Monthly Archives: May 2011

Do I have to come home?

All is going splendidly here. The weather hasn’t been the best, but we have fit in most of what we wanted to do in the dry spells. Over the weekend was a trip to Killarney, which involved a walk to Ross Castle, a bike ride to Muckross House and a gorgeous waterfall. This week has meant more visits to the Dingle peninsula coastline and several archeological expeditions where we saw ancient churches and fortresses. We have also experienced a bit of the local music scene, with live music in a pub, which I understand takes place in many pubs on just about any night of the week. Last night we went to Sean-nos, which is old-style a cappela Irish singing. Since it was four Irish singers and about 40 or so Americans, I don’t think the evening was quite traditional — there were some cowboy songs and pop songs thrown in there as well.

One of the best things about this trip is that we have had more contact with local people than most tourists do, since there is a local man in charge of the school activities, and he introduces us to all kinds of interesting people. We have had various guides take us around to the historical sites, all of whom have been extremely knowledgeable and very, very nice. Yesterday after the students’ archeological tour was over, Hobgoblin and I went with the guide on an extended tour of lesser-known religious sites, which involved tramping through mud, climbing over barbed wire, and sharing fields with outraged cows. It was most awesome. I do not want to go home!

Unfortunately, the slow wireless isn’t letting me post pictures right now, but perhaps I will have time to later.


Filed under Books

The Irish Coast

There are some gorgeous beaches here. A couple more photos:


Filed under Books

The Dingle Peninsula

Hobgoblin is teaching, so I have a little time to post some photos. He usually has the camera, but I have a few pictures from my iPhone. This one is from a field trip we took with Hobgoblin’s class yesterday to the place where St. Brendan most likely set sail on his journey across the Atlantic. It was a gorgeous piece of coastline. Another view:

And here are a couple pictures from a walk I took this morning. It’s misty and chilly today, although I hear the sun is supposed to return tomorrow. I walked along the Dingle way, which is a path that takes you around the entire Dingle Peninsula. I only covered a couple miles, but it was a nice view of the countryside:

The trip has been quite good so far. I’ve had a chance to explore the town of Dingle and see a few sights, as well as spend time reading and taking naps. We are here for two weeks, and I like the leisurely pace of our visit.


Filed under Books

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!


Filed under Life

Open City, by Teju Cole

I just finished Teju Cole’s recent novel Open City last night, and although I had some doubts about it early on, it ended up winning me over and by the time I finished, I was loving it. Open City is often compared to W.G. Sebald’s books, and I felt about Cole the same way I feel about Sebald: I love the idea of the books but am not always sure about the execution. What bothers me at times is the reticence and emotional distance of the narrators. That is exactly what bothered me about Peter Stamm’s novel Seven Years. At times the writing in all these books crosses the line from being calm, quiet, and meditative into being dull.

But I do admire much in Sebald, and Cole’s novel finally won me over. It is about a man in his 30s, Julius, who is a psychiatrist in training and who spends his free time walking around New York City and, briefly, Brussels. The novel has no plot, but simply describes the narrator’s experiences and thoughts as he observes and interacts with people and with the city’s art and history. His thoughts keep returning to similar themes, so the various stories, descriptions, and meditations, rather than a plot line, provide the book’s coherence. Julius is fascinated by cities and the way their history is built in layers, with traces of the past existing underneath the present, like a palimpsest. As he walks, he notices traces of history: monuments and plaques and old buildings that don’t fit in their new neighborhoods. He describes the changes shops, buildings, and blocks have undergone. He is also interested in how people interact in cities, the way the crowds look and what it feels like to walk down streets and in and out of shops. He is extremely observant but is not only an observer; he often strikes up conversations with people or finds people talking to him. Although he comes across as reserved, he makes friends, or at least acquaintances, easily.

He also thinks about issues on a larger scale: the long and sad history of human violence, religious  and racial conflicts, the way identity is constructed and how that construction can lead to social and political tension. He has conversations with a recent acquaintance in Brussels about orientalism and east/west tensions, and the anger many immigrants in Europe feel at their often unwelcome reception and uncertain status. Inevitably, back in New York, he thinks about the World Trade Center and everything the empty space where the towers used to stand says about human conflicts that just won’t go away.

We also get his thoughts on his own history and personal experiences:  his relationships with his German mother and his Nigerian father, what it was like going to his boarding school in Nigeria and moving to America at 17, the racial tensions he experienced in both places, the grandmother he would like to reconnect with but can’t find. It’s in search of this grandmother that he goes to Brussels, but he only looks for her halfheartedly, and he doesn’t explain this reasons for his halfheartedness. I got the feeling as I read along, that there were a lot of things Julius wasn’t really explaining. He and a girlfriend have just broken up, and he describes his ambivalent feelings about her and his sorrow at their ended relationship, but there’s a sense he is not plumbing the depths of his feelings with us. He tends to stay on the surface of things, as one walking around a city observes from the outside and only gets brief glimpses at the life going on inside the houses and shops.

What makes this novel work is the way its themes and motifs weave their way in and out of the text, creating repetitions and echoes that resonate the whole way through. It’s easy to miss these connections if you read too quickly; this is a book that asks you to slow down and savor its images and juxtapositions. There is often a quietly ironic tone as one anecdote contrasts or obliquely comments on another one, and it’s a pleasure to follow the path of Julius’s thoughts, which are as suggestive as his walks, even if they are the same time disorderly and directionless.

Or perhaps the thoughts and the walks only seem directionless. There’s certainly a craft to creating the impression of drifting while at the same time actually getting somewhere. We don’t arrive at any new place or at some new realization or lesson, but we end up at a feeling of completion, of the pieces fitting together, the ideas connecting to one another. The novel reminds me of one of my favorite essays, “Street Haunting” by Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s tone is much lighter than Cole’s, but both writers use the occasion of a city walk to meditate on subjects large and small, moving (seemingly) effortlessly from the mundane to the philosophical in the space of a paragraph. It’s quite a trick to do that, and it’s a trick I admire very much.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Seven Years

My Ireland trip is fast approaching (this coming Thursday), and I’m losing my motivation to do anything but read and nap in preparation for vacation sloth. But I wanted to write something at least about Peter Stamm’s novel Seven Years before too much time passes. This novel is written in a distanced, emotionally-detached style while taking as its subject matter emotional detachment. It makes me wonder the extent to which those two things necessarily go together. Perhaps it is possible to write a heated, passionate novel about emotional coldness, but Seven Years is written in the first person from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know much about what he feels and wants, which makes a certain amount of detachment and distance in the writing inevitable.

The story is about a love triangle involving the narrator, Alex, his wife, Sonia, and Ivona, a woman with whom Alex has an inexplicable attraction — inexplicable to him as well as to everyone else who knows them — ever since he met her. Alex and Sonia meet in architecture school in Munich and go on to run an architecture business together. Their relationship begins in a halting, uncertain manner. There is more awkwardness than passion between them; it is as though they know intellectually that they are suited for one another rather than feeling it emotionally.

Alongside the development of this relationship is Alex’s conflicted, on-again, off-again obsession with Ivona, an illegal immigrant from Poland who works in a bookshop. Ivona is unattractive, everyone seems to agree, and also uninteresting. She has nothing of Sonia’s intelligence, style, and poise. She is described in harsh, unforgiving terms as lumpish and bovine. And yet Alex can’t forget her, and he keeps returning to her again and again through his courtship of and marriage to Sonia. Alex is cruel to Ivona and doesn’t seem to care much about it; he knows that she has latched onto him and pinned her hopes on his leaving his wife for her, but still he keeps coming back, not caring much what emotional turmoil she experiences.

This, as you can see, is one of those books where none of the characters are likable and there is no one to sympathize with, except perhaps Ivona, although even there I found her naivete and stubbornness irritating. I don’t mind at all not having anyone to like in the book, however, since the intellectual puzzle of the characters is interesting enough. Alex himself is the biggest mystery, both to himself and to the reader, but Sonia is a puzzle as well, what she knows about Alex and how much she cares. Both characters are living out the life society expects of them, running their business, acquiring a home, raising a child, but they do all this listlessly, carelessly, and only slowly and in the smallest steps do they discover who they are and what they want.

What I found disappointing about the book was that it was hard not to feel as detached and uncertain about the characters as they felt about each other and themselves. Detachment is interesting as a concept, but it doesn’t make for very engaging reading. Here is Alex thinking about Sonia’s past and her personality:

Sonia never did talk much. It often felt as though she had no previous life, or whatever it was had left no traces except in the photograph albums on her bookshelf, which she never took out. When I looked at the pictures, I had the sense that they came from another life. Now and then I asked Sonia about her time with Rudiger, and she gave me monosyllabic replies. She said she never asked me what I’d done before either. It doesn’t bother me, I said. After all, you’re mine now. But Sonia was stubbornly silent. Sometimes I wondered if it wasn’t that there was just nothing to say.

That there might be just nothing to say is an interesting proposition, although a sad one, but it’s interesting — in this novel at least — only in an abstract, analytical way. Still, Stamm captures well the state of not knowing oneself and the consequences that result. At the heart of the book is an emptiness that is frightening. It surely took some courage to try to capture that emptiness on the page.

For another take on the novel, see Michelle’s review of it at the journal Necessary Fiction.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Cycling update — with horses!

We had a beautiful weekend here in Connecticut, sunny with temperatures in the 60s and low 70s, and I was fortunate to be able to ride Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Sadly, my riding is not up to the level it was last year, and it’s not likely ever to reach that level this year, given the various interruptions I’m facing. (Although some of the interruptions are good ones — only 1 1/2 weeks until Ireland!) But still, I’m enjoying myself. I ride some on my own but often with friends, and I’ve found that riding a bike is a great context in which to have a conversation. It gives me at least an hour to talk, although often much longer, and it’s a low pressure situation: it’s not awkward if you’re not talking the entire time, because you’re busy doing something else: riding. You are free to be quiet and ride if you want. Or you can talk the entire time, and the interruptions — getting out of the way of traffic, letting a loud truck go by — don’t matter much. In fact, they offer time to think about the conversation and plan what to say next. The interruptions also make it easy to bring up a new topic without awkwardness. Conversations are also much more fun when you are pumped full of adrenaline. Everyone is wittier and laughter comes much more quickly when you’ve been working hard and are feeling both pleasantly tired and full of energy.

Yesterday’s group ride was an odd one, though. It was 60 very hilly miles, and I rode with four other people, including Hobgoblin. About halfway through, I was riding with a friend about a quarter mile ahead of the others, and we passed three horses and two riders coming from the other direction. I didn’t think much of it — we were in horse farm country. A couple minutes later, though, I heard a clopping noise behind me. My first thought was that someone’s bike was making some very strange noises, but then I realized that it was a horse. My second thought was that it was strange for a rider to be galloping down the left side of the road, into oncoming traffic and uncomfortably close to me. Then the horse passed me, at top speed, and I realized it had no rider. And then another horse galloped past me, also at top speed, also with no rider. My friend started to panic, and we pulled over to the side of the road as she told me horror stories about friends getting kicked by horses. We looked back, and fortunately there were no more horses galloping at us. We waited for the other riders to catch up, but they didn’t appear. Finally a woman on a horse — thankfully fully under her control — came along and told us there had been a bad accident. She rode on without giving us any more information than that.

This time I panicked along with my friend. I have heard way too often about bad accidents and cyclists, and, unfortunately, Hobgoblin tends to be accident prone. If anyone is going to have a run-in with a horse while riding a bike, it quite possibly could be him. I was having visions of horse/cyclist run-ins, ambulances, concussions, broken bones, everything you can imagine. We headed back down the road trying to keep calm, and you can understand my relief when I saw the entire group all upright, everyone’s bike in working order. It turns out the horses had gotten spooked by the cyclists behind me. One of them had thrown its rider, and it and one of the other horses took off down the road. Everyone watched as they galloped toward my friend and I, yelling at us to get out of the way, but we couldn’t hear anything. Fortunately, the horses weren’t interested in knocking us down. Unfortunately, the woman thrown from her horse was hit hard enough to crack her helmet, although she didn’t want help and seemed to be okay.

We felt concerned for the woman who had taken the fall, but the situation felt so bizarre we rode the rest of the way home laughing. I kept saying I know this is horse country, but I never expected to be chased by them! It’s really kind of funny the way strange things happen to you when you spend hours out on your bike. There’s no way of knowing what any ride will bring. I have learned, though, to steer well clear of horses out on the road, no matter how calm they seem.


Filed under Cycling