Monthly Archives: August 2010

Poetry: T’ao Ch’ien

I came across an absolutely lovely book, The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien in a rather odd way. I first heard of T’ao Ch’ien in John D’Agata’s essay anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, which has a short selection of his called “Biography of Master Five-Willows.” This is only a few paragraphs long, but I fell in love with it. It’s my habit when I read an anthology selection that I love to hunt down a book by the author, so when I checked D’Agata’s “Acknowledgments” section to find out where the T’ao Ch’ien piece came from, I saw it came from his selected poems. It was strange to find a prose piece coming from a volume of selected poems, but I thought I’d buy it anyway. Why not? It turns out that the prose piece was included in the introduction to the poems. It also turns out that D’Agata’s definition of the essay is wide enough to encompass poetry as well as prose, as his anthology includes Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” one of my favorite poems ever. D’Ataga is perhaps stretching the definition of “essay” beyond recognition, but whatever. I love T’ao Ch’ien’s prose and poetry both, so I’m a happy reader.

T’ao Ch’ien is a Chinese writer who lived from 365-427 A.D. The editor of his selected poems says that T’ao was “the first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience, thereby creating the personal lyricism which all major Chinese poets inherited and made their own.” There is indeed a very natural and everyday voice that comes through the poems, the voice of a person who is wise and wryly funny at the same time.

A little bit of T’ao’s life story comes through the poems even if you know nothing else about his biography; you can tell that he at one time held a post in government service but left it to live in poverty as a farmer. His poems are frank about the poverty, but he celebrates his life on his farm, even with its hard work. When the work is done, he is free to walk in nature, to sit quietly at home with friends, and, very often, to drink wine. There is a strong Buddhist orientation to the poems (although the frequent references to wine don’t quite seem to fit); they celebrate living in the moment and enjoying what one has rather than grasping for more. The poems have a strong awareness of suffering and death, but rather than being morbid, they call for enjoyment of life while we have it.

But mostly the poems are just beautiful, in a peaceful, meditative way. The descriptions of nature are brief — none of the poems are long — but evocative, and his depiction of a quiet life lived in nature and among friends is moving. But rather than trying to describe them, let me just give you one of the poems:

In all its reckless leisure, autumn begins
its end. Cold — the dew-charged wind cold,

vines will blossom no more. Our courtyard
trees have spent themselves: they stand

empty. Dingy air washed clean, clear sky
heightens the distant borders of heaven,

and now mourning cicadas have gone silent,
geese call out beneath gossamer clouds.

The ten thousand changes follow each other
away — so why shouldn’t living be hard?

And everyone dies. It’s always been true,
I know, but thinking of it still leaves me

grief-torn. How can I reach my feelings?
A little thick wine, and I’m soon pleased

enough. A thousand years may be beyond me,
but I can turn this morning into forever.

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Biographies: Coleridge

In a lot of ways I like the idea of reading biographies more than I like the actual reading of them; it sounds so nice to learn more about authors, find out what their life was like, learn a little bit about their time and place, but the reality is that biographies are often too long, they can get dull, and I forget much of what I read. Sadly, I’m not good with fact-filled nonfiction and prefer the kind that is narrative- or idea-driven.

But in spite of the above, I still do read biographies now and then, and I do get something from them, especially when they are written by someone great, which is the case with Richard Holmes and his biography of Coleridge. I read the first volume last summer (apparently, I don’t like super-long biographies, unless they are written by Richard Holmes), and just finished the second volume a week or so ago (a good 500+ pages long).

The books are enthralling. It’s partly that Coleridge is a great subject, but more that Holmes does such a good job with the story. He somehow manages to make Coleridge’s story suspenseful. Of course the final ending is never in doubt, but in the meantime, I didn’t want to put the book down because I had to know whether Coleridge was finally going to make good on his creative and intellectual promise, whether he would kick his terrible opium habit, whether his latest publication would sell, whether he would find another friend to care for him when the last one abandoned him. There are tons of facts in the books, but they are all part of the narrative, and Holmes never loses sight of it.

He also writes a lot about Coleridge’s writings and his philosophy, so there’s a strong focus on criticism as well as the life. Coleridge was not only a poet, but a journalist, a playwright, and a philosopher, so there is a lot of intellectual material to make sense of. Coleridge’s thinking was often abstract and metaphysical (so much so that people began to mock him for it), and Holmes does a good job explaining the ideas and also situating Coleridge in his historical context. It’s great fun to read about Coleridge’s relationships with other writers and philosophers, William and Dorothy Wordsworth most obviously, but also Lamb, Hazlitt (who loved Coleridge and then viciously attacked him), Southey, Keats, Shelley, and lots and lots of others. Coleridge was an extremely gregarious person, which makes him a great subject for a biography — there are just so many good stories to tell.

Coleridge had such great promise as a writer that reading the second half of the biography was sometimes hard because his opium addiction and other aspects of his personality kept him from living up to his potential. It’s a story of Coleridge again and again abandoning this scheme and that plan because he had another bad spell with his health. As flawed as the man was (the story of how he treated his wife and family is a little hard to take sometimes, although complicated), I couldn’t help but fall under his spell. It was a book that was hard to put down and sad to finish.

I hated the Romantics in college, but grad school changed my mind completely, and now I’m eager to read more. Fortunately, Holmes has another super-long biography of Percy Shelley, and I have books about Dorothy Wordsworth and Keats on my shelves, not to mention some primary texts by those writers as well. And now I really want a copy of Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics: The Tangled Lived of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation. I don’t think I’ve ever read this kind of group biography before, but I have at least one other on my shelves (Partisans), and I’m curious how I will like them.

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TBR challenge: Rosalind Belbin

So Emily’s TBR challenge, where we’re supposed to read 20 books from our TBR piles and post on them? I’m doing awesomely well (as long as I ignore the part of the challenge that says we aren’t supposed to buy any more books, which I’ve ignored from the very beginning, practically). I have now read or attempted to read 17 of the books on my list and am in the middle of the 18th. Oh, I haven’t quite posted on every book, but I’ve posted on almost every book, which is pretty good. You can see my progress in the sidebar on the right.

The one book on the list that I started but didn’t finish is Rosalind Belbin’s Our Horses in Egypt. I was sorry about setting that one aside. I knew it would be a bit of a challenge, and I was fine with that, but it turned out not to be the kind of challenge I wanted. I made it maybe 100 pages into the book before I quit. I like the idea behind the book, which is that it switches back and forth between stories, moving from a woman who travels to Egypt in the years after World War I to find her horse who had been requisitioned for use in the army, and the story of what happened to that horse, Philomena, during the war. The sections telling Philomena’s story are interesting because Belbin captures a sensibility that seems somehow just right. The perspective is a close third person, and even though we don’t really know what a horse experiences, the attempt to capture it here felt genuine.

But the style wasn’t working for me, unfortunately. Belbin throws a lot of information at the reader without much explanation, details of the war scenes especially, and it’s hard to piece all the details together. There’s a disjointed feeling to it all. The paragraphs tended to be short and often not clearly connected to each other. Although I liked much about the Philomena sections, the confusing details were particularly a problem in these sections. I can appreciate that perhaps Belbin was trying to capture Philomena’s experience for the reader — the confusion and uncertainty she was experiencing as she had little idea what was going on — but still, that appreciation wasn’t enough to justify continuing to read.

It’s not that I don’t want to work a little when I read. Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room was similarly disconnected in style and required work on the part of the reader to piece everything together. But I was interested in the ideas in that book in a way I wasn’t in Belbin’s. There was something about the mood and atmosphere of each book that kept me interested in one but not in the other.

Several other readers of this book really loved it, though, so if you have thought about reading this one, don’t discount it because of me. I just never clicked with it in the way I wanted to, and I’m trying to be better about setting books aside when they aren’t working for me.

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Then We Came to the End

I finished Joshua Ferris’s 2007 novel Then We Came to the End recently and found it a pleasure to read. A friend recommended it to me because of its portrayal of the workplace and because of its interesting point of view, and I liked the book on both counts. The novel takes place almost entirely in an advertising agency and is about a group of “creatives,” or the people who dream up ideas for ads. It tells about workplace habits and rituals, crazy colleagues, scary bosses, endless gossip, and, after a while, layoffs. Most of my jobs haven’t been typical 9-5 office jobs, but still I could recognize the world Ferris describes, and he’s captured it perfectly.

It starts off at a leisurely pace, describing the main characters and their quirks and telling some of the most famous stories, as though author and reader were taking part in one long gossip session. All this is funny and insightful. The characters do their work but have plenty of time left over for hanging out in each other’s offices, dreaming up jokes and pranks, and sometimes carrying on flirtations or trying to recover from workplace love affairs gone wrong. You don’t get a whole lot of information of the lives the characters lead outside of work, just brief summaries. Instead, work seems like their whole world, even though they see their time outside the office as precious. Work is what gives them a feeling of belonging and purpose, and even though they love their weekends, in this novel, it’s the weekdays that are full of life.

Once the layoffs start, the tension picks up, as everyone wonders who will be next and how they will manage to fill their time and look busy, when there isn’t much work. There are other sources of tension as well, particularly with their boss, Lynn, who may or may not be desperately ill. Everyone begins to wonder whether some of their more unstable colleagues who have been laid off might not return to revenge themselves on the people who cast them out. There’s a clear dividing line between the days, set in the boom years of the 1990s, when success and money came easily, and the harder times at the turn of the century where worry and suspicion began to take over. This isn’t really a 9/11 novel, but Ferris deals with the day in an understated way that’s powerful and effective.

Besides all the workplace stuff, the other thing the book is interesting for is its point of view, which is first person plural. The narrator says “we” and “us” all the way through, as though it were the collective voice of the agency speaking. This captures the sense of community — even a troubled one — that exists in the office and also the feeling that gossip is what unites the place more than the work they do. Reading “we knew,” “we heard,” “we believed,” “we gathered” over and over again makes it feel like the people don’t so much have individual identities as that they find their identity through participation in the group. As more and more people quit or are let go, this sense of the group becomes strained — it’s their world falling apart.

I don’t imagine it’s easy to use this unusual point of view so consistently through an entire novel, but Ferris pulls it off perfectly.

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Thus Was Adonis Murdered

I was a little worried when I began Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered for my mystery book group because Hobgoblin had not liked the book at all. We don’t always agree on books, but we agree often enough to give me reason to worry. And the critiques he made sounded like ones I might make too. But as it turns out, this is one of those books we don’t agree on, and I ended up liking it a lot. The book has a very strong and distinctive voice, which means that if you don’t take to the voice, you will hate the book. Fortunately for me, it was a voice I found amusing.

The book was published in 1981 (although I kept feeling it was set in an earlier time — it didn’t feel like the 1980s), and is about a group of young barristers in London, one of whom, Julia, travels to Venice on vacation with a group of art lovers, one of whom is murdered. Julia has been taken in for questioning. The barristers back in London worried about Julia traveling to Venice because of her extreme lack of practicality and street smarts. They were right to worry, but nobody expected she would be accused of murder.

The book never actually takes us to Venice, however, except in letters. The main action all takes place back in London and is narrated by a person named Hilary whose gender is never specified (although I sort of forgot that men can be named Hilary and assumed it was a woman until I read Emily’s post on the book). It’s Hilary’s voice that you will most likely either love or hate; Hilary is an Oxford don and is friends with the London barristers, although not really a part of their group. Hilary is obsessed with scholarship and the logical and investigative skills that come with being a scholar, although also curiously willing to forgo actually doing scholarship when something more exciting comes along. You can catch a bit of the novel’s tone and its humor from one of my favorite passages:

On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Record Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers needed for my research and settled into place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or of the passage of time. When at last I came to myself it was almost eleven, and I was quite exhausted: I knew I could not prudently continue without refreshment.

Hilary is self-obsessed and self-important, but is a willing and able guide through the story, and in fact takes on the role of guide self-consciously, telling us early on who solves the murder (Hilary) and speaking to us directly to give clues as to how the story is put together.

What I particularly liked about the novel, in addition to the tone and the humor, is the fact that so much of it is made up of letters. Julia writes Selena, one of the barristers, long letters telling her experiences, and the group sits around while Selena reads them out loud. The letters are interrupted by commentary and discussion from the group, so we get not only the story as told by Julia, but also the reactions of the barristers who already know about the murder and can read the letters for clues. The mystery is solved from this reading, as Hilary smugly reveals to everyone at the end.

I also liked Julia’s character — she is bumbling and disaster-prone (or at least this is how the barristers characterize her; it’s possible to wonder how fair they are being), but she is a brilliant tax lawyer and a beautiful, sexually-forthright woman who hopes for some erotic adventures on her trip. It is clear that she is not looking for romance, but instead wants sex, and she is made impatient by the fact that men might actually want women to pay attention to their minds rather than just their bodies. In a letter to Selena, she writes:

It is your view, as I understand it, that when dealing with young men one should make no admission, in the early stages, of the true nature of one’s objectives but instead should profess a deep admiration for their fine souls and splendid intellects. One is not to be discouraged, if I have understood you correctly, by the fact that they may have neither. I reminded myself, therefore, that if I could get the lovely creature into conversation, I must make no comment on the excellence of his profile and complexion but should apply myself to showing a sympathetic interest in his hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

The bending of gender stereotypes is great fun, and one of the book’s interests is finding out whether Julia finds her wishes fulfilled.

I’ll admit there were parts of the ending I didn’t find convincing, but by that point it didn’t really matter — the fun of the book is in its humor and its structure and the plotting felt almost incidental.

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More good books: Manservant and Maidservant

I had hoped to post on Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novel Manservant and Maidservant in time for the Slaves of Golconda group read, but I didn’t get the book read on time and was on vacation anyway. But I wanted to write about it at least briefly. It’s kind of an odd book, in a good way, and it made me think a lot about dialogue and conversation. The book has tons of dialogue in it and much of it struck me as the sort of conversation you wouldn’t hear in real life. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It seems to me there is a kind of novelistic dialogue that is unrealistic in a bad way — painfully awkward, stilted, florid, dull, etc. But there is a kind of unrealistic dialogue that is … interesting and that serves some larger point. I’m not entirely sure what the larger point here is, but somehow the dialogue, strange as it sometimes is, reveals important truths about the characters and gets ideas out on the page in a dramatic way.

The novel has a very tight focus — one main family with children and servants, one other family and a couple other characters and that’s it. The book is made up of conversations and some narration to connect all the talk. There is little context — little description of places, no historical or social background, not much but talk and internal conflict. This means that we are thrown into the world of relationships.

It’s the fact that these relationships are so interesting that makes this book work. As you would guess from the title, master/servant relationships are a big focus; the servants argue amongst themselves about their status relative to each other and also to their employers. The family gossips and worries about what the servants are doing. But the biggest source of conflict comes from the father, Horace Lamb, who terrorizes his wife, his cousin, his servants, and his five children. He makes their lives miserable through his miserliness, pestering, and suspicion. The novel’s plot lies in the telling of how the family responds to this abuse. What was so fascinating is that it captures little interactions between people in a way that seems perfectly true to life, even if the dialogue does not. It portrays jealousy, anger, sadness, suspicion, love, regret, hope, disappointment, and much else in a manner I don’t think I’ve seen in a novel before.

I wonder, though, about my claim that the dialogue is unrealistic. The number of people I have talked to or overheard in my life is very, very small compared to the number of people out there talking, so who am I to say that people don’t really talk that way?

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Cycling update

Much of the story of my cycling year so far I can tell using just a few numbers:

  • Total yearly mileage 2007 (the first year I have a full record): 4,226
  • Total yearly mileage 2008: 4,339
  • Total yearly mileage 2009: 5,097
  • Total mileage so far in 2010 (as of August 17th): 4,393

So yeah, I’ve been riding a lot this year. I’m on track to crush last year’s record, and I’ve already beaten my records from the previous two years.

This was the year I was going to forget about mileage goals and just ride as much as I wanted to. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. But instead of riding less than last year, I’ve ridden much more. I’m still not riding with any kind of mileage goal in mind (or any goal at all, of whatever sort), but it turns out that when I decide to ride just as much as I want to and no more, I end up riding a ton.

It doesn’t hurt that I’m spending much of my training time riding with my cycling BFF, who completed one Ironman triathlon in July and is doing another one in October. That means a lot of miles. A lot. I suppose if I have one goal this year, it’s to keep enough fitness so that I can keep up with her. These days that means I’m working pretty hard, but it’s so much fun, it’s exactly what I want to do.

As for races, I haven’t done one in quite a while. I did the six training races in March and April that I usually do, I did three road races, and then I did a few summer training races and that’s it. And I’ve liked the way it’s worked out. I haven’t given up racing entirely, but I’ve slowed down the pace a lot, focused on just a handful of races, and spent the rest of the time just riding. I may follow a similar method next year.

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