Category Archives: Nonfiction

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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In the Freud Archives

I recently finished another book by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Janet Malcolm; I’d already read The Silent Woman, about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Two Lives, about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and now I have finished In the Freud Archives, a book about psychoanalysis and Freud scholars. The Silent Woman is my favorite so far, and will probably stay my favorite, but In the Freud Archives is a close second, and possibly is second only because psychoanalysis isn’t all that interesting to me, whereas Plath and Hughes are. With Malcolm, though, it doesn’t matter much whether the topic at hand is inherently interesting or not, because she makes it interesting. All these books follow a similar format: Malcolm takes an academic, literary, or cultural controversy and digs deep into the story, interviewing the major players and charting out the various sides of the conflict. She herself is a part of the narrative; although she is good at keeping the focus on the story at hand, she does give her personal impressions of the major characters and offers her particular slant on the story.

In the Freud book, as in the others, Malcolm is writing on a number of different levels. In the Freud Archives (published in 1984) is a book about controversies among Freud scholars, specifically about who will control the archives with many letters that scholars have not had a chance to study. It’s a story about Dr. Eissler, a distinguished Freud scholar and analyst, and Jeffrey Masson, a younger man who started his career as a Sanskrit scholar and found his way into the world of psychoanalysis. Eissler becomes a mentor to Masson, grooming him to take control of the archives. But Masson is a controversial figure among analysts; he is too pushy and too overtly ambitious, he seemed to come out of nowhere and made his way to the top of the field all too easily, and his views on Freud are increasingly unorthodox. The “plot” of the book is about the relationship between Eissler and Masson and about Masson’s status in the psychoanalytic world.

But In the Freud Archives is about Freud, too; we learn about what kind of a thinker and analyst Freud really was and about the development of his thought in his early years, the focus of Masson’s research. We learn about the history of the discipline and of scholarship on Freud. The way Malcolm describes it, psychoanalysis and Freud studies seem to be at a crisis point in the 1980s — or at least at a vulnerable moment — with a comfortable scholarly establishment too willing to overlook flaws in their theories and in their founder, an environment ripe for someone like Masson to come in and shake things up.

The book is also about Malcolm as well; she describes the settings in which she conducted her interviews and her impressions of all the major players. It’s also about her in a sense she couldn’t have predicted when she first wrote the book. My edition, from NYRB, contains an afterward written by Malcolm that describes the book’s aftermath: Masson sued her for libel and she spent 10 years fighting him in the courts. She was ultimately successful, but the episode shows the dangers of writing this kind of nonfiction. It’s impossible to know how one’s subjects will react to having their lives and careers dissected in print.

I kept thinking as I read the book that it would be interesting to have some one pull a “Janet Malcolm” on Malcolm herself — to write about the making of this book, the book’s reception, and the ensuing lawsuit and to follow up on what has happened in psychoanalysis and Freud studies in the years between then and now. In the Freud Archives is an absorbing read and an intriguing look into one corner of the scholarly world, but I have the feeling that there’s more of this story to be told.

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Recent Reading

First, some numbers:

  • bike miles logged since January 1st: 1,775.
  • Hours ridden: 114.
  • Races completed (in unspectacular but acceptable fashion): 1.
  • Books read: 16.
  • Hours worked: too many.

Rather than writing reviews, I’m busy enough to be reduced to lists, but that’s better than complete silence, so here’s what I’ve been reading since I last posted:

  • I finished Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, which was absolutely fabulous. If you like essays on literature and culture, read this! Smith is brilliant and charming, and I have become a fan (I read White Teeth a while back and liked it fine, but my response to this essay collection has been much stronger).
  • I finished Essayists on the Essay, a collection edited by Carl Klaus, which is exactly what the title promises. It’s very good if you want to get a sense of the essay as a genre and also if you want essay recommendations.
  • My mystery book group read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, which I can appreciate as a very good example of a particular kind of mystery/thriller, but which I struggled with a little. I’m not a plot person, basically, and this was a lot of plot. I get tired of struggling to keep everything straight. But still, lots to appreciate here.
  • David Shields’s Reality Hunger deserves its own post, which it may not get. I give it five out of five stars for articulating a nonfiction aesthetic that I like very much and for having awesome book recommendations, and two out of five stars for being obtuse when it comes to the value of fiction. Also, I was never completely won over by the argument it implicitly makes about collage, quotation, and plagiarism.
  • Lorrie Moore, Anagrams, which was funny and inventive. It has an interesting structure, with four chapters or so that give you the same two characters but in different permutations: with different backgrounds, personalities, careers, etc. Eventually it settled down into one version of these characters and told a more coherent story. I was a little disappointed the opening structure didn’t continue through the whole book; once it settled down into one story, the whole thing got a tiny bit less interesting. But still, very good.
  • Darin Strauss, Half a Life: A Memoir. This tells Strauss’s experience of accidentally hitting and killing a high school classmate in a car crash when he was 18 and about to graduate. The accident wasn’t his fault, but of course the experience was still devastating. The story is well-told, and Strauss does a great job articulating what the experience was like. At times, I found the writing too vague and abstract for my taste; sometimes it was hard to wrap my mind around the thoughts and images. But still, it’s a brave book.

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How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

I loved How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, although I think I loved it as much for its tone and attitude as for the arguments it makes. I thought Bayard’s arguments were fascinating, if limited, but the real attraction was his way of saying things few others are willing to say (an attitude his title indicates well) and his refusal to take reading so terribly, terribly seriously. There was something very freeing about reading this book (and it’s not the fact that I now feel I can talk about books I haven’t read!).

The title is a little misleading, because even though Bayard says he is going to give advice about how to talk about books you haven’t read, he only does that occasionally. Mostly the book is a meditation on what it means to have read something and on how small and uncertain the difference is between having read something and not having read it. If you think about it, is it meaningful to say that you have read a book you don’t remember a thing about beyond its title? Isn’t it possible to know much more about a book that you have recently skimmed than one you read 20 years ago and have completely forgotten? Isn’t it possible that you could say something more insightful about a book you have read a review of and understand from an exterior, distanced point of view, than one you have read and in whose details you have lost yourself?

I’m not in the least interested in pretending to have read books I haven’t, but I realized as I read Bayard that I talk about books I haven’t read all the time: I do it in blog posts where I talk about what I want to read or why I bought particular books that are as yet unread. I recommend books I haven’t read to people I think might possibly like them (while admitting I haven’t read them), and I allude to books I haven’t read while I’m teaching class, in order to make some point about history or context. It’s this kind of book knowledge Bayard is interested in; he talks a lot about cultural literacy, which to him means knowledge of the ways books fit together, their relationships with one another and with their contexts. I can tell you something about a Trollope novel I haven’t read because I know a little about Trollope and a fair amount about the Victorian novel. I understand the context from which his novels come, and, for that matter, I know a lot about novels. If this is the kind of knowledge about books that matters, then actually having read the Trollope novel is kind of a minor detail.

I don’t buy that argument fully — it leaves little room for the actual content of books to surprise you after all — but it does seem true that just by surrounding yourself with bookish people and culture, you can absorb a whole lot of knowledge about books you will never pick up. A bigger problem with Bayard’s argument is that he nowhere acknowledges that reading books might actually be fun. I don’t read solely for the purpose of gaining the kind of cultural literacy he describes (especially now that I’m out of grad school); I read because I want the experience of being absorbed in a book.

But these disagreements aren’t what matter to me. What really matters is the fun of exploring the complexities of reading. Bayard deconstructs the reading/nonreading distinction, but he also undermines the very notion of a book, or rather, he makes up a whole bunch of “books” in addition to the actual book you hold in your hand. Because as soon as you have finished reading a book, you immediately construct your own version of it, a “book” that is only a little bit like what you have read. Every reader brings to books a certain history, capacity, and set of interests that shape how they make sense of them, which means the books they read are a little (or a lot) different than other people’s readings of the exact same books. So when we talk about books, we are really talking about entirely different things: I’m talking about my book and you are talking about yours, no matter whether the words we read are the same or not.

So, given that logic, why not talk about books you haven’t read? One excellent point Bayard makes is that readers should lose the shame they feel about unread books. In fact, any reader’s relationship with books is primarily one of not having read them, since we can only read a very small percentage of all the books out there. Not only that, but our relationship with books we have read is one of loss: once we stop reading, our “inner” book becomes a separate thing from the book itself, and we immediately start the process of forgetting. The small percentage of what we remember, out of the tiny percentage of what we have actually read, leaves us with not a whole lot.

These arguments don’t strike me as all that original; if you’ve studied philosophy or literary theory or just thought deeply about reading they won’t be particularly surprising. But Bayard does a great job of making the ideas fun. The book makes an interesting pairing with Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction; they seem like very different books in many ways, one urging us to read for pleasure and the other not even acknowledging that pleasure in reading exists. But both urge a certain freedom in our reading, whether it’s the freedom to read at whim, or freedom from the shame we feel at not having read things. Reading is a serious endeavor, yes, but we could all stand to lighten up a bit.

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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Full disclosure: a former professor of mine wrote this book, and it was a professor I liked very much, so I suppose I’m biased. But I’m quite sure I would have liked this book anyway, and I did like it very much. My guess is that book bloggers who like books about books and reading will enjoy it as well, since it touches on a lot of topics that get debated on blogs: how to choose what to read next, how best to do that reading, “serious” reading vs. reading purely for pleasure, the value (or lack thereof) of keeping lists and making reading plans, the danger of technology pulling us away from our reading. This book is also great for anyone who feels uncertain about their reading choices and abilities. I want to recommend it to all the people I can think of (and it’s a lot of people, including many students, and including, sometimes, myself) who have ever expressed a doubt about their status as a reader. My guess is that it will make them feel much better.

What I liked best about this book is how successfully it makes recommendations and gives advice without coming across as preachy or judgmental. Jacobs has very definite opinions on things, but I got the feeling that he would not mind a little disagreement. His main argument is that you should read at whim and that pleasure in reading should be your first goal. He also believes that you should mark up the book as you read — or at least you should if it’s something more complex than a thriller that’s not meant to be analyzed that closely. You shouldn’t worry about reading a lot of books; in fact, he believes you’re probably reading too fast and should slow down. He strongly dislikes books such as How to Read a Book, and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die because they encourage the mindset of reading only in order to cross something off a list. Rereading is very much a good thing.

But the tone that comes across is warm and generous, not scolding. (In fact, while I was in the middle of reading the book, I tweeted something about being absorbed in it but allowing myself a Twitter distraction now and then, making a little joke about his title, and he tweeted back, “It’s allowed!”) Mostly, he just wants people to enjoy their reading and to read exactly what they want to, because that’s the practice that will make reading meaningful and take the reader in unknown and exciting directions. To complicate the reading for pleasure idea, he talks about whim vs. Whim. Lowercase whim is “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both.” Uppercase Whim, however, “can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” We learn, over time and by paying attention to our own responses and feelings, what it is we really want from books. We figure out when we want something challenging and difficult and when we want to reread an old favorite or to pick up a book we won’t have to think about too much. We figure out when to put down a book that isn’t working for us or to keep at it because we might come to like it later, or even because we think we might want to reread it in ten years and appreciate it only then. Reading for pleasure is not a simple thing — pleasure itself is not a simple thing.

One of my favorite sections of the book is on serendipity, the unplanned, unexpected discoveries when you read at whim and let accident guide you:

Fortuity happens, but serendipity can be cultivated. You can grow in serendipity. You can even become a disciple of serendipity. In the literature of the Middle Ages, we see reverence for the goddess Fortuna — fortune, chance — and to worship her is a religious way of shrugging: an admission of helplessness, an acknowledgment of all that lies beyond our powers of control. But in the very idea of serendipity is a kind of hope, even an expectation, that we can turn the accidents of fortune to good account, and make of them some knowledge that would have been inaccessible to us if we had done no more than find what we were looking for. Indeed, it may be possible not only to cultivate the sagacity but also the accidents. It may be possible, and desirable, to actively put yourself in the way of events beyond your control.

This is a philosophy of life as much as it is of reading, and I like it very much on both accounts. It can be wonderful when reading — or life — takes you in unexpected directions  (it’s much less risky when it’s reading we’re talking about, though), and it seems worthwhile to strive to be the kind of person who can take full advantage of, and indeed to seek out, the accidental.

Jacobs says his book is aimed toward people who find themselves struggling to read because of the lure of technology and their inability to concentrate after too much time spent multitasking, skimming websites, and following links. He does have a lot to say about this problem, but his potential audience is actually much wider: it’s anybody who likes to think about reading. It’s a book that will inspire you, I think, and inspire you not to read like Jacobs does, necessarily, but to figure out how to read like yourself.

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Lying

I couldn’t decide for a while whether I loved or hated Lauren Slater’s book Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. Finally, maybe a quarter of the way into it, I decided I loved it and I never changed my mind again. But it’s the kind of book I would think carefully about before I recommended it to anyone, as it strikes me as potentially hateable. It seems that Slater has a talent for stirring up controversy (whether this is what she intends or not, I’m not sure). My first introduction to her was the 2006 edition of The Best American Essays where she was the year’s guest editor. Her introduction to the anthology told the story of how her book Opening Skinner’s Box provoked all kinds of anger from all kinds of people, but especially professional psychologists, of which she is one herself. Apparently, people didn’t like her portrayal of famous psychological experiments, and they disliked it enough to start an email listserve called “Slater-Hater,” which she followed for a while. The openness with which she discussed this episode, which surely was extremely painful, impressed me, and I’ve been intrigued by her ever since.

So, as you can guess from the title, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir is no traditional memoir; instead, it’s a book where she claims to have epilepsy, but also refuses to tell you whether that’s actually true or not. It might just be a metaphor for something else she is trying to communicate about her life, something about mental illness. She describes the experience of epilepsy in great detail, though, telling about her first seizures and the process of figuring out the disease, describing the various forms of treatment she received, and describing the way she would pretend to have seizures or purposely induce seizures for dramatic effect. The most dramatic part of the book comes when she describes surgery to have her corpus callosum severed — the part of the brain that connects the right and left hemispheres. Her doctor believed that this wouldn’t cure her fully but would cut down dramatically on the number and severity of the seizures, which is did — or which she says it did. It also left her with some strange side effects, such as not being able to read with her left eye closed, since the right side of the brain processes language.

All this is described in a totally convincing way, but the reader has no way of knowing what to believe. Slater discusses this directly, though, telling the reader why she’s writing the way she is:

Is it possible to narrate an honest nonfiction story if you are a slippery sort? I, for one, am a slippery sort, but I believe I’m also an honest sort because I admit my slipperiness. And, therefore, to come clean in this memoir would be dishonest; it would be to go against my nature, which would be just the sort of inauthenticity any good nonfiction memoirist, whose purpose is to capture the essence of the narrator, could not accommodate. I truly believe that if I came completely clean I would be telling the biggest lie of all, and at heart I am not a liar, I am passionately dedicated to the truth, which, by the way, is not necessarily the same thing as fact, so loosen up!

I love this. She writes a book called Lying in which she refuses to tell us the facts but says she is not a liar! Which is totally possible, of course — she’s exploring lying, or she is revealing the truth indirectly, using lies, or the possibility of lies, to tell a kind of truth. This passage comes from a memo she (supposedly) wrote to her editor about how to market the book, which shows her other interest: reader’s expectations of genre. She says in this memo that her purpose is:

among a lot of other things, to ponder the blurry line between novels and memoirs. Everyone knows that a lot of memoirs have made-up scenes; it’s obvious. And everyone knows that half the time at least fictions contain literal autobiographical truths. So how do we decide what’s what, and does it even matter?

For me, it didn’t matter much. I didn’t care whether she really had epilepsy or not; the book was meaningful to me whether the epilepsy was literal or a metaphor, and I liked going back and forth between the two possibilities. There’s an emotional honesty that comes through all the playfulness. I came to trust her, oddly, for just the reasons she said we should trust her: she may be telling lies, but she never claims to be telling the truth either.

She also tells some riveting stories, especially the one about her time at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. She applies during the summer before she begins college, lying on her application that she is 19 years old, the minimum age. She gets rejected. She is sure this is a mistake, however, so she changes her name and applies again, making sure she gets a different reader. She gets in this time. But the fact that her writing sample is erotic in nature and that her new reader is male are both significant to what happens next. And then there is the story about accidentally joining AA, a group that becomes hugely meaningful to her but which she has joined under false pretenses, and she doesn’t know how to come clean.

There is so little that’s certain in this book, beginning with the introduction and continuing through to the end, but living with that uncertainty was surprisingly enjoyable, and even exhilarating. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some readers find Slater to be unbearably coy, and some might find her tricks irritating, such as putting her acknowledgments page in the middle of the book. But I loved all that, and I admire Slater’s courage, for surely it takes courage to refuse to give the reader solid ground to stand on, and surely it takes talent to make such a book so fascinating to read.

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The Magician’s Book

Laura Miller’s Magician’s Book, about C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, was a hugely enjoyable read, and I say that not being the biggest Chronicles of Narnia reader. I read at least some of the books when I was a kid, but I’m not quite sure how many. I reread some of them as a young adult, although again, I’m not sure how many. I liked them fine, but I didn’t fall in love. Miller talks about those who fall in love with Narnia and/or Tolkien’s Middle Earth and those who fall in love with realistic novels like Little House on the Prairie and Little Women, and I definitely fall in the latter camp. But that didn’t matter much in terms of how I felt about The Magician’s Book; it was a great meditation on childhood reading, as well as on the meaning and context of Lewis’s work.

I particularly admired how much Miller pulled together into one book and how she kept all her material orderly and coherent. She writes about her obsession with Narnia, how it happened and how it influenced the rest of her reading life. She writes about children’s literature in general and the ways people value it, or don’t. She writes about Lewis’s life, his literary friendships, his scholarship, and his religious beliefs. She also writes about the meaning of the Chronicles themselves. Oh, and there are discussions of things like allegory, myth, and romance, of medieval literature and the medieval mindset, of the different ways Lewis and Tolkien thought about Englishness.

It’s a lot of material, but Miller makes it work, partly by using short-ish chapters that each focus on one aspect of the series or its context, and also by using a loose overarching structure that keeps it all feeling coherent. The larger story of her book is one of first falling in love with the Chronicles, then becoming angry with Lewis and rejecting the books after discovering their Christian content, and finally rediscovering the series as an adult and accounting for the fact that she still loves the books even if she rejects their religious argument. Miller had no idea as a child that the Chronicles were meant as a retelling of sorts of the gospel story — that Aslan was supposed to be Christ, for example. When she found this out, basically by accident, she felt betrayed, a feeling made all the stronger because of how much she had loved the books in the first place. She had already decided she had no use for Christianity, so Lewis’s piousness and his attempts to proselytize through fiction did not go over well.

So, with this structure in place, a story that forms the book’s three main sections, Miller first discusses the value of children’s fiction and tells her own reading history, as well as what it was about the Chronicles she loved so much. The second section on rejecting Lewis includes chapters on his various failings, for example, his (arguable) misogyny and racism. The last section is partly about how it’s possible to value the Chronicles even if you reject the Christianity in them, and also how the Chronicles sprang out of Lewis’s love of allegory, myths, and fairy tales and about Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien and their different approaches to writing fantasy.

Miller is a companionable guide through all this. I like the balance she struck between her personal narrative and the more critical material; the personal element gives the book drive and interest as well as a sense of why the project matters, and the critical material provides a fabulous background to understanding the Chronicles and thinking about children’s literature, fantasy in particular. My one quibble is that I sometimes felt she portrayed Christianity in a way that’s a little too simple; she conflates evangelicalism and fundamentalism, for example, and doesn’t really acknowledge the many other, particularly more liberal, forms of Christianity that are out there. But otherwise, her command of the material is impressive. I didn’t find that my unfamiliarity with most of the Narnia books was a problem; her descriptions of the books provide enough detail that I could follow along. If I hadn’t ever read any of the Chronicles, I probably would have found the book less compelling, but you don’t have to be a Lewis fan to appreciate what Miller has done.

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Quarrel and Quandary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson is not exactly a traditional biography. It does tell Dorothy’s life story, but it doesn’t try to include all the details or treat all the times in her life equally. Instead, it moves through her early years quickly, rushes through the last five decades at breakneck speed, and spends most of its time on the years of the Grasmere Journals, four journals she kept from 1800 to the very beginning of 1803. In this section, she spends a lot of time discussing the journals themselves, reading them closely for insights into Dorothy’s life at this time, and also using details from Dorothy’s life to illuminate the journals. It was the most exciting, most famous time in her long life: the time when she and William Wordsworth collaborated on their writing and tramped all over the Lake District, with Coleridge as their frequent companion.

The picture Wilson creates of Dorothy is different than the one I had in mind and the one painted by her letters (which I wrote about here). I had always thought of her as an avid walker, which she was, and also a dreamy, melancholy type, a person who thought and felt deeply, moody and brooding, a woman of sensibility, full of Romantic longing. The letters portray her as a quiet family woman, a person devoted to her brothers, nieces, and nephews and concerned above all else for their welfare. She was at least some of those things, but in Wilson’s biography, she is also very charismatic and full of energy and life:

Those who knew Dorothy in her hot youth describe her as possessing all the wildness of the Brontë heroines she helped to inspire. It was the quality of her gaze they noticed first. For John Thelwall, the radical, she was “the maid of ardent eye”; Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey,” famously praised “the shooting lights” of her “wild eyes,” which were a clear and light gray-blue, and Coleridge, taking his cue, wrote of “the wild lights in her eyes.” De Quincey described her eyes as “wild and startling” and Dorothy as “all fire, and … ardour,” the “very wildest (in the sense of the most natural) person I have ever known.” She had something of the “gipsy” to her, De Quincey said…

It’s this wildness that’s intriguing, and also her anxieties and what Wilson calls her neurotic personality. At the center of Wilson’s biography is a very strange scene from Dorothy journal, which takes place on Williams’s wedding day. She is devastated by the wedding, completely undone, although she has known it would happen for many months and sees William’s wife Mary as a close friend whom she is very fond of. But she had had William all to herself for several years and now, although she will continue to live with him, she will have to share him. Here is the scene from Dorothy’s journal:

On Monday 4th October 1802, my Brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson …William had parted from me upstairs. I gave him the wedding ring — with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before — he slipped it again onto my finger & blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara [Mary's sister] prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer & threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing anything, till Sara came upstairs to me & said “They are coming.” This forced me from the bed where I lay & I moved I knew not how straight forward, faster than my strength could carry me till I met my beloved William & fell upon his bosom….

This is a bizarre scene for a lot of reasons — the exchange of the wedding ring that mimics a wedding ceremony, her loss of consciousness when she realizes the wedding is over, her propulsion into William’s bosom at the end. Her relationship with William was the defining factor of her life, and readers have long speculated on its nature. Could it have been incestuous? Or haunted by unfulfilled sexual longing? Or of a more ethereal, spiritual nature?

Wilson handles all these questions well and other tricky ones such as the nature of Dorothy’s mental illness in her later years (a very sad story). She weaves Dorothy’s words into her text, using italics for language from the journals, with no quotation marks. This could come across as presumptuous, perhaps, implying that Wilson’s mind has somehow melded with Dorothy’s, but instead it comes across as intensely devoted and sympathetic while at the same time, somehow, not losing a feeling of objectivity.

Another aspect of Wilson’s biography that surprised me is her description of Dorothy as not given to self-reflection or self-awareness. She is a creature of surfaces, not at all, as Wilson says, like Mary Shelley who wrote in her diary, “Let me fearlessly descend into the remotest caverns of my own mind, carry the torch of self-knowledge into its dimmest recesses.” Dorothy prefers to stay on the outside, observing the natural world or writing accounts of actions rather than thoughts. It’s true that self-revealing moments in the journals are rare and Dorothy rarely tells us what she is thinking, but I wonder whether it’s right to move from the evidence of the journals to making a claim about what goes on in Dorothy’s mind. Her record of her life is very incomplete, after all. But it’s fascinating to think of this woman surrounded by Romantic poets, living out what seems to be an intensely Romantic life, and not being terribly interested in exploring the movements of her own mind.

As I said in my previous post, Wilson’s biography made me want to pick up the journals again, which I have, and I’m now reading through them very slowly. It’s easy to skim over her entries and feel like you’ve gotten the gist, but Wilson’s book makes a case for taking one’s time with them and treating them more like poetry than prose, so that’s what I’m trying to do.

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Dorothy Wordsworth

I happened to pick up a copy of Dorothy Wordsworth’s selected letters while in London — I have her journals and a biography, so it seemed appropriate to get some letters as well — and on a whim I began reading them while flying back to the U.S. The letters were interesting; I enjoyed the glimpse into Dorothy’s life they gave, and it’s always fun to read about that group of great writers who spent so much time together, Dorothy, William Wordsworth, and Coleridge, with appearances now and then by Thomas De Quincey and Charles and Mary Lamb. The letters are also fairly tame and quiet since Dorothy is being her best social self, although it was fun to see her putting an aunt firmly in her place by insisting that there is nothing improper in going on a long walking tour with her brother:

I cannot pass unnoticed that part of your letter in which you speak of my “rambling about the country on foot.” So far from considering this as a matter of condemnation, I rather thought it would have given my friends pleasure to hear that I had courage to make use of the strength with which nature has endowed me, when it not only procured me infinitely more pleasure than I should have received from sitting in a post-chaise — but was also the means of saving me at least thirty shillings.

As Dorothy is penniless at this point, saving thirty shillings is significant. I love the fact that she is basically running away from home here. She’s not sneaking off exactly, but she has left the aunt and uncle who have taken care of her since her mother died, and her relatives are not particularly pleased with her. This was unconventional behavior. She and William walk for the next two days, the first day to Grasmere, which is where they will live five years later during that famous time William Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote their Lyrical Ballads and she wrote her Grasmere journals, and the second day to Keswick, where they stayed with friends.

This is, perhaps, the point at which she finally grows up. She is 23 at the time, having spent most of her life up to this point separated from her four brothers. Her mother died when she was six, the event that shook up the family and sent her off to live with her aunt and uncle. Her father died when she was 12, but even then, she didn’t see her family. Finally, now that she is in her 20s, she is reunited with her long-lost brothers, and at this point, she is making her dramatic move — leaving her guardians and clinging to William, with whom she will live for decades to come.

She is also establishing her reputation as a serious walker. She will walk miles and miles, most famously in the area around Grasmere. She and William, accompanied sometimes by neighbors and friends, will cover the same ground again and again, getting to know their area intimately, and their walks will inspire the poetry and poetic prose to come. It’s fitting that part of her striking out on her own with William involves a defense of the value of walking: it’s healthy and pleasurable, and it’s using the great gift given to herby nature — her strength.

After reading the letters, I thought I would pick up a recent biography of Dorothy, Frances Wilson’s book The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. I’m nearing the end of it now. I quickly decided that reading the biography meant I needed to reread the Grasmere journals as well, so I’m in the middle of those too. The biography and the journals paint quite a different picture of Dorothy than the letters do. But more on that later.

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Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women

I picked up Stephanie Staal’s book Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life on a whim at the library and read it relatively quickly over the July 4th weekend. It was a good book, an enjoyable and interesting read, although I found it more interesting for the personal stories told than for the discussions of feminist texts. Perhaps it was because I was already familiar with many of the books she discussed and her summaries of their main arguments didn’t go beyond the basics, but I was always a little relieved when she returned to her personal story.

The book begins with Staal’s frustration with her situation in life — unexpectedly finding herself a dissatisfied wife and mother who was struggling to keep a career going. She decided to look for books by women who addressed the frustrations she was feeling, and she found herself looking through the Women’s Studies section of her local bookstore searching for wisdom. Eventually she hits on the idea of retaking the “Fem. Texts” course she took at Barnard as an undergrad. She will read or reread the great works of feminism to see what she can learn from them the second time around, and also to see how she has changed and how the students taking the class have changed from her undergrad days. (The premise of the book is in essence the same as David Denby’s Great Books where he goes back to Columbia to retake their “Great Books” curriculum, and she doesn’t mention this. I kind of thought she should have.)

The book takes us through her year of reading, beginning with Genesis and the Garden of Eden story, and hitting many of the great feminist writers, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Helene Cixous, and many others. Staal intersperses discussions of these writers and descriptions of classroom dynamics with stories about her life. She writes about raising her daughter while trying to keep a freelance career going, about moving to Maryland from New York City and trying to fit into the very different culture there, about her sometimes troubled marriage and her struggles getting her husband to understand what she was feeling and to help out more around the house. She’s dismayed at the distance she has traveled from her undergrad self, from the person who would not have believed that she would one day find herself feeling trapped in the house taking care of a child. She found she identified much too closely with the audience of dissatisfied 1950s housewives Betty Friedan addressed in The Feminine Mystique.

Not surprisingly, taking the Fem. Texts course leads Staal to more questions than answers, but she does take comfort in reading how other women grappled with the those same questions. There was less comfort to be found from observing her young classmates. She admires their self-confidence, but also feels that feminism has taken a wrong turn somewhere. She is disturbed by certain aspects of third-wave feminism, especially the easy comfort the students feel with pornography and our highly-sexualized culture. She worries about what her daughter will face as she grows older.

This book would be worth reading for anyone who wants an introduction to feminist texts (it comes complete with reading lists), and for anyone who wants to read about one woman’s struggles to stay true to her feminist values. I enjoyed it most for the latter, but it does both well.

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Townie

Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie is a harrowing read. It wasn’t quite on the same level of emotional intensity as Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story, but it, like Oates’s book, was both hard to put down and hard to shake off once I had put it down. It left me feeling somber and needing a little recovery time afterward. All of which I mean in a positive way — Townie was perhaps a bit too long (as was Oates’s book), but still, awfully good.

It tells the story of Dubus’s experiences growing up poor, first with his mother and his famous writer father, but soon enough with his mother alone, along with his three siblings. Even when the family was together, they never had much money, but his parents’ divorce turned a manageable situation into an extremely precarious one. His mother did her best to keep the family going, but money was always short — the family often went hungry — and the mother was either working or home exhausted and wasn’t able to keep tabs on what the children were doing. They moved frequently and usually lived in rough neighborhoods in decaying Massachusetts towns. These were former mill towns where vacant buildings were everywhere and unemployment was high.

Dubus was small and quickly became a target for bullies. Soon enough he was getting beaten up just about every day and lived in fear of running into the wrong people. Even his home wasn’t safe; knowing there were no adults around, local young people would hold afternoon parties in his living room. There was nothing he could do about it. His siblings tried to help him out by telling their mother about the beatings, but not much came of it.

This story of living in constant fear is one of the main threads of the book; eventually, after years of being bullied and doing nothing about it, Dubus decides he can’t take it anymore, and he begins to lift weights. He also learns how to box at a local gym. It takes a long time, but finally he learns that if he is the one who punches first, if he takes his opponent by surprise, he can win a fight. This is a breakthrough moment, a turn of events that lets him feel proud of himself, finally. But there is a downside: now that he has learned how to let his anger out, he isn’t sure he can control it. He becomes the guy who can defend innocent victims, but he is also the guy who starts fights and sends people to the hospital. Does he really want to be that way and are there better ways to handle his anger?

The other major thread running through the book is his relationship with his father. Dubus the father never fully abandoned his children; he sent money faithfully even though he never had much, and he took them out to dinner on Sundays and spent Wednesday evenings with his kids one at a time so they had a chance to see him on their own once a month. But still, there was so much he never knew about what his kids were going through, and poor as he was, his life was much more comfortable than his ex-wife’s. There are painful scenes where he tries to play catch with his son and learns that the son knows absolutely nothing about catching and throwing a ball or about baseball itself. How was he supposed to learn? Dubus never tells his father the truth about his life, out of shyness and shame. He mostly just felt uneasy around his father and was relieved to get away. As Dubus grows older, his relationship with his father becomes much closer, but he is still left with questions: how much should he tell his father? Would there be any point in hurting his father in that way?

Dubus’s story is riveting, both because of its inherent drama and because of the questions it raises about poverty, rage, and violence, and also about what it takes to leave a difficult childhood behind. Dubus writes extremely well: he conjures up the atmosphere of the mill towns he grew up in and evokes his feelings of hopelessness and fear so powerfully that you feel you are experiencing everything alongside him. I heard Dubus say in an interview that he had tried to write about his childhood in fiction but failed, and it was only in the memoir form that he found he could tell the story. In the book he writes about creating characters who were essentially himself, but the stories were never any good because he was trying too hard to make the reader sympathize with his fictionalized self. I don’t quite know what it was about the transition to nonfiction that made telling his story possible, but something clicked for him, and he has told the story wonderfully.

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Wheels of Change

This weekend I had the pleasure of reading a book about women and cycling called Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. It’s a wonderful book. It’s a fast read, at only 96 pages with lots of pictures and not a lot of text; it’s aimed at a young adult market, but great for anybody interested in the subject.

The pictures themselves were wonderful: pictures of cool old bicycles, of old advertisements for bikes and cycling gear, of women on their bikes, of the clothes women wore while riding. I’ve always wanted posters of women cyclists from back in the early days of cycling, although I haven’t yet collected any, and I saw tons of images in this book that would be perfect for the purpose.

The text, although short, is fascinating. It focuses on the last couple decades of the nineteenth century when the bicycle first became popular and when women began riding, often as a way to find more freedom and independence. Macy first discusses the invention of the bicycle, and then moves on to debates over the safety, propriety, and morality of women riding. Some writers applauded the new opportunities for exercise and freedom the bicycle offered women, while others worried about what women might get up to with that new freedom or whether they would bother to attend church anymore if they could be out cycling instead. Some tried to regulate and monitor women’s behavior on the bicycle, as did, for example, an article from the Omaha Daily Bee from 1895 with a list of “Don’ts for Women Wheelers.” Some “don’ts” from this list include:

  • Don’t be a fright.
  • Don’t carry a flask.
  • Don’t attempt a “century.”
  • Don’t say, “Feel my muscle.”
  • Don’t criticize people’s “legs.”
  • Don’t boast of your long rides.
  • Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume.
  • Don’t imagine everybody is looking at you.
  • Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
  • Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes “to see how it feels.”

If it weren’t for the rule about not going to church in your bicycle costume, I’d be tempted to break every one of these rules, just for the fun of it. But I really can’t go to church in a bicycle costume, at least not a modern-day “costume.” I’m not entirely sure what they mean by “Don’t be a fright,” either.

Macy has a chapter on clothes for cycling and how cycling influenced the movement toward more comfortable clothing for women. The was a debate about the acceptability and aesthetics of the above-mentioned bloomers, but there was such a strong backlash against them, they didn’t last long. Cycling did encourage shorter skirts and fewer layers of bulky undergarments, however.

My favorite section was the one on women racers. There were women from the 1880s and 1890s whose riding and racing puts me to shame — and they did it on heavy, clunky bikes and without spandex. Louise Armaindo, for example, rode 1,050 miles in six days, on a 1/8-mile track. Dora Reinhart rode 17,196 miles in one year, riding centuries for days in a row, including a stretch of 10 days and another of 20 when she rode a century every day. In 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky rode much of the way around the world, setting off with no money and only two lessons in bicycle riding. Some women were fiercely competitive: Jane Yatman and Jane Lindsay battled to see who could ride the most miles in the least number of hours. Lindsay eventually won with an 800-mile ride done in 91 hours, 48 minutes.

It makes me hurt just to think about it. These women are an inspiration.

There’s so much that’s interesting in this book, but it only scratches the surface and I wish it were longer. But that’s my only complaint. If you’re at all interested in cycling and/or women’s history, I highly recommend it.

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Artists in Uniform

Although I haven’t picked it up in a while because of limited reading time, I’ve been enjoying Mary McCarthy’s collection of essays On the Contrary. It has a lot of essays that are new to me, and a couple that I’ve read before and loved, one of which is “Artists in Uniform.” The essay tells the story of McCarthy meeting and striking up a conversation with a man, the Colonel, on a train journey across the U.S. The two of them have been sitting in a car with a few other people, and because the Colonel is a man who tends to get what he wants, everyone expects that McCarthy will have lunch with him, even though he never actually asked her. But McCarthy hears the Colonel making anti-Semitic remarks, and she decides she will refuse lunch. She argues with him and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for his offensive comments, and although she eventually gives in and does have lunch with him, she keeps on arguing with him the entire time.

What makes the essay enjoyable is the way McCarthy describes their intellectual battle. The Colonel insists that there must be some personal reason McCarthy is so adamant about her anti-anti-Semitism; he can’t wrap his mind around the possibility that someone would have such a view just because it’s the right view to have. McCarthy believes what she does because it’s the right thing to believe, but the truth of the matter is that her grandmother was Jewish. She realizes she can’t let the Colonel know this, or he will dismiss her beliefs as personally motivated. So the two of them go at it: he keeps asking her questions trying to figure out what her personal connection to the Jews is, and she keeps trying to use reason and logic with him.

She sees that she’s much smarter than he is, and, given that it’s Mary McCarthy here, there’s no reason to doubt her. She’s aware of what’s going on in his head, all the twists and turns of his thinking, as he tries to figure her out. At the same time, she describes her own weaknesses and mistakes:

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t have lunch with anybody who feels that way about the Jews.” The colonel put down his attache case and scratched the back of his lean neck. “Oh, come now,” he repeated, with a look of amusement. “You’re not Jewish, are you?” “No,” I said quickly. “Well, then …” said the colonel, spreading his hands in a gesture of bafflement. I saw that he was truly surprised and slightly hurt by my criticism, and this made me feel wretchedly embarrassed and even apologetic, on my side, as though I had called attention to some physical defect in him, of which he himself was unconscious. “But I might have been,” I stammered. “You had no way of knowing. You oughtn’t to talk like that.” I recognized, too late, that I was strangely reducing the whole matter to a question of etiquette: “Don’t start anti-Semitic talk before making sure there are no Jews present.” “Oh, hell,” said the colonel, easily. “I can tell a Jew.” “No, you can’t,” I retorted, thinking of my Jewish grandmother, for by Nazi criteria I was Jewish. “Of course I can,” he insisted. “So can you.” … All at once the colonel halted, as though struck with a thought. “What are you, anyway?” he said meditatively, regarding my dark hair, green blouse, and pink earrings. Inside myself, I began to laugh. “Oh,” I said gaily, playing out the trump I had been saving. “I’m Irish, like you, Colonel.” “How did you know?” he said amazedly. I laughed aloud. “I can tell an Irishman,” I taunted.

McCarthy, despite having given in on the matter of lunch and despite making some minor tactical errors along the way (such as assuming the Colonel is religious, when he is not), is in control of the situation. She is watching the Colonel trying to catch her out and failing again and again.

She is in control, that is, until all the sudden she’s not. I won’t give away the essay’s ending, but the encounter does not conclude in the way McCarthy wanted it to. Her hopes of converting this man into a more enlightened way of thinking completely disappear. What the essay ends up being about, finally, is McCarthy’s own pride — pride in her intellect and in her ability to reason people into good behavior. Intellect will only get you so far, after all. If the Colonel doesn’t want to believe something, he won’t, and no amount of arguing will change his mind.

That dynamic captures what I like about McCarthy: she’s wickedly smart, but she’s not afraid to make herself look a little foolish. That, I think, is often what the best personal essayists do.

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Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live

I think I’m going to be behind in my usual blog business — responding to comments, reading other people’s blogs — for a while, but thank goodness spring break is coming up next week. I will be back in the swing of things very soon.

In the meantime, I’d like to point out my review of Sarah Bakewell’s book How to Live: or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which is over at the Quarterly Conversation. The short version of my review: I liked it very much. If you’d like to read more, the review is here.

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Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution

I’ve had very good luck with nonfiction so far this year, including Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, and now Deb Olin Unferth’s book Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. I loved every moment of this all-too-short book (a very fast 200 pages). It’s exactly what a memoir should be: entertaining, thoughtful, smart, funny, self-reflective, and even self-critical, with exactly the right kind of self-absorption, the kind that manages to say interesting things about the writer but also about a whole lot more. It tells the story of how during her freshman year in college in the 1980s Unferth met and fell in love with George, an unusual young man, a Christian with counter-cultural leanings. The two of them dropped out of school to go to Central America and join the revolutions fomenting there.

The book is extremely well-written. I’ve been trying to put into words exactly what I like about its style, and it’s been hard. Somehow Unferth manages to say a lot more than just what’s on the page. Her sentences are short and simple, with hardly a word wasted. She’s great at moving towards a larger meaning, hinting at it, and then leaving you to take the final leap. I usually prefer a more maximalist, wordy style, but this version of minimalism worked for me because it managed to say more than it seemed to. The book is written in short chapters, sometimes only a page long, each telling a story or vignette or exploring an idea. It holds together as a coherent whole, but the short chapters give it a fractured feeling that somehow makes everything more believable. It’s not a seamless narrative, but instead the chapters offer glimpses of or angles into the story. It’s a method that doesn’t promise to fit everything together neatly, because such a thing is impossible.

The story is not told in chronological order. In fact, she starts by telling us the ending, how she and her boyfriend returned from their travels in Central America and all she wanted to do was go to McDonald’s. Then, in chapter 2, she tells the whole story in just a few lines. The next 199 pages or so merely fill in the details:

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.

We couldn’t find the first revolution.

The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.

We went to the other revolutions in the area — there were several — but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.

We ran out of money and at last we came home.

I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.

From there, the narrative moves back to the beginning of the trip in Mexico, when Unferth and her boyfriend find themselves in a shantytown outside Mexico City and panic when they get lost. From there, there is steady progress through the various countries they visited, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, to give the story some narrative momentum, but interspersed among these present-action sections are flashbacks to Unferth’s college days when she first met George and converted to Christianity, and also to her younger years with her family. The narrative also moves forward now and then to tell about what happened after the trip was over, about the difficulty she had readjusting to life in the U.S. and about what happened to her relationship with George. All this back and forth movement works. There’s the potential for it to be confusing, but it never is, except in the way our memories can sometimes be confusing; instead, the structure evokes the sense of what it is like for Unferth to look back on that time of her life, to remember all the details and think about their larger significance.

Let me close by giving you a short chapter in its entirety to give you a sense of her style:

Years later I heard that the Sandinistas referred to us as Sandalistas, not Internacionalistas. We wore Birkenstocks, right? A bunch of hippies, ha, ha. I don’t recall hearing that during the revolution, only after. I believe the Nicaraguans called us Sandalistas behind our backs.

That’s okay. I can take (or be) a joke.

In fact I did wear sandals. I brought on the trip my smartest pair, not Birkenstocks, but a strappy affair. It turned out the revolution was going to involve a lot of walking. A week into Mexico my feet were blistered and my sandals were broken. I bought a new pair for five dollars and I wore those until they broke too. I bought another pair and another. Finally George said I couldn’t keep buying new pairs. I had to make the pair I had last. At that point I had a pair that cost about three dollars. The sandals stretched after a few days and fell off my feet as I walked. I took some string and tied them to my feet. When the string broke, I tied knots in it and tied my sandals back on and kept walking until the soles wore through to the ground. Why didn’t I bring a pair of damn Birkenstocks? I thought. But I’d wanted to look nice, you know, cute for the revolution.

This passage captures so much: Unferth’s mildly ironic, bemused attitude toward herself, her total misunderstanding as an 18-year-old of what she was in for on this trip, her boyfriend’s controlling tendencies, and the way we get a double-perspective on the book’s events: both the eighteen-year-old view and the older woman’s commentary on that view.

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Sex and the River Styx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Elizabeth Gilbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reviewing Joyce Carol Oates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Lives

First of all, if you are in any way interested in participating in the next Slaves of Golconda group read, make sure to go over to the site and vote on the next book. All are welcome — the more the merrier! You can join the group and post on the website, or just read along and participate in the discussion.

And now, a few words on Janet Malcolm’s book Two Lives, about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. I became a huge Malcolm fan after reading her incredible book The Silent Woman about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I love what she does, which is to mix regular biography with what you might call “behind the scenes” biography: telling the tale of how biographies get written. Books that think critically about biography have become a favorite little subgenre of mine, and I’m not entirely sure why, since I don’t read many biographies of the traditional sort. I think it may be that I like any sort of “behind the scenes” book about how books get written, and I just happened upon a number of experimental biographies, or whatever you want to call them, all at once, and I was hooked.

Two Lives focuses on, among other things, Stein’s and Toklas’s experiences in France in World War II. Both were Jews, so how did they survive living in German-occupied France? And why didn’t they leave when they could? The second question may be unanswerable except for guesses about the nature of Stein’s psyche, but the first question leads Malcolm into some interesting investigative journalism. She looks into their relationship with a man named Bernard Faÿ, who was, paradoxically, both anti-Semitic and completely devoted to Stein and Toklas. In Malcolm’s portrait, Stein comes across as someone who blithely trusts in the goodwill of the universe and the people around her, and generally with good reason, because she’s a person for whom things tend to work out. Well, that’s not actually true: both her parents died when she was young, a huge shock, and Malcolm argues that Stein responded by refusing afterward to acknowledge pain and suffering except in the most oblique of ways. So whatever was actually going on in her mind, and it seems likely the war years in France were very difficult for her, she pretended that all was well.

In addition to the World War II story, Malcolm describes the complicated relationship between the two women who lived together for something like forty years. Their relationship, like their war years in France, is a little mysterious; they were devoted to each other, Alice taking care of Gertrude and Gertrude happily allowing herself to be taken care of, but at the same time there are hints of darkness, of violent anger and fear. Stein was always the popular one, and people mostly put up with Toklas because if you cared about Stein, that’s what you had to do. Regardless of how Toklas felt about this, after Stein’s death, she remained devoted to her, working tirelessly to manage her writings and her reputation. Her relationship with the famous writer didn’t help her in her last years, though; she died penniless.

Malcolm also discusses Stein’s writing and the scholars who have made her their lives’ work. She tells the story of Leon Katz, an extraordinary lucky scholar who found notebooks Stein had kept while writing one of her most important works, The Making of Americans. Katz was able to interview Toklas about these notebooks and apparently discovered a bunch of juicy information. This interview took place in the 1950s, and Katz promised to publish his findings. Unfortunately, the Stein world is still waiting for him to do this. For some reason, he has not been able to bring himself to get the work out, much to the frustration of Stein scholars everywhere.

One of the most interesting sections of the book, to me, is reading Malcolm’s description of her feelings about Stein’s writing. That writing is, famously, impenetrable, at least to many readers. The Making of Americans, is widely acknowledged to be a masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece hardly anybody has read. It’s long, has no real plot, is full of repetition, and has passages like this:

They are all of them repeating and I hear it. I love it and I tell it. I love it and now I will write it. This is now a history of my love of it. I hear it and I love it and I write it. They repeat it. They live it and I see it and I hear it. They live it and I hear it and I see it and I love it and now and always I will write it.

Her method is to fixate on an idea and to work at it relentlessly, going over it again and again, repeating herself over and over, until she feels she has had enough, and then going on to the next thing. Occasionally, Malcolm writes, it veers into intelligibility and something closer to a traditional novel, but it never stays there long.

Speaking for myself, I haven’t quite decided if The Making of Americans falls in the category of Finnegans Wake, a book I feel I never need to read in my life, or in the category of Ulysses, a challenging book but one that’s worth tackling. I don’t know. The Stein scholars Malcolm talks with apparently love Stein’s most difficult, experimental writing, although Malcolm finds this a little hard to imagine, as do I.

At any rate, Malcolm’s book is an excellent introduction to the world of Stein and Toklas. It’s a relatively short book, but full of fascinating information on their lives and on Stein’s writing and the people who study it.

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