Monthly Archives: January 2007

Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles

1124764.gifI have very mixed feelings about this book; at times I hated it and at others I laughed or admired the writing or felt I could appreciate what Schulz was doing. Sometimes I was horrified by it.

It’s a series of short stories, sort of — I think of the chapters as being on the boundary line between stories and sketches. Some of them actually told a story with a plot, while others were more descriptive, without much, or any, narrative. They are about a young boy’s family and his city; I think we are safe in assuming that the main character is at least partly based on Schulz himself.

These stories are often fantastical. They might start off in a realistic mode, but most of them eventually veer off into the dream-like and the impossible. I wasn’t expecting this, and so I spent a lot of time figuring out what Schulz was doing and how I supposed to approach his stories. I found the reading experience to be disorienting — which isn’t a bad thing, really, although it wasn’t purely pleasure, either. As I was describing the stories to the Hobgoblin, he asked if they might be called “magical realism,” and I thought not, because to me magical realism is more about describing the fantastical or the magical as though it were real — to treat it matter-of-factly — when what Schulz does is the opposite; he takes the real and makes it strange and otherworldly.

My favorite chapters were the ones that had more narrative, such as “Birds” or “Cinnamon Shops.” The more descriptive chapters drove me crazy; I felt like I was drowning in Schulz’s incredibly dense language. As I look over the book trying to find a passage to show you what I mean, I realize that this isn’t bad writing really, not bad in the sense that Schulz loses control of it and his meaning gets away from him. Here’s an example:

Once Adela took me to the old woman’s house. It was early in the morning when we entered the small blue-walled room, with its mud floor, lying in a patch of bright yellow sunlight in the still of the morning broken only by the frighteningly loud ticking of a cottage clock on the wall. In a straw-filled chest lay the foolish Maria, white as a wafer and motionless like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn. And, as if taking advantage of her sleep, the silence talked, the yellow, bright, evil silence delivered its monologue, argued, and loudly spoke its vulgar maniacal soliloquy. Maria’s time — the time imprisoned in her soul — had left her and — terribly real — filled the room, vociferous and hellish in the bright silence of the morning, rising from the noisy mill of the clock like a cloud of bad flour, powdery flour, the stupid flour of madmen.

I’m fine with the passage for the first two sentences, and even the third, although I do wonder what kind of “chest” Maria is lying in. I like the description of her as “white as a wafer and motionless like a glove.” Then we get the silence talking, and I feel like we’re entering into deeper waters, but I like the idea of silence talking, and even arguing and being loud. The last sentence begins to lose me, though — Maria’s time is filling the room? I sort of get it, if I stretch a bit. I like the image of the cloud of flour filling the room, but why the “stupid flour of madmen”? This book is full of language you can struggle with for a long time, if you want. Or, I suppose, you can refuse to struggle with it and just let it wash over you.

The sections that describe the father were the most powerful; it was these sections that horrified me. He goes back and forth between sanity and insanity, and during his insane times, he does things like keeping a flock of birds in the attic and crawling across the floor like a cockroach. And the family can’t really do anything about it. They often act as though he’s not there, as though there weren’t a completely insane man living in their midst. I wonder if some of the book’s mixing of fantasy and reality is the boy’s response to his father’s madness; in the world the boy lives in, how is he supposed to distinguish what is real and what is not? What does he have to hold on to that’s solid and certain?


Filed under Books, Fiction

More on Johnson

Based on what I’ve read so far in The Life of Johnson, Johnson was a lovely letter writer, although an unreliable one. Boswell includes quite a few of his more interesting letters — both business ones and personal ones — and in the personal letters he’s always apologizing for taking so long to write. Here are a couple passages I particularly liked, both written to his friend Joseph Baretti who was currently living in Milan:

My vanity, or my kindness, makes me flatter myself, that you would rather hear of me than of those whom I have mentioned, but of myself I have very little which I care to tell. Last winter I went down to my native town, where I found the streets much narrower and shorter than I thought I had left them, inhabited by a new race of people, to whom I was very little known. My play-fellows were grown old, and forced me to suspect that I was no longer young. My only remaining friend has changed his principles, and was become the tool of the predominant faction. My daughter-in-law, from whom I expected most, and whom I met with sincere benevolence, has lost the beauty and gaiety of youth, without having gained much of the wisdom of age. I wandered about for five days, and took the first convenient opportunity of returning to a place, where, if there is not much happiness, there is, at least, such a diversity of good and evil, that slight vexations do not fix upon the heart.

This is so typical of Johnson, I think; it’s a very sad passage, very beautifully written. If you’ve read Rasselas (and if not, why not?) the tone may feel familiar. Here is another typical passage:

I know my Baretti will not be satisfied with a letter in which I give him no account of myself; yet what account shall I give him? I have not, since the day of our separation, suffered or done any thing considerable. The only change in my way of life is, that I have frequented the theatre more than in former seasons. But I have gone thither only to escape from myself … I am digressing from myself to the play-house; but a barren plan must be filled with episodes. Of myself I have nothing to say but that I have hitherto lived without the concurrence of my own judgement; yet I continue to flatter myself, that, when you return, you will find me mended. I do not wonder that, where the monastick life is permitted, every order finds votaries, and every monastery inhabitants. Men will submit to any rule, by which they may be exempted from the tyranny of caprice and of chance. They are glad to supply by external authority their own want of constancy and resolution, and court the government of others, when long experience has convinced them of their own inability to govern themselves.

There is much in this passage that strikes a chord with me, from living “without the concurrence of my own judgement,” to the desire to mend, to recognizing the attractions of having someone else order your life for you. I don’t really want another person or an institution to order my life for me, but I do understand what he means by “the tyranny of caprice and chance.”


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise

8528163.gifOver the weekend, I finished Jane Kenyon’s book of poems, Otherwise, a book I’ve been slowly reading my way through for a good five months or so. It’s sometimes hard, actually, to finish a book after spending such a long time with it. I never spent that long with the book when I picked it up — I’d read maybe 2 or 3 poems at a time — but I read in it so regularly that Kenyon became a regular part of my life.

I liked the collection very much, although it took me a while to figure out how to read it — as I suppose happens with every poetry book, and every book really. For a long time I didn’t understand what people meant when they said that a book teaches you how to read it, but now I think I have an idea — each book has its own way of looking at the world, its own way of using language, its own obsessions and preoccupations, and it takes a while to get adjusted to those things.

Kenyon’s poems are typically about the spaces and objects in her house, or the natural world, or perhaps about her dog — she has several wonderful poems about dogs — and often about death. I got the feeling, reading through this book, that she had many encounters with illness and death, and I know she herself died quite young from leukemia. She writes about hospital visits and insomnia and bedside conversations with the ill and dying. She has a number of gripping poems about depression, which I think could only be written by someone who has first-hand experience of it.

Going through a list of the topics one might find in her book doesn’t really do the book justice, though — in fact, hearing that a poet writes nature poems might turn me away from the book if I were reading someone else’s review. There’s a lot of poetry about nature that I like, but to set out to read “nature poetry” sounds kind of dull. What’s most engaging about the book is Kenyon’s voice, the personality that comes through the poems, the sensibility that’s filtering the world for us. Sometimes she writes poems that are largely descriptive, perhaps evoking the feeling of a season or a walk in winter, and at other times she tells stories, of conversations, maybe, or of encounters with fellow townspeople, and either way her language is simple and clear; these poems are by no means difficult to follow or dense, and sometimes I wondered what, exactly, is poetic about them. But I think it’s the sharpness of observation and the often melancholy but always honest voice that makes them poetic; she writes with the kind of simplicity and clear-eyed vision that seems easy to imitate — until you actually try it.

I suppose what I look for when I read poetry — and Kenyon offers this without a doubt — are poems that make me look at the world in a different way, or even poems that make me look at the world, period. I’m well aware that there are those who say poems should make you look at poems differently — that the point of poetry is to say something about aesthetics and art and not to reflect on the world outside the poem — but I just don’t read them that way. I don’t like poetry that’s didactic or easily sentimental, but I do look to poetry for wisdom.

Here’s one of those wonderful poems about dogs, called “Biscuit”:

The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.

I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.


Filed under Books, Poetry

My day

030726419×01_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v65791194_.jpgToday is my birthday (I feel strange drawing attention to that, because I don’t generally draw attention to myself, which is weird … because I blog … but I’m mentioning it because I want to talk about my gifts), and the Hobgoblin gave me three news books: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, and Calvin Trillin’s About Alice. I’m excited about the two novels both because they look good and because I’m in need of some contemporary fiction right now. I’m still reeling from The Street of Crocodiles (more on that later) and want something likely to feel a little more familiar. And I’m excited about the Trillin book because I’ve heard wonderful things about it, and I read an excerpt of it in the New Yorker a while back that was really beautiful.

The Hobgoblin also got me some cycling tank tops (special because they have pockets in the back) and a sweater. We went out to a fancy restaurant last night to celebrate, which is standard for us — we agree that everything should be celebrated with a trip to a fancy restaurant, preferably one we haven’t been to before. Oh, and a good friend of mine got me the Jane Austen action figure, which I’m really excited about — it comes complete with writing desk and a quill pen, and the box has this wonderful quotation on it: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Today we went on a group bike ride, which turned out to be wonderful. It was three hours, with about a dozen people, and I was happy with it because for the most part everybody kept a reasonable pace — not too fast — so I worked hard but didn’t kill myself trying to keep up with the others. It was a beautiful day, upper 30s and so warm enough to be comfortable (especially with my toe warmers!), clear, and sunny. The only problem was that the roads were wet, and riding on wet roads with a group can be a bit gross because the tires of the person in front of me spray water and road grit directly at my face. I know the taste of dirty road water all too well. But otherwise, I couldn’t have asked for a better ride.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

My ranking

I have a national USCF (United States Cycling Federation) ranking! All you need to do to get one, actually, is to ride in a USCF race and finish it, so it’s not like it’s a big deal, but I was pleased to realize that someone is keeping track of my performances and that I’m not dead last in my category. Many race organizers report their results to the USCF, which then uses a complicated formula to give all finishers a certain number of points (this is based on your place in the finish, the number of riders in a race, your age group and probably other things too) and then you get ranked along with other riders in your category. So my ranking isn’t based on how I compete against all other women, but against all other category 4 women (beginners).

And you’d like to know what my national ranking is? I’m 132 out of 225 in road races and 145 out of 195 in criteriums. Woo-hoo! This is based on only three races, actually; I guess they only count races where you ride with your gender and category, and most of my races last year were with men. The USCF website has my results in these three races (results which I’d pretty much forgotten about): 22nd and 33rd in the road races and 13th in the criterium.

The website gives even more information though; here are the various ways they break it down for road races (I’m giving away my age here!):

1 Rank in your zip code
6 Rank in your state
4 Rank in your riding age (33)
22 Rank in 5 year age range (30-34)
55 Rank in 10 year age range (30-39)
132 Overall rank

And here are the stats for criteriums:

1 Rank in your zip code
5 Rank in your state
4 Rank in your riding age (33)
25 Rank in 5 year age range (30-34)
58 Rank in 10 year age range (30-39)
145 Overall Rank

#1 in my zip code! — and probably the only one. What these stats conveniently leave out is how many people I’m competing against in each of these categories. Oh, this makes me laugh. So, okay — I have lots of room for improvement. But that’s a good thing, because it won’t be so impossibly hard to move up in the overall rankings this year. And maybe I’ll manage to stay #1 in my zip code.


Filed under Cycling

Old School

Preparing myself for the one ride on the indoor trainer I’ve done so far this winter (mentioned in yesterday’s post), I went to the library to get an audiobook to listen to while I pedal. I picked up Tobias Wolff’s Old School, which I’d read an excerpt of a while back in the New Yorker, and which has stuck with me all this time. Alas, it didn’t make riding on the trainer any easier — I was hoping I would get caught up in the story and forget I was pedaling, but no such luck — but it has been an excellent book to listen to. I’ve taken it with me to listen to in the car a couple of times now and am about halfway through.

It’s hard for me to separate what I’m liking about the book and what I’m liking about the reader and having the book read to me; I didn’t like the reader’s attempts at a southern accent all that much, but otherwise he’s done such a good job I’m finding myself laughing out loud as I’m driving along, something I rarely do when I’m reading, rather than listening to, a book. I often respond more emotionally to books I’m listening to as opposed to books I’m reading, and I’ve decided I must keep up the habit of listening to audiobooks, a habit I dropped when I stopped doing my ridiculously long commute of a couple years ago. I find it troubling that I have a stronger response to audiobooks than regular books, since that makes it seem like my response to regular books is weak, and I wonder what this says about me. But I suppose there’s nothing to do about it except listen to audiobooks regularly.

In the novel, Wolff’s first person narrator describes life in a boarding school, and at least for the narrator and his friends, literature and writing are very important. The school has a regularly-held contest where a famous writer comes to campus, reads student fiction or poetry, and selects a winner; that winner then gets to have a private audience with the famous writer. So far, the school has held two contests; for the first one, Robert Frost came to campus, and for the second, Ayn Rand.

What I love about the novel is the humor with which these visits and all the excitement they provoke are described. The narrator’s voice is wonderfully well-done, very sympathetic to his boyhood naivete and earnestness, but also able from the adult perspective to point out how funny he could be — how funny all the students could be. With each author’s visit there’s a set-piece where the author gives a speech or does a reading and the students and teachers challenge him or her and the authors talk back in a characteristic manner, Frost waxing eloquent about the value of poetic form, and Rand getting huffy and haughty and insisting that the best American novels ever are The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

And the boys’ attempts at writing are funny — I don’t mean that in a mean way, but they are typical productions of adolescents who take themselves very seriously. The boy who wins the Robert Frost contest writes a poem in a very earnest Frost-like manner, but apparently it’s so bad Frost thinks it’s a send-up of his style and chooses it as the winner because he thinks the boy is brave for making fun of him. When the narrator finds out that Ayn Rand will be visiting campus he reads The Fountainhead and becomes a convert, looking with contempt at the silly, self-sacrificing, weak people surrounding him who so foolishly fail to appreciate the value of selfishness. If you’ve ever gone through an Ayn Rand phase, you will find this section hysterically funny and just a little bit painful.

And I’m only halfway through the book. I’ll be sure to report back on the pleasures to be found in the second half.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Winter riding: a cycling post

After weeks and weeks of ridiculously warm winter weather, it’s finally gotten cold around here, so I’ve had the chance to go riding in below-freezing weather. This is the first year I’ve ridden regularly throughout the winter, and I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in for a January. I owe my ability to ride in freezing weather to L.L. Bean’s Wicked Good Toe Warmers, inserts you can place between your sock and the shoe, made of all-natural something or other, and let me tell you — they are wicked good. For some reason I simply can’t keep my toes warm without them. I can wear layer upon layer of socks and layer upon layer of shoe covers and my toes still get numb and painful after about 30 minutes. The Hobgoblin has this problem with his hands, but my hands are fine, and his toes are fine. I don’t get why this is.

The first time I used the toe warmers was on a 3-hour-long ride, and they felt heavenly; simply keeping my toes warm kept me happy the whole time. Now that my toes are warm, I don’t have much trouble riding in temperatures as low as 20 degrees. Below 20 degrees, it would be hard to keep the rest of my body warm — at that point, I feel like I’m working just as hard to stay warm as I am to ride my bike; my mind turns inward, and I have trouble paying attention to the road because I’m busy monitoring how cold I am.

Besides the temperature, the main problems with winter riding are snow and wind. Snow hasn’t a problem so far this year, but even when we get some, the roads tend to clear out and dry up pretty quickly, so even a big storm will only keep my off the bike a few days. I think the wind is more of a problem — partly because of the wind chill and partly because I don’t want to get knocked over, especially not into oncoming traffic.

So far I’ve managed to ride four or five times a week, and I’ve only ridden indoors on the trainer once, and that was because of the wind. It was actually a beautiful day out, sunny and clear, but there were gusts of 50 mph according to the weather reports, and I did not one of those to hit me sideways.

One other problem with winter riding — if it’s below freezing, it’s only a matter of time before my water bottles freeze. The Hobgoblin and I rode for 2 1/2 hours last Sunday, and I couldn’t drink for the last hour because my bottle got clogged with ice. This wasn’t too much of a problem because I don’t sweat much when it’s so cold and so don’t get dehydrated quite as easily, but still, it’s not a particularly good thing.

So, so far my experiment with winter riding has gone quite well, but as this isn’t exactly a normal winter, I don’t really know what it’s like. Would I ride this regularly if temperatures were closer to average and we had more snow? I don’t know, but I hope I would.


Filed under Cycling