Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Time Traveler’s Meme

Emily the Queen o’ Memes, has a new creation with orders to all of her readers that must not be ignored. So here goes:

Rules:
1. Depending on your age, go back 10, 15, 20, or even more years.
2. Tell us how many years back you have traveled.
3. Pretend you have met yourself during that era, and tell us where you are.
4. You only have one “date” with this former self.
5. Answer the questions.

I think I’ll go back 15 years, which would put me at 21, in my senior year of college.

1. Would your younger self recognize you when you first meet? I think so. My hair has gotten shorter since then, but it’s still basically the same style and color (with possibly less gray now than I had then, believe it or not), and I dress in much the same way. I think I’m about the same weight. If there are radical things that have changed, I’m not aware of it.

2. Would she be surprised to discover what you are doing job wise? No. She wouldn’t have expected the particular location and school I’m at, but the fact that I’m a teacher wouldn’t be a surprise at all. I’ve always been rather boring and predictable that way.

3. What piece of fashion advice would you give her? Find friends who like to shop and who will help you pick things out. It worked well with Becky, although now that she’s moved to England, I’m going to have to get my fashion advice long-distance. But shopping on my own? I’d tell myself to face the fact that I hate it and find friends who don’t.

4. What do you think she is most going to want to know? Probably about grad school, which she was in the process of applying for at the time, and in the longer term about careers. Everyone was saying at the time that academic jobs are hard to get (although they’ve gotten even harder since then), so would her strange self-confidence be justified? But also about relationships and marriage, of course. She wasn’t dating anyone at the time and had no idea that in one year …

5. How would you answer her question? If I could manage it, I wouldn’t answer it at all. I think it’s better not to know things. But I’m not the sort who can be sensible and refuse to divulge things, so I would probably answer everything she asked.

6. What would probably be the best thing to tell her?
Generally speaking, I would tell her not to be so nervous and afraid of new things. Actually, there’s a lot she’s not afraid of, as she’s going to move to a fairly rough neighborhood in the Bronx soon (although she has no idea of it yet), and she’ll do just fine. But she could be less afraid of other people and less worried about making mistakes. And she could be less judgmental about other people’s choices.

7. What is something that you probably wouldn’t tell her?
That she will change remarkably little. This is good in some ways, but disappointing in others.

8. What do you think will most surprise her about you?
She’d say, “I’ve become an athlete? I enjoy exercising? I ride 5,000+ miles a year on my bike and race? Yeah, right. Exercise is just another chore, and I don’t know the first thing about bikes. And don’t care.” And she’d also say, “You don’t call yourself a Christian any longer? You practice yoga and read books about  Buddhism and spirituality? You’ve become one of those kinds of people!?”

9. What do you think will least surprise her? That I’m teaching and reading a lot. That I like reading Victorian novels. That I’ve done a lot of hiking.

10. At this point in your life, would you like to run into “you” from the future? No. Being 15 years older than my former self has made me a lot less confident about the future. I don’t want to know.

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Death Rites and book groups

Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites was the book up for discussion at my latest mystery book group meeting, and I am, in spite of having thought about the book before the meeting quite a lot and having spent several hours discussing it with the group, still not quite sure how I feel about it. I liked the book when I first started reading it, but then at some point I began having doubts, and then I enjoyed it again, and then I doubted, and after I finished my reaction wasn’t any clearer. Then I listened to other members of the group explain why they didn’t like it, and it was hard not to be swayed by the general consensus.

I’m not usually so indecisive. The problem seems to be that the book never quite came together for me, so I liked this part of it, didn’t like that part, and could never quite pull everything together to have a real opinion.

Much of the problem for the book group was the translation, or at least the possibility that the translation might be bad made it hard to judge whether the book itself was any good or not. The writing was certainly awkward, with badly constructed sentences and bizarre images (although some of the bizarre images I liked). But there were other problems — a main character who can be intensely unlikeable, a plot that floundered at times, and a resolution that was too predictable.

To say something about the book itself, it’s set in Barcelona and tells the story of Petra Delicado, an inspector who has been working in the documentation department and who gets called upon unexpectedly to investigate a rape case. She is assigned to work with Fermin Garzon, a rather plodding, obedient type who is close to retirement. The two have to figure out not only how to run an investigation, something Petra at least has little experience with, but also how to deal with each other. There is tension between the two of them from the very beginning; Petra isn’t used to being in charge and has to figure out how to exert authority in a world that grants it to women only grudgingly, and Fermin has to figure out how to respond to a boss who knows less about investigating than he does. Plus Fermin has some pretty old-fashioned ideas about women that Petra does not like.

The two do a pretty bad job of investigating, or at least that’s what members of the press accuse them of. They have no good leads for a very long time and spend a surprisingly long period floundering about desperately looking for some kind of breakthrough. I’m not entirely convinced that they are bad investigators, though, or at least that they are bad as people think they are. They do make some mistakes, but they are rookies, after all. But even more so, I wonder whether this portrayal of an investigation isn’t more realistic than investigations often are in novels. What do investigators do when there are no clues? When no clues appear for a very long time? When every trail they follow leads them nowhere? The press accuses them of failing in their job, but I wonder whether other, more experienced investigators would have been able to do it better. In novels, investigators struggle and take time to solve their cases, but I wonder whether they struggle a lot less and take a lot less time than real-life investigators do.

We also talked in my book group about how often Petra and Fermin take breaks from their work and how often they are to be found in restaurants or bars, rather than working on the investigation. This is probably one of their most serious mistakes, but I have to say, I’m entirely in sympathy with their commitment to eating well and resting up. This is illogical of me, I suppose, since with a rapist on the loose, they really do need to be in a hurry. And yet I do get tired of detectives who never seem to sleep and who skip meals all the time and who basically act like their non-working lives don’t matter in the least. Petra has just bought a new house, and she’s trying to settle into it, and I sympathize with her occasional feelings of resentment at a job that’s pulling her away from it.

So these elements I liked, and I also liked Petra’s vocal feminism and the struggles she goes through to figure out how to establish and maintain power, and also how to use that power effectively without abusing it (which she fails at spectacularly a time or two). But at the same time, the narrative did get dull now and then and Petra’s character remains a bit elusive. There was some spark, something lively, missing from the book. And the translation was a problem.

That’s the best I can do with this book, it seems. For other thoughts, you can read Emily’s post.

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Happiness, once again

Jenny Diski is one of my favorite nonfiction writers (I’m scared to read her fiction in case I hate it), and as far as nonfiction goes, I like pretty much whatever she writes. That includes this essay in The London Review of Books, a review of Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project. Those of you who have read Diski will not be surprised to find that she did not like The Happiness Project, is suspicious of the whole notion of happiness, and prefers not to use the word, as well as the words “love” and “feeling.” They are all just too vague.

Here’s a taste of her style (lengthy, but every bit of the paragraph is worth it):

Back to the Twelve Personal Commandments. The first, it has to be said, is difficult: ‘Be Gretchen’. I can see the sense in that as things stand, but being Gretchen is beyond me. Apparently, it isn’t even easy for Gretchen, since she has to remind herself to be her. Still being Gretchen is the first step on the road to happiness. OK, she means: ‘Be yourself’. But like many purveyors of such advice, she gives no guidelines, and I could more easily be Gretchen than fathom how to ‘Be Jenny’. If I thought I knew that, I probably wouldn’t have the doubt-space in my head to enable me to consider myself unhappy in the first place. Some of her commandments are more clear-cut than others, but that’s true too of the more modest ten that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. ‘Be polite and fair,’ like ‘Do not commit murder,’ may not be easy but you can see how it might save you trouble in the long run. Walk into a shop and call the proprietor a capitalist, thieving cunt, and you are likely to leave less happy than when you went in, though I can imagine circumstances in which another kind of contentment might override the social benefits of hypocrisy and self-control. There are contradictions, too: isn’t ‘Identify the problem’ cancelled out by ‘No calculation’? And ‘Act the way I want to feel’ doesn’t chime well with ‘Do what ought to be done.’ But what of the gnomic ‘Spend out’? Gretchen helps us with this and explains: ‘by spending out, I mean to stop hoarding, to trust in abundance. I find myself saving things, even when it makes no sense. Right now I’m forcing myself to spend out by wearing my new underwear.’ This does at least makes sense of the ‘Be Gretchen’ commandment, because surely anyone who wasn’t Gretchen who heard themselves say that or read it back after they’d written it would immediately head to the nearest tall building and throw themselves off.

The entire essay is a treat. And I think this even though I read books about happiness and like them. The Lovingkindness book I’m reading now is subtitled The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, and I praised the book Positivity earlier this year, which makes a point of not being about happiness, exactly, since happiness is a much narrower term than positivity, but can still be said to be about happiness anyway, in a loose sense of the word.

I don’t think I’m being entirely contradictory here. I agree with a lot of what Diski says. Unhappiness is a part of life, and there isn’t much to be done about it — it’s just the way things are. There isn’t much to be done about it, but there is something. I have found books about happiness, or positivity or lovingkindness or whatever, to offer realistic ways of responding to unhappiness. The ones I’ve read don’t argue you can get rid of unhappiness entirely, but that there are things you can do to really experience the happiness that does come to you and to encourage it to happen more. They also show how to experience and then move on from the sad moments in life — not to reject them and not to wallow in them, but to respect them and then to recover.

It seems to me that people who complain about self-help books and books about happiness tend to conflate them all into one category of badness, when the truth is there are good examples and bad examples, just as there are of any genre. I’d probably hate The Happiness Project too, but I don’t want to dismiss books that might offer genuine wisdom.

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What are you reading?

The current Booking Through Thursday question is this:

What are you reading right now? What made you choose it? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it? (And, by all means, discuss everything, if you’re reading more than one thing!)

The quick way to answer is to direct you to my list of everything I’m reading in the sidebar, but I don’t want to answer the quick way. So here is the long version. Two nights ago I picked up Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Because of busyness over the last couple days, I’m still only 20 pages in, and I’m wondering what I got myself into. There are a lot of pages in that book, with a lot of words on each page, and they are not all quite clear! But I need to give the book more time, of course, and the words aren’t that hard to follow, either. This will most likely be a book I will be reading for quite a while to come, which is fine. I’ll keep an easier novel on the go at the same time.

I’m nearing the end of Lawrence Weschler’s Vermeer in Bosnia, and just read a wonderful essay on the photocollages of David Hockney. There were also some good essays on California and one on Art Spiegelman I really liked. The subjects are varied, but the writing is uniformly good.

And then there are Bacon’s Essays. These are not terribly exciting, I have to say. But I can see that they are important, filled as they are with an attempt to use language carefully and precisely and to break the subject down into clear categories to capture it accurately.

I’m nearing the end of my collection of Ted Hughes’s poetry, which I have enjoyed all the way through. There have only been a few poems I have read quickly and dismissed; most of them I want to linger over to figure out how he’s using language. I first wrote about the poems here; they continue to focus on animals and landscapes, for the most part, and they still have the direct, forceful, unsentimental, colorful style I wrote about earlier.

And finally there is Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness, which is about lovingkindness meditation and Buddhism. I don’t meditate (I’d like to but haven’t found a way to keep a regular practice), but I’ve learned a lot from this book anyway. It’s full of wisdom about cultivating joy, compassion, and love, and breaking away from harmful habits of mind. I recommend it for anyone interested in spiritual reading.

And that’s it. I will pick up another novel soon, but haven’t decided what it will be.

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The Perpetual Curate

I was in the mood for something Victorian not too long ago, and Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate was exactly what I needed. It’s a long (relatively long, 500 not-too-dense pages), absorbing story with interesting characters and an amusing tone. Its mood is light, but it deals with serious situations and genuine problems, so it never felt frivolous.

The story is about Frank Wentworth, the perpetual curate of the title, a young man who loves his work but understands that it doesn’t pay enough for him to marry the woman he loves, Lucy Wodehouse. In order for that to happen, he would have to become a rector. This is actually quite possible, as he has three aunts who will soon have a living to bestow, but, alas, Frank and the aunts do not see eye to eye when it comes to how one should run a church service. The aunts lean toward the evangelical side, while Frank is more solidly, traditionally Anglican. The aunts unexpectedly show up to Frank’s Easter service, and are shocked at the sight of flowers on the alter and are displeased with his sermon. Frank realizes that those pesky flowers, which he is not sure he cares all that much about, may have ruined his chances for married happiness.

Oliphant piles problem after problem on poor Frank’s shoulders. Not only does he have the uptight aunts to deal with, but he is seen in what looks like a compromising situation with a pretty, young shop girl, and rumors begin to fly. The town that has stood behind him for the five years or so he has worked there now starts to have doubts. Then the local rector, newly arrived in the town, gets angry at him for running services for the poor in his district. And then his brother, Gerald, decides that he wants to convert to Catholicism and become a Catholic priest, even if it means abandoning his wife. There is also the strange, unpleasant, badly-dressed man who shows up in Frank’s lodgings, and whom Frank takes in for mysterious reasons, even though his neighbors are none too pleased.

Much of the novel has Frank running around from one disaster to another, trying to figure out how to appease his family, friends, and parishioners while at the same time staying true to his principles. Fortunately, as Oliphant frequently points out, Frank is young and can bounce back from disasters quickly. But still, it’s chilling to read a convincing description of how suddenly, and for no real fault of Frank’s, everything can suddenly go wrong. People misread events and misunderstand conversations, and because Frank can sometimes be a little oblivious, he doesn’t always realize when this happens. Suddenly his world is falling apart around him, and he hardly knows how it happened. This can happen to any of us, the novel implies, at any time, and there is little to be done about it.

The things that could be done to rectify the situation Frank rejects as impossible because of his strong sense of pride and honor. He can’t simply go to his aunts and declare he really didn’t mean it about the flowers because he can’t stoop that low, and he can’t simply explain that he doesn’t care anything about the pretty shop girl because he doesn’t want to dignify the accusations. This sense of pride and honor, which he and Lucy share, becomes so powerful and his and Lucy’s feelings are so delicate, that they threaten to become absurd. In fact, by the end of the novel I was wondering whether Oliphant was having a little fun gently mocking them. This suspicion was reinforced by the way Oliphant frequently draws attention near the novel’s end to the fact that it is a novel that she’s writing, as though she is pulling away from the narrative a bit to evaluate her characters more directly than she ever did before. Endings are tricky, she seems to be saying, and sometimes they can be a little silly or unrealistic, so don’t take it all too seriously.

The Perpetual Curate is part of a series of novels called “The Chronicles of Carlingford,” and this novel is the fourth book of six. I’m pleased to know this, because it means I can return to this world and to these characters five more times if I want to. If I’m able to find the books, that is. I will certainly be on the lookout for more Oliphant in the future.

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Sara Paretsky

I’m listening to my first Sara Paretsky novel right now, her 2005 V.I. Warshawski mystery Fire Sale. I’ve been meaning to read Paretsky for a while, ever since reading about her in Maureen Corrigan’s book Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, where Corrigan has a chapter on mystery novels and praises Paretsky highly. With the caveat in mind that I am more likely to like a book I listen to than one I read on paper, I’m really enjoying the story so far. The novel is set in Chicago, and Warshawski is a private investigator. She has a thriving business, but in this novel, she is involved in a investigation she won’t be paid for: a case of arson and murder that she stumbles upon after agreeing to serve as a substitute basketball coach at her old South Chicago high school. The mother of one of the players asks her to investigate strange happenings at the factory where she works, and the next thing she knows, she’s caught up in a story of big business and corporate intrigue.

The basketball coaching and the investigation force her to spend a lot of time in South Chicago where she is confronted by her past, which was a harsh one. This novel doesn’t give very many details, but we do find out she lost her mother when she was young, and that she grew up to be a tough street fighter. In this novel, she still has that toughness, but also the perspective and experience of a woman who has seen more of the world. She is brave and courageous, although not without fear, and there’s a certain amount of sadness to her character, which, of course, is not at all surprising for someone who makes a living as an investigator.

The plot is overtly political, as Warshawski investigates a big Walmart-like corporation that exploits its workers and is run by a family full of nasty, suspicious, racist tightwads. The fact that they claim to be committed evangelical Christians makes them even worse. I suppose the argument here is a little too easy and too obvious — the religious characters are hypocrites, or at least the rich ones are, and all big business owners care about nothing at all but making money. But still, Paretsky’s picture of how families struggle to make a living working in low-paying jobs and are first exploited so they can barely get by and then condemned for the very fact that they struggle is a powerful one. Paretsky explores the complicated causes of poverty on the south side and why it is so many young people struggle in school and so many teenage girls get pregnant, while the big business owners live in their gated mansions in the suburbs, getting rich through their stinginess. The ideas and issues may be familiar, but Paretsky does a good job bringing them to life.

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Current Reading

Teaching two online courses this semester is turning into a whole lot of computer time, which makes it hard to get other computer-related things done, since I don’t like being on the computer all day if I can help it. But today is one of those days where there was no avoiding being on the computer nonstop. This, by the way, is how I find time to ride my bike so much during the week — I spend my weekends catching up on work I neglected all week long. Often weekends mean long stretches of school work punctuated by occasional bike rides, with the evenings devoted to reading or friends. It’s not a perfect system, but it works okay.

So, I’m nearing the end of Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate. It’s an engrossing story of the sort that’s anxiety-inducing because everything goes horribly wrong for the main character all at once, and I want to keep reading to see how he’s going to straighten everything out. He’s a victim of misunderstandings and petty resentments, and, since this is a Victorian novel, his honor, pride, and sense of propriety keep him from fixing things quickly. I’ve read enough 18th and 19th century novels to understand the exquisite sense of rightness and wrongness the characters have, but sometimes it’s just sort of hard to believe.

Next up as far as novels go is Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites, which is the next book for my mystery book group — my choice. I picked it because I wanted us to read something not British or American and because several bloggers I know have enjoyed it, but other than that, I know little about it and so am curious to see how it goes.

I’m also in the middle of Lawrence Weschler’s essay collection Vermeer in Bosnia, which I remember hearing about on NPR quite a few years ago. I bought the book also a number of years ago, and am only now finally getting to it. There is a wide variety of essays in the book; my favorite so far has been the title essay, which opens the collection and is part of a group of three pieces on art and war. There are also essays on three Polish Holocaust survivors, or the children of survivors, and now I’m in the middle of some more personal essays on family. They are all thoughtful and smart, and I’m enjoying Weschler’s voice and sensibility.

And, as part of my on-going, life-long, never-ending quest to read tons and tons of essays, some of them in chronological order, I’ve picked up Francis Bacon’s essays. Bacon is not going to be one of my favorite essayists, I already know, but I want to read him for the sake of understanding the genre fully. So, Bacon it is, and then Sir Thomas Browne.

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