Monthly Archives: May 2006

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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