This will be a pooter-ish post, one that might get me soundly mocked. But, in the spirit of Danielle's post from yesterday and in the spirit of book-blogging solidarity, because many people think lists and reading plans and TBR piles are fun, here we go!
Inspired by another one of Danielle's posts, I'm going to try my own list of books I'd re-read. I'd like to re-read more than I do because, if the book is a good one, the second time around feels so much richer. I sometimes retain so little of what I read, and I'm afraid it's because I rush through things and don't absorb them properly. But there are so many wonderful new books out there ... anyway, here's a list of things I'd likely turn to if I got the urge to re-read.
1. Anything by Jane Austen, even though I've already re-read the novels a lot. In fact, I've read all her major novels except Northanger Abbey multiple times; I don't even know how many times. I turn to them when I want something comfortable and familiar and lengthy; they feel like an indulgence. I've also been assigned many of her books for various classes. What I haven't done is read her juvenalia, which I really must do some day.
2. The Moonstone. I'm guessing that many of the books in this list will be ones I've already read multiple times. I can be such a creature of habit. The Moonstone is wonderful fun and I never seem to tire of it; I think I've read it twice, although it's possible I've read it a third time. At any rate, I'd be happy to read it again. What I really like is the way Collins tells the same story from multiple perspectives.
3. Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and/or Mrs. Dalloway. To the Lighthouse I've read at least twice; I'm not sure about Mrs. Dalloway, but I love them both.
4. A.S. Byatt's Possession. I'm not being original here -- Danielle mentioned this one too -- but it was so much fun. This is one I've read only once.
5. The Anne of Green Gables books. I've read these books who knows how many times, but I've never re-read them as an adult. It would be interesting to see if my responses to them would change.
6. Anything by George Eliot. I've already read Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda twice and Adam Bede and Silas Marner once. I read The Mill on the Floss in High School, so that's probably the one I'd choose were I to read Eliot again. What can I say -- I love the Victorian novel.
7. Crime and Punishment. I read this book during college, I think, in the summer, and was enthralled. I'd like to go back and see if I have the same intense experience.
8. The Phillip Pullman series. I read this just last spring and tore my way through them; I'd get a kick out of doing it again. This sounds like a wonderful thing to do during the holidays -- just hunker down and read fun novels really fast.
9. Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay. If I haven't read all the essays in that book, I've read most of them and they are definitely worth returning to.
10. Swann's Way. Yeah, I read it just last summer, but this is a book that rewards multiple readings and I can already see that I'm going to want to look at parts of In Search of Lost Time again.
11. Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes. I love this kind of smart, quirky, unconventional novel.
12. Flannery O'Connor's short stories. She's so fascinating and odd and she's such a master of the short story, I can see myself re-reading some or all of them. Maybe her novels too, both of which I've read once each.
13. Mary Oliver's book of poems American Primitive. Poetry is an obvious thing to re-read -- it can be so complex and rich and it's short and so doesn't require a huge time commitment -- and yet I didn't think of it much as I was making this list.
I could probably think of more, but I was beginning to slow down toward the end of that list; I guess when I re-read I tend to turn to the same very small number of books, mainly Victorian or early 20C novels. I could have put Tolstoy and James on that list too.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
This will be a pooter-ish post, one that might get me soundly mocked. But, in the spirit of Danielle's post from yesterday and in the spirit of book-blogging solidarity, because many people think lists and reading plans and TBR piles are fun, here we go!
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
I just got a copy of Julio Cortazar's novel Hopscotch through Bookmooch, and although the truth of the matter is that I won't read it for quite a while (not because I don't want to, but because of all my other reading obligations and desires), I was intrigued by its form -- and also set a bit on edge by it.
The novel comes with a "Table of Instructions" (which will make more sense if you know the novel has 155 chapters):
In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.
The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.
The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and then following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter. In case of confusion or forgetfulness, one need only consult the following list:
73-1-2-116-3-84-4-71-5 [I won't give you all the numbers, but they continue on for 10 lines or so of text].
Each chapter has its number at the top of every right-hand page to facilitate the search.
I'm not sure what to make of this, and I don't know how I'll read the book when I do get to it. The notion of reading the first 56 out of 155 chapters and then quitting with "a clean conscience" seems highly unrealistic, given my intense desire to finish books -- finish them all the way to the end. There's no way I'd quit after 56 out of 155 chapters with a clean conscience.
But following the jumbled-up sequence of chapters doesn't seem quite the thing to do either. It upsets my notions of how to read a book.
The other option, of course, is to disregard the Table of Instructions and read the thing from cover to cover in the normal way. But ... would that work? Would it make any sense at all?
I'm curious about what the different ways of reading would be like. I suppose there's another option, which is to read the novel in the two ways the author describes: once through the end of chapter 56, and then once following the jumbled sequence of chapters. That way I'd know what the two experiences are like, and I'd be following instructions like the obedient reader I tend to be. But that would take a lot of time and would require re-reading large chunks of the novel. Maybe even I am not prepared to be that obedient.
I realize that my uneasy feelings must be part of Cortazar's point; he's making me aware of my conventionality in reading, my obedience, my feeling that I must complete books, my need to have the experience I think the author wants me to have. He's making me question the traditional arc of a story, the convention of reading from cover to cover, and my assumptions of what must be included to make a story complete (at least I think he's doing these things -- can't really say until I read the thing I suppose).
Has anybody read this novel before, and, if so, how did you do it? If not, which reading method would you choose?
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
I've begun Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, a book about his walk across Afghanistan starting in January, 2002. It's quite absorbing, and it makes me want to go on adventures. Before this trip, he'd spent 16 months walking across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, but he'd had to skip Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to let him into the country. After the fall of the Taliban, he decided to give it another try. This is how he begins his Preface:
I'm not good at explaining why I walked across Afghanistan. Perhaps I did it because it was an adventure. But it was the most interesting part of my journey across Asia.I love that attitude, the "I'm not sure why I did it, I just wanted to" attitude. Because why do anything at all, really? In a lot of ways walking across Asia makes as much sense as anything else anybody might choose to do. So he walked across Asia because it was there and he could.
Can I tell you how much this makes me want to go off on some crazy, senseless adventure?
So far the book is very well written, very absorbing, and full of sentences like these:
It was possible that they had simply told Qasim and Abdul Haq to take me outside the city and kill me. No one would notice in the middle of a war. I felt it would be ludicrous to be killed only eight kilometers into my journey and not for the first time worried that when I was killed people would think me foolhardy.
I've read story after story of Stewart walking into strange villages with no idea whether he'll be welcomed or attacked. In his previous walks, people had always taken him in, following customs of hospitality, but in Afghanistan things are not so simple -- while the hospitality custom is still strong, so is fear of strangers in a country so unsettled.
Stewart briefly describes what fills his mind while he's walking day after day. This is the only passage I've come across so far that talks about walking in a more theoretical way; I kind of wish he'd do it more often, but that's not what the book is about (and if you're interested in that subject, I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust):
Before I started, I imagined I could fill my days by composing an epic poem in my head or writing a novel about a Scottish village that would become more rooted in a single place as I kept moving. In Iran I tried earnestly to think through philosophical arguments, learn Persian vocabulary, and memorize poetry. Perhaps this is why I never felt quite at ease walking in Iran.As an occasional backpacker, I'm interested in what people think about when they spend hours walking (or something similar like running or riding) -- for me, sometimes get in the meditative mood Stewart describes and I agree with him that it's one of the best things about walking.
In Pakistan, having left the desert and entered the lush Doab of the Punjab, I stopped trying to think and instead looked at peacocks in trees and the movement of the canal water. In India, when I was walking from one pilgrimage site to another across the Himalayas, I carried the Bhagavad Gita open in my left hand and read one line at a time. In the center of Nepal, I began to count my breaths and my steps, and to recite phrases to myself, pushing thoughts away. This is the way some people meditate. I could only feel that calm for at most an hour a day. It was, however, a serenity I had not felt before. It was what I valued most about walking.
More on this book later ...
Monday, November 27, 2006
One part of me says I should leave this alone, but another part of me can't resist saying something. I'm talking, as you probably guess, about John Sutherland's article on the sorry state of web reviewing (mainly Amazon reviews but also blogs) and Rachel Cooke's article on how dull and badly written book blogs are (I came across the links at the Literary Saloon).
It's the Cooke article that interests me most; she sums up the significance of the disagreements over web reviewing thusly:
The question that Sutherland has raised - what effect is the internet having on criticism? - is not only fair; it is one that no one who cares about art, and especially writing, can ignore.Cooke says that professional reviewing and book blogging can coexist at present, but she's worried that someday "serious criticism" might disappear so that we are left with only "the populist warblings of the blogosphere." She dearly hopes that this will never happen.
At this point, I'm with her -- I think it would be a shame to lose the professional criticism we've got. I read it and value it.
But then she goes on to attack book blogs, and at this point she loses me. She spends a day reading blogs and comes away very unimpressed, citing examples of blogs she can live without. But I don't think she's done her research very well. Anybody can come along and pick a few sentences out of a blog and hold them up for ridicule; I could do it myself with my own blog writing (I can see it now -- "she reads a Jane Kenyon poem and all she can say is 'I like this poem because it reminds me of how wonderful it is to walk in the woods in winter'?"). Many blogs create their effect over time; people find pleasure in them because they get to know the blogger's voice and sensibility and interests, and if they like those things, they come back day after day, even to read the less-than-stellar posts.
Perhaps Cooke is not interested in spending that much time getting to know a blogger's voice, but one day's reading will only give her a taste of all the blogs out there. If she wants high-quality writing all the time, I'm positive she can find it on a blog, if only she would look around a little more. The thing that bothered me most about Cooke's article was her claim that there's no good writing on the internet, that good writing must be paid for:
I read and I read; I dutifully followed every link. And come supper time all I could think was that not a sentence I'd read was a millionth as good as anything in The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby's recently published diary of 'an exasperated but ever hopeful reader'. Why? Because his words are measured, rather than spewed, out; because he is a good critic, and an experienced one; and because he can write. The trouble is, these qualities are exceptional - which is why they must be paid for.I encounter excellent writing on blogs every day. It's absurd to believe that one has to pay for good writing; bloggers write for all kinds of reasons and many of them, while being good writers, aren't interested in making a living from it. It's possible Cooke and I have radically different ideas of what constitutes good writing, but it's much more likely she wasn't really giving bloggers a fair chance.
There are all kinds of blogs -- book review blogs, publishing industry gossip sites, reading diaries -- and only some of them have the kind of reviews and articles that might get published in the mainstream media. So it strikes me as odd that when criticizing book blogs, people tend to blame them for not living up to the standards of professional reviewing. Why can't bloggers have different purposes and do radically different things than one finds in newspapers and magazines? If Cooke finds reading diaries dull, which it's her right to do, then there are plenty of other people who love them. What blogs do so wonderfully is open up the possibility for new kinds of writing, so it makes no sense to me to dismiss blogs for not doing the same old thing.
And I'm not buying the idea that professional writers and reviewers must be at odds with book bloggers. Why the hostility? Will internet book reviewing really place traditional, professional criticism at risk? I don't know, actually, but what I hope will happen is that the two will exist side by side -- ideally without the carping -- and that the various types of writing about books will enrich the others. Amateur book bloggers have much to learn from professional critics -- and vice versa. And the two categories overlap anyway; some professional writers have their own blogs, some literary critics keep reading diaries online, some people who make a living off one type of writing turn to the internet to produce another. There ought to a fruitful relationship here, not antagonism.
Update: You simply must check out this hysterical response to the controversy.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
After doing the poetry meme yesterday, I'm inspired to give you a Jane Kenyon poem I read recently and really liked. It's also appropriate for the upcoming season:
Depression in WinterI like this poem because it reminds me of how wonderful it is to walk in the woods in winter -- to notice little things like the thawed space near the rock Kenyon is describing, and to see green things here and there, as a reminder that spring will come soon. The Hobgoblin and I have done a lot of winter hiking, sometimes involving laboring our way through several feet of snow and occasionally involving temperatures barely in the double digits. There's nothing more exhilarating than a tramp through the snow and nothing nicer than coming home again and warming up with a hot shower and some food.
There comes a little space between the south
side of a boulder
and the snow that fills the woods around it.
Sun heats the stone, reveals
A crescent of bare ground: brown ferns,
and tufts of needles like red hair,
acorns, a patch of moss, bright green ....
I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness --
until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.
But Kenyon's not talking about that kind of walk -- the poem also reminds me of how well a walk in the woods can transform my mood. I never come home feeling the same as when I left. I think I know what Kenyon means by being "greedy for unhappiness" -- I get like that sometimes: mildly depressed and doing my best to stay that way. And a walk will almost always break me out of that rut; whether it's seeing something beautiful like Kenyon did in the poem, or whether it's the movement and exercise that does it, I don't know, but I rarely come home from a walk unhappy.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
The Hobgoblin tagged me to do Cam's poetry meme, so here goes:
1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was.... Surely nursery rhymes were among the earliest. This question makes you think about what a poem is, doesn't it? I remember nursery rhymes, songs, chants from when I was a kid. I remember reading Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" for school. Oh, yeah, and I remember reading Ogden Nash early on too.
2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and........ I wasn't forced to memorize poems in school until I got to college, and then only one professor required it. That's quite a shame, really, because there's no better way to learn about poetry than memorizing it, I think. You get an intimate feel for how a poem works. I memorized W.H. Auden's poem "Under Sirius."
3. I read/don't read poetry because....I read poems because I enjoy it and want to figure out more about how poems work. I only began reading poetry semi-regularly early this year, so I still feel strange calling myself a poetry reader. I read poems when I was in college and shortly after, but then I stopped for a long time. It's not that I didn't want to read them, I just never figured out a way to fit them into my life. Now I have a volume I keep on my shelf next to my reading chair, and I read a few poems a week. It's not much, but it gets me through a book in a couple months.
4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is .......I'd have to name poets rather than poems, as favorite poems don't come to mind. Favorite poets? Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson.
5. I write/don't write poetry, but..............I don't write poetry, although I can't say I never will. But I just have no idea how to write one. I mean, what constitutes a poem? What should it be about? I have no idea. And I have little idea, to be honest, about what makes a good poem. As someone who teaches poetry now and then, maybe I shouldn't admit that, but it's true. It's easy to teach older stuff because it's generally accepted as good, but newer stuff, I have a hard time saying. That's one reason I'm curious about reading more poems, to get a feel for how they work and what makes a poem great.
6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature.....I don't really get poetry. My students sometimes say that and they mean it negatively, but I'm not being negative here. I don't really think there's anything to "get" about poetry, actually -- that makes it sound like there's a key or code to understanding it, which there isn't beyond being familiar with tradition and form. I just mean I find it rather mystifying -- and that's part of what makes it fun.
7. I find poetry..... well, mystifying. In a good way. Sometimes enlightening, often beautiful.
8. The last time I heard poetry....The local coffee shop has an open mic on Wednesday nights and last February they had a day where people could bring their love poetry/erotic poetry to read. A lot of people showed up to read and to listen, and there was a lot of good energy in the room. It was fun.
9. I think poetry is like....Litlove wrote in a comment a while back that a poem is like a dream, and I've found that idea useful. I was initially resistant because I generally don't find dreams and dream interpretations all that interesting, but the analogy does work; a poem often has loosely connected images that fit together in some shadowy half-known way, just as a dream does. A poem can get at truths in that sideways way a dream can.
I tag ... whoever wants to do this great meme!
Friday, November 24, 2006
So I finished Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree yesterday, just as I thought I might. The weather never did get nice enough to go on a bike ride, although The Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I did go on a hour-long walk in the rain at our local woodsy park. After that, it was nice to come home and take a warm shower and stay indoors for most of the rest of the day.
I thought the book was a lot of fun. It's rather addictive; I'd finish a chapter and consider moving on to something else or drifting off to sleep, but then I'd look at the list of books read and books bought that begins the next chapter, and I'd think, oh, just one more. Next thing I knew, the book was finished. Hornby's attitude toward books is infectious. I like how he reads all kinds of different stuff; he writes just as well and just as enthusiastically about a collection of Chekhov's letters as he does about, say, Mystic River.
There were a couple things that bugged me. He has a bit of an attitude about the "literary novel"; he reads them and reads them happily, but he picks on them an awful lot, to the extent that I began to wonder why, and I also began to wonder if it's really so clear just what the "literary novel" is. Is it really a clearly-defined category? When talking about Chris Coake's book of short stories We're in Trouble he says this:
Sometimes, when you're reading the stories, you forget to breathe, which probably means that you read them with more speed than the writer intended. Are they literary? They're beautifully written, and they have bottom, but they're never dull, and they all contain striking and dramatic narrative ideas. And Coake never draws attention to his own art and language; he wants you to look at his people, not listen to his voice. So they're literary in the sense that they're serious, and will probably be nominated for prizes, but they're unliterary in the sense that they could end up mattering to people.Now this strikes me as unfair. Why should the "literary" be that which doesn't matter to people? I think he's got too much invested in this idea of the literary and that he too easily categorizes and dismisses books based on their supposedly "literary" qualities and readers based on their devotion to those qualities, whatever they are. I'm not sure most readers actually read with this category in mind.
Hornby plays around with Hemingwayesque, hyper-masculine posturing about books and writing a little too much for my taste. Books are always in a battle with other books or with other forms of art. This is what's on the book jacket; it's quite funny -- but also ... eh, not my thing:
Books are, let's face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. The Magic Flute vs. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. The Last Supper vs. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don't know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. You might get the occasional exception -- Blonde on Blonde might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say, and I wouldn't give much for Pale Fire's chances against Citizen Kane. And every now and then you'd get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I'm still backing literature twenty-nine times out of thirty.This is clever, but after a couple of passages about fights among books and the degree of strength or wussiness it requires to write, I start to feel a little alienated. What saves it for me is that Hornby is not actually taking any of it seriously; he's mocking himself a bit, pretty much admitting he's not very good at the Hemingwayesque, hyper-masculine stuff.
I didn't come away with a lot of new books I want to read, although I did pick up a couple of recommendations. One is Gabriel Zaid's So Many Books; I remember Jenny D. has an intriguing post on it. The other is Janet Malcolm's book on Chekhov, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey. This seems like a very interesting mix of literary criticism and personal narrative, a combination I like very much.
Thursday, November 23, 2006
My day will be quiet; the Hobgoblin and I are staying home and having Thanksgiving dinner all by ourselves -- well, with Muttboy, of course, who will get his share of the food (although not nearly as much as he'd like). Our closest relatives, my parents, are five hours away, and while such a drive is possible, we don't usually make it on Thanksgiving, largely because we're too swamped with school work to take much time off. Yes, unfortunately, my Thanksgiving weekend will be spent grading. I still haven't decided whether I'll grade today or not; it sucks to work on a holiday, but it also sucks to have even more work on the remaining days because I took one day off. Yes, the glamorous life of the teacher.
Even if I do a little work, though, I'll still have plenty of time for other things: eating, of course, and maybe a bike ride if it doesn't rain all day, and I may even have time to finish Proust's In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. I'm about 30 pages from the end. Or I may rush through The Polysyllabic Spree, just because it's so much fun. I'll surely read at least one more Alice Munro story, and I may even read a few poems from Jane Kenyon's Otherwise, a book I've neglected lately.
At any rate, to American readers, enjoy the holiday! To others, have a great day too!
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
I've seen on a couple of blogs that this is de-lurking week. I've de-lurked on a couple blogs myself -- anybody out there want to say hi?
Ooh -- I just discovered the de-lurking idea came from RevGalBlogPals, and there's a cool image that goes with it:
In addition to Alice Munro's Runaway, I recently began Nick Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree, and I'm enjoying it immensely. I remember other bloggers writing about this book enthusiastically, and I couldn't resist. Apparently books about books are what I need these days; I'm reading this book shortly after Sara Nelson's So Many Books -- although I think I'll like Hornby's book better. Books about books are good during times of stress I think -- they are usually fairly light reading, they make good company, and they keep me thinking about things I'll read when I have more time.
Hornby organizes his book into chapters that cover one month's reading. For each month, he begins with a list of books bought and books read, and then he discusses those books for a few pages, not in a whole lot of depth, but very amusingly. Somehow he manages to say substantive things in very short chapters, so that I don't feel he's rushing through his book discussions but I don't get bogged down in details either. Sara Nelson's book had a similar format, short chapters covering her reading over a certain period of time, but I finished her book feeling that the tone was too breezy and that she hadn't really said all that much. Hornby doesn't go into depth, but somehow he captures the essence of his response to a book in a way that's both succint and satisfying. I'm not sure how else to account for why I liked one book and not the other except to say that it might just be a personality thing. In these books, personality is everything.
Side note -- I feel a little bad picking on Sara Nelson in the way that I have over a few posts now. Just recently, Kimbofo had a post asking people if they review books they don't like. I do. I believe it's important to think about what doesn't work in a book and why, and I think such analysis makes book talk everywhere stronger and more interesting. But I do still feel a little bad.
An excerpt from Hornby on rereading and on forgetting:
I don't reread books very often; I'm too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality. (I recently discovered that a friend who was rereading Bleak House had done no other Dickens apart from Barnaby Rudge. That's just weird. I shamed and nagged him into picking up Great Expectations instead.) But when I tried to recall anything about [Stop-Time by Frank Conroy] other than its excellence, I failed. Maybe there was something about a peculiar stepfather? Or was that This Boy's Life? And I realized that, as this is true of just about every book I consumed between the ages of, say, fifteen and forty, I haven't even read the books I think I've read. I can't tell you how depressing this is. What's the fucking point?It's both depressing and it's true -- it's true for me certainly; my memory of what I've read can be so bad. And here's Hornby doing the numbers on what he's read:
I read 55 percent of the books I bought this month -- five and a half out of ten. Two of the unread books, however, are volumes of poetry, and, to my way of thinking, poetry books work more like books of reference: They go up on the shelves straight away (as opposed to onto the bedside table), to be taken down and dipped into every now and again ... And anyway, anyone who is even contemplating ploughing straight through over a thousand pages of [Robert] Lowell's poetry clearly needs a cable TV subscription, or maybe even some friends, a relationship, and a job. So if it's OK with you, I'm taking the poetry out, and calling it five and a half out of eight -- and the Heller I've read before, years ago, so that's six and a half out of eight. I make that 81 1/4 percent! I am both erudite and financially prudent!I suppose one reason I'm liking the book is that I often think this way myself -- maybe without the humor, but certainly with the obsession.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
I began Alice Munro's book of short stories Runaway last night, and I finished the first one, the title story. I haven't been a big reader of short stories; what Diana said about the effort it takes to get into a story and the fatigue of having to do it again and again with a book of stories really resonated with me. With a novel, you orient yourself once, or maybe a couple of times with new characters and locations, but then you're set, and you're in a world for as long as the novel lasts, and you can return again and again to that world every time you pick the book up. I like to live with characters for a while.
But I do want to read more stories, and while A Curious Singularity, the short story discussion group, is helping me, I'm eager to read some collections of stories on my own. Okay, that sounds more planned and organized than I really feel -- I got inspired to read stories when I saw the Munro book, and I'm getting the feeling that I should continue to read stories now and then.
So, the Munro story was good [spoilers ahead]. It's about a young married woman Clara, her husband Clark, and their older neighbor Sylvia; Clara turns to Sylvia for help when she realizes how unhappy she is in her marriage. Munro describes the marriage dynamic extraordinarily well; I can see just why Clark was so difficult, just why Clara would have been attracted to him in the first place, and just why she'd think about leaving him. And why she'd return, as much as I didn't want her to. Munro can dramatize all this history and all these feelings so effortlessly.
I remember a commenter telling me to look out for the goat in this book -- well, the goat appears in this first story and turns out to be the story's symbolic center. Clara's goat Flora is missing through most of the story, but she appears at a crucial moment near the conclusion when Clark confronts Sylvia for helping Clara run away. The goat comes walking out of a fog, illuminated by passing headlights, and frightens the two characters, so that Clark grabs Sylvia's shoulder in a protective move and she lets him do so, although the two had just been fighting. Sylvia writes to Clara later that:
[Flora's] appearance at that moment did have a profound effect on your husband and me. When two human beings divided by hostility are both, at the same time, mystified -- no, frightened -- by the same apparition, there is a bond that springs up between then, and they find themselves united in the most unexpected way. United in their humanity -- that is the only way I can describe it. We parted almost as friends. So Flora has her place as a good angel in my life and perhaps also in your husband's life and yours.And yet -- if you've read the story, you'll know this is not what happens at all. Flora comes to stand for something much different -- much darker -- in their marriage. So the story ends, not with the issues resolved and not with the kind of reconciliation Sylvia hopes they might have had:
All she could hope was that perhaps Clara's flight and turbulent emotions had brought her true feelings to the surface and perhaps a recognition in her husband of his true feelings as well.If Clara and Clark have recognized their true feelings by the end of the story, this recognition is not an easy or a rewarding one. Sylvia's hopes are a dark counterpoint to the reality of the marriage -- a marriage in which Clara now seems firmly entrenched.
Okay, now I'm depressed. But, sigh, this seems like real life to me. I suppose part of Munro's genius is to capture a rich, if dark, emotional world in such a short space. I'm looking forward to the rest of the stories in this collection.
Monday, November 20, 2006
Okay -- I can't decide whether I should syndicate full posts or only small sections of each post. Does anybody have any advice or opinions on this? If I syndicate full posts, people can read me without actually coming to the site, which I don't like particularly, but having readers even if they don't always click on the actual site seems good. I can't decide and I keep switching back and forth. Thoughts?
I finished The Lover over the weekend. It's a very short novel, more like a novella, really, at 115 pages, and a fascinating read. If you're interested in the novel, you should check out Litlove's post on Duras. There she discusses The Lover plus Duras' life and reputation.
It's a story about a girl of fifteen who lives in Indochina with a difficult, poor family -- her mother and two brothers -- and who has an affair with older Chinese man. But the novel doesn't stay focused solely on the affair; it skips around in time, telling stories of the narrator's later life in France and of what happens to her family members. We watch her as she realizes she wants to be a writer, and as she struggles with her love/hate relationship with her mother, and we see all this from different perspectives in time. At the beginning of the novel Duras describes the beginning of the affair, and at the novel's end she describes the lovers' fate, but in between, Duras takes us to many different years, often abruptly with rapid switches.
The narrator's voice is simple and spare; the sentences seem empty of feeling, although emotion lurks under the surface, unexpressed but present. Here is a sample (from early in the book -- I'm not giving anything away):
My younger brother died in three days, of bronchial pneumonia. His heart gave out. It was then that I left my mother. It was during the Japanese occupation. Everything came to an end that day. I never asked her any more questions about our childhood, about herself. She died, for me, of my younger brother's death. So did my elder brother. I never got over the horror they inspired in me then. They don't mean anything to me any more. I don't know any more about them since that day.The voice is halting and obviously pained but also detached, as though she's trying to make sense of her experience but only can repeat sentences about the meaninglessness of it all.
The narrator is isolated; she feels loyalty to her family and yet the family fails her in many ways, she attends school but has few friends, and she quickly gets a bad reputation because of her sexual experience. She travels to and from school in an odd outfit that marks her as the outsider she feels herself to be.
The love affair is described in a similarly matter-of-fact manner; it is all-consuming -- the narrator spends all her time with her lover and sneaks home late at night -- but it seems emotionless. We learn very little about the lover, except that his father refuses to let him marry the narrator.
This is largely the story: the novel tells how the lovers meet, gives us some stories about the difficult family dynamics, describes the narrator's desire to be a writer, and moves forward in time now and then to give glimpses of the narrator's future life. What The Lover excels at is creating a mood; through its shifts in time and its short, simple sentences, it creates a feeling of a writer haunted by her past, exploring it but grazing across the surface of it rather than digging in deep.
Set in Indochina in the 1930s, the novel also gives a sense of what it was like to be a French family far away from their home country. It describes race and class tensions, as well as familial ones.
Although the story is a dark one, I enjoyed the experience of reading it; there's something compelling in the voice of the narrator, haunted by the past as she is. I don't usually like prose styles one might call "lyrical," as one can call the prose in this book, but the blunt honesty and courage of the narrator saves it for me.
The novel is largely aubiographical; I'm curious to find out more about Duras and her life. She seems like a fascinating figure.
This book is part of my "From the Stacks" challenge -- one down, four to go. Next up will be Alice Munro's Runaway.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Last week I wrote about experimenting with listening to audio books while riding on the trainer. My update is that I haven't actually conducted the experiment yet; fortunately for me, the weather has been good enough that I could ride outside -- yesterday, for example, I rode outside for two hours and although my toes were a bit cold when I returned, I did fine.
I have been listening to my chosen audio book, however, Jacqueline Winspear's Pardonable Lies: A Maisie Dobbs Novel; I've just been doing it in the car. I've got a half hour commute to work, and while I usually listen to NPR to keep up with the news, I was so excited about the novel that I decided to listen to it right away.
I used to listen to audio books all the time, back when I had a really horrendous commute of 1 1/2 hours. They were what kept me going; I could only listen to NPR for so long before the stories started to repeat and I started to go crazy. Listening to Winspear's book now, I'm reminded of how much I like listening to audio books, and how I missed listening to them after we moved and I didn't have as much time for them anymore (although I definitely did not miss that long commute). For most of the books I listened to, I liked the reader -- which is crucial in an audio book -- and I felt like the reader became a character him or herself, one that I could get to know a bit. I found myself responding much more emotionally to an audio book than to a regular book. Sometimes I'd be crying as I drove down the highway. I wonder if anybody ever noticed. I'm not sure what this means, exactly. Is my reading with a regular book detached and more cerebral somehow? There's something about a real voice telling a story that makes it seem intimate and very real.
The reader for the Maisie Dobbs novel is great; I love her voice and it's fun listening to her do different British accents. For all I know she may be butchering some of them, but it all sounds good to these American ears.
And I'm enjoying the novel too. I don't read mysteries all that often, and now I'm wondering why. Luckily, all I have to do is check out Danielle's post over here to find a whole bunch of them that look good. I'll write in more detail about the novel when I've finished it, but so far, I like the main character a lot, and I'm interested in the time period -- it's set in 1930 and it deals with the aftermath of World War I. One of Maisie's assignments is to investigate the deaths of two British soldiers in France in the war. And it's got an element of eastern mysticism and philosophy that's intriguing. More on that later.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
The Hobgoblin is home! I picked him up at the airport Thursday night and yesterday we spent recovering -- the Hobgoblin had more to recover from than I did by far, but since I'm the type of person who suffers if I get just the tiniest bit less than 8 (preferably 9) hours of sleep a night, the fact that I didn't get home until 3 am threw me for a bit of a loop. Let's just say that with all the flight delays I had plenty of time to get some reading done while waiting in LaGuardia airport.
I think two types of books work well for reading in airports -- those that are so completely absorbing that the time flies by and you barely notice what's going on around you, and those that you read slowly and ponder and look up from often to let your mind wander a bit before returning to read another paragraph or page. My airport reading experience this time around was the latter. With the slower reads, you can still do the people-watching that is so much fun in airports, particularly New York City airports, and you can get yourself in a dreamy book-inflected mood where you're half in the airport, half in the book, but really no place except your head where the time flies too.
I had Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree with me, but I didn't get to it and still haven't begun it, and I also had Marguerite Duras' The Lover, which I managed to read about 60 pages in. Considering the number of hours I was at the airport and how quickly the pages in The Lover read, that isn't very much. But I was relatively content sitting there and sort of reading, sort of watching people as they walked by. The book was a good companion -- it's got a powerful narratorial voice that rewards slow, meditative reading. This is not a book to rush through.
Plus, it's kind of fun to notice people glancing at my book and to wonder what they think of it. Isn't this a striking cover?
Friday, November 17, 2006
Kate's got a great meme on early reading, and it's high time I did it.
1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?
A frequent refrain in my answers will be "I don't remember exactly," but I'll do my best. I think I learned to read in kindergarten, when I was five, although apparently I knew my letters much earlier. My dad tells this story about how I was going to school and going to school and going to school until one day I came home and picked up a book and out of the blue began reading. I have a memory of coming home from school and beginning to read out loud to my parents' delight, so maybe my memory and my dad's story refer to same thing, although there's no knowing for sure.
2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?
I have an early memory of owning a copy of Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle. I'm sure I owned others, but for some reason the huge stack of turtles sticks in my mind. Later I remember owning a complete set of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie books, the ones with the yellow covers that came in a yellow box. My friend had a set of the Little House books with blue covers and a blue box, and I was a little jealous as I liked the blue set better. I remember finding the Betsy-Tacy books in the library, as well as the Louisa May Alcott ones.
3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?
I'm not entirely sure. I know I bought Nancy Drew books at some point, though, which I loved very much. But most often I got books from the library or read ones my parents owned. I was a very frequent library visitor as a child.
4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?
I most definitely was a re-reader. An obsessive re-reader, in fact. I practically had the Little House books memorized, as I really wanted to be Laura Ingalls. I re-read the Alcott books, Little Women and the others, including Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom. Also I read the Anne of Green Gables books frequently. I think I re-read Nancy Drew books, and I'm sure I re-read the Betsy-Tacy books.
5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it?
I don't have a clear memory of this. But I do remember reading books from my dad's bookshelves, so the first adult book was likely one of these. I know I read David Copperfield very early, so it's quite possible Dickens was one of my earliest adult reads. I read Ayn Rand early on (shudder!).
6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?
I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when I was young, but I didn't read the rest of the series until I was an adult. I can't say I learned to love those though. Other children's or young adult books I've read as an adult weren't published when I was a child, such as the Philip Pullman books and Harry Potter (I've read only the first one of these). I somehow never found L.M. Montgomery's Emily books as a child, and I still haven't read them as an adult, so I think I'll seek them out at some point. I never got into the Madeleine L'Engel books as a child, but I suspect I might like them now, so perhaps I should give those a try too.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
I think I'm a poor student. Or maybe it's that I'm an obnoxious one. I've been in a number of classes lately, short, half-day things, and each time I find myself resistant, rebellious, and generally annoyed at the procedings. I don't know if this is simply my (not very nice at times) personality, or if my years as a teacher have made me extremely sensitive to less than perfect teaching. Not that my own teaching is perfect, by any means, let me be clear; it's just that I'm very tuned in to what's working and what's not.
Yesterday evening I went to a bike repair class and had a mixed experience. I think I learned some things, so I'm not unhappy I went, and I got a pretty cool bike repair book, but there's a lot the class covered that I didn't really learn because I had a hard time seeing what was going on and I didn't get the chance to try it out for myself.
The class was at the "novice" level and some of it was review for me; I already know how to fix a flat for example, although I did learn some tricks to make it easier, such as shifting the chain into the smallest cog to make getting the rear wheel back on a bit easier. I had a bad moment when we were practicing fixing a flat and I was struggling to get the tire off the wheel and the instructor, trying to be nice and help me out, took the wheel from me and took the tire off himself. That's exactly what I don't need! But he was just trying to help out. And as a teacher, I know it's hard to figure out when to let students struggle on their own and when to have mercy on them and provide assistance. But as a difficult student, I got irritated at this.
And then we went over some maintenance things like making sure the stem is on tight and adjusting the brakes and the cable tension. This part really irritated me because I didn't get a chance to try it out myself. But then again, it would have been very hard to have everybody try these things out without enough instructors to really keep an eye on each person to make sure nobody did any damage. We didn't really have enough time for all that.
The Hobgoblin has very nicely tried to teach me some things about bike repair over the years, and I've learned some things from him, but if I was a bad student in the bike repair class, I'm a truly awful student with the Hobgoblin -- for lots of complicated reasons, it's probably best that we not try to teach each other things. It just doesn't work.
But the good thing about the class is that it's motivated me to continue to learn more about bike repair and maintenance. I think I really do enjoy working with mechanical things when I have some sense of what I'm doing; up till now I've been reluctant to learn much about bikes because how they work seemed so mysterious.
I'm also very bad at regular maintenance; I just don't like the constant cleaning and fiddling and adjusting and testing that keeping a bike (or a car or a house, for that matter) in good shape requires. This is one area where I'm decidedly lazy. I know that good maintenance can extend the life of bike parts and save me tons of money, but it's still so hard to drag the bike outside for regular cleanings and to check the tires for wear and do all those things I'm supposed to do.
Anyway, there will be follow-up classes to this one, which I am going to try, partly because I heard they will have only 4 students in them, which will make it a lot easier to really learn stuff.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
I finished Sara Nelson's book So Many Books, So Little Time last night and although I didn't like it any better by the end than I was liking it when I wrote this, I did find myself fairly contentedly reading on to the end. I'm not sure why the experience of reading the book was positive when I felt unimpressed by it -- perhaps I enjoyed the experience of not liking it or maybe I kept hoping it would get better. Its short chapters certainly kept me feeling that I was breezing my way through it which made it easy to keep going. Perhaps it's that I enjoy book talk so much I'll contentedly read it even when it doesn't impress me.
The things that annoyed me about the book can probably be summed up by Nelson's comment in one of the book lists at the back; here she is commenting on J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace. She finds it:
a surprisingly readable novel about racism and family in South Africa, proof positive that prize winners -- this won the Booker -- are not automatically homework.Why surprisingly readable? Why assume this book would be dull? And why assume prize winners are homework? There's something anti-intellectual about the tone here that bugs me.
But I was struck by one thing she said, and I'd like to get your opinion on it. She talks about the "skip-around method": "the one where you read the end first and then work your way back to the middle, if not the beginning," and she says that "people skip around in books all the time." For the first 30 years of her life, she writes, she wouldn't have considered doing such a thing, but she considers it now because she's stuck in a book she really wants to finish and she thinks that reading the ending might motivate her. She does a survey of her friends and finds that many of them don't read in order.
I can't think of a time when I've done this. Do you skip around? I pretty much subscribe to Nelson's earlier philosophy that:
You have to start at the beginning and get to the end before you're allowed to comment on what came in between. There's an order to these things you must respect. Beginnings, middles, and ends are meant to be beginnings, middles, and ends: confuse them at your own peril.I don't even read collections of stories or essays or poems out of order, or at least not often. I'm probably too devoted to the "rules" of reading, too worshipful of the text as the author presents it to me. But as far as novels go, I don't really want to know the ending until I get there.
What do you think -- is skipping around common?
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
I appreciate A Curious Singularity for introducing me to new authors and stories; I'd never read Katherine Mansfield until now and I'm glad I've read "At the Bay." It's quite a long short story with a relatively large cast of characters; it's structured in a series of vignettes that tell the stories of members of the Burnell family. It takes place over the course of one day, opening with a fairly extended scene filled with descriptions of the natural world. We see a shepherd leading a flock of sheep past the bungalows of a summer colony in an unnamed place, although it's presumably New Zealand where Mansfield was born.
From there we get brief stories about the characters who range in age from the very young, unnamed "boy" and his three older sisters to the mother Linda Burnell, her husband Stanley, and Linda's sister Beryl. I found these stories unsettling. Stanley seems supremely self-absorbed, expecting the entire family to cater to his every need, and when he returns at the end of the day contrite and apologetic for not having said goodbye to Linda that morning, he only gets irritated when he realizes she has no idea what he is apologizing for. In the section devoted to Linda, she confesses that she doesn't love her children, and at the story's end, we read about Beryl's sinister encounter with the husband of her friend.
The most enjoyable parts of the story were the descriptions of the children. Mansfield captures the feeling of being young very well, but even here the story is jarring as Linda's daughter Lottie becomes distressed when she can't figure out how to follow the game the children are playing and screams when she sees a strange face in a window. Another daughter Kezia, in a scene where she is napping with her grandmother, realizes for the first time what death means. She tries desperately to get her grandmother to deny that she will die one day, but she gets no answer and instead her attention is diverted. Instead of answers all we get is distraction.
These unsettling stories are framed by quiet, peaceful nature scenes, a pattern that reminds me of Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens," where descriptions of nature also predominate. In Woolf's story, the natural world showed the brevity and relative insignificance of the human lives; her story of the snail trying to get past the leaf seemed just as important as anything happening in the people's lives. In Mansfield's story there seems to be more of a contrast between the peaceful natural setting and the discontented humans who populate it. Mansfield highlights the precariousness and uncertainty of human experience by contrasting it with the stability of nature. Here's the closing section:
A cloud, small, serene, floated across the moon. In that moment of darkness the sea sounded deep, troubled. Then the cloud sailed away, and the sound of the sea was a vague murmur, as though it waked out of a dark dream. All was still.In contrast to this stillness and serenity, the people seem stuck in a "dark dream."
I think this story is most effective in the way it creates a mood -- it evokes a feeling of dreaminess that begins to shade over into a nightmare at times. It doesn't have a strong story line, but instead it gives a brief glimpse into a number of characters' lives and through those glimpses builds its atmosphere.
Monday, November 13, 2006
There are two brand new memes out right now that I'd like to do; Kate has one on childhood reading, and Litlove has an "Aspirational Meme" that is designed to get you to think about "what would make life that bit better." Since this past weekend was a little rough (the Hobgoblin is now safely in Houston visiting his father, and Muttboy and I are left here feeling lonely. Poor Muttboy -- there's nothing sadder than a depressed dog.), I think I'll go for the aspirational meme first to get myself thinking about how life could possibly change. Here's the meme:
What part of the past would you bring back if you possibly could?
What character trait would you alter if you could?I'd like to be more relaxed. As I'm sitting here typing, I can feel the muscles in my shoulders all tense and tight; I've been seeing a chiropractor for a long time about neck and shoulder problems caused by tension, and she tells me ways to stay relaxed, but I just can't seem to. I'm uptight and anxious an awful lot of the time.
Which skill would you like to have the time and energy to really work on?I'd really like to become a better reader (read more kinds of things, read difficult things, become a better reader by writing more about reading), and I'd really like to become a better cyclist, and I'd also really like to be good at yoga. I suppose this last one is the best answer, since I already do "really work on" the former two. But yoga is the thing that I skip when I run out of time and that means I skip it a lot. And doing more yoga would really help keep me relaxed.
Are you money poor, love poor, time poor or freedom poor?Time poor. I could use more money but I'm usually okay there; I'm not love poor in the least, and I'm not freedom poor, except to the extent that a lack of time and not having tons of money keep me from doing some things I'd like.
What element of your partner’s character would you alter if you could?You know ... I'd better stay away from this one. The Hobgoblin is far away from home now and he's probably not reading my blog from Texas, but he still might read through my archives and find this answer. Maybe I can say that I wish he had a knack for making lots of money? Otherwise, he's perfect :)
What three things are you going to do next year that you’ve been meaning to do for ages but never got around to?Practice yoga regularly. Hike the entire Long Trail (it runs the length of Vermont and will take 3 weeks). Read Don Quixote.
If your fairy godmother gave you three wishes, what would you wish for?Just a little more time, a little more money, and some peace of mind. With too much time on my hands I get depressed, so I only need a little more, and too much money would make my life more complicated, not less so. I can do with tons of peace of mind.
What one thing would you change about your living conditions?While I love my town, I wish I could live in a more open, rural area. I really love the countryside. I also wish this hypothetical place still had the four seasons like my current place does, but was on average 5-10 degrees warmer from November to March. That would be perfect.
How could the quality of your free time be improved?I need to be able to forget about work while I'm not working. I've gotten better at compartmentalizing my work and leisure time, but I'd still love to obsess less about work problems and really be able to relax.
What change have you made to your life recently that you’re most proud of?I'll agree with Litlove on this one -- beginning to blog. It's added so much to my life.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
I tried an experiment last year that didn't work so well, but now I'm considering trying it again. The experiment was to listen to audiobooks while I rode on the indoor trainer. Stefanie wrote about this recently and inspired me. I've listened to music in the past and that worked okay, but I hate the trainer so much that music only makes it better for a little while. The idea with an audiobook is that it might get me really interested in it so that I won't want to get off the bike -- I'll be operating with the rule that I only listen to the audiobook on the bike or in the car. So maybe I'll get so wrapped up in it that I'll stay on the bike to hear what happens next. Maybe.
The trick, I think, is to pick the right book. Last year I chose Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, which didn't really work; I never got all that interested in it. This time around I think I've chosen better. This morning I walked down to the local library and picked out Jacqueline Winspear's Pardonable Lies: A Maisie Dobbs Novel. What could be more engrossing than a mystery? And Danielle has written so eloquently about the Maisie Dobbs novels that this one caught my eye immediately. Pardonable Lies is not the first in the series, which is too bad, but it's the only one my library had, so it'll do.
I'll let you know how this experiment goes; it looks like today might be the first time this season I'll ride indoors. Yesterday was beautiful -- 60s, sunny -- a day that makes me think winter might never get here. I rode for two hours and didn't need more than shorts, a jersey, and arm warmers. But today is supposed to be rainy, and although it'll be relatively warm, I still won't want to ride in the rain. So, unless there's a break in the rain that looks like it'll last for an hour or so, I'll be indoors on the trainer. Ugh. Have I said just how much I hate the trainer?
Update: The rain held off long enough so I could ride outdoors today -- no trainer for me! Not yet, at least.
Posted by Rebecca H. at 8:50 AM
Saturday, November 11, 2006
The less time I have to read, the more I long to do it. I'm really looking forward to things slowing down in a month or so when I'll finally have some solid chunks of time to read. In the meantime, it helps to read shorter things, or I begin to feel bogged down. So the book I just finished, Hotel du Lac, was perfect, and the one I'm going to begin this weekend, Marguerite Duras's The Lover, is as well. And it's part of the From the Stacks Winter Challenge, for an extra bonus.
Am I violating the challenge, which involves reading books that I already own instead of buying new ones, if I admit I just bought two books on Amazon? Oh well, what can I do, since I need the books for two book clubs? The first is The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schultz, which I'm reading for the Slaves of Golconda. We won't be discussing the book until the end of January, so if you like, get a copy and join in.
The other is Doreen by Barbara Noble, which I'm reading for a group Emily just invited the Hobgoblin and I to join. This is a real-live, face-to-face group -- did you know Emily and I live practically up the road from one another? Okay, it's one town away, say 5-10 miles or so. We had no idea our houses were that close until very recently, and I'm very excited about meeting Emily in the flesh -- a blogger meet-up! I know nothing about Doreen, and I'm eager to get the book and find out.
I am about 20 pages from finishing Frances Burney's Journals and Letters, which has been quite a read -- it's pretty long and not uniformly interesting unless you're a real Burney fan (which I am), but it has a lot of really great sections, including one very exciting episode where Burney, at this point 65 years old, is walking along the coast and gets caught by the incoming tide. She scrambles up a rocky cliff and gets stuck and has to wait as the water rises to see if it will climb high enough to pull her into the sea. I knew as I was reading that she survives -- because the journals and letters continue -- but it was a suspenseful episode nonetheless.
And Proust is coming along nicely; I'm maybe 100 pages from the end of the second volume. I'm reading along steadily and enjoying it, although I haven't felt inspired to post about him on the Proust blog. I'm guessing with more time and leisure will come inspiration. Until then, I'll enjoy the book quietly.
Posted by Rebecca H. at 8:42 AM
Friday, November 10, 2006
Check out this article over at The New Yorker. It's the latest Shouts and Murmurs, if you're familiar with the magazine. If you're not, Shouts and Murmurs is a humor column; I don't always find it funny, but this time it's great. The column starts off with this excerpt from an article on "Ten Sure Ways to Trim your Budget":
Check books out of the library instead of buying them. . . New releases of hard-cover novels cost $25 and more these days. If you buy just two a month, that’s $600 a year.The author, Ian Frazier, then gives a series of quotations from people who live in a made-up world where people are addicted to novels and waste tons of money on them and could turn their financial lives around if only they'd stop buying novels. Some highlights:
Mrs. Louise Rodgers, Eau Claire, Wisconsin: “I never owned brand-new hardcovers when I was a girl, and now I want my twin sixteen-year-old boys to enjoy opportunities I didn’t have. My boys are like any American teen-agers, in that they eat, sleep, and breathe novels. And they don’t want the three-dollar used paperback version, either. It’s got to be new, mint, original dust jacket, the works. How do you tell a youngster that he can’t have that just-released Modern Library edition of the complete Sinclair Lewis he’s been dreaming of? But I guess that’s what I’m going to have to do; I don’t see any other option.”
I may have given you most of the article. Anyway -- wouldn't that be a very different world to live in?
Jules Amthor, Torrance, California: “Let me give you a hypothetical situation: I’m walking down the street, I pass a bookstore, and they have a little table out front with some of the latest novels. I pick one up. The jacket says it’s about a male professor of writing who has an affair with a much younger female student. I leaf through the book, and I come across a sentence about the student, who is also very beautiful, sleeping in the passenger seat of a car that the narrator (the professor) is driving, and the student wakes, and stretches, and looks at the professor, and—here’s the part that gets me—the pattern of the car-seat upholstery is still imprinted on her cheek. Well, there’s simply no way I’m not going to buy that book. I can be dead broke, nothing left on the credit cards—doesn’t matter. And that’s what happens to me, over and over again.”
Mitch Gelman, West Hempstead, New York: “As an accountant, the first thing I tell my clients is ‘Get a library card!’ Otherwise, you’re too subject to temptation, and liable to find yourself in over your head. Few people know that the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States is the ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ novels. You overspend on one, and, just when you begin to dig yourself out, the next installment comes along. Public libraries began during the Depression as a government measure against this very problem. They’re there for our protection, so we should use them.”
Melissa S., Manhattan: “Eventually, I was able to cut back on novels to one a month, then half a novel, then just a few pages. As of this week, I have not looked at a novel (except from the library) for eighteen months, knock wood. For the first time, I’m learning what it is to live within a budget. At the end of the month, I’m always surprised to find a positive balance in my checking account—it’s nice. Little by little, I’ve reacquainted myself with my TV. There have been some innovations in the formats of reality shows that I had known nothing about. Every morning now I make it a point to get dressed and go outside. I’m paying more attention to my hair. If I hadn’t happened to pick up that copy of the News that day, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Posted by Rebecca H. at 7:28 AM
Thursday, November 09, 2006
I just finished Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac and ended up enjoying it quite a lot. You'll find my earlier post on the book and my musings on Brookner's reputation here. The ending -- I won't give anything away -- was satisfying; it was suitably, quietly dramatic. I'm eager to read more Brookner, but I'm thinking, based on comments people made on my earlier Brookner post, that she's probably best read occasionally rather than all in a rush. She strikes me as someone, like Elizabeth Taylor, who is good to have on hand for when the right mood strikes. I'm going to try to get her latest, Leaving Home, when it comes out in paper, and I'm curious about Look at Me after the wonderful review on Book World.
The main character, Edith, is a romance novelist, and it seems to me that it might be fun for an author to have a main character who is a writer. You can play around with ideas about writing and what authors are like and what they do and you could explore some of your own feelings about writing, or maybe create a writer who’s very different than you are.
Brookner plays around with the genre of the romance a bit: Edith can be said to have a romantic outlook on the world and on her life, in the sense that she believes in love’s power to transform. She refuses to take a more “practical” approach to her life, although many people put pressure on her to do so when she has the chance to marry a good man she does not love. We find out early on that she is involved in an affair with a married man, and the drama of the rest of the book is not so much about what will happen to that relationship, but about whether Edith will give up on love itself. Hotel du Lac is not at all a romance novel of the type Edith would write, but it is a romance novel in another sense – it’s a novel that ponders what it means to be devoted to the ideals of romance.
The hotel itself is almost a character in its own right. It’s an out-of-fashion resort hotel where one finds people who have gone there for years out of habit, and it’s a place where families and friends send women they aren’t quite sure what to do with, women who need some rest and recovery, who may have strayed from acceptable behavior and need some time to ponder their sins. Edith is there for this reason, to get herself back to normal, and, as one might expect in a novel, this is precisely what she doesn’t do. As you can imagine, a hotel of this sort is a wonderful setting for a novel – it’s a confined space full of interesting people, and Brookner makes good use of it.
What makes this novel work, I think, is the strength of the main character. I loved seeing the world through her eyes. In several scenes, Edith sits in her hotel room writing letters to her married lover, describing the hotel’s odd characters and the slow pace of life there, and I was struck as I read those letters at the way Brookner creates a sense of a gap between how Edith felt about her life and how she wrote about it in her letters. She’s trying to give shape to her life and inject some energy into it through her writing – this is true of her novels too – and the writing seems very brave and hopeful but also that much sadder because we know that real life isn’t like what it is in novels and brave, cheery letters. Edith comes across as heroic – an odd sort of hero, but a hero nonetheless.
Posted by Rebecca H. at 7:11 AM
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
I usually write my posts in the evening and post them the next morning, and here I am on Tuesday evening, and it’s looking like I won’t be able to write a coherent post on my usual subjects. There’s a lot going on right now, the Hobgoblin’s father’s illness, mainly. For all I knew this morning, the Hobgoblin would be flying out tomorrow to Houston to visit his father, but right now it’s looking like that won’t happen for another week or so. So we’re at home feeling restless and distracted and unable to concentrate on anything or do anything.
Which gets me to the other thing going on – the election, of course, and watching the returns come in. We don’t have a television, or, rather, we have a television but don’t get TV reception, so I’m getting my news from internet. So I’m sitting here reading political blogs, rather frantically hitting refresh to see if there are new posts with new information. I've got my laptop where I can read blogs, we're listening to NPR on streaming audio, and I've got Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time that I glance in occasionally. It's a good book for dipping into now and then in between election news fixes.
That’s going to be my evening, I’m afraid; there’s way too much going on to do much reading. By the time I post this tomorrow, we’ll know (hopefully) how things turned out and this post will be irrelevant, except as a record of how I’m feeling at the moment.
Back to the books soon.
Posted by Rebecca H. at 7:41 AM
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
In addition to the four books I've had going in recent days, I've begun reading Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time. I've got mixed feelings about it. It's kind of fun, and it keeps me interested and happily turning the pages, but ... I'm just not that impressed with her book discussions. The idea behind the book is that she'll read a book a week for a year and then write about them. The chapters are short meditations on some of those books -- she's also got a list at the back of books she read but didn't discuss -- where she writes about how she found the book, what the book's about, what she thinks about it. The chapters tend to have more on context, how she found the book and the circumstances in which she's reading it, than about content.
She's got a chapter on "The Clean Plate Book Club," about how she learned to set down books she's not enjoying rather than suffering through to the end, and another on what it means when a new friend gives you a book -- it's the moment of truth, when you find out for sure if this friendship will last. She writes about how important the location and the timing are in determining how much you will enjoy a book, and about what it feels like to get completely wrapped up in a book so much so that you can't put it down.
All that's good. But I'm reading along and thinking that my blog writer friends do this exact same thing and do it better. It's a reading diary, and an exploration of what it's like to be a reader, and a discussion of a lot of individual books, and I love that stuff, but I'm thinking I now prefer to get it from a bunch of blogs rather than a book. It strikes me as much nicer to read a person's reading diary as it gets produced, in regular blog posts, and to be able to comment on it and maybe influence how that reader thinks and what he or she reads, and to be able to respond on my blog, and do all the things book bloggers do. As far as reading diaries go, they seem much more interesting on blogs than in books, where they can be interactive and immediate.
I'm also not connecting with Nelson's choice of books, which accounts for some of my mixed feelings. I picked up the book hoping to get some good recommendations, at least, but nothing she's reading is really getting my interest. For this type of book to work, the author has to win the reader over, and I'm feeling a little bit resistant still. I'm hoping to get a little more excited about the book as I read further (being a loyal member of the Clean Plate Book Club, I'm afraid), and it is reliably entertaining, but I'm coming away from it feeling more than justified in all the time I devote to reading book blogs.
Posted by Rebecca H. at 7:12 AM
Monday, November 06, 2006
I began a new book recently: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. This is my first Brookner novel, and so far, so good. A friend really liked her most recent novel Leaving Home, and Sandra has written glowingly about Brookner. Hotel du Lac is just the kind of novel I really like: character-driven, smart, funny in a sly kind of way, slow in a good kind of way -- not boring but taking its time to let you get to know the main character. And it's a short novel. I'm about half way through; I'm curious about whether it will end in dramatic fashion or continue on in the way it's been going, at a leisurely pace. More on this book later.
I'm also curious about Anita Brookner's reputation. In the last couple months I came across a blog post where the blogger, in talking about Alice Munro's reputation for writing about domestic concerns, said something like "Alice Munro is starting to give me a mild case of the Anita Brookners." This blogger -- a woman -- praised Munro's writing but felt that too much Munro makes her long for something more intense. This comment was witty, and I wonder how many people who've read Munro and/or Brookner feel this way.
I haven't read Munro, although I plan to, and my first exposure to Brookner is a positive one. But I wonder if I were to read a lot of either of them, if I would begin to feel a bit claustrophobic too. And I wonder what it means to criticize these writers for being "narrow" in their interests. Women writers have often been dismissed for writing about "women's interests" and for being interested in domesticity, and I'm sensitive to how women are expected to read books that are about traditionally "male" pursuits but men will sometimes balk at reading books about "women's" interests (I've heard students complaining in this way).
But this blogger is one I like and trust, and I’m positive she was fully aware of all the gender implications of complaining about Munro, and obliquely about Brookner, on these terms. And she said she felt badly about complaining in this fashion, at least as far as Munro goes. I do think there has to be room to say, "I'd prefer to read adventure stories," or "I like something with more edge," or "reading Munro I begin to feel claustrophobic" without at the same time dismissing books about topics that concern or have concerned women.
I remember a friend in grad school who was taking a course in 19C American sentimental literature and who complained about being bored by the sentimental novels the class was reading, saying something about how she'd rather be reading Moby Dick because it's much more exciting than domestic fiction. She was very aware of the gender implications of this, but still felt that adventure stories were more entertaining than stories set in kitchens. I don’t mean to imply that women and domesticity automatically go together – lord knows in my case they don’t – but simply that women have traditionally been associated with domesticity and so to dismiss domestic novels can sometimes be a way of dismissing women’s interests.
The question I’m left with is this: how do we figure out the extent to which our reading preferences are shaped by a culture that tends to devalue women and the extent to which we are merely expressing a legitimate preference for one type of story over another?
And also, is it fair to criticize Munro for being narrow in her interests? I’m eager to read her to find out.
Does anyone know more about Brookner’s reputation? She won the Booker prize for Hotel du Lac, but that blogger’s comment makes me wonder if her reputation has suffered generally or if this is merely one blogger’s preference.
Posted by Rebecca H. at 7:46 AM
Sunday, November 05, 2006
We've got four used bookstores in my small town, which I'm sure I've mentioned before, and last night, while we were waiting for our takeout pizza, the Hobgoblin and I wandered over to one of them. It's a very odd bookstore, mainly because it's kind of hard to get to the books. It's a small room to begin with, and then every aisle is full of boxes, which block some of the books and make it hard to get at the others. I have no idea why this is. And I wonder how much money the owner makes with the place. My town really isn't big enough to support four used bookstores, and this one doesn't seem to get many customers as far as I can tell.
The owner is rather odd. Does that come with the territory? Are many used bookstore owners odd? I'd love to own a used bookstore myself, and I'm not sure if I'm odd enough. Maybe I am. It's difficult to measure one's own oddness. Although, truth be told, when I try to think about what makes this man odd, I can't come up with particulars except for the boxes that block the books and the sense that he spends an awful lot of time alone in the store, most likely talking to himself. He seems caught up in a world all his own, and walking into the store feels a little bit like a personal invasion.
Anyway, he's very chatty, and he remembered what I bought the last time I was in the store: two Elizabeth Taylor novels. I was impressed. I was also very happy to see that he had two more Elizabeth Taylor novels in stock, and I made sure to walk away with one of them: The Blush, which, I just this very moment discovered is not a novel, in fact, but a book of short stories.
It's nice to know that there's another Elizabeth Taylor book for sale within walking distance of my house, the book I left behind. I loved the two novels I read last summer, and I've decided it's a very good thing to have an unread Elizabeth Taylor book in the house, ready for me when the mood strikes.
I wasn't planning on buying any more books, but it's rare that I walk into a used bookstore without buying something -- and that's not so much because I see things I can't resist but because there's something about the smallness and intimacy of used bookstores that makes me very aware of the owners, and I feel this urge to help them out and support the store. And it's not hard to give in to this urge when the books are fairly inexpensive. So I find something or other I'll want to read eventually and feel much better. There's something I really don't like about walking out of a used bookstore empty handed.
Posted by Rebecca H. at 8:33 AM
Saturday, November 04, 2006
Here's a challenge I think I can do. It's from Overdue Books, and here's what it is:
"If you are anything like me your stack of purchased to-be-read books is teetering over. So for this challenge we would be reading 5 books that we have already purchased, have been meaning to get to, have been sitting on the nightstand and haven't read before. No going out and buying new books. No getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays."
Now, what to pick? Following Kate's example, I'm going to try to pick books, at least some books, that have been sitting around for a while, not ones I've recently acquired. I'll try to pick at least one difficult book -- something that feels like a challenge and that I've been avoiding reading because I feel intimidated by it.
Okay, here's a try. I reserve the right to make some changes as I go along, but if I do make changes, I'll substitute something I've had around for a roughly equivalent period of time.
- The Lover, Marguerite Duras. I've had this forever. And when I'm finished reading it, I can take another look at Litlove's post on it from a while back.
- Molloy, Samuel Beckett. I've also had this one around forever. This is my "challenge" challenge read -- something I've been avoiding because it looks scary. Perhaps I'll be surprised.
- Snow, Orhan Pamuk. I haven't had this one quite as long, but it's been staring at me from my TBR shelves for a while now.
- Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann. I'll have more time on my hands than usual in December, so I think I can commit to a longer novel, and I've had this one for a number of years.
- Runaway, Alice Munro. I've never read her, and I simply must.
Posted by Rebecca H. at 7:28 AM