Monthly Archives: May 2006

One more post on Ann Tyler

I finished Digging to America last night and have just a couple more things I want to say about it. If you’re planning on reading this book, you might want to skip the post, although I’ll warn you when I’m about to give something big away about the plot.

First of all, for those of you who are planning on reading this book, notice the “binky party” that happens near the end. Please, please, under no circumstances, ever hold a binky party for your child.

I liked this line from another part of the book:

Maryam stood in the kitchen doorway with a salad bowl in her hands and wondered if every decision she had ever made had been geared toward preserving her outsiderness.

As someone who can think of herself as an “outsider” and who likes to stand outside of things, I was touched by this character and by her realization. Maryam’s way of negotiating this dilemma of insider- and outsiderness is central to the book, and it makes sense to me that it takes her a while to understand that she may have been reinforcing her outsider status without fully realizing it.

But I was uncertain what to think about a couple of things Maryam contemplates (and stop reading here if you don’t like to know much about a book before you read it). She says at one point:

Oh, the agonizing back-and-forth of romance! The advances and retreats, the secret wounds, the strategic withdrawals!

Wasn’t the real culture clash the one between the two sexes?

Later, when she is thinking about relationships, she says:

Sometimes lately she felt as if she had emigrated all over again. Once more she had left her past self behind, moved to an alien land, and lost any hope of returning.

Now, I’m not sure I buy this equation of relationships with emigration and with culture clashes. On the one hand, it’s a cool metaphor for what it’s like to enter a relationship with someone — it’s about leaving behind one’s old world and entering a new, about adapting one’s life — one’s culture — to enter into someone else’s, about having an experience with alienness and otherness.

But these lines, and the events that happen right at the end of the book, seem to me to collapse love with immigration/culture clashes in a way that overly simplifies what it means for a person to take on a new culture and nationality. I don’t think the real culture clash is the clash between the sexes. This seems to me to privilege the experience of gender above other kinds. At the very end of the book, Maryam makes a decision to engage with the Americans who have entered her life instead of blocking them out, and it becomes a question of whether she will stay in her relationship with Dave, who seems to her to be the quintessence of Americanness. And so she resolves her questions about culture and national identity by deciding to keep the relationship going. This seems like an interesting way of solving the problem — what could be a more decisive way of changing and adapting than falling in love with an American? — and yet something bothers me about this narrative solution. Can cultural clashes get solved solely through personal relationships?

I’m definitely not being clear here. I guess, to a degree, problems of immigration and cultural differences can work themselves out, for individuals, in the context of family and love, but the novel’s ending seems to imply that this is the best and maybe only available context. This seems to me to be untrue to the rest of the book, which did a good job of showing how politics and family interweave without collapsing the two areas into one another. The personal is political, yes, but are all politics personal?

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More on Ann Tyler

I’m about 50 pages from the end of Tyler’s latest novel Digging to America, and one of the things I am liking about the book is how politics of various types are an important part of the novel, but are in the background in a way that strikes me as realistic — at least realistic for some. Tyler shows how politics shapes people’s lives — both specific historical events and the more nebulous “identity politics,” but she does it in a muted kind of way. Politics and history are sometimes topics of conversation, but more often, political forces lie behind the thoughts and actions of the characters and the reader is left to figure out how the characters are affected by them.

The most direct entrance of politics into the novel concerns events in Iran. One of the main characters, Maryam, the grandmother of one of the two adopted babies at the center of the novel, thinks about how the Iranian community in America was divided by their different opinions of the Shah — she was friends with many other Iranians until the question of whether one is loyal to the Shah or not began to rip the group apart. From this point on, she lives even more isolated from her past.

September 11th happens during the timeframe of the novel, but it doesn’t get a description — it surfaces mainly as a matter of increased airport security and the annoyances this causes. One of the Iranian characters describes the fear other people manifest in the presence of anyone of middle-eastern descent. Dave, another grandparent, gives an emotional speech to Maryam about how he doesn’t like being grouped with other “ugly Americans” — how he’s affected by the stereotype — and Maryam retorts, “Whereas we Iranians, on the other hand … are invariably perceived as our unique and separate selves.” This is Dave experiencing both the discomfort of being a victim of stereotyping, and the realization that, as angry as this makes him, he can’t expect everyone else to feel his outrage.

Everyone in the novel is affected in some way by this kind of racial and ethnic stereotyping. Maryam is invested in the idea of herself as a “foreigner,” and because of this she has trouble opening up to her American friends. She is naturally introverted, but this status as “foreigner” feeds into and exaggerates that characteristic. Bitsy tries hard to teach Jin-Ho, her adopted daughter, Korean customs to help her learn about her birth country, but she finds this is more complicated than she expects, and when Jin-Ho grows up a bit, she resists this training. Sami was born and raised in America and he refuses to speak Farsi, although he can understand it, but at the same time he takes great pleasure in mocking Americans as though he weren’t one himself, to the amusement of the Iranians present. All of Tyler’s main characters are involved in some kind of effort to figure out their identity and to negotiate the various elements that go into it: nationality, gender, class, personal history. It is in describing these negotiations that Tyler excels.

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Funny tan lines: a cycling update

This is one of the major problems of being a cyclist — that you spend the whole summer with very sharp tan lines right where your cycling clothes end. I’ve already got a dark line on my upper arm, a series of dark lines above my knees, at the places my cycling shorts of varying lengths end, and a dark line above my ankle where my socks end. A large percentage of the time I spend outside I spend on my bike, so I’m stuck. I have this problem where I’ll apply sunscreen, and apply it when I have my cycling clothes on, so I get it right, but then as I ride, the shorts will ride up a bit and the short sleeves on the jersey will pull up a little bit, and I’ll have missed a section of skin and will end up with this sunburnt patch of an inch or so on my arm and thigh.

The funniest tan lines, though, are the ones on my wrist and hand, where my cycling gloves end. I have a super-sharp line on the thumb side of my wrist, since I ride mostly with my hands in a sideways position, with the thumb facing up. And then as summer gets going, I’ll develop lines on my fingers, since the gloves end just before they reach the first knuckle. And, depending on the kind of gloves I have, I sometimes get a little dot on the back of my hand where the velcro strap doesn’t quite cover the skin fully. I’m already developing this dot on my left hand, although for some reason I don’t have one on my right. I guess my gloves aren’t quite the same. If you have gloves with mesh on the back, you will end up with a whole series of dots across the back of your hand. Some cyclists will develop a line across their forehead where their helmet goes, and maybe lines across the neck where the helmet straps cover.

Sigh — the sacrifices I make for my bike. So today is devoted to fixing this situation — sitting outside in the hopes that my hands and ankles will get some sun.

Yesterday I went on a 50-mile ride, my longest of the season by far; I’m working my way up to being able to do a 100-mile ride by late August. I like to ride centuries — organized rides with set routes and food and water supplied along the way — of (logically) 100 miles, although there are always shorter options for those not wanting to ride the 6 or 7 or 8 hours it takes to do the full thing. The longest 1-day ride I’ve ever done is 130 miles, about 1 1/2 years ago, a ride that taught me a thing or two about endurance and pain. For some reason, the pain doesn’t keep me away — I suppose it’s the sense of accomplishment and the feeling of strength that keeps me doing it again and again.

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On Pamela

Before I put away my novel history book, Licensing Entertainment, there is one more thing I want to say about it. In his chapter on Samuel Richardson, William Warner makes some big claims for the importance of his novel Pamela. He describes the fight over Pamela: critics and readers argued heatedly over whether she was as virtuous as she claimed to be. Warner says that Pamela and this critical conflict was partly responsible for our way of reading character:

It is at this point that English readers start engaging in the sort of sympathetic identification with and critical judgment of fictional characters that will lie at the center of novel reading from Richardson, Fielding, and Frances Burney through Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James … The following are some of the interrelated elements of this new practice of reading: Pamela’s readers “read through” the words and ideas of the novel’s eponymous heroine in order to assess her character to discover whether Pamela is what the text’s subtitle declares her to be – a personification of virtue – or its reverse, a mere sham. By conferring on a character in a novel some of the free-standing qualities of a real person, and insisting that judgments of literary character reflect as much light on those who judge as they do on the judged, both sides in the Pamela wars confer an unprecedented moral seriousness upon the evaluation of fictional characters. The strife around Pamela draws readers into particular practices of detailed reading: selecting what to read so as to emphasize one thing instead of another; being provoked by incomplete descriptions; filling out the picture to one’s own taste; using one’s imagination to read between the lines; discerning the supposedly “real” intention of the author; and, finally, distinguishing the “proper” from the “improper” in a text, in order to judge whether a text is “readable” or “unreadable.”

Isn’t it surprising, if you buy Warner’s theory (and I see no reason not to), that our way of reading characters – seeing them as real people and judging them on realistic and moral grounds comes out of the eighteenth century and particularly from Pamela? From a story about a young girl resisting rape? Isn’t the history of the novel fascinating? Don’t you want to go read some eighteenth-century novels now?

I’ve said this before, but I very much like the idea that our ideas about reading that seem so natural – that we want to identify with a character, for example, and that we talk about characters as though we might meet them in person – have a history that isn’t so very long. If you buy Warner’s theory, that is.

It comes down to the question of whether Pamela is really as innocent as she makes herself out to be. For the other side of the story, read Henry Fielding’s Shamela, which is quite funny. I read Pamela twice, for two different graduate school classes, and I can’t say the book follows any of the “rules” of good fiction that we might come up with today – the structure of the thing is terrible – but that’s judging by contemporary standards which didn’t exist at the time. Pamela the character can be infuriating and the book can get boring, especially at the end, but as far as a book that is culturally significant and that can teach you something about eighteenth-century culture, you can’t go wrong with it.

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Book groups

I’m completely new to book groups, and now I am participating in two of them! One of them is the Slaves of Golconda, an online book group, for which I’ll be reading Muriel Spark soon, and the other is a brand new group — what should I call it — in-person? face-to-face? the regular, old-fashioned kind? the kind where you meet in someone’s house and have coffee and dessert? We’re starting small with my husband and me and one other couple, and if it goes well, we might expand it later. The idea is to keep things low-key and without any showing-off or intellectual posturing. For that reason, we’re being careful about whom to ask — we want it to be fun, and one person with the wrong attitude could throw the discussion off.

So our first book is Anne Tyler’s new novel Digging to America. I’m about 100 pages into it right now, and it’s a good read. Tyler is so very skilled at capturing family dynamics — the “little” interactions that aren’t little at all, but are the things that make up much of the substance of our lives. So far, the narrative has been a series of parties to celebrate the two little Korean babies two families — both American but one white and the other of Iranian descent — have adopted.

Now that I think about it, this structure is remarkably similar to Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty (which I posted on here), in a funny kind of way, since the novels are in most cases very, very different. But Hollinghurst’s novel, too, was basically a series of parties one after the other, which offers an author a chance to bring a whole bunch of characters together and have them interact in ways that reveal who the characters are and move the plot along. And both novels chart the intersections between politics and family life. Tyler so far hasn’t given nearly as much political detail as Hollinghurst did, but it’s there for both of them — in Hollinghurst’s case, it’s Thatcherite Britain, and for Tyler, it’s the political and religious upheaval in Iran. And both novelists give exquisite detail about tone of voice, significant looks, hurt feelings, “friendly” competition and aggression, unexpected alliances.

And a bit of satire too — Tyler’s novel is funny in places, especially about Bitsy and Brad, the “all-American” couple, Bitsy a hippy type with very strong opinions about how children should be raised and no fear about sharing them. In an early scene Bitsy and Brad have a “raking party” where they invite the other family over to help them rake the lawn. Hmmm. Should I start holding “housecleaning parties”? Yeah, friends, come on over and help scrub the kitchen floor! If you’re lucky, you’ll get to clean the toilet! It’ll be great fun!!

Anyway, more on Tyler later.

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Colette’s hair

I finished Colette’s My Mother’s House and Sido last night; if you aren’t familiar with it, the short chapters in My Mother’s House were published serially first and then collected in book form in 1922, and Sido was published seven years later. Sido is made up of three sections, one each about Colette’s mother, father, and siblings.

I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it — I do think it should be read slowly. I read it a bit fast and sometimes felt like it was rushing past me and I was missing things. The writing was beautifully lyrical, which is a phrase that would turn me off if I read it in someone else’s review, but in this case the writing worked for me. The short chapters are like prose poems, each capturing a story or a character or a mood. They got me interested in reading a biography of Colette; there are things hinted at in this book that I’d like to know more about — Colette’s conflicted feelings about femininity and sexuality, in particular.

Here is Colette writing about her hair:

I was twelve years old, with the manners and vocabulary of an intelligent, rather uncouth boy, but my gait was not boyish because my figure already showed signs of development, and above all because I wore my hair in two long plaits that swished through the air around me like whips. These I used indiscriminately as ropes from which to hang the picnic basket, as brushes to be dipped in ink or in paint, as whips for a recalcitrant dog or as ribbons to make the cat play. My mother wailed to see me maltreat these two golden brown thongs for whose sake I was daily condemned to get up half an hour earlier than my school-fellows. At seven o’clock on dark winter mornings I would fall asleep again, sitting before the wood fire, while my mother brushed and combed my nodding head. From those mornings I date my invincible hatred of long hair.

As someone who would head out in sub-zero weather with wet hair rather than wake up ten minutes earlier to use the blow-dryer, I sympathize. I love her impulse to think of her hair as a whip before she thinks of it as an object of beauty or a source of attention. She ends the paragraph this way:

Long hairs would be discovered tangled in the lower branches of the trees in the garden, long hairs attached to the cross-beam from which hung the trapeze and the swing. A pullet in the barnyard was supposed to be lame from birth, until we ascertained that a long hair, covered with pimply skin was bound tightly round one of its feet and atrophying it.

Could she be clearer about seeing the conventions of femininity as crippling? However, the next paragraph takes another turn:

There is just one moment, in the evening, when the pins are withdrawn and the shy face shines out for an instant from between the tangled waves; and there is a similar moment in the early morning. And because of those two moments everything that I have just written against long hair counts for nothing at all.

Colette both loves and hates her hair, she feels it holds her captive, but she is also captivated when it’s let loose. It can cover and hide her face, but the moment of her face “shining” through the dangling hair somehow compensates for everything. She is oddly removed from this passage; it’s not “my shy face” but “the shy face” that shines through, as though she can appreciate her own beauty only if she pretends it is someone else’s.

Colette’s chapter called “Maternity” is similarly conflicted. Her sister makes an unfortunate marriage and is estranged from the rest of the family; when they find out she is pregnant, here is Colette’s response:

I had ceased to think about her, nor did I attach any special significance to the fact that just at that time my mother began to have attacks of nervous faintness, nausea and palpitations. I only remember that the sight of my sister, distorted and grown heavy, filled me with still more embarrassment and disgust.

When her sister is giving birth, her mother, kept from her side because of the family feud, goes over to the sister’s house and lingers outside, listening for sounds that would tell her what is happening. Colette writes this remarkable passage:

A second cry, pitched on the same note, almost like the opening of a melody, floated towards us, and a third …. Then I saw my mother grip her own loins with desperate hands, spin round and stamp on the ground as she began to assist and share, by her low groans, by the rocking of her tormented body, by the clasping of her unwanted arms, and by all her maternal anguish and strength, the anguish and strength of the ungrateful daughter who, so near to her and yet so far away, was bringing a child into the world.

Colette is shocked and embarrassed by this physical spectacle, and yet she is fascinated by her mother as well, seeing the horror of her mother’s anguish and her tremendous strength at the same time. She knows, as a woman, she is a part of this process — the writer Colette has given birth to a daughter by this time — and she agonizes and at the same time she can’t keep herself away.

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Women and athleticism

So on Tuesday I posted about my experiences with yoga and cycling and feelings of competitiveness, and I got some interesting comments about “mean girls” and women’s lack of confidence. Well, yesterday on my way to work I heard an NPR segment by sports commentator Frank Deford, called “Some women athletes follow a sordid path.” If you are interested, you can listen to it here. The story was about how some women college athletes are beginning to do some of the things some male college athletes are notorious for: nasty hazing and sexually explicit taunting, in particular, and then putting disturbing pictures of these things online. I don’t know if enough of this is going on to constitute a “trend,” although that’s the way Deford’s segment portrayed it.

This sort of thing is definitely a problem, and it shows how much we need models for how to be athletes and how to be competitive without being jerks — how much the sports culture needs changing. I think men and women both need this. Specifically for women, part of the trouble, it seems to me, comes from having the long, long tradition of women trained not to be competitive or athletic, so that when the opportunity arises to be those things, it’s hard to figure out how.

But what really bothered me about the Deford segment was the way he ended it. He closed with the grand statement, “Sports has won; womanhood has lost.” This statement puts me in a funny situation, because on the one hand, I don’t like it that women athletes are acting like jerks. But, on the other, I don’t like the implication that women exist on a higher moral plane than men and that “womanhood” as a whole is suffering when women act badly. Women are capable of acting just as badly as men, and to assume otherwise is to do a disservice to women.

In a strange way, to assert women’s equal ability to act badly becomes a kind of feminist statement. To assume that women when they enter the sports world (or any world, for that matter — this is true of politics as well) will raise the level of ideas and behavior is to hold women to a higher standard that can be just as limiting and unfair as holding them to a lower one. Now, I DO think it’s a good idea to have more women in the sports world and the political world and every other world out there, and I think women entering these places can change things, but not by improving everyone’s behavior. Their presence brings in new voices and new perspectives, and maybe simply the chance to change things further because change has begun to happen already with their presence. But please don’t start talking about “womanhood.” To me, this erases the individuality of women athletes by making who they are mostly about what gender category they belong to.

I suppose there’s something similar going on with the “mean girls” idea — we are particularly shocked when girls are nasty to each other because we have higher expectations of their behavior than we do for boys.

Instead of implying that these women-athletes-behaving-badly are betraying “womanhood,” Deford should have talked about how we need to change the sports culture itself, and how that culture can hurt both men and women. Of course when women enter a sports culture that’s messed up, they are going to respond in messed-up ways, particularly when we are talking about young college-age women. What else would you expect? Actually, I generally like Deford’s commentaries, and I know he DOES talk intelligently about how to change the sports culture. I think this particular commentary was an unfortunate slip-up, however.

Update: immediately after posting this, I came across this great post by Aunt B. on how feminism is not a moral position. Go check it out.

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Childhood reading

I am about half way through Colette’s book My Mother’s House and Sido and am enjoying it very much. It’s made up of short vignettes, usually about 4 or 5 pages long, each telling a story or developing a theme about Colette’s childhood, her house, her mother or siblings, her friends. They are beautifully written, at least they are in my translation, meditative and thoughtful and atmospheric.

One of the most interesting chapters so far is the one where she describes her childhood reading. Colette captures the magic that books can acquire when one is young and the way one remembers this magic:

After all these years, I have only to shut my eyes to see once more those walls faced with books. In those days I could find them in the dark. I never took a lamp when I went at night to choose one, it was enough to feel my way, as though on the keyboard of a piano, along the shelves. Lost, stolen or strayed, I could catalogue them today. Almost everyone of them had been there before my birth.

This reminds me of the shelf of “classics” my father had, on a wall of bookshelves in my parents’ bedroom. Here is where I found the great Victorian novelists and the great 19th-century Russian novelists, where I picked up books such as War and Peace that were beyond my reach at the time but struggled through them anyway, and surely learned a lot about reading in the process. I think my first experiences of reading things beyond “children’s” or “young adult” books came from what I found on this shelf.

And it was, appropriately enough, high up on the shelves, above the stacks of science fiction and fantasy my father reads, as though my father were making a statement about their relative worth by placing them there, even though he found, and finds, great enjoyment in reading the fantasy books. He remains devoted to his 19th-century novels as his “serious” reading. There is something almost archetypal about raiding our parents’ bedrooms or private libraries for reading – about venturing into an adult world where we don’t truly belong but are preparing to enter. I know there are a lot of novels that describe how the young characters learn things – both useful and frightening – about the adult world in this way. I’m reminded of Charlotte Lennox’s book The Female Quixote where the main character Arabella reads romances from her dead mother’s library and discovers a very complicated legacy. We need our parents to help us make sense of our reading, and yet, when they don’t, interesting things happen.

Colette writes about this kind of reading too. Her father did not want her to read Zola and locked his books away, and Colette rebels. She asks her mother to give her the “safe” Zola novels but even this isn’t satisfactory:

She gave me La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret, Le Docteur Pascal, and Germinal, but I, wounded at the mistrust that locked away from me a corner of that house where all doors were open, where cats came and went by night and the cellar and larder were mysteriously depleted, was determined to have the others. I got them. Although she may be ashamed of it later, a girl of fourteen has no difficulty, and no credit, in deceiving two trustful parents. I went out into the garden with my first pilfered book. Like several others by Zola it contained a rather insipid story of heredity, in which an amiable and healthy woman gives up her beloved cousin to a sickly friend, and all of it might well have been written by Ohnet, God knows, had the puny wife not known the joy of bringing a child into the world. She produced it suddenly, with a blunt, crude wealth of details, an anatomical analysis, a dwelling on the colour, odour, contortions and cries, wherein I recognized nothing of my quiet country-bred experience. I felt credulous, terrified, threatened in my dawning femininity. The matings of browsing cattle, of tom cats covering their females like jungle beasts, the simple, almost austere precision of the farmers’ wives discussing their virgin heifer or their daughter in labour, I summoned them all to my rescue.

And this brings us to one of the other big themes of the book: her feelings about her femininity. But that’s a post for later.

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Why being bad at yoga is good for me

I know, I know, the concept of being “bad” at yoga is troubling, since I’m implying that “badness” in yoga means being inflexible. It means when I do a forward bend, I can’t touch my forehead to my knees. It means when I do triangle pose I can’t wrap my fingers around my big toe. And that’s a bad definition of what it means to be “good” at yoga. A much better definition of being “good” at yoga is more along the lines of doing each pose carefully and consciously, no matter where I am in it exactly.

But I’m in class last night, doing that forward bend where your feet are 4 or 5 feet apart, and you’re bending forward at the hips, trying to get your head toward the floor, and there’s this woman behind me who can do it perfectly. She looks beautiful, with perfectly straight legs, a perfectly straight back, head on the floor, arms parallel to each other. She could be on the cover of Yoga Journal, and I’m completely distracted by it. I start to feel like I want to be that good – I want to practice and practice until I’m that flexible.

And then, sigh, I realize I just can’t do it. I don’t have time to practice yoga that much, not if I want to be a competitive cyclist at the same time. And I’m not sure my body is cut out to look like those on the cover of Yoga Journal. I’m shortish and squattish, with a tendency to put on big muscles. People call me small, but I think that’s deceptive; if you look closely, you can see I’ve got leg muscles that bulge. They aren’t the long and supple muscles of people who “excel” at yoga.

So I’m forced back into the “good” definition of being “good” at yoga, and I think of all the yoga clichés I hear in class: I should come into my breath, be present in my body, get out of the mind and into the body, let breath lead me into the poses. Being “good” at yoga is a matter of being aware of what’s happening in the poses, not being super bendy.

Being competitive about yoga is all wrong – it’s such a western way of approaching an eastern spiritual tradition, although as I understand it, hatha yoga – the poses – isn’t really a part of contemporary Hinduism and that few people in India practice them. Yoga as I know it is an almost exclusively western manifestation, and the equation of yoga with poses is a very narrow understanding of what yoga really is.

On the other hand, though, I do enjoy a bit of competitiveness. I’m relatively new to my athleticism, having only been a semi-serious cyclist for the last, I don’t know, six years or so. And I love being strong on the bike. I love being stronger than other people, and it’s fun for me to play around with feelings of competitiveness and aggression, since so often I feel like they are off-limits for me as a woman. I’m guessing that other women might not feel so conflicted about competitiveness, having grown up with a stronger culture of female athleticism maybe, and maybe it’s also a personality thing – I can be a bit timid by nature, and so I have a complicated relationship with my aggressive side.

I’ve said things like “women’s races aren’t quite as dangerous as men’s races are because women are a bit more careful about their riding,” and other people have said something about men and testosterone in response, but I don’t know – I don’t have enough experience to know if women are less dangerously aggressive than men. That might not be true at all. I might be buying into a false idea of women as more level-headed and less dare-devilish than men.

All this makes me even more interested in finding writing about women and athleticism, as I wrote about a bit in yesterday’s post about Colette. I asked about women writer/athletes from earlier periods yesterday, but now I realize that I can’t even think of contemporary women who write about athleticism or women writers who are known for being athletic. This inspires me to look around a bit more. Does anyone know of good writing, from any time period, about women and athleticism? I don’t mean historical or sociological studies, I mean more literary explorations of it – whether fiction or nonfiction.

Anyway, being “bad” at yoga makes me think through my feelings of competitiveness, and to try to sort out where I should foster those feelings and where I shouldn’t.

So for now, my ambition for my yoga practice is to have no ambition. And my ambition for cycling is to kick your butt.

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I’ll play too!

Here’s my contribution to the “what would you save?” game going around the book blog world. The idea is to list the 10 books one would save in a fire, if one could only save 10, inspired by Anna Quindlen. I guess this makes more sense to me if I change it to the desert-island question — because if I’m saving things from a fire, I would go for the things I couldn’t replace, when I can buy new copies of most books. I suppose I could save the ones with lots of my writing in them or the ones that are signed. But when other people do the list, it seems to be books that they’d want to have with them when no others are available. So that’s what I’m doing. For other lists, see Lotus Reads, Liquid Thoughts, and Anna Quindlen’s original list, from A Work in Progress, with commentary by Danielle. Here’s mine:

1. The Bible
2. The Bhagavad-Gita
3. The complete Shakespeare
4. The complete essays of Montaigne
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
6. The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
7. Middlemarch by George Eliot
8. The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoyevsky
9. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
10. Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner

Okay, on a different day, I’d pick a completely different list. This is a very serious list of mostly pre-20th century stuff, except for the last two. But if I’m going with the desert-island scenario, I’d want things I know I could spend a lot of time with.

What’s your list?

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Colette is my hero

Here’s why. This is from the introduction to Colette’s book My Mother’s House and Sido, by Judith Thurman:

[Writing] was not, however, the only bridge to liberation. Colette had perceived, precociously, that the beauty of a woman’s muscles is identical with their purpose, which is self-support. By 1902, she had installed a private gymnasium, with a trapeze and parallel bars in the studio upstairs from the luxurious conjugal apartment on the rue de Courcelles that Willy [her husband] had financed with her earnings.

A woman writer athlete! I’d like to know more about women who were writers and intellectuals and also were athletic, especially women from earlier periods when it was more complicated for a woman to be athletic than it is now. One of the things I admire about Mary Wollstonecraft was her insistence that women exercise and gain physical strength at the same time they worked their intellectual muscles. I also admire Dorothy Wordsworth for her amazing feats of walking. Does anyone know of more examples?

Here’s another reason to admire Colette. Again, according to Judith Thurman:

Colette was a pagan whose life and appetites were Olympian in their vitality, as was her oeuvre. She published nearly eighty volumes of fiction, memoir, drama, essays, criticism, and reportage, among them perhaps a dozen masterpieces.

A woman writer athlete who’s also a pagan? I simply must learn more.

Here, perhaps, is a clue to what makes Colette so unconventional. This quotation from Thurman is about Colette’s mother, whom Colette calls Sido:

Sido called marriage, only half-ironically, a “heinous crime,” and would rejoice in Colette’s liaison from 1905-1911 with a cultivated and melancholy lesbian tranvestite, the Marquise de Morny, largely because “Missy’s” generosity and solicitude were so wholesome for Colette’s fiction. Nor was Sido’s “precious jewel,” childless until forty, ever encouraged by her mother to procreate.

Does anyone know if Thurman’s biography of Colette is the best available, or are there other better ones?

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Novel anxieties

I’m almost finished with my novel history book, Licensing Entertainment, and I continue to be fascinated by the controversies over the early novel and its place in culture. Here’s a passage that compares plays to novels, showing some of the sources for this anxiety about fiction:

If plays could cause riots, novels could act at a distance. If plays put too much control in the hands of the playwrights, actors, and directors of the theater, novels put too much power in the hands of the reader, and of those who wrote and sold what they read. If plays offer an unseemly spectacle of vice, novels invite readers to produce this spectacle within their own head. While the play’s concentration of spectacle increased its danger, it opened it to state control. The very diffuseness of novelistic spectacle made its effects uncertain, and its control nearly impossible.

This reminds me of passages in Alberto Manguel’s book A History of Reading, where he discusses the subversive potential of reading. And this fear is a part of the novel’s early history — if you were invested in controlling the public, people’s morals or their actions or their politics, I would think novels would scare you. Once something is out in print, it is nearly impossible to gain control over it — both the book itself and the ideas it contains. Now I like plays a lot, but this comparison shows why, I think, I like novels even better.

People were particularly worried about women reading novels, which the increasing popularity of circulating libraries gave them easy access to. Warner points out that this worry came from two sources:

The first of these is that women’s leisure reading, as evidenced by circulating library use, upset those who wanted women doing useful domestic or commercial work. Second, circulating-library use might not just transmit romance delusions — it could also give women access to reading that could put in question traditional cultural authority.

Women’s relationship to publication and reading is fascinating; so many women in the eighteenth-century and later published anonymously or pseudonymously to avoid being accused of stepping into professional areas they “didn’t belong in” — areas that were designated “male.” And the sight of women reading could make people nervous because they had little control over the content of that reading and the thoughts it might produce. They were at best “wasting time,” and at worst, imbibing ideas that would lead them to having affairs or asking for power and independence.

Warner points out that evidence shows women probably weren’t reading novels in higher numbers than men, but the perception existed that they were, which indicates the extent of this fear.

All this is interesting to think about when we consider issues of gender and reading and publication today — I don’t see evidence that anybody worries too much about the amount of reading women do, but I do think women still often aren’t taken seriously as writers or readers. If you are interested, check out this article from the Guardian on why the Orange prize, a prize for women writing in English, is necessary. The article talks about how prize juries tend to see male writers as the “safe” choice for praise and recognition. And, of course, there’s that New York Times list of the best novels of the last 25 years that includes very few women. I think women readers are often considered as consumers of books — there as a potential market to be exploited, but not to be taken seriously as thinkers. And women writers are often not given the credit they deserve — sometimes because they write about domesticity or family or subjects that aren’t recognized as important.

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What’s next

Now that I’m finished with Cloud Atlas, I have picked up Colette’s My Mother’s House and Sido to fill the “fiction” slot in my reading — but I’m not really sure what this book is — fiction, memoir, fictionalized memoir? Here’s what the back cover says:

In My Mother’s House and Sido, Colette plays fictional variations on the themes of childhood, family, and, above all, her mother.

So it’s “fictional,” but based on her life. I will have to look into this question of genre more — it’s this sort of book that makes me laugh at things like the James Frey “scandal.” How can people be so naive? People fictionalize their lives all the time!

Anyway, this book has been on my mental to-be-read list for the last ten years, ever since a college professor recommended it to me because of something she saw in my writing that reminded her of Colette. This could mean that reading the book will illuminate something about my writing style — or not, since that happened one third of my life ago.

I tend to be like this with book recommendations. I love getting them (thanks very, very much to all of you who recommend things to me here!), but they usually circulate in my mind for ages before I actually get the book. Either I write them down in my little notebook or (now) on my computer file, or they stick in my brain to stay there until the time is right. I buy books based on what feels right in the moment, and sometimes it takes ten years to reach that point. But if a recommendation is from someone I like, of a book that looks good, I will usually read the thing eventually.

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Cloud Atlas

I finished Cloud Atlas, and if there any of my readers who haven’t yet gotten to this book, I can recommend it highly. It has an experimental structure: made up of six different stories, they are nestled like Russian dolls, with one story in the middle and the others, broken in two, surrounding it. Mitchell relates this structure to the nature of time:

One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of “now” likewise cases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.

The past, present, and future, although seemingly distinct, really form one whole, and the six stories of this book, each very different, form a unity. I had a couple of worries about this book before I began; one, that it would feel like a postmodern trick but not be that interesting as a story, not that emotionally engaging, and two, that it would feel more like a short story collection than a novel, when what I wanted was a novel. But neither of these worries stayed with me: the stories were engaging and they linked together to make the book feel coherent, and it wasn’t simply postmodern trickery, but was emotionally engaging. I do, often, consider these things mutually exclusive, and assume that something postmodernist is going to be a bit dry and sterile. That’s a mistake, I’m guessing, or at least an assumption that, if explored, would get me into considering the definition of “postmodern,” a direction I’m not going to go in right now.

The book was smart – not merely in a dazzling, show-offy way (although there’s inevitably a show-offy element with this kind of structure), but with ideas about what, ultimately, humans are really like – are we just like animals, or is there something more to us? Or less? It’s about predators and prey, war and technology and how we are ruining the earth. It’s that kind of big novel, which makes a statement about where human beings are headed, and the picture isn’t pretty, for the most part.

Some of the stories take place in the past and some in the far-off future, so Mitchell gets a chance to speculate on our trajectory and to think about cycles of human history, where greed and selfishness on a grand scale lead to destruction, and the hope of humanity lies in the hands of a few people. I suppose in this sense the novel is more Romantic than Postmodern – idealistic about the effects individuals can have on history. It’s got the structural experimentation we associate with postmodernism, but it still believes, ultimately, in the power of individual people acting on the world. Not that the book is overly optimistic, by any means. But it explores the effects, however small, of people who try to hang on to some kind of ideal. These characters are often hapless, trying to do one thing and accomplishing another – failing to do the good thing they had wanted to but intentionally succeeding in something much better. This haplessness is often moving.

And the book is smart in another way: Mitchell draws on various modes of storytelling, and creates a series of very different voices, proving his dexterity with language. We get a Victorian-era travelogue, a thriller set in the 70s, and a dystopian vision of the future, among other forms. Each one is well done and convincing.

The stories often become reflections on writing and stories themselves: one of them becomes a movie a later character watches, and another story we find out is a book manuscript submitted to a publisher who is the main character of a later story. The plot of one of the stories revolves around various characters trying desperately to get their hands on a manuscript that would incriminate a nuclear power company trying to build a reactor. The story set farthest off in the future – the “end,” although it is really in the middle of the book – closes with characters hanging on to the remains of an earlier story, not fully understanding it, but listening to it nonetheless. It is narrative that connects these stories, and narrative and memory that offers any hope.

Here is a quotation that partly explains the novel’s title:

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.

I like this description of the soul – changeable, moving, unknowable, with uncertain borders, but something we can recognize nonetheless.

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Advice for job interviews

Advice for job interviews

1. It’s best not to risk being late for an interview because you are stuck in traffic on the highway. If you don’t know the traffic patterns, i.e. when there will be backup on the highway, leave VERY early. I made it to my interview fine, but I had some frantic moments along the way when I cursed myself for leaving home so late.
2. It’s best not to run into a colleague from your current job while you are walking down the hall on your way to an interview for a new job. Of course, this meeting may be unavoidable, but if you can, duck into a side hall or a bathroom to avoid seeing this person who may report back to your other colleagues that you are hoping to quit ASAP. I, unfortunately, did not have time to do this. I have no idea what this colleague was doing at this other place of employment. My first thought was that she was interviewing for the position too, but she was dressed in jeans. Either she interviews in jeans (in which case I may have a better chance!), or she works there in some other, unknown function.

3. Do your best not to splatter yourself with water when you are washing your hands in the bathroom just before the interview. Luckily I had my blazer unbuttoned when this happened, so I buttoned it to hide the water drops.

4. When you get to the place you think the interview will be held, and you look around for someone to help you find the place for certain, it’s best not to ask the previous candidate for the job who just got out from his own interview. I saw a person who looked very nicely dressed and immediately thought – this person will help me! Wrong choice.

5. When do you find the room for certain, don’t walk in when the hiring committee is in the middle of deliberations on the performance of that previous candidate. I did this, but only because the students I finally asked for help told me I could go right in. What did they know?

6. When you are finished with the interview, don’t get lost on your way home. I didn’t get lost, actually, but I did miss my exit and had to wind my way around complicated intersections and back roads to make it home. I almost invariably get lost coming home from interviews because I’m so busy thinking about all the brilliant things I didn’t say that I can’t pay attention to the road.
In general, do your best not to be an idiot.

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Thought and action

A little while back, Stefanie from So Many Books wrote a post on Emerson that included a discussion on thought and action, knowing and doing, how they need each other and feed into each other. She wrote this in the comments to that post:

I like Emerson’s thought about knowing and doing too. I had a college professor tell me once when she saw I rode a bicycle to school that exercise and action were just as important as reading and thinking. Now I know where she got that from!

It sounds to me like this was a great professor. I can’t say the idea is something I heard much of when I was in school. I had a friend who said once that he wished he could be just a brain, without a body, and I’ve always thought that was sad. Actually, I bet this friend didn’t really, really mean it, that he was just playing around with the idea, or blurting out the feeling of a moment, but still he was expressing some genuine ambivalence about the value of bodily experience.

And it’s a kind of thinking I can be prone to, although I know better at the same time. The value of the body, of action and exercise, is easy to forget when I’m caught up in my mental, intellectual world.

But there are things I’ve learned through action and exercise that I couldn’t have learned in any other way. I’ll tell you one example. I was always terrified of having to do anything that involved going upside down: somersaults, cartwheels, getting lifted by my ankles as a really young kid. I don’t know where this came from, but I dreaded doing “tumbling” units in gym class. I would fake being sick, or pretend to practice my cartwheels when the teacher wasn’t looking. It was one of those phobias I didn’t understand and couldn’t shake. And boy would I dread those times in gym class – in the way of young people, I didn’t have a whole lot of perspective, and those classes were nightmares, inspiring a terror that would begin months before the classes themselves did. One of the best things about graduating from high school was that it meant no one could ever, ever make me go upside down in any way ever again. My head was staying firmly over my feet.

Well, a few years ago I began attending yoga classes, and one of the things we worked on now and then was inversions. Going upside down. These classes were purely optional, no one was making me do anything, and I could sit out the inversions part of the class if I wanted to. But I tried doing a shoulder stand, which didn’t seem all that hard, not really going upside down, and I learned how to do it. Then I got used to doing that pose where you’re lying on your back and you lift your feet up and over your head and rest them back on the floor behind you. That made me very nervous at first, but I got the hang of it.

Then I tried a headstand against the wall. I think it was the yoga class itself that made me willing to try these things – the feeling of openness and acceptance you can get in a good class, where you know that people aren’t judging you, the teacher isn’t judging you (and certainly isn’t grading you), and it felt like a safe space to try things. I learned how to do a headstand.

And then I spent a long time trying to do a handstand, again against the wall. This was the scariest of the all the inversions we tried because at least in a headstand you have your head and your forearms and your hands on the floor, but a handstand is just your hands. And it took me forever to learn. Sometimes my teacher would catch my feet and pull me up into the pose. Finally, I learned the trick of looking at my hands rather than watching my feet as they flew up, and I did it.

So after about 30 years of terror at kicking my feet up into the sky, I learned I could do it. And, of course, I learned things about my limits: that I can do things I’d always thought I couldn’t, that I can overcome fears I’ve had all my life, that, given the right conditions, I can change my habits of thinking and doing. And I couldn’t learn those things in any other way but by the physical practice. My body learned the lesson first, and then taught it to my mind. My mind can now articulate that lesson, but what really matters, I think is the way my body remembers it, and somehow I know it more deeply than I would any other way.

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I joined the army

The George Saunders army, that is. I did this a few weeks ago, on a whim, since I really liked Saunders’s first book of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and I occasionally read his stories and humor pieces in The New Yorker. They promised to send those who sign up a package full of cool stuff. I didn’t really believe it, or figured supplies would already be gone.

But no, my stuff arrived yesterday, and it’s really kind of fun. It includes a poster with the above picture on one side and a “Saunders book cathedral step-by-step construction guide” on the other, and an In Persuasion Nation (his latest book) “recruitment tool,” which gives advice on how to sell more Saunders books, by saying things like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is really about:

An attractive puppy who actually speaks English sentences as he repeatedly saves his master’s life, only no one can hear him but the family bunny, who is dying very bravely while imparting valuable life lessons to the talking puppy, who sometimes gets discouraged because no one understands his words and they just keep picking him up.

Or, it is really about:

The Civil War, but in an upbeat way, with lots of jokes, dancing, and redemptive humor that reinforces traditional American values, such as shooting while running uphill.

Which, by the way, isn’t what the book is about at all. I also got a chapbook with previously uncollected nonfiction pieces, and some iron-ons and temporary tattoos. I have to admit that I haven’t read his last two collections of stories, but I would like to. It just takes me forever to get around to reading stories. Sorry, short story writers.

I met George Saunders once. About ten years ago when I was working in a bookstore, I learned from a fellow employee that his wife went to church with George Saunders and his family, who happened to live locally. A bookish friend visited me shortly after I learned this, and, being big fans of CivilWarLand, we decided to go find the poor author and get him to sign our books — before the Sunday church service. We waited in the parking lot until they showed up. Saunders was quite nice to us, although I wonder what he thought. It’d be cool to have fans tracking you down, but … on the way to church? And if you know something about Saunders’s fiction, you might find it odd that he’s a church-going guy (or was), but I found that all the more interesting. Actually, I think I read in an interview that he is now a Buddhist.

I’ll have to find a place to hang the poster. If you want to get a sense of what this guy is like, check out this interview.

By the way, since I’ve been thinking about various types of blogs (see yesterday’s post), I found this interesting: Daniel Green from The Reading Experience has a post about how lit blogs can help foster a reading culture.

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I came across this post on Michael Berube’s blog by guest blogger Lance Mannion, which starts off as a discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s book Timequake, and then veers off into a discussion of blogs. I liked Lance’s description of what it is that many blogs do. He uses this quotation from literature professor Arnold Weinstein as a point of contrast to his own view:

My view of art is quite at odds also with the electronic network that stamps our age, because the Internet culture, however capacious it might be, is also largely soulless and solipsistic—informational rather than experiential—when contrasted with our engagement with art.

Lance then goes on to say this:

Weinstein, being a professor of literature, recommends literature, and the arts in general, as the antidote to the soullessness and solipsism of the Internet culture. But I think that the bloggers I read most often are the ones who use their blogs to write their way through the informational to the experiential, who try to turn what is impersonal and overwhelming in the constant wave of information that comes to us through our computer screens into something intimate, coherent, comprehensible, human. It sounds too high-flying to call them artists. But it is accurate to call them writers.

Yes! I don’t agree with Weinstein at all that the internet is “largely soulless and solipsistic” and therefore antithetical to art — well, it doesn’t have to be. The best of it isn’t. And I agree that the internet and blogging don’t have to be about information rather than experience. That the best of what bloggers do is process information from their own backgrounds and with their own voices, and somehow turn it into a part of their experience, which might not be art, but then again, might well be.

I’m aware that a lot of the most popular blogs are those that pull together links about a topic — books or politics or whatever — and become portals to interesting places online. But the blogs I like best are those with a personal voice; when it comes to book blogs, I like those that are more like reading diaries than collections of links. I only read book blogs intermittently until I came across the ones that were reading diaries, and then I was hooked.

I’m beginning to think that the best blogs are crosses between diaries and personal essays — with, of course, the links and the interactivity thrown in there. I love personal essays — one of my favorite books is Philip Lopate’s anthology The Art of the Personal Essay. If the voice in an essay is interesting, it almost doesn’t matter what the subject is. I read them for the personality, the sense of the author that lies behind the words, and I think that’s what I enjoy about blogs too. I want a sense of a personality coming through. And I love the way that personal essays — and blogs — don’t have to be consistent or coherent from one part to the next. They are places to explore ideas, not necessarily to present well-thought-out conclusions. Montaigne, one of the best personal essayists was upfront about being contradictory. And people themselves are contradictory, so why not?

So, yes, the internet is overwhelming with all its information, but it’s also a place to process some of that information and to make it personal and meaningful, which is what the best blogs do.

Lance is uncomfortable calling bloggers “artists,” which I definitely understand — blogging seems so spontaneous, so seat-of-the-pants, and I think of art as painstakingly crafted. But … can diaries can be art? … I guess blogging is one of those forms that throws all our categories into disarray.

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Virginia Woolf’s Diary

I haven’t posted on my Virginia Woolf reading for a while, so here are some quotations I’m come across in the last few weeks:

First, a defense of the imagination:

Now I confess that I have half forgotten what I meant to say about the German prisoners; Milton & life … All I can remember now is that the existence of life in another human being is as difficult to realise as a play of Shakespeare when the book is shut. This occurred to me when I saw Adrian talking to the tall German prisoner. By rights they should have been killing each other. The reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one’s imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him — the infinite possibilities of a succession of days which are furled in him, & have already been spent.

Perhaps this is naively optimistic about the powers of imagination, but I like the idea that the imagination can, possibly, in certain circumstances, make it harder to harm another person. Imagination is no innoculation against violence, but it seems right to me that refusing to think about what another’s life is like would make it easier to destroy it.

Then, some literary criticism, on Paradise Lost:

The substance of Milton is all made of wonderful, beautiful, & masterly descriptions of angel’s bodies, battles, flights, dwelling places. He deals in horror & immensity & squalor & sublimity, but never in the passions of the human heart. Has any great poem ever let in so little light upon one’s own joys & sorrows? I get no help in judging life; I scarcely feel that Milton lived or knew men & women; except for the peevish personalities about marriage & the woman’s duties … But how smooth, strong & elaborate it all is! What poetry! I can conceive that even Shakespeare after this would seem a little troubled, personal, hot & imperfect. I can conceive that this is the essence, of which almost all other poetry is the dilution. The inexpressible fineness of the style, in which shade after shade is perceptible, would alone keep one gazing into, long after the surface business in progress has been dispatched. Deep down one catches still further combinations, rejections, felicities, & masteries. Moreover, though there is nothing like Lady Macbeth’s terror or Hamlet’s cry, no pity or sympathy or intuition, the figures are majestic; in them is summed up much of what men thought of our place in the universe, of our duty to God, our religion.

Could she ever write a diary entry. I love how she can fully appreciate the great things that Milton does, while keeping a keen sense of what he doesn’t do. I suspect if she had to, she’d choose Shakespeare over Milton, but since she doesn’t have to, she can write brilliantly about Milton’s strengths.

Finally, a passage about the writing life:

It’s the curse of the writer’s life to want praise so much, & be so cast down by blame, or indifference. The only sensible course is to remember that witing is after all what one does best; that any other work would seem to me a waste of life; that on the whole I get infinite pleasure from it; that I make one hundred pounds a year; & that some people like what I write.

Indeed, Virginia Woolf, some people do like what you write.

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Fun with Cloud Atlas

From the Timothy Cavendish section:

Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will. “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.”

From An Orison of Sonmi-451:

Wing-027 warned me, “Sonmi-451, you must create Catechisms of your own.”

It will be my life’s goal.

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