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:

20130917-165126.jpg

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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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Power’s out

Didn’t I just write a post about an extended power outage and how I couldn’t blog for a while because I didn’t have reliable internet access? Why, yes, I did. Well, the power is out again, not because of a hurricane this time, but because of a freak October snow storm that took down so many trees and branches that 90% of my town was left without power. We’ve been out since Saturday night. I’m realizing now that the power outage in August, which lasted four days, was a lovely, idyllic time: the temperatures were mild and school hadn’t started yet, so I could just sit around and read, guilt-free. This time, the temperatures are in the 50s, if we are lucky, during the day and in the 20s or 30s at night, and we have no fireplace, wood stove, or generator. The house has been fluctuating between 47 and 52 degrees. Brrr!

We are okay, just bundled up and spending as much time at work and at the local coffee shop as possible, where there is heat and light. We’ve had very kind friends offer to let us stay at their homes, but so far we’ve felt that the benefits of being in our own place outweigh the possibility of more warmth. I just want to sit on my own couch, even if it is freezing. Our power company is estimating that the power will be back by Friday at midnight, although it’s possible we will get it sooner. I’m sure hoping so.

I’ll be back soon.

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A dozen new books

I’ve been a sorry blogger lately, I must confess. I haven’t answered your kind comments on my posts or visited your blogs to write my own comments, although I have been reading everyone’s posts regularly. It’s just one of those times when my desire to read or my computer fatigue or both win out over my desire to blog. You probably know how that goes.

I did want to tell you about a dozen new books I bought recently, though. Two weekends ago my book-buying friends, Hobgoblin, and I took a trip up to the Northampton, Massachusetts, area to explore bookstores there, of which we found plenty, not just in Northampton, but in the surrounding towns as well. We visited five and could easily have found many more if we had had more time. It was worth a trip, and I’m looking forward to going back at some point. So, here’s what I found:

  • Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. I’ve read rave reviews of this book, and I find the topic fascinating. At $5 for the hardcover, I couldn’t resist.
  • Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. I have a small but growing collection of books about walking, of which this is an important addition.
  • Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations. I love Solnit’s book Wanderlust and recommend it to everyone who might possibly be interested. A Book of Migrations is about Solnit’s travels in Ireland.
  • John Berger’s To the Wedding. I know absolutely nothing about this book, but John Berger is intriguing.
  • John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Art theory — who can resist?
  • Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. Another book and author I know nothing about, but I have vague memories of reading interesting things about her, so I went with it.
  • Laura Kipnis’s Against Love: A Polemic. I’m intrigued by Kipnis and by the title of this book. I’m hoping to find some lively, controversial writing here.
  • Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. I have heard about this book so many times on various blogs and in reviews, but I still couldn’t tell you what it’s about. I have a feeling it’s one of those hard-to-sum-up books.
  • The Best American Essays 2011. I just started reading the 2010 edition of this series so I’ll be ready for the 2011 one soon. This series has introduced me to some awesomely great writers, and I’m unfailingly loyal to it.
  • Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Budolph. For when I’m in the mood for some eighteenth-century fiction.
  • Laurie R. King’s The Moor. I found a trade-sized edition of this in very nice condition and couldn’t resist even though I have another book in the Russell series to read first.
  • Nicholson Baker’s The Everlasting Story of Nory. I just heard an interview with Baker on Radio Open Source today, and it was great. Baker is my hero.

So those are my dozen books. I spent an entire two days in Manhattan this weekend but I didn’t step a foot into a bookstore, which is very unusual. But it was because my sister and her husband were in town, and they had other things on their agenda. Hanging out with my sister in the city was fabulous — it involved music, art, tall buildings, people-watching, Central Park, and Indian food — and I hope we can do it again sometime soon.

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Book signings and writers who tweet

This is, apparently, my year to go to book signings. Last weekend Neal Stephenson was doing a reading/book signing at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in Manhattan, so Hobgoblin and I made our way there to hear him. I’m not the Stephenson fan in our house; I read the first book in the Baroque Cycle, and it was fine, but I didn’t fall in love and didn’t read any further. Perhaps I should give Cryptonomicon or some other book of his a try? But loving Neal Stephenson’s books was not the point; it was just fun to get out and see someone well-known whom I’ve read.

The reading was subdued. Two of the authors I’ve seen in the last year, Ian Rankin and Joe Hill, were both fabulously entertaining; Rankin told great stories and made us all laugh, and Hill was … wacky. He also told great stories, he had a (grotesquely) funny excerpt from his new book to read, and he performed in a nerdy, enthusiastic, thoroughly-charming way as he read. Stephenson is obviously not nearly as comfortable performing in public as the other two. But that’s okay, of course, because why should writers necessarily be entertainers as well? He started his reading pretty much right away after getting up on stage, and he read for a half hour or so and then took questions. He seemed comfortable answering questions, but you could tell he wasn’t going to mind when it was over. One person who stood up to ask a question offered an interpretation of Stephenson’s work and asked if it was correct, and Stephenson’s answer was basically, “You may be right, but it’s not something I’ve thought about; I prefer to just write and let you all figure out what it means.” I suppose, in a way, that that makes sense — authors write, readers figure out what it means — but it also felt like an odd answer. Doesn’t he think about the ideas he’s working with as he writes? Perhaps he just didn’t want to engage with this particular interpretation. I can understand that.

Then we all lined up to get our books signed. I didn’t say much to Stephenson. I rarely want to say things to authors I meet at book signings because I’m too worried about messing up and saying something dumb, so I don’t try. But I’m realizing now that the last three authors I’ve seen — Rankin, Hill, plus Rosanne Cash, who did a talk/signing of her recent memoir at a nearby school a month or so ago — are all on Twitter, and in each case, Hobgoblin or I or both of us said something about enjoying reading their tweets. To authors out there — being an interesting tweeter can make a difference! We found out about Joe Hill’s reading in London because of Twitter, and Roseanne Cash has been on my radar lately only because I find her tweets amusing.

And speaking of writers who tweet, I may go see Colson Whitehead this weekend, who is doing a book signing at McNally Jackson along with Jonathan Franzen, who does not tweet, unless you count Emperor Franzen. I wonder what Jonathan Franzen would do if I said something about Emperor Franzen while he was signing my copy of Freedom?

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Name change

I’ve been thinking about dropping my pseudonym for a while now, and I’ve just about decided I’m going to. It doesn’t serve any purpose anymore, and, in fact, the only purpose it ever served was to ease my fears about blogging when I first began back in 2006. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about and what I was getting myself into, so I thought I might take on a different name, just in case. It’s been kind of fun having a pseudonym. It’s nice to be someone else, or at least have the potential to be someone else. But, as it turns out, Dorothy isn’t anybody else; it’s just me with a different name. And it’s getting more and more complicated having a pseudonym, given the fact that I interact with so many blogging people on Twitter, Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc., and I use my real name on all those sites. So, for the sake of simplicity, you’ll see me around the blogosphere as, well, me!

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Thoughts for a Friday

First of all, thoughts about my dog. He went through surgery today and just came home a couple hours ago. He is fine, thank God. The procedure was to remove a benign growth on his side that was getting too big for comfort and was steadily growing. So now he just has to take it easy for a week or two unless he’s all healed up. It’s no fun putting your pet through surgery. It’s no fun for anyone to have to go through it, of course, but it’s a different kind of difficulty when you can’t explain to your pen what’s going on. Poor thing. He has no idea what hit him. Luckily for us, he doesn’t get angry or hold grudges.

And now on to books. I recently finished my first Sybille Bedford novel, The Legacy, and I’m thinking it’s going to be my last. I wanted to like it, I kept reading it because I was hoping to get into it, but that never happened. It tells the stories of two very different families in Germany and how they become connected by marriage. It also tells of one of the families’ sons, Johannes, who is sent off to a horrible military school, which makes him completely lose his wits. His family hushes the whole thing up with results that come back to haunt them. I think to really appreciate this book, you need to have more of a feel for the culture of the time (pre-World War I) and place than I do. And you have to appreciate satire more than I do. Unless I’m really familiar with what’s being satirized (such as in academic novels), I have a hard time appreciating it. The writing had an exterior focus, which also doesn’t work so well for me; I didn’t develop a sense of the characters’ personalities in the way I wanted to. I just wasn’t engaged. But perhaps some of my readers have read and enjoyed Bedford?

But I finished it and am now on to other things. Yesterday I began Julia Spencer-Fleming’s detective novel In the Bleak Midwinter, and it’s going along very well. Her protagonist is an ex-Army woman who has become an Episcopal priest and is serving in a small town outside the Adirondacks in New York State. That might sound a little contrived and gimmicky — let’s see how unusual I can make my character! — but Spencer-Fleming has so far pulled it off. Clare’s counterpart is Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne, and the sexual tension between them is slowly ratcheting up. But, alas, Russ is married. We’ll see where that goes.

I am also reading a collection of essays by Cynthia Ozick, Quarrel and Quandary. I’ve read just a handful so far, but they are good. So far they have all been literary — on Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Job, but I believe there are some personal ones in the collection as well. Her writing is good — serious and meaty, and very, very smart.

To close, I’ll tell you about some new books I’ve acquired. Last weekend Hobgoblin and I went book shopping with our book shopping friends (here and here) out at the Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut. The Book Barn is truly one of the best used bookshops I’ve ever been in, although it’s really more like three bookshops, since it has three different locations around Niantic. We had already acquired a large stack of books before we even made it to the main store, which is really a series of buildings, carts, and structures of an uncertain type, all chock full of books.

From that trip, I brought home the Julia Spencer-Fleming book, as well as Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, Anita Brookner’s Look at Me, Sarah Caudwell’s The Sirens Sang of Murder, and Hermione Lee’s huge biography of Virginia Woolf (in a pristine paperback edition for $5). Also this week a friend sent me a copy of Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, which I am excited about and eager to dive into.

So, happy Friday everyone, and enjoy the weekend!

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Updates

I spent last weekend in Vermont visiting some friends; they have a house in the mountains near Manchester, and we’ve visited them a few times in the last couple years. I love staying with them because we lead such quiet lives when we’re there: we eat, read, nap, and take walks; we play with the dogs, we sometimes visit local shops and markets, and we always visit Northshire bookstore, a great independent bookshop. It’s wonderful top relax at home, but even better to relax in someone else’s home. In between our reading/eating/napping, my friends talk about the novels they are in the middle of writing and we all talk about the books we are reading. Oh, and we drink martinis and lots of wine. Yum.

While I was there, I finished up Stephanie Staal’s book on feminism, Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life (review most likely to come soon) and I made my way through much of Scarlett Thomas’s novel This Tragic Universe. I don’t know what to make of Scarlett Thomas. She’s one of the most awkward writers I know, especially in this book compared to the other Thomas novel I’ve read, PopCo. I almost put the book down. And yet after a while I began to like it more and more, and now the main character is growing on me. I like Thomas for the ideas she works with, and while it took me a while to get into the ideas in Our Tragic Universe, now everything is coming together a little more. It’s still awkward, but likeably so.

I bought a couple books at Northshire, of course — I have to support independent bookstores! I got Tove Jansson’s True Deceiver after liking The Summer Book so much, and from the used books I got a biography of Mary McCarthy, Seeing Mary Plain, by Francis Kiernan. It’s a satisfyingly hefty book.

Since I wrote about my thyroid issues recently, I thought an update might be in order. After my radioactive iodine treatment two weeks ago, I’m doing mostly okay. Surprisingly normal, in fact. I feel, say, 80-90% normal most of the time. I’m a little tired and a little easily winded, and the lower part of my throat where my thyroid is is sore. I did have one bad episode last week, though: I woke up one morning and was so dizzy I could barely walk. It turns out a side effect of the medication my doctor gave me to stop heart palpitations is dizziness. It also turns out that my heart palpitations weren’t nearly as bad as I thought they would be. So I stopped taking that medication, and the world stopped spinning. I’m continuing to ride my bike, just slowly and for short rides. So … I keep waiting. If I continue feeling 80-90% normal until we get my thyroid medication sorted out, I think I will have gotten off easy.

And that’s kind of my life right now: monitoring my health, plus gearing up to teach a summer class online. My students are supposedly doing their reading and posting on the discussion board this evening, and I’ll be reading their posts over the next couple days. Hopefully, they will be brilliant!

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I’m radioactive!

Seriously. I took a radioactive iodine pill earlier this week, and for the last three days, I’ve been in quarantine. Or at least I was supposed to keep three feet away from other people, especially pregnant women and babies. I’m okay to be around now, though.

It’s been a strange experience. You may or may not remember that four years ago, I developed a thyroid problem — hyperthyroidism. I’ve lived with it pretty easily since then, feeling perfectly normal because of my anti-thyroid medication, although I’ve had to get blood work done once a month. But, eventually, it makes sense to get rid of the thyroid entirely instead of taking anti-thyroid medication with its rare but dangerous side effects. Taking thyroid hormone replacement is much safer and easier to regulate.

So, my choices were surgery or radioactive iodine, and although the iodine treatment is not perfect, it’s much better than surgery, or at least I thought so. The thyroid is the only organ that absorbs iodine, the radioactivity kills it, and that’s that. I prefer to keep knives away from my throat if at all possible, so radioactivity it had to be. The treatment itself is very easy: all you have to do is take a pill, although I needed a thyroid scan first, and I had to sign a bunch of documents, which I think mainly said that I understand what I’m doing involves radiation, I’m fully aware of what I’m doing, etc. But the treatment itself was anticlimactic — the doctor simply handed me a plastic cup with a normal-size pill and a cup of water, and that was it. He was careful to make sure I didn’t touch the pill with my fingers, though, which was … well, strange, since why would I want to put such a thing in my mouth? But I just thought about avoiding knives at my throat and swallowed the pill.

Afterward the doctor gave me a card that says, “This patient has received an Isotope for diagnostic imaging or therapy. The amount received is not considered hazardous, however may trigger a sensitive radiation detector.” Cool! Apparently, people sometimes get pulled over when police officers detect radiation, especially at high security sites like bridges and tunnels. And airports, of course; it’s definitely best not to try to fly after one of these treatments. I haven’t gotten pulled over for being a radiation threat, but I’m still hoping it will happen.

The next couple days were anticlimactic, though: I felt nothing. I sat around thinking “my thyroid’s dying right now,” but I couldn’t feel anything as it slowly absorbed the radioactive iodine. I’m not really sure what’s going on now, and I’m curious: is it all dead? partly dead? Shriveling up? Disintegrating? The treatment takes several weeks to take effect, and it can go on happening for months afterward, which is the main downside to this form of treatment. Surgery involves knives, but on the other hand, its effects are immediate. So I’m waiting. I’m slightly hyperthyroid at the moment, which happens because the treatment takes so long to kick in. Eventually, in a few weeks most likely, the process will be finished, and I’ll switch over to hypothyroidism and start my supplements. I’m just hoping we catch the switch-over quickly, so I don’t feel too much fatigue and whatever else might be involved.

My feelings about this are mixed: I’m grateful that there’s a treatment for me, very grateful that modern medicine has allowed me to live a normal life, instead of feeling weak and shaky all the time, which is what hyperthyroidism is like. But it’s also very strange to deliberately kill off an organ of mine, and I don’t like the idea of depending on hormone supplements for the rest of my life. Even though my thyroid has messed me up, I’m kind of sorry to see it go. It tried its best, after all, and since all this is caused by an autoimmune disease, my thyroid is actually a victim — a victim of the rest of my body. A victim of civil war, I guess. I’m looking forward to the end of hostilities.

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On to London

The short trip from Dingle, Ireland, to London was a little disorienting. On the way to Shannon airport, we chatted with our bus driver the entire 2.5 hours or so it took to get there; he, like everyone we met in Dingle, was incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic about American visitors, and we had a great time talking about our experiences in Ireland, and his experiences in New York City (he said the best thing ever is to be an actual Irish person in NYC on St. Patrick’s Day. You are an instant celebrity, and he had never felt so popular. No wonder he loves the U.S.).

London was absolutely wonderful, but it felt odd that no one wanted to talk to us anymore, and we would walk into pubs to find people ignoring us. All the sudden, we had to figure everything out on our own and didn’t have a guide to tell us the best places to go. And the temperatures there got above 60 degrees! We adjusted quickly, and spent the next five days seeing as many sites as we could fit in. I had never been to London before, and it had been many years since Hobgoblin visited, so we set out to see all the major tourist sites. First up on Monday was the tower, and here’s a picture of Tower bridge:


From there, we climbed the Great Fire Monument, and toured St. Paul’s Cathedral (climbing to the top there as well — I climbed SO many stairs that day!). Over the next few days, we walked by Parliament, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, walked through St. James Park, and toured Westminster Abbey (spending a lot of time in Poet’s Corner). Tuesday night we saw Much Ado About Nothing in the Globe Theater. It was a great production — very funny with lots of good energy from the actors and audience. I had to laugh at the people in front of us as we left the theater complaining about how long the play was and how Shakespeare can go on and on and could have benefited from speeding things up. A response to be proud of, right?

Let’s see — we also saw the National Gallery — or parts of it, rather, since neither of us has a whole lot of endurance for museums. We tend to take 1-1 1/2 hours, see the sections that most interest us and call it a day. I couldn’t help but feel that each museum we saw we could have spent several days in. We also saw the British Museum (parts), a highlight of which was the Elgin marbles, and the London Museum, a great place to learn about the history of the city. At the end of our trip, we spent some time in the Victoria and Albert museum, although by that time, I’d had enough of reading museum displays, and just walked around looking at all the pretty things (of which they have tons — I loved the jewelry section in particular).

What else? We walked around Bloomsbury:

and saw Samuel Johnson’s house, as well as taking a guided tour called “Dr. Johnson’s Fleet Street,” where we saw some of Johnson’s haunts.

Somewhere in there we visited the Charles Dickens house, the Sherlock Holmes museum (cheesy, but fun), and the Carlyle house, which was a favorite, not least for the … odd … but very enthusiastic guides who showed us around the place. Here’s a picture of the tiny garden in the back:

We also visited a ton of bookshops, including Slightly Foxed, which wasn’t too far from our hotel and which we stopped by three times, although once for only 10 minutes before closing time. Also, the Persephone bookshop, and the London Review bookshop. We walked past 84 Charing Cross Road, which I knew had turned into a Pizza Hut, but what I didn’t know was that there are a bunch of bookstores elsewhere on Charing Cross, so we went to Blackwell’s and Foyle’s, as well as several shops with antiquarian and used books. And, of course, we went to Waterstone’s; I’m not even sure how many of them. I came home with 11 books, but I’ll tell you about those later.

By Friday, our fifth full day there, we were getting quite tired, so we started to slow our pace a bit, and we spent time just sitting in Hyde Park. On Saturday, it was time to go to Oxford to see Becky. After a tour of the city and some of the colleges:

Becky understood exactly what we needed, which was a chance to sit. So, we got some lunch and sat, found a pretty place along one of the rivers and sat, sat for a couple hours over tea, sat in a pub, sat over dinner. It was perfect and a great way to catch up on all our news.

Sunday was our last full day in London, and we spent it quietly, visiting some of our favorite bookshops and eating, and Monday we came home.

I’m satisfied what we did while there: there is obviously tons more to see in London, but I saw enough that if I don’t make it back for a while, I won’t mind too much. In addition to all the museums, churches, etc., we walked through a lot of neighborhoods, and I was happy to get a sense, even if it’s limited, of various parts of the city and how they all fit together.

And now it’s time to get back to books — hopefully I’ll be back soon to write about what I’ve been reading.

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Hello, World!

So Hobgoblin and I are home again; in fact, we’ve been home for five days or so, time which I have spent settling back in and trying to feel normal again. Coming home from travel is always hard for me (for most people?), and jet lag does not help. But I’m beginning to feel more like myself, and it’s high time I say something about my trip here.

But how to write about three weeks of travel without being uselessly vague? I admire Emily’s regular posts on her trip to France, but I didn’t have the energy or the reliable wireless to do something similar. So, the vague statements first: we had a wonderful time. Things will inevitably go wrong on any trip of that length, and it’s impossible to walk around in a state of bliss the entire time, but I think this trip was about as good as it’s possible to get.

The thing that I loved about being in Ireland was that we were in one place for two weeks and had time to settle in and get to know the place well. As I described in my last post, because we settled into the community a bit and had people to guide us around, we got to see things and interact with local people in a way most tourists don’t. One of the highlights of our time was going on field trips to beautiful places along the coast and to see historical and archeological sites, each one led by local guides who are experts on local history, archeology, theology, and culture. These trips were part of the classes the students took, but I was invited on all of them. This is a picture from a trip to Brandon Bay:

Here is a shot of part of a beach walk we did at Smerwick Harbor:

Me on a windy hillwalk to see a lookout tour built to watch for Napoleon (who never arrived, of course). It was a very, very windy day, as most days were during our trip:

One of the archeological sites, Teampall Mancháin or the Temple Geal Oratory:

The view partway up Mt. Brandon, the second highest mountain in Ireland, which we climbed, and which left me sore for a couple days. It was a gorgeous hike, but by the time we got to the top, the clouds had moved in and we didn’t have a view.

We saw a lot of sheep, all looking just as content as this one does:

And then there was Killarney National Park and Ross Castle:

I don’t happen to have a great picture of the town, but it was cute and colorful with lots of shops, restaurants, and pubs. It has two small bookstores, one a very good general-interest store, and the other a tiny but excellent shop that specializes in books on Ireland, in both English and Irish. The town is small, with maybe three main streets full of businesses, but it had enough variety to keep us occupied, and we didn’t have time to visit all the places we wanted to.

I don’t know how Hobgoblin had the energy to teach a class as well as do all the touring around we did; I spent the class time reading, walking, napping, and exploring town, and it was great to have some quiet. We had a pint with the other instructors every afternoon and dinner with the students at a different restaurant every night. Our lodgings were excellent: a two-bedroom apartment right in the middle of town (paid for by Hobgoblin’s university, which was totally awesome), so it was just a few steps to the school, the grocery store, etc. We took only two bike rides, largely because the weather was so difficult, but those two rides were memorable — one for the rain, and the other for the wind. But were beautiful, though.

You can see why I didn’t want to come home?

I think that’s enough for now; perhaps I’ll come back to write about London in a day or two.

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And I’m Off!

We leave for Ireland tomorrow. I have packed nothing at this point, but our flight doesn’t leave until 11:00 pm, and I need something to do during the day. Even with leaving my packing until the last moment, I’ll still have plenty of hours with nothing much to do. I think I’ll be bored out of my mind, and probably too distracted and anxious to read.

Anyway, I think I’ve finally settled the issue of what books to bring with me. The most important thing is my Nook, on which I have almost 60 books. Most of those books are free classics from sites like Project Gutenberg, and a couple are from the library or NetGalleys. I can’t travel with just an electronic device for reading, though, because what happens if the battery runs out? So I’ll be bringing along at least one paper book. My thought is that I should bring something I don’t mind leaving behind, in order to make more room to bring books back. So I’m planning to bring a mass market copy of Laurie King’s Monstrous Regiment of Women, which will probably make good plane/airport reading.

I also bought my first book for the Nook today — bought as opposed to downloaded for free. I want to bring something nonfiction as well as all the novels I have, but in order to avoid carrying another paper book, I thought it was worthwhile to buy something. So I got Geoff Dyer’s collection of essays Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. I loved his books Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage. So I think I will like this new one.

In case you’re interested in what I have on my Nook, here’s a list:

  1. Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl
  2. Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden
  3. Jane Austen, Persuasion
  4. Aphra Behn, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister
  5. E.F. Benson, Miss Mapp
  6. Isabella Bird, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains
  7. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charlotte’s Inheritance
  8. Robert Browning, The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett
  9. Mary Brunton, Self Control
  10. John Buchan, The Thirty-nine Steps
  11. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Shuttle
  12. Fanny Burney, Cecilia
  13. Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
  14. Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  15. Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary
  16. Wilkie Collins, The Law and the Lady
  17. Abraham Cowley, Cowley’s Essays
  18. E.M. Delafield, Consequences
  19. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
  20. Arthur Conan Doyle, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  21. Maria Edgeworth, Ennui
  22. George Eliot, Romola
  23. Sarah Fielding, The Governess
  24. E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread
  25. John Galt, The Annals of the Parish
  26. Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth
  27. Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
  28. Anna Katharine Green, The Leavenworth Case
  29. Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree
  30. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables
  31. Georgette Heyer, The Black Moth
  32. Henry James, The Tragic Muse
  33. Henry James, The Europeans
  34. Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs
  35. Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa
  36. Charlotte Lennox, The Life of Harriot Stuart
  37. Ada Leverson, Love at Second Sight
  38. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence
  39. F.M. Mayor, The Third Miss Symons
  40. Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children
  41. Margaret Oliphant, The Rector
  42. Margaret Oliphant, Salem Chapel
  43. Margaret Oliphant, Phoebe Junior
  44. Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest
  45. Dorothy Richardson, Pointed Roofs
  46. Dorothy Sayers, Whose Body
  47. Dorothy Sayers, Clouds of Witness
  48. William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
  49. Frances Sheridan, Memoirs of Miss  Sidney Bidulph
  50. May Sinclair, Mary Olivier
  51. William Thackeray, Barry Lyndon
  52. Mrs. Humphry Ward, Lady Rose’s Daughter
  53. Mary Webb, Gone to Earth
  54. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier
  55. Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country
  56. P.G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves
  57. Charlotte Mary Yonge, The Heir of Redclyffe

Plus, from the library I have Lars Iyer’s Spurious and from Netgalleys I have Monique Roffey’s White Woman on the Green Bicycle. I will not lack for reading material, as long as I remember my Nook power cord! I chose the books on my list of free classics based on what I have and haven’t read and what I own on paper. Many of the books are not the most obvious choices for a particular author, but they are the book by that author I wanted to read next.

I may post pictures here while I’m gone, but then again, I may not. So I’ll just say I’ll see you in June and possibly sooner. Take care while I’m gone!

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Ireland! And London!

I think I’m heading slowly toward a blogging break, just like I was last year at this time. Maybe it will become a yearly April/May/into the summer thing? I’m riding more, I’m busy at work, and I don’t want to give up reading time. So posting might slow around here a bit. This year things are complicated by the fact that I’m leaving for Ireland in the middle of May and won’t return until a week into June. I’ll have internet access while I’m gone, at least part of the time, but I’ll have to steal Hobgoblin’s laptop away from him if I want to get online, as I don’t see the point of hauling my own around. So, blogging break.

And yes, I’m very excited about Ireland and our week in London afterward. Our plans are slowing coming into place, such as they are. Fortunately, Hobgoblin and I travel in a similar way, which is to say, we don’t make detailed plans. We both like to show up some place and figure things out from there, if possible by throwing our things in the hotel and setting off on foot. This sometimes backfires (we’ve ended up walking into the wrong part of town before), but mostly it’s fun and a good way to get our bearings in a new place. We did buy some travel guides, but we haven’t opened them yet. The plane trip is a good time to read over travel guides, I think.

We will probably buy some theater tickets, but other than that, I can’t bear to make any decisions. My problem with planning, I think, is that it makes the time away feel limited and too short. I don’t want to know what I’m doing every day, or even what I’m going to do at all, because I want to keep the illusion that the vacation will be endless and we will have time for everything. So why plan? We’ll get to it all eventually.

I don’t think I’ve written about why we are going. Up until this point in our lives, Hobgoblin and I have not been able to/not been the type to take off to Europe for a vacation — and we still aren’t, really. We are taking this trip because Hobgoblin will be teaching a two-week course in old Irish literature (that’s all I know about it — something about myths and legends — it’s a class I need to take) for his university. I’m going along for the fun of it, and because it’s relatively cheap: Hobgoblin’s university will cover his airfare and also provide a cottage for us to live in. We figured since so much of the trip is already paid for (and he will be paid for the class itself), why not add on to the trip by going to London? One of the best parts of the whole thing is that we may be able to do the trip again in two years, when it will be his turn to teach in the program again. We’re thinking of going to Paris next time.

But back to this trip … the other thing I’m bad at when it comes to travel is reading books about the place I’m going to visit. Most respectable readers and book bloggers would probably have made up a list of books by Irish authors and books set in Ireland to read in the run-up to the trip and on the plane. But that just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m more likely to read Irish books after the trip, to remind me of the place I’ve just been. For right now, I prefer to keep the whole thing promisingly vague. Don’t tell me what I’m going to experience, other than that the landscape will be beautiful. People have told me that many times, and I was very glad to hear it.

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The bad and the good

I almost decided to write a little post about needing a blog break for a week or so, but then I decided that maybe I wouldn’t. My spring break begins in just another few days, so maybe I can make it that far without having to go to such extreme measures. It’s just that last week was a particularly bad one. My mother became seriously ill, and while she’s doing well, I’m worried about her. This weekend I drove up to the Rochester area to visit my parents and help out a bit, and I was glad to help, but this is my first serious brush with my parents’ mortality, and I do not like it one bit. Not at all. But my mother is recovering and will soon be well again, so that’s good.

So instead of taking a blog break, I thought I’d cheer myself up by writing about some things I’m really enthusiastic about these days. Distraction can work wonderfully, can’t it? I spent part of my drive this weekend listening to podcasts, and I have to say I love them. A few months ago, I read this article from The New York Review of Books about all the excellent radio available these days, and I finally got myself over to iTunes to figure out how to download shows. Since then, I’ve heard tons of author interviews on shows like The Leonard Lopate Show and The Brian Lehrer Show both on WNYC, and Radio Open Source where the host talks to his guests for almost an hour. I just heard an amazing interview on this show with Andre Dubus III, whose book Townie I will be reading soon. I’ve also recently heard interviews with Jaimy Gordon, Rana Dasgupta, and Lydia Davis. Also Joseph O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Aminatta Forna, Zadie Smith, Maxine Hong Kingston, Adam Gopnik, and Carlos Fuentes (most of this list comes from The Leonard Lopate Show). It’s so fun to learn a little bit about new books and authors this way.

I also listen to This American Life, where the stories are almost always fascinating, and Fresh Air, which I listen to whenever Terry Gross has interesting guests. Also Studio 360 now and then, and Radiolab. Some of these shows I listened to on the radio in the old fashioned way, but only when the timing was right, which was rare. Now I listen to them whenever I want, most often in the car on my way to work.

The downside to this is that I’ve stopped listening to audiobooks, which is what I used to do during my commute, when I wasn’t listening to music or the news. Commute time is turning out to be precious time, although I don’t want it to be any longer than it is. But there are more things to do with it than I realized. I may go back to audiobooks at some point, but for now, I’m too eager to keep up with my podcasts.

And on to another enthusiasm: have I mentioned how much I love Twitter? For a while I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to use it, but, no surprise, I’ve begun to follow mostly bookish people, whether it’s fellow bloggers, authors, booksellers, or publishers. It’s been so much fun to carry on conversations about books with bloggers, of whom there are too many to list, but you can see who I’m following here. Twitter is also a good source of information on new books from publishers. Their feeds are all about marketing, of course, but it’s marketing news I’d like to hear, and there are often interesting people behind the feeds.

And then there are authors who tweet. My favorite is Colson Whitehead, whose tweets are often hilarious. There’s also Margaret Atwood, Ian Rankin, and Sara Paretsky. Pepys is also on twitter, or at least someone posts bits from his diary now and then. Also, Rosanne Cash’s tweets are awesome; she tweeted about the Super Bowl and the Oscars in the style of Jane Austen, and the results were delightful. And then sometimes super fun things happen like when I tweeted about how much I liked Deb Olin Unferth’s book Revolution, and she tweeted me back saying thank you!

It’s just so much fun. It can be a time suck, but it’s a great way to get news, keep in touch with people and learn about new things. I use Facebook, but Twitter is much cooler.

Okay, that makes me feel better!

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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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