Monthly Archives: August 2007

Library sale!

If you’ve read Hobgoblin’s post today, you’ll have an idea what mine is going to be about. Yes, we went to another library sale. How could we not when it’s huge and just a few miles up the road? I swear this is the last library sale I’m going to until … next year. Here’s what I found:

  • Rosamund Lehmann, A Note in Music. Litlove recommended the author to me, although not this particular title. It’s a Virago edition.
  • Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge. I loved Of Human Bondage, I’m ready to try another Maugham novel, and how could I resist after reading Becky’s post?
  • Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey. I already have one unread Anne Bronte novel (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), but I love having unread Victorian novels lying around, so I snatched it up.
  • Frances Burney, Camilla. She has two very long novels I haven’t yet read, this one and Cecilia. Someday I’ll get to both of them.
  • Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek. I discovered Taylor last summer when I read two of her novels and loved them, so I’m happy to find another.
  • Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond. Surely this will make Emily happy! I found a pretty NYRB classics edition, and it was only $1.50.
  • Penelope Fitzgerald, The Book Shop. This is a slim volume, and how could I resist the title? I’ve never read Fitzgerald, but I keep hearing she’s good.
  • Nicholson Baker, Room Temperature. Yes, I am a Nicholson Baker fan.
  • Edith Wharton, The Buccaneers. I love the Wharton novels I’ve read, and Hepzibah writes about Wharton so well, I had to get this one.
  • William Styron, Sophie’s Choice. This kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? A great book, so I hear.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria: Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. To further my interest in the romantics. Copies on Amazon seem like of pricey, so I’m glad I got it.

Who knows when I’ll actually read these, but I’m happy to have them now.


Filed under Books, Lists

Mind as palimpsest

I’m on to De Quincey’s third essay in my collection, “Suspiria de Profundis,” or “Sighs From the Depths.” This is such a rich essay that I find myself wanting to write a blog post about many sections from it — isn’t it a delight to find a good book that inspires many blog posts? I think of these books as “bloggable” ones, ones that will keep a regular poster going for quite a while.

Anyway, there’s a short section about halfway through called “The Palimpsest” that I found particularly fascinating; it spends five pages or so explaining what a palimpsest is — a manuscript written on multiple times and nearly erased after each use but leaving a trace of the previous text that is still readable. In his example, a Greek tragedy is written and then scraped away, a legend about a Christian monk replaces it, and a romance about knights replaces that. De Quincey gives no indication where he is going with the topic until he has explained it thoroughly, at which point he makes it all clear:

What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, O reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished.

What a wonderful metaphor, is it not? The idea is that nothing we have experienced is lost; it’s simply been covered over by something else and by something else again. But traces remain:

Yes, reader, countless are the mysterious handwritings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and, like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests, or the undissolving snows on the Himalaya, or a light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness.

The more I read the more I realized how Proustian this whole metaphor is, but instead of involuntary memory — when a sensory experience triggers a memory of a long-forgotten moment — as the mechanism that reveals the forgotten layers in our minds, for De Quincey, it’s approaching death, severe illness, or opium that brings the memory back:

[Memories] are not dead but sleeping. In the illustration imagined by myself, from the case of some individual palimpsest, the Grecian tragedy had seemed to be displaced, but was not displaced, by the monkish legend; and the monkish legend had seemed to be displaced, but was not displaced, by the knightly romance. In some potent convulsion of the system, all wheels back into its earliest elementary stage.

Perhaps De Quincey’s conception of memory allows for a more active role than Proust’s does — one can take opium to induce these memories, if one wishes. For Proust, involuntary memory simply happens, outside our control.

De Quincey also begins to found Freudian:

But the deep tragedies of infancy, as when the child’s hands were unlinked for ever from his mother’s neck, or his lips for ever from his sister’s kisses, these remain lurking below all, and these lurk to the last. Alchemy there is none of passion or disease that can scorch away these immortal impresses.

So the partially erased layers of the palimpsest are the unconscious, waiting for its chance to emerge — to be read. But this implies there is little more we can do but “read” the layers; they cannot be fully wiped away.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

A little too much patriarchy

I’m reading Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Palace Walk right now and enjoying it greatly; it’s a long, rich, satisfying read, about a family in Cairo after World War I (although I had to look up the date, which I couldn’t figure out from the novel itself — this is probably my fault for not getting historical references). It’s the kind of book you can live with for a long time; it moves slowly but in a good way, giving you lots of detail about setting and character. It feels like a Victorian novel in a lot of ways, as one of its main preoccupations is getting the young people properly married.

Its resemblance to Victorian novels is making me realize that I’ve been reading an awful lot about how much life used to suck for women — which is not to say that it doesn’t suck today, at least for some, especially outside of the Western world. But still — Palace Walk right after The Crimson Petal and the White reminds me of just how grim life could be. Yesterday I wrote about how Faber’s novel describes the impossibilities women faced in Victorian society, so I won’t repeat that. In Palace Walk, the situation seems even worse, although the women in the novel haven’t yet expressed any dissatisfaction. Here, the two young daughters, as respectable women eligible for marriage, are not allowed to be seen by any man, not even through through a window. They spend their days in the house, mostly doing housework, as far as I can tell. They have little education. The mother — the whole family actually — defers to every whim and desire of the father. The mother is little more than a glorified servant.

I’m not surprised by this at all, but it does make me long to read something with a more feminist bent to it, and soon. I remember people mentioning that Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness has an interesting take on gender; perhaps this is a good possibility?


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

The Crimson Petal and the White

6938770.gif Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White was such an enjoyable book; it’s about 900 pages long, but it felt much shorter. The pages flew by. The excitement and speed doesn’t come from an incredibly complex plot; rather, it comes from the fun of being caught up in a vividly-realized world so very different from our own.

The book is set in London in 1875, and the author takes special delight in describing all that was horrid about the place — the filth, the smells, the poverty, the inequality, the prostitutes, the thieves, the beggars and pickpockets. Maybe there’s something a little wrong about enjoying these things in one’s reading, but still, it is delightful to read about a time not so far back in history that makes a person glad she’s alive today and not then. It makes one think, though — maybe people will one day read historical fiction about our time and wonder how we ever managed to survive when things were obviously so very terrible.

The story revolves around three main characters, William Rackham, head of a perfume industry; Agnes Rackham, his wife; and Sugar, the prostitute William falls in love with. Each character is vividly portrayed. Sugar is very smart and knows how to manipulate weak men such as William; she uses William’s infatuation with her to the fullest extent possible. She’s writing a novel describing her fantasies of revenge against all the men who have abused her in her life. William is insecure and foolish; he wanted a literary life but gave that dream up so he could make money, but he never quite trusts himself or his decisions. He wants to have the perfect home with wife and child and luxury and refinement, but he also wants Sugar for the pleasure and flattery she brings. He wants it all, and he lives in a society that gives him no reason to think he can’t have it.

Agnes, the wife, is one of the most fascinating characters; she’s startlingly ignorant about sex and reproduction, ashamed of her body, and unwilling to acknowledge that she’s given birth to a daughter. She’s the perfect Victorian woman — proper, modest, polite, and ignorant. But she’s also teetering on the brink of insanity. The point is obvious — conventional Victorian womanhood drives women mad — but it’s still a pleasure to see how Faber makes it all work out. Agnes and Sugar fall into the virgin/whore dichotomy, but these roles slip and slide and undermine each other and by the end, both women refuse to be what William — and society — want them to be.

Faber takes pleasure in spelling out just how restrictive the rules of proper society were; I knew something about what it meant to be a high-class Victorian woman, but I was still shocked at the many, many rules. It wasn’t proper for a woman to laugh with her mouth open. She couldn’t acknowledge any bodily function whatsoever. She was supposed to walk in such a way as to deny she has legs; she’s supposed to glide across the floor as though she is an angel. She couldn’t do any physical labor whatsoever, not so much as closing the curtains or putting a log on the fire. She couldn’t acknowledge there was such a thing as prostitution. It’s all this detail that makes historical fiction so much fun, isn’t it?


Filed under Books, Fiction

Kind of a miserable day

Today was one of those days when nothing goes right. First of all, this morning as I made some tiny-but-apparently-very-significant movement with my shoulders, my upper back muscles seized up, and now I can’t move my head very well. I’ve had a history of upper-back problems, so this is nothing new, but still, it’s painful. And the worst thing about it is that I can’t read all that comfortably. I feel best when I’m moving about; when I sit still to read, I can feel my shoulders tensing up. I’d be happy right now only if I could spend the next day or two completely unconscious so that when I wake up, the pain will be gone.

Then I had a work welcome back barbeque to go to, which is a sad thing in and of itself, as it signals the end of my summer, which hasn’t been all that wonderful, truth be told, but still was better than the school year will be. But the barbeque would have been fine, if I hadn’t gone into my office beforehand and found myself utterly bewildered because I didn’t recognize anything in there. My things were gone and somebody else’s things had replaced them. Maybe I was fired and didn’t know it! Actually, I had requested an office change earlier in the summer, but I hadn’t heard anything, and so had assumed I’d been ignored. But no — whoever is in charge of such things wasn’t ignoring me; these people had fulfilled my request but had failed to tell me they were going to do it.

So I found out from my department chair where my new office is, and I ran around to at least three different offices to get my new key. This involved walking to various far-flung corners of campus and left me sweating — a symptom of my thyroid disease is intolerance of heat, and times like this are when I feel it most. Everyone around me will be fine, and I’ll be standing there hoping the sweat isn’t soaking through my shirt. I went back to my new office and looked inside, only to find that my things weren’t there; somebody else’s things were there instead.

So, back to my department chair, who helped me hunt down the dean in charge of such things; the dean had a long conversation with this other guy about how he was certain they hadn’t moved my things and he had no idea where they were. I had to keep insisting my things weren’t there — nobody knew where my books and papers were! I did not like having to listen to a dean and other Important People blunder about wondering where my books and papers were.

Finally, they discovered they’d taken them to the wrong office, and they fixed it and got me moved in to my new place. Things calmed down from there; I hung out at the barbeque and complained about my office, and people just laughed and said “welcome to our school!” Great.

To top off this day, I had to cancel my walk with Emily because of my back — and she’s moving soon, too, so it’s not like we can take a walk any old day.

But I do have one piece of good news: Muttboy’s tumor is benign, so he is now completely healthy. This makes up for a lot.

Now I have to figure out how I can spend my evening comfortably reading. Maybe I should walk around the house with a book in my hands, so I can read and move around at the same time??

Next post: The Crimson Petal and the White.


Filed under Life

On the Knocking At the Gate in Macbeth

I have now read the second De Quincey essay in my collection; it’s called “On the Knocking At the Gate in Macbeth,” and it tries to explain why De Quincey finds the knocking that takes place after Duncan’s murder so eerie.  The essay is about five pages long, and it makes a fairly simple point about Macbeth (the knocking brings us back from the horror of murder to the everyday world — and returning to the everyday world deepens the horror of murder), but along the way it is full of digressions, taking in a philosophical point about the mind, the story of a real-life murder, what it’s like to witness someone fainting, and what it’s like to watch a state funeral procession.

Here is part of the philosophical digression:

Here I pause for one moment to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind.  The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind and the most to be distrusted: and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else; which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes.

I love this philosophical digression that warns us against paying too much attention to our understanding!  He goes on to illustrate this point with an example: if you were to ask someone to draw a picture of a street, they probably wouldn’t do a very good job, unless they happened to know the rules of perspective.  Here is why:

The reason is — that he allows his understanding to overrule his eyes.  His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is known and can be proved to be a horizontal line, should not appear a horizontal line …

Even though we can see with our eyes the way a street actually looks, our understanding takes over when we try to draw it and it messes us up.  We’d be better off trusting our eyes and getting our mind out of the way.

The purpose of this digression?

But, to return from this digression, — my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect direct or reflected: in fact, my understanding said positively that it could not produce any effect.  But I knew better: I felt that it did: and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it.

That’s a long way around to make the point that reason only gets us so far and that the senses, emotion, and intuition can carry us farther, but I do like taking the long way around to get to one’s point, at least when it’s done as De Quincey does it, with something interesting along the way.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Book sale!

Awhile back I made the mistake of signing up to work during the first shift of my library’s book sale. I discovered today why it was a mistake — I had to keep busy straightening books and answering questions (or trying to) while other people snatched up the good stuff. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the woman organizing things hadn’t assigned me to the travel, science, computers, reference, and children’s book sections; if I’d been over in fiction, I probably could have set books aside to buy later. Next time I’ll remember — sign up to work at the library sale by all means, but not during the first shift!

But I did come home with some good things (as did Hobgoblin):

  • John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. I found an old hardcover edition, which will make pleasant reading when I get there, I think. I’ve been hearing about Galsworthy a lot lately because of the Outmoded Authors challenge. I suspect I won’t be reading this as part of the challenge, however.
  • Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John. As much as I felt ambivalently about Jane Smiley’s book about the novel (13 Ways), she does have a good reading list. I learned about this one there.
  • Arthur Phillips, Prague. I should get in the habit of noting why I put things on my list of books I’d like to read; some things are on there and I have no idea why. I’m not sure why this book has stuck in my mind, but it has, and now I own it. Has anybody else read it?
  • Pat Conroy’s Beach Music. Courtney has written so eloquently about this book, how could I resist?
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett, Manservant and Maidservant. Oh, shoot, I just learned that NYRB Classics has published this book — if I’d known that I might have waited to get that edition. Perhaps it’s silly to care about editions like that, but I do like to hold a nicely-made book in my hands … this is another Outmoded Authors author.
  • Andrew O’Hagan, Personality. I read a good review of O’Hagan’s latest novel and so thought I might like an earlier one.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton. I’ve decided it’s impossible to own too much Gaskell!

The worrying thing is that there’s another local library sale next weekend, and I really don’t need more books, but I’m sure I’ll go …

And, finally, thanks to Jenny D. for the link to this fabulous article on walking by Nicole Krauss. A small taste:

My idea of a walk, influenced by Kazin and honed over these last nine years that I’ve lived in New York, involves a freewheeling thoughtfulness powered by the legs but fed by observation, a physical and mental stream of consciousness nudged this way and that by an infinite number of human variables: an old man doing his esoteric exercises, a lone glove dropped in the middle of a snowy sidewalk, an Orthodox Jew in a shtreimel.

A detail — Chinese lantern flowers in the window of a brownstone — leads to an association, and then another; a thought forms, expands, breaks apart into subsidiary thoughts, which in turn briskly scatter with the sudden appearance of a balloon floating down Seventh Avenue. All the while, on another level of the mind, decisions are being made about direction: a right here, now a left, straight until the river.

There is no destination. Ideally, the afternoon is wide open. Time is limitless. The streets taken on the way out are never the ones taken on the way back. The walk unfurls according to mood, physical endurance and visual appetite.


Filed under Links, Lists, Reading

A few random things

I have a few short things to write about this Friday evening. The first is this article about Percy Shelley from The New Yorker; it’s about a new book called Being Shelley by Ann Wroe. According to the article:

Wroe tries to see as Shelley saw—to inhabit his consciousness and capture its every movement. This is, as she frankly says, ‘an experiment,’ and any reader who opens the book expecting a conventional biography is in for a surprise.

I do love unconventional biographies! And I’ve enjoyed reading Keats and now De Quincey so much that I’m considering reading more of the Romantics and could turn to Shelley at some point. I remember having to read Prometheus Unbound in college, though, and being a bit bewildered by it — I liked it, it was just something … strange. He’s a writer who intimidates me a bit. Perhaps I’ll turn to Coleridge first.

Then I was pleased to see this list of “The 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time” (link via The Literary Saloon), but saddened to note that I’ve read only 4 of them — Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and Tobias Smollett’s Travels Through France and Italy. Clearly I need to read more travel writing, as I do enjoy the genre. Perhaps I’ll read some Bruce Chatwin next; I’ve been meaning to for ages.

Then I thought insomniacs or people whose thoughts trouble them at night might like this Keats poem, which I thought beautiful, particularly the last six lines:

Sonnet to Sleep

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the Amen ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like the mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

Finally, a health update. Muttboy is healing very well, and has his full appetite and energy back. He has to wear a t-shirt much of the time, though, to keep him from scratching or licking his belly where the stitches are, so he looks undignified and undog-like. Poor thing.

I am healing quite well also; when I saw the endocrinologist yesterday and mentioned that I have been riding some, in spite of her orders not to, she said “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that” and then told me to take it easy, which I’m taking as permission to ride as much as I’d like. Yay! When I talked to my mother about this, telling her about the early riding, she said she would have done the same thing. You see why I am the way I am??


Filed under Books, Life, Links

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

7790332.gif I have just finished the title essay from a collection of Thomas De Quincey’s work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; the book has three longish-essays (the title one was 80 pages) and one short one. I’m planning on reading them all, but Confessions was the reason I picked this book up. I’m not sure what attracted me to it, since confessions of drug addicts aren’t my usual thing, but I’ve heard this mentioned as an interesting essay and as an example of walking literature, and I’m fascinated by De Quincey’s time period (1785-1859), so that’s reason enough.

The essay, as you might guess from the title, tells the story of De Quincey’s addiction to opium, but it does so with lots of digressions and philosophical asides and glimpses of life in De Quincey’s time. After a brief introduction justifying his decision to write an essay that exposes his weakness, he tells of his boyhood school days and his decision to run away from school at the age of 17. He wanders through parts of Wales and ends up in London, where, he says, the seeds of his addiction were planted. He runs out of money and comes very close to starving to death, which causes him stomach problems that come back to haunt him — at which point he becomes an addict, taking opium every day to relieve the pain.

But De Quincey takes his time with the Wales and London episodes, and they are some of the most interesting sections. Particularly moving is the story of his friendship with the prostitute Anne; they offer each other companionship and aid — she saves him from starvation at one point. Tragically, De Quincey leaves London briefly to try to find some money, and when he returns he can’t find her. He mourns the loss of their friendship for the rest of his life.

De Quincey took opium regularly before he became addicted; he was careful to let enough days go by between indulgences so that the drug would maintain its potency. And he writes about the pleasures of opium quite beautifully; one of the things I like best about this essay is that De Quincey is fully honest about both the pleasures and the pains. He writes:

And, at that time, I often fell into these reveries upon taking opium; and more than once it has happened to me, on a summer-night, when I have been at an open window, in a room from which I would overlook the sea at a mile below me, and could command a view of the great town of L—-, at about the same distance, that I have sate, from sun-set to sun-rise, motionless, and without wishing to move.

A bit later he goes into raptures over the drug:

Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium!

He goes on like that for a full paragraph. But he is also clear about the horrors of opium addiction:

[The opium-eater] lies under the weight of incubus and night-mare; he lies in sight of all that he would fain perform, just as a man forcibly confined to his bed by the mortal languor of a relaxing disease, who is compelled to witness injury or outrage offered to some object of his tenderest love: — he curses the spells which chain him down from motion: — he would lay down his life if he might but get up and walk; but he is powerless as an infant, and cannot even attempt to rise.

He does, you will be happy to know, overcome his addiction, but he is still haunted by one of the worst effects of addiction — horrible nightmares, some of which he describes in detail.

I am looking forward to seeing what the other essays are like; he’s got a style I enjoy — digressive, allusive, difficult to categorize.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

All In Together Girls

b1.gif I have just finished Kate (of Kate’s Book Blog fame) Sutherland’s collection of short stories All In Together Girls, and enjoyed it very much; the collection has 14 stories, all of them quite short, each one capturing a glimpse into the life of a female protagonist.

Many of the stories are about young girls in their early or late teens who are trying to figure out their relationships with parents and with friends and with boys; these stories describe acts of disobedience and rebellion and often also moments of humiliation and frustration. They are about trying to find one’s identity while negotiating the needs and demands of others. They tell of the desire for freedom and the uncertainty about what to do with it; the first story, for example, is about a group of friends who lie to their parents so they can spend the night hanging out, but things quickly go sour leaving them wanting nothing but to go home. In a later story a girl skips her dance lessons to hang out with friends, and in another the protagonist lies to her parents and spends the night with her friends trying, but failing, to smoke dope. In each of these stories, the promised fun times never quite materialize, and instead the protagonists are left with an air of sadness and worry.

The adult protagonists of some of the other stories seem just as lost; in “Outside the Frame,” the narrator tries to piece together her mother’s story from a photograph, seeking to understand the quality of her mother’s marriage as her own is falling apart. The story alternates between the mother’s experience, as imagined by the narrator, and the narrator’s accounting of why she is leaving her husband. In “Notes for a Documentary,” one of my favorites, the protagonist travels to Scotland to do research and to see family; she visits the places where her parents courted and ponders what to do about her own love affair. She is unsettled, positioned between an unchanging past and an uncertain future.

I enjoyed each and every one of these stories. Many of them are told in the first person, and the voices are clear and appealing, telling their stories straightfowardly, recounting hard times but not asking for pity. The language is simple and direct, drawing attention not to itself, but to the predicaments of the characters — it’s their thoughts about themselves and their lives that matter here.

This is the second collection of short stories I’ve read this year (the first was Jesus’ Son), which fulfills my short story-reading goal; I’m enjoying reading more in the genre, though, and may pick up another. I’ve got Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories on my shelves if I get the urge.


Filed under Books, Short stories


If you follow Hobgoblin’s blog, you’ll know that our dog Muttboy had surgery today to have a tumor removed from the skin of his chest. Well, he’s still at the vet’s office, but we’ve learned that he came through it very well, and will be coming home in about 1 1/2 hours. Yay!

They did chest x-rays to see if the tumor had spread, which it hadn’t. We still don’t know exactly what type of tumor it is, but so far, everything looks fine.

Today was spent waiting — waiting to take Muttboy to the vet’s, waiting until we could call for news, waiting until we could call for further news, and now waiting to go pick him up. But all that’s okay as long as he’s fine.

By the way, I have a question: did we skip the rest of August and September and move straight to October? I ask because today the temperature hasn’t gotten above 58 and it’s been raining all day. I’m just wondering if I missed something.


Filed under Life

On finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

I want to write just a few words about finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; I don’t feel up to writing a big long summing-up post that tries to say smart things about what it all means, but I do want to say something. I am happy to have finished, but I do miss reading Proust a bit; I’ve been used to a near-daily dose of the narrator’s slow-moving, contemplative voice, and now I don’t have that.

It’s hard to see how a 3,000-page book without all that much plot, relatively speaking, could cohere, but I think it does. I found the ending, say, that last couple hundred pages, really did wrap things up; it provides an answer to the question that has haunted the whole book — will Marcel ever write his masterpiece? This is a question that has lingered from the very first volume when it becomes clear that Marcel has an interest in, and perhaps a talent for, writing. The answer the book provides is satisfying, and realistic, given everything that has happened up until that point.

My favorite volumes were the first two and the last one; the third and fourth, The Guermantes Way and Sodom and Gomorrah, got a little long, but then the fifth volume, which contains The Prisoner and The Fugitive begins to pick up a bit in preparation for the grand ending. It’s the long party scenes in some of the middle volumes that got tiresome. What I loved about the book are the insights into the mind, art, time, and love, but the novel is also obsessed with society and rank and how people behave at parties, topics that didn’t thrill me quite as much. But even here there are things to interest; Proust captures snobbery and hypocrisy and the deadness that can lie behind the glittering masks of high society beautifully well.

But mostly this novel is worth reading because of what it can teach about observing the world around you and in you. Proust has a meticulous eye for how the mind perceives input from the senses and for how we come to understand our experiences, and, of course, he has a beautiful way with a sentence to capture all that insight. I love how there can be so much wisdom and experience in one of those long sentences — how they can take in so much.


Filed under Books, Fiction

The perils of cycling

I’m used to bugs hitting and bouncing off my cycling jersey as I ride, and when that happens I’m just grateful they didn’t land on my face or — worse — in my mouth.  I’ve gotten stung in the mouth before, and it was no fun.  But today something else entirely hit my jersey.  I thought it was a bug, but when I checked to see if it had flown off my shoulder where I felt it hit, I noticed what it really was: bird shit.  This is the first time this has happened to me, and now I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often; I ride under trees all the time, after all.  I had another hour to ride before I made it home, and I could see it sitting on my shoulder every time I turned my head to the right.  Ick!


Filed under Cycling

On finishing Don Quixote

7075756.gif Most of this post will be about the second half of Don Quixote and the ending, so if you don’t want to hear about it, you might want to save this post for later. I loved the way the second part of the novel became a kind of commentary on the first (is this what people are talking about when they say that everything comes together in the second half?), how everyone Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet have read the novel’s first half and so are in on the story of his peculiar form of madness. Most of them decide to have some fun playing jokes on the two, to see just how far the madness of Don Quixote will go. So, in addition to all the metanarrativity that was already going on in the first part — the multiple authors and the long conversations on storytelling and the frequent mentions of Cide Hamete Benengeli — Cervantes adds his critique of the false sequel to Don Quixote published in between his two volumes and mixes up real life and fiction even more by having Don Quixote confront the results of his literary fame again and again.

It is this playfulness about fiction and authorship that I will remember about the book, long after I’ve forgotten individual episodes — episodes it probably won’t take me all that long to forget, in truth, because some of them dragged on a bit and my attention wandered. But I love that self-interrogation is built into the structure of one of the first novels ever, depending on how one defines “novel,” or, at the very least, one of the earliest and most influential novels. Don Quixote is a novel about madness, friendship, adventure, and love, but it’s also very much a novel about novels, and it starts a very long tradition of novels that reflect on themselves, a traditional so influential that even ostensibly realistic novels usually have some kind of self-reflexive element to them.

About the novel’s ending: it is so sad! I didn’t expect to see Don Quixote regaining his sanity, and even less did I expect that moment of sanity to be rather depressing:

“Señores,” said Don Quixote, “let us go slowly, for there are no birds today in yesterday’s nests. I was mad, and now I am sane; I was Don Quixote of La Mancha, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quixano the Good. May my repentance and sincerity return me to the esteem your graces once had for me, and let the scribe continue.”

And he goes on reciting his will. It’s this melancholy at the end that convinces me (even further than I was already convinced) that Cervantes has great affection for his two main characters, in spite of their foolishness. It’s the energy of their madness that carries the story forward, so that as soon as Don Quixote regains his sanity, there is no story anymore, and the novel abruptly ends. Without Don Quixote’s madness, Cervantes has nothing. So, yes, Cervantes mocks Don Quixote’s foolish and naïve way of reading, but I think he glories in the energy and the fun of it too. To me, Don Quixote comes across as admirable in his imagination, his resourcefulness, his persistence, and his liveliness. I realize this is a very contemporary way of looking at the novel, and earlier readers may not have seen anything admirable in Don Quixote whatsoever, but I can’t help reading as a contemporary person, can I?


Filed under Books, Fiction

Becoming Jane

I have just returned from seeing Becoming Jane, and I’m glad I saw it because I was curious and also, mainly, because I wanted to have an opinion on it — so here it is: the movie is ridiculous. It’s not just that the “Jane” in the movie has nothing to do with the real Jane Austen, although that is certainly the case. It’s also that the world depicted in the movie was very little like the world Jane Austen lived in. Ladies did not run like movie-version Jane runs and they didn’t play cricket, and they certainly didn’t reject a proposal of marriage and then bring it up on their own again at a later date in order to accept it and then change their minds once again. And they absolutely could not get caught running away with a man and then be accepted into society again, at least not without marrying him.

It’s fun to think that a spirited woman could flaunt social expectations and be admired for it, but I just don’t think it could happen like it happens in the movie. Elizabeth Bennet’s liveliness in Pride and Prejudice is part of what makes that book so enjoyable, but even she wouldn’t do the things “Jane” does. Just because Austen did something slightly questionable for her time period — write and publish novels — doesn’t mean she was ready and willing to flaunt every rule she didn’t like. The movie is a 21C fantasy of what female rebellion might look like in Austen’s time, but not anything like the reality.

I also had a hard time figuring out why “Jane” was so attracted to the Lefroy character; the movie didn’t do enough to show us why she should pay him much attention, and it also didn’t do enough to convince me that Lefroy was really going to reform — he starts the movie with a “reputation,” and then suddenly he’s past all that and in love with “Jane.” It just didn’t work.


Filed under Movies


What American accent do you have? (Best version so far)Northern You have a Northern accent. That could either be the Chicago/Detroit/Cleveland/Buffalo accent (easily recognizable) or the Western New England accent that news networks go for.

Personality Test Results

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This quiz got it totally right: it names the city of my birth and also the region where I now live.


Filed under Links


I finished Don Quixote yesterday, and today I completed In Search of Lost Time.  Woo-hoo!

This opened up so much free time today that I ended up filling it by mopping my kitchen floor.  This is quite a rare occurrence, let me assure you.

I’ll write my thoughts on completing these books soon, but I think I’ve spent enough time staring at the computer today and my eyes are tired.

Before I go, though, I’ll point you to this interesting article from The Atlantic (link via Bookslut), described as “an attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.”  The argument in the article is basically that contemporary literary prose is sloppy and badly done, and we would be better off reading classics.  I have to say, though, as much as I didn’t like the author’s over-generalizations and all-around crankiness, I liked the part where he critiques Annie Proulx, whose novel Shipping News I didn’t like at all, and I found the Cormac McCarthy section amusing.  I wasn’t agreeing with him at all about Don Delillo, however.


Filed under Books, Links, Reading

Second person?

I am enjoying Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White very much — thanks to all of you who recommended it! It’s quite long, 900 pages, but the pages fly by. Long books that fly by are their own particular sort of pleasure, aren’t they? Absorbing, fun stories that you can spend hours with and that seem never to end.

I’m not sure what I think, though, of the author’s use of second person. Those of you who have read the book before, did you like it? Here is how the book begins:

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

The narrator goes on like this for a while, leading “you,” the reader, through the city to the room where the story itself begins. He (I’ll just assume the narrator is “he”) talks to the reader about the reader’s expectations of the setting and time period, and then introduces the characters and gives information on their relative importance. Once the story is underway, the narrator interrupts now and then to keep up this “conversation” with the reader, making little jokes and anticipating what the reader’s reactions will be. For example:

(What? Sugar? Why are you thinking about Sugar? Don’t worry about her anymore; she’s spoken for! And also try to put William from your mind. Everything is in hand I assure you.)

One advantage of this technique is that it allows the author to address the fact directly that this is historical fiction and that we as 21st century readers are trying to work our way imaginatively into a world that is long gone — so there’s no pretending this is a 19C novel or that 19C people could have read it. Why not just acknowledge that this is a 21C version of a 19C novel?

It also gives the author the chance to prepare the reader for what’s coming and to give the reader clues as to how to read the book, and it gives the book a lighter tone than it might otherwise have. It’s also a clever updating of those 19C third person omniscient narrators (and 18C ones) who were powerful presences in many novels and who were characters in and of themselves.

I get all this, and yet I also find this use of second person just a tad silly.

Have you come across writers who use the second person? Who use it successfully? I know such things exist, but I can’t think of many examples.


Filed under Books, Reading

Outmoded authors

I have tried to stay away from reading challenges because, although I like the idea in principle, in practice I find myself not doing all the reading, pushing myself to do the reading, and then getting annoyed with myself when I don’t. And reading should be fun, right?

But … you know how it goes. Someone comes along with a new challenge and it seems intriguing, and next thing I know I’m signed up. I should not get so caught up in trying to finish these things and should just think about what they are good for: getting me to read things I might not otherwise.

(I still am thinking about Kate’s Reading Across Borders challenge, by the way, which is an excellent one for getting me to read new things. I feel like I should do some version of this challenge every year, perhaps with a different focus or theme. You see why it’s hard for me to stay away from these things?? I’ve completed three out of my planned five books, but I have until the end of the year so finish, so I just might make it.)

This time it’s Imani who’s come up with interesting new challenges, and the Outmoded Authors one has caught my eye (she has also proposed the Index Librorum Liberoram challenge). She’s created a list of unfashionable authors that participants can choose from, and the plan is to read as many books as people want from the list over the course of six months.

The list is quite long, and there are tons of authors I’d happily read from it. I think, though, to increase my chances of actually completing this thing, I won’t decide for sure which ones until the last moment, with one exception: I’d really like to read Walter Scott. I’ll probably read Waverley, as it’s the one I have on my shelves. Other than that, I’d like to read maybe two or three other authors from the list. Here are some possibilities:

  • Christina Stead. I own a copy of her novel The Man Who Loved Children, and I don’t know anything about it whatsoever, except that it’s on Jane Smiley’s list from her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Perhaps it’s time to find out.
  • Djuna Barnes. I’ve wanted to read Nightwood for quite a while, although I’m a bit nervous about not getting it; as I understand it, it’s an experimental novel and sometimes those work for me and other times they don’t.
  • Elizabeth Bowen. I think she’s someone I’ll like when I finally read her. I own a copy of The Last September, which would do nicely.
  • John Dryden. He’s someone I suggested, not so much because I’m excited about reading him, but because he someone I don’t think non-academic readers read very often. If people are going to read something from his time period, it’s more likely to be Aphra Behn or maybe one of the comic plays, or more likely it’ll be something from a bit later like Daniel Defoe. But maybe I should read more of his work (beyond what I’ve read for various classes).
  • Radclyffe Hall. I own a copy of her book Adam’s Breed, and Imani has written so intriguingly about The Well of Loneliness, I may just give it a try.
  • Sybille Bedford. Litlove mentioned A Favourite of the Gods as one of her favorite books from 2006, so surely that would be a good choice.
  • Other possibilities: Merce Rodoreda, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Malcom Lowry.


Filed under Books, Reading

Marriage, by Susan Ferrier

1134997.gifSusan Ferrier’s novel Marriage, published in 1818, is a good read and interesting in a number of ways, one of which is its Scottishness. Ferrier lived her whole life in Edinburgh, and her novel deals with the ideas Scottish and English people have about each other and the complexity that existed behind stereotypes of the day. The critic who wrote the novel’s introduction noted the multiplicity of “mixed” marriages — between Scots and English — to argue that Ferrier rejects the kind of nationalism developing in her time period. She also shows complexity within Scotland, portraying different areas and different types of people within it, and therefore undermining any simple idea of a Scottish “character.” Ferrier’s best characters are capable of living happily in both places, and they tend to combine the best traits characteristic of both areas.

Ferrier does, however, have some fun portraying comic characters who fail at her kind of worldiness — she writes about loud, blustery Highland lairds and foolish maiden aunts and spoiled English girls who refuse to live within their incomes. Ferrier uses these stereotypes for comic effect, and then has her more sympathetic characters critique the foolish, stereotypical ones.

Another main interest in the book is education, particularly women’s education — a topic so many, many novels of the time took up. Ferrier treats this subject largely through contrasts. She has three main female characters, Lady Juliana and her twin daughters Mary and Adelaide. Lady Juliana’s own education was abysmal:

Educated for the sole purpose of forming a brilliant establishment, of catching the eye, and captivating the senses, the cultivation of her mind, or the correction of her temper, had formed no part of the system by which that aim was to be accomplished.

Her father is largely to blame for this:

[He] was too much engrossed by affairs of importance, to pay much attention to any thing so perfectly insignificant as the mind of his daughter. Her person he had predetermined should be entirely at his disposal …

Women’s bodies matter more than their minds, according to this view, but what the father has forgotten is that after marriage women become responsible for raising children and they need a certain amount of sense to do this successfully. This was a common concern of the time — women should be educated not so much because of its inherent worth, but because women needed a certain amount of training to run a family well.

Marriage spells out the consequences of poor education for women (education in morals as well as academic subjects); Lady Juliana is a terrible mother and raises her daughter Adelaide to be much like she is — vain, selfish, and foolish. Mary, however, Adelaide’s twin, is raised by another woman, Mrs. Douglas, who does a much better job and trains Mary to be everything that Adelaide is not — kind, thoughtful, knowledgeable. Through these twins we can see how much is at stake in a young person’s training and education, and how Lady Juliana is perpetuating the cycle of ignorance. How is she supposed to know how to raise a daughter when she never received any attention or training herself? No one was there to teach her how to be selfless and patient.

Many of the characters in this novel are either thoroughly good (Mary, Mrs. Douglas) or thoroughly bad (Lady Juliana, Adelaide), so it was a pleasure to come across Lady Emily who is neither. It’s in this sense that Marriage feels like an 18C novel to me — so many 18C novels have perfect heroines, annoyingly perfect ones, leaving the more minor characters to have some complexity. Lady Emily is flawed — according to the standards of the book — by being too critical, too
quick to speak her mind, too witty, too independent. Mary as heroine could never get away with displaying these traits; they are too unfeminine. But Emily is sympathetic too; she does her best to take care of Mary when she needs it, and she has a sense of her own flaws. Mary is drawn to Emily but worried about her future; she may be a little too wild for her own happiness. This uncertainty is left unresolved. Readers today are probably more likely to sympathize with Emily than with Mary, who can be a little insipid and annoyingly obedient. I’m not so sure what readers at the time would have thought.

This puts Austen’s novels in an interesting light — her heroines are not the perfect Mary types; they have flaws, such as Emma’s self-absorption and they make mistakes like Elizabeth Bennet’s too-quick judgments. It seems that other novelists were more likely to explore flaws, not in their heroines, but in other characters. The heroines remain saint-like.

I love reading novels from this time period; I think Marriage is an interesting one to look at for what it says about national identity and about women’s place in society, but it’s also a fun read — a good story with lots of comic touches.


Filed under Books, Fiction