Monthly Archives: February 2008

Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel

Margaret Laurence’s novel The Stone Angel is the latest choice of the Slaves of Golconda; check out other posts on the novel here and the discussion here.

I enjoyed this novel immensely, although it’s a difficult read at times — not difficult to understand, but difficult to deal with the emotional content. It tells the story of Hagar Shipley, who has reached her nineties and, understandably, is declining in health. She lives with her son and daughter-in-law who are now threatening to place her in a nursing home. Passages set in the present alternate with flashbacks to significant moments in Hagar’s life, her small-town upbringing; her (rather inexplicable) marriage to Bram Shipley, a rough, isolated, uncouth farmer; the birth of her two sons; her decision to leave her husband; and, most dramatically, the fate of her younger son John.

Mirroring the flight she took from her husband in her earlier years is Hagar’s second dramatic exit: when she feels as though she is being forced to enter the nursing home, she takes off to some abandoned buildings along the sea and holes up there as long as she can. She is in no shape to be out walking around on her own, but her fear of losing her home is stronger than her fear of physical danger.

Hagar is a stubborn, strong-willed woman, with an antagonistic attitude toward the world; it does not do to cross her, as her father discovered when he tried to keep her from marrying Bram, and as her son discovers when he tries to move her into the nursing home. The novel is narrated in the first person from Hagar’s point of view, which means that we get Hagar’s explanations and self-justifications. She’s not an unreliable narrator, exactly, but we are left to infer what effect her harshness has on others rather than seeing it directly. And she has inflicted her share of psychic damage on those around her; she is harsh and unloving to her sons and is unable to express even the small amount of affection she feels for her husband. Now that she is in her nineties and is losing her grip on reality, she has an unfortunate habit of speaking whatever is on her mind without censoring it, sometimes without knowing that she is saying anything at all. The effects of these unintentional outbursts can be devastating.

Hagar is a difficult person, but the novel leads us to feel sympathy towards her, and, in fact, the interest of the novel lies in the tension between our sympathy for her and our horror at the damage she causes. This tension plays out particularly well in the story of John; throughout the early parts of the novel it is clear that some mystery surrounds his life, but the characters don’t want to talk about him, as even his name causes them pain. It is no secret that Hagar has always preferred John, and it’s obvious how much pain this causes the older son Marvin — his “flaw” is that he reminds Hagar too much of Bram, the mostly unloved husband. Obviously this is not his fault, and it illustrates just how cruel Hagar can be. But we’re also made aware of how much Hagar has suffered because of what happened to John, the son on whom she has pinned her hopes for a better life. When we find out his fate, the news is devastating.

Equally devastating is the way the novel depicts old age and the nightmare of approaching senility. The novel moves back and forth between the present moment and flashbacks, and often when a flashback ends, Hagar finds herself in the middle of some situation she cannot understand — she has been speaking out loud unknowingly or has ignored those who are trying to get her attention or has simply spaced out, and she is disoriented and confused. The first person narration captures this confusion painfully well.

Hagar suffers and inflicts suffering; in my more depressed moments I might say that’s everyone’s story. But the beauty of the prose and the liveliness with which Hagar tells her story keeps this novel from descending into unbearably dark depths. The stubbornness and spirit that has caused her suffering in the past is now what keeps her going, and as much as we might judge her, we also can’t help but admire her strength.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Some random thoughts

  • First of all, Dan Green has written a response to my response to his response to my post on biography from a few days ago. All this back and forth has been fun, but I’m thinking that we’ve reached the point where further responding doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you check out Dan’s posts, don’t miss the comments, particularly the those to his first response. There are a lot of interesting comments on my posts too — thank you readers!
  • So Hobgoblin is leaving for El Salvador tonight, and Muttboy and I will have to spend the week alone, mourning his absence. The house will be way too quiet. I hate the fact that you can’t explain things to dogs, that I can’t tell Muttboy that he just has to wait a week and everything will be back to normal. Fortunately, we’ve got a dog-loving friend who has agree to walk him for a couple hours along with her own dog every day I have to go to work, which means Muttboy will be one tired dog, which I hope will make things easier on him.
  • I received an ARC of Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) crime novel The Silver Swan and have read the first few chapters; so far it promises to be fun. I may want to hunt down the first book in the series Christine Falls once I’ve finished this one — yes, I’ll read them out of order, but that’s okay — and maybe I’ll even be inspired to read something by Banville. At any rate, I’m in need of something light and plotty, and this will suit me just fine.
  • I have also begun Wuthering Heights, which I’ll be teaching in a few weeks. I’ve never taught this novel before, and I have no idea how it will go over. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, in fact.  It’s plotty, although not light — but it will just have to do, no matter what mood I’m in.
  • My first race is Sunday! Yikes. I’m not ready. But then, I never feel ready. I put off registering for the race until the last minute because I was denying the fact that race season is about to begin. I really prefer training and only race to give me something to work towards. And because it would be silly not to. And because afterwards I’m always happy to have done it. But beforehand, I wish I could just keep riding on my own, all by myself.
  • I plan to be back tomorrow posting on Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel for the Slaves of Golconda reading group.  I’m looking forward to the discussion!


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

Biography, continued

Dan Green has written an interesting response to my post from a couple days ago on the value of using an author’s biography to interpret his or her writing. Dan’s post has made me think a little more about my conclusions and has made me want to defend the use of biography in interpretation more than I originally did.

Perhaps I’ll contradict myself; that would be okay with me, as I felt uncertain about my conclusions in the first place … my first post was exploratory and not meant to be definitive.

So, Dan argues that:

using biographical information, about the author or about others on whom she may have drawn in creating characters, to “interpret” a work of fiction is the opposite of interpretation. Inevitably it reduces the work to “what really happened” or to a disguised form of memoir.

In my view, using biography to interpret fiction can be the opposite of interpretation, but it doesn’t inevitably reduce the work to a “disguised form of memoir.” It depends on how the critic uses the information.

What was irritating me as I read the Woolf biography was the notion that people might use biography in exactly the way Dan describes — as the key to a book, as a source of definitive answers, as a way of dismissing other forms of meaning.

But I also think it’s possible to use biographical information in criticism in ways that aren’t simplistic or reductionist. As I’m reading Frankenstein, for example, I’ve thought about how Victor Frankenstein might be modeled on Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband. The introductory essay to my edition considers this possibility, pointing out correspondences between the two, for example, the drive both of them share to change the world and the obsession they both have with science. What this identification of Frankenstein with Percy Shelley allows a reader to see is that the novel may be critiquing not only the kind of ambition Frankenstein exhibits, but the version of Romanticism and particularly the adoration of the Romantic hero valorized by Percy Shelley. The novel then becomes, in part, a way of rewriting Romanticism itself.

Can you see the larger point about Romanticism without knowing a thing about Percy Shelley? Probably, although you would need to know something about the literary context within which Mary Shelley was writing. The biographical information, however, adds a sharpness and focus to the argument that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

Ultimately, I think context is useful in interpreting literature — it can help you understand what is happening in the text itself — and biography is one form of that context. Biography shouldn’t be used to close down other possible interpretations, but it doesn’t necessarily do so, any more than other ways of reading do.


Filed under Books, Reading

Reading biographically

I have been putting off writing this post because I am tired, having ridden my bike for three hours this afternoon and having worked pretty hard. Long hard rides leave me feeling content but wiped out. It’s hard to do much else after them.

But I did have something on my mind to write about, which is that I’m not entirely sure what I think about using biographical information to help interpret the books I’m reading. I’m thinking about this because last night I read the chapter on Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day in Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and I found myself feeling irritated when I learned about all the real life people that the characters are modeled on. Not that there’s anything wrong with modeling one’s characters on real-life people — in fact, in Hobgoblin’s novel and in the novel of another friend of mine, I have great fun figuring out the real-life people the characters reflect. And there’s nothing wrong with the way Briggs identifies who is who, pointing out, for example, that that a minor character was modeled on Henry James and that while Woolf claims her main character Katherine is based on her sister Vanessa, she bears a great resemblance to Woolf herself. There’s a long list of such correspondences or potential correspondences.

It’s just that as I read the novel I was happy thinking of the characters as simply themselves and not needing any further explanation, and when I read about all the biographical details, I didn’t like the fact that there was a whole other dimension behind the book that I couldn’t know about unless I had access to inside information.

Yes, the book still makes plenty of sense without knowing the background information; that information is there if I want it to add another layer of meaning, and I can ignore it as much as I like too.

Part of what bothers me is the sudden revelation that my understanding of the book is missing a major element, that there are interpretations other people know about that I don’t. Even more so, I don’t like the attitude — not a part of Briggs’s book as far as I can tell but surely the attitude of many a biographer — that biography can be the key to a book, that biographical information trumps other ways of reading. I like to know an author’s biography, but I also believe that the relationship of an author’s life to a piece of writing is only one small piece of a larger picture.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is that I’m not temperamentally suited to be a biographer. I may have some of the qualities a biographer needs — patience, organization, an interest in research, an ability to pay attention to detail (though surely there are plenty of other qualities I’m missing) — but I would also feel that what I was doing was a little beside the point. I’d rather stick with the text itself.

This is a purely personal judgment, however, and I’m grateful to biographers for doing what they do. What do you think — could you write a biography? Would you want to?


Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction, Reading

Writing and power

One of the things I like most about Frankenstein is its complicated structure — the way there are narratives nestled in other narratives and every part of it is either a letter or a story told by one character to another. We start off with Robert Walton writing a letter to his sister Margaret Saville. Then Walton meets Frankenstein, who tells him his story, which Walton records in his letters to his sister. Then Frankenstein tells Walton the story of how he re-encounters the creature after losing touch with him for several years (I try not to call him the monster, although it’s the word that comes most easily to mind — “monster” reflects Frankenstein’s loathing of him, but “creature” is a little less hateful and recognizes that he had the potential for goodness). During this meeting, the creature recounts his life up to that point in a long narrative that Frankenstein reports to Walton word-for-word — a little implausibly — and that Walton records word-for-word in his letters to his sister — also implausibly.

After the creature’s narrative, Frankenstein returns as storyteller, and then the novel closes with Walton again, so the structure of listeners/readers and writers/speakers goes like this: Margaret, Walton, Frankenstein, Creature, Frankenstein, Walton, Margaret. Or Walton to Margaret; Frankenstein to Walton to Margaret; Creature to Frankenstein to Walton to Margaret; Frankenstein to Walton to Margaret; Walton to Margaret. It’s interesting that Margaret is the receiver of all these stories but we never find out much about her and she never speaks herself.

In addition to all this, there are letters embedded in the narratives, so we hear other voices as well, most importantly the voices of Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s love interesting, and Frankenstein’s father, who both write to Frankenstein expressing their worry about his secretiveness.

And, making this already very textual novel even more so, there are literary allusions and quotations all over the place, including lines from Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost. Shelley finds ways to show off all the learning I wrote about the other day. This is a very inclusive novel, really, bringing in as much literature and as many voices and as much complexity as it possibly can.

All of this only emphasizes the loneliness of the creature; I just finished reading the creature’s narrative, and, in spite of the fact that he’s a murderer and that he sets out to make Frankenstein miserable, he’s really quite sympathetic. The story of how he lives in a hovel adjoining a small family’s home, how he watches them and learns from them and begins to care for them, how he shows the goodness of his heart by secretly chopping firewood for them, and how he is cruelly rejected by them when they first lay eyes on him is heartbreaking. Shelley makes clear that if only someone, even one person, had shown kindness to the creature, he would not have become the wretch that he is.

The creature’s narrative is nestled in the middle of this novel, passed on from character to character and finally to the reader, to me, but he himself is kept out of this web of communication. Every person who lays eyes on him is revolted, reacting with uncontrollable horror. The only people who will listen to the creature are a blind man who cannot perceive his horrifying body and Frankenstein who is threatened by the creature’s potential for violence and who therefore feels compelled to listen. It seems like the only reasonable conclusion to reach is that I, too, would react with horror if I saw the creature, in spite of my sympathetic feelings after reading his story. There’s something saving, then, in the ability to write to people from a distance, to write without the body being present, for it’s only this way that the creature’s message gets heard.

If only he could use words all by themselves with no traces of the physical, he could make people understand him, but the creature never actively enters this world of writing, or storytelling from a distance; his story gets passed along because Frankenstein chooses to recount it to Walton and Walton chooses to tell the story to his sister. Although his story is at the center of the novel, literally and metaphorically, he ultimately has no control over it and, left powerless to make people understand him, he lashes out in violence in response. The power that Frankenstein wields when he creates life is impressive, but the power that a writer wields is even more so; being left out of web of communication created by writing is another of the creature’s undeserved punishments.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Reading Frankenstein

I’ve been enjoying re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; this is at least the sixth time I’ve read it, as I was assigned the book once in college, was assigned it at least three times in grad school, and taught the book once a few years ago, which would make this the sixth time around. I’m not in the least bored by it, though. There is so much richness in the book, and I’m continually amazed that Mary Shelley was only 18 when she began writing it. She was 20 when it was published in 1818. The introduction to my edition discusses critical reaction to her youth, including the argument, made by Muriel Spark, that

… perhaps the wonder of it exists, not despite Mary’s youth, but because of it. Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s best novel, because at that early age she was not well acquainted with her own mind.

I don’t particularly like this argument; it sounds condescending to me, as though Shelley wrote a work of genius in spite of herself. But it does seem that, genius though she was, Shelley was lucky in the way she stumbled upon an idea that would resonate so powerfully for so long, in ways she surely had no conscious idea of. Could she have known how acutely aware of the dangers of science and technology people would become in future years? Sometimes authors are particularly in tune with the spirit of their time, or even of future times, and it’s mysterious what allows them that insight.

My introduction is good, though, at showing all the literary and philosophical influences on Shelley, and all the ideas about science and the nature of life and death that were floating around the group Shelley was living with when she got the idea for the novel, a group that includes not only Percy Shelley, but Lord Byron and John Polidori as well. This is how Byron describes the mood of the time:

I was half mad … between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unalterable and the nightmare of my own delinquencies.

Wouldn’t you love to have been able to observe this group and listen in on all their talk?

The story of how Shelley got the inspiration to write the novel is famous; during a stretch of rainy weather, Byron proposed that everyone tell a ghost story and Mary Shelley was unable to think of one until one night she had a vision:

I saw — with shut eyes but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.

Soon she realized that this vision could be the basis of the ghost story she had been seeking, and the rest is history.

I’m struck at everything she had absorbed while she was still in her teens. According to my introduction, in the years leading up to the writing of the novel, Shelley had been reading Byron, Samuel Richardson’s novels including Clarissa (whose influence we see in the epistolary structure of Frankenstein), the French writer Madame de Genlis, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, books on chemistry by Humphrey Davy, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (both of these at least twice), Rousseau’s Confessions, Emile, and Nouvelle Heloise (the latter two twice), Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, her father William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland, or The Transformation, and various Gothic novels including those by Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Charles Maturin, and William Beckford.

And those are only the book the editor mentioned; there may have been plenty more. That’s quite a list, isn’t it? In this case the recipe for a masterpiece seems to have called for genius, avid reading, the right group of friends, and a little luck.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Nonfiction fantasy

Eva has written recently about learning to love nonfiction; I’ve loved certain forms of it for quite a while, although I still read many more novels than nonfiction books. Eva’s post caught my eye because I’ve had a longing lately to read some good nonfiction; alas, I don’t seem to be able to get to it, as my reading time has been limited and when I do have time to read I read novels for class or for book groups. So I thought I’d do a little a little fantasizing here about what nonfiction books I would read if I had the time and energy for them. I’m going to pretend for a few moments that I have nothing to do for the next couple months but read for fun. Here are some of the nonfiction books I’d pick up:

  • Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772 – 1804. Although I didn’t particularly like the Romantics when I studied them in college, I’ve changed my mind completely since then and have become a bit obsessed by them. I just received this biography of Coleridge from Book Mooch, and I’d love to dive in.
  • Also about the Romantic time period is Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England. I so want to know what a woman’s life in Georgian England was like!
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages, and it’s high time I get to it.
  • John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. I’ve been interested in this book ever since reading Geraldine Brooks’s novel Year of Wonders, which is also about the plague. It would be great to have a nonfiction as well as a fictional perspective.
  • Helen Deutsch’s Loving Dr. Johnson. Here is what Amazon says about the book: “Loving Dr. Johnson uses the enormous popularity of Johnson to understand a singular case of author love and to reflect upon what the love of authors has to do with the love of literature.” That sounds appealing, doesn’t it?
  • Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. NYRB has an attractive-looking edition of this 17C classic. Amazon says this: “Dr. Johnson, Boswell reports, said it was the only book that he rose early in the morning to read with pleasure.” That intrigues me …
  • William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. The Romantics again. You can see what kind of nonfiction I am most attracted to — the literary history and biography kind. The title is self-explanatory — about reading habits in the Romantic period, based on quantitative research.
  • Jenny Diski’s On Trying to Keep Still, or any of her work, actually. I fell in love with her blog (although she doesn’t post much) and must now read her books.

That would keep me busy for a while, wouldn’t it? Are there any nonfiction books you’ve been longing to read?


Filed under Books, Lists, Nonfiction

Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day

14272407.jpg I have now finished Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day, and have mixed but mostly positive feelings about it. As I expected, it doesn’t live up to her masterpieces, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, and, as I didn’t expect, it has some odd moments and some tedious ones, but overall it’s an enjoyable, interesting novel.

The novel tells the story of five young people who fall in and out of love with each other. There’s Katherine Hilbery and her fiancé William Rodney, first of all; Katherine is the granddaughter of a famous poet and she and her mother are working (not very successfully) on his biography. They spend their days surrounded by his papers and their memories; in spite of her family history, however, Katherine is not terribly literary and prefers to work on mathematics problems in secret. William is a rather surprising choice for Katherine — while she’s fairly free-thinking and open-minded, he’s conventional to a fault, particularly so in his views about proper womanly behavior. His ideal woman is not likely to spend her free time working at math.

And then there are Mary Datchet and Ralph Denham, both of whom come from decidedly less comfortable circumstances than the other characters. Mary lives on her own and spends her days working for women’s suffrage; Katherine envies her independence, although Mary worries where it is taking her — she doesn’t want to end up like the eccentrics she works with, so devoted to a cause that they can’t see beyond it and begin to lose their common sense. Mary and Ralph are good friends; Ralph lives with his family and works as a lawyer, although he dreams of owning a cottage in the country where he can work on his writing.

These four meet early on in the novel and later are joined by a fifth, Cassandra, Katherine’s cousin, who steps in to make this already-complicated love quadrangle even more complicated. I won’t tell you all the twists and turns of who falls in love with whom; I’ll just say that much of the novel involves these young people agonizing over what it means to be in love, whether love is even possible for them, what kind of marriage they want, and when and if they should confess their feelings to each other.

The novel is fairly traditional in its structure — it’s about romance after all — and yet it doesn’t quite feel like a Victorian novel; there’s so much focus on introspection and shifting states of consciousness that it seemed to me clearly a 20C work (published in 1919). In fact, it reminded me a little of D.H. Lawrence’s work (although it’s been a while since I’ve read him) and also of Elizabeth Bowen’s in the way that the characters didn’t act like any people I know and didn’t talk like them either; they do things like suddenly appearing at each other’s houses, making strange pronouncements, and then just as suddenly leaving. But a novelist doesn’t have to create characters who are like people I know, after all, and Woolf seems to have another purpose in mind: capturing the ins and outs of consciousness in all its shifts and ambiguities. What is familiar to me is the back and forth movement of the characters, the way they struggle to know themselves when the “selves” they are exploring never stay the same.

Familiar as it is, this back and forth could get a bit tedious at times, especially towards the end — in fact, the book starts off more traditionally than it ends, I think — and I wished now and then that the characters would just make up their minds. I was flummoxed by one bizarre moment when in the midst of a heated discussion between Katherine and William all the sudden Cassandra appears from behind the curtains, having apparently been hiding there, although Woolf doesn’t prepare us for this and never offers any explanation. It was just a clumsy way of advancing the plot, I suppose. But the plot seems less important than character development, and a device like this one serves to put the characters in an interesting new situation.

In spite of some flaws, though, I enjoyed the way Woolf captures the fleeting moods and emotions of her characters, and particularly the way she portrays the dynamics among men and women in a time when women were close to gaining the vote. It’s painful to watch William casually dismiss women’s intelligence as unnecessary, but even Ralph, a much more sympathetic character, can be dismissive at times, and Katherine remains uncertain about whether she believes in women’s right to vote or not. Mary is the most modern character among them in this respect, but she is also the character who suffers the most, a fact that speaks, perhaps, to the difficulty of taking the political stand that she does.

I plan to read the chapter on this novel from Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life; I’ll let you know if I find new insights on the novel there.


Filed under Books, Fiction

A cycling post

I went on my hardest ride of the winter this morning — not hard meaning I was training hard, but hard meaning I was battling horrible weather the whole way. One of my first thoughts as I headed away from my house was that I shouldn’t be out here at all. I didn’t listen to myself, though, and spent an hour in terror, first of the ice on the roads and then of the wind.

The problem is that after all the flooding from yesterday, there was a lot of water left on the roads, which froze last night and left patches of ice everywhere. And the other problem is that I could see none of this from my house, situated as it is on a section of road that drains well and therefore was dry. I knew the patches of ice were likely to exist somewhere, but as I couldn’t see them from my windows, it was a little hard to take them seriously.

But they were there, in particular abundance right at the place where traffic was fairly heavy and where I was heading downhill and so was reluctant to turn around and slog back up the hill to head home in defeat. I got lucky, though; every time I came across a patch of ice that covered my side of the road there was no traffic in sight so I could swing over to the other side to get past.

The middle of the ride was okay — I even had fun practicing holding my balance as I rode over ice patches — but the last five miles or so I was out on a road that’s a little more open than the rest and where the wind gusts hit me hard. The gusts were coming from all directions, so I never knew where I’d get hit next or how to compensate for them. I spent the time hoping a gust wouldn’t hit me right at the moment when I was between a car and a guardrail on a section of road where there was no shoulder, so that I’d get knocked over with no room to spare and have a horrible accident. At one point, heading downhill on a section of road with open space next to it so that the wind could really pick up some speed, I got hit by a gust so hard I stopped for fear of toppling over. Once the gust died down I was on my way again, riding my brakes the whole way down the hill.

That was no fun! So far I’ve been lucky this winter to have reasonably good weather to ride in; I don’t mind the cold so much (although 20 degrees is my limit — at least for now), which means that it’s only rain and snow that keep me inside, and the rain and snow have generally fallen on days or parts of days when I’m not planning on riding. But I’m bound to have a horrific ride or two, especially since I’m also bound and determined not to get on the trainer and ride indoors unless I absolutely positively have to. I simply can’t stand the thought of riding on a bike that goes nowhere, and so I’m willing to put up with a horrific ride or two instead. And I’ll admit I enjoy going on rides that I probably shouldn’t go on, at least once I’m home and can feel triumphant in the safety of my own living room.

Oh, and I’m probably going to race with the women in the upcoming race series, with the idea that if it goes horribly I’ll switch to the Cat 5 men’s race. I’m not exactly looking forward to how hard I’ll have to work to keep pace with the other women, but I want to give it a try just to see what it’s like. I’ll spend too much time wondering about it otherwise.

And one more thing — once I settled into it, I had a nice time lounging around yesterday on my day off due to rain and got most of Woolf’s Night and Day read. I’ll finish it tonight.


Filed under Cycling

This hardly ever happens …

My department chair just called me up and strongly urged me to cancel my classes and stay home today.  Cool!  We got snow yesterday, which has now turned to rain, which is causing some serious flooding.  It’s not the sort of flooding that will put us in danger as long as we’re at home, but it has flooded the roads enough that some of them are probably closed and traffic is surely terrible.  My department chair tried to get to school and turned back when she saw that cars on the highway were in water up to their doors.

So I should be thrilled to have this day at home, but instead I feel anxious.  I don’t like missing class because it messes up our rhythm, gets us behind, and generally confuses things.  And I’ve been so busy lately — I’ve been used to moving at a pretty fast pace (fast for me) — that I don’t quite know how to deal with the free time.  It’s hard to shift gears so abruptly.  Do I just sit around in the middle of the day and read Virginia Woolf?  I guess so …


Filed under Life

Thoughts and a meme

I haven’t had much time for reading lately, which is why the “Currently Reading” section of my sidebar hasn’t changed in a while; I’m enjoying Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day, but I’m still ready for something new. Even though I like a book, I can still feel a bit bogged down in it. Well, this weekend will solve that problem somewhat, as I’ll have to read Frankenstein for my class. But I’m ready to pick up something new purely for fun.

The other thing I’ve been reading, though, is a friend’s novel-in-progress, the same friend whose earlier novel I described reading here. She’s been remarkably prolific this year. I decided to read through the manuscript once to get some initial impressions, and then to read it again writing comments along the way. I don’t consider myself to be much of an editor, but I do enjoy this kind of work now and then; as I was writing comments, I was mainly trying to pinpoint what was going on in places where I felt confused or uncertain, where I felt jolted or surprised by something that didn’t fit or wasn’t developed, or simply where I felt something was off. And I was noting places where I liked the writing or the ideas and places where everything fit together for me.

I do like having a little bit of a hand in the direction the novel will go, but at the same time, it’s a scary process — not because I’m scared I won’t like the book, which I know I will, but I worry my feedback will be frustrating or confusing or will get the writer off track somehow. I’m sure my friend won’t use any feedback that doesn’t seem right, but she still seems to take what I say seriously, and so I want to make sure I say very helpful things.

But to another topic entirely — Margaret from BooksPlease has tagged me for a meme: the “10 signs a book has been written by me” meme. Now I don’t think this book will ever get written by me, but, like Danielle who did this meme recently, I’ll play along. So here goes. My book will be:

  1. a novelistic type thing, although not exactly traditional
  2. character driven, not plot driven
  3. about consciousness
  4. with a female protagonist
  5. with long sentences
  6. set in the U.S.
  7. set roughly in the present
  8. in first person point of view
  9. influenced by Virginia Woolf, although (alas!) not nearly as brilliant as her work is
  10. influenced by Nicholson Baker’s attention to detail, although without the scientific/technological interests.

That would be my book, although thinking about it now, the list looks rather … boring. That’s why I’m a reader of novels, not a writer of them.  I generally don’t tag people for memes, but this time I’m changing my mind.  So I tag the following people, although if any of them don’t want to do the meme, that’s fine by me: Hobgoblin, EmilyBecky, Hepzibah, and Amanda.


Filed under Memes, Reading

In defense of negativity

I got myself a bit riled up by this post — or rather, not the post itself, which is quite good, but some of the comments made by interviewees in the post. It’s about the function and status of book blogs, covering quite a lot of topics including how book bloggers can help small publishers, whether the criticism on blogs is any good, and whether book bloggers should post negative reviews. It’s this last question that gets me all irritated. Well, the second question irritates me too, but the idea that there is no good criticism on blogs strikes me as easily disproven, if only a person is willing to open their eyes and take a look around. But the question of bloggers posting negative reviews is not quite so easy.

I know I’ve written about this before, but what the hell — one thing that’s true about blogging is that it does little good to have an idea buried back in your archives from a few months ago. The post I’m referring to takes the side of freedom to write about books in whatever form you want, positive or negative, but one blogger they interview argues strongly that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t post about it. I think this is the sentence that got me:

… if you do not like what you read that is fine – but you do not have any authority to say so publicly and sometimes hurtfully.

Oh, dear. The things this sentence makes me want to say. Which I will refrain from saying, as I do not want to be mean and pick a fight. But I have the right to pick a fight if I want to! And I have the right to post whatever I want about any book I want, and I don’t need any authority from anybody to do it. It’s the absolute language that bothers me — you do not have any authority — whereas if somebody said to me “it might be better if you didn’t …” I would listen and politely disagree but I wouldn’t get angry.

People seem to have trouble accepting just what blogs are and what they do. Now I can understand this a little bit, especially if you are an author and you’d really rather not have random bloggers trashing your work, whom you know nothing about and, for all you know, may not have completed high school. But the reality is that if it’s going to happen there is nothing you can do to stop it. And pretending that there’s some authority out there that grants certain people the right to give their opinions and makes the others shut up won’t help any.

Blogging is a new and sometimes troubling mix of the personal and the public — it often feels like a combination of diary, casual coffee shop conversation, and published work. I can see that it’s hard to come to terms with the way blogging takes that diary or coffee shop conversation and puts it out into the world, giving a public voice to those who would have had none before. “Publishing” now has a new meaning and new connotations. These days there’s publishing as in going through the editing process and appearing in print, and there’s publishing as in typing up a blog post, with what degree of care it doesn’t matter, and clicking “publish.” It’s just not the same thing anymore, and I think it’s better to learn how to deal with it than to try to fight it.

But what I really wanted to say is that it doesn’t make sense to me that bloggers should write only about books they like. No one can stop bloggers from publishing negative reviews, yes, but I also see no reason for them to try to do so. To me personally, it feels dishonest to write only about positive responses, and I’m not sure I’d trust a blogger who never panned a book, ever. But even more significant, I think, is that the attempt to be honest and truthful is more important than an author’s feelings. One lone blogger writing reviews isn’t going to uncover the truth about a particular book — there isn’t any such truth to be found — but her opinions will add to the ongoing conversation about books in general and about that particular book specifically, and the value of that conversation supersedes the feelings of individual people. There would be no depth, no interest, in a conversation with no negativity whatsoever.

Now, really bad-natured bloggers who write nasty reviews are another matter entirely, but still, no one can stop them from publishing their nasty reviews, and any reader with sense will ignore them and move on to better blogs.

So, if you decide you’d rather not publish negative reviews, then you don’t have to, and that’s a perfectly legitimate personal decision, but it’s not one I choose to make. And I do wish people would stop telling me what I’m supposed to do or not supposed to do on this blog where I can do anything I like.


Filed under Blogging, Books

British Lit.

Some readers seemed curious about the British Lit. class I’m teaching, so I thought I’d write a bit about that. We’ve met for two weeks now and things are going pretty well; teaching a new course is difficult, though! It’s been a while since I’ve taught something brand new, and I’m remembering how much reading and prep goes into it. I’m looking forward to getting to Frankenstein, a text I’ve taught before, so I can rely on my old notes.

So far we’ve covered Blake, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, and Coleridge — ridiculous to have done all that in two weeks, right? That’s the hard thing about a survey course — there’s so much to put on the syllabus and so little time. There are so many authors I can’t cover, and even with the ones that do make it on the syllabus, we only cover a laughably small amount of their writing. Some selections from Songs of Innocence and Experience, some selections from Lyrical Ballads, one Charlotte Smith sonnet, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner and that’s it. I was pleased that one of my students was intrigued by Charlotte Smith; she was captivated by her rather tempestuous biography and wanted to know more. Perhaps she’ll go on to read more of her work.

I took a course in college that covered the entire history of British literature in one semester, which seems insane to me now. At least with this class I only have to cover the last two centuries, and mostly we’re focusing on the first 150 years of that time.

My students are doing a good job with the material, and I’m particularly happy with the way one of my assignments is working out, an assignment that asks students to come into class every day with two questions or insights about the reading. I told the students their questions or insights don’t have to be particularly brilliant, just genuine. It’s a very informal assignment; they can write their thoughts by hand on an index card if they want. I like this assignment for a number of reasons — for one, I can start class simply by asking them to share their thoughts and questions and that can be a springboard for discussion. Or they have material in front of them that they can share later in the class if they want to.

And then when I read these over after class, I get a good sense of how well they are understanding the reading — if they are thoroughly confused by the archaic language in the Coleridge poem, for example, or if they loved it and have an idea about, say, why that archaic language is there. I’ve been so pleased with their submissions that I usually read some of them out loud in the next day’s class to follow up on the previous discussion and cover things we missed earlier. And then we’ll move on to the new reading for the day.

I’ve believed for a long time in making the students accountable for doing the reading in some way — having tried to run classes where few people were actually doing the reading and I was ready to tear my hair out at their lack of response. Usually I hold them accountable with brief reading quizzes at the beginning of class. It sounds like an annoying, childish assignment, but I’ve had a lot of students comment that they liked the quizzes because it forced them to stay on top of things. But I’m thinking I like my questions/insights assignment better and may use it more often.

So now we’re on to a Maria Edgeworth short story and the later romantics — Percy Shelley and Keats. And Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of my favorite novels ever.


Filed under Books

Essays on the novel

I’ve now read the first five essays in Franco Moretti’s book on the novel (I wrote about the first essay here), and so far the verdict is mixed, although that’s not really a surprise, given the range of material included. I didn’t finish the second essay, as I found it unreadable — or least not worth the trouble of trying to make sense of out it. The writing was dense and the argument elusive in that way academic writing can unfortunately sometimes be. I don’t mind working hard if I sense there’s a payoff or if it’s a topic I’m interested in — in fact I’m happy working hard in these conditions — but I read enough of this essay to know it wasn’t going to win me over.

But the next three essays were better. One of them is called “Historiography and Fiction in Chinese Culture,” and it discusses the relative importance and respect granted to fiction and history in China up until the early 20C, history being the genre with all the respect, and fiction getting very little:

Since historiography was the highest genre, fiction had to justify its existence by claiming to serve as its popularized illustration, or as its supplementation. Therefore, fiction hardly represented the genuine spirit of Chinese culture but rather its distorted exposition. Some critics even regard Chinese fiction as the expression of the social unconscious, which was silenced in “normal” cultural discourses but let loose in those “inferior” genres.

This essay and others like it make me wish I had copies on hand of the novels under discussion so I could understand more concretely what’s being argued. Or maybe not? When I look some examples up at Amazon, what I find are books like this: Outlaws of the Marsh, a four volume set with 2,149 pages! At any rate, I’m learning things about the history of the novel I certainly never knew before.

Another essay traces the origins of the ancient Greek novel, arguing that rather than originating from one early example, the Greek novel developed from a number of different types of stories that slowly converged into one genre. This essay taught me a lot about the various forms of Greek fiction — and I was only barely aware that such a thing existed — but it did assume that the reader already had a certain amount of knowledge about Greek prose, and so it wasn’t as useful an introduction as it could have been. I’m discovering that about these essays — a general reader can follow any of them, but many of them are best read by someone who already has a solid base of knowledge about the topic. So the essays that mean the most to me are those about areas I’m familiar with — novels from the West in the last few centuries.

So, Walter Siti’s essay “The Novel on Trial” I found quite intriguing; he charts suspicious attitudes towards fiction in the West, pointing out that:

Of all the literary genres, the novel is the only one that feels the need to deny itself.

I come across this attitude in 18C novels frequently — the claim that novels are bad, which appears in the novels themselves. The author has to prove somehow that her novel is not like the others, not frivolous and a waste of time. What’s so scary about the novel, according to Siti, is that anyone can write one; it appears, at least, not to require a whole lot of skill (I’m sure practicing novelists would disagree with that notion, but the novel doesn’t have the “rules and regulations,” as Siti puts it, that, say, the epic has). Not only is the novel dangerously democratic, but it promotes bad habits of mind:

The general accusation was that novels lowered the cultural level and promoted curiosity and gossip, to the detriment of “litérature savante.” Novels wean people from the habits of thinking. “You never reread a novel,” wrote Vauvenargues in 1745.

The novel can also spread “obscenity and sedition” and introduce a vulgarity into society that threatens to undermine high culture. It privileges pleasure in reading instead of edification and high-mindedness.

But Siti argues that here is where the novel finds its source of strength:

… the novel’s vocation to satisfy its reader’s pleasure is what steered it toward those delicate spots where pleasure rubs up against reality; its vulgarity, in short, is the condition for the antisystematic perspicacity that is its strength … the protean and undisciplined surrender to the folds of the present and its dishonorable status drives the novel into murky territories where other genres fear to tread.

It took a long time for people to recognize the strengths of the novel as a genre, however; only in the 18C, Siti argues, did a shift begin to take place that slowly turned the novel into a respectable and serious genre. These days we don’t fear novels in the way people used to:

In the seventeenth century you could pay with your life for having written a novel; nowadays trials against literature generally end in acquittals and embarrassment for the accusers.

While it’s nice to think that novels can have social and political power, it’s a much better state of things that nobody has to pay with their life for having written one. Well, for the most part that’s true; Salman Rushdie might have thought otherwise at certain times of his life.

So — in spite of my mixed verdict on this book, I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the essays have to teach me.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction


Oh Lord this semester is going to be a long one. I’m not going to whine in this post, don’t worry, but I do wonder what it means that I’m already counting how many classes I have left to teach this semester. I usually begin counting, oh, around two-thirds of the way through, when the end is in sight. But this time I began counting from the very beginning. That’s not good.

But I’m enjoying sitting in on my Intro to the Arts class — the one I’m observing now to teach later. The first day the professor made us draw! Now this frightened me a bit, as I have no skills whatsoever in drawing. But even though I’m not a student and am only observing, the professor handed me a sheet of paper, and I thought I couldn’t exactly refuse to do it, and I wouldn’t want to refuse to do it, anyway, as that would look silly. The assignment was to draw our lives in three panels. It’s an interesting assignment for the first day, and I’ll probably make my students do it when I teach the class. So I drew a sorry-looking book, a heavy, awkward-looking bicycle wheel (couldn’t manage an entire bike), and a third-grade-level picture of the woods to sum up my life. We were supposed to exchange pictures with other students and then the professor asked for people to share theirs for the class to analyze and interpret, and, of course, mine got chosen, so the whole class could see my sorry art work. So — I’m learning a lot in this class, including what it’s like to be a student feeling a bit out of her depth.

As for reading, these days I’m in the middle of Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day and am enjoying it thoroughly; it’s her second novel, and one of her more conventional ones. It’s got four main characters, two young men and two young women, and it explores their complicated relationships with each other. I’m enjoying her close attention to emotions and moods and psychological states, as well as her depiction of gender dynamics. One of the characters is involved in the women’s suffrage movement, so it’s an obvious theme, but Woolf also shows how the power dynamics play out in conversation among men and women in a way I find fascinating. I’ll say more about the book later.

And two new books have come into my possession lately, both of which I’m excited about. A friend gave me a copy of George Saunders’s book of essays The Braindead Megaphone; I’ve enjoyed Saunders’s short stories and am curious to see what he’ll do with the essay form. And then Emily sent me a copy of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, which I won in her recent blog contest. I’m looking forward to reading both of these.


Filed under Books, Life

Meme time!

A while back Emily tagged me to do Eva’s meme, and I’ve decided tonight’s the night for it. Thanks to both of you for the inspiration!

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews? My answer isn’t going to be very original; I was in complete agreement with Becky’s response to the question, so I’ll just copy her: The Kite Runner. The more general principle here is that I want to stay away from any book that everybody seems to be reading. If I hear of it too often, I’m not interested. However, there are exceptions. If I hadn’t read and loved it, Eat, Pray, Love might have been one of those books I stayed away from. That would have been a shame. So, the lesson is I shouldn’t be a book snob because I might miss books I’ll end up loving, right? Something tells me I won’t really change …

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be? Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, and Elizabeth Bennett. Surely these characters would strike up an interesting conversation? Elizabeth might be a little shocked by the other two, but I have a feeling her quick wit and sense of humor would serve her well. I might limit them to an afternoon tea, though; otherwise, who knows what Tom and Tristram would get up to.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave? Finnegans Wake. I made it through Ulysses, and wouldn’t mind reading it again one day, but I balk at Finnegans Wake. Okay, I haven’t tried it, but I’m very afraid it would mean absolutely nothing to me, and so I’d be running my eyes over the words and that’s it. It can’t get more boring than that, can it?

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it? I don’t have an answer to this one — I haven’t, as least as far as I can remember, said or hinted that I’d read a book when I hadn’t. I’m too scared to do this. I’m not very good at faking my way through a conversation on books I haven’t read; I don’t have the confidence for it. Clearly, I need to read this book.

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book? This hasn’t happened to me, but the opposite has — I’ve read books but then forgotten so much about them that I could re-read them as though they were new. I read a bunch of novels as a kid that I could tell you nothing about now — David Copperfield, for example.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (If you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead and personalise the VIP) It’s hard to say without knowing why the VIP is a VIP, but it seems to me that every VIP should have read some Montaigne. Yeah, the not-very-big-reader VIP might not fall in love with it right away (although I taught him once and my students thought he was great — the trick is finding the right essay), but he has such good things to teach, such as curiosity, honesty, open-mindedness, the habit of introspection and thoughtfulness, and the ability to handle complexity and contradiction.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with? Russian. I wanted to learn Russian when I was younger; now I know I probably won’t ever learn it, but it would be wonderful if I could … I’d love to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov in the original.

A mischievious fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick? Easy — Pride and Prejudice. I don’t think I’d ever get tired of it!

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)? I discovered the pleasures of reading multiple books at once. Before blogging I would occasionally read a novel and a book of poetry at the same time, but now I’m likely to have a novel or two, a nonfiction book, a book of poems, and a collection of essays, or some such combination. It’s wonderful to be able to pick and choose depending on my mood.

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free. The most important thing about this library is that it have comfortable chairs. What’s the point of having a great collection of books if I can’t sit (or lie) comfortably and read? A fireplace would be nice too. A kitchen should be nearby, so I can get food and drink whenever I want. As for the books … leatherbound books would look nice, but I value comfort over appearance, so they’d be easy-to-read trade paperbacks, preferably the kind that fall open easily and that have nice wide margins for writing. I’d want all the books I currently have, plus all the books on my wishlist, plus the ability to get whatever book I wanted within a matter of minutes.

If you’d like to try this meme, please do!


Filed under Books, Memes

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I finished Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this afternoon, and what a fun book it is! I read it because I plan to teach it later this semester … yes, I did put something on my syllabus without having read it first … probably not the best idea, but it’s in our anthology, it’s short, and I’d heard such good things about it. Luckily for me I enjoyed it a lot and think it will be fun to talk about in class.

The book seems so very Victorian to me, with lots of London fog (lots of it), weird psychological twists, a creepy kind of repressed sexuality, and a brooding, mysterious atmosphere. It tells the story, as surely most people know, of a split personality, of Dr. Jekyll who transforms into his evil other, Mr. Hyde. The story is told, though, from the perspective of Mr. Utterson, a friend of Dr. Jekyll’s and so turns out to be a mystery story; Utterson cannot understand why Jekyll has been acting so strangely, and he doesn’t know why he has made Hyde his heir, Hyde, the one who was recently spotted trampling on a poor young girl who happened to run into him on the street.

Utterson becomes worried about Jekyll and decides to track Hyde down to learn what he can about him; ominously, he discovers that Hyde sends out a very bad vibe — whenever people encounter him, they can’t help but shudder a little bit, as though they were in the presence of evil. Eventually Utterson is called upon to help save Jekyll, who has secluded himself in his chambers; he fails at this, but he does receive several packets of papers that reveal the mystery — the horror of what Jekyll has gotten himself into.

The first part of the story sets up a mood excellently well; it’s dark and creepy and claustrophobic. The last part is fascinating for psychological reasons. Jekyll, when he finally reveals the truth of himself — in writing, interestingly, at a distance, as though the truth is too shocking to tell face to face — tells a story about loving pleasure but fearing where that love might take him:

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.

It’s not that his pleasures — whatever they were — were particularly craven; the problem was that they didn’t square with “the exacting nature of my aspirations.” He cannot accept his own complexity, his capacity to contain both seriousness and gaiety. This discomfort with his own self leads to some scientific experiments, during which he learns how to separate out his good and evil elements, and eventually Mr. Hyde is born. It’s not that Dr. Jekyll is pure good compared to Mr. Hyde’s pure evil, however; Jekyll remains a mixture, so his struggle becomes a struggle between a pure state, Mr. Hyde’s evil, and a mixed one, his own complexity. Self-loathing is at the heart of this quest:

I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved day-dream, on the thought of the separation of these elements [good and evil]. If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

This evil is not extraneous, though, but part of every person’s complex nature. Because he cannot accept this complexity, he is doomed to fight against himself until he can’t fight anymore. In the effort to wall himself off from his own dark side, he ends up more closely wedded to it:

… that insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye; lay caged in his flesh, where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born; and at every hour of weakness, and in the confidence of slumber, prevailed against him, and deposed him out of life.

The part of yourself that you loathe and deny, in other words, will come back to haunt you and will be your downfall. It’s clear this book comes out of a culture ripe for psychoanalysis; how could Freud not come along at this point?


Filed under Books, Fiction