Monthly Archives: August 2011

Hurricane!

I didn’t intend to take a blogging break, but then Hurricane Irene happened. Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I are totally fine, but we are without power and have no idea when we will get it back. It might possibly be as late as the end of the week or on into the weekend. But all is well: we have running water and we are within easy walking distance of town with lots of shops, restaurants, etc., all of which have power. We can go to the coffee shop  and the library to charge our phones and get internet access. It’s a little annoying not to have a refrigerator, but, then again, it’s not so bad either.

So I’ll be away for a while longer. Fortunately, I’ve had plenty of reading time, and so will have a lot to write about when I get back. In the meantime, be well!

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Quarrel and Quandary

Quarrel and Quandary, a collection of essays, is the first book by Cynthia Ozick that I’ve read, and I finished it feeling impressed. Perhaps what stands out most strongly to me is her serious, firm, no-nonsense, occasionally devastating argumentation style. I would not ever want to be the subject of Ozick’s critique; she can be frighteningly effective when goes on the attack.

The essays cover a range of material. Many of them are literary in nature, including essays on Kafka, Dostoevsky, Sebald, Henry James, and others. Other essays explore broader literary phenomena such as the various adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank and the treatment of the Holocaust in fiction. These last two are good examples of what I mean by her devastating argumentation style; she is angry at theatrical adaptations of the diary that downplay the horror of Anne’s fate in order to focus on the diary’s hopeful messages. In the essay on Holocaust fiction, she critiques Sophie’s Choice and Bernard Schlink’s The Reader for covering over some of the worst aspects of Holocaust history by focusing on exceptions and rare cases in the stories they tell. That essay (which you can read here) is a nuanced discussion of the tension between the right of authors to write about whatever they want and their responsibility to be ethical human beings.

Not all the essays are literary, though; there are some personal essays on, for example, Ozick’s first office job and her childhood spent in and around her family’s drugstore in the Bronx. One of my favorite essays, though, is one of the literary ones, an essay on essays called “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.” Those of you who know my reading tastes will not be surprised that I was particularly drawn to this one (although I found the gender dynamics of the essay kind of weird — why should an essay be figured as a woman? But Ozick is impatient with talk of gender: “Essays are written by men. Essays are written by women. That is the long and short of it.” Well, yes. But perhaps there’s more to the story?) I particularly liked her description of how essays work persuasively:

The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind. Yet this is not to say that there has never been an essayist morally intent on making an argument, however obliquely — George Orwell is a case in point. At the end of the day, the essay turns out to be a force for agreement. It co-opts agreement; it courts agreement; it seduces agreement. For the brief hour we give to it, we are sure to fall into surrender and conviction. And this will occur even if we are intrinsically roused to resistance.

Even if we disagree with an essayist, for the time we are reading his or her essay, we are won over. I feel this when I read my favorite essays; it’s not that I give up all of my own thoughts and criticisms, but that I come to enjoy following another person’s mind so much that I’m willing to follow them anywhere. That is, I’m willing to follow them while I’m reading them. Afterward is the time for critique. She goes on to contrast essays to other prose forms such as magazine articles, polemics, and tracts, all of which are clearly looking at us, focusing on us and trying to change our minds. She writes:

The genuine essay, in contrast, never thinks of us; the genuine essay may be the most self-centered (the politer word would be subjective) arena for human thought ever devised.

Or else, though still not having you and me in mind (unless as an exemplum of common folly), it is not self-centered at all.

Instead of being self-centered, the essay is sometimes focused on the world around the essayist; it’s a way for the writer to make sense of the materials of everyday life and how they connect with one another:

The mind meanders, slipping from one impression to another, from reality to memory to dreamscape and back again.

Rather than going directly after the reader trying to make a polemical point, the genuine essay simply goes on a journey the reader will find irresistible, whether it’s a journey through the self or through the world (or both). We can’t help but follow along and end up where the writer ends, convinced, at least for a time.

I found Ozick convincing, in most cases long after the essay’s spell wore off. My favorite essay style is actually looser, more hesitant and exploring than Ozick’s, but I couldn’t help but admire her sharp mind at work.

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The Little House books

I mentioned earlier that Hobgoblin bought me a set of the Little House on the Prairie books, and I have now read through the first four of the nine novels. It’s been fun to reread the books (who knows how many times I’ve read each one — it’s many), and especially to do it shortly after I read Wendy McClure’s book on rereading the series as an adult, and also at the same time that I’m reading Laura Miller’s book on C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. All this thinking about children’s books and what it’s like to reread them! I’m also sort of in the middle of rereading the Anne of Green Gables books, although it’s been a while since I picked one of those up.

A friend asked me if rereading the Little House books reminds me of what I felt about them as a child, which it has, and also whether it reminded me of where I was when I first read them, which it hasn’t. I read the books too many times to remember where I was when I first read them; all the subsequent rereadings have erased my first memories. But I do remember how much I loved reading all the details of the characters’ lives, although right now I’m feeling surprised and a little overwhelmed by exactly how much detail there is, especially in Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, which, I learned from Wendy McClure, were the first two books written and were meant as companion books — Laura as a child and then her husband Almanzo as a child.

Not much actually happens in these volumes except everyday life. We learn about what Laura and Mary did on Sundays, what they played with during the week, how they helped their mother, how they waited for their father to return from hunting trips and journeys into town. Farmer Boy is even more detail-laden; it takes the reader through a year on the farm and describes all their tasks: plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting; breaking in colts and calves; repairing the house and barns; fishing and berrying; chopping ice into blocks and packing it in sawdust; and most of all, cooking and eating. The book is overflowing with food and descriptions of eating. There are many passages like this one:

Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.

As McClure points out, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote this book during the depression when food was scarce and after having gone through years of poverty and deprivation. It’s no wonder she focuses on the food so much.

Almanzo loves working on the farm with his father and longs for the day when he can have a colt of his very own to train. Wilder describes his joy in the farm animals and farm work so infectiously that it makes me want to live on a farm, even though I most definitely know better. I would not like all that hard work and uncertainty one bit. But Almanzo thrives on it, and Wilder makes the abundance of the farm and the reliable rhythms of yearly agricultural cycles so appealing. I knew as a child that living on a farm is not quite like it’s described in Farmer Boy, but I found the fantasy version of farm life comforting then and I do now as well.

Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek have slightly more going on in terms of plot, although they, too, have lots of descriptions of how things get done, especially how houses and barns get built. These two novels tell the stories of how the Ingalls family packed up and headed into new territory, first the Indian territory in Kansas, and second to farm land in Minnesota. The plot, such as it is, centers around the struggle to settle themselves in a new place and the question of whether they will make it there. In Kansas there are the Indians (whose land they have taken), prairie fires, and blizzards, while in Minnesota there are blizzards and grasshoppers swarms. In Minnesota there is also school and Nellie Oleson to deal with. On the Banks of Plum Creek was the most engaging, partly because there is more story involved and also because Laura is getting older and her challenges are more interesting (to me): she is now having to find her way through the social world and make more decisions for herself.

What I don’t remember caring about much as a child but what I thought a lot about this time around was the isolation the family lived in, especially in Little House on the Prairie. As a child I took it as natural, I guess, to want to head off into unknown territory and settle it, and as my life was spent mostly with my family, I didn’t question their reliance on no one but themselves. But now I’m amazed at their willingness to live almost entirely without neighbors and extended family. In Kansas they have a few people they see occasionally and who play crucial roles in keeping them alive and well, but for the vast majority of the time, they are completely alone. Town is 40 miles away. They have only themselves to talk to and get entertainment from (Pa’s fiddle helps a lot with this). Unless I’m forgetting something, there are no references to books until we get to On the Banks of Plum Creek, and then there’s only one novel and a newspaper mentioned. I understand the desire for independence and the longing to create their own life on their own land, but would that life really be satisfactory and fulfilling with only themselves in it? I think my child-self would be surprised at how important being surrounded by lots of people has become to me, but that’s a significant way I’ve changed as I’ve gotten older.

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In the Bleak Midwinter and other thoughts

I don’t feel like I need to write an entire post on Julia Spencer-Fleming’s detective novel In the Bleak Midwinter, but I did want to say that I liked it quite a bit and am eager to read further into the series. In fact, I made sure to find a copy of the second in the series while I was out book shopping last weekend. As is usual for me, it wasn’t the plot that made me like it so much, although I found the plot perfectly satisfactory. It was the dynamic between the main characters that held my interest. There’s Clare Fergusson, the Episcopal priest who gets drawn into the mystery when she finds an abandoned baby on the church steps, and there’s Russ Van Alstyne, the police chief in charge of the investigation. It’s probably a little unrealistic the way Clare kept accompanying Russ on his police work — would she really have been able to do that? — but the dynamic between the two of them is so interesting that I was willing to overlook this.

I also liked the setting, which is in upstate New York, near the Adirondack mountains. It’s pretty far from my home town in western New York State, but the territory is still somewhat familiar, especially the small town culture and the dark, snowy winters. I thought as I read about when the best time to read a book with a title like In the Bleak Midwinter is. Do you really want to read about bleak midwinters in the summer? Or while you’re in the middle of winter? Or in the fall when you dread winter’s arrival, or the spring when you can’t wait for it to warm up? IS there a good time? But that comes from someone who is no fan of winter, and I know some people feel differently. And I liked the book enough to be willing to read it no matter the season.

I did wish Spencer-Fleming had given more information on Clare’s religious faith; I wanted to know how she went from being in the military to being a priest (there is an explanation hinted at in the story of a family tragedy, but it’s not developed) and what her faith means to her now. But perhaps these things are developed in later books.

My weekend with my parents was very good; western New York can be miserable in the bleak midwinter, but it’s beautiful in the summer with temperatures that are more moderate than home and rolling green fields and orchards. I was able to ride my bike along Lake Ontario twice, which was great, and I went book shopping twice with my dad, which was also great. We found two used bookstores that we hadn’t visited before, and discovered a couple more that we didn’t make it to this time but can explore later. In addition to the next Spencer-Fleming novel, I bought a copy of Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Sadly, I probably won’t get to the book this summer to participate in Litlove’s reading of it, but at least I now have it on hand. And I also got Pierre Bayard’s book Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles. I love the title and premise of the book — can he really be right about Holmes? — but I’ll have to read The Hound of the Baskervilles before I pick this one up. That will be something to look forward to.

I also brought home my mom’s copy of Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture. It happens to be the copy I gave her for Christmas last year. But no, I did not buy her the book in hopes she would let me borrow it later. Not really. At least not consciously…. I’ve been flying my way through the Little House series and have made it through three books and am in the middle of the fourth. They read very, very fast, and it’s been great fun to remember all the details and rediscover their charm. But more on that later.

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Away for the weekend

I’m spending this weekend at my parents’ house outside of Rochester, New York, which so far has involved… well, reading, riding, and visiting bookstores. So pretty much what I do at home, just now with my parents. It’s been fun and relaxing, and I read most of Little House on the Prairie this afternoon. Now we are listening to the thunder and hoping we don’t lose power so we can watch Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day a little later.

I hope you are enjoying your weekend too! I’ll be back early next week to talk about books again.

Here’s a picture from today’s ride. (This is my first time blogging from my phone, and I hope the picture uploads.)

20110813-082534.jpg

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Brief thoughts

I’m in the middle of a four-day training session in Blackboard, the educational technology that most educators I know hate. I use it to teach online and hybrid (half online) courses, and I like teaching online, but the software we use is … not perfect. We are moving to a new version of Blackboard that’s very different from the old one, and some of what I’m learning is useful, but much is not. A lot of today’s session focused on creating and grading tests, and I don’t give tests in my online classes (relying on papers and other projects instead). So much for that. Now that I’ve been a teacher for a while, I’ve gotten much more impatient when I have to be a student, but particularly so when it comes to learning technology. I want to learn it on my own time in my own way, and I don’t want to listen to someone lecturing about it. I got through the day by complaining on Twitter, checking the stock market, and reading blogs. When technology instruction is boring, technology itself was there to save me!

But on to some good news. I’m extremely happy for a very good fiction writer friend of mine, Elizabeth Gentry, who just won the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writers Residency Prize! It’s at Lake Forest College outside Chicago, and I’m looking forward to visiting her there in February or March when she’s in residency. I’ve been reading Elizabeth’s novel manuscripts for a while now, and they are very, very good, exactly the kinds of novels I like to read. One of the best things about this prize is that, pending completion and editorial approval, her winning manuscript will get published by &NOW Books, which is part of Lake Forest College Press. That’s very exciting; I can’t wait to see her book in print. So, yay!

One final thought. As I was reading Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, I kept talking about how fun it would be to reread the Little House on the Prairie series, but I don’t own the the books anymore. I’m not sure what happened to the ones I read as a kid. So, since it was our anniversary last weekend, Hobgoblin surprised me with the complete set! Now I’m all set to read them whenever I get the urge, which may be soon.

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The Wilder Life

I very much enjoyed Wendy McClure’s book The Wilder Life, which tells the story of McClure’s return to her childhood obsession with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the Little House on the Prairie series. I have no idea what someone who wasn’t obsessed with the series would think of the book, but I was obsessed as a child, and so her story sounded very familiar to me. I read and reread all the books, imagining what it would have been like to be Laura and live in her time and also what it would be like to introduce Laura to late twentieth-century life. I don’t remember when I started reading these books and when I stopped (I haven’t reread them as an adult), but I know I reread them over the course of many years. I watched the television series too, but it was always clear to me that it was only very loosely based on the novels. There was no danger I was going to get them mixed up, as many people do.

My experiences were similar to McClure’s — she read and reread the books and thought of Laura as a friend. Now, as an adult, she comes across her childhood copies of the novels and becomes fascinated by them all over again. The fascination quickly turns to obsession as she decides she wants to try some of the things described in the novels, such as churning butter, folding hay into sticks to burn, and making candy out of molasses and snow. She also decides she wants to visit the Ingalls and Wilder homesteads, which, since she lives in Chicago, isn’t too, too hard to do.

So she sets forth on numerous trips to Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota. She even makes it to the town in upstate New York where Almanzo, Laura’s husband, grew up. In between all these trips, she researches Laura’s life and the culture that’s grown up around the books, and she contemplates what her personal and the larger cultural obsession with Little House on the Prairie means.

So the book is part travel narrative, part biography, part memoir, part cultural criticism, and probably some other things as well. I was fascinated to read about the ways that the novels do not reflect what actually happened in Laura’s life; for example, Laura was too young to remember the events in Kansas in Little House on the Prairie, so that book was fictionalized and based on family anecdotes. The stories from Little House in the Big Woods took place after the ones in Little House on the Prairie, after the family had retreated from Kansas back to Wisconsin, even though it’s first in the series. And there are other shifts and omissions that are surprising for someone who took the novels as faithful to real life. McClure is good at discussing the significance of all this.

She is also very good at describing what the home sites are like. She times a couple of her visits to see Laura Ingalls Wilder pageants and festivals, which involve look-alike contests and stagings of the family story. She is decidedly spooked by fundamentalist, survivalist, end-times people who have latched onto Laura’s story and to pioneer ideals generally as a way to deal with the coming apocalypse. She also meets many people whose religious views aren’t quite so extreme, but who admire the Ingalls family for the simple, self-sufficient, godly life they led. Which I think is hogwash. Not that their lives weren’t simple and self-sufficient, and even godly, but this admiration comes from nostalgia for a simplicity that never really existed and rests on a misunderstanding of what the Ingalls’s lives were really like. I suspect at least some of the Ingalls family wouldn’t have minded trading some simplicity of living for greater comfort and security, or at least that’s true for Ma Ingalls.

McClure has an informal, breezy style, and I’m not really a fan of informal, breezy writing, but her voice never gets irritating or over-the-top cute, and she pulls it off pretty well. She comes across as warm and interesting, and a great guide to what she thinks of as “Laura World.” I was certainly very happy to return to the world of the books in her company.

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