Monthly Archives: July 2007

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

11357909.gifI’ve been trying to decide what to say about Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick for quite a while now, and I’m still not sure. I feel conflicted not so much about the book itself but about what I actually feel and what I think I should feel about this book. I want to like non-traditional, experimental fiction. And I’d really like not only just to like it but to unequivocally enjoy the reading of it. But that doesn’t always happen. With Wittgenstein’s Mistress I appreciated it and thought about it a lot and am glad I read it, but I didn’t savor the experience. I didn’t mind putting it down after a while.

With Sleepless Nights I felt something similar. I appreciate what she’s doing, and I enjoyed the reading of it — more than I enjoyed Wittgenstein’s Mistress — but I also didn’t mind putting it down after a while. I read this book in short chunks — and the structure of the book makes that easy, with short “parts” and shorter sections within those parts — and I don’t think I could have read it fast if I’d tried.

Maybe the most damning thing I have to say about it (in my mind) is that I find myself not having a whole lot to say about it. With Wittgenstein’s Mistress, at least, I felt like I had a lot to say. As I sit here and try to pull together my thoughts on Sleepless Nights, what comes into my mind most often is the question of how I felt as I was reading it. I have already forgotten many of the book’s details, and I don’t have a strong sense of the book’s mood or atmosphere or a strong sense of character that might make me look back on my reading experience with pleasure.

But — enough of this navel-gazing. The book is short, about 130 pages, and is a collection of the thoughts and memories of a woman named Elizabeth. This is way the book opens:

It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today ….


If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can take it down like a can from the shelf.

This makes a suitable introduction to the book, as it introduces the narrator and her task — to gather her memories and write them down. But it also warns us that what she remembers may be distorted, that she is not giving us a history of her life, but rather a picture of her life as she remembers it now. Everything is filtered through her present consciousness.

The narrative doesn’t follow chronological order, skipping around from place to place and year to year, as our memories do. So we get glimpses into her life — a youth spent in Kentucky and adulthood in New York City, Boston, Maine, and Amsterdam. She describes lovers, friends, and acquaintances, events and observations. There isn’t any connective tissue to any of this, no transitions that tell us how one story relates to another; instead they are simply bump up against one another, again, as our memories tend to do.

The narrator’s mother haunts many of the pages; early on she describes her life:

My own affectionate, tireless mother had nine children. This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature. It was a thing, a presence, and she seemed to walk about encased in the clear globe of it. It was what she was always doing, and in the end what she had done.

The narrator makes sure that she does not share this fate; instead her own story is of freedom and independence, of writing and travel and experience. She rejects her mother’s femininity (“an ineffable femininity, tidal”), and yet she’s aware of how it shapes her writing:

Tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more: these came about from reading many books. So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian — all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness. Is that sufficient — never mind that it is the truth. It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, “I” am a woman.

She is not writing an adventure tale of the type that men can much more easily experience and record; rather, her life and therefore her book are shaped by the domestic and by the reading she has done in those domestic spaces. This passage declares her refusal to write a traditional novel with a clear beginning and end and with action and adventure and drama; the novel that will portray her experience as a woman cannot be traditional. Instead it experiments with the elements of storytelling that have been passed down to her, in an attempt to write something new that can capture the memories circling around in her head.

There were moments when I read with pleasure, enjoying a portrait of a character Hardwick drew with skill. Her description of Billie Holiday, for example, is devastating. The book didn’t sustain that level of interest or pleasure, however.  I’m very curious to hear what other people thought!


Filed under Books, Fiction

Novel reading, continued

There were so many good things people wrote in answer to my questions from yesterday, that I want to highlight them up here in a post. My blog readers never do let me down! I might as well put my responses into a regular post, because otherwise I’ll be burying a post-length piece of writing in the comments section.

What Susan had to say cracked me up: “My mother always maintained that she didn’t want to waste her time reading something that was made up. She watched 3-and-a-half hours of soap operas every afternoon, though, and one of her favorite papers was the National Enquirer. It’s awfully easy to get a story fix without ever cracking the pages of a novel.” That’s true! If part of what we need from fiction is narrative, we can find narrative in all kinds of places. To claim that you don’t read fiction isn’t to claim that you don’t enjoy those aspects of it you can find elsewhere. Not that the narratives you find elsewhere are necessarily going to be satisfying beyond a basic level (the soap opera).

But what’s wrong with enjoying narrative on a basic level? And if people choose not to read fiction, I can’t exactly call it a moral failing, or even a failing of the imagination. What I object to is the attitude that reading fiction is a waste of time. That attitude shows a failure of imagination, I think.

But that brings me to a point several other people made, which is that nonfiction works are narratives too, and that the line between fiction and nonfiction is not entirely clear. Litlove says that “history, science and autobiography are all beholden to the laws of narrative,” and Sylvia says, “non-fiction can be crafted into a story as well, which of course involves real people and real events.” If you claim you read only nonfiction and never fiction, that’s true only in a narrow sense, because the nonfiction books you pick up contain stories and elements of narrative and often fictionalized elements.

Some of my favorite books, in fact, walk the line between fiction and nonfiction; I’m thinking of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book I’m not at all clear how to categorize, or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which is clearly a novel, but contains long sections of writing that could easily appear in a nonfiction text, and which also contains footnotes. How do you categorize Sophie’s World, a story and a history of philosophy all in one?

I liked Fendergal’s point that fiction writers face the problem of the ending – of wrapping things up (although some choose not to wrap things up, of course), because wrapping things up can sometimes seem awkward and maybe jolting after you’ve read a novel that up until the ending seemed very life-like. Stories in real life don’t end very often like stories in novels, do they? If a writer wants to provide the reader with the type of satisfying ending where everything seems fully concluded, all connections made, all lose ends tied up, then the writer pulls us away from what we recognize as real life. But that brings up the question of what fiction is supposed to do – to capture real life or to do something else entirely.

And then there’s the point to be made that fiction can tell a certain kind of truth that nonfiction may not be able to; Imani writes, “it’s entirely possible, if not probable for a novel like Middlesex by Eugenides (for example) to present a more truthful account of gender issues, that resonates, than an “autobiographical” account from a so-so writer.” And then there’s Emily who wittily says, “I don’t believe anything I read except fiction.” That’s probably not a bad idea, actually. The person who says that she doesn’t read fiction because it’s not true surely has a narrow understanding of truth. If I’m seeking out specific facts nonfiction is probably better, but surely there is much we learn from reading novels?

I just realized that I have my very own test case in front of me, if I choose to take it up: I just finished Geraldine Brooks’ novel The Year of Wonders, about the plague, and I have on my shelves John Kelly’s nonfiction book, The Great Mortality, also about the plague. I don’t recall ever reading fiction and nonfiction in tandem like this (except reading criticism of a text along with the text itself, but that’s different). While I haven’t read Kelly’s book, I imagine it’s chock full of information on the plague, and also that it’s full of stories, and I know that the Brooks’ novel has a good story, but also a lot of (horrifying) facts about the plague. And Brooks’ novel captures the feeling of living during plague times – what it might feel like to have your world crumble all around you. Maybe Kelly’s book does that too.

I suppose ultimately I respect people’s decision to read only nonfiction if they have good reasons for doing so (although personally I find that preference hard to understand), but what really bugs me is the implication that reading fiction is a waste of time.


Filed under Books, Reading

Novel reading

Today I have a couple of questions: first of all, have you ever heard somebody say that they only read nonfiction, that they don’t read novels because they aren’t true?  That they want to learn about the world and therefore read only nonfiction?

Then, what would you say in response?

I remember hearing somebody say this a while back, and she said it with a dismissive sniff, as though she couldn’t be bothered with fiction and doesn’t understand why anybody else could be.  But the person wasn’t talking directly to me and so I didn’t give any response.  But I’ve thought about her claim now and then.

I suppose if somebody isn’t in the habit of reading novels, then any argument anybody gives them isn’t going to change their mind — it seems like a habit you have or you don’t.  But I have a hard time imagining being a regular reader (which I think this person was) and not reading novels.  I understand reading mostly nonfiction and only a few novels now and then, but to never read a novel?  And then to think that you don’t learn anything from novels?  It kind of boggles my mind.

But then again, if your goal is to learn about the world, perhaps nonfiction is the way to go?  Does anybody out there read novels in order to learn about the world, instead of reading them to enjoy it and learning something along the way?


Filed under Books

Jane Austen in Context

11278509.gifJust a quick post to say that I picked up Jane Austen in Context yesterday and am enjoying it very much. It’s a collection of essays by various critics, edited by Janet Todd; the essays fall into three categories, “Life and Works,” “Critical Fortunes,” and “Historical and Cultural Contexts.” I didn’t want to put it down to go to sleep last night; it felt like reading a novel, I was so into it. I am so very fond of Jane Austen, which you know if you’ve been reading me much, but I don’t know and haven’t read a whole lot about her life, and while I do know a bit about her “context,” I’m excited to learn more.

What I learned last night is that Austen most likely revised several of her works over a long period of time; Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were written in different versions early on and revised much later for publication, and during one period of her life, between 1811 and her death, she was often working on several novels at once. I knew about “First Impressions,” the early version of Pride and Prejudice, but I hadn’t pictured Austen laboring over her manuscripts for quite so long, or working on multiple ones at the same time. This doesn’t fit with the picture I had of her producing one elegant novel after another in a more orderly fashion.

I also learned that “Northanger Abbey” isn’t necessarily the title she would have chosen for that novel, had she lived to see it published, and she may not have chosen to call her last novel “Persuasion” either.  She called what became Northanger Abbey first “Susan” and then “Catherine,” and Persuasion had the working title “The Elliots.”  Can you imagine those novels with different names?

I’m sure I’ll read more in this book over the weekend; I’m also reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s short novel Sleepless Nights, for the Slaves of Golconda discussion on Tuesday. Join us if you like!


Filed under Books

Why I blog

The “why I blog” meme, which Emily tagged me for, is a good subject to take up tonight because I’ve been feeling uninspired by the blog lately, and I’m hoping that by writing about blogging I can get some inspiration and enthusiasm back. I’m as excited as ever to read everybody else’s posts, but often these days when I sit down to write my own, I find that I have no energy for it. I’m sure this is a passing phase, probably caused by my illness, and I’ll get back into it sooner or later.

But this brings me to one reason I blog, not the most important one, definitely, but a reason nonetheless: I like the discipline of it. I like it that I have a pattern of writing 5 or 6 times a week that I’ve kept up for over a year now, and that I do it even when I don’t particularly feel like it. I like it that people are out there who read me and would notice if I stopped and would wonder what happened to me. And I also like it that when I don’t feel like blogging but I sit down to do it anyway, almost always as I write I start to enjoy myself and by the end of the post, I’ve got more energy than I had when I started. Right now, as a matter of fact, I’m feeling better than I was when I started my first paragraph. Riding my bike works this way too; I’m often reluctant to start, but once I get going, I’m happy I did.

There are also book-related reasons I blog, many of which Litlove described in her own response to the meme. I blog because I want a record of the thoughts in my head and my responses to the books I read. I blog because I want to be a part of the book-blogging community I’ve found. I blog because I want to offer other people my book suggestions just as I get suggestions from so many of them. I want to be a better reader and I hope to become so by writing regularly about what I read. I want to take part in book groups, which get me reading things I wouldn’t otherwise.

There’s another reason I blog, which isn’t so high-minded as the previous ones: I like the attention. I’m thrilled when people read my posts, subscribe to my blog feed, leave comments, link to me, pick up on ideas I’ve written about. In person, I’m not an attention-seeker; in fact, I’ll go out of my way to avoid drawing attention to myself. I’m not a particularly good talker, and I’m dreadful at getting people’s attention in large groups. I talk as a teacher, yes, and lots of people pay attention to me in the classroom, but — and maybe this is why I like teaching — they pay me attention automatically, without my having to work for it. Even as a teacher, though, I tend to deflect attention from myself, trying to get students to discuss and debate, for example, or having them work in groups.

So, all that to say, blogging is a way I can get people to pay attention to me without me having to talk. It’s a wonderful thing, I think, that almost everything that goes on online is written (I will almost certainly never do a podcast). I like having the time to think about things before I post or comment or add something to a discussion board. Discussions happen quickly online, but I still have enough time to ponder and reflect.

Okay — much better now! I’m ready to soldier on.


Filed under Blogging, Memes

Riding and reading

Yes, I rode my bike yesterday. No, it wasn’t a good idea. I thought I’d try, just to see what it felt like, particularly since I’ve felt the tiniest bit better because of the medication I’m on. But it will take longer than a week on medication to feel well enough to ride, I’m seeing. I was able to ride for 45 minutes or so, but my heart rate was high the whole time and I felt achy and sore. I’m sure I’ll try again in the next few weeks — I’m always curious to see whether I’ve improved or not and I don’t feel like I’ll know unless I try to ride — but no, I’m sure it’s not a good idea. I don’t see my endocrinologist until August 23rd, though, and does anybody really think I’m going to wait that long to try riding again?

But what I really want to write about are two books I’ve recently finished. The first is Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way, a book of criticism on In Search of Lost Time. I recommend this if you are looking for an overview of the novel. I don’t recommend it if you don’t want plot spoilers, because he talks about the book as a whole, including much discussion of the ending and plot developments in the middle. But plot spoilers aside, it’s got background information on Proust; an overview of the plot, characters, and setting; chapters covering Proust’s main themes, as Shattuck sees them; and a number of cool charts and diagrams.

Some parts of this book are rather odd (I give another example in this post); toward the end of the book, he includes a fictional element — a made-up dialogue between a radio journalist and producer, a Proust scholar, and a grad student in French. These people are supposedly putting together a radio program on Proust. Shattuck says he included this section because he believes that usual expository prose can’t say everything. I rather like this idea — that some things are better said in fictional form — but I can’t quite see that this is true in Shattuck’s case. Instead, the dialogue struck me as so highly improbable that I almost laughed my way through it. Shattuck should stick to his expository prose. But still, the book is worth picking up to start to get a handle on In Search of Lost Time.

The other book I wanted to mention is Geraldine Brooks’ novel The Year of Wonders, which turned out to be a fascinating and enjoyable read. I say it’s fascinating because it takes place in a small town in England in 1666 that gets hit hard with the plague — and I find the plague fascinating. It’s not a book to read at the dinner table, let me make clear.

The story is about Anna Frith, a young servant girl who grows and matures as she deals with the ravages the plague brings to her village. She has been fortunate enough to learn how to read and write, and she has a sensitivity and openness perhaps unusual to one in her station in that time period. She’s an interesting narrator (it’s told in the first person); she admires the intelligent, knowledgeable women in her town but fears them also as they are always in danger of being branded witches. As well as telling about the plague, the novel tells how old customs — midwives who presided at the birth of babies, women who possessed ancient folk remedies and healing powers — were both enjoyed and feared. When times were good, the townspeople would welcome women’s knowledge and powers, but when times turn bad, they lash out at these women and destroy them — at their peril.

The ending is a bit odd, but otherwise, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book — it’s great history and a good story all in one.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction, Nonfiction

I needed something funny today

Via The Little Professor — check out limericks here and here. The idea is to write limericks based on famous poems. Some of the ones people have come up with are hilarious (especially in the second link).

It’s a gray, rainy, gloomy day, and I needed a laugh. I like rain, but not when I’m already inclined to be sleepy and I was hoping to take a walk and wake myself up …

Anybody want to try their own limerick?


Filed under Links

Wittgenstein’s Mistress

I recently finished David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and I thought the book was smart, beautiful, unique, and, at times, moving. At times I found it dull. As this novel is something I think I can safely call experimental, I’m not sure what this says about me as a reader. Or maybe I should leave the term “experimental” out of it, and just comment on the book itself and what the book tells me about my reading. This is probably the fairest thing to do.

So — I wouldn’t have minded if this book were a bit shorter, but I’m glad I read it anyway. It’s about a woman named Kate who either is, or thinks she is, the only person left on earth. Everyone has simply vanished, and all the animals have vanished too; houses and possessions are left just as they were before this vanishing happened, and cars are abandoned in the streets. Kate has taken possession of a house on the coast somewhere — we’re not told where — and she has begun writing. Markson’s novel is the manuscript she produces.

I’m tempted to say she has begun writing her story, but that’s not what she’s done at all; what she writes is what’s on her mind, with pieces of her story told now and then. We never learn all that much about her life before everyone disappeared, a few details about a husband and son are about it. What we learn is the contents of Kate’s mind — her thoughts about her surroundings, her travels (she has traveled all around the emptied-out world), her memories, and about the art she has seen, books she has read, and music she has heard.

But what’s really interesting about the book is Kate’s (Markson’s) writing. The novel is written in short, usually one-sentence, paragraphs, first of all, and these paragraphs cycle through a series of topics, moving from one to another to another, occasionally dropping some and introducing others. It’s repetition with slight changes each time — we get new information or sometimes contradictory information with each mention. It’s very hard to find an excerpt to give here because everything in the book depends on what came before to make any sense, but here’s a passage anyway, from near the beginning:

It was that winter during which I lived in the Louvre, I believe. Burning artifacts and picture frames for warmth, in a poorly ventilated room.

But then with the first signs of thaw, switching vehicles whenever I ran low on gas, started back across central Russia to make my way home again.

All of this being indisputably true, if as I say long ago. And if as I also say, I may well have been mad.

Then again I am not at all certain I was mad when I drove to Mexico, before that.

Possibly before that. To visit at the grave of a child I had lost, even longer ago than all of this, named Adam.

Why have I written that his name was Adam?

Simon is what my little boy was named.

The whole book is like this — it’s Kate’s mind pursuing thoughts until they lead her to other thoughts and then to other thoughts and others, and eventually around to the first thought again.

Nothing is certain in the book — Kate’s not sure if and when she was mad long ago, and the reader is not certain whether to trust Kate’s description of her world and her situation. Kate’s not sure of her memories and her facts; stories slip away and facts change shape. She’s trying to capture something certain in her writing, but instead she returns again and again to this lament:

What do any of us ever truly know, however?

Kate also writes about language and its strangeness; she frequently points out inaccuracies and ambiguities in everyday language:

Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm.

Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm.

One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.

And she writes about the relationship of objects outside the mind with representations we create of them inside the mind:

In fact the very way I was able to verify that I had ever even been to the other house, some few pages ago, was by saying that I could distinctly remember the poster.

On the wall.

Where was the poster when it was on the wall in my head but was not on the wall in the other house?

Where was my house, when all I was seeing was smoke but was thinking, there is my house?

A certain amount of this is almost beginning to worry me, to tell the truth.

So — and I think you could say that about many experimental novels, and certain about postmodern novels — this book is as much about language as it is about anything else. It’s about the way we depend on language to create our world for us, and the way language fails to deliver the kind of certainty and comfort we crave. But it’s also about the consolations of art — Kate is preoccupied with questions about art and history and ideas, and, of course, she turns to her own writing for comfort. We may in the end know very little about our world and ourselves, but we can find pleasure in exploring and experiencing the process of trying to find out.

The more I write about this book the more I like it. Have you experienced having your feelings about a book strengthened as you write about it — good feelings or bad ones? To echo what I said at the beginning, at times I wished the book were shorter, but I do recommend it for those of you interested in this kind of book or looking to try something like it — smart and philosophical and beautiful.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Notes on Proust

I’m reading and enjoying Roger Shattuck’s book Proust’s Way, but I found myself puzzled and amused by part of one chapter where he complains bitterly and at length about how awful the 1989 Pléiade edition of Proust’s novel is. He quotes himself on the subject at one point, inserting part of a talk he gave at a conference into his text (this practice of quoting himself strikes me as odd — why not just rewrite the idea so it will make sense in the new context?):

I propose that we boycott the overblown, misconceived, and over-priced new Pléiade edition. It saps and traduces Proust’s life-long devotion to a single work … Let us not yield to the temptation to accept unthinkingly the prestige of the Pléiade collection.

Why the religious language of temptation here? The problem with the Pléiade edition Shattuck hates so much (the earlier 1954 version is acceptable) is that it includes extensive notes, early drafts, and variants, so that Proust’s 3,000 page novel swells to 7,300 pages — and that this edition isn’t meant to be a scholarly one. It’s not just that he can’t stand all the textual apparatus, but that the textual apparatus, especially the drafts of the novel, isn’t confined to a book produced solely for scholars. The general reader, he thinks, should have only the novel itself with just the essential footnotes.

He’s making an argument against “genetic criticism”: “the study of the evolution of a work out of earlier outlines and drafts and sketches into its (presumably) final state.” According to Shattuck, the editor of the Pléiade edition, Jean-Yves Tadié, is a practitioner of this form, and Shattuck sees his 7,300-page edition of Proust as an embodied argument for this form of reading and study.

Shattuck hates this. He wants to see the author’s final version, and that’s it:

The genetic critics, particularly when led by so disciplined and informed a figure as Jean-Yves Tadié, were able to do something that deconstructionists never succeeded in accomplishing. They unmade a work of literature. Intending to carry In Search of Lost Time to its final apotheosis in their sumptuous 7,300-page edition, Tadié and his associates have in effect buried Proust’s novel in trappings and distractions and commentary. The volumes honor scholars’ decisions about what to include more than they honor Proust’s decisions about what to exclude … [the edition] shrouds and demeans the author’s work.

Am I the only one who thinks this is going a bit too far? I don’t see how all the textual apparatus could demean an author’s work. Shattuck seems entirely too worshipful of Proust and of authorship generally. I do see that there’s a theory of reading built into the way an edition is shaped (and I find that an interesting idea), but I don’t agree with Shattuck’s argument that this particular way of reading is a bad one.  I think having the early drafts and variants is valuable. Why not have a multiplicity of ways of reading Proust?  If the Pléiade edition were the only one available, I might see his point, but that’s not the case.

He’s careful to say that he thinks all the apparatus ought to be available — but available only in scholarly editions. I don’t like this idea at all — I’m not likely to want to read early drafts of Proust’s novel, but why assume that only Proust scholars would be interested? His argument strikes me as an insult to the general reader.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

Final Diagnosis

One more health update, and then maybe I can stop writing about it for a while. I found out today that I have Graves’ disease, an auto-immune disorder that affects the thyroid. My endocrinologist thought this is what I’d turn out to have, once she heard that I have rheumatoid arthritis in my family, another auto-immune disorder. I’m not sure how it works, but I guess having one auto-immune disorder in my family makes me susceptible to catching others. I also suspect I’ve had this disease for a while, just in a really mild form that I didn’t notice. I’ve had some of the symptoms, such as nervousness, heart palpitations, sweating, and a huge appetite for a long time. Irritability is another of my symptoms, but that may just be my personality. In fact, it’s hard to tell if these were symptoms of a disease, or just the way I am.

So now I’ll be taking methimazole to get my thyroid under control, and it should make me feel better pretty soon.

I had all kinds of fun yesterday when the guy who would be doing my thyroid scan called me to say the equipment he’d be using was broken and he might not be able to do the scan. If he couldn’t do the scan, I would have to wait another month to have it done because the pill they gave me (I think it’s an iodine pill and then they scan how much iodine my thyroid absorbed) would have to work its way out of my system until I could take another one. I kind of freaked out on him when he said that. And then he managed to get the equipment in an hour or so, just in time; he said he had to order a part from out of state. I don’t know how he did it so fast, but I sure am grateful.

Okay, I’m on my way to getting better!


Filed under Life

Reading and school

I would guess most readers have books and authors that school has ruined for them, probably because of a disliked teacher or a bad classroom experience. For me, whenever I come across Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of An Author, I can’t help but think about this one teacher I had who could take the most interesting experimental play and say the most bland things about it. He’d make sure to find a positive message in the darkest, most despairing play we read, and he’d be sure to make the positive message sound as cliché as possible. I always wondered how someone so drawn to sermonizing and uplift came to teach 20th-century experimental drama.

When I took a class in the Romantic period I didn’t have a bad experience, exactly, but something about the class turned me off. Maybe it was a combination of a not-terribly inspiring teacher and a semester of poetry that I had a hard time getting into. We read a Jane Austen novel and Frankenstein, but other than that, it was the six major Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats) and that’s it. I suspect a lot of Romanticism classes are like this, and I felt at the time like I’d had enough. Romanticism wasn’t for me.

But in grad school I needed to take a course in the 19C, and Romanticism it was. This time, however, I learned that there’s more to Romanticism than those six major poets — we did read some of those, but that included plays as well as poetry (Shelley’s The Cenci, for example). And we read other people like the poet and novelist Charlotte Smith and the playwright Joanna Baillie. I learned that there are all kinds of interesting novelists from the time period like William Godwin and Elizabeth Inchbald. I got excited about Romanticism and read as much as I could in the area.

And now I find myself wanting to return to those six major poets again, to see if I feel differently about them out of the context of that first class I took. Authors and books often have a completely different feel to them when we read them for fun instead of for class, don’t they? Shelley for class struck me as inscrutable; Shelley for fun is a lot more exciting. Also, reading for class is often so rushed. I want to read poetry at my own pace now, rather than trying to get through as many poems as I can before class.

So I’m reading some Keats and finding it amazingly beautiful. I’ve only gotten as far as some of his early sonnets, but I am inspired to read more and more, and I’d like to get a collection of his letters also, as I’ve heard he was an excellent letter writer. I feel like I’m giving Keats a better chance to move and impress me than I ever have before. I do sometimes like to give authors a second chance, if they didn’t reach me the first time.

Here’s a piece of his poem Endymion, with a famous first line:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
And endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast,
They alway must be with us, or we die.


Filed under Books, Reading, Teaching


I have just a quick post today to say that I enjoyed Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love very much, and now have to decide if I want to read Love in a Cold Climate, in the same volume, or move on to something else.  (And if I move on to something else, what will it be???  I’m not sure ….)  The novel is light, breezy, and amusing.  It’s about the Radlett’s, a large country family, and their exploits as the children grow up and make their way through the world.  The narrator is a Radlett cousin whose mother has abandoned her, and so she stays with her relatives; she focuses her story on her cousin Linda, a high-spirited, romantic character, and her attempts to find true love.  Although the novel ends during World War II, it never loses its brightness; the family gathers in the country once again and spiritedly takes up the challenge of dealing with rations and the possibility of invasion.

And for a health update: I don’t know yet exactly what is wrong with me — I should find that out in a couple days — but I do know I won’t be riding for a couple months.  The endocrinologist said — depending on what I actually have — that I’ll probably need a month or two of medication to get back to normal again, although I should begin to improve right away.  So, it’s time to take up yoga more seriously perhaps.  And once I feel a bit better I can probably handle strolls in the woods.  But no strenuous exercise for a while, alas.


Filed under Books, Life

Sigrid Nunez and other things

Right now I’m intensely aware of how changeable I am; last night when I wrote my post about wanting comfort reads I really, really meant it, but shortly after I wrote about that desire I read a post on the book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture over at The Existence Machine that inspired me to want to read difficult things again. Blood Relations sounds like a fascinating book, and I may read it at some point, by my point right now is that thinking about this book made me want to read more history and science and philosophy, and I got to thinking about how it would be so cool to re-read some of the philosophy I studied in college, and I was off on this plan to begin a philosophy project like the one Stefanie has been doing. Chances are I won’t actually do this, but it’s fun to think about.

Thinking this way is what gets me caught up in big projects like reading In Search of Lost Time. It’s so fun to begin a big reading project, although it’s a lot harder to keep it going, and my changeability causes problems almost right away, because as soon as serious reading gets the slightest bit dull, I’m wanting something comforting again. It’s back and forth and back and forth for me, I’m afraid.

Okay, but I’ve been meaning to write about Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind. It’s about two friends, Georgette, known to many as George, and Ann, who meet at Barnard in 1968. Ann comes from a rich family from Connecticut and George comes from a poor town in upstate New York, so the first part of the book is about how they negotiate their differences and survive as roommates. The story moves on from there to follow their lives through middle age.

Ann has always been sensitive and idealistic, hating her parents for their wealth and privilege, so it’s no surprise that she becomes involved in the counterculture, organizing and protesting and marching. George is the first-person narrator and, as well as telling her own story of making her way into adulthood, she follows Ann as her life takes off in a very unexpected direction (I read the inside flap of my hardcover copy which gave away this plot event — you might want to be careful not to do the same). George is much more ambivalent about the ideals of the 60s, and, specifically, Ann’s ideals, and so she recounts Ann’s actions with a sometimes admiring, sometimes impatient tone.

The novel is the story of their friendship, but even more so, it’s the story of changing times, as the 60s and 70s give way to the 80s and 90s, and the dreams and aspirations of the earlier time period come to seem hopelessly naive and slightly ridiculous. I loved reading about that earlier time period, and, although I’m not sure I’d want to live through it, exactly, it made me lament the way so many young people seem so politically apathetic these days.

I found much of this book deeply absorbing, but there were parts that slowed, particularly in the second half. Nunez is covering an awful lot of years and an awful lot of events, and at times I felt she rushed through her material a bit. The changes that were happening to the characters didn’t always feel believable, or rather, the characters started to feel alien to me, even though earlier I’d felt like I could have known them.

But this is a small quibble about what was an enjoyable read, especially worth reading if you’re interested in the legacy of the 60s.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

Comfort reading

The best cure for getting a little bit tired of reading is, of course, a trip to the bookstore. Hobgoblin and I went on Friday night and I didn’t find anything I liked, being a bit too tired to enjoy myself, but today we checked out one of the used bookstores in town and I had better luck.

The problem with the books that I have on hand, I’ve recently realized, is that I tend to collect books in an optimistic and ambitious frame of mind, thinking that I’ll always have the energy and the interest to read long novels, difficult novels, experimental novels, classics, dense nonfiction, difficult poetry, philosophical treatises, etc. What I neglect to collect is the lighter, comfort read. But of course, I do need lighter, easier books now and then, as most people do, I think.

I’m in the middle of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I think you could call an experimental novel, and I’m liking it quite a bit and will be sure to post on it later, but I’m not finding it quite what I want to spend hours and hours with. I prefer it in shorter chunks. So yesterday I picked up one of the books I have on hand that did strike me as something I could spend hours with: Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, and, if I like it well enough, I can go on to read Love in a Cold Climate, which is published in the same volume. I’m about halfway through and enjoying it immensely; it’s satire of the English gentry from between the world wars, complete with blustering squires and hunting and balls and class conflict. It’s fun.

And today at the bookstore I picked up two new books that looked good: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, which I remember hearing good things about on blogs somewhere, although I can’t remember where, and a Virago book, Antonia White’s Frost in May. I don’t know much about White, but I trust the books published by Virago, and the description sounded good:

The Convent of the Five Wounds, where Nanda Grey is sent when she is nine, is on the edge of London — but in 1908 it is a world unto itself. For the young girls receiving a Catholic education behind its walls, religion is a nationality, conformity an entire way of life. In this intense, trouble atmosphere — caught to perfection by a superb writer — passionate friendships are the only deviation. Nanda is thirteen, a normal, quick-witted, spirited girl, when, catastrophically, she breaks the rules and pays too large a price for her transgression.

Interesting, yes? Maybe I should make it a habit to pick up “comfort reads” more often, to balance out my collection a bit. Not a bad excuse to buy more books, is it?


Filed under Books, Reading

Reading and illness

I’m going to write more about being sick, for which I’ll apologize right now — I don’t like dwelling on this, really, except that it’s hard to dwell on anything else. It’s not a plea for sympathy, at any rate; it’s just me thinking about how being sick affects me, and specifically how it affects my reading. Most of my life I’ve been extraordinarily healthy, so being sick for longer than a couple days is new to me.

At first I was excited about the possibility of having lots of time to read — disappointed that I couldn’t ride, of course, but glad to have reading to fill up the extra time. But now I’m seeing that I don’t really want all that extra time for reading, that the time I had for reading before was a pretty good amount, and that now that I have more time I’m not really interested in using it. I find myself wasting time — I’m not even sure how. I stare at the wall, spend more time surfing the web, that sort of thing. I’ve speculated before that there might be a limit to the amount of time I can happily read, and this illness has confirmed it. I really do need something like riding to give me a break from reading — the physical exertion makes me happy to come home and be still for a while, and being still for a while makes me ready to go out and work hard. I need a balance.

This is a reminder of how much a calm and happy mind depends on having a comfortable, healthy body. Sometimes when I try to read I find myself getting restless, and I wonder if it’s because of my hyperthyroidism, one of the side effects of which is nervousness and restlessness. Last night at times I felt my stomach knotting up, and I couldn’t sit still in one position for more than a few minutes. I’ve sometimes felt this way before getting sick (and have felt other symptoms of hyperthyroidism too), and I wonder if I’ve had a mild form of this condition for a while and didn’t know it. If I didn’t understand what was wrong, I might think my inability to sit still for long periods was simply a personality trait of mine. It’s interesting — and relieving, in a way — to know that it’s because of an illness.

I’m curious to see if the medication I will soon be on will make me feel just the same as I used to feel, in the time immediately before this illness, or if there will be changes.  If I’ve been suffering a mild form of this disorder for a while, perhaps the new, medicated me will be different.

This past week I’ve experienced something I haven’t experienced before: I sat so long in my reading chair that my butt started to hurt. Surely that’s a sign I need to be up and about more! I go to visit the endocrinologist this Tuesday, and will be on the way to feeling better. And then I’ll stop writing about my health, I promise.

I finished Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind recently and want to write about it, and I also want to write at some point about the experience of reading David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, something very different from the last few things I’ve read, to say the least.


Filed under Life, Reading

The Heart’s Intermittences

I just read a marvelous passage from Roger Shattuck’s book Proust’s Way; it’s on how Proust captures consciousness:

The descriptions of consciousness as rarely whole and beset by impossible desires for otherness show how deeply flawed life is.  [In Search of Lost Time] as a whole seeks not to transcend that condition but to encompass it.  Intermittence is the guiding principle.  The action transpires by lingering seasons and stages.  The book becomes oceanic in scale in order to contain the changing weathers and tides and crosscurrents of a long voyage.  There is no synthesis, no higher calculus to which these manifold cycles can be reduced.  Intermittence describes a sequence of variations without prescribing their course or regularity.  Correspondingly, since we cannot assume all parts of our character at a particular moment or grasp the full significance of our experience as it occurs, it is wise to recognize and tolerate this temporal aspect of our humanity.  To oppose it is folly.

Oceanic indeed.  I love that metaphor — Proust’s book is an ocean large enough to capture his main character’s ever-shifting consciousness without reducing it to patterns or formulas.

I find this comforting.  The older I get the more able I am to recognize that my current mood is temporary and will soon pass and that what I want now I may not want tomorrow, or even the next day or the next moment.  There is a dark side to this — that we can never see ourselves completely, that we can never fully understand who we are, that there is nothing eternal about us — but the comforting side is that everything that troubles us will eventually pass away.


Filed under Books

Oh dear

I’m not sure I like this.  My result from the “which book are you?” quiz:

You’re The Catcher in the Rye!

by J.D. Salinger

You are surrounded by phonies, and boy are you sick of them! In an
ongoing struggle to search for a land without phonies, you end up running away from
everything, from school to consequences. In this process, you reveal that many people
in your life have suffered torments and all you really want to do is catch them as
they fall. Perhaps using a baseball mitt. Your biggest fans are infamous

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.


Filed under Books

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task

I really, really enjoyed this book — I enjoyed it because I’m fascinated by Boswell and Johnson, but also because it’s a book that has so many interesting things to say about eighteenth-century culture (I wrote about Boswell and 18C biography here). The book gives a brief overview of Boswell’s life up until the time he began to write the biography, and then it delves into Boswell’s process of researching and writing, and into the reception of the book once it was published.

One of the things I enjoyed most was learning a bit more about Boswell’s character and reputation — I knew already that he was a popular, amusing guy, prone to self-criticism and depression, who longed to be a success in London (and failed), and who was heavy drinker and a frequent visitor of prostitutes, going through agonies of temptation, indulgence, and guilt. But I learned that he had a reputation for being indiscreet and for saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, for publishing personal details about others so that one never knew what might end up in print, for being, as Sisman says, “a fool in so many ways.” He was the kind of person who would say (or print) something outrageous and then wonder why everybody looked embarrassed. He loved London so much he moved there from Scotland even when he didn’t have the money to do so and was endangering his wife’s health because of the bad city air. He lived on foolish hopes and ambitions and could be counted on to make exactly the wrong decision.

This reputation haunted him after his death; Sisman talks about how many readers of Boswell in the 19C saw him as merely a note-taker, a Johnson-worshiper who followed him everywhere copying down what he said as he said it, a man who lucked into writing a masterpiece. He was just a person in the right place in the right time with the right habit of recording everything. It took the discovery of drafts of Boswell’s books, his letters, and his journals to correct this impression. Now a more common view is that Boswell carefully shaped and crafted his stories about Johnson, that he is talented in his own right, not merely a recorder of Johnson’s talent.

One of the other pleasures of this book is reading about what happened to Boswell’s papers, his letters and journals and book drafts, after his death and on into the present day. Because of his slightly ridiculous reputation, Boswell’s descendants were embarrassed by him, and resisted scholars’ efforts to find and publish his work. Sisman tells the story — quite thrilling at times — of how, all throughout the 20C, various people came across the many, many stashes of papers Boswell left behind and fought with the descendants and with each other to be the ones to collect all the material and to put out the definitive edition of Boswell’s writing.

It’s fascinating to study what happens to an author’s reputation and the artifacts he or she leaves behind; a writer’s reputation can get shaped by uncontrollable things like what papers get found when and what critic decides to write an appreciation or a condemnation and when that critic decides to do it. Boswell’s reputation was almost irreparably hurt by damning things the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote about him in the 1830s, and was greatly enhanced by the discovery of his papers a century later.  It’s a lesson in the futility of trying to control what people say about you after death — they may say things that would shock you, could you know about them.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction


This is just a brief post about my health; I’ll be back to books soon. I just finished Boswell’s Presumptuous Task and would like to write about it — it’s a wonderful book.

But for now — today I learned I don’t have Lyme disease; instead it’s the thyroid problem that was the other alternative my doctor offered. Now that I know the diagnosis, I can see it makes sense. I didn’t have the aches and pains or the headache that are common with Lyme. Mostly what I had was a fast heart rate and some fatigue, which is what you’d find with hyperthyroidism. So now I go to the endocrinologist to find out what kind of hyperthyroidism I have, and then probably I’ll go on medication. My doctor gave me a beta-blocker to keep my heart rate lower until I get a firm diagnosis and a treatment plan.  I can feel my heart slowing down already.

I went to watch Hobgoblin ride in his race tonight; once again I was longing to be in the pack. In spite of my envy of those healthy riders, I had fun watching the race, and Hobgoblin and I hung out for quite a long time afterward talking to people, many of whom asked how I’m doing and offered a lot of sympathy.

I’m not sure when I’ll ride again, but it may be soon; lately I’ve been too sick to even think of getting out there, but it may not be too long until I’m ready to venture out again.


Filed under Cycling, Life

Elaine Pagels and popularizations

I read this post from The Paper Chase about Elaine Pagels’s latest book The Gospel of Judas with interest; I’ve read a couple of Pagels’s books, The Gnostic Gospels most memorably, and I enjoyed them. I felt I learned a lot about the history of Christianity and I became more interested in Gnosticism. But lately I’ve read a couple articles critical of her and now I’m re-thinking. I’m not re-thinking my enjoyment of Pagels’s books, so much as I am re-thinking whether she’s quite the authority I thought she was. People have criticized her for inaccuracies and oversimplifications, and for publishing the same basic idea over and over again.

All this is fine — I’m happy to figure this out, and I wouldn’t mind being directed to someone who does a better job, but it does make me think about the reliability of the nonfiction I read, particularly of the books I read outside of what I think of as “my area” — literary studies. When it comes to literary criticism, I generally know what’s what, or I have at least a faint idea, or I know how to find it out. But when I read about religious history or about science? I’m not so sure I can so easily figure out what’s reliable and what’s a vast oversimplification that the experts would scoff at.  The last thing I want to do is to rave about somebody everybody else already knows isn’t any good.

And, I suppose, reliability itself is up for debate, and it’s a legitimate question as to whether the general reader needs the most reliable and authoritative stuff out there. Popularizations of academic subjects always irritate at least some of the experts, after all, but that doesn’t mean that the popularizations aren’t worthwhile for some readers. We can’t all read the scholarly articles and university press publications in every discipline that interests us.

But it would be nice at times if it were easier to figure out what’s worth reading. Reviews help, but even there the reader has to make the judgment about whether the review is reliable. And maybe Pagels is worth reading as a start, that might then lead me toward other writers. And maybe Pagels is more reliable than the articles I’ve read say she is. You see the trouble a general reader can get herself in to?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction