Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Scary things

I'm not very into scary things. This is going to be a lame Halloween post. I realize I've got a strange relationship to Halloween, now that I think about why the holiday doesn't interest me much -- I celebrated Halloween in the normal way for a while when I was a kid, maybe until I was 5 or 6, but at that point because of the evangelical Christianity I've written about recently, my parents decided Halloween wasn't an appropriate holiday for us to celebrate and I never dressed up to go trick-or-treating afterward. Instead, we had Halloween-replacement parties of one sort or another -- usually just regular old parties at our church with food and games, and we'd pretend they were as cool as real Halloween parties.

So I have a very short history of dressing up and getting into the pagan spirit of the holiday, and I haven't gotten back into it as an adult. The Hobgoblin, good pagan that he is, makes up for my lack of spirit a little bit; as I type, he's downstairs carving pumpkins. We'll pass out candy to the neighborhood kids, and that's about it.

I can be such a spoil-sport sometimes. Actually, intellectually, I'm interested in the holiday and think it has a fascinating history, but when it comes to celebrating -- I just have never really felt comfortable with it.

And, continuing with the theme of me not being comfortable with things, I'm not particularly interested in scary books -- or movies too, for that matter. Scary movies really scare me, to the extent that I stop having fun. I don't really understand the enjoyment people feel in being scared by them. For me, it's not a pleasurable fright; it's a "please, please, please make it stop!!!" kind of fright. So I don't watch scary movies much. I can't remember the last one I saw.

I'm a tiny bit better about scary books, but I can only say that because I just read Dracula, which I didn't find all that scary. If I were to pick up a Stephen King horror novel, I have no idea how I'd take it. Except for Dracula, I can't remember the last scary novel I read.

I'm willing to work on this, though -- unlike scary movies, I might be able to handle scary books. I think I did okay this season, adding one scary novel to my usual list of staid realist fiction. Perhaps next year I'll read two of them. And maybe I'll choose something likelier to scare me than Dracula. The farther away things are in time, they less likely they are to scare us, perhaps? Older horror and gothic novels from the 18C and 19C are more likely to be funny than scary, I think.

Any recommendations for this reader who's afraid of being afraid?

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Time Traveler's Wife

I'm about half way through The Time Traveler's Wife and it was exactly what I've been needing: something absorbing and long but that reads quickly so that I don't feel I'm getting bogged down or that I'll be reading it forever.

What an interesting book it is! The basic premise -- and I'm not giving anything away -- is that of the two main characters, one of them, Henry, travels through time. The other, his girlfriend/wife, Clare, doesn't. What makes the book interesting, I think, is that time traveling turns out not to be glamorous at all; rather, it is a huge pain in the neck. Henry has no control over when he will travel through time, so he's constantly worried about disappearing at the wrong moment. He won't drive a car, for example, for fear that he'll time travel while driving and cause horrible accidents.

And when he time travels, he leaves a pile of clothes behind him and lands in his new time completely naked. So the first thing he has to do, always, is find clothes before people find him and he gets into all kinds of trouble. He becomes a first-rate thief in order to steal clothes and food -- he's also always ravenous when he time travels. He runs obsessively to keep in shape so he can flee pursuers. Clare loves him deeply but just about everyone else in the novel finds him suspicious, and it's clear that Henry is a complicated, potentially dangerous, mysterious, and difficult person.

He tends to travel to times and places in his own life that caused him great stress. This means he revisits some awful memories again and again. Because he travels to scenes in his own life, he meets older and younger versions of himself. He also visits Clare, which creates some very odd situations. He visits her when he is older, in his 40s, for example, and she is younger, say, 6. Can you imagine such a scene? Meeting your spouse when he/she is a child and you are an adult? So when Clare meets Henry in "real time," she's already spent hours and hours with him because of his time traveling.

This book is a mind-bender.

It's written in first-person, switching back and forth between Henry and Clare, and the switches occur frequently, so I sometimes get confused about who is talking and have to turn the page to check. The effect of this, I suppose, is that the two main characters blend together, although I do like getting their different perspectives on the same scene.

One of the interesting characteristics of Henry's time travel is the way he's more likely to disappear into another time when he's under a lot of stress. So he tries to keep himself calm in order to stay in one place. This leads to some high drama on his wedding day -- because what could be more stress-inducing than going through a wedding ceremony? His particular problem is that this stress might mean that he leaves his bride stranded at the altar.

Henry talks about his efforts to keep calm as attempting to stay in the present moment. So the phrase "staying in the present" that we use to mean staying focused on what's going on around us rather than wandering off to other places in our minds becomes, for Henry, something physical as well as mental. His "staying in the present" means, literally, not traveling to the past or the future. So in a way, Henry's struggles to stay in one place become a way of thinking about the efforts we might make to "stay present," or "stay grounded." Who wants to be absent from their own life? The novel plays with the mind/body relationship: is a wandering mind that much different from a wandering body?

I shall let you know how I like the second half of the book ...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

George Sand's Indiana

I liked this book very much; unfortunately, I wasn't in the mood to focus closely as I read it or to take notes or even gather my thoughts much about it as I read, so I won't have a long or particularly intelligent post.

But I do recommend it if you haven't read it and are interested. It's a good story, and it takes up a lot of interesting ideas, chief among them, for me, about women's lot in a society run by men. Indiana doesn't get a great education and she doesn't have much experience in the world. A lot of what she learned about matters such as love and marriage come from novels -- always a sign of danger to come. It is a long and venerable tradition to use a novel to warn against novel reading.

She is married at 16 to an older man so she has no time to explore life and look around her as an adult. She lives in a time when emotional displays are valued in women, but rationality is not; Indiana seems not to have had the opportunities to develop her mind and the male characters seem lacking in the ability to value emotion. How is she to judge Raymon when he comes along? How is she to know she should stay far, far away? She has no real grounding from which to make sense of her situation.

And what an odd situation it is. She is married to Colonel Delmare, a jealous and violent man; she is watched over by the reserved and mysterious Ralph, a childhood friend; and she is pursued by the charming but untrustworthy Raymon. Her closest female friend dies early in the novel, leaving her quite alone. So the men vie for her attention and she falls for Raymon, not realizing that he is incapable of returning her love. The novel becomes the story of Indiana slowly making that realization -- that she is a much better, stronger person than the one she loves -- and dealing with the consequences.

I was shocked at the descriptions of Delmare's violence toward Indiana. This struck me as a harsher, more direct condemnation of men's power over women than I'm used to seeing in novels of the time period. Stefanie pointed out the horrifying scene when the dog Ophelia is brutally killed, and I think you can see this as an echo of what happens to Indiana herself -- she is portrayed as an innocent creature brutally struck down by a cruel world.

Ralph is an odd character, with his perfectly impassive face and his seeming heartlessness, although we learn by the end of the novel that seeing him as heartless is a mistake. But through most of the novel he hovers about, shadowing Indiana and rescuing her repeatedly, but not making clear his intentions or his role until the novel's end. And what makes Ralph an even odder character is his semi-incestuous relationship with Indiana. He's described as being her brother, her guardian, and her lover. In this sense, I'm not sure what it means that Indiana ends up with him at the end -- has she found her true love, or has she settled for something more familiar and calm and safe?

I understand that the novel's ending is controversial. The question seems to be whether we should see Indiana as subdued once again by the patriarchy -- she seems lifeless and spiritless at the end -- or whether this is actually a hopeful ending, illustrating how one woman escaped from the two men who caused her so much pain and established a comfortable life devoted to helping others. For she and Ralph decide to spend their time and energy and money buying the freedom of slaves.

I feel conflicted about this. It was my impression as I read that Indiana's voice and energy were written out of the text; in the final pages Ralph tells her story and all she seems to do is retire early to bed. This didn't seem like the Indiana of the earlier part of the novel. On the other hand, though, she has escaped, and, most importantly, escaped alive and she will live on to affect the lives of many people -- those slaves that she and Ralph are working to free. We are led through the novel to expect her death and to see death as her only option, but the novel's final word thwarts this expectation.

I'll be curious to see what others have to say about this.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

My teaching demonstration, part III

My teaching workshop is now over, and while I learned a lot, I'm happy to be finished. It was hard to spend all day in a workshop when I had lots of work to do at home. And doing teaching demonstrations for my peers is stressful, and I'm glad I don't have any more to plan.

But the last one went well; it was probably my best. I did another lesson on metaphors, a follow-up to last week's lesson, this time looking specifically at metaphors in poetry. This is the poem we discussed, by Linda Pastan:


My husband gives me an A
for last night's supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass. Wait 'til they learn
I'm dropping out.
This poem worked well because it's short and it's got one main metaphor that's possible to discuss satisfactorily in 10 minutes. I asked the class to write some quick thoughts about the speaker's feelings in the poem, which we discussed, and then I paraphrased a part of the poem, taking out the metaphor, and asked which worked better, my paraphrase or the poem. The answer is obvious -- the poem is much better than my paraphrase -- and we talked about what metaphors have to offer a poet.

Another workshop participant did a great lesson on connotations in poetry; she put about a dozen words on the chalkboard and asked us in small groups to write down the associations we bring to them, which we discussed for a while, eventually beginning to make connections among the words. And then we learned she took the words from a poem by Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays," which we could make almost immediate sense of because we'd spent so long looking at some of its individual words.

I loved that way of approaching a poem -- closely considering some of the important words out of their context, so that in context we brought a lot of thought and depth to them immediately. I think that this could work really well with students who are intimidated by poetry, because they can get comfortable with the words before being confronted with the poem itself. It was almost like we were building the poem ourselves, starting with the same building blocks the poet did.

The other great part of the day was doing a social styles inventory -- categorizing ourselves into one of four different types: the driver, the analytical type, the expressive type, or the amiable type (those labels bug me because they're not parallel). The driver is the take-charge person; the analytical type is organized, methodical, and thoughtful; the expressive type is artistic, imaginative, and talkative; and the amiable type is the friendly people-pleaser. The idea is that each teacher fits into somewhere in one (or more) of these categories and each of our students does also, and as teachers we should try to reach out to students with different styles and not always use the style of interaction that comes naturally to us. Analytical teachers tend to teach best to analytical students but might lose the expressive ones, for example.

I was not surprised to find that I fit the analytical type the closest, and am also pretty strong in the amiable category. My scores in the expressive and driver categories were extremely low. That struck me as absolutely right -- I'm reserved, introverted, thoughtful, organized, detail-oriented as analytical types are, and I'm also in tune with other people and eager to make other people happy as amiable types are. And I think I tend to lose the expressive type students in my classes, which is something I can work on.

I tend to be skeptical of personality tests -- I never feel like my answers to the questions are all that accurate -- but the results to this one seemed right on.

I've come out of this workshop knowing more about teaching, but also knowing more about myself. It was worth giving up a month's worth of Fridays for, I think.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Further adventures in cycling

Yesterday I had one of those rides where everything goes wrong. Almost everything. I set out on my ride around 11:00, planning to ride for an hour, shower quickly, gulp down lunch, and make it to my mid-afternoon class. But 45 minutes into the ride, I got a flat.

This is never good, but today it was only in the mid-40s outside, so I was worried about cold. And it’s hard to change a tire when your fingers are a bit numb. But I got started. Another rider from my racing team rode by and stopped to see if I was okay. I said yeah, no problem, I’ve got all the equipment I need. He stuck around for a while, suggesting that he could wait until I finished so we could ride into town together, but I urged him to go on – partly because I wanted to be nice and keep him from getting cold but mainly because I’m slow at fixing flats and would have felt embarrassed to have him hanging around while I fumble with the tube and the tire levers. So he rode on.

I got the tube in the tire and was ready to use my CO2 cartridge to fill it up – those cartridges are so much easier to use than a regular old bike pump and are easier to carry – but it wouldn’t work. I tried, but in the process of trying, I let all the CO2 out into the air, where it did me no good.

So, I was stuck 4.5 miles from home without a way to fix my flat. I don’t carry a cell phone on these rides, although even if I had one, I didn’t have anyone to call. The Hobgoblin was in class and couldn’t come get me, and I couldn’t think of anyone else who would be home.

So I walked. I watched what felt like hundreds of SUVs pass me and construction vehicles and pick-up trucks, and I thought oh, why don’t you stop and ask if I’m okay! Because I’m not! I thought about hitch-hiking, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I kept hoping a police car would pass me so I could wave it down and get a ride, but no luck.

I ended up walking 2.5 miles. Walking 2.5 miles isn’t normally a big deal for me, even with a bicycle at my side, but I was wearing those fancy cycling shoes that don’t bend in order to get maximum efficiency as you ride and that have plastic cleats that snap into the pedal. So basically I had horrible walking shoes. I didn’t have a normal stride with the stiff soles and the cleats get slippery on the pavement.

At mile 2.5, though, things got better – I came across a group of men working on a construction project, just hanging out next to a couple of trucks, and I said any chance you can give me a ride? One of the guys put my bike in the back of his truck and drove me the rest of the way home. He told me how his secretary rides also, and how she’ll be thrilled to know he helped out a cyclist because normally he gives her a hard time about her riding. He doesn’t understand the point of it.

It turns out I didn’t mess up with the CO2 cartridge, which I thought I had, since I’ve had trouble getting those things to work in the past – the trouble was that I had the wrong kind of tube. I needed one with a longer stem. Even with a bike pump, I wouldn’t have been able to pump up that tube.

I did make it to class on time.

I can’t have great rides without having some terrible ones, I suppose. And this one wasn’t so bad. If I lived in a different time and were a man, I think I’d get a kick out of hitchhiking – there’s something about traveling and not knowing exactly what's going to happen that I find appealing. And that’s a little bit true about every bicycle ride – most times they are uneventful, but other times, I have no idea how I’ll get home.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Can you guess the book?

I'm stealing this from Dr. Crazy who got it from Anastasia. I'm all about memes these days. They are great when I'm feeling tired and uninspired.

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next 4 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don't you dare dig for that "cool" or "intellectual" book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.

"His work no longer seemed as inevitable as before. I began to wonder whether originality really shows that great writers are gods, each of them reigning over a kingdom which is his alone, whether misleading appearances might not play a role in this, and whether the differences between their books might not be the result of hard work rather than the expression of a radical difference in essence between distinct personalities.

We went in to dinner. Lying beside my plate was a carnation, its stem wrapped in silver paper."

Hmmm. I don't think that's hard to guess at all, especially if you're a regular or semi-regular reader of this blog. I could have picked something harder, but I was following direction #5 to the letter, and went for the closest thing. And my chair is right next to my ... oh, never mind. Just guess. And then try it for yourself!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Musings on writing

Courtney has this great post on running and writing where she compares the two and concludes that they are more alike than she thought. She says, “Like writing the novel, running is all about showing up, going further than you think you could, under circumstances you previously never would have considered.” Now that strikes me as absolutely true. I don’t have experience writing a novel, but I do have experience writing a dissertation, and I learned from it that there’s nothing more important than just showing up every day. Or even just showing up most days.

I got through the dissertation one hour at a time. I realized fairly early on that I’m terrible at working long hours on an intellectual task as difficult as scholarly writing, and so I didn’t ask myself to work long hours. I just asked myself to work for one hour, or sometimes even for a half an hour. That worked. Even a pace as slow as 5-7 hours a week will get you a dissertation eventually, and the novelists will probably tell you it will get you a novel too. Now I wasn’t a stellar dissertation-writer, and I took longer to graduate than I should have (I never had to ask for an extension, but that still left me with years and years of time available), but I finished.

I expected that I would have to work long hours at the end; I have the impression that most dissertation-writers have to go through a crazy period where they are frantically making revisions and finishing up that last chapter and furiously hunting down references, but it wasn’t like that for me. I kept working an hour a day, a page or two a day, and I kept doing it and doing it until I reached a point where I didn’t have any more revisions to do and then I stopped. At that point my dissertation advisor and I set a defense date, and then I waited a month to give people time to read things, I defended, and that was that. I did have to add on a short conclusion, something like 8 pages, before I turned in the final copy, but that wasn’t difficult. It was rather anti-climactic, really. I was writing an hour a day and then I wasn’t. Simple as that.

Actually, what happened is that my hour of dissertation work a day became my hour of blogging a day.

As I was writing I kept cycling and backpacking metaphors in my head. Showing up at my computer for my hour of writing was like taking a ride. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but take enough rides, and at the end of the year, you’ll have ridden something extraordinary like thousands of miles. Or it’s like a day of backpacking. One day’s walk doesn’t get you very far. But walk every day, and you can walk the entire Appalachian Trail, from George to Maine, and you’ll finish in a matter of months. You’re not doing anything extraordinary each day; if you walk 10 miles a day, you can finish the Appalachian Trail in about 7 months. Healthy, able-bodied people can walk 10 miles a day without working too, too hard, especially once you’ve given yourself time to get used to it. Walk at a meager 2-mile-an-hour pace, and it’ll take you 5 hours. Do that every day, and you’ll have walked across a continent.

Similarly, write a page a day, and you’ll have something 365 pages long at the end of a year. And how long does it take to write a page?

Well, okay, sometimes it takes a while to get to the point where you can write a page; certainly I had to do an awful lot of reading before I was ready to write my pages, but even so, when it comes to dissertations if you do an hour of preparation a day, you’ll be ready before you know it. Or if, in writing your novel, you decide you need to discard half your pages, you’re still left with 180 at the end of the year.

So for me, writing is an endurance sport. How about other writers – what metaphors do you use?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Bible

I was reading recently about Victoria's Bible-reading project and found myself intrigued. She'll be reading one or two books of the Bible every month until she's finished, doing it partly for intellectual reasons and partly for personal ones. As you all know if you read my post yesterday, I come from a Bible-reading family; I grew up reading, studying, listening to, memorizing, analyzing, hearing sermons on, and doing creative projects in Sunday School about the Bible. I feel like I know it well.

I couldn't even tell you how many times I've read it because it was such an ever-present part of my life. I may have tried to read it systematically once or twice, but mostly I read bits and pieces as we studied it in Sunday School or youth group or Bible camp or Vacation Bible school or whatever else I was doing. I'm pretty sure there's not a sentence of the Bible I haven't read, but that's not because I read it in the usual way one reads a book.

There must be a huge value to studying a book in this way as a child; even though my Christian upbringing causes me a lot of trouble and grief in some ways, I'm always grateful for that training in history and theology and myth and language.

And yet I feel like I have so much to learn about it still. I grew up reading and studying the Bible as though it were the inspired word of God -- which, if you read yesterday's post you'll know I no longer believe -- and this is very different from the way I'd read it now. I haven't read it in quite a few years, except for short passages if I happen to attend a church service, which happens rarely these days.

But I have read some books about the Bible, and I've greatly enjoyed doing so. If you are interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend Jack Miles's book God: A Biography and Karen Armstrong's A History of God and anything by Elaine Pagels, but especially Beyond Belief. These books were so much fun for me because I was finally seeing the history of the Bible that nobody had told me about when I was younger -- the uncertainty about authors (not God!) and the complicated textual histories and the sheer weirdness of Genesis. When you look into it closely and learn something about the history and cultural background, you'll discover that Genesis is one of the weirdest things ever written. There's a whole world of Bible scholarship I never learned about, some of it written by believers and some by non-believers -- scholarship that doesn't take core evangelical beliefs in the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible as a starting point. I find this scholarship fascinating.

All of this was a revelation to me, and it still is in a way; I haven't read a book about the Bible in a while, but I've got my eye on Bart Ehrman's books and am always on the lookout for others like them.

So I'm just as fascinated in the Bible as ever, and I'm pleased that my life story has a book as a central part of it, even though the role that book has played has changed dramatically. I'm not planning on re-reading the Bible anytime soon, but what I'd like to do at some point, some years down the road, is to read it again and see how it's changed for me. Right now I'm content to read about the Bible occasionally, but someday I should take another look at the text itself. I may see some surprising things in it once again.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Five things you don't know about me

I'm stealing this meme from Litlove and Charlotte because it looks like a lot of fun. The "you" from "five things you don't know about me" obviously doesn't include the Hobgoblin; to come up with five things he doesn't know about me would be very, very hard. Actually, I may have mentioned some of these things on the blog before or in comments on other blogs, but I can't remember, so I'm assuming you don't know them.

1. I'm the oldest of seven children. Sometimes when I tell people that they look at me and say, "Yeah? I'm the youngest of eight," or "My mother is from a family of 13." But often they are amazed and want to know if I'm close to my siblings -- which I'm not -- or if I had to do a lot of babysitting -- which I did. Being the oldest of seven children has a lot to do with why I don't have a child of my own. Not that it wasn't a good experience, because it was, but I know exactly what it's like to raise children and I'm not excited by the prospect.

2. I come from a family of very committed evangelical Christians. The other question people ask me when I say I'm the oldest of seven children is whether I'm Catholic or not. No, I'm not Catholic, thank you, and how tactful of you to ask. I'm also no longer Christian, although I don't tell my parents that. I am very fascinated by Christian subcultures, though, and I love to read about religious history and theology. I've become an annoyingly vague "spiritual" type of person, of the sort that would have irritated my younger self to no end.

3. I was an English major in college, which you probably knew or would have guessed, but I was also a German major. I spent a summer in Germany, but never learned the language as well as I should have. I'm pretty good with languages, but I needed more time to get really comfortable with it. And since I haven't used German since college, I've forgotten a ton.

4. I was homeschooled for three years -- from 4th-6th grade. This has something to do with coming from an evangelical family -- the horrible things kids learn in public schools and all -- but I think it also has a lot to do with my mother being a bit bored by the housewife role and wanting a challenge. With a bunch of kids it was kind of hard for her to go to work, but she could take on the task of educating us. I learned a lot in those years, but you can imagine how hard it was to go back to school in 7th grade. There's a lot of stuff -- non-academic stuff -- you learn in 4th-6th grade that I had to learn all at once, in a big, awkward rush.

5. I hate potatoes. This is a bit of a problem, as the Hobgoblin is Irish. And he loves potatoes. This is more of a problem for him than for me, as he kindly refrains from cooking potatoes unless he provides me with a rice or bread alternative. Isn't that nice?

Okay, that was fun. Anyone else want to try?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Book notes

I now have seven points over at Book Mooch. That means seven free books, if I choose to mooch them. But, like Danielle, I'm trying not to mooch too many more books than I mail out, so I'll let those points sit around for a while and I'll wait for a book that I just can't resist to appear.

That doesn't mean I haven't made requests over the last couple weeks, however. That's just a resolution to take effect starting now. I just received Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower, a book I've heard about from Ex Libris, and I've got Peter Ackroyd's The Lambs of London on the way, which I remember hearing about on Book World. And the wonderful Victoria just sent me A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes.

Also, W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants will also be arriving shortly, as will De Quincy's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, a book on my list of classics for next year.

And then there's Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter, which it turns out the Hobgoblin had and I didn't realize it until recently, so now I've claimed it for my TBR shelves. That one I read about at Around the World in 100 Books.

What Kate said about blogs enriching our reading is absolutely true, isn't it?

But when will I have time to read all this? I'm about to finish Indiana, and then I'll get to choose what's next. I'm considering the Fitzgerald book, or perhaps a Nancy Mitford novel, or perhaps The Time Traveler's Wife, which has been sitting around for a little while. I've got lots of choices. Take a look at the latest version of my TBR shelves:

Saturday, October 21, 2006

My teaching demonstration, part II

Two teaching demonstrations down and one more to go next week. I'll be glad when this workshop is over, much as I am learning from it and enjoying it. I normally spend Friday madly grading, and I hate having to push the mad grading off until Saturday and Sunday because I'm at the workshop all day Friday.

Yesterday my teaching demonstration went okay. The lesson didn't go as well as last week's pace line lesson went, but I was also working with a much harder, more abstract topic: metaphors. The idea was that the metaphors we use shape how we think about ideas, basically the idea in George Lakoff's Metaphors We Live By. For example, we think about arguments in terms of war or battle metaphors ("you shot down my idea," or "you've never beaten me in an argument") and argument becomes war when it doesn't necessarily have to be so. I like this concept a lot, and the class got it by the end, but there was a bit of confusion as we went along. Perhaps it was just too complex for my short 10 minutes -- but a fun challenge anyway.

But the really interesting parts of the day came first when we were discussing my lesson, and the Business and Computer Science instructors thought I needed to spend a little more time defining "metaphor." They hadn't thought about the term since they were in college and spent part of the lesson in confusion. That took me a bit by surprise, since I tend to assume that people -- adults at least -- can produce a workable definition of the word immediately and are ready to jump to more theoretical ideas about metaphors right away.

And then as I sat in the Business instructor's teaching demonstration, I experienced moments of panic as she introduced the lesson and asked us to do an activity that I had no idea how to do. She gave us a chart with numbers and asked us to analyze the numbers and come up with definitions of terms such as "unit fixed costs," "total fixed costs," "unit variable costs," and "total variable costs." I sat there looking at the numbers and thinking, "What???" It's not that I'm bad with numbers. I'm actually good with numbers and I like them a lot, but I couldn't wrap my mind around the instructions and those business terms, and I did my best but didn't figure it out right away.

We talked in our discussion later about how she could have offered us clearer instructions to help us out, but as we were in the lesson, other people seemed to be getting it without the extra instructions. I sat there thinking, "please don't call on me, please don't call on me!! Because then I'm going to have to admit that I don't get it at all, when I'd really rather just sit here and stare at my paper avoiding eye contact with you and waiting this lesson out."

Later the Business instructor and I had a moment of understanding: we'd bewildered each other, and now we both had a better idea of what our students feel when they don't get what we're doing, and the rest of the class seems to get it, and they might have to admit publicly that they don't get it and feel stupid.

It's great to be reminded of how students feel sometimes -- and not just to be reminded, but to experience it, to feel the intimidation and panic myself.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Lists, Lists, Lists!!!

A while back people were writing quite a lot on that book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and thanks to Bookslut's recent mention, people seem to be doing it again. So I clicked over to the list and counted how many I've read. Whew! That was hard work. I can't believe I just spent all that time counting. I'm not entirely sure I didn't miscount. But my estimated total is 185 books read from the list. There are a lot left!

But ... it's not as easy as that. If you've looked at that list or a similar one and tried to do your own count, you probably have noticed how difficult it can be to figure out what you've read and what you haven't. For me, I wasn't sure whether or not to count books I've listened to on tape or CD. Ultimately, I decided not to count those. And then there's the category of books I know I read when I was very young and now hardly remember. Yeah, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I really don't feel I should count it because I couldn't tell you a thing about it. And then there are books I'm not sure if I read or not. Did I really read Of Mice and Men, or am I remembering incorrectly? Which Graham Greene books did I read? And then there were a couple titles of short stories, and I wasn't sure if the list was referring to the short story only or if the title was also a title of a collection. I've read "The Yellow Wallpaper," but is that story the thing the list is referring to?

If I only counted those books I could write a reasonable summary or review of, my 185 number would be a lot smaller.

I did a lot better in the earlier centuries than in the 20th and 21st. I rocked in the 18C. I could complete that century without too much trouble: 16 books left. Well, that would be a little bit of trouble. But I'm not planning on following that list. I'll hang on to it for a good source of ideas when I want them, and that's it.

And then there's Susan's Thursday Thirteen list: 13 Classics to read in 2007. My list is a day late, and it's not a list I'm committed to, but I thought I'd play along anyway. Here's my list of 13 classics I'm considering reading in 2007:

1. Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regained. If I can't think of 13, I'll separate these out and count them individually, but for now, I don't want to bore you with too much Proust.
2. Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall. I've had this book around for a while. Someone mentioned it's kind of gothic, so maybe it's a good October 2007 read.
3. Frances Burney, Cecilia or Camilla. I've read her other two novels already, and now it's time for these two. Or one of the two, at least.
4. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote. This is a major one I need to tackle.
5. Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out.
6. Virginia Woolf, The Years. Must read more Woolf.
7. Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks. This is on Susan's list also, and I've had it around for a long time. It looks like a great long, absorbing read.
8. Gertrude Stein's Three Lives. Another one I've had around forever. A recurring theme in this list is "books I've had around forever but have been avoiding because they are slightly intimidating." Time to get over this.
9. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford and/or Wives and Daughters. I love 19C novels, so I'm expecting to love these.
10. Balzac's Cousin Bette. I've never read Balzac and would really like to.
11. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (see #8).
12. Thomas DeQuincy's Confessions of an Opium Eater. Who can resist that title?
13. James Hogg, Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Ditto. I'm fascinated by confessions.

We'll see how I do!

Thursday, October 19, 2006


For some reason, I have a block against writing narrative. I was reminded of this when Litlove wrote in a comment on her blog something about being able to write anecdotes and reminiscences but not "proper storytelling." I won't speak for what Litlove can and can't do (and everyone who reads her blog knows not to underestimate her!), but that rang true to me -- I feel that while I might manage an anecdote, a short story or a novel I could never do.

I'm not sure why this is. I remember having to write stories in high school and not succeeding all that well. I clearly remember one teacher wanting to know why I had some extraneous detail in a story of mine -- although I don't remember the story itself. I remember a lot of anxiety about her comment. As a junior in high school, I worked on another story, this time turning to something science fiction-like, as I'd been reading in the genre recently, and it got some rather odd reactions from classmates. I have no idea what the final thing I turned in was. And that's it for my story-writing career. I had to write a few poems in my senior year of high school (and read them out loud in front of the class!), and I remember my teacher approving of what I wrote, but somehow I knew it wasn't that good. I was good at following meter, but not particularly imaginative.

So I'm not sure if it was a lack of early practice and encouragement that turned me off story writing, or if I'm just genuinely not good at it. These days, I find that if I try to think of a story idea, my mind is blank. If I wanted to get serious about it, I could probably try some freewriting or other idea-getting technique and maybe come up with something, but the thought fills me with such anxiety that, since no one is making me write fiction, I won't try it. And I don't mean to imply that I think this is a failing of mine; I'm just interested in why I'm this way.

I think early on I got this idea in my head that I'm not creative. To some extent I still believe that, but I'm more inclined to think that it's not that I'm not creative, but that I don't show my creativity in traditional ways. And I'm interested in trying to get past whatever block I have when it comes to creativity and to let the creativity I do have out a little bit. Having a blog is a great way to do that, I think.

If I were ever to write a novel, or if, in some bizarre hypothetical situation where I'm forced to write one, or I'd get a million dollars if only I'd write one, or some such scenario, I would have to write something like what Nicholson Baker writes. By that I mean it wouldn't be traditional narrative. It would have to be some mix of story and essay, like Baker's story of the man riding up the escalator, which is the entire novel's plot, with the rest of it made up of the narrator's meditations. Something about the arc of a story eludes me, and this is where Baker is so brilliant -- he replaces the metaphorical story line with the literal line of the escalator climbing from one floor to another, freeing up the novel to wander elsewhere.

I did have more success at personal essay writing; I took an advanced writing class in college where we worked on an essay over the course of half a semester, and I remember enjoying the process and getting really enthusiastic reactions from my teacher and classmates. I wonder if I'm drawn to this genre because that's the way my brain works, drawn to an essayistic kind of logic or vision, or because with the essay I don't have bad memories of anxiety and failure. Maybe the freedom of the genre frees up my imagination in a way traditional fiction doesn't.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Mid-semester reading and riding

I started an experiment last spring with reading multiple books at once, and I have come to love it, but I've been needing to revise that practice lately. It turns out that when I'm stressed and busy -- as I always am in the middle of a semester -- I can't handle it as well, and I feel the need to cut back. Danielle has a post on this topic, on wanting to cut back, and I'm agreeing here. I get even more stressed when I feel that I'm not reading in a particular book enough -- those of you who are working on a book for months or years, how do you keep the momentum going?

Now I'll be working on Proust for months and maybe years, but I'll be doing that steadily. What's harder for me to understand is reading in a book -- especially a novel -- only now and then so that the reading process extends for ages. I need to be making steady and regular progress. Without that, don't you lose the thread of the story, forget characters, have to skim what came before? Or maybe that's just me and my bad memory. I like having multiple books going, but I need to have time to read in all of them at least a couple times a week; otherwise I don't really feel like I'm really reading.

So I finished the biography of Colette, and I'm not going to start another book until I finish something else. That leaves me with four books, one of which is a book of poems (Jane Kenyon's Otherwise) which I don't feel I need to read as quickly. And then there's George Sand's Indiana, which I will probably finish next, Fanny Burney's Journals and Letters, and, of course, Proust.

As for riding -- yesterday was my coldest ride yet at 47 degrees, and it started raining halfway through. Riding in the middle of the semester is even tougher than reading in the middle of it, but I'm determined to carve out some hours for both. Luckily, I don't teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays until mid-afternoon, so I have some guaranteed daylight hours on those days. The challenge with riding in the winter is to fit it in before sunset (I won't ride in the dark -- too dangerous), and that makes the college teacher's life perfect, with its flexible schedule. Unless, of course, I have meetings, which I did yesterday. Then I have to get on my bike even earlier to get home on time and then straggle into the meeting a minute or two late and with my hair still damp from my late-morning shower (because I refuse to use a hair dryer -- what's the point when the air will dry my hair for me?).

But you know what? I have priorities, and riding my bike is pretty high on the list. Don't tell this to anybody at work, but when it comes to where I put most of my thoughts and energy, it's not into work, it's into my riding and my reading. That's what keeps me sane, I think.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I have finished reading Judith Thurman's biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, and I'm looking forward to reading some of Colette's fiction (at some point in the future -- I'm not entirely sure when). I probably should have read more of the fiction to begin with and the biography later because I got a little tired of Thurman's descriptions of books I hadn't yet read. This is not a criticism of Thurman's writing -- just an observation of how it felt to read about the books rather than reading the books themselves. I very much like the idea of Kate's upcoming Virginia Woolf project (briefly mentioned here): reading Woolf's work chronologically as she reads through Julia Briggs's biography Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. With Colette that would be a huge undertaking -- and I imagine it would be a pretty big undertaking with Woolf also -- and one I'm not capable of doing with any author right now. But doesn't that sound fun? What a sense of the author's development you'd get, and what interesting dialogue between the work and the biography you'd hear.

As for Colette, she's a fascinating person. She's such a different person from me, I'm not sure she could be any more different, and that's part of why I liked reading about her. I like reading about people I probably wouldn't like or would be scared of and people who would ignore me or dislike me from the safe distance of the corner of my study. She had amazing energy first of all. She wrote a lot, including essays, memoirs, novels, novellas, stories, reviews, plays, screenplays, journalism. She was an actress and a mime and she toured endlessly. She ran her own business selling beauty products.

And she worked hard to subvert social expectations and norms. She had numerous love affairs with both men and women. She became an actress when this was unacceptable for a woman from her social background. Her great themes of love and sex scandalized some readers. She's an elusive figure, often exaggerating stories about herself and doing whatever she needed to to tell a good story. I imagine it was very hard to write a biography about her because of these evasions; Thurman was constantly having to second guess and qualify and question Colette's own claims about herself.

In a way Colette comes across as very selfish. She is known for neglecting her daughter and her mother at times and for failing to take a stand in World War II during the German occupation of France when she published her works alongside Nazi propaganda. Her husband during the war was a Jew, and Colette worked hard to get him out of a detention camp, and yet she seemed oblivious to the resistance movement and to the larger political implications of her actions.

And yet while recognizing her selfishness or whatever we might want to call that troubling quality of hers, we can also see her as a powerful, larger-than-life woman who's admirable for her energy, her strong will, and her insistance on being exactly who she is and nothing else. And, of course, what will matter in the long run is the writing.

I recently received her novels Cheri and The Last of Cheri in the mail, and I will probably start there when I begin to read her fiction. For those of you interested in her, I read My Mother's House and Sido recently, both autobiographical works (sort of -- as always with Colette one must qualify!) that I recommend highly.

Monday, October 16, 2006

So much for book reviews

As I've written about before, I read book reviews less often than I used to, but I do still enjoy a quick skim through the New York Times Book Review on Sunday mornings. Yesterday made me wonder why. The main problem was that I didn't like Daniel Mendelsohn's review of Jonathan Franzen's new book The Discomfort Zone. The review struck me as overly focused on Franzen as a person, whom Mendelsohn clearly does not like. Mendelsohn does critique the writing too, but the whole thing is colored by his opening complaint about Franzen's "excessively lofty sense of himself." He describes the book as

an unappetizing new essay collection that makes it only too clear that the weird poles between which the author seemed to oscillate during l’affaire Oprah — a kind of smug cleverness, on the one hand, and a disarming, sometimes misguided candor, on the other; a self-involved and self-regarding precocity and an adolescent failure to grasp the effect of his grandiosity on others — frame not only the career, but the man himself.

Franzen has done a number of stupid things (the Oprah incident being the worst), but I can't find it in myself to get as annoyed with him as a lot of people seem to. I've noticed on a number of the bigger book blogs that Franzen-bashing is kind of normal and expected -- like you don't have to bash the guy at all, just mention his name and people know what you mean -- but I don't see why. I liked his novel The Corrections, and I liked his book of essays too, How to Be Alone. And he strikes me as someone who has some flaws, like speaking before he thinks and therefore saying stupid things that get him into trouble, but also as someone who tries hard to write honestly about himself, flaws and all. In his essays, I suppose, I see a level of candor that I like. He has a quality I see in other essayists I like such as Mary McCarthy: a desire to tell the truth even if it makes him look foolish.

I don't take gleeful delight in mocking Franzen because I can somehow see myself saying something stupid at just the wrong time to the wrong person, and although that person almost certainly won't be Oprah, I'd feel trapped by the whole incident anyway and I'd hate to be defined by it, in the way Franzen is defined by his bad incident.

I'm not certain I'll read Franzen's new book, but that's largely because I've already read big chunks of it in The New Yorker. We'll see. I might check it out anyway.

The other thing that annoyed me about the book review yesterday was the quotation from Adam Gopnik's new book Through the Children's Gate that the reviewer ends with. This is about a chess match:

“Luke next played a slow girl who was taking everything down in proper notation,” Gopnik writes about his son. Of course the boy lost, learning a concrete lesson. “ ‘Girls with notebooks are risky,’ he said, truer words never having been spoken.”

At this point, I was ready to fling the paper across the room. Yeah, smart girls -- you gotta watch out for those.

And I've been wanting to read Daniel Mendelsohn, who wrote the bad Franzen review, and Adam Gopnik as well. I might read both of them, but I'll probably put it off for a while.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Clothing: a cycling post

Yesterday I rode for two hours, and I had to wear both knee warmers and arm warmers for the first time. This is a sign of cold days to come, and of all the layering I'll have to do in an effort to keep warm. I'm going to try to ride regularly all winter so I can be in shape for the races in March, but, boy, let me tell you, riding yesterday when it was 58 degrees out felt cold, and I'm not looking to riding when it's 28. Or 18. I might draw the line about there. At that point, I can ride indoors on the trainer, much as I hate having to do that.

Riding in the winter is complicated because I have what feels like endless layers of cold-weather clothing. All this takes forever to put on as I'm getting ready to ride, but it's also difficult to figure out exactly what clothing I'll need. 30 degrees on a sunny, windless day feels very different than 30 degrees on a cloudy, windy one. If I put on too much clothing and get hot, I can take some of it off, but then I'll have to carry it around, which is annoying, and if I don't put on enough, I put myself in serious danger of frostbite or hypothermia.

And I have a lot of options for what to wear on the bike (probably more options than I have for my non-cycling clothing!): I always wear cycling shorts, a jersey, socks, shoes, cycling gloves, and a helmet, but to these I can add arm warmers, knee warmers, tights, tank tops, t-shirts, a thin fleece jacket, a heavy fleece jacket, a nylon jacket, thin long-fingered gloves, thick long-fingered gloves, thin shoe covers, medium shoe covers, thick shoe covers, thick socks to cover my regular cycling socks, an ear band, and a hat. The Hobgoblin plans on ordering both of us balaklavas for those really cold days, and I might look into battery-powered shoe-warmers, as all those socks and shoe covers still don't keep my toes warm. I need some long-sleeved t-shirts also, I think.

And in what combination do I wear these things? If I wear a jacket, do I need arm warmers? If I have shoe covers, do I need two pairs of socks? Thin gloves under thick ones, or thick ones all by themselves?

And I'll frequently make trade-offs. For example, I hate wearing knee warmers (they go from mid-thigh, under my shorts, to mid-calf, but they frequently slide down my legs and then I'm out on the bike trying to hitch them back up and looking like an idiot), so I figure I'll wear a lot of layers up top so I don't need them on my legs. And sometimes that works. Or I may wear my tights over my shorts, but then not have many layers up top, in an effort to avoid those knee warmers again. Or I'll figure if I have a jacket on, I might not need the super-heavy gloves, or if I wear a hat under my helmet, I can get by without the jacket because I won't have all that heat escaping from my head.

You see how complicated this all is? It can take me as long to get ready for the ride as it does to do the ride itself. But the worst thing -- the absolute worst thing -- is when I'm all ready, I've got all my layers on and I'm walking out the door, and I realize that I forgot to put my heart rate monitor on. The heart rate monitor is a strap that goes around my chest right next to my skin. So I have to peel a bunch of layers off, put the thing on, and start all over again.

How long until spring?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My teaching demonstration

So you know how I wrote last week about my teaching workshop and the 10 minute mini-lesson I'd have to do? I had to do the lesson yesterday, and I ended up doing the lesson I mentioned in my last post, the one on a cycling pace line. And I thought it went pretty well. I was the only one, out of five participants, who finished within the 10 minutes; everybody else got cut off short (the workshop leaders had no mercy and wouldn't let anybody seize a few extra minutes to finish up). This seems typical of me: I'm generally an extraordinarily good direction-follower (not always a good thing, let me say) and someone who doesn't tend to take up a whole lot of anybody's time. We had a short feedback session after each lesson, and one of the participants said that she thought I might have taken less than the allotted ten minutes if people hadn't asked questions. That's true; if I'm at all nervous (which I was, a little bit), I'll rush, and forget half of what I wanted to say. And I was trying so hard to keep from going over 10 minutes -- not a long stretch of time at all -- that I was in danger of overdoing it.

But the session did go well. I made them act out a pace line, so they got to walk around the room, rotating from front to back up to the front again as they went, and then we talked about the benefits of a pace line (drafting) and the dangers (bumping into other riders) and the need to keep a steady pace and not stay in the lead too long.

The "class" responded very well to my enthusiasm; I started off talking about how some of my happiest moments have been spent on a bike and particularly riding in a pace line, and people talked about that afterwards as a highlight of the lesson. I'm reminded that a little bit of enthusiasm in the classroom will go a long way. And they liked the active nature of the lesson. I'm sure I don't take enough opportunities in my regular classes to make students move around and do things and be active in some way.

I also learned that spending seven hours in one room with the same people -- actually it was more like 6 1/2 since we got out early -- is exhausting. I'm a pretty extreme introvert in the technical sense: even though I like being around people a lot, it drains me of energy, and I need a lot of time to recover. By the end of the day I was ready to crawl into a corner and refuse to talk to anybody.

So, two more Fridays in this workshop, and two more mini-lessons. Even though I think I could easily do two more lessons in cycling, I'll probably try to teach something about writing or about literature. But I have no idea what.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday reading notes (warning: a bit whiny)

I've been in what feels like a long reading slump where I can't seem to get in a rhythm with my reading. I feel like everything takes too long to read and I get bored with it about half way through, and I'm not focusing on what I'm reading so I forget a lot or rush through details that are important. The fault lies with work, I'm sure; I'm having a good time at my new job, but it's a lot of stress and in the evenings when I usually have some time for myself, I don't have a lot of energy and reading often doesn't go so well.

I did enjoy The Mezzanine a lot, but that was very short, and I read even that one in a disconnected way that I'm not really happy about. And my blog writing doesn't feel inspired in the least. I don't have as much energy for it either. I do still like the discipline of writing every day, but it gets harder when I'm not reading as much, and you're more likely to find whiny posts like this one.

I'm nearing the end of my Colette biography, and I'm happy I'm near the end. I'm enjoying it -- really -- but it's so long and I want something new! She's fascinating, but even so, it's time to move on. I'll write about her soon, and I hope to read some of her fiction soon too.

I'm chugging along with Proust also. I have a tendency to decide to do something and then stick with it no matter what -- sometimes well after the pleasure in it is gone -- and while the pleasure is not gone here, it occasionally feels like an obligation. But I've got this stubborn side, and I'm not letting go. So onward with Proust! Sometimes this trait is good; without it I might not have made it through graduate school. I might not ride centuries either. At other times, my stubbornness gets silly.

Now and then I'd like to throttle Proust's narrator. Is it really that bad to leave your home and your mother and go to Balbec for a little while? Is it really so hard to sleep in a strange bed? Really??

George Sand's Indiana has begun well, but I'm afraid I might end up reading it in my distracted manner and won't do it justice. That would be a shame.

And I keep looking at my TBR shelves and thinking about everything I want to read and feeling frustrated that I'm obviously not getting there. I've got a whole new list of writers to look at after my post the other day on the Observer's list of great novels of the last 25 years, writers people recommended to me in the comments especially, such as JM Coetzee and John McGahern and Anthony Burgess. And Penelope Fitzgerald and Edna O'Brian.

I have this feeling that I've written pretty much this exact same post before -- in that case, sorry! I warned you this would be whiny.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Introductions and Prefaces

This is a follow-up to Danielle's post on Introductions and Prefaces, on whether to read them or not. I began George Sand's novel Indiana last night and went through an experience similar to Danielle's; I had to decide whether to read the intro and the several prefaces or just go straight to the story. As I was tired and had a longing to read an absorbing story, I skipped all the opening stuff and began with the novel's first sentence.

But I often do something a little more complicated, something more like skimming the intro hoping to find some good information on the book's background and themes without picking up any major plot points that will give the story away. Sometimes I'll look at an intro when I've gotten a little ways into the novel if I'm feeling confused or disoriented by the story; the intro will sometimes help clarify things. As for author prefaces, I usually feel like I should read those -- if the author thought something preface-like should be said, then perhaps I should read it. Last night, however, I was too tired for prefaces. I'll return to those later.

Danielle talks about the fear of not "getting it," and it's in this respect that reading or not reading introductions becomes complicated. I've felt that fear myself. I'd like to just read the novel and form my own opinion, notice what I notice, draw my own conclusions, and then test them against what the introducer says. When I'm tempted to read an introduction before the text, it's usually because I'm nervous about not getting it -- not a very good reason, is it? But I also don't want the experience of missing something important in the novel and reading the whole thing without that key piece of information or that key idea or theme. When that happens, I will read the introduction and get frustrated because I wish I'd known that information to help me make sense of the book. While some books are very accessible on their own, others really do benefit from a little background and extra information.

Thinking about all this, I start to think that the best way to read is to read things twice. Now excluding poems and short stories, I realize that's not feasible. But isn't it the ideal approach? I could read something once with absolutely no outside help, no introduction and no notes. And after finishing it the first time, I could read the introduction, get some information on the author, maybe read a little criticism, and then read the text again, in the light of everything I just read. And then I could read it having gotten most of the initial comprehension issues out of the way -- I'd know the plot and characters and some of the themes -- and I could begin to consider more complicated interpretive questions.

But I don't have the patience to read everything twice and don't plan on trying. I do think, however, that it's on a re-reading that I really begin to read.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Best novel of the last 25 years?

You've probably heard about the Observer's poll to find the best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel from the last 25 years. Like the American version of a while back, they asked a bunch of famous literary people to vote and came up with a list. I didn't like the American list at all, and got quite annoyed at the whole enterprise, but I'm not having that reaction this time. I'm guessing that's because I don't feel any "ownership" or any stake in this because it's not "my" country -- but as you can tell from my scare quotes, I don't particularly like feeling that way. Why feel any ownership over American literature? I'm someone who's spent an awful lot of time studying British literature anyway! A bad list is a bad list.

But I don't really know if the Observer's list is a bad one or not largely because I haven't read much on it. That probably explains my non-reaction. When I saw the list I immediately bookmarked it as a source of future reading suggestions, while the American list did not inspire me in that way at all.

In case you're too lazy to click over here are the top winners:

First place

Disgrace (1999)JM Coetzee

Second place

Money (1984)Martin Amis

Joint third place

Earthly Powers (1980)Anthony Burgess

Atonement (2001)Ian McEwan

The Blue Flower (1995)Penelope Fitzgerald

The Unconsoled (1995)Kazuo Ishiguro

Midnight's Children (1981)Salman Rushdie

Joint eighth place

The Remains of the Day (1989)Kazuo Ishiguro

Amongst Women (1990)John McGahern

That They May Face the Rising Sun (2001)John McGahern

Of these, I've read only The Remains of the Day and Midnight's Children, and I've listened to Atonement on CD. All these books I loved, especially the Ishiguro and McEwan. I've read other books by Martin Amis, but no Coetzee (although I've been considering it for a while), no Burgess (I haven't been interested, but maybe I should be?), no Fitzgerald (I'm guessing I'm missing out here), and no McGahern (no idea about this one).

There's a longer list of other nominations, which you'll have to click over to read; I am familiar with most of the names but some are completely new to me.

What do you think -- am I more interested in this list than the American one because it's a better list, or because I don't know enough about it to be disappointed in it?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens"

Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity

In a way, I'm hesitant to talk about Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens" as a story, since it shares so little with other short stories I'm familiar with. In what sense is this a story? In a lot of ways, it seems more accurate to call it a sketch, or maybe a prose poem. It consists of a description of a flower bed in Kew Gardens and a snail slowly making its way between the plants and around the leaves. It describes the colors and the light in minute details. We read of small groups of people who walk by the flower bed; we catch little bits of their conversations, enough to begin to piece together a story, but really only fragments before they move on and we lose sight of them.

What tempts me to call the work a prose poem is not so much the beautiful description, although there is plenty of that, but more the way it creates a mood, the people and the natural world together, so that the point is not what happens but how we feel as we read it. I'm also tempted to call it a prose poem because it gives us little glimpses of stories that we have to work to put together, in the way a poem will sometimes hint at a situation without fleshing it out, and focus on the feeling of that situation more than the events, even though the events are often implicit.

What we get from the vignettes are images, as we might find in poems, as when the first man thinks of 15 years previously when he sat in the gardens with Lily and asked her to marry him and she refused:

We sat somewhere over there by a lake and I begged her to marry me all through the hot afternoon. How the dragonfly kept circling round us: how clearly I see the dragonfly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe. All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say: the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe.

We picture the man staring at the Lily's shoe and watching its impatient movements and understanding his fate, and we also picture that same man 15 year later walking through the gardens with his wife and children and remembering Lily's rejection with relief and with regret.

We see an old man walking with a younger one:

The elder man had a curiously uneven and shaky method of walking, jerking his hand forward and throwing up his head abruptly, rather in the manner of an impatient carriage horse tired of waiting outside a house; but in the man these gestures were irresolute and pointless.

He talks incessantly to the younger man about spirits who are speaking to him of heaven, and the younger man's "look of stoical patience [grows] slowly deeper and deeper." With the older man's jerky movements and the younger man's strained calm, we put together the story of failing mental powers on the one hand and youthful health and energy on the other. Woolf gives these hints of story through the images themselves; they are vibrant because they are brief and sharply focused.

Woolf spends as much time describing the flower bed and the snail as she does the people; in fact, since there are four groups of people who walk by, the snail gets much more attention than any particular person does. The human stories are not privileged; the snail's decision whether to crawl around or over or under the leaf is just as important as whether Lily said yes or no. With Woolf's careful description of the flowers and the sunlight, she creates a feeling that the natural world, even though it is made up of individual parts that are fleeting, as a whole is more real and long-lasting than the human world.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Footnotes on footnotes

As Nicholson Baker nears the end of his novel The Mezzanine, his narrator begins talking about Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. We learn he has begun to read this book because of "a glowing mention in William Edward Hartpole Lecky's History of European Morals (which I had been attracted to, browsing in the library one Saturday, by the ambitious title and the luxurious incidentalism of the footnotes)." And here Baker inserts a footnote. This footnote starts off with anecdotes from Lecky's book and modulates into a discussion of footnotes themselves. This is the sentence with which the footnote ends:

Footnotes are the finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wider reality of the library.

I'm not entirely sure if that's a brilliant sentence or a terrible one. Maybe it's brilliant in its awfulness. But I love the idea that footnotes connect the book to the rest of the library, to a wider reality.

But back to the beginning -- Baker's narrator repeats a couple of the anecdotes from Lecky's book, one of which tells us that Spinoza "liked to entertain himself by dropping flies into spiders' webs, enjoying the resultant battle so much that he occasionally burst out laughing." The narrator considers why such side notes, such digressions are so much fun, and in doing so, he quotes Boswell on Samuel Johnson:

Upon this tour, when journeying, he [Johnson] wore boots, and a very wide brown cloth great coat, with pockets which might have almost held the two volumes of his folio dictionary; and he carried in his hand a large English oak stick. Let me not be censured for mentioning such minute particulars. Everything relative to so great a man is worth observing.

The narrator goes on, and here we get to the heart of his footnote on footnotes:

Boswell, like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote), and Gibbon before him, loved footnotes. They knew that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a tough protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italics, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of "ibid.s's" and "compare's" and "see's" that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in one's mind. They knew the anticipatory pleasure of sensing with peripheral vision, as they turned the page, a gray silt of further example and qualification waiting in tiny type at the bottom.

At the risk of boring you, here's a bit more:

Digression -- a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation, of the argument -- is sometimes the only way to be thorough, and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. And yet the MLA Style Sheet I owned in college warned against lengthy, "essay-like" footnotes. Were they nuts? Where is scholarship going? (They have removed this blemish in later editions.)

This whole book is an illustration of what Baker means by "luxurious incidentalism"; we find this in his footnotes, but we also find it in the text itself, which wanders from topic to topic as the narrator's mind wanders on his lunch break. I begin to wonder, not how Baker could write 135 pages about one morning, but how he could capture the whole morning in a mere 135 pages.

Footnotes on one's own thinking interest me. How does one decide what belongs in the main text and what belongs in a footnote, especially when the main text is itself already very digressive? To footnote someone else's text I understand, and to footnote one's own scholarly work with further details and explanations and documentations I understand, but to footnote a record of one's own thoughts, a record that is by no means smooth and sequential to begin with and is already full of footnote-like digressions -- that shows just how complicated it is to try to capture what goes on in a mind. If the "outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph," then neither is the "outer surface" of the mind.

I'm curious about this because the book ends with two endings, two climaxes, one in the main text and one in a footnote. The ending in the main text is quite simple: the narrator makes it to the top of the escalator. The footnote ending is about the resolution of the shoelace dilemma (what, exactly, wears them down and causes them to snap?) After researching the question exhaustively, the narrator finds a 1984 volume of World Textile Abstracts, with the following entry by the Polish researcher Z. Czaplicki:

Two mechanical devices for testing the abrasion resistance and knot slippage performance of shoe laces are described and investigated. Polish standards are discussed.

Here is the narrator's response:

I let out a small cry and slapped by hand down on the page. The joy I felt maybe difficult for some to understand. Here was a man, Z. Czaplicki, who had to know! He was not going to abandon the problem with some sigh about complexity and human limitation after a minute's thought, as I had, and go to lunch -- he was going to make the problem his life's work ... A great man! I left the library relieved. Progress was being made. Someone was looking into the problem. Mr. Czaplicki, in Poland, would take it from there.

He doesn't discover what makes shoelaces wear out, but there is somebody out there just as fascinated by the question as he is. The footnote ending shadows the main text ending, but in a way it is more important than the main text ending. The footnote ending points the reader out of the novel, out of the narrator's mind, out to the world; it is an example of those "finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wider reality of the library."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine

I finished The Mezzanine last night and loved it. If you've ever been tempted to read Nicholson Baker but haven't yet, or even if you've never been tempted, I'd say give him a try. This is one sort of book I love very much -- a non-traditional narrative that's more about thoughts and ideas than about plot. It's the kind of book where the narrator's personality makes or breaks it; it's all about voice. If the voice is good, it doesn't matter what the subject is. It's a novel that's closer to the essay than it is to more traditional novels.

The subject of this book, that I say doesn't matter so much? Let's see. The main events include riding an escalator, contemplating why the two shoelaces on a pair of shoes snapped within a short time of each other, shopping at CVS, eating a cookie and milk, talking to work colleagues, and visiting the bathroom. The book describes the escalator ride from the vantage point of a few years afterward, and it moves backward from the escalator ride to describe the morning at work which precedes it and the lunch break which the ride brings to an end.

But these things aren't really the subjects of the book. The real subjects are the way the narrator's mind works and his enthusiasm for the little details of modern life. This enthusiasm is boundless. When the second shoelace snaps shortly after the first one did, the narrator sets off on a quest to discover how shoelaces wear out. Is it because of the stress caused by pulling the laces tight when he ties them? Or is it the wear on the laces caused by the slight friction of lace against shoe every time he takes a step?

Now that I think about it, I realize that there are a number of more traditional narratives and genres that the book plays with, one being the quest narrative. While a quest to discover why shoelaces wear and break might seem small, what this narrator is really after is knowledge of those details that shape our day-to-day lives that most of us don't even notice, much less understand. He's showing that those details matter -- they are our lives, after all. We are surrounded by things we don't understand, things we use without knowing where they came from or how they got to us, or how they function and why they break. He wants to dig those details out and examine them and understand them.

He also wants to understand the way the mind works. In one passage, he considers the "periodicity of regularly returning thoughts," the number of times he thinks of a particular thing a year. If he can study and chart this, he can understand his mental life much better; without this study, he has only a vague impression of what thoughts he actually devotes his energy to. He realizes how complicated such an endeavor would be, but he makes a chart with his best estimates, a chart that occupies a couple pages of text, and tells us that he thought about how "people are very dissimilar" about 16 times a year, and about how "people are very similar" about 12 times a year. And he thinks about staplers 7 times a year and escalator invention 12 times.

This sounds rather Proustian, doesn't it?

Some of these thoughts are inspired by Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, a book the narrator carries with him on his lunch break. Here is another traditional form Baker draws on, for his own book could be called meditations -- meditations on the world the narrator has found himself in. He never reads very much of Aurelius's Meditations, but he has it with him because he fell in love with one line he came across by chance while looking at the book in the bookstore. Here's the line:

Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!

The narrator's response to the line is this:

Wo! I loved the slight awkwardness and archaism of the sentence, full of phrases that never come naturally to people's lips now but once had: "condition of life," "so well adapted for," "chance finds you," as well as the unexpected but apt rush to an exclamation point at the end. But mainly I thought that the statement was extraordinarily true and that if I bought that book and learned how to act upon that single sentence I would be led into elaborate realms of understanding, even as I continued to do, outwardly, exactly as I had done, going to work, going to lunch, going home, talking to L. on the phone or having her over for the night.

And that, you could say, is the book in a nutshell, from the enthusiasm in that opening "Wo!" to the list of things that make up an ordinary day at the passage's end, to the idea in the passage's middle that one can live an ordinary life profoundly.

And lest you think this book is all seriousness, let me say it's hilariously funny, and I often laughed out loud as I read. The bathroom scene -- generally I'm not big on bathroom humor, but that bathroom scene -- ah, just read it.

I haven't even gotten to the footnotes yet, but perhaps I'll come back to them tomorrow. I must talk about the footnote on footnotes and the footnotes on the resolution of the shoelace conundrum. It's a very moving passage, something I never thought I'd say about a passage on shoelaces.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

On teaching

So I signed up for a workshop at my job that teaches instructional skills; it's called, logically enough, an Instructional Skills Workshop, or ISW. The workshop involves four Fridays this October. We met yesterday for four hours, and we'll meet the next three Fridays for seven hours and learn about things like creating effective lesson plans, formulating learning outcomes, assessing student learning, and encouraging student participation in class.

On the one hand, all that sounds kind of boring and bureaucratic. Say the words "outcomes" and "assessment" to average academics and they will roll their eyes. On the other hand, though, today's workshop was fun, and I think I'll learn a lot. It's very practical, so what I'm learning will be directly usable in class. I'm guessing it's kind of like coursework you might do for a degree in elementary or secondary education -- where they actually teach you how to teach -- shortened into four days. And that sounds like a very good idea to me, since many, many college instructors don't get formal training in pedagogy. I got some training in how to teach writing, but very little in how to manage a classroom. My problem is that while I know some things about good teaching, my knowledge is kind of vague and nebulous, and this sort of workshop will help me be more consistent and systematic about doing the things good teachers do.

This kind of workshop works for me, since I'm more of a planner than a spontaneous teacher, and this way I'll learn better ways to plan. The things we're learning don't preclude some spontaneity anyway. This is one way the Hobgoblin and I are quite different; he's got a post on more spontaneous forms of teaching, which sound great but just aren't my style. I think I'm learning ways to play to my strengths as a teacher rather than trying to be a kind of teacher I'm not (the kind who can wing it successfully).

The main part of the workshop is a series of mini-lessons all the participants have to do: one a week for the next three weeks. I'm supposed to do a 10-minute lesson on whatever I want next Friday, so I'm wracking my brains for what I can teach. The workshop leaders recommend teaching something out of one's discipline -- a hobby or non-academic skill one has, for example. So I might teach something related to cycling. I'd thought about doing a lesson on how to watch a bike race; i.e. how to make sense of what's happening. But the lesson is supposed to be interactive in some way, and I'm not sure how to teach that lesson interactively. Then I thought of teaching the concept of the pace line -- what it is and why cyclists use them. I can be interactive with this lesson easily -- I can make everyone form a line and pretend we're riding and act out the paceline's movements.

Anything about cycling anybody out there has always wanted to know? I don't think anyone else in the group knows much about it, so I can get away with teaching the basics.

We'll get videotaped as we teach, but, thank God, we're not forced to watch ourselves. We'll get feedback on our teaching, which will be fine, but I can't handle the thought of watching myself on tape. And I don't even own a VCR, so I have no easy way to watch the tape anyway. What a relief.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Reading notes

Diana has a post on how she's storing up for the winter in various ways, including stocking up on books, and that's what I appear to be doing too, although there's no need for me to panic about running out of reading material, since I can walk to four used bookstores in town. But I have the urge to acquire and accumulate also, and I haven't resisted it. I haven't really even tried. Recent acquisitions include:

  • Geraldine Brooks's novel Year of Wonders, about the plague -- which makes two books I own about the plague, the other being the nonfiction book The Great Mortality. Some fun winter reading!
  • The Time Traveler's Wife, which everyone I know who has read it (which includes quite a lot of people) says I should read and will like. Looking forward to it.
  • James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which is quite a wonderful title. I heard about this from Jane Smiley's book on the novel.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters. I've read one book by Gaskell, North and South, and liked it and am looking forward to another. I love 19C novels, and I'm happy that Gaskell has written quite a number of novels I haven't read. I like all the potential that means.
  • Colette's Cheri and The Last of Cheri, because, of course, since I'm reading the biography of Colette, I have to read more of her own writing as well. And this is the one Litlove recommended to me.
  • Virginia Woolf's Moments of Being, uncollected autobiographical writings, because I can never get enough of Woolf. Thanks to Diana, who is sending me the book!
  • Finally (for now), Carolyn Heilbrun's Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, because I read about it on some blog, and I can't remember which, and it sounded really cool.

Plenty of good choices here, I know, and plenty more on the TBR shelves that have been there for a while. I should be okay this winter.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Proust and Joyce

There's a review (not available online) in the 10/19 New York Review of Books of a new book on Proust, Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose book Changed Paris by Richard Davenport-Hines. The book tells the story of an exclusive supper party hosted by Violet and Sydney Schiff, who held the party in order to introduce Proust and James Joyce. Here's the reviewer's account:

The Schiffs behaved like zoo-keepers coaxing two rare and skittish beasts into the same cage and hoping that something magical would come of their brief union -- a bon mot, a fascinating discussion, a lasting friendship. The scene was set for one of the great meetings of Modernist minds. The food had already been cleared away when a shabby, drunken man blundered in, sat down next to Sydney Schiff, and, according to the art critic Clive Bell, "remained speechless with his head in his hands and a glass of champagne in front of him." Later, he was heard to snore. This was the author of Ulysses. Then, between two and three o'clock in the morning, a small, dapper figure wrapped in a fur coat slipped into the dining room. If Clive Bell's description is accurate, he looked somewhat like a rat: "sleek and dank and plastered." This was the author of A la recherche du temps perdu.

Joyce and Proust failed to live up to the historic occasion. There was no sparkling conversation and the two writers never met again. This did not prevent gossips and writers of memoirs from inventing the dialogue later on. Davenport-Hines quotes six different versions, the most interestingly boring of which is the version Joyce himself gave to Frank Budgen:

"Our talk consisted solely of the word 'no.' Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, 'No.' Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, 'no.' And so on. Of course the situation was impossible."

Something about this pleases me. Why should two great writers perform for these people after all? It would feel like an obvious set-up, like two single people at a dinner party who are clearly supposed to meet and fall in love. It would make me want to rebel and act badly.

The review also describes Proust's apartment, his last home, on the Rue Hamelin, and sheds some light on "involuntary memory." Objects in the apartment:

were not ornaments but the apparatus of experiments in progress. Sydney Schiff noticed that a particular object -- a jug, a coffee cup, or a half-emptied beer glass that had caught the sun in a particularly way -- would be left where it was. "Sometimes he insisted on it remaining indefinitely, because he wanted to renew the sensation it had given him." In A la recherche du temps perdu, these apparently trivial sensations occur only by chance. They bring about the epiphanic moments when the narrator grasps the whole "edifice of memory" and can begin to transform "lost time" into a work of art. In Proust's apartment, those sensations were continually on tap. The apartment in the Rue Hamelin was a novelist's laboratory in which involuntary memories could be generated at will.

So -- is it involuntary memory or not? I'm not sure what to make of the real-life difference from the novel. I like the idea of the artist's apartment as a laboratory, but it makes the ideas about memory in the novel seem artificial. As I'm reading Proust, I tend to think of it as reflecting reality -- as Proust's ideas about what life and the mind are really like -- but of course, it's fiction and there's no reason to think the narrator's ideas are necessarily Proust's. He's just so good at making you think that the narrator is Proust and that we're getting Proust's thoughts, when really, that's not how it works. I know that's not how it works, but the experience of reading makes me forget.

I learned another interesting thing from the review:

A man who subjects himself to a steady diet of caffeine, opiates, barbiturates, amyl nitrate, and pure adrenalin is unlikely to remain oblivious to the functioning of his brain. The quantity and variety of drugs that went into the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu are probably unparalleled in French literature. Proust urged his critics not to trace facile patterns of cause and effect when analyzing the process of literary creation, but it is probably reasonable to suppose that the vivid, hallucinatory memories that the narrator of his novel enjoys at intervals of several years were more common occurences for the author, and that they were produced by substances less innocuous than a madeleine dipped in a cup of herbal tea.

Quite interesting, yes?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A mad King George III chases Frances Burney in Kew Gardens

So I just read this extraordinary passage in Frances Burney's Journals and Letters that I'll give you some excerpts from; this is from February 1789 and King George III is suffering from a bout of insanity. Burney has a position as "Second Keeper of the Robes" to Queen Charlotte, so she's a part of court life, but she's trying to stay away from the king because he's rather unpredictable. She fails:

I strolled into the Garden; I had proceeded, in my quick way, nearly half the round, when I suddenly perceived, through some Trees, two or three figures ... I concluded them to be workmen, and Gardeners;--yet tried to look sharp, -- and in so doing, as they were less shaded, I thought I saw the Person of his Majesty!

Alarmed past all possible expression, I waited not to know more, but turning back, ran off with all my might -- But what was my terror to hear myself pursued! -- to hear the voice of the King himself, loudly and hoarsely calling after me "Miss Burney! Miss Burney!--"

I protest I was ready to die; I knew not in what state he might be at the time; I only knew the orders to keep out of his way were universal; that the Queen would highly disapprove any unauthorised meeting, and that the very action of my running away might deeply, in his present irritable state, offend him.

Heavens how I ran! -- I do not think I should have felt the hot Lava from Vesuvius, -- at least not the hot Cinders, had I so ran during its Eruption. My feet were not sensible that they even touched the Ground.

He chases her for a while, along with some attendants who are trying to get her to stop. She refuses and keeps running out of terror. Finally she stops when the attendants tell her it hurts the king to run:

When they were within a few yards of me, the King called out "Why did you run away?--"

Shocked at a question impossible to answer, yet a little assured by the mild tone of his voice, I instantly forced myself forward, to meet him -- though the internal sensation which satisfied me this was a step the most proper, to appease his suspicions and displeasure, was so violently combatted by the tremor of my nerves, that I fairly think I may reckon it the greatest effort of personal courage I have ever made.

The effort answered, -- I looked up, and met all his wonted benignity of Countenance, though something still of wildness in his Eyes. Think, however, of my surprise, to feel him put both his hands round my two shoulders, and then kiss my Cheek! I wonder I did not really sink, so exquisite was my affright when I saw him spread out his arms! -- Involuntarily, I concluded he meant to crush me; -- but the Willis's, who have never seen him till the fatal illness, not knowing how very extraordinary an action this was from him, simply smiled and looked pleased, supposing, perhaps, it was his customary salutation!

I have reason, however, to believe it was but the joy of a Heart unbridled now, by the forms and proprieties of established customs, and sober Reason ...