Monthly Archives: January 2007

Books in translation

Here are some books I’m considering reading for Kate’s Reading Across Borders challenge:

Lots of good possibilities there, right? The question will be deciding which ones to read. I’ve committed myself to five. And other interesting ones may come along in the meantime …

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Poetic inspiration

The Hobgoblin posted on what it’s like when his unconscious mind takes over in the writing process, and then I came across this poem by Jane Kenyon, entitled “Who”:

These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans ….

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?

She’s talking about the same thing the Hobgoblin is, I think — what it’s like when another part of the writer, the unconscious mind perhaps, takes over. Oh, and I just remembered that this same thing happened to the main character Ka from Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. Ka is a poet and periodically throughout the novel he’ll feel a poem coming on, like a sneeze, so he’ll stop whatever he’s doing and write. He writes a whole book of poems this way.

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The gender meme

Cross-posted at What We Said

It’s about time that I do Mandarine’s meme; it’s been on my mind for quite a while, but I haven’t been entirely sure I’d have answers to all the categories — I’m still not sure. But I’ve had a couple of conversations with the Hobgoblin lately about some stuff related to gender, specifically, about hearing a LOT of talk at parties and around work about home decoration and repair, a topic that provokes eye-rolling and sighs of boredom from me, and then makes me feel inadequate for not caring a whole lot what my house looks like. I mean, I’m supposed to, aren’t I? Caring about home decoration is part of being a good American consumer and part of being acceptably feminine, isn’t it? Anyway, here’s my attempt:

  • Three things you do that women usually do:
    1. Shave my legs (although I prefer to think I do this because I’m a cyclist, not because I’m a woman. Since, as a cyclist, the Hobgoblin shaves his legs, wouldn’t it be funny if I didn’t? We’d really be messing with gender stereotypes then);
    2. Try to take care of other people’s emotional needs;
    3. Enjoy nice long conversations about feelings.
  • Three things you do that men usually do:
    1. Compete in athletic events;
    2. Feel uncomfortable and out of place in a kitchen;
    3. Pride myself on my big muscles.
  • Three things you do that women usually don’t do:
    1. Let the dishes pile up in the sink without feeling guilty;
    2. Eat a ton without feeling self-conscious about it;
    3. Be willing to get dirty and sweaty on a backpacking trip without thinking about it too much.
  • Three things you do that men usually don’t do:
    1. Cry regularly.
    2. Discuss my feelings openly;
    3. Talk on the phone for lengthy periods.
  • Three things you don’t do that women usually do:
    1. Wear makeup;
    2. Care what my house looks like;
    3. Wear skirts (I will if I have to …).
  • Three things you don’t do that men usually do:
    1. Know anything about car maintenance or repair;
    2. Watch sports on television;
    3. Feel at home in hardware stores.
  • Three things you don’t do that women usually don’t do:
    1. Show my temper in public;
    2. Disagree sharply and assertively with others;
    3. Show competitiveness.
  • Three things you don’t do that men usually don’t do:
    1. Enjoy shopping;
    2. Spend hours on grooming;
    3. Know domestic secrets like fancy ways of removing stains from clothing.

There, I answered everything. That’s an interesting exercise because I can’t help but draw on stereotypes as I answer the questions, but, of course, I’m talking about ways I undermine them too.

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Kate’s challenge and other bookish topics

My new posting schedule may turn out to look suspiciously like my old one …

I got some more books as Christmas gifts today. A friend of mine sends me books most years for Christmas and my birthday, and often they are late, which she apologizes for, but I like getting late presents. Why not spread out the fun a little bit? She sent me Marie Howe’s book of poems What the Living Do, which looks good, and it will do perfectly for when I’ve finished the Jane Kenyon collection I’m working on now. She also sent me Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, which I’ve heard lots of good things about from bloggers but have never gotten a copy of. It promises to be a lot of fun.

But what I really wanted to post about was Kate’s Reading Across Borders Challenge, which I’d like to do, in some form or fashion. Out of the 56 books I read last year, 45 of them were written by authors born in America, Britain, or Canada. Of the 11 remaining, 3 of them were by people from other countries who write in English, so that leaves 8 books I read in translation, including 5 books translated from French, 1 from Japanese, 1 from Portuguese, and 1 from Turkish.

My reading goal for 2007 was to read more books in translation than I did last year, so that would be at least 9. I’ve listed 13 classics I’d like to read this year and some of them are translations, either 4 or 7 depending on whether I count the 4 volumes of Proust as 1 book or 4. But what I’m really interested in doing for Kate’s challenge is to read books from outside Europe — my classics in translation are all European, including Proust, Mann, Balzac, and Cervantes. So let’s say for Kate’s challenge, in addition to the European books in translation, I’ll read 5 translated books from countries outside Europe.  That will get me up to my goal, no matter how I count Proust.

Which ones will I choose for my 5? I have no idea. I don’t want to specify and lose the chance to choose something spontaneously, so you will have to wait and see.

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One last post on Footsteps

I finished Richard Holmes’s book Footsteps a couple days ago and want to write one last post on it; it’s a book that has inspired a number of posts — you can read more here and here.

I wasn’t as taken by the last chapter as I was by the first three — the last chapter discusses Gerard Nerval, who is someone I didn’t know much about, and the chapter didn’t really inspire me to learn more, but it is interesting in the way Holmes uses it to discuss his failure to write Nerval’s biography — or rather, his failure to write a successful one. He wrote a 400-page book on Nerval, but couldn’t get it published (he says “wisely no publisher ever touched it”) and recognized later that it didn’t really work. By this point, Holmes had already written his hugely successful biography of Percy Shelley, so it wasn’t as though he didn’t know what he was doing; rather, he just couldn’t get a handle on the strangeness of Nerval’s life. It’s interesting that some people might not be good subjects for biography no matter how good the biographer. Here is what Holmes says on the subject:

I was thus, in a way, committed to psychoanalysing Nerval for myself; to achieving what even Dr. Blanche had been unable to do. And as my months went by in Paris, I became more and more convinced that was exactly what could not be done, and that I had reached the limits of the biographical form, as a method of investigation. Instead, I found myself slipping further and further into a peculiar and perilous identification with my lunatic subject, as if somehow I could diagnose Nerval by becoming him. As if self-identification — the first crime in biography — had become my last and only resort.

Holmes has very interesting things to say about the process of writing biographies; for example, he describes what he sees as the two main parts of the process: first, the gathering and assembling of facts about the subject and, second, creating

a fictional or imaginary relationship between the biographer and his subject; not merely a “point of view” or an “interpretation”, but a continuous living dialogue between the two as they move over the same historical ground, the same trail of events. There is between them a ceaseless discussion, a reviewing and questioning of motives and actions and consequences, a steady if subliminal exchange of attitudes, judgments and conclusions.

He says the first part of this second stage is “a degree of more or less conscious identification with the subject”; it is “pre-biographic” but essential — it is like falling in love with the subject and without that devotion the biographer won’t be as willing to follow in the subject’s footsteps. But there comes a moment when gaps occur between biographer and subject: “the true biographic process begins precisely at the moment, at the places, where this naive form of love and identification breaks down. The moment of personal disillusion is the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation.”

So the biographer must become the subject, walking in the subject’s footsteps, as Holmes did with Stevenson, and then establish that he or she is not the subject after all, in a process that can be painful, as Holmes recognizes. Holmes goes back and forth between closely identifying with his subjects and being intensely and painfully aware of the gaps between them. He his suspicious of his identification with his subject, as in the case of Nerval, but he revels in it too.

It is this emotional involvement in his research and writing that I find so appealing, I think. Here is Holmes on researching Percy Shelley:

The pursuit became so intense, so demanding of my own emotions that it continuously threatened to get out of hand. When I travelled alone I craved after intimacy with my subject, knowing all the time that I must maintain an objective and judicial stance. I came often to feel excluded, left behind, shut out from the magic circle of his family. I wanted to get in among them, to partake in their daily life, to understand what Shelley called the “deep truth” of their situation. I was often in a peculiar state , like a displaced person, which was obviously touched off by some imbalance, or lack of hardened identity, in my own character.

Thus far in my life I haven’t been terribly interested in Percy Shelley, but this makes me want to read Holmes’s biography of him anyway. Holmes is a writer you can come to feel you trust — someone this self-aware, this willing to discuss his weaknesses and how they affect his writing, has got to be a trustworthy writer. I don’t mean trustworthy in the sense of having his facts straight, although I’m sure he does that, but rather that I trust his interpretations and instincts and choices.

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New year, new blog, new posting policy

As you may have noticed, I’ve been posting every day, just about, since I began blogging, with some exceptions for vacations, and I’ve been very happy doing it. There’s great pleasure to be had in producing something every day and in discovering that I can come up with ideas again and again and again and again.

But now I think it may be time for a change. I thought I’d back off from posting every day when I got so busy I couldn’t handle it anymore, but that’s not the case; in fact right now I have plenty of time. But I think I’d like to see what it’s like to post, say 4 or 5 or 6 times a week when I feel most inspired, instead of posting every day and making the inspiration happen.

It interests me that I feel compelled to make an announcement out of this — this is my own blog, after all, and I can make changes without making a big deal out of it. But I’m an annoyingly conscientious and obsessive kind of person, and I feel like if I have been following a schedule and people know I follow a schedule, then if I’m going to change that schedule, I ought to make that clear. The more positive interpretation here is that blogging is about community, and so what I’m doing is acknowledging that community and clarifying the nature of my participation in it. I’m acknowledging that there might be people out there who will notice a change and wonder about it.

Anyway — one of the reasons I’m making this change now is that I’m too tired to write a regular post, which is what I’d normally be doing at this time. Having a more flexible posting schedule gives me an out for times like this.

I’m so tired because the Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I went on a 6-hour hike today. We drove up to the Appalachian Trail at the Connecticut/Massachusetts border and climbed two mountains there and walked through one beautiful ravine. It was a perfect day for a hike — mid-40s and sunny, and also very windy so that I was grateful to be hiking and not on my bike fighting against a headwind or in danger of getting knocked over by a particularly strong gust.

During the beginning and middle of long hikes like this one, I begin to daydream about backpacking and I plan our next trip — I’m hoping we can do a long one in Vermont this coming summer. But by the end of the hike, I’ve stopped daydreaming about backpacking and I begin to notice how much my legs and feet hurt and that I’ve got a blister on my toe, and I begin to feel grateful that I’m heading to my car, and from there to get Chinese take-out, and then home to a hot shower and a cozy bed. And that’s exactly how I feel about backpacking — enchanted by the possibility one moment and secretly grateful I’m not doing it the next.

So, I’m not sure how much things will change around here, and I may end up posting every day again because I will have discovered that’s what I prefer, but for now, I’ll post often, just not quite so diligently.

And now for some pictures from the hike:

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Kate’s Calvino meme

Today I think I will do Kate’s delightful Calvino meme, taken from If on a winter’s night a traveler.

The Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages: I have lots of these; in fact, some of them are on my list of 13 classics I want to read in 2007. They include Don Quixote, Boswell’s Life of Johnson and William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I’ve also wanted to read the complete Montaigne (I’ve read bits and pieces from it) for ages, and The Bhagavad Gita.

The Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success: I don’t have a specific book to name here, but I have been looking for an essay anthology that’s as good as Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay and a book on religion and spirituality from a personal perspective that’s as good as Diana Eck’s Encountering God.

The Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment: Joe Friel’s The Cyclist’s Training Bible and Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading, which I’m going to use in a class this spring.

The Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case: Anthologies. Any kind of anthologies — of essays, of 18C poetry, of Victorian prose, of contemporary short stories, whatever. I never know when I might want to consult one of these.

The Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer: Long books — really long books. I don’t like reading really long books when I’m busy as they seem to drag on forever even if they are good and I’m enjoying them. So the summer is the time for books like Don Quixote and Nicholas Basbanes A Gentle Madness, which I’ve got on my TBR shelves.

The Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves: The last two volumes of Proust. I have up through volume 4, but I still need The Captive and The Fugitive, which are in one volume, and Time Regained. Unfortunately, these aren’t available in America in the particuar translation I’ve been reading, the new Penguin one. So I’ll have to switch to another translation — which I won’t do — or order them from England. Disappointingly, the covers of these last two volumes will be different. They would have looked so nice on my shelves, all 6 volumes with matching spines. Sigh.

The Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified: Biographies of obscure people from earlier centuries that on one level I know would bore me from page 75 or so onward, but that I find intriguing in the moment anyway.

These are the questions from Calvino’s novel, but other bloggers have added more:

The Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered: I would find a reading guide such as Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan and read through his choices — a task that would take forever and would become boring fairly soon but that still sounds appealing to me — if I had more than one life.

Books Read Long Ago That It’s Now Time To Reread: I don’t know if I’ll actually re-read these, but there are some I read in High School or earlier that I’m quite sure I didn’t do justice to, including George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Anyone else want to play?

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Happy New Year’s Day!

I’m going to do pretty much nothing today — the dishes and the laundry at most, but otherwise I’ll read books and read blogs and watch movies. It’s such a nice day for doing nothing too, since it’s rainy outside.

I went on a marvelous bike ride yesterday (which put me at 3,707 miles for the year, my most ever). My cycling club organized a group ride and about 40 people showed up. We went on a loop that was partly familiar to me but also went on some new roads and it added up to about 52 miles. What I liked about it was that everyone stayed together for most of it, and when we split apart about 10 miles from the end it was intentional rather than a matter of some people not being able to keep up with the others. And we kept a reasonable pace — no hammering off the front and no showing off, although I think that was partly because our club leader made sure the people at the front didn’t start going too fast. I like it when a group can stick together so the ride is less a crazy free-for-all and more of a group effort.

I don’t do group rides all that often because they are sometimes too fast; I’m not sure I’ll find people who ride at my pace when I show up, and there’s nothing worse than being the only one holding a group up. But this one was perfect — a very nice way to end the year.

Have a great New Year’s day everybody, and I’ll be back tomorrow with something about books. Now I’m off to catch up on blog reading and to finish Footsteps.

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