that keeps me up at night replaying a conversation that made me angry over and over again in my head.

But I also wanted to write about another book I read, this time for work (for discussion amongst faculty), Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. This is not a book I liked a whole lot, although it did overlap a little with Positivity. The argument in Pink’s book is that because of three factors — abundance, Asia, and automation (I find the repeated “a” words obnoxious) — the types of skills that are in demand and will get us jobs in the future are changing. What matters now is right-brain thinking, a kind of creative, artistic, empathetic, and emotional approach, rather than the old left-brain thinking, which is about calculations and logic. Basically, computers and cheap labor from overseas will be able to perform the kind of rote, mechanical mental work that many people in America are doing now (computer-programming, accounting). Instead, skills such as creating new designs or empathizing with people’s problems or being able to create compelling narratives will be in demand. Pink lists six aspects of right-brain thinking that he describes in separate chapters, which include resources for developing that skill: design, story, symphony (making connections, synthesizing ideas), empathy, play, and meaning.

Now Pink’s argument may be entirely true, I don’t know. I can’t really critique the rightness or wrongness of it. But the book seems to be meant to inspire people to develop a facility with “right-brain” thinking, and rather than being inspirational, it’s frightening. It’s like an order to start being creative — now! — or lose your job and become irrelevant. It’s really hard to work on developing a new mindset, especially one that’s about openness and play, when feeling under threat.

Some of the attributes Pink talks about came up in the Positivity book; Fredrickson argues that cultivating positivity can increase our creativity and emotional responsiveness, and that it can be a part of our quest for meaning. I really like the idea that fostering positive emotions can make a person more open to new ideas, more willing to try new things, and more able to see creative possibilities. These are things Pink values as well. But his argument is “change or else,” whereas Fredrickson’s is “give it a try and see what happens.” That’s a much better starting place, don’t you think?

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