Category Archives: Life

Bike and baby updates

I haven’t written here about cycling in a long time, but that’s not because I haven’t been riding. I have ridden over 2,100 miles so far this year, which doesn’t strike me as bad for a year in which I gave birth! I began riding in the middle of March, and have ridden more or less steadily since then, with some breaks for travel and busyness. I’d say my fitness is decent as far as recreational riding goes, but I’m far from being ready to race. I’m not sure if I will race next year or not. I want to keep riding through the fall and winter, but I don’t know if I will have time or energy to do the kind of riding that’s necessary to prepare for racing. I will just wait and see, and in the meantime, I’m enjoying getting out on my bike in the cooler fall weather.

The hard thing, though, is that I am doing much more riding by myself than I used to. A few times during the summer Hobgoblin and I hired a babysitter so we could go riding together, but that babysitter is no longer in the area, and now that summer’s over we are busier and need babysitters for other reasons. So he and I usually take turns riding while the other watches the baby, which is fine, but sometimes without someone to ride with, I lose my motivation. I can ride with other friends occasionally, but that’s sometimes hard to arrange. So I ride by myself and think about how lucky I am to be able to get out at all, what with a new baby and a full-time job.

Cormac is doing great, although even now as I type, I’m listening to him play upstairs in his crib when he should be taking a nap. Some days he is a good napper, but many days he is not, and he will frequently take 20-30 minutes to fall asleep, then sleep for 20-30 minutes, and then be ready to play again for another couple hours. I think 20-minute naps are marvelous for myself, but would prefer that my baby would sleep a little longer.

But I won’t complain about his napping, because he is a fantastic sleeper at night. We plop him in bed between 6:30 and 7:00 in the evening, and he sleeps until 5:30 or 6:00 most mornings. That’s a long stretch of time. He is an easy baby to take care of; he is happy and cheerful and fun to play with. He is very close to crawling, at which point we will spend our days chasing him around the house. It should be fun! Here’s a recent photo:

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Stalking the Essay

Here’s a reason I’m a fan of Twitter: without it I wouldn’t have found out about a one-day conference at Columbia called “Stalking the Essay.” (Many thanks to Michele Filgate for mentioning it.) It was too tempting to pass up, so although I couldn’t get away for an entire day, I made it to the two afternoon sessions. They were fabulous. The entire day was organized by Phillip Lopate, one of my heroes as editor of the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, so it was a delight to get to see him. And then I got to see three other writers I’m fond of: Vivian Gornick, whose The Situation and the Story I’ve read; Colm Toibin, author of The Master, which I loved, and of Brooklyn which I hope to read soon; and David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger I’ve enjoyed criticizing and arguing with but from which I’ve gotten a ton of wonderful book recommendations. I also was introduced to some writers I haven’t read yet but hope to at some point: Patricia Hampl, Margo Jefferson, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Geoffrey O’Brien.

The first session was on “Criticism and the Essay,” and it dealt with boundaries among genres, for example, the book review versus the review essay, i.e., moving beyond the book itself to the broader context in which a book sits, or criticism, which implies an expert pronouncing judgment on a subject, versus the essay, which leaves room for not knowing, for lacking expertise. They talked about the challenge of writing what one wants to write while at the same time meeting the needs of a particular publication and a particular audience. They also talked about moving from writing polemically, i.e. letting a particular political point of view dominate one’s writing, toward writing essayistically, i.e. letting the subject rather than the point of view lead the piece.

The second session was on “The Personal and Impersonal Essay,” and the speakers in this part each gave a talk that was partly autobiographical, partly about how they negotiate the personal in their essay writing. Colm Toibin talked about how uncomfortable he is writing personally, but that he finds a way to write about himself indirectly, through the subjects that he chooses, which often end up (often unexpectedly) relating in some fashion to his personal experiences. Patricia Hampl spoke about what it is like to write autobiographically when, as she put it, nothing has ever happened to her. That turned out not to be true, of course. David Shields did a lot of what he does best: recommending great books and arguing for their greatness.

Perhaps the best part of the day came at the end when I got Shields and Lopate to sign books for me. There wasn’t a formal book signing, but all the speakers were milling around at the front of the lecture hall and looked approachable, so I got over my reluctance to talk to intimidating and famous (to me) strangers, and got their signatures. I did it without, I think, saying anything stupid.

So yay to Columbia for organizing an awesome event, and yay to Twitter for making it easier to publicize awesome events. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to this one, but the next event (discovered on Twitter) that I’ve got my eye on is at Housing Works bookstore: “A Discussion of Women and Criticism” with Laura Miller and others.

I’ll go to this event if I can manage to tear myself away from this charming little guy:

Cormac 9 weeks

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Updates: Recent reading and 35 weeks

I hope everyone is having a great holiday season. All is well here, although everything feels slightly strange, in a not-bad way. Hobgoblin and I usually spend Christmas with my parents, but this time we didn’t want to drive the six hours required to get there so (relatively) close to my due date, so Christmas was quiet, with just the two of us and Muttboy. But we had fun opening presents, eating Hobgoblin’s awesome cooking, and seeing The Hobbit (not my kind of movie, really, and not perfect, but enjoyable nonetheless).

And now I … wait. After submitting final grades last week, I now have no obligations at work until I return 6-8 weeks after the baby is born (at which point I won’t have many obligations — it will be nothing but putting in an appearance in the writing center a couple times a week during the remainder of the spring semester to keep the paychecks coming). So all I have to do is stay healthy, take care of a few things like buying a car seat and arranging the nursery, and sit on the couch and read in between muttering complaints about my sore back. I’m extremely lucky to have so much time to rest before the baby is born (extremely!), but at the same time, I’m wondering what the next few weeks will bring. I generally don’t deal well with having a lot of time on my hands. I get anxious and cranky and find myself doing nothing at all. But this time I’m going to keep telling myself to enjoy it while it lasts, because it won’t last long, and maybe I’ll convince myself. We’ll see.

As for what I’ve read recently, I’ve been ploughing through Francis Burney’s long (900+ page) novel Camilla and should finish it in a day or two. It’s been a fun read. Yes, it could be shorter — there are episodes that could easily be cut — but it’s obviously not the kind of book you pick up when you want a quick read; it’s the kind of book you pick up when you want to be absorbed in a long story, and it’s perfect for that. Camilla is that very typical 18th/19th novel character — the young woman venturing out into the world for the first time without the protection of a mother, finding that all is not what it seems and that people can be treacherous and deceitful. Even those who appear to be kindhearted and friendly can pose dangers — in fact, these are the most dangerous of all because they seem so trustworthy. But they are all too often frivolous, or friends with the wrong people, or profligate with their money, or vain, and they lead poor, susceptible Camilla down dangerous paths. The book is all about the dangers of having the wrong friends, and also, although Burney wouldn’t frame it this way, about how horrible it is that women of Camilla’s background can’t easily earn money. As the novel goes on, it gets more and more obsessed with money and the problem of not having any, and Camilla can do nothing about it except look for new people to borrow from and hope her relatives can come to her rescue. If only she could just work a small part-time job for a while, she would be fine, but, of course, she doesn’t live in that world. And I don’t live in Camilla’s world, a fact for which I’m very, very grateful. The restrictions she lives under are absurd, but no one in her world sees it that way.

I also finished Virginia Woolf’s diary, volume 2, which I’ve been reading off and on for several months now. I’ll admit I skimmed over some of the passages where she talks about her social life, except those where T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster appear, in favor of passages where she discusses her writing and reading and her mental state. Those passages are fascinating, particularly toward the end of this volume where she is working on Mrs. Dalloway. She struggles with it at times, but she also seems to know that this is going to be one of her masterpieces. She is writing in a way that pleases her and she doesn’t much care, at least in her best moments, about what people think. She’s found her style and her subject, and it’s fun to know from the perspective of the future that her confidence is justified.

A few quick notes on other books I’ve read in the last month or so: first, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which was as great as everyone seems to be saying it is. It’s an absorbing story, and at the same time it leads you to thoughts, questions, and conclusions about global economic structures without being at all didactic. She has a great way of keeping her focus on the story, but getting the reader to realize the implications of the story without spelling them out. Surely that’s not easy to do.

I also read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which I liked very much — it has a satisfying structure and is the sort of book that makes you turn back to the first page after finishing it to see what you missed the first time around. It turns out to be worthwhile to take that extra look because then you understand the book as a whole so much better. It’s a book about art, specifically about being a writer, and it’s also about faith. This is where I balked a little bit, for the very personal and non-literary reason that I didn’t understand the religious conversion the main character undergoes. Hers is a kind of faith I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. I’m still undecided as to whether Sophie makes sense as a character. But in a way this is okay because the narrative purposely keeps a distance from her and she is meant to be mysterious (as the novel’s title indicates). I liked the way the novel circles around her, trying and never quite succeeding to understand what happened.

And, finally, I finished Christina Schutt’s novel Prosperous Friends, which was a dark and difficult read that I liked very much. The characters are complicated and frequently unlikeable and the prosperous friends are not always friends you actually want to have. It’s a book about relationships and marriages gone wrong and only occasionally going right. I think I’m in the mood for unlikeable characters these days, so all this was fine, but I particularly liked the writing, which was rich and poetic — not always a good thing as far as I’m concerned, but it worked well here. The writing makes you work a bit, as Schutt does not always fill in all the pieces of the narrative, but it captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

I’ll close with my latest picture, which shows me looking a little bit harried — which is only to be expected, I guess! I hope to be back soon with my year-end round-up.

35 weeks

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Updates: New (used) books, Green Girls, and NW

So, school has begun.  I’m on top of things so far, but starting school every year requires quite the transition — from having loads of time to all the sudden having to fight for time to read. I love my job and won’t complain, but the transitions are my least favorite aspect of it. This semester feels different to me, though, since I know I won’t be returning to teach in the spring. I normally have an image in my mind of the teaching year running from September to May, but now it’s only September to December, and then … everything changes, as people keep telling me.

Last weekend Hobgoblin and I had the pleasure of seeing our book-buying friends (here and here) and visiting the fabulous Book Barn in Niantic. The store is awesome, partly because it’s HUGE — it has three different locations around town, and each one is sizeable. We visited all three, of course, with a break for dinner. Here’s what I found:

  • Michael Holroyd’s A Book of Secrets:  Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers. The kind of nontraditional biography I like.
  • Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, a book discussed by a number of bloggers, but most especially Rohan.
  • Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, to add to my memoir collection.
  • Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves, for when I’m in the mood for something lighter, possibly post-childbirth.
  • Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, for when I’m in the mood for another classic-type book.
  • Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, ditto, or I should say, for when I’m in the mood for a classic in translation.
  • Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, for when I want something more philosophical.

As for reading, last week I finished Kate Zambreno’s novel Green Girl, and liked it a lot. I heard about it through the Tournament of Books where it got eliminated immediately (by The Marriage Plot, which got so, so, so much more attention, but which wasn’t as intriguing as Green Girl was). Apparently a lot of readers found the main character, Ruth, unlikeable. She IS unlikeable, in some ways at least, although I found myself getting fond of her and certainly sympathizing with her, but that unlikeableness is part of the point. She’s a young American living in London, trying to scrape by on low-paying jobs. She’s isolated and bored and unhappy. She doesn’t have what I can only think of as internal resources to get her through — she’s not interested in much beyond pop culture and fashion, movies and boys and parties. She doesn’t know much about the world and doesn’t know how to reach for anything more meaningful, or even that anything more meaningful exists. She’s a depressed and depressing creation of modern media, consuming as much as she can but never finding any satisfaction in it. She’s full of surface-level images of what girls should be and she does her best to live up to these images while finding the entire enterprise horribly empty.

It’s the critique of fashion, celebrity, party-girl culture that I liked. There is a sense, if only a vague one, that Ruth will eventually move on and grow up, but for right now, she’s trapped. There is also an interesting narrator who in the beginning of the book self-consciously conjures Ruth up and then continues to comment directly on her throughout — a commentary that is both critical and sympathetic and is a pretty good guide for figuring out what to make of the character.

I’ve been reading Zambreno’s blog for a while now and am looking forward to reading her new nonfiction book Heroines. She is a writer I plan to follow.

Then I started Zadie Smith’s new novel NW, which I was lucky to be able to get quickly from the library. I haven’t finished it yet — I’m about 70 pages from the end and hope to finish it today — so I won’t write much about it now. But so far I’m enjoying it. Having a lean, tight structure is not exactly Smith’s thing — the book feels a bit all over the place — but it’s never been my thing either, and I like the book’s different sections with different writing styles. I’m liking the characters and the way Smith conjures up a particular part of London. More on that one soon (hopefully).

Finally, here is another pregnancy picture. I’m going to give you the 19-week one instead of the 20-week, which I wasn’t happy with. I’m past halfway now!

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Updates: 9/2/2012: library sales, Kate Atkinson, and maternity pants

This past week included another trip to a library book sale, probably the last of the year. But it’s not the last book-buying trip of the year! Next weekend we have plans to visit a favorite Connecticut used bookstore. I have accumulated quite a few books in the past month or so, but if I ever start to feel bad about it, I think of it as stockpiling for the days when going book shopping won’t be quite as easy (although I did see quite a few parents with babies at these library book sales, so book-accumulation won’t be at a complete end). So, what I came home with this time:

  • Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta. I liked her recent novel Stone Arabia very much and so want to read more.
  • The Mystery Guest, by Gregoire Bouillier. Did Litlove recommend this one at some point? I think so… anyway, it’s been on my list of books to check out for a while.
  • Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas was great, and he seems like such an interesting writer.
  • Running with Scissors: A Memoir, by Augusten Burroughs. I’ve read enough memoirs and have read enough about memoirs, that it makes sense to me to collect some of the major ones, and this one seems important.
  • Borrowed Finery: A Memoir, by Paula Fox. See above.
  • Death in the Garden, by Elizabeth Ironside. I know nothing about this book or this author, but it’s published by Felony and Mayhem Press, which is an awesome name, and it looks appealing.
  • In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet. I think I heard about this from David Shields, of Reality Hunger fame. It’s translated by Julian Barnes. It looks like the kind of nonfiction I like.

As for reading, I had less time than in previous weeks because school is starting to get back into gear. My classes start on Tuesday, but last week I had meetings and advising to keep me busier than usual. With the reading time I had available, I finished Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes in the Museum. I liked it. I was hoping to love it, which I didn’t exactly, but still, it was good. I had thought it had something to do with museums, which it doesn’t, at least not in a direct sense: it’s about a family and the changes it goes through throughout the 20th century, so the idea seems to be that the novel is showing the real-life, ordinary events behind the “museum” of history. It has a first-person narrator who tells her life story, and in between each chapter are footnotes to the main narrative that are flashbacks to earlier generations and their stories, all of which are shaped by larger historical events, usually wars. I liked the main narrator, and her sections are the most enjoyable. I also liked the family Atkinson created. It’s kind of a messed-up family, with a lot of stories of unfulfilled dreams, disappointment, unhappy marriages, and unwanted children. But she shows how each person got where they did and creates sympathy for them and their struggles. The title phrase “behind the scenes” also captures the importance of family secrets; there is a lot that the younger generations don’t know about the older ones, or that they only slowly find out about them. There are also many stories that are captured by objects, seemingly unimportant ones that turn out to carry greater weight than the younger generations realize. I did think the book got a little long towards the end, but overall, Atkinson manages her large cast of characters and her complicated story very well.

In other news, I bought maternity pants this past week. Fortunately, I have a friend who is willing and eager to go shopping with me, and she helped me navigate the shops and find some decent things. As of now, I have two pairs of stretchy running shorts I can wear, two pairs of yoga pants I can wear, and now two pairs of maternity pants, which I will do my teaching in. Eventually probably the shorts and yoga pants will get too tight, and then I’ll … live in my two pairs of maternity pants? Not sure. I’m such a terrible shopper. Fortunately again, this same friend is going to help Hobgoblin and me figure out what baby equipment we want to register for, and I’m so grateful for the help, because the world of baby equipment is bewildering. I’m so happy to be pregnant, but, my goodness, there is just so much involved.

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Updates: 8/20/2012

I got back yesterday from my mystery book group meeting in Vermont, and it was a lovely time. Hobgoblin and I arrived on Friday afternoon and had some time to hang out, rest, and chat with our hosts (I guzzled limeade while the others drank martinis — I will certainly enjoy getting back to my moderate social drinking when this pregnancy is over!). Saturday involved a trip to the local farmer’s market in the morning, complete with bluegrass music, and a group excursion to Northshire Bookstore in the afternoon. We all brought home something; in my case, I found a used copy of Mark Doty’s memoir Heaven’s Coast, which I was thrilled to find after falling in love with his book Dog Years. We also bought our first children’s book, Tales from Old Ireland. The first of many more to come, I’m sure!

The book discussion Saturday evening was good, as it always is. Feelings were mixed about Sara Paretsky’s novel Hard Time, some really liking it and others finding it difficult to get through. Many people felt that Paretsky’s depiction of the prison system was the most powerful part of the book and the place where her writing really took off. It was clear that she has a passion for social justice, and when this passion lets loose, the writing gets stronger. The plot felt contrived, though, and we spent a lot of time talking about various plot points that seemed absurd. The mystery itself didn’t seem to work very well.

We also spent a lot of time talking about the news that John Banville/Benjamin Black will write a new Philip Marlowe book. Opinion here is very mixed as well, largely because many, although not all of us, strongly disliked Black’s novel Christine Falls and got the feeling that Black doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for the mystery genre. It’s my feeling that I might like John Banville’s version of Marlowe better than Benjamin Black’s, but we’ll see what happens.

And then Sunday morning we all headed home and back to regular life, which for me includes finalizing my classes for this fall. I will spend some time today thinking about how I will teach E.M. Forster’s Passage to India in my new online class.

As for other reading from the past week, I finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and liked it very much. I don’t want to say very much about it, as it’s a book that should be read with no preconceptions, but it was extremely absorbing, entertaining, and satisfying. I liked that it had a focus on writing and how writing shapes our identity and how other people think about us (and on how crime cases are solved). It’s a book that gets you to think about narration and how much to trust what you are told. The book reminded me a bit of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley in the sense that it left me with a vague sense of dread and anxiety the entire time I was reading it — a feeling that sounds bad, but isn’t entirely. It’s a sign of a powerful book, I suppose, that it can grip the reader so tightly.

I also began reading Tove Jansson’s novel The True Deceiver and am about a third of the way through it. It’s similar to The Summer Book (which I loved) in its simple, pared-down writing style that is also very beautiful, although in other ways it’s an entirely different story. It’s set in a small Scandinavian village (I’m not sure if it’s in Sweden or Finland) and is about a young woman at odds with her fellow villagers, trying to take care of her younger brother, and developing a sketchy plan that involves a vulnerable older woman. I’m enjoying the writing, and also the detached, non-judgmental tone with which Jansson tells the story. She simply lets it unfold and allows you to draw your own conclusions.

That’s it for me for now — have a great week everyone!

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Getting back to normal

To pick up where I left off in my last post … we were out of power for six days total, and have had it back for a little over a week now. I’m still not at the point of taking heat and electricity for granted, though, especially since we had a high wind warning yesterday, which came with the additional warning that there might be some scattered power outages. Enough of this! Fortunately, we didn’t lose our power again, and our house is toasty warm and well-lit. It is so nice to be warm.

One of these days I will write a book review again, but for now, I wanted to tell you about an awesome exhibit I went to last weekend at the New York Public Library celebrating 100 years since the opening of the library’s main building in Manhattan. I arrived at the library with only 45 minutes or so before it closed, so I had to rush through it, but it’s not a large exhibit, and I saw most of it. It’s divided into four sections, each with a theme — observation, contemplation, creativity, and society — and each section had an eclectic mix of objects, including rare books, journals and diaries, artwork, sketches, videos, cuneiform tablets, and interesting objects belonging to famous and not-so-famous people.

My two favorite objects were a lock of Mary Shelley’s hair — a beautiful reddish-brown — and Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, the one she had at the end of her life. There was also Charles Dickens’s letter opener, with his cat’s paw as handle (you can see a picture of it here if you scroll down a bit). I saw a page from a draft of “The Waste Land” with Ezra Pound’s handwritten corrections and deletions, Charlotte Bronte’s traveling desk, a page of Virginia Woolf’s diary, a page of Jorge Luis Borges’s handwriting, a draft of a speech Hemingway gave, and a letter written by Keats. There is a hand-written manuscript of the Declaration of Independence and a copy of David Copperfield marked up by Dickens in preparation for public readings. There was also a Gutenberg Bible.

I love seeing these kinds of things. There’s something mysterious and wonderful about laying eyes on an object that John Keats or Virginia Woolf touched. It allows me to imagine their mundane, physical existence and makes them seem more real. So, if you’re in New York City with some extra time on your hands, check it out.

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