Monthly Archives: September 2007

Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk

13986001.jpg What a pleasure this book was to read. Many thanks to Emily for giving me a copy for my birthday!

Palace Walk by Naguib Mafouz is a long, sprawling saga about a family in Cairo who finds itself caught up in political turmoil at the end of World War I. The earlier sections of the novel are devoted to describing the family — a father and mother with five children — and its dynamics. As I’ve described before, the father, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, has an extremely tight hold over the rest of the family; he dictates what everyone does and where they go.

This is particularly hard on the women, as Al-Sayyid Ahmad insists they follow extremely strict traditional rules of modesty — the mother, Amina, is not allowed out on the streets at all, except for a very occasional visit to her mother. In one incident when Al-Sayyid Ahmad is away from home for a day, Amina breaks this rule and visits a local temple. It is an act of devotion, but it only lands her in trouble: out on the streets she gets hit by a car and when Al-Sayyid Ahmad discovers her injuries and finds out where she has been, he banishes her from the house. Only after his children and friends beg him to take her back does he allow her to return.

The novel describes the struggles each of the children have with this patriarchal authority; one son wants to marry, but Al-Sayyid Ahmad believes he is not ready and refuses to give permission. A daughter receives a marriage proposal she would gladly accept but the father is angry when he finds out the suitor has caught a glimpse of his daughter’s face through the window.

What the children don’t know, however, is that Al-Sayyid Ahmad spends his nights getting drunk, carousing with friends, and having love affairs. Amina sees his drunkenness every night, but even she doesn’t really know how he spends his time. Al-Sayyid Ahmad believes he is talented enough a person and strong enough a father to keep this double standard going; he is a model father as far as he is concerned, and he sees no need for consistency in his behavior.

As you can probably guess from this set-up, Al-Sayyid Ahmad is in for a world of frustration as his children find ways of doing what they want, in spite of their fear of him. The novel charts the increasing difficulty the father has in controlling them, a difficulty made much worse by increasing political unrest. The later sections of the novel become more political in nature, and tell the story of Egyptian demonstrations against the English occupiers. Violence takes over the city, putting the family and its traditional ways at risk.

The novel is slow-moving in the very best sense — it’s never dull or plodding, but rather rich and detailed about the lives and emotions of its characters. With his omniscient point of view, Mahfouz does a good job giving the reader a glimpse into the minds and emotions of many characters, and he can make us understand and even sympathize with the most unlikeable people. I like the way Mahfouz blends the personal, family story with the political one; I didn’t feel that the family story was told in the service of the political one or vice versa, but that Mahfouz wove the two together, showing how national dramas affect people’s intimate lives, and how the private world reaches out into and shapes the public one.

Fortunately for me, this is the first novel in a trilogy, so I have the pleasure of reading further in the lives of this family.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Sex on Gethen

People told me I could expect to find some interesting gender dynamics in Ursula Le Guin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, and that’s exactly what I’ve found. The story takes place on a planet that is called Gethen by its inhabitants and Winter by everyone else because of its extremely cold climate.

The inhabitants of Gethen have a very different kind of sexuality than humans do, and I’m finding it fascinating. Gethenians are ambisexual, meaning that they are capable of being male or female and they switch between the two. They follow a sexual cycle slightly shorter than a month that begins in a sexually neutral state; towards the end of the cycle they enter what’s called “kemmer,” a period of sexual activity that lasts 4-6 days. During this time if they find a desirable partner also entering kemmer they each take on either male or female characteristics and can have sex. They have no control over which partner is male and which female. Either partner is capable of taking on the female role and therefore either partner can become pregnant.

Kind of interesting, isn’t it? One of the book’s narrators, who is not from Gethen and therefore whose sexuality is like ours, speculates on how these differences in sexuality lead to differences in culture. I’m going to quote a long passage from this section, which I think would be better than if I were to summarize it; speaking of kemmer, the narrator says:

Everything gives way before the recurring torment and festivity of passion. This is easy for us to understand. What is very hard for us to understand is that, four-fifths of the time, these people are not sexually motivated at all. Room is made for sex, plenty of room; but a room, as it were, apart. The society of Gethen, in its daily functioning and in its continuity, is without sex.

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be … “tied down to childbearing,” implies that no one is quite so thoroughly “tied down” here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be — psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.

Consider: There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible. Seduction certainly is possible, but it must have to be awfully well timed.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

Would you want to live in a world like that? There are other aspects of Gethen that don’t sound so appealing, but I can’t help but like the idea of a world where sex and gender still exist, but without the inequality and violence associated with them.

One challenge this model of gender presents to the author is what to do about pronouns; male or female pronouns aren’t really accurate and neuter ones aren’t either, since Gethenians aren’t neuter at all. Le Guin has her narrators use the male pronoun, and although I don’t really like this — it makes it seem as though Gethen is populated only by men — I’m not sure what I would choose instead. To make up a pronoun?


Filed under Books, Fiction


Today I rode a slightly different version of the course I rode last week, but it was a completely different experience: no parades, no embarrassing scenes in the market, no saddle slippage. And I was a bit faster. Yay! Today’s ride was 53 miles, and next week I’m riding 60.

After thinking about my potential reading projects, I decided to begin one of them. We’ll see how they go. One thing I have to do is give myself permission to bail on it if it becomes uninteresting. I’m terrible at giving up on books and reading projects, even if they aren’t going well. But I can’t let myself get stuck in a long reading project I’m not enjoying.

So, I decided to begin the essay project; I read the first essay last night, Francis Bacon’s “On Truth,” which has a wonderful first line: “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” The essay is quite short, only a couple pages, and it describes both the allure of lies and half-truths:

This same truth is a naked and open daylight that doth not show the masques and mummeries and triumphs of the world half so stately and daintily as candlelights.

and the goodness of truth:

Yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.

I think the pleasure of reading his essays will lie not so much in the ideas themselves, but in the beauty of the sentences. The prose is dense — I read very slowly — and rich.

I have a collection of Bacon’s essays that I was assigned in grad school; after reading Bacon in The Oxford Book of Essays, I pulled down the Bacon collection and saw that I’d marked up the entire text. Hmmm. I don’t remember reading the entire thing. My class in 17C prose was one of the rare classes where I skipped a significant amount of the reading. But Bacon was the first book we read, and I suppose I was still feeling motivated at the beginning of the semester (before I found out I wasn’t so fond of the professor and stopped giving the class my full attention). I plan on looking through this collection again, reading in it as long as it interests me.

I thought Montaigne was in this collection, but I just checked, and he’s not — I was considering reading through his complete essays as a part of this project. Hmmm. I’ve read many of them, but not all — I tried a complete read-through once but stopped after a while. Should I go back and try again??


Filed under Books, Cycling, Essays, Reading

Reading projects?

In spite of the fact (or because of the fact?) that the semester has begun and I have less time for reading, and am therefore trying to keep the number of books I’m currently reading down to a minimum, I have felt a longing lately to start ridiculously long reading projects. For example, I’ve got The Oxford Book of Essays (edited by John Gross) that I’m tempted to begin reading in, and it’s a long book in itself, but I’d also like to read not just individual essays in the collection, but books by the authors I like along the way. I’d make it a big, long study in the essay. Doesn’t that sound like fun? And something that would take forever?

Or I could brush up on the history of philosophy as I’ve been thinking about for a while, except this time, study the authors in more depth rather than rushing through them as one must in a year-long course. Or could start reading novels in German again, because surely after a while I’d remember the vocabulary I once knew and reading them would get faster and be lots of fun? Or I could take this big fat anthology of 18C literature I’ve got and, maybe not read through it exactly, but do a study of the authors I don’t know very well?

I’m often torn between wanting to read systematically, and wanting to read at whim. Or I can put it this way — I’m torn between wanting to be an expert in one or two (or three or four) areas, and wanting to read a little bit of everything.

And the thing is, I’m not so terribly good at taking on long reading projects (Proust excepted, I suppose, but there I have the satisfaction of finishing a volume now and then). I get frustrated when I don’t finish books in a month or two, at the longest. Perhaps I need a “long-term reads” or “ongoing projects” category such as Danielle has; perhaps then I’d give myself permission to take my time. This is just one of the ways I’m sometimes at war with myself …


Filed under Books, Reading

Booking Through Thursday

I’ve never answered one of the Booking Through Thursday questions, but today the question caught my eye, so maybe today is a good day to start. Here’s the question:

Okay, so the other day, a friend was commenting on my monthly reading list and asked when I found the time to read. In the ensuing discussion, she described herself as a “goldilocks” when it comes to reading–she needs to have everything juuuuuust right to be able to focus. This caught my attention because, first, I thought that was a charming way of describing the condition, but, two, while we’ve talked about our reading habits, this is an interesting wrinkle. I’d never really thought about it that way.

So, this is my question to you–are you a Goldilocks kind of reader?

Do you need the light just right, the background noise just so loud but not too loud, the chair just right, the distractions at a minimum?

Or can you open a book at any time and dip right in, whether it’s for twenty seconds, while waiting for the kettle to boil, or indefinitely, like while waiting interminably at the hospital–as long as the book is open in front of your nose, you’re happy to read?

I’m too much like a “goldilocks” reader for my own comfort. I don’t require perfect conditions, but I require very good ones. I can read when there are distractions around, but I read very slowly when there are — even more slowly than usual. I wish I were the kind of person who could focus well, but I’m not.

It’s rare, actually, that I’m completely absorbed in what I’m reading. I often look up from my book, sometimes to think about a passage, sometimes to notice something about my surroundings, and then my thoughts will wander and I’ll have to drag myself back to the book once again. I’m particularly bad about this when there are people around. I love to watch people, and I can’t help but notice social dynamics, so reading in airports or doctor’s offices is hard (although I do it). I’ll notice if someone starts a conversation, and once that happens, I can’t help but listen in. If people are having an argument, my book becomes useful only as something to hide the fact that I’m eavesdropping.

And I find it hard to quiet my mind to settle into reading. I suspect I’d benefit greatly from meditating regularly — I need to teach myself not to let my thoughts distract me from my book or whatever else. This is particularly hard when the semester is underway and I’ve got lots to think about. I’ll read for a few minutes and then notice that I’m not reading anymore and am thinking instead about how class went that day. Over the course of an evening’s reading, this gets better; by the evening’s end, I’m able to pay closer attention.


Filed under Books, Reading

Starting new books

I’ve been enjoying starting new books — what greater pleasure is there than diving in to a new book? One of them is Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness; I’m about 40 pages into it and think I’ve figured out what’s going on — it takes a while to get all the new names and new vocabulary and the rules of a new world when reading science fiction — or when reading any book, really, but science fiction especially. It promises to be fun. It’s the first science fiction I’ve read in, oh, probably a couple decades. Perhaps when I’m finished with this I’ll ask for more recommendations.

I also began Bruce Chatwin’s travel book In Patagonia. I’m still figuring out how this book works, too, although once I figure it out I think I’ll end up liking it. Actually, it’s not so different from beginning Left Hand of Darkness because I also have to figure out the “world” of the book — before I began it, I barely knew where Patagonia was. And I have to figure out exactly how Chatwin goes about writing a travel tale. It’s not exactly a straightforward narrative, but is made up of very short chapters, 1-2 pages long, each with their own vignette. So far there’s not much discussion of why he traveled and how he went about all the little steps of the trip — all the connective tissue of the journey; instead, he focuses on interesting people he meets and on the landscape, and he moves really quickly from one incident to the next. It’s amusing — he’ll mention walking down a road, running into a man walking the other direction, and next thing I know, Chatwin is visiting the man’s house, getting introduced to his family, and spending the night there. I’m not exactly sure how they got from passing each other to becoming friends. As far as I can tell, he’s a drifter who sleeps in a bed when he can get one, and behind a bush when he can’t.

I also began listening to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and oh, what a fun book! I love the reader’s voice and accent, and I find the main character so very appealing. Listening to it makes me want to meet him and show him that I get it — that I’m not one of those annoying people who uses sloppy language and tells lies. This book is so charming.


Filed under Books, Reading

One of my more absurd rides

I finished off my summer with a 50-mile ride yesterday, my longest since I got sick. I’m training for distance right now, but also trying to get some of my hill-climbing ability back — not that I ever had all that much — so I headed for a hilly course (the Housatonic Hills course, for those of you who know the area — it’s about 12-13 miles from my house).

Things started off fine, although I ran into the beginnings of a parade as I rode through one town (side note: Emily, it was your town — were you there??); people were milling about on the edge of the road, cars were swerving all over the place, vendors were out with their big carts, so I did my best to dodge everybody and got out of there.

I had some nice moments. I passed Hobgoblin, who was riding in the other direction, and we stopped for a brief chat. I soaked up as much of the beautiful view as I could, the green and the warmth. Those things will soon be gone, but I’ll still be riding out there. I need to appreciate them while I can.

I had an embarrassing moment when I stopped in a little market/convenience store and handed the guy at the register $2, when he wanted $2.50. I didn’t know why he was looking at me funny. He laughed and said I’ve been working so hard riding I can’t think straight, which was pretty much true; I do get absent-minded when I’ve been exercising for a while.

It was shortly after this, though, that things got much worse. I was riding along, and all the sudden I heard a scraping noise and my butt dropped about two inches. The bike all the sudden felt very wrong. I stopped to see what had happened and saw that my saddle was at an odd angle; it was pointed up — the saddle had slipped. I didn’t have any bike repair tools on me, although even if I had, I’m not entirely certain I could have made the repair; I still suck at bike mechanics. I thought about heading back to the store and asking to use their phone (no, I have no cell phone) to call Hobgoblin and have him come get me, but I thought better of it. The bike was rideable after all, if a bit uncomfortable.

I was 14 miles from home at that point, kind of tired and annoyed, but I figured I could make it the rest of the way if I took it easy so as not to let the awkwardly-angled saddle cause me any muscle problems. I stood up as much as possible, and hoped that when other cyclists passed me (which they did, of course, in droves), that they wouldn’t notice the saddle and think I was an idiot who didn’t know what a bike should look like.

Everything was okay until I returned to the town having the parade. By now, they were in the middle of it. I thought I’d ride around it by taking a back road; I asked a police officer if I could ride through a road block they had set up, thinking I’d head in a different direction from the parade. He said sure, no problem, so I went ahead, and next thing I knew I was in the middle of the parade. The back road was no escape — it was the parade route itself.

If I were thinking straight, I probably would have turned around and gotten out of there, but I wasn’t, so I just kept riding. The parade was on my left and the spectators on my right, and if I thought the road was crowded the first time I went through, I realized it was really crowded this time. Little kids kept bouncing around dangerously close to my bike, and the vendors were even more in the way. People were throwing candy for the kids to pick up, and I kept accidentally riding over the pieces. I had to work to keep a line between the people parading and the people watching. A few people cheered for me. One kid yelled out “Go, Lance!”

And I just wanted to ride quietly home; the last thing I wanted was to make a spectacle of myself, with my ridiculous saddle and all! The spectators probably thought I was obnoxious for refusing to keep out of their way; I would have thought so, if I saw someone riding through a parade like that.

Sometimes it just all goes wrong, you know?


Filed under Cycling

Be Near Me, by Andrew O’Hagan

12864414.gif I’m down to only two books I’m currently reading, and I’m about to finish one of them! I haven’t been in this situation in a long time. The only thing to be done about it is to start a couple new books, at least. Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Walter Scott’s Waverly, and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia are the ones I’m planning to choose from.

But for now, I want to write a bit about Andrew O’Hagan’s new novel Be Near Me. I thought the novel had a few flaws, but overall it’s beautifully-written, absorbing, and moving. It’s about a Catholic priest, David Anderton, assigned to a small parish in Scotland who finds himself (David often seems passively drawn into things) involved with two teenage kids, Mark and Lisa. Mark and Lisa are wild; they do their best to shock David, but find themselves drawn to him when he isn’t shocked — when they see he wants to spend time with them. The three of them hang out after school and at night, talking and driving places; David takes the teenagers on trips to local landmarks they had never visited; generally, they have a lot of fun, although it’s clear from early on that these relationships are complicated and bound to become more so.

The novel is told in first person, and mixed in with the Mark and Lisa scenes, David tells about his past, his time at school and at Oxford, especially, and the story of falling in love with Conor, a fellow student. These background stories help to fill in David’s character. He doesn’t fit in easily anywhere and says he’s not sure where he belongs; he had an exciting youth, participating in the student protests of the 60s (he’s now in his 50s), but when he became a priest, he turned away from all that and has since lived a very quiet life, serving in parishes in England and only recently in Scotland.

He seems disconnected from himself, and his voice comes across as stoic and a little bit melancholy, as though he knows he has missed out on much but refuses to admit it. His housekeeper Mrs. Poole, with whom he has forged a friendship, tells him has spent his life trying to avoid life, but he refuses to believe this.

So when he meets and befriends Mark and Lisa, it inaugurates something new; he sees in them the youthful energy he no longer has, but he also grasps at the chance to change himself, to be a participant in life, to take risks and do foolish things. This is the most moving part of the book, I think; the longing David has for newness that he finally allows himself to indulge.

But it all goes wrong, inevitably, and David pays dearly for this experience of freedom and abandon.

What I loved best about the book is how richly it describes David’s sense of self and his interiority; it’s a very smart, thoughtful book, rather sad in the way it portrays growing older and taking stock of what one has become, but hopeful about the possibility of change, even in the midst of disaster. I did feel the narrator’s voice was sometimes a little too withholding, a little too reticent, and in these moments, rather than communicating hidden depths, the narrator left me a bit cold. This is the danger of using first person with a character like David, I suppose; his ambivalence about himself can at times make him seem a little blank.

But I only felt this blankness in moments, and mostly the experience of reading this book was a pleasure.


Filed under Books, Fiction

What I’m reading

I hope everyone is enjoying their Labor Day weekend; I’m not doing anything special, just riding a bit, reading a bit, and trying not to think about school starting soon. I’ve completed or am nearing the end of several books, the De Quincey one, first of all, of which I have about 25 pages left. This is one of the odder books I’ve read in a while. I’ve written a few posts on it (here, here and here), but these posts by no means capture the oddness of it. I’ve given you little snippets, but it’s the contexts they come out of that are so strange. His writing is so digressive; he takes you all over the place, and often you don’t know where he’s going until you get there, and then he’s off someplace else.

The book takes some patience to read, for me at least, since his writing is fairly dense, but it’s very much worth it. He leaves you wondering and wondering what’s going on until he hits with you a beautiful passage that takes your breath away. He tells a story in “Suspiria de Profundis” about a mountain called the Brocken in Germany with an optical effect where, if you climb to the top at the right time of day, you see an image of a person of gigantic size a couple miles off in the distance, set against the sky or clouds or rocks. Only after noticing that the gigantic figure follows all of your movements, do you realize that it’s an image of yourself. De Quincey calls this the “Dark Interpreter” and the passage starts to get psychological:

This trial is decisive. You are now satisfied that the apparition is but a reflex of yourself; and, in uttering your secret feelings to him, you make this phantom the dark symbolic mirror for reflecting to the daylight what else must be hidden for ever.

The Dark Interpreter turns out to be an aspect of yourself that, separate from the self you are familiar with, allows you to reveal your hidden depths. De Quincey says the Dark Interpreter is often the “self” that appears in his dreams. He takes the metaphor further; as the apparition of the Brocken is sometimes disturbed by storms so that it no longer looks like him, so the Dark Interpreter is sometimes like an alien being living in him:

What he says, generally is but that which I have said in daylight, and in meditation deep enough to sculpture itself on my heart. But sometimes, as his face alters, his words alter; and they do not always seem such as I have used, or could use. No man can account for all things that occur in dreams.

So the apparition of the Brocken turns out to be the strange version of ourselves that appears in dreams, sometimes recognizable, sometimes so strange that we wonder how those words and ideas got in our heads in the first place.

Kind of cool and strange, right? The whole book is obsessed with dreams — the sources of them and how our minds transform those sources.

The essay I’m reading now, the last one, is about mail coaches. Yes, he’s written a fascinating 50-page essay on mail coaches. Report to follow.

But I didn’t mean to turn this into a post on De Quincey, which is what it has become, I’m afraid. I’m also about to finish my book of Keats poems, which I have enjoyed tremendously, and I just finished Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me. I’ll write about that one next, to give you a break from all this De Quincey.


Filed under Books

A century?

I think I may try to ride a century this fall — a hundred miles in one ride. In a more typical year, I would have ridden a century last Sunday and would be planning to ride another one or two in the next month. These are organized rides that run on the same weekend every year and that have lots of support — a marked course, food and water along the way, mechanical support, lots of other riders, and usually a t-shirt and other free stuff. I usually spend July and early August doing progressively longer rides to get ready.

But this year my health got in the way, and the typical season got disrupted. So instead I thought I might try to do one on my own, probably in late October or early November. My riding has gotten steadily better over the last month, so that now I feel like I’m back to normal, just about — I’m not in race shape, by any means, but I can ride as well as or better than I could last January or February before I got in race shape.

And I need something to work toward, some sort of goal. I don’t need to be training for races right now, as those don’t start up again until March, but I don’t want to just ride either — I’d feel too purposeless. So working toward a century should do the trick. As to whether I can actually complete one, that will depend on my health and my free time and the weather.

A good number of riders I know have enough endurance to just ride a century, without elaborate preparation, but not me. I’m perfectly comfortable up to about 50 miles, and after that I get tired fast if I don’t train. The training I do for races doesn’t help at all, because most of my races are usually relatively short — 20-25 miles or so for the ones I’m best at. I spend most of the training season working on intensity, not endurance.

So I’ll try to do a series of long rides on the weekends in September and October; the longest I’ve done since I got sick was about 38 miles, so I’ll do a couple of 50-mile rides, a couple of 60-mile rides, maybe a 70-mile one and hopefully an 80-mile one, and then I’ll be more than ready. I’m lucky to have a marked century route that begins and ends practically at my front door, as I can be bad at making up my own routes — this route heads south for a bit before circling back to my town, and then follows a northern loop for the rest of the ride. There are plenty of convenience stores and delis to get food and water, so I won’t miss the food stops of an organized century.

We’ll see how I do!


Filed under Cycling