Monthly Archives: August 2006

Poetry Friday: Jane Hirschfield

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

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

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

Here’s one more poem, entitled “Optimism”:

More and more I have come to admire resilience.

Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam

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

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

it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.

But out of such persistance arose turtles, rivers,

mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.

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

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On beauty

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

From On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry

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The Fountain Overflows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A meaningful mistake

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

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

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

Okay, now back to the book.

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My decision

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

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

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

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Just a little bit of a crisis

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

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

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A cycling post

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

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

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

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

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

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Burney on Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s Afghanistan. Chopping hands off is the rule of law.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean for sex.”

“Well, maybe that as well. Your Dad is just hoping to fulfil every man’s dream — to lie in the arms of a beautiful younger woman.”

Every man’s dream?”

That night Mike and I sleep in separate beds.

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

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

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Required reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More on beauty

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

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

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

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

This very plasticity, this elasticity, also makes beauty associate with error, for it brings one face-to-face with one’s own errors: momentarily stunned by beauty, the mind before long begins to create or to recall and, in doing so, soon discovers the limits of its own starting place, if there are limits to be found, or may instead — as is more often the case — uncover the limitlessness of the beautiful thing it beholds.

This discovery of the limitlessness of beauty coupled with the potential for error within ourselves sets the perceiver of beauty off on a quest for truth. Scarry talks about the relationship of beauty and truth and says they are associated but are not necessarily one and the same; after all the statement “1=1” is true but not beautiful. But beauty:

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

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

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

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

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Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season

I finished Elizabeth Taylor’s novel In a Summer Season over my vacation, and although I had some reservations about it at first, by the end, I was converted. It is a slow-moving book, and although some dramatic things happen at the novel’s end, for the most part, the book is quiet in tone and action. My reading of the book suffered from comparison with my previous fiction read, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which was about large-scale social and political events and about barely hanging on to humanity and life. In contrast, Taylor’s themes of marriage, money, and the problems of leisure seemed small.

But that was entirely unfair, since for many people those themes are not small, and I really do like the type of novel that excels at anatomizing relationships and conversations and everyday struggles. Once I had thoroughly moved out of the world of Blindness, I adjusted to Taylor’s different pace and atmosphere and began to enjoy it.

The story is about a widowed woman, Kate, in her 40s who has married again, this time a man 10 years younger than she. Before her first husband died, she had seemed to be heading into a quiet life of reading and walking and listening to music with her cultured husband; she has two children who are nearly grown up, and plenty of money with which to live comfortably. The new husband, Dermot, changes all that, however — he is a completely different type, interested in nights at the pub rather than in the living room, unable to get Henry James references Kate’s friends make, a little too interested in fancy cars and aware of the attractiveness of younger women. Everyone around Kate expects the marriage to fail; they are all waiting for it to happen, rather gleefully. Kate knows this, and she also knows that she loves Dermot, and part of the novel’s interest is in what happens to their marriage — the ways Kate makes sense of what is happening to Dermot and to herself.

Kate’s old friend Charles and his daughter move back into their neighborhood, and the novel traces the relationships among the two families, the way the past weighs on them all, for Charles’s wife has died, and the two dead spouses haunt the living.

What is so delicious about the novel is Taylor’s probing of the characters’ minds. The reference to Henry James is not gratuitous: Taylor dissects the speech and body language and interactions of her characters in a wonderfully Jamesian manner. This, I think, is one of my favorite novelistic modes. But Taylor refers repeatedly to one specific James novel, The Spoils of Poynton, a book about people’s obsession with taste and houses and objects. One of Taylor’s characters gets involved in an antiques business, an obvious reference to Spoils, but the entire novel explores the relationship of people to their place and their possessions. Dermot feels more like a guest in Kate’s home rather than someone who belongs there, and this awkward relationship to place tells us something about his character.

I’m curious as to why Elizabeth Taylor is better known in Britain than America; before becoming a blog reader, I had never heard of her and I don’t think people I know have heard of her either. It interests me the way reading tastes and author fortunes differ on either side of the ocean.


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One book meme

Stefanie has tagged me with the One Book Meme. So, here goes:

1. One book that changed your life. I’m tempted to write about feminism and Virginia Woolf, and that would be one honest answer, but the really honest answer is the Bible. I could tell my life story, pretty much, by telling you what I thought about the Bible at various times, how I read it, whether I read it, how I interpreted it, my theories of how it should be interpreted. I’m rather annoyed that this is my best answer, but it truly is. Even though I feel very conflicted about the Bible these days, it is kind of cool to have a book as something that didn’t just change my life but shaped it from the very beginning.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once. Robinson Crusoe. What a great story! And weird. Very weird.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island. This one is difficult because if I chose a novel, I might get tired of the story after a while, but if I chose a book of poems or essays (I’d be tempted by the complete Montaigne), I might get tired of the one writer and his/her voice. I might be best off with one of those big anthologies with lots of different genres and writers and time periods. How about the Norton Anthology of English Literature?

4. One book that made you laugh. Well, I laughed yesterday when I was reading Proust’s Swann’s Way. I’m surprised by this, as I thought he’d be all seriousness. But the description of the narrator’s father trying to get Legrandin to admit something he’d rather not, and Legrandin getting all vague and lyrical in response was funny. I think I chuckled quietly for a moment.

5. One book that made you cry. I’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin a couple of times, and it doesn’t always make me cry, in fact at times I’ve found it annoying, but when I read it in college I remember lying on my dormroom bed and crying over it. Sometimes that old-fashioned sentimentalism really gets to me.

6. One book that you wish had been written. The entire Absent Classic series. Since this meme is supposed to be about one book, I’m particularly longing for Volume 15. I’m glad to have an excerpt at least.

7. One book you wish had never been written. Ummm … I don’t have any. In the larger perspective of things, in some cases the large, large, large perspective, I’m glad for every book there is. I will say, however, that a book like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, while I’m glad it was written, will forever taunt me with its difficulty. I like reading difficult books, at times, but that one? That’s one difficult book I’ll probably never read, and that makes me a little unhappy.

8. One book you’re currently reading. Frances Burney’s Journals and Letters. A little at a time before I go to bed every night.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read. The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West. I’m inspired by Susan’s Rebecca West project and by the recommendation of other bloggers. Maybe it will be my next fiction read. If so, it will give me an excuse to go to the bookstore.

10. Now tag five people. I’m going to tag the Hobgoblin, but otherwise, so many people have done this, I’m not sure I can find four others who haven’t. So, if you haven’t done this, and you’d like to, try it out!

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