Monthly Archives: August 2007

Reading notes

  • Is there any better feeling than finishing a book and starting a new one? I just read Danielle’s post about the excitement of finishing Don Quixote, and I’m looking forward to experiencing that feeling myself — I should finish DQ by next weekend or the following one at the latest. I’ve enjoyed reading the book, but still I’m looking forward to finishing. I’m about to finish Proust too, which means in another week or so my reading world will look very different. I feel sometimes that I shouldn’t be so eager to finish books, that I should savor them while they last, but the pleasure of moving on to something new usually wins out.
  • I’m experiencing that happy-to-be-finished feeling right now, actually, as I just finished Susan Ferrier’s Marriage. I’ll write a post on that book shortly.
  • Along with the pleasure of finishing a book, I’m experiencing the pleasure of beginning a new one: Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. I didn’t know it was quite so long! It’s about 900 pages, but I’m guessing it will read fast. It looks like it will be fun — an absorbing story about a prostitute in Victorian London.
  • Hobgoblin suggested that I might like to read The Crimson Petal quite a while ago after he read and liked it. As usual, I didn’t listen to his suggestion. Instead, I waited until I got recommendations from other people, and then I got excited about it and decided to pick it up. Hobgoblin seems to understand this and doesn’t take offense, for which I am grateful.
  • Imani has proposed a couple of reading challenges, one of which, the Outmoded Authors challenge I’m considering signing up for. She’s currently compiling a list of authors — a list I contributed a couple of names to. If you know anything about my reading tastes, you might be able to guess which ones!
  • The whole idea of outmoded authors is quite interesting, I think — the way authors come in and out of fashion, the way they sometimes are popular in their day and then forgotten and then revived again. I love reading stories about how the reputations of authors rise and fall and the factors that play into those changes. A writer like John Steinbeck is an interesting case — I don’t know if we can call him outmoded, as he still gets read and probably assigned in high schools, but I don’t think he’s been a favorite amongst academic critics, unless there’s been a revolution in thinking that I don’t know about. A guy I knew in grad school wanted to write his dissertation on Steinbeck, but wasn’t sure if that was wise — it might be the case that critical work on an unfashionable author would be valuable because no one else is working on him and the work would seem fresh, or it might be the case that no one would be interested in the work at all.


Filed under Books, Reading

Health and cycling update

I’m going to try to write this post really fast, before my eyes close and my forehead hits the keyboard — I’m on Benadryl, you see, and I’m very sleepy.  My recovery has hit a little snag; less than 5% of patients taking the medication I’m taking develop a rash, and it appears that I’m one of the lucky ones.  It’s not a bad rash, though — just a few red bumps and no itchiness.  But my doctor took me off the medication, and once my rash heals, we’ll try another kind.

But most of my news is good: I have been feeling much better lately, so much better that I’ve been riding regularly, say 4 or 5 times a week.  I don’t ride hard — I ride just how I feel like riding, so I’m not training, really, but I am keeping myself in decent shape for when I am ready to train again.  It’s been interesting to watch my average heart rate decrease over the course of the last few weeks, and my average speed increase (not that it’s all that fast though).  I’m not back to my normal numbers, but I’m getting closer.

It’s fun to let my body decide how hard it will work; when I first got on the bike, it didn’t want to work hard at all, but as I’ve gotten better, I find myself pushing more.  It’s odd, really, the way my body can take over and guide my ride, deciding how I’ll work or not work, and I really don’t feel it’s a conscious decision at all.

Okay, nap time …


Filed under Cycling, Life

Jane Austen in Context

Has anybody seen the movie Becoming Jane? It’s just come to our local theater, and I’d like to see it, although I also think it’s rubbish. It has very little relationship to Austen’s real life (I haven’t seen the movie, obviously, but I’ve read enough about it to know), but I suspect it might be fun to see, if I can keep the real Austen and the movie Austen completely separate in my mind (if such a thing is possible). By the way, there’s a good article on the movie here (thanks to Jenny D. for the link).

Much better than seeing Becoming Jane, most likely, is watching the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice, which I borrowed from the library for the weekend. I’ve seen it before, but it was a long time ago, and I can’t wait to see it again.

At this point, what with the Jane Austen in Context book and all, I’m in danger of getting sick of everything to do with Austen, but I don’t feel that way quite yet …

There were a couple fascinating bits from the book I thought I’d share (and by the way, I’m not giving away nearly all of the good stuff, so don’t think the book is spoiled because I’ve posted so much on it). In an essay on book production, the author notes that in the year Austen was born, 1775, 31 new novels were published in England. In 1811, when Sense and Sensibility was came out, 80 new novels were published. The author calls this “an expanding and competitive market for books,” but it seems quite small from our perspective, doesn’t it? If I lived then, I could plausibly attempt to read every novel published each year!

Also interesting to note is that three quarters of all novels published in 1776 were epistolary novels. It’s in that context that Austen’s complex third person point of view — her free indirect discourse — starts to look so very new and exciting.

Nearly three quarters of all novels published between 1770 and 1820 were published anonymously or pseudonymously, many of them saying only “By a Lady” or “By a Young Lady.” Also interesting is the numbers of men vs. women writing; as one critic notes about the 1810s, “The publication of Austen’s novels was achieved not against the grain but during a period of female ascendancy.” In the 1820s the balance shifted, and the men began to outnumber the women.

Also fascinating is the chapter on Austen in translation, which argues that Austen never got quite as popular on the continent as in England because continental translators didn’t know what to make of her — she didn’t fit in with their existing literary traditions and couldn’t be easily accommodated to them. Many of the early translations weren’t really translations at all, but were retellings of the stories with some dramatic changes, to tone down Elizabeth Bennett’s sauciness, for example. Some translators even omitted chapters and changed endings. Many of them lost the nuances of Austen’s third person point of view, which would make it harder to appreciate her genius. Modern-day translators would never get away with the changes Austen’s early translators made to her texts (at least I don’t think so!).

Interesting stuff, don’t you think?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

New books

Thanks to all for your kind comments from yesterday; Hobgoblin and I had a nice day, although, as it turns out, we didn’t spend it in Manhattan. Shortly after I posted here, I learned that a huge storm had hit the city, leaving flooded roads and shut down subways. We decided not to head there — we may have been fine, but maybe not, and we didn’t want to risk it. So, we went to New Haven instead. It’s not as exciting as Manhattan, but it’s still a nice place to spend some time, and, as hoped for, we ate some good food, went to a history museum, and bought some books. So, as promised, here’s what I got, from Book Trader, a used bookstore:

  • Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen. Historical fiction fans will be proud of me; this is the first novel in a trilogy which is set, in part, in 17C Holland. I heard about it on a listserv I’m on and thought I’d give it a try. Has anybody else read it?
  • John McGahern’s Amongst Women. I’d heard about McGahern from Kimbofo, and now I finally have something of his.
  • Geraldine Brooks’s March. I’d been trying to get this on Book Mooch again and again; it kept appearing, but somebody always snagged it first. So finally I bought it. I liked Brooks’s Year of Wonders so much I thought I’d try another one.
  • Harriet Martineau’s novel Deerbrook. I’d heard of Martineau before, although I’d never read her and didn’t know she wrote fiction; this is her only novel. It’s published by Penguin, I just found out, but the edition I bought is a Virago. I picked it up because I like Virago books, and it sounded intriguing.

That’s all I got yesterday (although there was plenty more that was interesting), but I’ll also list some books I’ve recently mooched:

  • Robyn Davidson’s Tracks. This is the story of how Davidson walked 1,700 miles across Australia. Amazing, right? Danielle recommended this one to me.
  • Alison Lurie, The Last Resort. I’ve decided it’s a good idea to have an unread Lurie novel lying around, just in case I get in the mood. This will be my third when I get to it.
  • Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, to add some science fiction to the mix!


Filed under Books, Life


Today Hobgoblin and I celebrate our ninth wedding anniversary.  (Yes, we’ve been married quite a long time!)  We’re going to spend the day in Manhattan, eating, checking out bookstores, maybe seeing a movie.

I’ll be back tomorrow, and I’ll certainly let you know if I come home with some books …


Filed under Life

Proust on art

I just came across some wonderful passages in Proust; I’m about 150 pages from end, determined to finish it and Don Quixote by the end of the summer. The narrator has just had a series of experiences of involuntary memory, where something in his present — a sound or taste or sight — will trigger a memory that recreates in his mind whole sections of his past that he had previously forgotten. The madeleine scene from Swann’s Way is the most famous of these, although there are many. Immediately before these memories come to the narrator, he despairs of ever becoming a writer; he has spent years and years of his life wasting time, avoiding doing the writing he has always wanted to do. The memories start the process of bringing him back to his vocation, and they set him off on a long meditation on literature, writing, and the relationship of art and life.  I thought I’d share some short sections:

Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artist. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it. And so their past is cluttered with countless photographic negatives, which continue to be useless because their intellect has never “developed” them … it is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe which is not the same as our own and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon.

I love the idea that we all have the materials of art within us; the difference between artists and everyone else is that artists learn how to make use of those materials. Proust calls art “translation” — taking our experiences, whatever they are, and plumbing the depths of them to find meaning and to transform that meaning into something beautiful. And he says it requires courage. We like to live with certain illusions about ourselves; we whitewash our darker characteristics and cover over our failings, but the artist will look for the truth, no matter how difficult it is to face.

Here’s another passage on art and life, this time about imagination and sensitivity:

It may well be that, for the creation of a work of literature, imagination and sensitivity are interchangeable qualities, and that the second may without any great disadvantage be substituted for the first, in the same way as people whose stomach is incapable of digesting pass that function over to the intestine. A man born sensitive but with no imagination might none the less write admirable novels. The suffering that other people cause him, his efforts to prevent it, the conflicts that it and the cruel other person created, all of this, interpreted by the intelligence, might make the raw material of a book … as beautiful as it would have been if it had been imagined …

So making art isn’t the same thing as making things up. I’ve never liked the idea that imagination is as simple as making things up; to me, it has more to do with putting ideas together, making connections, seeing what’s in front of you in a new way. So in my way of thinking, the sensitivity Proust is talking about, combined with intelligence, is actually a certain kind of imagination.

And finally, here’s a passage on criticism:

[Criticism] hails a writer as a prophet, on account of his peremptory tone and his very public scorn for the school that preceded him, when in fact he has absolutely nothing new to say. These aberrations on the part of criticism are so constant that a writer might almost prefer to be judged by the general public …. For there is a closer analogy between the instinctive life of the public and the talent of a great writer, which is no more than an instinct religiously listened to while imposing silence on everything else, an instinct perfected and understood, than between it and the superficial verbiage and shifting criteria of the recognized arbiters of judgment.

Apparently Proust isn’t so fond of critics.  (Although he’s not so fond of the general public either — to shorten the quotation I took out a parenthesis on how the general public generally doesn’t understand what an artist is doing.) He gives an interesting definition of art here, doesn’t he, that it’s “instinct religiously listened to”? And I do buy his argument that critics often get it wrong, that they take loud voices for true ones and newness for greatness.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Books I’ve Missed

I received some interesting answers to my questions from yesterday (and I welcome more at any time!).  I will clearly have to read Scott soon, and I’m thinking of a couple of possibilities: perhaps Waverly because it’s what we’ve got on the shelves, or perhaps Ivanhoe, which Victoria highly recommends, or perhaps The Heart of Midlothian, recommended by Ed.

In answer to my question about what types of books I’m missing, I got some great responses, which fall into these categories:

  • I need to read some science fiction/fantasy.  I knew this would probably come up — it’s an area I know little about.  I read some Isaac Asimov as a teenager but that’s about it, unless you count books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which has science fiction elements, which I’m not inclined to count, as I didn’t pick it up for that reason.  Stefanie suggested Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, so I think I’ll start there.
  • I haven’t read much historical fiction, although I read a lot of novels published in previous centuries.  I pick historical fiction up now and then, but not often — I’ve read Ferdinand Mount’s Jem and Sam, about Samuel Pepys, and Beryl Bainbridge’s According to Queeney, which has Samuel Johnson and the Thrales in it.  I’ve also read the first novel in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy and the first of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin series, both of these suggested by Victoria.  I liked them both … but I wasn’t in love with them to the extent that I wanted to keep reading the series.  I think I have a hard time with series unless I can breeze through them fast like I did with Philip Pullman’s series (which, now that I think about, is an example of speculative fiction I’ve read).  I consider this a failing of mine.  I did really like reading about late 17C England in the Stephenson novel, however.  Both Victoria and Danielle recommended Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, so I think I till turn to that one next, or perhaps Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
  • Finally — mysteries.  I’ve enjoyed the Maisie Dobbs books I’ve listened to, but there are more.  And Danielle recommends P.D. James, whom I will read at some point soon.

Thanks for these great suggestions!


Filed under Books, Reading

Questions, rhetorical and otherwise

  • I checked Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me out from the library a little while ago, on a whim and because I read this review from The New York Review of Books. Will I actually read it before it’s due back (the rhetorical question)? I’d like to, but so much else is on my shelves waiting to be read. Checking books out of libraries doesn’t always work for me because, while I want to read whatever book I’ve checked out, I don’t necessarily want to read it right away.
  • Reading my Jane Austen in Context book and reading a novel from Jane Austen’s time, Susan Ferrier’s Marriage, has reminded me that I have yet to read one of the most famous authors from Austen’s time: Walter Scott. Not one single novel of his have I read, which wouldn’t mean much, except I like to think I know something about that time period. My father is a huge fan of Walter Scott — I inherited my love of 19C novels from him — but somehow, along with my interest in Austen and Eliot and Dickens, I never picked up an interest in Scott. Does anybody have a favorite Scott novel? A place I should begin? Something to stay away from?
  • This is a rather obnoxious question, but I’m curious, so I’ll ask anyway. I try to read a variety of kinds of books — books from different time periods, books about different subjects, books from different genres. But I’m sure there are types of books I’m missing, some of which I might actually like. Obviously there are tons of authors I’ve never read, but that’s not what I mean — I’m thinking about categories of books, like 18C novel or contemporary experimental fiction, or whatever. So, have you ever thought something along the lines of “I wonder why Dorothy never reads ______” or “I love ______ and now that I think about it, Dorothy’s never mentioned that she’s read it” or even “I love _______ but I bet Dorothy would hate it”? You see why this is an obnoxious question? Who thinks about what I’m missing in my reading life except for me? Who knows all the kinds of books I’ve read but me? But still, maybe somebody has had such a thought. It doesn’t hurt to ask. And I’m curious. What am I missing? If I get some suggestions, I don’t promise I’ll read them, but I’ll think about it seriously.


Filed under Books, Reading

Marriage, the novel

As I’m reading Jane Austen in Context, I can’t help but feel that maybe I should re-read one of Austen’s novels. I almost picked one of them up the other day, but instead turned to Susan Ferrier’s novel Marriage, which was published one year after Austen’s death in 1818. I figured something from the same time period would do just as well. So far it’s highly entertaining, although not very Austen-like — which I don’t hold against it, as that would be unfair. If I didn’t know the date  of publication and had to guess I would have said it was written earlier, as it reminds me of eighteenth-century novels such as Evelina, with its lively, humorous characters that — at least so far — are types rather than the fleshed-out characters that we’ve come to expect in novels.

But those types are highly entertaining — in Marriage we have the ill-educated, fashionable, vain young woman; several blustery, temper-prone fathers; a trio of foolish, prating aunts who believe that a good bowl of soup is the cure for everything; a young man swept off his feet by beauty, who quickly realizes his mistake, but does so too late.

The book is set in Scotland, where the ill-educated, fashionable, vain young woman, Lady Juliana, finds herself after her marriage. When she discovers just what she’s gotten herself into — life in a gloomy, isolated castle in the Scottish Highlands — she falls into fits of hysterics. Susan Ferrier lived in Edinburgh her whole life, and she seems to be enjoying making gentle fun of her own countrypeople as well as mocking the spoiled Englishwoman who can’t function away from fashionable society.

This book is good fun, and I’m only a little ways into it … I’ll post more on it later, I’m sure.


Filed under Blogging, Fiction

Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking

41jnw9gnil_aa240_.jpgAmong Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking, by Aoibheann Sweeney is an enjoyable read; I breezed through it in just a couple of days, which is unusual for me.  Which is not to say that it’s light reading, necessarily, just that it’s a book I was happy to spend hours with.  My copy came recently as a review copy from Penguin.The novel tells the story of Miranda, a young girl who lives first on an island in Maine with her father and later, after she finishes High School, in Manhattan. Her mother died somewhat mysteriously when she was three, leaving Miranda and her father on their own, although they are joined at times by Mr. Blackwell, a friend from the town across the bay. The father is working on a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but as time passes, it becomes clear that this is a project that will probably never be complete.  It is a pretense of work that keeps him occupied and give him a reason to live in such isolation.

About the first quarter of the book takes place in Maine, covering Miranda’s entire childhood, and then her father arranges for her to work at the Institute for Classical Studies in Manhattan amongst old friends of his. Once there, she struggles to make her way in a strange city and to absorb the new information she learns about her parents, and also about herself.

Miranda’s relationship with her father is one of the novel’s central story lines; the father spends most of his time lost in his studies and has no practical sense and little skill in maintaining a household, and so Miranda, with the help of Mr. Blackwell, learns early how to cook and care for the house and how to navigate across the bay on her own to get to school. She learns how to type so she can type up her father’s manuscript. She spends so much time alone with her father and devotes so much time to caring for him, and yet he is emotionally remote, caught up in the past and living with secrets that Miranda discovers only when she goes away.

Miranda’s father reads to her from his translation of Ovid often enough that the tales in Metamorphoses come to be familiar, and she tells several of the stories throughout the book (it’s in first person from Miranda’s point of view). They become a way for her to think about her own metamorphosis, or lack thereof, as she grows up curious about change and yet longing for things to stay the way they are. Ovid’s stories are about desire and its transformations, and they become the lens through which Miranda views the changes desire wreaks in others and in herself:

The tales in Metamorphoses rarely ended happily; the process of transformation, of hands turning into claws and feathers sprouting on shoulders, was sometimes a punishment and sometimes a reprieve. But mostly it was a compromise of some sort, a way to negotiate the chasm between desire and mortality, between human nature and human need.

There are many mysteries in the book — what exactly happened to Miranda’s mother? why is her father so reclusive? what exactly is the nature of his relationship to Mr. Blackwell? — some of which get resolved and others of which don’t. One of the most intriguing mysteries for Miranda is the mystery of desire itself — what it is and what it makes people do.

As in all first-person narratives, the pleasure of the reading lies in the reader’s response to the storyteller. Miranda speaks with a voice that is vulnerable and questioning, but there’s a toughness too, and even a kind of reticence — her life has not been easy, but she doesn’t spend her energy mourning it so much as trying to understand it.

The book was a pleasure to read — smart and meditative, with a narrator that enjoyed spending time with.


Filed under Books, Fiction

More on Jane

You all know who I’m talking about in the post title, right? One of the essays in Jane Austen in Context talks about the “canonization” of “Jane” — no last name needed — as a kind of saint. It’s an essay on the “Cult of Jane Austen,” and what a cult it can be. I was amused to read that for some of the most devoted Jane fans (descendants of the late 19C “Janeites”), reading the novels is merely equal in importance, or maybe even less important, than participating in other activities such as visiting places Austen lived, having Jane Austen tea parties, dressing like Austen’s characters might, viewing Austen “relics” (she IS a saint, really), and even visiting sites where movies were made of Austen’s novels. This, as you can imagine, makes some Austen scholars unhappy, enough that they often begin articles trying to rescue Austen and her work from this industry that’s grown up around her. But the essay’s author, Deirdre Shauna Lynch, writes that this attempt to “rescue” her:

appears guided by an unattractive logic of exclusivity that runs like this: since she is my Jane Austen, she cannot be yours too.

Lynch talks about how Austen gets compared to Shakespeare in terms of her popularity and her cultural influence, but Austen’s fans have a characteristic that Shakespeare’s tend not to: they like to believe that they can see something in Austen others can’t, that they belong to a small, exclusive club of people who really get her. I’ll admit that I’ve felt this way now and then — surely no one else reading her novels feels quite like I do when I read them? This has to have something to do with genre; drama, even though it can be read alone, is public in its nature, while reading a novel is very private. So when reading novels it would be easy to feel that our private, personal experience is unique.

The funny thing about this phenomenon — and the related phenomenon of fantasizing that you know her like you know a close family member — is that it began right at the time Austen became popular and has increased all along as Austen gains more and more readers. Hundreds of thousands of people believe they have a special relationship with Austen and her works that no one else shares.

The essay on the early critical responses to Austen’s novels is fascinating too; it covers the reviews that appeared during Austen’s lifetime and shortly after her death. Early reviewers did not know what to make of her. Compared to other novels of the time — gothic novels and novels full of action and adventure — her work sometimes seemed bland. In the absence of anything better to say, they tended to comment on the moral lessons one could glean from them; of the sisters in Sense and Sensibility one reviewer says:

[Readers] may learn from them, if they please, many sober and salutary maxims for the conduct of life.

Exactly how we read the book today, right? They also expressed the uncertainty about the value of novel reading that was very common at the time; one reviewer wrote that “a good Novel is now and then an agreeable relaxation from severer studies.” This uncertainty about novels is alive and well today — the condescension in that reviewer’s tone is not so different from the people we know who say they have more serious things to read than novels.

It was Walter Scott who finally began to get it; in a review of Emma, he describes how her work differs from other novels of the time. Austen is writing a new kind of novel, one that:

present[s] to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.

Jane Austen in Context is so interesting that I’m tempted to go on and on about all the fascinating things in it; rather than doing that, though, I’ll suggest that if you love Austen’s novels you will probably love this book.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction