Thursday, August 31, 2006

More Elizabeth Taylor

I finished Elizabeth Taylor's The Sleeping Beauty recently, the second Taylor novel I've read in a few months. I like reading multiple books by the same author like this -- I did this also with Muriel Spark recently -- but I don't do it much. Too many other books by new authors I haven't read before are out there enticing me to try them. But spending a little more time with an author than just one book yields so many insights into the way that author works. To put it in boring English teacher terms, you can do some comparing and contrasting and draw some deeper conclusions.

I'm seeing about Taylor that she writes about middle-aged women very well; both books I've read have women of that age at their center. The Sleeping Beauty has a younger woman as a love interest -- the sleeping beauty herself, but at least as interesting is Isabella, a widow with a grown son, who hopes to be the love interest and is disappointed. In a Summer Season tells about a woman who has married a significantly younger man and how this enlivens and disrupts her rather sedate life. Taylor writes about middle-class sexual repression and expression extremely well. The Sleeping Beauty isn't set in a town called Seething for nothing. Isabella and her friend Evalie spend a significant amount of time and money on beauty treatments trying to make themselves look younger and more sexually attractive, all the while interfering when they can in the love lives of others. The class issue arises most clearly when Isabella insults her son's girlfriend, who is a nanny, and therefore unacceptable for her educated, talented son. Another character, Rose, does what she can to keep her sister Emily locked up in the prison of her home, keeping her from wandering out into the larger world where she might meet a man who will take her away.

And yet the surface of Taylor's novels is serene and quiet. Both books took a while to get some momentum, and, although events do happen in them, they don't happen often and they aren't described dramatically. These are books that you should read slowly, because if you rush through them, you might miss the subtle dynamics of a conversation, which is where the story lies. Taylor excels at writing scenes charged with emotion, but with emotion that is usually kept hidden, below the surface. She is at her best in The Sleeping Beauty describing a particularly excruciating tea with Isabella, her son, his girlfriend, and two other guests, an event that goes so horribly wrong I'm left cringing at the brutality of it, even though no actual violence occurs. Middle-class decorum is forever at odds with jealousy, fear, and fury. And hypocrisy -- Isabel and Evalie condemn gambling one moment and the next moment are whispering to each other about what horse to bet on. They both project self-satisfaction and self-righteousness, but their actions are, arguably, the cruelest in the novel.

I like the way Taylor shows the dark side of lives that seem so sedate and ordinary. Behind any normal-looking comfortable small-town or country home can lurk suffering and longing and regret. And most of all -- interesting stories.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be posting on this today or tomorrow, but I figure that if it’s supposed to be tomorrow, you all can come back and read this then. I’m also not going to do this book justice, since I read it in a rather distracted state of mind. I felt as I was reading that I should re-read in order to fully appreciate it, but I didn’t have the time.

At any rate, I enjoyed the novel very much. This is my first experience of Wells, and I’m tempted to read the two other novels in my edition, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. I’m curious what people make of the frame narrative – is there something complicated going on here, or is it simply by way of explaining and setting up the narrative to follow? Wells participates in an old tradition of frame narratives, whether it’s the frame story of escaping the plague in Boccaccio’s The Decameron or the multiple frame narratives that encircle the creature’s narrative in Frankenstein, or the explanation Defoe gives at the beginning of Robinson Crusoe that the narrative is a true one that Defoe had stumbled upon and decided to publish. Wells’s use is certainly not as complicated as Mary Shelley’s was, but the frame does give the reader a sense of the mysteriousness to come in the main narrative, and it tells us the interesting fact that Prendick “subsequently … alleged that his mind was a blank from the moment he escaped from the Lady Vain.” Did he find that his attempts to explain what he saw on the island were so impossible that he gave it up and simply said his mind was blank to avoid explanations entirely?

I’m reminded of Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” where Brown journeys into the woods, discovers the horrors that (supposedly) exist in the human heart, and returns home a changed man, unable to live at peace with his family again. And also Gulliver, who after his travels becomes a bitter, cynical man. In both of these books, and in Wells’s novel too, one of the central questions is about what it means to be human: are humans like the houyhnhnms or the yahoos, or neither? The ending of the novel is moving; Prendick lives in fear and horror of his fellow humans and isolates himself from people, devoting his time to scientific studies. He writes:

They say that terror is a disease, and anyhow, I can witness that, for several years now, a restless fear has dwelt in my mind, such a restless fear as a half-tamed lion cub may feel. My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another, still passably human, Beast People, animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert, to show first this bestial mark and then that.

At the heart of the novel, I think, is the conversation between Prendick and Dr. Moreau where Moreau explains the nature of his experiments. This dialogue is all about the relationship of human beings and animals – a topic that has fascinated writers since the time of Gilgamesh, another work that tries to define humanity by considering how people differ from the gods on the one hand and the beasts on the other. The question in Wells’s novel centers around pain – what it means to be able to feel pain and how we should respond to our own pain and that of others. Moreau says:

For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels … A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that [pain] is a little thing.

Pain is an aspect of animal experience, not human, according to Moreau; as humans separate themselves from the animal world, pain will carry less and less significance. That he brushes aside Prendick’s objections to his cruelty shows that he has lost something essential to his humanity and has become much less than an animal, which would never behave as cruelly as he has. By working so horribly on animal bodies and denying the significance of the pain they experience, Moreau shows his abhorrence of bodies in general – he desires to leave the body and all its weaknesses behind. But in denying the body, he perverts human nature into something it’s not – the body is as central to human experience as the mind.

Moreau cannot succeed in turning animals into humans to his satisfaction because he misunderstands what it means to be human and animal both. He says of his animal/human creations that:

Least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch – somewhere – I cannot determine where – in the seat of the emotions. Cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate, or fear.

He wants to drive what he sees as the beast out of the human, and yet what he considers “beast” – the body that feels pain and experiences instincts and cravings – is inseparable from the human. Prendick separates himself morally from Moreau when he recognizes the humanity of one of Moreau’s creations:

It may seem a strange contradiction in me – I cannot explain the fact --, but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes, and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity.

This is a redeeming moment for Prendick, who, rather than allowing this creature to enter Moreau’s torture chamber once again, shoots it. This is an act of mercy.

Okay – there is so much more going on in this novel, but I’ll leave it up to my fellow Slaves to point those things out.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Colette and her mother

I'm not that far into Judith Thurman's biography of Colette, maybe 60 pages out of 500, but she's married already -- the early years rush by in the biography, largely because there's a lot that's unknown about her early life. The chronology of how she met and got to know her first husband is unclear, for example (she married fairly young, at 20). I'm finding her an elusive figure as I read about her; the time is long enough ago (she was born in 1873), the place and customs different enough, and, most of all, the family dynamics and Colette's own personality odd enough, that I find myself more mystified than ever about who she is. I feel as though I can often worm my way into someone's life imaginatively -- no matter how far apart we might be in time and place and personality -- but not so with Colette, at least not yet. So far, she seems to be an elusive figure for the biographer as well, not least because Colette was known for exaggerating and embellishing and sometimes outright lying about her history. None of this lessens my interest in her; in fact, quite the opposite. I find myself wanting to know more and more about this mysterious figure.

Some of the most interesting parts of the biograhy are about Colette's relationship with her mother, which, as some bloggers have pointed out to me and Thurman describes in some detail, was extremely complicated. In many ways, it seems, Colette's mother, Sido, taught her much that was valuable, including a questioning attitude toward traditional morality and the patriarchy. Thurman writes,

If [Colette] never became a professional housewife, it was, in part, Sido's doing. Her ambitions for her daughter did not include drudgery ... the flash of defiance Colette saw in Sido's garden face became the light she wrote by. It had shown her, very young, that a woman's domestic burdens are incompatible with her creative freedom. And with Sido's encouragement she rejected those aspects of her mother's experience that Sido let her feel were demeaning, confining or sacrificial -- including motherhood itself.

Isn't that a great legacy? And yet, as I understand it, Colette was, at least at times, neglectful of her daughter. Motherhood can be confining, yes, but what to do when you've got a daughter who needs you? To learn from your mother that motherhood can be demeaning, confining, and sacrificial is bound to be a difficult, ambiguous lesson, one that could affect generations to come.

And here's another part of Sido's legacy: the jealousy and domination of Colette and her siblings. Here is Thurman again, on the wedding night Colette spent in her parents' house:

In the small house where [Sido's] daughter was losing her virginity, at least officially, the mother had not undressed for bed; had spent the whole night awake, evidently tormented and unhappy. She was unable to bear the thought of Colette's "going off with a strange man," or her initiation into an adult sexual life, and Colette was nearly unable to bear her mother's sadness.

When I came to this scene, I thought of Isak Dinesen's image for the ordeal of separation -- the Bible story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. "I will not let thee go," says Jacob to the Angel, "until thou blesseth me." Sido gave her daughter many inestimable gifts, but never the blessing of letting go.

We shall see, as I read on, what Colette makes of this complicated legacy.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My century

The good news about my century ride: it rained only about half of the time! Or maybe it was 2/3. I was chilly, but not dangerously cold! I had only one awkward run-in with an annoying guy! My neck and shoulders are killing me, but I can still move!

Actually, for all the rain and the temperatures in the 60s (60s make very nice riding weather -- when it's dry), the ride felt okay. It was only in the last 10 miles or so that I started to get impatient to get back to the car, and I know from experience that the last 10 miles of whatever length of ride I'm doing is the time I get impatient to finish up. I rode pretty slowly for me, averaging 14.5 miles an hour, although I think part of the reason for that is my reluctance to take the downhills fast when it's pouring rain and the road is slippery. I learned all too recently what it's like to scrape the pavement. That and I struggle to climb hills, needing stronger quad muscles. And since most of this course was either uphill or downhill, I wasn't going all that fast ever. Do you know how badly rain can hurt when it hits your face when you're going downhill at 30 mph? Pretty badly, I've found.

I rode most of the way on my own, and while having another rider along with me can make the time go faster, I like being able to keep my own pace. Riding 100 miles is stressful enough, but to try to keep up with another rider or to ride slower than I'd like and thus be out on the course longer, just adds to the stress. And until the very end, I'm not bored in the least; I'm happy to look around me, to think whatever I want, or, more often, to think nothing at all. I get into a meditative state when riding, where the most that's in my head is a song. I think this is one of the things that keeps me riding so much -- it lets me escape my brain for a while.

According to my heart rate monitor/bike computer, I burned 3,331 calories on the ride yesterday. Just think of all the eating that allows me to do! Okay, it's because I believe that cycling equals more opportunities to eat that I'm not skinny. That, and genetics.

The encounter with the annoying guy: I'm riding along and two guys pass me (we ended up passing each other over and over again throughout the day), and one of them turns to me and says, "How old are you?" I get annoyed and say, "Hey! How old are you?" He takes a while to answer, appearing to think that he's justified in asking me but not required to answer the question himself. He expresses amazement that I'm out doing the ride and I seem so young. This makes no sense to me. I figure since I'm out alone, I'm better off not being completely hostile, so once he tells me his age, I tell him mine, and things pretty much end there. I just make a point of not riding near him again.

The next century is three weeks from today. I'd like to do it, but I've already decided that if rain is in the forecast, I'm not.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Plot and character

In the comments to yesterday's post, Danielle asked a great question (as she so often does) about plot-driven vs. character-driven novels. I realize, now that I think about those terms, that the distinction is quite fuzzy. When I say "plot-driven," I tend to think of action stories, and the book that comes immediately to mind is The Da Vinci Code. And when I say "character-driven," I'm talking about books that go into a character's mind or multiple characters' minds in depth and focus on portraying a person or people in a complex way. I think, for example, of Proust. But this shows my biases, of course, because my example of a plot-driven novel is generally not considered great literature (okay, that's an understatement), and Proust is. Danielle also names Dumas as an example of a writer focused on plot, someone who's made the canon of western literature, sort of, but he also has a reputation as a super-fast writer who's fun but not so serious.

I think Danielle is right to question the distinction between these two types of novels because although the distinction may wind up being useful, it has a lot of problems. Plot and character always go together, of course, or you don't have a novel. Even if we're talking about Clarissa, which much be the ultimate character-driven novel, it has plot, even if it consists of only three events. In 1,500 pages. In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past, if you prefer) has plot, even if it doesn't follow any traditional story line (or does it? I don't know yet). Still, I'm reading along right now in Swann's Way and I want to know what happens to Swann and Odette. And plot-driven novels have characters, or there would be no plot to begin with, and if they are good novels, they'll have interesting characters.

But there are lots of novels that don't immediately strike me as one or the other. I just finished The Island of Dr. Moreau, which on first thought seems to me to be plot-driven, but then I start to think that the narrator in that novel is awfully interesting, and maybe it's his responses to the plot that are at the heart of the novel? I suppose many, many novels work well because of the way they connect plot and character -- the way that the plot comes out of the characters themselves, and then the characters remain interesting because of the ways they react to the plot. They don't necessarily emphasize one over the other; rather, they integrate the two. And many, many novels emphasize one or the other to a degree, but not so much that a reader could clearly say this one is plot-driven and that one character-driven. Ultimately, I see the terms as useful for making very rough and quick distinctions, sort of like the way we use genre designations that work to a certain extent but when you look at them closely they begin to break down. This novel is "chick-lit," that one is "speculative fiction," this one is a "historical novel," that one a "romance," this is "plot-driven," that is "character-driven." The terms are a good starting place but not a good ending one.

The thing that interests me most is the question of bias I started out with. Am I showing my bias toward character-driven fiction when I name examples of plot-driven novels that people tend not to take seriously, such as The Da Vinci Code? What are some great plot-driven novels? Or would you rather not use the label at all? Do the terms have any usefulness?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Comfort reading

I realized that I wrote something not quite true in yesterday's post: I wrote that losing myself in a plot is what I need in stressful times when I'm not reading well. But the truth is, I don't do particularly well with plot-driven novels. What I should have said is something more like "I need to lose myself in interesting characters or a well-drawn atmosphere or in careful emotional analysis." Because those are the things I enjoy most; I tend to get impatient with intricately plotted novels. Most often what draws me to a book are people and relationships. I am stereotypically female in this sense, aren't I? No fast-paced action -- give me a relationship story! I feel the same way about movies; I'll watch action movies, but I can get bored in the middle of them and sometimes fall asleep. But give me an interesting character, and even if that nothing happens to that character, I'll be happy. There are exceptions -- I loved the Phillip Pullman trilogy, His Dark Materials, which has a lot of plot, but it also has a lot of ideas, which is another thing that draws me to a novel. I liked Neal Stephenson's novel Quicksilver, which has lots of plot and ideas, but I wasn't so enchanted that I felt the need to pick up the next book in the trilogy. I got a little frustrated trying to keep the details straight in that book. Perhaps it's my bad memory; I do better analyzing relationships and character than keeping plot details straight in my head.

I liked your suggestions for comfort reading from yesterday's post very much; I would have picked up Anne of Green Gables immediately if I'd had a copy at home. I made the silly mistake of leaving them with my parents years ago, thinking they were children's books that I'd outgrown. Oh, no. And I very nearly picked up a mystery novel. We have a ton of Dorothy Sayers books around. I've read a couple and liked them. And Jane Austen is the perfect comfort read for me; familiar but never dull. I was tempted to look around to see if we have any Louisa May Alcott, which would have worked very well. But I was scanning the shelves yesterday and came across an Elizabeth Taylor novel I haven't read, The Sleeping Beauty, and it struck me as just the thing. I've read Taylor recently, In a Summer Season, and so I knew what to expect, and that I'd like it. And it's perfect -- set on the seashore and evoking a mysterious atmosphere, with complex characters whose lives seem quiet and serene but as the novel goes along the deeper levels of unhappiness reveal themselves. I like the slow movement of Taylor's novels, the careful attention to tone and mood and gesture. This sort of thing is much more absorbing to me than something fast-paced. Looking around online I see that Taylor has at least a dozen novels. I'll have to collect some more to have on hand for the next time I'll need something comforting.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Reading and stress

In one sense my reading's going fine lately -- I just finished H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau for the Slaves of Golconda, and I liked it very much; I'm a little ways into the biography of Colette and find her a fascinating subject; I'm nearing the end of Swann's Way and am eager to find out what happens to Swann and Odette; I'm liking Jane Kenyon's poems; and Frances Burney continues to write funny scenes in her journals and letters -- but in another sense, it's not. I'm not a very good reader in stressful times. I have trouble sitting still; I can't concentrate and my mind wanders; I find myself not absorbing very much; I read a page and realize I have no idea what I just read. I need to keep reading during these times -- because, really, what else would I DO with my time? -- but it doesn't absorb me in quite the same way.

I should probably pick up something light to get me through, something that I won't care too much about if I don't read very carefully. I'm not a frequent "light" reader though. I say that realizing it might sound like bragging, like I'm all great literature all the time, but I don't mean it to; I tend to be a slow, serious reader, not given to picking something up for the pleasure of losing myself for a while in a plot and tearing through it to the end. And this is a problem in times like this, when losing myself in a plot is exactly what I need, and I'm at a bit of a loss. I'll have to look around the house; surely we have something that would suit.

I find that in stressful times taking a bike ride is a better option than sitting down with a book. It's easier for me to lose myself in the physical activity of the ride -- to get rid of my worried, obsessive thoughts about whatever it is that's stressing me out while working hard climbing one of the local hills (or, more likely, climbing a dozen of the local hills) -- than to lose myself in a book. But I'll still be hunting around for the perfect book to pick up after my ride is over. We'll see what I find.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Well, I'd write a description of my crash in yesterday's group ride, but why should I, when you can find a great description over here? As far as crashes go, this one was mild, and I hope I've fulfilled my crash quota for a while. But, then again, I know that's not how it works. And I know this because of the Hobgoblin's experience with crashes.

Anyway, today's my last day at my old job, its own particular kind of crash, and I'm feeling harried. I'll be back to books soon.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Women and cycling

I've written before about being a woman rider/racer who's frequently riding/racing with men, sometimes with no other women along, sometimes with just a few. Overall, my experience with my particular club has been very positive. But I recently read Fendergal's post on her experience riding with men and recognized what she was talking about: men who compliment women for being strong even when their performance falls below that of the men, men who won't let a woman pass them but insist on jumping on her wheel or passing her right back, and most of all, men who offer unsolicited advice to women riders, assuming that they don't really know what they're doing. These things have happened to me before, and I find it annoying, although mostly I just do my best to ignore it.

The best response is to be strong enough to leave all those complimenting, advice-giving men behind, which is what I'd love to be able to do, but, alas, am not yet good enough to do. It's tricky for me sometimes when dealing with people who give advice, because I'm a new enough rider to need it, and I have learned things from other riders offering unsolicited advice. So I have to figure out whether a person giving me advice is doing so for obnoxious reasons -- because he figures he knows much better how to ride than I do and that he can condescend to offer some tips -- or whether the advice is well-intentioned and useful. And getting compliments on my riding is quite nice, and there's nothing wrong with compliments unless they have the wrong subtext: "you're strong -- for a woman."

I'm glad to have found Fendergal's blog because it's fun to read about another woman's experiences with training and racing, and I've been happy to find Itchy Bits as well -- a blog by a woman who's not racing now, although she has in the past, and trains seriously. I wonder if there are other women cyclists blogging out there?? Fendergal says the ratio of men to women in cycling is 10-to-1, so we need some solidarity.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A signpost book

Kate S. has written about signpost books, an idea I'm liking very much; the idea is that certain books, not necessarily the best books you have ever encountered, although maybe so, meet you at just the right time and speak to you in such a way that changes your subsequent reading. Here is Kate's definition, in which she distinguishes between formative books and signpost books:

What’s the difference between a formative book and a signpost book? A single book could certainly be both, but if I’m interpreting the definition properly, an aesthetic focus is central to the latter. Girish writes of films that are breakthroughs in that they help the viewer to better understand film as an art form and that provide lessons to take into future viewing experiences, not lessons to take into life generally. A book may be formative because of its emotional or psychological impact. But it would be a signpost book if it helps the reader to better understand what language can do, how a story or a novel or a poem works, thereby enhancing that reader’s appreciation for literature as an art form, and sending him or her off into the next reading experience equipped with a more discerning eye.

Isn't that an interesting way of thinking about a particular kind of reading experience? For all my talk about how literature can or can't change people, it's nice to get specific about it for a bit.

For me, a recent signpost book has been Virginia Woolf's diary. It has changed the way I read, and it has done so by aesthetic means. It's strange, however, to think of a diary as changing how I read because of its aesthetics, since diaries are so to-the-moment and generally aren't revised or worked over with care. And yet there are passages in the diary that are beautiful, and if they aren't crafted as a story is, they contain their own structure and attention to detail and innovative use of language. And a diary itself has an important structure to it: the structure of daily or nearly daily writing, with its implication that everyday details matter and deserve to be recorded.

I read this book in small sections, mostly a little bit each night before I went to bed, and I found that this is an excellent way of living with someone's diary for a while. It's not reading through their life at the pace they lived it, since I might read several entries each night, but it is reading the life slowly, getting a sense of daily rhythms over time. Some nights what I read wasn't memorable in the least; other nights I read passages that still stick with me. And this is how life is, with many days that disappear and some that remain in the mind.

I've continued reading other diaries, including Frances Burney's Journals and Letters, and I'm reading it in much the same way as I read Woolf's: a little at a time before I go to bed. I'm also appreciating the aesthetic value of the book; Burney takes great time and care to reproduce scenes from her life complete with long stretches of dialogue, and I can see how her journals and letters are practice for her novels. So, I think Woolf has taught me the value of reading diaries, a little of what they are capable of doing, and a good way to read them -- slowly, to get the feeling I'm living alongside an author for a while.

Monday, August 21, 2006

On Colette

So I’m reading Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, and already in the introduction I’m coming across all kinds of fascinating information. I’m particularly interested in what Thurman says about Colette and feminism; compared to actresses and courtesans Colette knew, Thurman says:

The feminists had less to attract her. By 1900, the women’s-rights movement in France had a solid history, a daily newspaper, and a distinguished following. But the combination of utopianism and Puritanism which marked so much feminist theory – and the denunciation of women who “collaborated” sexually with their oppressors – deterred many women otherwise eager for liberation from joining the cause. Colette’s antipathy to feminism was, in her youth, outspoken. In 1910, an interviewer asked if she were a feminist, and she looked at him, incredulous. “Me, a feminist? You’re kidding. The suffragettes disgust me. And if any Frenchwomen take it into their heads to imitate them, I hope they’ll be made to understand that such behavior isn’t tolerated in France. You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem.”

And yet it seems to me that Colette did something to advance the cause – or a cause – of feminism through her independence, her sexual adventurousness, and her experimentation with gender roles. I suppose the feminism of the day wasn’t ready for Colette; in its earliest stages, there may not have been room for Colette’s complicated, fierce, and courageous self. When feminism’s focus is on gaining the vote for women, Colette’s subversiveness might have seemed more troublesome than exciting:

What is so subversive about Colette’s first novels is their suggestion that gender, too, is subjective. She perceived instinctively that the child of either sex has desires classified too strictly as masculine or feminine: urges to penetrate, devour, and possess; to be cherished, dominated, and contained.

This strikes me as a fine feminist statement, although not necessarily one that would have advanced the feminist goals of the time. For some reason I find myself interested in women whom I would call feminist, but who rejected the label. Another one from a different time period is Mary McCarthy, who is such a model of strong, independent womanhood and who wrote in powerful ways about women, but who also rejected feminism. I’m not sure what to think about this – are these women failing to understand feminism broadly enough to see that they do, in fact, embody feminism and write in a way that could be called feminist? Or is it a failing of feminism to define itself broadly enough to include these difficult, complicated, powerful women?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Fountain Overflows

I have become a Rebecca West fan. The Fountain Overflows is a marvelously moving and entertaining read. I really had no idea what to expect when I picked the book up, knowing little about West or the novel beyond the fact that several bloggers recommended her. What I found is a novel with a captivating voice.

It’s about a family around the turn of the century – 19th to 20th – that is unconventional, musical, and troubled. The father is recognized as a great writer, but he gambles away any money he earns and doesn’t know how to make people happy and keep a job – and he isn’t interested in learning how. The mother had a promising career as a pianist earlier in her life, but now spends her time and energy caring for her family and teaching two of her daughters how to play. There are four children; the eldest, Cordelia, plays the violin and hopes for a professional career although the rest of the family is convinced that she has no talent. There are twins, Mary and Rose, and it is Rose who tells the story, writing as an adult looking back on her childhood. And then there is Richard Quin, the youngest, who has many talents, including a brilliant imagination and an uncanny ability in one so young to smooth out social awkwardness.

Although the story is clearly told from an adult perspective, I often forgot and thought I was hearing Rose’s voice as a child. One of the things I found so captivating about the novel is the way the narrator switches so easily and seamlessly from one mode to another: from what seems to be a child’s voice telling the story as it happens to the adult’s view of a childhood long gone by. When we are in the story, as opposed to getting adult commentary on the story, the novel’s language isn’t childlike exactly, but it does seem to be what Rose would be thinking and saying as a child and the language is such that I could imagine a precocious child using it.

Rose and her siblings are truly captivating characters. The children have witnessed and experienced much uncertainty and trouble, and they do their best to make sense of their situation, and the three youngest children, at least, cling together, comfort each other, and in many ways behave like adults, trying to take care of their mother, who can be more childlike than the children:

We were beginning to understand that Mamma would in some respects always be younger than we were, perhaps because she had not had as trying a childhood as we had had, and that for her sake we had sometimes to treat her with positive low cunning, to get round the fact that she was supposed to be older than us in all ways instead of just a few.

They are future artists in training, devoting themselves to their music. They are also social misfits, partly because of their unconventional family history, partly because of their eccentricity. This is true for everyone except Cordelia; while the younger children take their isolation and their social ostracization as a natural state, Cordelia fights against it.

I often laughed as I read about the children’s imaginations, their games, and made-up stories. And the description of the tight-knit family bond, at least among the mother and the three younger children, was moving – it’s enough to make you want to be a part of this family, as troubled as it is. But most of all, the pleasure of this book lies in following Rose’s childhood – and adult – attempts to make sense of her world. I didn’t want to leave the company of her intelligent, imaginative, passionate mind.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

On reading and life

There have been a number of posts on litblogs lately that are largely about the relationship of literature and life: here’s a post from Dan Green’s The Reading Experience on reading with a kind of aesthetic distance versus reading in order to learn how to live. And here’s a response from Scott Esposito from Conversational Reading. And here’s a post from Stefanie’s So Many Books on the revolutionary potential of literature. The larger question in all these posts seems to be about what a writer can do and what effect a book can have. Do we read for aesthetic pleasure? Do we read to learn something about life? To change our thoughts or actions? Can literature affect anything outside the world of the text?

I don’t know what I think about the revolutionary power of literature, although Stefanie offers a powerful example of revolutionary possibilities in her post. I suspect that the changes that occur from reading and writing are small but powerful, but that figuring out what causes what is too complicated to sort through. It’s not often that a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes along and appears to make a significant change in people’s ways of thinking and in politics. And even the effects of that book are debatable. But who’s to say how the little changes that reading and writing cause work together and what they add up to?

Dan Green argues against the idea that authors can teach anyone how to live or how to act, and says that artists can tell us about art but cannot necessarily impart wisdom more readily than anyone else might: “I've never really understood why we would want to turn to poets or novelists for insights on ‘how to live.’ What has given them some special dispensation to pronounce on such a topic?” To a certain extent, I think that’s true: it strikes me as a mistake to see artists as having an advantage in the pursuit of truth and wisdom. This sets us up for perpetual disappointment at an artist’s flaws and weaknesses. But I tend to be someone who hopes for wisdom from artists anyway; I don't think they have a "special dispensation" to pronounce on how we should live, but they do have something to tell us about life -- the question is figuring out what that is.

Dan talks about some things he thinks we can learn from literature: the contingency and mutability of existence, and a manner in which to question the status quo. I think, also, that art can teach us to pay attention to the world. It’s not so much what an author says about life that I find valuable, but rather the awareness an author brings to existence. I might or I might not emulate a moral ideal I find expressed in a book, but I do hope to emerge from a book seeing things that I hadn’t seen before, paying closer attention to an aspect of life I’d overlooked. I think that learning to see is ultimately a moral lesson, since granting someone or something our attention is a step along the way toward acting responsibly toward that person or thing. An author might not be able to teach me how to live, but if she can teach me how to see, I’ve learned something valuable.

I’d question the distinction between aesthetic appreciation and passionate, engaged reading. Why do these two things have to be opposed? Aesthetic appreciation doesn’t have to imply distanced observation and detachment. As I’ve learned from Elaine Scarry, formal beauty can inspire a powerful emotional response that can lead to thoughts about equality and justice. It’s possible that the more I understand an author’s craft, the more capable I am of passionate response to the work and that response can possibly teach me something about life. Those things won’t necessarily take place in the same moment, but I often read a poem and respond viscerally, and then re-read it and begin to understand the crafted nature of the poem, its artistry, but I’m still responding emotionally and my aesthetic insight can add to my emotional response. I don’t see why aesthetic understanding has to imply gaining a critical distance that is never bridged to bring one back to an emotional closeness to the work.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Poems and personas

Stefanie has an interesting post on the relationship of autobiography and fiction and the "I" of poetry -- which, she was taught, is not to be conflated with the "I" of the author. I was taught the same thing, and I have taught that idea in literature classes myself, and I believe it, although I think it's complicated. I suppose what I really think is that the "I" in the poem is never the same as the poet, but that in some poems the "I" is closer to the poet than in others. I do think there is something to be gained by considering the relationship between poet and poem; I don't like the idea of walling off the two completely.

I think of Anne Sexton as an interesting case: what do we with "confessional" poets who set out to write about themselves in very personal ways? Even here, in confessional poetry, the "I" of the poem is not Anne Sexton, but the relationship between the poem and the person is awfully interesting and you couldn't really fully understand Sexton's work without thinking about her life. But it would also be misleading to assume that the poet and poem fully merge; Sexton still uses a persona. All this makes poetry reading interesting, I think, since a reader can both think about the poems as poems -- how do they work or not work as aesthetic objects? -- but then can also think about the relationship of the poems to the life, and can therefore have a number of ways of approaching the poem, making the reading experience richer.

Ultimately, I think that fully walling off poem and poet can hide a whole lot of stuff that is really important in literary history: I think it matters that Anne Sexton is a woman writer who is writing against a largely-male tradition of highly formal, abstract, impersonal poetry. She helped open the door to writing that is not only personal (personal in a complicated way, of course), but that discusses women's experiences in a manner that is new and vital and important.

The other part of the question, for me, is whether there is a clearly-definable "I" belonging to the poet that can match or not match up with the "I" of the poem. In other words, is there even a definable self that can be captured in poetry? You could say that all versions of the self are fictional, and that even if a writer is trying to write about herself as accurately as possible, what she produces is automatically just another fiction, because there is nothing else.

I'm kind of partial to that idea myself. At any rate, Stefanie closes this with question about the wall between poem and poet: "Or should I replace the wall with a split-rail fence covered in morning glories?" Yes!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Utterly random notes on a bunch of things I'm not sure about

I'm not sure what it says about the job I'm leaving that some of my busiest days ever are those spent getting ready to quit. It's been an easy job, sometimes boringly and unsatisfyingly easy. At times, that's a good thing, as I've had plenty of time for my non-work interests. But ultimately I can't stay in it. I need to do something that feels more meaningful. That said, I'm extremely grateful that people at my old job are letting me take a leave of absence, so I can return to it if the risky new job doesn't work out. So all that worry about whether to take the new opportunity? I needn't have worried. If the new thing doesn't work out, I'm back at the old, familiar, easy thing. No problems. I realize I'm lucky.

I'm also not sure what to think about the Booker prize long list, so maybe I won't think anything about it at all. I feel ambivalently about prizes, because on the one hand they are handy ways to pick out a new book to read -- hey, why not read last year's Booker prize winner? A bunch of people thought it was good, after all -- and on the other hand, I know that prizes often have little to do with actual literary quality and the whole notion of "actual literary quality" is nebulous if not meaningless. I'm attracted to prize winners because how can I help it after all? The names are everywhere. And yet I don't feel good about being impressed by them.

I'm not sure about the time trial I'm riding in this evening -- I said I would do it because there's a party afterwards and I don't want to just show up at the party without having ridden in the race, and would like to go to the party -- so I'm racing again when I'd thought I wouldn't until next spring. It's just a time trial, me against the clock, but riders leave in 30-second intervals which leaves plenty of time for people to catch up with me and pass me, which isn't much fun. That's exactly what I wanted to avoid when I decided to stop racing for a while.

I'm not sure what nonfiction book I want to read next: I picked up Martha Nussbaum's book Love's Knowledge which sounds great, but I'm worried about picking up a difficult read when I've got a busy few weeks ahead of me. I'm leaning toward the biography of Colette I've got as something a little easier, but still very, very interesting.

I am sure there are other things I'm not sure about, but I have to run off to a meeting about the fact that I'm leaving my job ...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


My latest book of poetry begins this way: "There's just no accounting for happiness, / or the way it turns up like a prodigal / who comes back to the dust at your feet / having squandered a fortune far away." I read this, a poem by Jane Kenyon called "Happiness," and I know I'm in good hands, and the book's going to be a good read. I've only read three poems in Kenyon's Otherwise, but I know I'm going to love it. I've often thought, especially recently, that happiness is not a good goal, it's not something to strive for, it's not something that can be obtained, but I still need a reminder. It's much better to think of happiness as something completely out of our control, something that visits us occasionally and that we are best off being grateful for without clinging to it.

The poem ends this way: happiness "even comes to the boulder / in the perpetual shade of pine barrens, / to rain falling on the open sea / to the wineglass, weary of holding wine." I like the thought that happiness can come to natural objects and inanimate objects, and that it itself is like a natural force, something that simply happens to us. We have no say in happiness, just as we have no say in the weather.

This poem about happiness makes me think about the nonfiction book I just finished, Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just, which I've posted on so often and quoted from so extensively, I might have a rather large percentage of this short book up on my blog. Scarry has nothing to say about happiness, at least not that I can remember. She may not even use the word in her book. But she does talk about the quality of aliveness that encounters with beauty can create for us: "Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living." This sounds to me like a much better goal than happiness: to fill one's life with beauty, which can make one feel more alive. This might have something to do with happiness, it might not, but that hardly seems to matter. What are we doing on this earth but living, so why not try to live more fully?

Part of Scarry's argument is that seeking beauty is not a self-indulgent or solipsistic pursuit. In fact, quite the opposite. Encounters with the beauty can help us get outside our own minds and begin to care about others. She says beauty can cause a "radical decentering"; to explain this, she quotes Simone Weil: beauty requires us "to give up our imaginary position as the center ... A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions." Here is Scarry's gloss on this: "It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us." There is something very freeing about the thought of giving up the imaginary position at the center of the world; perhaps the best goal is not seeking happiness for oneself, but seeking ways to leave the self behind.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

On book reviews

I've found since I've begun blogging that book reviews from traditional media sources matter to me less and less. I've kept a list of books I'd like to read for quite a while now, many of the books coming from book reviews and some coming from recommendations from friends or my reading in various non-review places. But the list was never very long, and I wouldn't add to it frequently. Since I've begun blogging, however, the list has grown at a frightening pace. I now have 150 books on my to-be-read list, which I recognize isn't all that many compared to the lists many of you probably have, but is probably five times as long as my list from my life pre-blog. And it's continuing to grow at that fast rate, so that by the end of the year, my list might have doubled. Hmmm ... should I find a way to get that list under control? Maybe not. Maybe it should just be a list of possibilities, not things I'm absolutely going to read so as not to pressure myself, but things I might read, if the time comes when the books feel right.

I think it's the different sort of writing I come across on book blogs that inspires me to add books to my TBR list when traditional book reviews don't as often. I'm very interested in what reading a book feels like. I want to know what the experience of being immersed in a particular book will do to a reader. I'm interested in knowing about the story, the setting, the characters, the ideas, the writing, and all that I can get from traditional book reviews, but I also want to know about the book on a more subjective level. What did it do to you? How did you feel when you read it? And answers to these questions I'm much more likely to find on book blogs, where people don't have to follow conventions of formality and don't have the same pressure to keep themselves -- their personal experiences and stories -- out of the writing. Not all traditional book reviews are that cut and dry, I realize, but I'm much more likely to find personal, impassioned writing elsewhere, and that, I think, is what I really want.

Litlove, in her recent post on the blog genre, gets to the heart of what I want when she says that "blogging always offers a pattern of the mind that thinks, reflects, sifts information, analyses, distinguishes, recommends, enthuses. No matter what format the blogging takes, the blog reader receives a very intimate and immediate contact with a vibrant subjectivity, that is engaging with the world in the way that seems most natural and most enlivening to him or to her." Reading this sort of writing -- about whatever it is a writer finds most enlivening -- enlivens a reader too. I read book blogs, and I feel like I'm encountering a mind impassioned by reading and generously sharing that enthusiasm, and I'm inspired to respond, sometimes by writing comments, and sometimes by adding books to my TBR list. I've always been excited about reading, but now having been a book blog reader for a while, I find myself even more excited about all the great books out there. I'm having that experience in the bookstore less and less where I'll wander around and feel like nothing is speaking to me, no book is calling out to me to read it. Now I am much more likely to be overwhelmed with the choices.

This is not to say that I don't read traditional book reviews anymore, because I do, but I'm much more likely to skim and skip articles, and turn instead to the blog world to see what's out there.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Litlove's meme

From Tales from the Reading Room, here's a new book meme:

1. First book to leave a lasting impression? I think it would be the Little House on the Prairie series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read those books so many times I practically had them memorized. I was so fascinated by life on the prairie, I read them looking for every detail I could find that would shed some light on what the Ingalls' family life was like. And I learned something about independence and resourcefulness from Laura. I liked the quiet confidence the character projected.

2. Which author would you most like to be? That's tough because so often authors have interesting lives of the sort I wouldn't want to live through. But I think Jane Austen would be a good choice. There's something about living a quiet, uneventful, undramatic life, writing works of stunning genius and not making a big deal out of it, that appeals to me.

3. Name the book that has most made you want to visit a place. Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods, about the Appalachian Trail. Even though he had some terrible times on his hike, the book still makes me want to be on the trail, and to stay on the trail for the months and months it takes to hike the whole thing. Anything I read about the Appalachian Trail makes me want to go there.

4. Which contemporary author will still be read in 100 years time? Of all the questions in this meme, this one has stumped me the most. Perhaps it's because I've read too many books that were immensely popular in their own time, but then fell out of the literary canon. So I think if we could find out the answer to this question, we'd probably we surprised. I'd like for Kazuo Ishiguro to make it.

5. Which book would you recommend to a teenager reluctant to try ‘literature’? In spite of having taught 18-year-olds for quite a few years now, I have absolutely no confidence in any recommendation I could make to a teen who isn't a big reader. I will say that I read -- devoured -- Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy recently, and would recommend it to anyone, of any age.

6. Name your best recent literary discovery. Hmmm ... Mary Oliver? Jane Hirschfield? Rebecca West? Let's go with Rebecca West. I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying The Fountain Overflows.

7. Which author’s fictional world would you most like to live in? How about living in the world of Jaspar Fforde's Thursday Next books? At least people care about literature there. A lot.

8. Name your favorite poet. Right now it would be Mary Oliver. I'm excited to read more though -- there's so much about the poetry world I don't know.

9. What's the best nonfiction title you've read this year? Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just. It's, well, beautiful. I also liked Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading very much.

10. Which author do you think is much better than his/her reputation? I'm going to answer this in a different way than the question implies: I think there are a lot of eighteenth-century novelists, particularly women novelists, who are dismissed as being merely "pre-Austen," but are really great writers and deserve attention. Frances Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Hays, and Maria Edgeworth are examples.

Thanks for the great questions litlove!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

My books are talking

This is getting quite strange. I was reading Elaine Scarry's book recently where she talks about the gaze: whether gazing at a beautiful person or object can harm she/he/it, and then I turned to Proust for a while, and he was talking about the same thing! Not whether the gaze causes harm or not, but how gazing works for both the gazer and the gazed upon. I'm reading these two books at the same time purely by accident; I had no idea they spoke to each other so well.

Scarry takes up the argument against beauty that "when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object." She quickly dispenses with the idea that gazing at beautiful objects might cause them harm, and takes up the issue of gazing at beautiful people, which is more complicated. She doesn't dwell on the exact nature of the problem, but the idea is that by gazing at a beautiful person, the gazer turns that person into an object existing for the enjoyment of the gazer and denies the subjecthood of the person gazed upon. All the power, in this view, is with the one gazing, and none with the gazed upon. She counters this view by reminding us that:

It is odd that contemporary accounts of "staring" or "gazing" place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at, for the vulnerability of the perceiver seems equal to, or greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived. In accounts of beauty from earlier centuries, it is precisely the perceiver who is imperiled, overpowered, by crossing paths with someone beautiful.
And then Scarry gives a wonderful example:

Plato gives the most detailed account of this destabilization in The Phaedrus. A man beholds a beautiful boy: suddenly he is spinning around in all directions. Publicly unacceptable things happen to his body. First he shudders and shivers. Then sweat pours from him. He is up, down, up, down, adopting postures of worship, even beginning to make sacrifices to the boy, restrained only by his embarrassment to be carrying out so foolish an activity in front of us. Now he feels an unaccountable pain. Feathers are beginning to emerge out of his back, appearing all along the edges of his shoulder blades. Because this plumage begins to lift him off the ground a few inches, he catches glimpses of the immortal realm. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the discomfort he feels on the inside is matched by how ridiculous he looks on the outside.
So the gaze, in this account, is not a form of control over the object gazed upon; instead, it is a way to access beauty which can leave the gazer vulnerable and foolish, which can wrest self-control from the gazer, which can transform the gazer into something new.

Scarry says that the encounter with a beautiful person or object can affirm the aliveness of both -- the one encountering beauty feels more alive himself or herself and the beautiful person or object "has conferred on it by the beholder a surfeit of aliveness: even if it is inanimate, it comes to be afforded a fragility and consequent level of protection normally reserved for the animate." She says:

Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness or (in the case of objects) quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection.

Beauty is, then, a compact, or contract between the beautiful being (a person or thing) and the perceiver. As the beautiful being confers on the perceiver the gift of life, so the perceiver confers on the beautiful being the gift of life.

And then I come to Proust. When he writes, "And -- oh, the marvelous independence of the human gaze," you can imagine how I perked up. In the passage where he first sees Mme. de Guermantes, he writes about the gaze as that which transforms the gazer. First, he praises the gaze itself:

And -- oh, the marvelous independence of the human gaze, tied to the face by a cord so lax, so long, so extensible that it can travel out alone far away from it -- while Mme. de Guermantes sat in the chapel above the tombs of her dead, her gaze strolled here and there, climbed up the pillars, paused even on me like a ray of sunlight wandering through the nave, but a ray of sunlight which, at the moment I received its caress, seemed to me conscious.

Mme. de Guermantes's gaze, here, does not claim control or power over the narrator; rather, it feels like a conscious ray of light -- it is life-giving, instead of life-taking. It is a caress, a recognition and celebration of the narrator's existence. And then the narrator gazes at her:

I felt it was important that she not leave before I had looked at her enough, because I remembered that for years now I had considered the sight of her eminently desirable, and I did not detach my eyes from her, as if each gaze could physically carry away, and put in reserve inside me, the memory of that prominent nose, those red cheeks, all the particular details that seemed to me so many precious, authentic, and singular pieces of information about her face ... I was impelled to consider it beautiful by all the thoughts I had brought to bear on it ...
The narrator's gaze upon Mme. de Guermantes does two things: it bestows on her qualities of beauty and authenticity -- it affirms her value and aliveness -- and it changes the narrator. It creates in him memories he will carry with him forever. When he sees her, he is moved to say (and beauty does move us to action, in this case, to speaking out loud):

"How beautiful she is! How noble! What I see before me is indeed a proud Guermantes and a descendant of Genevieve de Brabant!" And the attention with which I illuminated her face isolated her to such an extent that today, if I think back to that ceremony, it is impossible for me to see a single one of the people who were present except for her and the verger who responded affirmatively when I asked him if that lady was really Mme. de Guermantes.

The memory of Mme. de Guermantes he now carries with him will affect his perceptions of the world. He will remember, also, Mme. de Guermantes's gaze upon him, a memory that becomes a part of his being:
Recalling, then, the gaze she had rested on me during Mass, as blue as a ray of sunlight passing through Gilbert the Bad's window, I said to myself: "Why she's actually paying attention to me." I believed that she liked me, that she would still be thinking of me after she had left the church, that because of me perhaps she would be sad that evening at Guermantes. And immediately I loved her ...
This is a scene (p. 180-1 in the Davis translation) of the gaze as an action that transforms the gazer and the one gazed upon -- it transforms them, as Scarry says, by affirming their value and aliveness. It is a reciprocal event, a compact, bringing benefits to both.

I couldn't believe my luck in coming across Scarry's philosophical proposition and then Proust's embodiment of that proposition in the same day. And I'll add that as I write about what I read in this blog, I feel that I'm living out Scarry's idea that beauty provokes people to action, specifically to reproduce or to imitate the beauty they encounter: when I encounter something beautiful in my reading, I can reproduce it here and then reflect on it -- it's a way of being an active rather than passive reader and it's a way of perpetuating the beautiful books and passages I come across.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Today's ride

It was a gorgeous day for cycling; when I set off on my ride it was mid-60s, and when I returned, mid-70s, low humidity, clear skies. I couldn't have asked for anything better. So it's good I decided to do a long ride: 65 miles, a little over 4 hours. The route takes me north, skirting a small city at the beginning, and then heading up into small towns and countryside. I had views of fields and woods and farms. I like riding from one town to another; somehow that makes me feel like I'm covering some significant distance (well, my muscles remind me of that too). After the small city, the only part of the ride that isn't pretty, I rode through or skirted by six towns, and one of those I rode through twice, once on the way out and once returning. The town where I stopped to refill my water bottles was quintessential New England, with a prep school, antique shops, art galleries, pretty colonial houses, the white church and steeple, and the Appalachian Trail running nearby. I didn't linger long, however; my muscles cool down fast and getting back on the bike can be hard.

I'm training to ride my first century (100-mile ride) on August 27 -- this is an organized ride with a set route, food and water stops, and lots of people. I've done this ride 3 or 4 times before; I've planned to do it every year for the last 6 years or so, but sometimes other things get in the way -- bad weather, fatigue, busyness. So that means I have two more weeks to train. My plan is to do 3 or 4 short, easy rides this coming week, to ride another long one, this time 80 miles, next weekend, and then to take it easy the week before the century. I've found that if I do at least a couple rides in the 60-80 mile range, I'm fine. There are two more centuries in September I'd like to do; one of them has a 125-mile ride that I've done once before. We'll see about that one.

Friday, August 11, 2006

On Beauty

The structure of perceiving beauty appears to have a two-part scaffolding: first, one's attention is involuntarily given to the beautiful person or thing; then, this quality of heightened attention is voluntarily extended out to other persons or things. It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level. Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care: if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us.

From On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry

Poetry Friday: Jane Hirschfield

I finished Jane Hirschfield's book of poems Given Sugar, Given Salt recently, and thought the book excellent. I've posted on a few of the poems here, here, and here. The poems are quiet and meditative and beautiful; they often contemplate objects and our relationship to them, as, for example, in this poem entitled "Ink," which begins: "Like all liquids, / it is sister to chaos and time: / wanting always / to lose itself in another, / visible only when held in embrace." As so often in a Hirschfield poem, the ink here is both something clearly other and foreign to human consciousness ("sister to chaos and time") but also something that, like a human being might, wants to "lose itself in another."

There is a quiet confidence in these poems, a sense of calmness and serenity. Reading them feels like a form of meditation. They slow you down; you might pick up the book expecting to breeze through a few pages, and you will find yourself re-reading and contemplating what you read, and looking up from the book to ponder, and before you know it, you are staring off into space, deep in thought or feeling. The poems do touch on drama and passion, but underlying those experiences is a deep stillness.

As I've noted before, Hirschfield is a Buddhist, and that sensibility pervades the book: the poems exhibit a calmness in the face of unceasing change and suffering. If I could read poems for consolation, I would turn to Hirschfield, who would remind me, I think, that everything changes, and that my troubles are small and fleeting.

Here's one more poem, entitled "Optimism":

More and more I have come to admire resilience.

Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam

returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous

tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,

it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.

But out of such persistance arose turtles, rivers,

mitochondria, figs -- all this resinous, unretractable earth.

For my next poetry read, I plan to take up Jane Kenyon's book Otherwise.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A meaningful mistake

I'm pausing from reading The Fountain Overflows to note that in my last post I said the story is narrated from the point of view of a child, Rose, which isn't true at all: the story is narrated by Rose as an adult, looking back on her childhood. But the narrator only very occasionally refers to her adult self; most of the time, the story feels as though it's told by a child. I get lost in the child's world, and when Rose the adult speaks, I'm only momentarily brought up out of that world before I sink into it again. No wonder I wrote that it's from a child's perspective; the voice moves so seamlessly from child to adult and back again.

And what a voice the child-Rose has: intelligent, imaginative, knowing and grown-up, and yet sincere and childlike too.

Or is it the other way around: knowing and childlike, and yet sincere and grown-up too?

Okay, now back to the book.

The Fountain Overflows

This book is delightful. I'm maybe 1/3 into it, and I'm particularly loving its portrayal of childhood. The story is told from the perspective of Rose, a child, who narrates the story of her family -- two rather unusual and difficult parents and her three siblings. Check out this passage:

Together we met a lot more made-up animals, or rather discovered that a lot of real animals were made-up ones too. Once we went as far as Richmond Park and found a vast empire of rabbits who had odd political troubles, and a small and aristocratic community of deer who were terrible snobs. Papa overheard us talking about them, and explained that the older deer were evidently trying to preserve the Habsburg system of protocol, while the young ones wanted to introduce the easier German and English system. We instantly recognized that was true.

This is the view Rose's mother has of children, as narrated by Rose (and I think perhaps this is West's view too):

Moreover she understood children, and knew that they were adults handicapped by a humiliating disguise and had all their adult qualities within them.

Yes, but the adults in the novel have a lot of childlike qualities too, or at least they understand some things about chldren very well and think about the world in ways some might call childlike. Often the adults seem more childlike and the children more like adults. Rose often has a world-weary perspective, which she must, since her difficult family has taught her much already.

At any rate, an extraordinary novel about children and family.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My decision

I've decided to give the new job a try. I'm still worried about it, and I'm a compulsive worrier, so I'll have to work on figuring out how to stay focused on what I need to be doing rather than obsessing about the future. But I just can't see staying with the same old safe, awful thing. I just don't like to turn down opportunity.

This may mean I don't blog as often, as I'll be busy getting used to the new job, but I hope it doesn't mean cutting back too much, as I can't even tell you how much fun it's been to write here every day.

But I still can't think about books. I might try to settle down with a novel this afternoon, but when big events loom over me, I just can't concentrate on reading. I'm hoping I get back to a more normal state soon.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Just a little bit of a crisis

A job crisis. (No, I can't just enjoy my anniversary, can I? It has to be accompanied by a career crisis.) I'm not thinking anything about books right now. I'm faced with a choice about jobs that I'm having a lot of trouble making: I can stay with a job that's steady but that I don't particularly like, or I can take something new that carries some risk. There are good and bad things about both decisions. And when it comes to what I want out of a job? I have no idea. Or maybe it's that the things I want are completely contradictory.

At any rate, I'll be back with book talk when books start to matter again, which I'm guessing will be soon.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A cycling post

One of the reasons I began racing is that I couldn't stand being a spectator-wife at races any longer. There were other reasons, of course -- wanting to try it out, because it looked like fun, to improve as a cyclist -- but I did get tired of seeing so many husbands/boyfriends out racing and wives/girlfriends on the sidelines watching. Compared to men, there aren't many women who race. Those who do almost always got into it because of their husbands/boyfriends who also race. This is certainly true in my case. I'm not certain why there are so few women who race. I'm guessing women aren't pushed to be competitive and aren't encouraged to devote a lot of time to athletics in the way that men are; even though it seems like this dynamic must be changing, it's still there. I think some women either enjoy riding or might enjoy riding on the recreational level, but don't consider putting the extra time into it to begin racing. Or they don't have the extra time -- they have childcare responsibilities, perhaps, that keep them busy.

And I'm happy I began racing. But now I'm getting tired of it. I think I will pick it up again next season, but right now I'm beginning to feel burnt-out and I need a break. I had the chance to race last Tuesday evening at my local weekly criterium, but I decided to sit out. I'm tired of pushing myself so hard. The other riders, I think, were improving faster than I was, so it was becoming harder and harder to keep up with them, and I'd had enough of working my butt off to stay with pack for only part of the race, sometimes for as little as a lap or two. There are some riders who are at my level or even below it who are still out there racing, so perhaps this is a failure of will or drive on my part. But this is supposed to be fun, and if I'm not having fun, it doesn't make sense to keep doing it.

So I'm back to being a spectator. I went to the race last Tuesday to watch the Hobgoblin ride (and I like watching him race, don't get me wrong), and I sat around with wives and girlfriends and filled them in on how cycling races work. I felt the need to tell a couple of the women that I'm usually in the race myself, but I wasn't happy with myself for that. Why do I have to make a big deal out of it?

When it comes to difficult, challenging things like racing, it's hard for me to figure out if I should push myself to do it or not. Which do I like least, sitting around watching a race and knowing I could have been in it, or going through the pain of racing? If I keep racing, will I be glad I stuck with it, or will get even more tired and burnt-out? I've heard women racers say that they need more women out there on the race course to increase the level of competition -- it's no good being in a race with a really small field of riders -- and I really want to help them out. But wanting to help the cause of women racers only gets me so far. I need to feel the interest in racing for its own sake.

I'm glad there is next season to look forward to: I can tell myself I'll have recovered the drive to race by then and in the meantime I just need to rest. I'll still be riding -- I haven't lost the desire to do that -- but what I want is to ride at my own pace, without the pressure of keeping up with someone else.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

To all of you who like reading many books at once, have you seen this?

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

I recently finished A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka, which turned out to be a fun, if occasionally frustrating, read. I began it on vacation -- it seemed like the perfect vacation book -- and finished it shortly afterward. And it was the perfect vacation book, fast-paced, funny, entertaining.

First the good things: the characters are lively, the writing is interesting, quirky, and amusing, and the story absorbing. The novel tells the story of two sisters, Nadia and Vera, and their father, Nikolai, all from Ukraine and now living in England. The father, at 84 years old, has met Valentina, a 30-something woman and also from Ukraine, and fallen in love. Valentina, it seems clear, is interested in the relationship for self-serving reasons: she wants to stay in England. The plot centers around the sisters's efforts to keep their father from marrying Valentina, and then trying to get him to extricate himself from the marriage once he has done so. Vera and Nadia (the story is told from Nadia's perspective) have a rocky relationship; they have fought bitterly over their mother's legacy and had not seen each other for a number of years because of their anger. So we read about their attempts to tolerate and begin to understand each other as they unite to help save their father. Valentina, it turns out, is their worst nightmare -- unscrupulous, conniving, obsessed with money, and, at least in their father's estimation, beautiful. This comes from Nadia's perspective:

Then I see her -- a large blonde woman, sauntering down the garden towards us on high-heeled peep-toe mules. Her gait is lazy, contempuous, as though she can barely be bothered to stir herself to greet us. A denim mini-skirt rides high above her knees; a pink sleeveless top stretches around voluptuous breasts that bob up and down as she walks. I stare. Such a wanton expanse of dimpled, creamy flesh. Plump bordering on fat ... The mouth curls into a pout that is almost a sneer, drawn in pale peach-pink lipstick that extends beyond the line of the lips, as though to exaggerate their fullness.

Valentina is more than a match for Vera and Nadia and the battles they fight are merciless.

The novel is not all comedy, however, for the other part of the story is their dark family history, especially their experiences in World War II. Nadia, the younger daughter, pieces together the family history by pestering her reluctant older sister for information. It's a dark history -- of suffering under Stalin's senseless and cruel policies, of hunger, of laboring in a German camp, of separation, of abuse. We get bits of the story interspersed throughout the comic sections of the novel, and this history adds weight and depth to the character's experiences. Nikolai, the father, is writing a history of tractors in Ukraine (which explains the novel's title) and through that history tells of the inventiveness and ingenuity as well as the suffering of Ukrainians.

We see how this history has shaped the characters' present-day selves, particularly in the conflict between Vera and Nadia; in response to her history, Vera has become cynical and angry and mistrustful, and has become an unrepentant capitalist and individualist. Nadia, on the other hand, has a softer side. As much as she hates the harm Valentina is wreaking on her father, she respects the energy and determination she sees in her. She flirted with Communism in her younger years, much to her father's distress, given his personal tragic experience with it, and now has settled into a quieter socialism. She is a Sociology professor, but Vera pointedly keeps referring to her as a social worker, expressing her disdain of Nadia's profession and social ideals. The sisters spar continually, as in this passage, where the they discuss more recent immigrants:

"When we first came here, Vera, people could have said the same things about us -- that we were ripping off the country, gorging ourselves on free orange juice, growing fat on NHS cod-liver oil. But they didn't. Everyone was kind to us."

"But that was different. We were different." (We were white, of course, for one thing, I could say, but I hold my tongue.) "We worked hard and kept our heads down. We learned the language and integrated. We never claimed benefits. We never broke the law."

"I broke the law. I smoked dope. I was arrested at Greenham Common. Pappa got so upset that he tried to catch the train back to Russia."

"But that's exactly my point, Nadia. You and your leftish friends -- you never really appreciated what England had to offer -- stability, order, the rule of law. If you and your kind prevailed, this country wold be just like Russia -- bread queues everywhere, and people getting their hands chopped off."

"That's Afghanistan. Chopping hands off is the rule of law."


"What I appreciated about growing up in England was the tolerance, liberalism, everyday kindness." (I drive home my point by wagging my finger in the air, even though she can't see me.) "The way the English always stick up for the underdog."

"You are confusing the underdog with the scrounger, Nadia. We were poor, but we were never scroungers. The English people believe in fairness. Fair play. Like cricket." (What does she know about cricket?) "They play by the rules. They have a natural sense of discipline and order."

"No, no. They're quite anarachic. They like to see the little man stick two fingers up to the world. They like to see the big shot get his come uppance."

"On the contrary, they have a perfectly preserved class system, in which everyone knows where they belong."

See how we grew up in the same house but lived in different countries?

Here is where the book excels: in its portrayal of the different ways people respond to the past and make sense of their history.

I was troubled, however, by some of the novel's gender dynamics. The sister's fight over whether their father deserves any sympathy for having fallen in love with some a young woman, and this becomes a fight over whether men can "help themselves" in the presence of a beautiful woman. This passage is an exchange between Nadia and her husband Mike; Mike says:

"But you can see it's doing him good, this new relationship. It's breathed new life into him. Just goes to show you're never too old for love."

"You mean for sex."

"Well, maybe that as well. Your Dad is just hoping to fulfil every man's dream -- to lie in the arms of a beautiful younger woman."

"Every man's dream?"

That night Mike and I sleep in separate beds.

There is much sparring along these lines, feeding into stereotypes of men's inability to control their sexuality and the need for women to patiently bear with their weakness. The women are often stereotypes as well, especially Valentina, who embodies the "femme fatale" figure perfectly. The author leads us to laugh at all this, but never critiques it and never asked us to question. Nadia objects occasionally to all the stereotypical behavior going on around her, but these objections are weak, and ultimately she learns to laugh with all the others and to stop being so difficult.

However, while I would wish to change the novel's gender dynamics, I did find pleasure in reading this, particularly in the way Lewycka charts the relationship of past and present and the wildly different ways the characters make sense of what has happened to them.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Burney on Johnson

I came across this extraordinary description of Samuel Johnson in a letter by Frances Burney, written in 1777, when she is about 25. This is her first encounter with Johnson:

He is, indeed, very ill favoured, -- he is tall and stout, but stoops terribly, -- he is almost bent double. His mouth is almost constantly opening and shutting, as if he was chewing; -- he has a strange method of frequently twirling his Fingers, and twisting his Hands; -- his Body is in continual agitation, see sawing up and down; his Feet are never a moment quiet, -- and, in short, his whole person is in perpetual motion:

His dress, too, considering the Times, and that he had meant to put on his best becomes [most becoming attire], being engaged to Dine in a large Company, was as much out of the common Road as his Figure: he had a large Wig, snuff colour coat, and Gold Buttons; but no Ruffles to his shirt, doughty fists, and black worsted stockings.

He is shockingly near sighted, and did not, till she held out her Hand to him, even know Mrs. Thrale. He poked his Nose over the keys of the Harpsichord, till the Duet was finished, and then, my Father introduced Hetty to him, as an old acquaintance, and he cordially kissed her. When she was a little girl, he had made her a present of The Idler.

His attention, however, was not to be diverted five minutes from the Books, as we were in the Library; he poured over them, shelf by shelf, almost brushing the Backs of them, with his Eye lashes, as he read their Titles; at last, having fixed upon one, began, without further ceremony, to Read to himself, all the Time standing at a distance from the Company. We were all very much provoked, as we perfectly languished to hear him talk; but, it seems, he is the most silent creature, when not particularly drawn out, in the World.

My sister then played another Duet, with my Father; but Dr. Johnson was so deep in the Encyclopedie, that, as he is very deaf, I question if he even knew what was going forward.

I feel a little bad, actually, typing up that passage about Johnson's appearance, emphasizing the man's physical problems (but not bad enough to refrain from doing it -- it's so interesting). The book's editor says that people now speculate Johnson had Tourette's Syndrome, which would explain some of his quirks and twitches. I love the part about Johnson ignoring people to pay attention to the books.

I'd like to read more by and about Johnson; I started Boswell's Life of Johnson, but never finished it, so I must return to it. I like his novel Rasselas very much and I've read his travel book Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. What I'd like to read more of are his essays. I'll have to get my hands on this book (selected essays), although I do have this book (selected writings), which would be a good place to start. I also have Helen Deutsch's book Loving Dr. Johnson on my to-be-read list, and I came across Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage in a used bookstore recently, and failed to buy it, and now I regret it. I must find it again; it's by Richard Holmes, whom I've never read but have heard good things about. These aren't terribly high on my list of things to read, but Burney did spark my interest again.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Required reading

So, I have to read two books for my job. They are the "summer reading" books for incoming freshmen, and I don't know how the freshmen are feeling about this assignment, but I'm none too happy. This is sort of strange, because I'm normally the kind of person who doesn't complain about assignments and required reading; I'm a dutiful student who will pretty much read whatever the teacher tells me too. But in this case, it's not a teacher telling me to read something, but the higher-ups at work, and the entire summer reading concept doesn't make a whole lot of sense at my school. If this were a meaningful reading assignment for the students, one that were carefully planned and integrated into some kind of program or into classes, that would be better, but it's really not. There's one day when we're supposed to discuss the books with the students, and after that it's up to individual teachers to figure out if they want to use the books in class. Really, I'd prefer not to use them at all. And I know exactly how the two summer reading books were chosen, and it wasn't exactly the most intellectually rigorous process.

What worries me is that the students will recognize that this was a pretty meaningless assignment -- of course, any reading they do is good, so it's not "meaningless" really, but they come to school expecting the programs and curriculum to make sense, expecting things to fit together, expecting to find that they will have to write about the books or that the discussions will be lengthy and in-depth. And they won't find this. Instead, it'll get brushed aside pretty quickly, and they'll learn that they could have skipped the assignment entirely. And that's not the attitude I want them to pick up right off the bat. We have a freshman summer reading assignment for reasons of image, I think; the higher-ups think it sounds like a good idea and, after all, everybody else does it. What the school doesn't do is think through the purpose of the reading assignment and how (and whether) they can integrate it into everything else going on.

I'm left feeling like a rebellious student who's trying to find a way out of doing my work. Should I call in sick the day of the book discussion? Alas, I probably won't. Skimming? Online summaries of the books?

No, this isn't one of my best moments.

The books are Fast Food Nation and Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Fast Food Nation shouldn't be too painful -- I might find it engaging and might learn something from it, although I feel like I've kind of got the concept already and so am already feeling in danger of boredom. Sparrow I don't know anything about. Is there someone out there who can make me feel better about having to read this? Please, someone, tell me it's a great book, and then maybe I can muster up some excitement.

I often have to read things for work -- the things I teach in class -- but those are things I've chosen. The length of this summer reading assignment and my complete lack of control over the choices, however, are what's getting to me.

Okay -- sorry about the self-indulgent whining! I know, I know, it's terrible that I have to read books for my job. Poor me.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

More Proust

If you aren't utterly sick of hearing about Proust, I've got more on him over here.

More on beauty

I am now half way through Elaine Scarry's book On Beauty and Being Just, which is a very short book, by the way, and so I can read a few pages at a time, spend some time pondering them before I pick it up again, and still make good progress through it. It divides into two halves, one called "On Beauty and being Wrong," and the other "On Beauty and Being Fair." What strikes me about the end of the first section is the way Scarry talks about beauty as something that provokes flexibility and capaciousness of mind:

I began here with the way beautiful things have a forward momentum, the way they incite the desire to bring new things into the world: infants, epics, sonnets, drawings, dances, laws, philosophic dialogues, theological tracts. But we soon found ourselves turning backward, for the beautiful faces and songs that lift us forward onto new ground keep calling out to us as well, inciting us to rediscover and recover them in whatever new thing gets made. The very pliancy or elasticity of beauty -- hurtling us forward and back, requiring us to break new ground, but obliging us also to bridge back not only to the ground we just left but to still earlier, even ancient ground -- is a model for the pliancy and lability of consciousness in education.

A bit later she says of an encounter with a beautiful object that "the perceiver is led to a more capacious regard for the world." Litlove pointed out in a comment to an earlier post on this book that Scarry is interested not in what beauty is but what it does: that we are used to thinking of a beautiful object as merely existing -- it's a thing, to be gazed at -- but that Scarry emphasizes the effects that the beautiful object has on us -- the beautiful object reaches out to us and changes us. In that case, it really doesn't matter much if we disagree on what things are beautiful and what things aren't, because what really matters is what happens in our encounter with what we perceive to be beautiful.

And what beauty does is to make us want to make more beautiful things, it makes us look back into the past to find other similar beautiful things, it makes us think about other things that are beautiful that we might have failed to recognize:

This very plasticity, this elasticity, also makes beauty associate with error, for it brings one face-to-face with one's own errors: momentarily stunned by beauty, the mind before long begins to create or to recall and, in doing so, soon discovers the limits of its own starting place, if there are limits to be found, or may instead -- as is more often the case -- uncover the limitlessness of the beautiful thing it beholds.
This discovery of the limitlessness of beauty coupled with the potential for error within ourselves sets the perceiver of beauty off on a quest for truth. Scarry talks about the relationship of beauty and truth and says they are associated but are not necessarily one and the same; after all the statement "1=1" is true but not beautiful. But beauty:

ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error. This liability to error, contestation, and plurality -- for which "beauty" over the centuries has so often been belittled -- has sometimes been cited as evidence of its falsehood and distance from "truth," when it is instead the case that our very aspiration for truth is its legacy. It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude. It comes to us, with no work of our own; then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labor.

In previous posts about this book, I've quoted Scarry writing about Proust; as I read Proust, I'm coming across other passages that illustrate what she's talking about. In this passage, the narrator talks about learning to recognize beauty:

Sometimes in the afternoon sky the moon would pass white as a cloud, furtive, lusterless ... I liked finding its image again in paintings and books, but these works of art were quite different -- at least during the early years, before Bloch accustomed my eyes and my mind to subtler harmonies -- from those in which the moon would seem beautiful to me today and in which I would not have recognized it then. It might be, for example, some novel by Saintine, some landscape by Gleyre in which it stands out distinctly against the sky in the form of a silver sickle, one of those works which were naively incomplete, like my own impressions, and which it angered my grandmother's sisters to see me enjoy. They thought that one ought to present to children, and that children showed good taste in enjoying right from the start, those works of art which, once one has reached maturity, one will admire forever after. The fact is that they probably regarded aesthetic merits as material objects which an open eye could not help perceiving, without one's needing to ripen equivalents of them slowly in one's own heart.

The narrator finds the moon beautiful and thinks of other beautiful places he has seen the moon -- novels and paintings. His mind moves outward from the beautiful object -- the moon -- to other beautiful objects in the flexible and capacious way Scarry describes. But his idea of what makes a moon beautiful is not static; changing over time, it shows the possibility of error in recognizing beauty: at first he missed the "subtler harmonies" that Bloch later pointed out to him and now he recognizes the beauty of the moon in places he couldn't before. And he disagrees with his grandmother's sisters that beauty is something that merely exists and waits to be recognized ("aesthetic merits as material objects which an open eye could not help perceiving"). Instead, a person develops the capacity to perceive beauty over time; this capacity is something that ripens and grows as a person has more and more beautiful experiences. The more we seek out beauty, the more capable we are of seeing it.