Monthly Archives: February 2011

Diary exhibit at the Morgan and other weekend pleasures

I know I’ve written here about how much I love the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City; the library itself is fabulous, three gorgeous rooms packed with books and with art, manuscripts, and rare books on display (including a Gutenberg Bible). They also have the best exhibits. I was thrilled to see the one on Jane Austen last year, and this year they have one on diaries (until May 22nd) and on “The Changing Face of Shakespeare” (until May 1st). They are small exhibits, usually in just one room, but that’s perfect, I think, because you can see the entire library and museum in an hour or so and leave satisfied without feeling exhausted.

The diary exhibit is wonderful. They have a diary written by Charlotte Bronte and a textbook she had when teaching in Brussels where she wrote on the inside cover how she misses Anne, Emily, and Branwell. Her handwriting is tiny and perfect. They have journals by Thoreau, including a page that has a drawing of a feather. One of the coolest things they have is a journal of Hawthorne’s where he jotted down the idea for The Scarlet Letter: “The life of a woman, who, by the old colony law, was condemned always to wear the letter A, sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery.” There is also a diary he and his wife Sophia kept together, documenting their lives and responding to each other, and another that shows drawings their children later added to their journals. There is a page from Pepys, not from his diary, but a page of notes written in the code he used in the diary. They also have diaries from Joshua Reynolds, Edward Gibbon, Walt Whitman, Sir Walter Scott, John Ruskin and some twentieth-century writers such as Tennessee Williams, Anaïs Nin, and Albert Einstein.

Doesn’t that sound awesome? All these things are in one room, and I couldn’t help but think about the creative power all those pages represent. When I see original letters, diaries, or manuscripts, I don’t try to read them — too often the handwriting is inscrutable. I just stare at the pages and think about the fact that Charlotte Bronte or whoever actually touched them. It’s a tiny link with the writers themselves and it makes it somehow easier to imagine them existing as real people.

The exhibit on Shakespeare was also interesting; this one is in a closet-sized room and has just a few items, but they are great: the centerpiece is the Cobbe Portrait from c. 1610, which is possibly a portrait of Shakespeare painted from life, the only one we have. From what I can tell, there is debate about the authenticity of this picture, but the Morgan Library says it has “strong claims to be the only surviving life-time portrait of William Shakespeare.” The exhibit has a couple imitations of the original Cobbe Portrait and also lays out the arguments for and against its authenticity.

Oh, I just saw that they are going to have an exhibit on Charles Dickens next fall — yay!

After finishing up at the Morgan, we did what we usually do, which is to visit some of our favorite bookshops, including the Strand, St. Mark’s, McNally-Jackson, and Shakespeare and Co., all within fairly easy walking distance (although I have to say my feet were aching by the end of the day). I brought home a few books: The Best American Essays 2010, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm, and Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman or A History of my Nerves.

All in all, a very nice day, I think.

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The Matchmaker of Kenmare

Frank Delaney’s novel The Matchmaker of Kenmare didn’t strike me as a particularly good book, although I found myself absorbed in the last 100 pages or so wanting to know how things turned out. But I did enjoy it at times because it’s set in the part of Ireland Hobgoblin and I will be traveling to this May (we were supposed to go last year but the trip got canceled — this year it’s on — yay!). We will be staying in Dingle, which gets a mention now and then, and much of the action takes place on the coast and in the countryside near our little town. It was fun to read about the place we will be staying.

As for the novel itself, it’s set during World War II and tells the story of Ben McCarthy, a folklorist who travels around the country collecting stories and is trying to recover from a broken heart after his wife mysteriously disappeared, and Kate Begley, the matchmaker of the title, a young woman learning how to ply the matchmaking trade from her grandmother. The two meet and strike up a somewhat combative friendship. They meet the American intelligence officer Charles Miller, and Kate falls in love. She also starts working for Miller, or so Ben surmises as he watches them having mysteriously intense conversations. Kate’s involvement with Charles takes them first to London, and later into France, Belgium, and Germany. Even though the war is winding down and Ben and Kate are partly protected by Ireland’s neutral stance in the war, they find themselves in way over their heads.

It was interesting to read about how the war affected Ireland; it remained neutral throughout, but was still in danger as both England and Germany saw it as important strategically. The characters have to figure out what they think about both sides and how they can best protect themselves. The work the two characters do when they aren’t off on their war escapades is also interesting, both the stories Ben hears and records and the couples Kate brings together.

The problem with the book, I thought, lies in the way the first person narrator, Ben, tells the story. He is writing to his children from the vantage point of old age, filling them in on his life story, and he constantly hints in ominous tones about the very exciting things that are about to happen. We get lots of comments of the “little did I know …” variety:

That was the moment at which two strangers walked into the dance hall — and that was the beginning of so many things, and the continuation of so many things, and the end of so many things….

A couple of hours later, when the afternoon had grown quieter, the rest of our lives began. We all heard the engine, we all listened from our respective chairs, and I swear to this day that I knew who had arrived — the two young American soldiers from last night. A third man rode with them, and he was the world changer….

Indeed I can say now that however rambling they may seem, my Digressions will serve a purpose.

I think you get the idea. The book would have worked better if told in a more direct manner, without all the editorializing from the older version of Ben. I’m fine with the set-up of a character telling his children the story of the most exciting part of his life, but it needs to be done in a much smoother way and it needs to keep the reader more consistently immersed in the action.

The book does have its pleasures — as you can imagine, the love triangle that develops between Kate, Ben, and Charles is consistently interesting — but, unfortunately, the quality of the writing kept interfering with the fun.

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Borders

My closest large bookstore is a Borders (not counting the small new/used store in my town), and it’s closing, as well as the Borders I pass on my way to work. As a lot of others do, I have mixed feelings about this. I’m very sad for the people who will be losing their jobs and I wonder what it means for the future of bookstores. I also feel that it won’t make a whole lot of difference to me personally (directly, right now — who knows about long-term consequences). I used to go to Borders fairly often, but in recent years stopped going, mostly because I began acquiring books in other ways. Being who I am, I feel a little guilty about this, as though my failure to shop at Borders is the cause of all their problems.

Hobgoblin and I used to go to Borders whenever we needed a new book to read. It seems unbelievable now, but I used to run out of things to read and need to go to a bookstore to find something new. Blogging changed all that, of course; it was after I began blogging that my TBR shelves grew and grew, and now I won’t run out of anything to read for a decade or so. I’m very happy to have all the stockpiled books I do, but there was something fun about finishing up a book, heading out to the store, picking something out, and coming home to read it right away. Now when I buy books, I’m likely to read them only after a lot of time has passed, but it was satisfying to dive into my new purchase immediately.

I also remember shopping at Borders, looking at the books and thinking, I really have no idea what I want to read. This was partly because the selection at Borders was never all that great, but it was also because while I read reviews here and there, I didn’t follow the book business nearly as closely as I do now. Now I have no trouble thinking of things I want to read — I have a wishlist with hundreds of books on it — but then I would look at the books and not know much about them. I’m not much of a risk-taker when it comes to reading, so I tended to stick with the authors I knew, largely classic, canonical stuff and the biggest contemporary names. It was as I started reading blogs and learning more about all the books out there that I started shopping at Borders less. I figured out that I’d rather get books from elsewhere — Powell’s online or Book Mooch or my small local shop — and that Borders wasn’t likely to have what I wanted.

But still, I’m sad to see it go. Hobgoblin and I headed out there last weekend to check out the sales, and I couldn’t believe the long line of people waiting to buy books. I had never seen so many people in the store before. The line stretched all the way through the shop to the very back. It was a fast-moving line, but still people were waiting a good 20-30 minutes to pay. If what I saw that day is any clue, reading is certainly not dead, nor are paper books. People were so excited about the sale — and it was only 20% off, which, I suspect, isn’t all that much of a bargain when compared to Amazon prices. But it was an event and people wanted to be there. I bought a few things (The Yacoubian Building, A Novel Bookstore, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel), but I felt strangely guilty doing so, as though I had failed to support the store and was only showing up to take advantage of it now that it was failing. The workers looked a little shell-shocked, as well they might with such a crowd and on the verge of losing their jobs, and I imagined them thinking, “why didn’t you all show up when we needed you?”

So, yeah, even though Borders was far, far from the best bookstore out there and I’d much rather spend my money at independent stores, I’m still sad that it’s closing.

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Sex and the River Styx

Edward Hoagland’s book Sex and the River Styx is a collection of essays about nature, travel, and what he has learned from life. He self-consciously situates himself as someone nearing the end of his life looking back and taking stock. This is the first Hoagland book I’ve read (which I got from the publisher on NetGalley), although I’ve read single essays of his from various collections before. It’s an interesting book and a number of things stand out about it, most obviously the quality of the writing, as in this passage, where he writes about his own death:

. . . accepting death as a process of disassembly into humus, then brook, and finally seawater demystifies it for me. I don’t mean I comprehend bidding consciousness goodbye. But I love the rich smell of humus, of true woods soil, and of course the sea — love rivulets and brooks, lying earthbound, on the ground. The question of decomposition is not pressing or frightening. From the top of the food chain I’ll reenter the bottom. Be a bug; then a shiner shimmering in the closest stream … or partially mineralized — does one need retinas and a hippocampus? Because I don’t particularly want to be me, my theory is no. A green shoot a woodchuck might munch seems okay. I believe in continuity through conductivity: that the seething underpinnings of life’s flash and filigree, its igniting chemistry, may, like fertilizer, appear temporarily dead, but spark across species like the electricity of empathy, or as though paralleling the posthumous alchemy of art.

His descriptions are so specific, so precise, that you can imagine exactly what he’s describing. even if you haven’t actually seen it with your own eyes. I also admired the strong sense of joy that runs through the book, alongside the equally strong (or stronger, perhaps?) sense of doom. As one who loves nature deeply, Hoagland mourns over all that we’ve lost on the earth and all that we will lose in the future. When he says he’s glad he won’t be around to witness the future destruction that is inevitably on the way, I sympathize. But still, he has a strong sense of joy that he sees running through the entire creation; here is he thinking about the question of who or what, exactly, experiences joy:

Most of us nowadays agree that the birds that sing at dawn in the spring are expressing some degree of gladness in their surging notes, not merely a mechanical territoriality. But for a person like me who considers the toads’ sparkling, twinned-note, extended song on warm days in May and June to be actually loveliest of all, the answer is not that easy. I can’t swallow the notion that I — but not the toads — find it so lovely. (I also think I’ve seen and heard alligators and seen turtles enjoy themselves.) However, then the question shifts to whether amphibians that sing, such as frogs and toads, only began to respond to warmth and what we call beauty after they left the constancy of the water and ceased being fish. Not a sure-shot answer there either, unless you discount the evidence of your eyes when you’re closely watching fish. And water is an unboxed, undulant medium. What does it mimic when it sloshes?

This passage is from the first essay, which describes Hoagland’s childhood experiences with nature. Other essays tell of journeys that he made into Africa and India. The African trip recounted in “Visiting Norah” takes him to Uganda (his fifth trip to that continent) to see the family he has supported financially. He writes of happiness at seeing the people with whom he has been corresponding, but also his uncomfortable awareness of the vast differences in comfort and privilege between him and everyone he sees and how those differences infiltrate his every conversation.

Other essays are about stories from his interesting life; he writes about working in the circus, for example, and the lessons he learned about animals and humans both. He writes about what aging has taught him and in particular, what it means to be a man who is growing old. He writes about his stutter and how that turned him both inward into himself and outward toward nature.

Sometimes he sounds like a crotchety old man who thinks the world isn’t nearly as good as it was when he was young, but most of the time it’s easy to see that he may well be right, especially when he writes about what we are doing to nature — about rainforests lost and species destroyed. I’m inclined to be suspicious of his arguments about technology and how it turns us away from the natural world, but he may well be right there too.

This is a bracing, sometimes uncomfortable read, but in its best moments, it’s exhilarating as well. Hoagland’s vision of a world full of marvels and bubbling over with energy and joy is a beautiful one and should make us think carefully about what we are doing to it.

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On Elizabeth Gilbert

I didn’t intend to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on marriage, Committed, largely because of a couple bad reviews and lack of interest in the topic, but then I saw it was available at my library, and I thought I would give it a try. I’m very glad I did. Having read two of Gilbert’s books now, including Eat, Pray, Love (of course!), I have turned into a Gilbert fan.

I’m aware that there has been some backlash against Gilbert, mostly because of the popularity of EPL, and also, I’m guessing, because she had the extraordinary good luck to be able to nurse a broken heart while spending a year traveling around the world. And at the end, she has the extraordinary good luck to fall in love again. She’s sometimes seen as spoiled and self-indulgent, out having adventures, dashing off books, making tons of money, and basically being a frivolous, privileged person. Although I haven’t seen it yet, I’m afraid that the movie of EPL where Gilbert is played by Julia Roberts doesn’t help matters much.

Well, that’s highly irritating. Gilbert has been doing what writers do: she proposes book ideas, gets advances, does her research, and writes her books. And she’s good at it. Her books are so very readable — engaging, funny, open, smart — that she makes it looks easy, and I know it’s not. Calling her spoiled and indulgent is to forget that there are tons of male travel writers, Bill Bryson types, who do exactly what has done. Except, I suppose, that they don’t write about their broken hearts. Do the people who dislike her writing feel uncomfortable about the personal nature of it? That’s one of its strongest features, I say. One of the things that makes her so appealing is that she seems fearless: it takes enormous bravery to make yourself as vulnerable as she does. Her popularity has a lot to do with her willingness to pour her heart out onto the page, and to do it in a way that’s entertaining, moving, and, sometimes, wise.

I don’t buy the argument that writing a book, or multiple books, about oneself is inherently self-indulgent. What matters is the manner in which you do so. Are you writing about yourself in such a way that others recognize themselves in your story? Are you reaching toward something larger than yourself? Or, are you just a really, really good writer of the sort who can turn any subject into something worth reading? Then by all means, please, write endlessly about yourself. I’d love to read it.

Gilbert’s writing style, in both EPL and Committed, veers occasionally toward chattiness in a way that doesn’t work for me, but to make up for the moments of glibness and the occasional bad jokes, there are tons of passages where she gets the tone just right. She moves easily from personal experience to passages on the history of marriage, from descriptions of travel in Southeast Asia to memories of her mother’s and her grandmother’s marriages. Surely I don’t need to say much about the idea behind Committed, do I? She was basically forced to marry her Brazilian boyfriend Felipe when he is detained at the U.S. border and refused entry and they learn that marriage is the only way they can live together in the U.S. The problem is that they both knew they never wanted to marry again. The book is Gilbert’s attempt to make her peace with the institution before she finds herself a wife once again.

The book isn’t perfect — she comes across as strangely naive about the variety of beliefs about love and marriage and how they often have little to do with each other — but in its best moments, it really is a good read. I’ve come to think that the best essayists and memoir writers are those whose voices are so captivating you don’t want them to stop talking. Gilbert makes a marvelous companion.

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Reviewing Joyce Carol Oates

I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’s new memoir about her husband’s death, A Widow’s Story and liked it very much; it turns out the New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin most emphatically did not. Maslin’s review strikes me as odd; is it helpful at all in one’s review to say things like this?

Although the book flashes back to various stages of the marriage, and to the remarkably treacly addresses of their homes in various cities (their last street address was 9 Honey Brook Drive), it offers few glimpses of how they actually got along.

The tone of the entire thing seems strangely angry. Who cares if their street names were on the sweet side? But one of Maslin’s criticisms is much harder to dismiss: Oates was engaged to be married 11 months after her husband died, and Maslin wonders why she did not mention this in her book. I hadn’t known about the engagement and marriage until I read the review. Oates presents herself one year after her husband’s death as beginning to recover and to return to a more normal life, but as forever scarred by her loss. There is no evidence in the book that another romance is afoot.

I’m not sure what to think about this. On the one hand, I strongly believe that art is what matters most, and if Oates needed to exclude some information in order to make her book a better work of art, then that’s what she should do. I also strongly believe that memoirs are always shaped and molded to meet the writer’s needs; they always have omissions and elisions, and they are very carefully crafted. I suppose it’s never quite as simple as this, but I always want to argue that a writer’s first duty is to the writing, and everything and everybody else will just have to deal with it.

On the other hand, part of what was so powerful to me about Oates’s memoir is that it seemed so very real. I believed every word of it. I know I sound contradictory — if it’s so carefully crafted, then how can it be real? It’s clearly all artifice! — and yet I also believe that artifice can help express truth. And I felt as I read that I was getting a true picture of what suffering is like. I’m now imagining all widows I know as having experienced something like what Oates experienced, and I feel horrible for them.

But if Oates wasn’t telling the whole story about her emotional experience — leaving out a new engagement is kind of a big deal — then what am I left with?

Or, perhaps, everything she wrote about her suffering is absolutely as true as she could make it, and that suffering isn’t diminished by the fact that towards the end of her story when she is beginning to show signs of recovery she doesn’t tell us quite how much that recovery actually meant.

I don’t know. I’m not sure how I would have felt if she had written about her engagement in the book, but I do think it would have made the book less unified and less powerful. It comes down to my purpose in reading, I suppose. The part of me that reads for aesthetic pleasure has no problem with the fact that Oates omitted something major from her memoir. The part of me that reads for emotional truth isn’t quite as sure.

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Destiny and Desire

I’m afraid I have another negative review to write, and in this case, it’s a book I couldn’t finish. I made it about 160 pages out of over 400 into Carlos Fuentes’s new novel Destiny and Desire (which I won from Goodreads) and decided to call it quits. I’m not one to abandon books often or easily, and I really wanted to finish this one, to see if the pace would ever pick up or if my interest would sharpen, but during the last ten or twenty pages, I was beginning to positively hate the book, so it was time to stop.

This is another case, like the novel The Illumination I wrote about yesterday, of not liking a book I’ve read only positive reviews of. The New York Times, for one, reviewed it glowingly last week. My problems with it, though, were multiple. Part of it is that the book struck me as very unfriendly toward women. It’s about two young men growing up in Mexico City, attending school, having intense philosophical debates, reading books together (that’s what I read about anyway — the plot was soon to take them in other directions), and all that’s fine, but their friendship as they grow up is more and more built on bonding through degrading women. The women characters were either sex objects or evil, nasty parents and guardians. I didn’t hold out much hope that this would change.

The other problem was that I did not enjoy the writing, which struck me as overblown and ponderous. There were a few too many passages like this one, which comes from the first page; it starts off fine with some nice images, but takes a turn for the worse:

The Pacific really is a tranquil ocean now, as white as a large basin of milk. The waves have warned it that earth is approaching. I try to measure the distance between two waves. Or is it time that separates them, not distance? Answering this question would solve my own mystery. The ocean is undrinkable, but it drinks us. Its softness is a thousand times greater than earth’s. But we hear only the echo, not the voice of the sea. If the sea were to shout, we would all be deaf. And if the sea were to stop, we would all be dead.

Okay, the last two lines are fine, too, but I don’t know how “answering this question would solve my own mystery.” It’s the kind of vague sentence that drives me nuts, and the book was full of similarly vague sentences. The novel is narrated by one of the two main characters, and he’s altogether too satisfied with himself to be enjoyable company.

The novel has an interesting conceit: the first-person narrator is actually dead — he’s a severed head washed up on the beach. We learn he is twenty-seven at his death, so the novel, as far as I can see, is supposed to tell the story of what led to such a gruesome end. I can see that this book is supposed to say something about Mexican society and politics, and I’m sure that if I could have gotten into the story, that would have been interesting. But it’s not for me to find out.

So, clearly, I am not the best reader for this book. I’m curious if others have read Fuentes before and liked any of his books. Are there ones I might like better, particularly short ones? And now that I’ve written such bad things about this book, would anyone like my copy? Such a generous offer! You very well might like it better than I did, though. Just let me know; the first person to express interest gets it.

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