Monthly Archives: January 2011

Slaves of Golconda: The Summer Book

I enjoyed Tove Jansson’s novel The Summer Book very much and flipping it through it just now to prepare to write this post, I realized how much I would like to read it again. It’s a book that works quietly, and I think it’s easy to miss some of its effects on a first read. On a basic level the book is about a young girl Sophia and her grandmother, who live, along with Sophia’s father, on an isolated island in Finland. The fact that I noticed but didn’t ponder enough during the first reading is that Sophia’s mother has recently died. This is obviously hugely important, but the book is so quiet about it:

One time in April there was a full moon, and the sea was covered with ice. Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead. The fire was still burning in the stove, and the flames flickered on the ceiling, where the boots were hung up to dry.

And that’s about all the book has to say on the subject, at least directly. But the signs of the mother’s death are everywhere. One of the first things Sophia says to her grandmother is “When are you going to die?” The grandmother says, “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.” Except that it is, because the grandmother is the most important figure in Sophia’s life. Her father lives with them doing some kind of work — the introduction to the book tells me it’s sculpture although I didn’t figure this out on my own — but he’s not much of a presence. A little later Sophia finds a skull, and she and her grandmother hang on to it until at the end of the day, they place it in the forest where the evening light catches it. Suddenly, Sophia starts screaming. There’s no explanation about why she does this, but something about the skull must finally have spoken to her about death.

The whole book works in this understated way. There are beautiful descriptions of the island and the ocean, but we learn about the characters almost solely through their words and actions. Sophia and her grandmother spend much of their days playing, and they take this very seriously. With Sophia, this is what one would expect, but the grandmother is just as serious. In one chapter, the grandmother starts carving animals out of driftwood, and Sophia is curious:

“What is it you’re doing?” Sophia asked.

“I’m playing,” Grandmother said.

Sophia crawled into the magic forest and saw everything her grandmother had done.

“Is it an exhibit?” she asked.

But Grandmother said it had nothing to do with sculpture, sculpture was another thing completely. They started gather bones together along the shore.

Later in the book Sophia and her grandmother explore a nearby island where someone has built a new house and posted a “No Trespassing” sign, an act the grandmother believes is rude and ill-bred. So the two of them trespass and end up getting caught: they flee into the woods behind the house but the owner’s dog finds them, and they are forced to show themselves. Fortunately for them, the owner never asks what they were doing there; instead they all behave as though nothing had happened.

It’s an odd scene, but the whole book is like that: it’s as though the family lives in another world entirely where things are slightly different than they are in this one. It’s not a fantasy world, though. The grandmother is aging and has trouble moving about, Sophia is sometimes bored and lonely, occasionally flying into rages, and the father seems the loneliest and most isolated of them all. When other people enter their world, it rarely goes well. Sophia invites a friend, Berenice, to visit the island, but she hates it there, and nobody is sorry when she leaves.

Nature becomes a character in its own right; the descriptions of landscape and plant life are beautiful, but nature can be threatening as well as scenic. There are swarming insects, dangerous gullies, droughts, and storms. One of the most dramatic chapters tells of the family getting stuck away from home during one of the worst storms anyone can remember. Sophia learns about her place in the world: she had asked for a storm and was pleased to have gotten it, until she realizes that people might die. Her grandmother tells her it’s not her fault, but she doesn’t do it in a reassuring way:

“God and you,” Grandmother repeated angrily. “Why should He listen to you, especially, when maybe ten other people prayed for nice weather? And they did, you can count on that.”

“But I prayed first,” Sophia said. “And you can see for yourself they didn’t get nice weather!”

“God,” Grandmother said. “God has so much to do, He doesn’t have time to listen …”

It’s this relationship I loved best about the book: Sophia and her grandmother obviously love each other, but in a way that is honest, real, and sometimes difficult. The grandmother never talks down to or patronizes Sophia, and Sophia uses her relationship with her grandmother to try to understand what has happened to her and to figure out her place in the world. This relationship and the sharp, clear, direct style of Jansson’s writing make the book memorable.

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Rather ridiculous bookish abundance

Yesterday was my birthday, and a few weeks before it, Hobgoblin asked me how I wanted to spend the day. Going into Manhattan to visit bookshops and eating a fancy dinner was my answer, of course. So that’s what we did. But before I tell you about the bookshops, I should tell you about one of my birthday presents: the Nook! The color version. I spent this morning learning how it works and downloading books for it, and it was lots of fun. I like the Nook very much so far. I have about twenty free books I downloaded from various websites plus a couple digital review copies on the Nook right now. If you’re curious, here are the books I’ve downloaded so far:

  • L. M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams (to continue the Anne of Green Gables read-through I’ve been doing. I finished Anne of Windy Poplars last night),
  • Charlotte Smith, The Banished Man (a late 18C early 19C writer),
  • Wilkie Collins, The Law and the Lady,
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charlotte’s Inheritance,
  • Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier,
  • Isabella Bird, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (recommended by some of you in my previous post),
  • Abraham Crowley, Essays
  • Sarah Fielding, The Governess; or, Little Female Academy (a mid-18C book),
  • Dorothy Sayers, Clouds of Witnesses,
  • Fanny Burney, Cecilia (a very long book of the sort that reading on an ereader might be much more comfortable than reading in book form),
  • Margaret Oliphant, The Rector (part of her Chronicles of Carlingford series; they don’t seem to have the whole series available online, sadly),
  • Charlotte Lennox, The Life of Harriot Stuart, (mid-18C author),
  • Maria Edgeworth, Ennui,
  • Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence,
  • E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread,
  • Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country,
  • Frances Sheridan, Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (mid-18C author),
  • Anna Katharine Green, The Leavenworth Case,
  • Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (recommended by some of you in my previous post).

I have no idea when I’ll actually read these, or if these are even the ones I’ll read first, but it was so much fun to download them and think about reading them. When I actually read a book on the ereader, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now, you might be wondering why I wanted to visit bookstores after a gift like this. Because I need books of all sorts, of course! I want to use the Nook to read free books and review copies mainly (and perhaps some books I buy when I travel), and I want to keep buying paper books because I love them so much. I also want to keep supporting bookstores and having the fun of browsing.

So the first stop we made was at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, a used bookstore staffed mostly by volunteers where the money they make goes to help fight AIDS and homelessness. I found all kinds of interesting books here, and came home with:

  • Margaret Oliphant’s Hester, not available online as far as I can tell,
  • Jose Saramago’s The Cave,
  • Deb Olin Unferth’s novel Vacation,
  • A.M. Homes’s Music for Torching.

Next up was McNally Jackson, an incredible store with one of the most amazingly smart and eclectic collections of books I’ve seen. I spent a long time browsing there, and wasn’t anywhere near finished when we left. I bought:

  • Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart,
  • and Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, which is, I think, a book of essays about the memoir genre. Just my type of thing.
  • Also, Hobgoblin bought Roland Barthes’s The Preparation of the Novel. In spite of skimming a review of this book, I haven’t quite figured out what it’s about. But it looks fabulous. (I told Hobgoblin that the book was available on NetGalley, but he wanted the paper version. Some books just need to be read on paper.)

Next we headed over to Three Lives, another favorite store. I could have bought SO many books, but I limited myself to Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives. The woman who sold us our books raved about what a good book this is and what wonderful books Malcolm writes. I had to agree, especially as I’m in the middle of her book Two Lives right now and am enjoying it very much.

Then it was time for dinner and an hour or so at the Union Square Barnes and Noble before time to catch the train. I wasn’t planning on buying any books there, but I couldn’t resist Terry Castle’s book The Professor: A Sentimental Education, a collection of essays.

It was so much fun. Even with my new ereader, I’m not going to stop visiting bookshops and buying tons of books.

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Reading list question

So I’m teaching a new course next fall, and I’m thinking about what books I should put on the syllabus. I would prefer to think about this sort of thing during the summer, but my school requires that we submit our book orders sometime around March or April, so I don’t have that luxury. The course needs to do a number of things: it’s a “Great Books” course, so we are supposed to cover canonical works, mostly, although there is some room for other things as well. It’s also interdisciplinary. While my instinct would be to assign all literature, we are supposed to cover at least two or three different disciplines. Finally, each instructor picks a theme for the course, which is supposed to be phrased as a Socratic question, such as “What is justice?” This theme will organize the readings/assignments/discussions for the whole semester.

My idea is to use the question “What is a journey?” and to read books that deal with travel in some way. We’ll talk about various types of journeys (physical, mental, spiritual) and how they relate, and about what happens when people travel and when people from different cultures interact. I have some books in mind to teach, but I’m wondering if you all have other ideas. Books that come from a discipline other than English are especially welcome (although English departments end up “colonizing” texts from other disciplines for study all the time, so to me just about everything seems like a “literature” text). Here’s what I’m thinking about:

  • Some basic Postcolonial theory such as Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt,
  • Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe,
  • Some Montaigne essays, including possibly “Of Coaches,” “Of Cannibals,” and “Of Vanity,”
  • Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative,
  • Mary Wortley Montague’s Turkish Embassy Letters,
  • E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India,
  • Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques,
  • Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy (for something a little lighter and contemporary).

Any other ideas? I’ve thought about de Tocqueville, but I’m not sure I want to read him! (Maybe I should?)

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Joyce Carol Oates’s Widow’s Story

Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story is a harrowing, powerful read. I had trouble putting it down, even though it was thoroughly wrenching. I started reading it on my iPhone (my copy courtesy of the publisher) and only after I’d been reading awhile did I figure out that it’s over 400 pages long; it turned out to be a very quick 400 pages, but still, I wondered how she would keep it up for that long. How could she write with such detail, such honesty, such emotion, how could she keep up that level of intensity and make the book readable at that length?

The book tells the story of the death of Oates’s husband, Raymond Smith, in February, 2008. It was a fairly quick final illness and death; he was fine one day, and the next in the hospital suffering from pneumonia. He died a few days later from an infection. Oates tells the story of the days in the hospital and then the days, weeks, and months afterward as she tries to survive and make sense of what happened. She is thoroughly distraught, full of anger and guilt, and she collects sleeping pills in case she decides to commit suicide. The thought of suicide is a comfort, an escape available if she needs it. She has friends who take care of her and help her through all the tasks a widow faces (the funeral, the will, etc.), but she feels only a shell of the person she once was. Her world is an entirely new, unrecognizable, horrible place.

She writes about all this in great detail, describing her thoughts and emotions each step of the way. It should get dull, but it doesn’t: there’s something riveting about her voice that kept me almost spellbound. There is a lot of repetition, which also should get dull, but doesn’t; she faces the same problems again and again — not wanting to be out with people but when she’s home alone not wanting to be there either, getting angry when people say insensitive things, feeling guilty for surviving her husband, thinking about and counting her sleeping pills — and each time it’s a fresh emotional hit, and I felt like I was right there with her.

The writing is awkward, full of dashes, fragments, parenthetical phrases, and various kinds of stuttering and repetition, but the awkwardness works because it captures the emotional intensity of the experience:

Those days! — nights! — a Mobius strip continuously winding, unwinding.

This nightmare week of my life — and yet– during this week Ray is still alive.

She also frequently switches into a detached, third person point of view, printed in italics, to talk about “the widow”:

Something of the derangement of Widowhood is beginning here. For in dreams our future selves are being prepared. In denial that her husband is seriously ill the Widow-to-Be will not, when she returns home that evening, research E. coli on the Internet. Not for nearly eighteenth months after her husband’s death will she look up this common bacterial strain to discover the blunt statement she’d instinctively feared at the time and could not have risked discovering: pneumonia due to Escherichia coli has a reported mortality rate of up to 70 percent.

She also explains things that don’t really need to be explained, for example, describing Catholic theology and giving us a history of lobotomies, things that relate to the story she is telling, but don’t need to be dwelt on in the way she does. It feels, though, as if Oates no longer understands the world around her and needs to explain it to herself. She needs to tell herself the story of her life and her husband’s life and all the details that went into them, and she needs to recount to herself what she, “the widow,” is experiencing, in order to try to grasp it.

She touches only lightly on the question of why she is writing the memoir and doesn’t discuss at all what the experience of writing it is like. In fact, she mentions grief memoirs others have written and wonders why they wrote them, without taking up the question for herself, or at least not until near the book’s end, when she very briefly says:

Though I am writing this memoir to see what can be made of the phenomenon of “grief” in the most exactly minute of ways, I am no longer convinced that there is any inherent value in grief; or, if there is, if wisdom springs from the experience of terrible loss, it’s a wisdom one might do without.

That’s all we get about her purpose and motivations. I generally like to have more self-consciousness from memoir writers, more discussion of the purpose and meaning of the writing (although I may be in the minority on this — most memoir writers that I know of don’t do it), but in this case, the reticence works. Throughout the whole book Oates seems to be a mystery to herself; she no longer recognizes herself in her new role as widow, so how can she analyze her motivations? The most she can do is describe what is happening, moment by moment.

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Molly Fox’s Birthday

Becky mentioned a while back that she enjoyed Molly Fox’s Birthday by Dierdre Madden, so I picked it up from the library and gave it a try myself and found that I enjoyed it very much too. The novel has a structure that I like: it takes place over the course of one day, with frequent jumps back in time to describe scenes from the past. The title character, Molly Fox, doesn’t appear at all, except in a phone conversation. Instead, the novel is narrated by her friend, an unnamed woman who is a playwright. Molly is an actress, and the two met while preparing to stage a production of the narrator’s first play with Molly in the starring role. It’s a play that will make both their reputations and send them off into successful careers.

But all that happens far back in the novel’s past; in the present tense, the two women are a older (it’s Molly’s 40th birthday, or at least we presume so; she is secretive about her age, as she believes actresses need to be). The narrator is living temporarily in Molly’s house in Dublin while Molly is traveling, and she is trying to write her next play. Over the course of the day, she struggles with her writing, takes a walk into town, and unexpectedly meets an old friend for dinner. It seems like a quiet day on the outside, but all the drama is of the interior sort: the narrator spends her day thinking about her art and her friendships and also about how she and others have been shaped by their pasts.

The third main character is Andrew, the unexpected dinner guest, and a man the narrator has known since their university days when they used to take study breaks together. Andrew and Molly both have difficult relationships with their families. Andrew is passionately devoted to the arts but comes from a family indifferent to them, and his brother died a violent death at a young age. Molly’s mother abandoned her while Molly was still a child, and her brother has struggled with severe depression his entire life.

As the narrator tells these stories and thinks about her two friends, she wonders just how well she really knows them. Both of them can be secretive and reserved, but this doesn’t diminish her love or her sense of closeness to them. The book is very much about the mystery of friendship, how experience can bring people together in deeply loyal relationships, even when there is much about each other they don’t know, and also how friendships can arise unexpectedly. When Molly develops a close friendship with the narrator’s brother, Tom, the narrator has to reevaluate her understanding of both of them, as well as deal with feelings of jealousy.

The novel is also about art, its mystery and its transformative capability. The narrator spends a lot of time thinking about Molly’s acting; she is shy in regular life, but on stage, she becomes a different person entirely. There is something about the artificial quality of the theater that allows her to capture the feeling of reality, and something about the fleetingness of a play that makes seeing her act a particularly intense experience. And then there’s Andrew, whose entire life is shaped by art; he is an art historian who has begun to host successful television programs where he explains the meaning of art to his audience. There is something about his personality that works well in this medium; he is able to communicate a genuine passion for his subject. To the narrator, Andrew is all about artifice — he doesn’t seem to care about nature at all, and would prefer to look at paintings of a landscape than the landscape itself. But the “artificial” world of art is his world, and he lives comfortably in it. It’s sometimes unclear, the book argues, what is artifice and what’s real, but somehow they are inextricably combined.

This is, obviously, a thoughtful book, slow-paced but absorbing. If you like thinking about relationships and about the meaning of art, and if you like following the train of someone else’s thoughts as they try to sum up a life, then I think you will enjoy this book.

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Giveaway winners and thoughts on book acquisition

The results are in, and I have the giveaway winners to announce:

  • Congrats to Annie for winning a copy of Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne,
  • and congrats to Stefanie for winning Parrot and Olivier in America!

If you two would send me your addresses (to ofbooksandbikes at yahoo dot com), I’ll have the books sent to you soon. Thanks to everyone for participating; I wish I could send you all a book!

I’ve been thinking lately about all the ways there are these days to get books, and I was surprised at how long my list was. No wonder my TBR piles are growing.

  • Bookstores, including new and used. I have two used bookstores within a half mile of my house, and dozens more if I’m willing to drive a bit. There are new bookstores within, say a 20-minute drive, and tons more if I’m willing to drive further. If I drive an hour, I can get to New Haven, which has great stores, and if I drive 1.5-2 hours, I can get to Manhattan, with all the books I could want.
  • Libraries, including my public library which is less than a mile from my house, and my school library. Hobgoblin’s school library too, for that matter. Oh, and from just about any library through inter-library loan.
  • Library book sales. There are tons of these around here. In fact, there was one going on last weekend, but we wisely stayed away. I suppose you can get books at garage sales/tag sales too, although I never go to those these days.
  • Online book stores. There’s Amazon, of course, but I try to buy from smaller sites like Powell’s or The Book Depository. There’s Better World Books, and tons of others. There’s eBay, too, right?
  • E-books, from online sellers, from sites like Project Gutenberg that offer free classics, or free from the library (for me, both the public library and my school library).
  • Audio books, again, from bookstores, for free online, or from the library (on CD or downloaded).
  • Book-swapping sites like Book Mooch or Paperback Swap. I’ve gotten 136 books from Book Mooch, and I’ve given away 92. I’d say I came out ahead there!
  • ARCs from publishers. Not everyone gets these, of course, but I think, generally, if you blog about books regularly for a while, publishers will start to contact you, even if your blog is small, like mine. It’s now possible to get ARCs digitally through NetGalleys.
  • Free books from sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. I just won Carlos Fuentes’s new novel from Goodreads, and I know quite a few people who have gotten books from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program. I’m just starting to try to my luck with them.
  • Gifts. It’s a tradition around here, and probably for lots of you too, to give books on major holidays.
  • Borrowing. I only borrow from others occasionally because I have so many of my own books to read, but I’m always happy to borrow something good from a friend, and I love it when friends borrow my books. I just lent a friend from work my copy of Infinite Jest, and I can’t wait to hear what she thinks of it.
  • Blog giveaways. I’ve won quite a lot of books from my fabulous blogger friends. Thank you!

Am I missing anything?

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Too Loud a Solitude

It’s been a while since I finished Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Too Loud a Solitude, but I want to write something about it because it was such an odd, wonderful little book (98 pages). It took me a while to warm up to it, actually; I wasn’t in the mood for something as spare and quirky as this book is, but it ended up winning me over.

It’s about a man, Hanta, who lives in Prague and works as a trash compactor, specifically a wastepaper compactor, and he rescues books from the trash to take home and read. He has towering stacks of books at home, and he sleeps in fear that they will fall and crush him. His education has been reading these books, and what an education it’s been: he finds all kinds of wonderful things, books by Seneca, Kant, Erasmus, Goethe, and Nietzsche, reproductions of Van Gogh and Gauguin paintings, and lots of other treasures.

Hanta is a quiet and isolated man; most of his time is spent at work, and he works overtime in order to make up for his slowness: he doesn’t hurry through his job, but instead takes his time to appreciate the books that come his way. He’s so absorbed in his work, in fact, that he dreams about retiring only to buy a paper crusher so he can do his work at home. He occasionally wanders the streets of Prague and he sometimes gets visitors, most often his boss who is forever furious at him for not working fast enough, but most of his time he spends in the dim, enclosed setting cooped up with his machine. Early on in his career, he would get upset when people threw away good books and was particularly furious over the destruction of the Royal Prussian Library after World War II, but as time goes on, he becomes resigned, or perhaps numb, to the destruction, and just does what he can to save as many books as possible.

The novel (or novella, really) is written in first person, and the voice is memorable. It’s simple and poetic; at times the voice makes you think Hanta is foolish and naive, and at other times, he surprises you with something beautiful and profound. He keeps repeating himself, almost in a sing-song way; many chapters open with the same words:

For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story. For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I’ve come to look like my encyclopedias — and a good three tons of them I’ve compacted over the years. I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to learn over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me.

Hanta’s absolute devotion to his work makes his visit to a new Socialist-run wastepaper compacting business utterly shocking. Here, instead of lovingly observing every book that comes through the machine and rescuing them when possible, the workers are perfectly efficient; not a movement or thought is wasted, and it doesn’t occur to any of the workers to care about a book. The workers there are turned into machines themselves, no more than extensions of the hydraulic press they operate. Hanta knows that his days are numbered; his method of working carefully, lovingly, and, yes, slowly, has never pleased his boss or made him a success, but now it might disappear entirely.

By the end of the novel, Hrabal made me care very much about this strange man so devoted to his work, but even more so to books and the pleasure and wisdom they bring.

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Thinking of E-Readers

Teresa’s post on the subject of e-readers caught my attention because something similar to her experience has happened to me too. I wasn’t interested in e-readers at all, until all the sudden it turned out that I was. I’ve said for a while now that I have nothing against e-readers per se and that if I ever felt the need for one, I would get it. But I hadn’t felt the need for one. I love paper books and hate the idea of not being able to do some of the things you can do with regular books: flip through them quickly, share them, admire their beautiful, unique covers, smell them, fill bookcases with them.

I think I will always feel this way. But  some of the things you can do with e-readers do appeal to me, one of which is downloading free classics. I spent some time exploring various sites that offer free books (Eva’s post contains links to a number of great sites) and was amazed by what is on offer. I also learned in the last week or so that it’s possible to get review copies of books electronically; Stefanie introduced me to NetGalley, a site where readers can request digital galleys of forthcoming books. I’m also intrigued by the idea of reading magazines on an e-reader.

The truth is, though, that I already own an e-reader: my iPhone. I just haven’t thought of it much as an e-reader; I downloaded book apps a long time ago, but I never took seriously the idea of reading anything that way. The screen seemed too small. However, I was curious enough about NetGalleys to request one of their books to see what reading on an iPhone would be like. and I’m now in the middle of Joyce Carol Oates’s forthcoming memoir A Widow’s Story, all of which I’ve read on the phone. I can also read the book on my computer, of course, but I’ve found I like reading on the phone better; the screen is small, yes, but I can curl up with it much more comfortably on the couch. And the truth is, the small screen doesn’t bother me much. If I were a faster reader, I would get frustrated at having to flip to a new page so often, but at my reading pace, it’s not so bad, and the pages “turn,” or whatever verb is appropriate, very quickly. I can adjust font size, margin size, and screen brightness, and I can bookmark and annotate passages.

But still, having a larger screen would be nice, and hence a new e-reader. (Also, while I can read ePub files on my iPhone, I can’t read PDFs; the font on those documents is much too small and not easily adjusted, as least as far as I know.) I like the way the Kindle looks, but I don’t like Amazon and don’t want to deal with their finickiness about file types. So I’m thinking about either the Nook or the Kobo. I like the idea of doing what a number of people I know do, which is to use the e-reader only for free books. The number of free classics will only increase, and I have a feeling electronic review copies will become more and more popular, so it seems like there will be plenty of free things to read. It’s funny how quickly I can go from not wanting something to thinking it would be a great idea to have it!

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Currently reading and a giveaway

I have two books on my shelves that I don’t need and would like to give away to anyone who is interested:

  1. Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. It turns out I have two copies of this book and only need one.
  2. Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. A copy of this book randomly showed up at my house last summer, and I’ve been thinking about whether I want to read it since then, and it turns out I don’t. But someone else might.

If you are interested in either of these books, just leave a comment telling me which one. If there is more than one person interested, I’ll do a drawing. Deadline is Tuesday of next week, midnight. I’m happy to send the books anywhere, so overseas people are welcome to participate.

As for what I’m currently reading, How to Live is one of the books. I’ve read a chapter so far, and it’s good — a little on Montaigne’s life and the purpose of the essays, and a vignette about how Montaigne almost died as a young man and how this changed his thinking about life and death. It’s a biography, but, it seems, not the sort that tells the subject’s story from beginning to end, and I like that.

Also, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story. I read an excerpt of this in The New Yorker and thought it was very good, so now I’m reading the whole thing. It continues to be good, but harrowing, as you might expect.

I’m also slowly reading “Religio Medici” by Sir Thomas Browne as part of my long-term essay project. Browne isn’t an essayist, exactly, but he appears on John D’Agata’s The Lost Origins of the Essay, and writes in a very interesting personal voice, so it’s appropriate. I’m not particularly interested in learning about the religious conflicts Browne writes about, but his overall attitude and tone are enjoyable. “Hydriotaphia” will be next.

Also Marge Piercy’s poems from The Moon is Always Female, which is good so far, and I hope to start Tove Jannson’s The Summer Book for the Slaves of Golconda soon.

I hope you have an enjoyable bookish weekend!

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PopCo

I think Scarlett Thomas’s novel PopCo is deeply flawed, but I enjoyed it greatly nonetheless. I think it’s perfectly possible for that to be the case; while I occasionally shook my head at the book’s awkwardness, I stayed interested and engaged the whole time and found the ideas it takes up fascinating. Hobgoblin has told me many times how much he liked Thomas’s most recent novel Our Tragic Universe, and I’m looking forward to reading that one too.

Some of the awkwardness of PopCo is the kind of awkwardness that appeals to me: it spends too much time explaining too many things, it’s obsessed with ideas and technical details at the expense of narrative momentum, and it takes its sweet time getting the plot going. It lurches back and forth between background information and mini-lectures on the one hand and present action on the other.

But, fortunately for me, I found the background information and the mini-lectures interesting. They are about a lot of things, but chiefly about math, codes, and code-breaking. The main character is a youngish woman, Alice, who works for the company PopCo, which makes games and toys for children and teenagers. Alice’s job is to make kits for children on spying, detective work, and code-breaking. She has learned all about codes from her cryptanalyst grandfather, and she has a good grasp of math, gained from her mathematician grandmother. Codes aren’t purely cerebral puzzles for Alice, though; her grandfather gave her a necklace when she was young that contains a code her grandparents expect that will she one day crack.

The novel takes place during a company retreat, one of those team-building affairs intended to energize and inspire workers, although surely they more often do the opposite. Alice enjoys her job, but she doesn’t enjoy the intensity of being in such close contact with her colleagues; she has work friends and makes new ones during the course of the novel, but she’s always been a bit of an outsider. This outsider stance comes partly from her uncertainty about the purpose and value of the company; their marketing practices, in particular, seem suspicious to her. She wonders whether they are doing anything that has any value, and whether she is using her knowledge and creativity for a positive purpose. It’s not just her company she’s uncertain about; she wonders about a society that seems to care only for making money at the expense of honesty and integrity. She’s particularly disturbed by PopCo’s practice of making toys that they sell under a fake brand name, not connected with PopCo at all, to appeal to people wanting to be a little different and to buy from small companies, instead of supporting the big corporations all the time. People have no way of knowing the small company they think they are supporting is really just PopCo under another name.

The book takes us through the work retreat; things happen, but they happen slowly, and the narrative frequently jumps back in time to describe Alice’s childhood. It also stops to explain in depth about mathematical concepts, particularly prime numbers, and to describe various types of codes and how to crack them. I found all this interesting, being a bit of a math person myself, but if you’re not, this might be slow going. It’s the kind of book where characters explain things to each other in long stretches of completely unrealistic dialogue; as far as I know, people don’t really talk to each other that way. I have to say I found the ending pretty unrealistic and awkward as well.

But, I’m still fond of the book. Alice is a great character, and I liked the fact that she knows tons of cool stuff, not just about math and codes, but about a whole range of other things. She’s confident in her knowledge in a way that’s appealing. The book’s discussion of consumerism, marketing, and also the pervasiveness of technology, is interesting as well. At 500 pages, the book is too long for the story it has to tell, but still, they were a fun 500 pages.

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New books for the new year

Fellow cyclists, readers, and bloggers Suitcase of Courage and She Knits by the Seashore joined Hobgoblin and me on a now time-honored tradition of taking a trip somewhere interesting and buying lots of books. This time we went to Whitlock’s Book Barn, in Bethany, Connecticut, 20 minutes or so north of New Haven. I love used book shops in barns, and this one had two of them, one of them, as the woman working there explained, for books $5 and up, and the other for books under $5. They had a very interesting selection in both barns, with unusually large sections of literary criticism. I found lots of good books, of which I brought home the following:

  • Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace of Desire. I read and enjoyed the first book in the Cairo trilogy, Palace Walk, but hadn’t yet gotten inspired to acquire the second one. I taught a Mahfouz short story last semester, “Zaabalawi,” and that has put me in the mood for more.
  • Lilian Nattel’s The River Midnight. I’ve been enjoying Lilian’s blog for a while now, so it’s high time I read one of her books.
  • Marion Meade’s Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. The book focuses on Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber and everything they were up to in the 1920s. I’ve collected a couple group biographies now, and I’m looking forward to all of them.
  • William Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age. This is a collection of essays on various figures of Hazlett’s time, including Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Scott, and lots of others. Knowing Hazlitt, I’m expecting it to be mean-spirited and fun.
  • Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’ve read about this book on someone’s blog recently, but I can’t remember where. It’s a slim book of nonfiction and is about loss, love, and the color blue.
  • Douglas Atkins’s Reading Essays: An Invitation. I’ve never read any Atkins, but I’ve seen his name around the essay world. This book contains his close readings of 25 different essays, and an exploration of the artistic elements of the genre. The idea is to study the art of the essay in the same way we do for poetry, drama, and the novel.

After finishing at Whitlock’s, we headed down to New Haven where we ate lots of excellent food and checked out more shops. We went to one of my favorite new bookstores, Labyrinth Books, which has a truly great selection of really smart books, the kind of serious, intellectual tomes you aren’t likely to find in the chain stores. It also has a fabulous fiction section with tons of lesser-known works and books in translation. From here, I bought Truth in Nonfiction, a collection of essays edited by David Lazar. The essays are about the complicated nature of truth as captured, or not captured, in nonfiction. It contains pieces by writers such as Phyllis Rose, Vivian Gornick, Oliver Sacks, John D’Agata, and others. It looks fabulous.

We also checked out Book Trader Cafe, where I bought a copy of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist. I bought this book solely because I find Whitehead’s tweets so amusing and I want to see what the fiction is like.

We also went to Atticus bookstore and cafe, where I had the most amazing and amazingly large slice of chocolate chip cookie pie ever. Doesn’t that sound great? It was the perfect way to finish a wonderfully decadent day.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad

I listened to Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep a couple years ago, and didn’t like it much; I didn’t believe in the characters or the plot, and therefore the whole thing got irritating. I’m glad I gave Jennifer Egan another chance, though, because I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad. This time, I believed in both the characters and plot, and I loved the book’s structure and its narrative energy. It’s one of those books that both tells a good story and leaves you feeling like you understand the world just a bit better.

The story is fairly complicated, not because it has a complex plot, but because it tells the stories of a lot of different people. We start with one of the main characters, Sasha, in a therapy session where she discusses her habit of stealing things, and then the next chapter introduces us to Bennie, a music industry executive who is visiting a band to see if his company should still represent them. Sasha is Bennie’s assistant and has been for many years. At one point, Bennie makes a pass at Sasha, but she wisely turns him down, and their relationship stays close in the way you can be close to someone you work with without really knowing much about that person at all.

From there, the chapters skip around in time and shift focus on to the people important in Sasha’s and Bennie’s lives. The two main characters never disappear, but they are sometimes on the sidelines as we learn about, say, the people Bennie went to high school with, Bennie’s wife and her life story, the story of the woman Bennie’s wife worked for, the story of the man Bennie’s high school friend ran away with, the story of a man Sasha had a brief fling with, and others. The point of view shifts from chapter to chapter, sometimes in third person, sometimes in first, and once in second. One chapter consists of a article draft written by one of the characters, and one long chapter consists of a journal created by one of the characters using PowerPoint.

If you had asked me before reading this book what I thought about the fictional possibilities of PowerPoint, I would have laughed in your face (politely, of course!). But Egan pulls it off, and this is one of the book’s most moving sections. There’s something about the small number of words on each page and the way those words are strategically arranged that makes some of the pages feel poetic and causes the emotions expressed to come through powerfully.

What it all adds up to is a picture of interlocking worlds, that of the music business in New York City, teenage life in California, suburban enclaves in Westchester, a safari in Africa, teenage prostitutes in Naples, Italy, all connected by people who know each other or have affected each other’s lives in some way. There is a lot going on in the book, but Egan keeps control of the material, partly through the connections amongst all the characters, but also through the energy and insight of the book as a whole. The moods of the different sections vary — there is humor, absurdity, darkness, hope, sadness — but there is a compassion for the characters and an excitement about life that runs through the whole. Egan manages to strike the right notes right up until the end.

I’m not sure what I think about the book’s title, though. We find out in the book that “the goon squad” refers to time, as in “time’s a goon,” which makes sense and fits the book exactly right. But I didn’t know what “goon squad” meant until I read the book, and up until that point I thought it was pretty silly. I hope the title doesn’t push anybody away from reading what really is a great book.

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Gryphon, by Charles Baxter

A while ago I read and enjoyed a collection of essays on fiction by Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House, so when the publisher offered me a copy of his latest collection of short stories, Gryphon, I was happy to say yes. I don’t remember a whole lot about the essay collection, except that Baxter argued against the kind of short story that ends in an epiphany where the main character learns a lesson or changes dramatically. He wanted stories that were more true to life and to the way things actually happen to real people. The stories in Gryphon are good examples of what Baxter was calling for; they are quiet stories about people you or I might know who are in familiar situations and go through recognizable experiences. The characters experience change, and perhaps they learn something, if only because something new has happened to them, but the changes are small. The stories capture a quiet kind of reality, which is matched by Baxter’s calmly straightforward, carefully detailed writing.

The stories cover a lot of emotional territory, describing, for example, a woman visiting her husband in a nursing home on their fifty-second anniversary, a man driving drunk through a snow storm to rescue his estranged fiancée when her car breaks down, a Swedish man visiting Detroit and learning the hard way what to expect from dangerous American cities. Other stories tell about a substitute teacher surprising her class with her very strange lesson plans (the title story), a man finding a drawing of a building with the caption “The next building I plan to bomb,” and a boy who follows his brother and his brother’s girlfriend out onto a frozen lake to see the car in the water under the clear ice.

The characters, situations, and experiences are varied, but in each case, Baxter captures the thoughts and feelings of the characters perfectly. His portraits of his characters are so accurate and convincing that he creates the sense of a world much larger than the one contained in the story. It’s like he describes one small slice of his fictional world so well that we can strongly sense the presence of the rest. The narrative voice is consistently understanding and compassionate throughout; there is no sense of anyone judging the characters who are frequently, although not always, troubled, uncertain, and confused. Baxter seems to want to help us understand these characters in order to understand humanity a little better.

These are “new and selected stories,” which means they date from the publication of Baxter’s first story collection in 1984 up to the present. Remarkably, the narrative voice remains much the same over that span of time, and that is the book’s major weakness: the collection contains 23 stories, and by the time I finished all of them, I was longing for something a little different. I would have welcomed a little more drama or a punchier narrative voice. The final story starts to head into different territory; here, a man travels to the wilds of northern Minnesota to interview a wealthy businessman and, feeling alienated and angry in the vast mansion, acts out in interesting ways. But this story comes a little too late to vary the mood of the book much.

Still, the stories need not be read all at once, and, taken in isolation, each one is a pleasure to read.

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Favorite books, 2010

It’s time to make my list of favorite books from 2010 before we get too far into 2011. This time I will use categories rather than simply a top ten list, since my favorite books are all so different.

  • Book I enjoyed most of any genre: David Foster Wallace’s  A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I love his essayistic style.Love it.
  • Favorite fiction: Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist. Yes, this book was on my favorites list from last year, but I liked the book so much I read it again, and the second time was in 2010. Yay! Also, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, May Sarton’s A Small Room, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.
  • Favorite mystery/crime novels: Patricia Highsmith’sThe Talented Mr. Ripley. That book is still freaking me out. Also, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, not for the plot (at all!) but for the writing. Best funny mystery novels: Sarah Caudwell’s Thus was Adonis Murdered and David Markson’s Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat.
  • Biggest surprises in fiction: I didn’t expect to love Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as much as I did, but I really did love it. And Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars was good in a thoughtful way I didn’t expect.
  • Favorite classics: My reread of Emma was awesome, of course, and I really enjoyed The Perpetual Curate by Margaret Oliphant. It was great to finally read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as well.
  • Best nonfiction: For biography, Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Darker Reflections. I missed Coleridge when I finished reading. For essays, finishing Montaigne was great, of course, and Lawrence Weschler’s Vermeer in Bosnia was wonderful. I enjoyed Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days: Personal Essays greatly as well. Also in nonfiction, Jenny Diski’s book The Sixties was really good.
  • Poetry: I read only two volumes of poetry this year, but they were both memorable: Faber’s 80th anniversary edition of Ted Hughes, and the poems of T’ao Ch’ien.
  • Other books I liked: Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy, I Too Am Here: Selections from the Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and John Williams’s Stoner.
  • Biggest challenge: Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. A challenge indeed.
  • Biggest disappointments: I didn’t enjoy Balzac’s novel Cousin Bette at all, and I thought I would. Also, Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites was a disappointment. I didn’t dislike it as much as my book group did, but still, I hoped to like it better.

I like doing my favorites this way, because I can name lots more books!

Now for a word about my year in cycling. I rode a grand total of 6,597 miles during 2010 and a total of 409 hours (more than an hour a day!). All those miles were outdoors. My mileage in 2009, which was a record at that time, was 5,097. The funny thing about this year is that I didn’t set out to ride a lot of miles. I would have been perfectly happy riding fewer than I did in 2009. I wanted to ride exactly what I felt like riding. That’s just what I did, but apparently what I wanted to do was to ride an awful, awful lot. It was training with my Ironman friend that made the difference; she needed to go on 3,4,5,6-hour rides, and I was happy to go along. She’s not training for an Ironman in the upcoming year, so I may ride less, although I do have two other friends who will be training for an Ironman, so maybe I need to do some rides with them!

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