Monthly Archives: April 2008

Sweet Danger

Margery Allingham’s Sweet Danger was the novel under discussion at my latest mystery book club meeting; once again it was a great discussion that went on for nearly four hours. We talked a lot about the details of the novel, of course, but also about the mystery genre itself, and we made comparisons between Sweet Danger and the club’s previous novel, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. On the surface these two novels couldn’t be more different — one is light and comic and the other is darkly violent without a ray of hope in it anywhere — but they do have some similarities, including main characters who are appealing largely because of the way we learn to trust them as the novel progresses, but who remain mysteries themselves, never described in detail and never given much of an inner life.

I’m glad we’re focusing on one genre, as it makes this kind of comparison possible, and it means that each time we meet we’re building common ground that will make future discussions that much richer. It feels a bit like a really good graduate class with a group of smart, enthusiastic people who have a lot to say. Except, of course, that we don’t have a professor, and we don’t have to write a course paper or give a presentation, and the topic is more fun than grad class topics usually are, and the reading load is lighter. And no one is showing off by dropping names of obscure theorists, or obnoxiously dominating the conversation in order to impress anybody, or using big words just to sound smart. Okay, it’s not like a grad class at all. Forget that.

Anyway, the group’s response to the book was mixed. Some people hated it and could barely finish it, others loved it, and others were somewhere in the middle. Those who didn’t like it complained about its lack of realism and its lack of depth — it didn’t seem to have any larger purpose and didn’t offer much entertainment to make up for that lack.

I was one of the ones who loved it, however. It took me a while to get in the spirit of the book — I wasn’t expecting its plot to be so complex and its tone to be so light and at times silly — but once I began to get a sense that this is what it would be like, I relaxed a bit and decided to enjoy the ride. Sometimes I resist when a book does something I don’t expect, but I like to try to take it on its own terms if I can and enjoy it for what it is, so with this book I began to appreciate the humor and the eccentricity of the characters and to appreciate the main character, Albert Campion, a man who is constantly described as “vague and foolish-looking” or as having an expression “vacant almost the point of imbecility” and yet who never fails to figure everything out. He doesn’t mind looking foolish either, at one point in the novel dressing up in women’s clothing for a purpose I can’t remember now but with hilarious results. The narrator describes him this way:

that was the beauty of Campion; one never knew where he was going to turn up next — at the third Levee or swinging from a chandelier …

I also loved the other main character Amanda (Emily has praised her highly too), an amazingly smart, talented, resourceful, and funny 17-year-old girl who single-handedly runs a mill to keep her family going. She’s easily a match for Campion, and it’s a delight to watch them work together to solve the mystery. I particularly liked her physical energy; as the narrator says, “Mr. Campion was fast learning that association with Amanda always entailed strenuous physical exertion.” She is beautiful, but poverty and general carelessness mean that “her costume consisted of a white print dress with little green flowers on it, a species of curtaining sold at many village shops” — and this is her nice outfit.

I haven’t told you much about the story, and I don’t think I will, as it’s a very complicated one, but, briefly, it’s about a tiny country in Europe (although it’s not set there); a lost inheritance; an uncertain family tree; a crazy country doctor; a fabulously wealthy and powerful corporate villain; a mysterious inscription on a tree; a drum, a bell, and a crown; and a whole crowd of trouble-makers. How all these fit together you’ll have to read the book to find out.

I don’t know yet what our next book will be, but I’m looking forward to it already.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Race Report

I finished a road race!  Yes, this is the first time I’ve actually finished a road race (as opposed to a criterium, of which I’ve finished plenty), and by “finished” I mean stayed with the pack the entire way.  I’ve ridden all the miles of a number of road races (largely because the courses are long enough the racers do only a lap or two, so I have no choice but to finish all the miles just to get back to my car), but I’ve always gotten dropped on the hills.  As you can probably guess, today’s course wasn’t terribly hilly.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  My race report should really begin last night with my book club meeting (about which more in a later post), which was absolutely wonderful, but which kept me up until 11:45 p.m. or so, which made this morning’s 4:30 alarm highly unwelcome.  As I’ve surely mentioned before, I don’t do well with little sleep. I tossed around the idea of staying in bed and skipping the race (thinking that it’s thrillingly self-indulgent to sign up for a race and then to spend all day purposely not riding in it), but I’ve already skipped one race this year because of lack of sleep and didn’t want to do it again.  So I spent the whole 2 hour drive up to Warren, Massachusetts, dozing and feeling miserable.  Watching it begin to sprinkle shortly after arrival made things that much worse.

But the rain stopped by the time the race went off and I was feeling more alert.  The race was to be two laps of 20 miles each; I’d never done the course before, but I’d heard it wasn’t hilly, so I was hoping not to be surprised.  I settled into the race pretty quickly, spending a lot of time in the middle or towards the front of a pack of 30 or so racers.  A couple times someone launched an attack, but no one ever managed to get far in front of the pack.  I spent the first 20 miles watching the course carefully and hoping not to be surprised by a steep hill or an attack I couldn’t follow.

I also spent the first 20 miles wondering why the pack seemed so relaxed.  The pace was almost leisurely at times and lots of people were talking and laughing instead of focusing on their riding.  It sometimes felt like a group ride rather than a race.  One person said she thought this was because many riders had raced in a local race yesterday and so were tired, an explanation which made sense.  So I decided I could relax a bit and enjoy the ride.  There were no bad hills — the one long one had some breaks in it that made it easier — and knowing that made the last 20 miles more fun.  I knew there was nothing scary out on the course, and I was pretty sure the pack wasn’t going to get away from me.

This left the final sprint, though, and I discovered that it’s an uphill finish — a very gradual uphill, but still, a hill.  As I started to climb, I saw my heart rate go up into the 180s, and I could feel my legs protesting. I stood up for the last little bit, my heart rate hitting 187, and finished behind a front line of racers but still somewhere in the middle of the pack.  I’m guessing I got something like 12th or 15th place; I will be able to find out for sure in a few days.

So, I’m happy with how it went.  I would have liked to finish stronger, but the fact that I finished at all is enough to make me happy.

BUT, the race report is not over.  I stayed at the finish line to watch Hobgoblin’s race and was horrified to see a bunch of crashes as the crowd of racers sprinted to the end.  I couldn’t see Hobgoblin anywhere.  I watched the people who crashed get up off the road and was relieved not to see him there, but I still had no idea where he was.

And this began a long search that seems farcical from the outside, but was frightening as I experienced it.  The problem is that there were two locations Hobgoblin could possibly be — at the High School where we parked or at the Elementary School where the afternoon races began.  We hadn’t made plans where to meet.  I first went to one school and didn’t see Hobgoblin, so I rode the five miles or so to the other school and still didn’t see Hobgoblin or the car, so I waited a while and then rode back to the first school, and still didn’t see him.  I talked to a bunch of people who promised to help me find him, and then I watched the afternoon races begin, because there wasn’t much else I could do.  Then a group of women very kindly told me Hobgoblin was waiting at the other school, and one of them offered to give me a ride.  He wasn’t there, though, and so we drove back, finally passing his car when we’d almost arrived.

It turns out Hobgoblin had done much the same thing I’d done — he’d looked for me at the finish line and didn’t see me, looked for me at one school and didn’t see me, then he got lost trying to find the other school, and then he drove back and forth a couple times more, never seeing me.

Everything was fine in the end, but all that wandering around and searching was no fun for either of us.  We clearly need to plan where we will meet next time; this time around it simply didn’t occur to us that a plan would be necessary.  Hobgoblin is fine, by the way — no crashes or trips to the hospital.

So, all’s well that ends well, I suppose.


Filed under Cycling

Book therapy

Another way I’ve found to deal with my reading funk, in addition to listening to P.D. James novels on audio, is visiting my local used bookstore. Inspired by Kate’s group reading of Anne of Green Gables, I went out to find a copy this afternoon (and, inspired by Emily’s Eco-justice Challenge, I walked!). I had a complete set of the Anne books when I was a kid, but I left them behind when I grew up and have been deprived ever since. Now, though, I’m the proud owner of Anne of Green Gables once again. I realized after I got home that I’ll probably have to go back to find the rest of the Anne books, because will I want to stop after just one book? Probably not.

While I was at the store I couldn’t resist picking up another couple books, including E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, which looks like tremendous fun, and Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. It’s a Virago Modern Classic, which interests me automatically, but the back cover description was especially intriguing:

Sophia is twenty-one years old, naive, unworldly, and irresistible — most particularly to Charles, a young painter whom she married in haste and with whom she plunges into a life of dire poverty. Desperate, Sophia takes up with the dismal, aging art critic Peregrine, and learns to repent both marriage and affair at leisure. How Sophia survives to find true love is delightfully told in this engaging and eccentric novel, which also gives a wonderful portrait of bohemian life in London in the 1940s.

It’s the bohemian life in the 1940s part in particular that got my attention. My used bookstore had a number of interesting-looking Viragos, but I decided I couldn’t carry them all home, so I may have to go back to get more later. And I just mooched Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz, so I’m thrilled to have yet another Virago on the way.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading


One book I have been able to enjoy lately, in spite of my reading slump, is P.D. James’s The Lighthouse, which I’m listening to on audio in my car on the way to and from work.  I’m not sure if it’s the book itself or the experience of listening rather than reading that makes the difference, but I have looked forward to listening to it every chance I get over the last week or so.  I finished it yesterday.

One of the things that drew me to the book, in addition to the interesting characters, the well-crafted plot, the atmosphere of literate intelligence, was its setting. It takes place on Combe Island, which has been used for the last half-century or so as a place of retreat for busy, stressed VIPs who need a place to relax for a week or two.  It’s a quiet place, with no cell phones, no noise, and no work (at least for the VIPs).  Visitors to the island spend their time reading, listening to music, walking along the shore, and joining each other occasionally for dinner, although they can remain completely isolated if they prefer.  Food appears regularly at their doorsteps and the guest cottages stay immaculately clean. The island’s most important rule is that nobody should bother the visitors.   As I listened, I couldn’t help but think about how much I need such a retreat right now.  Doesn’t it sound heavenly?  Yes, I’m not a VIP, and yes, it’s not entirely safe — murder may occur, but at this point I might consider risking it.

I enjoyed the novel so much that today I began listening to it again.  I’m so terrible at figuring out the plots of mystery novels and I’m bad at remembering all the details to put everything together properly at the end (especially when I’m listening as opposed to reading) that I thought I might enjoy listening to it again knowing who the murderer is, to see how James prepares the reader for the ending.  I haven’t the faintest clue how to go about plotting a mystery novel, and I have no intention of trying it myself, but I thought it would be interesting to learn a little about how James does it by paying closer attention than I could the first time around.

Really, since I have to commute, isn’t that a good way to spend the time?


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

Reading funk

I’m beginning to think I should stop reading for a while, because every book I pick up seems to be not quite right for my mood. I’m at a loss to find the book that will do.

After feeling dissatisfied with Rosamund Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove, I picked up Georgette Heyer’s novel Venetia, thinking I couldn’t go wrong with Heyer, and yet she didn’t quite do the trick either. The novel’s slow pace bothered me. This, surely, is a sign things are not right with me, as I usually like novels with slow paces. I also found the heroine a little irritating — she laughed the entire way through the book, even in very dramatic situations where any normal person would not crack a smile. And I couldn’t quite forgive the hero for forcing a kiss on Venetia at their very first meeting. I suppose this is meant to be sexy — the bad boy hero can’t resist and the innocent heroine can’t help but like it — but I found it obnoxious.

I disliked the gender dynamics in other ways too. When Venetia meets Damerel, the rakish hero, she spends some time thinking about his history with women and how she feels about it, and she decides that men are simply that way; they can’t help but chase women and have affairs, and there’s nothing to be done about it and it really doesn’t matter a whole lot. I think she’s supposed to come across as admirably practical and realistic for thinking this way. As far as I’m concerned, though, if this is the truth about men, I think I’d rather not know.

So, I’m reading Margery Allingham’s Sweet Danger now, and so far it’s going okay, but I’m afraid it’ll head downhill at any moment, or, rather, my feelings about it will head downhill, probably for reasons that have nothing to do with the book. I feel I should apologize to any author and any book I attempt reading right now, as I surely am not doing them justice.

I’m hoping I get over this soon ….


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

On the Western Circuit

I’ll be discussing the Thomas Hardy short story “On the Western Circuit” with my class this week; I’ve always liked Hardy, in all his darkness and gloom, but I fell in love with him when I came across this sentence while preparing for class — at this point the story’s heroine is riding on a carousel, having just met the handsome Charles Bradford Raye:

Each time that she approached the half of her orbit that lay nearest him they gazed at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads up to passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation, drudgery, content, resignation, despair.

When I read this long list of the results of one smiling gaze, I couldn’t help but laugh — it’s not really funny, of course, but it’s just so perfect and so much like Hardy to have one eye on the story and one eye on universal despair. I love how he mixes the positive in with the negative — it’s not just heartache and drudgery but also union and content we experience — because the presence of these positive experiences makes the overall despair seem even worse in contrast. And I love how he mixes the personal with the impersonal; it’s not just heartache and despair but also overpopulation we’re dealing with. Personal tragedies lead directly to social ones.

No, this is not a happy story. It’s about Anna, a country girl who has come to the small city of Melchester to live with Edith, a woman who has offered to train her as a servant. While riding the carousel, Anna meets Charles; they fall in love and he “[wins] her, body and soul.” Hardy describes this “winning” very briefly and without judgment. It’s something natural Anna has done, and although society might judge her for it, Hardy won’t. Work takes Charles away, and when he writes her a letter, Hardy reveals Anna’s dilemma: she is illiterate and cannot read the letter. She begs Edith to write a letter for her, which she does, and they fall into a regular correspondence, Charles and Anna/Edith. Anna begins by dictating the letters, but soon Edith edits and embellishes and even writes entire letters without Anna’s knowledge. Charles is astonished that an ill-educated country girl could write so well, and he begins to fall in love with the letter-writer. Then Anna finds herself “in a delicate situation,” as they say, and the plot thickens.

The moving thing about this story is that everyone does something wrong and yet no one is really at fault, and the story doesn’t judge them, but rather presents their actions and the consequences dispassionately, as though nothing could possibly have been any different. Charles should not have seduced an innocent girl, Anna should not have allowed herself to be seduced, Edith should not have deceived Charles by writing Anna’s letters, and yet each of the characters finds him or herself in much deeper trouble than any of these actions would suggest. Each one is portrayed sympathetically. They are trapped, caught by nature and by fate, and they suffer undeservedly. Such is the universe.

I’ve read five Hardy novels, some of them twice; I guess I’m drawn to this kind of clear-eyed pessimism, as well as to a well-told story. I read these novels quite a while ago, however; perhaps one day I’ll reread some of them or pick up ones I haven’t experienced yet. This short story has certainly whet my appetite.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Longing for Summer: A Thursday Thirteen

Summer is so close, and yet not nearly close enough — 3 weeks until the end of classes, and then another two weeks after that of final exams, grading, and a school retreat, at which I have to take on some responsibility instead of just whining and moaning my way through it like I did last year. (Ummm … this retreat is purely voluntary, so I really have nothing to complain about, except my inability to say no when people at work ask me to do things.)

So, inspired by Danielle’s regular (or semi-regular) Thursday Thirteens, I thought I’d spend some time thinking about what I might read this summer. I am by no means holding myself to this list; rather, it’s what I would want to read if my summer began today:

  1. Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, which I just this minute mooched from Book Mooch. I remember reading The Crimson Petal and the Black last summer and loving it, so a return to some Victorian-era fiction sounds perfect for this summer.
  2. Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds. The author graciously offered to send me a copy and I instantly accepted. I’ve heard such good things about this book, and I do love campus novels. Yes, this might be a strange thing to read over the summer, when I’m wanting to escape from school, but reading a novel about campus life is not at all like living it.
  3. Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I’ve been meaning to read this one forever, and after my great Wuthering Heights experience, I’m excited to read more of the Brontes. I also have Agnes Grey and Shirley on hand.
  4. Antonia White’s Frost in May. I can’t get enough of those Viragos, and this one I’ve heard mentioned quite a few times.
  5. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and/or The Blue Flower. I keep mixing up Penelope Fitzgerald and Penelope Lively. Perhaps once I’ve read them both I’ll stop doing that.
  6. Shalom Auslander’s The Foreskin’s Lament. Bitter, angry religious memoir? Sounds like my kind of book.
  7. Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter. This is about women’s lives around Jane Austen’s time. I’d love to know more. In fact, I might begin this one before summer.
  8. Gabriel Josipovici’s Moo Pak. Anything by Josipovici, fiction or nonfiction, would be just fine.
  9. Mary Brunton’s Discipline. This was published in 1814, so she’s a contemporary of Jane Austen. I’ve heard very good things about her, and I do love novels from this time period.
  10. Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, or perhaps A Lover’s Discourse or anything else of his that strikes my fancy. Barthes is a theorist I’d like to read more of.
  11. William St. Clair’s The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family. A number of books on my list either come from or are about the Romantic period — such a fascinating time, isn’t it? I also want to read St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period.
  12. Louise Gluck’s Proofs and Theories. A collection of essays by one of my favorite poets. Some more of her poetry would be wonderful to read as well.
  13. W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. Sebald is such a fascinating writer; I loved The Rings of Saturn and am looking forward to reading more.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Lists, Reading

The Echoing Grove

I wrote earlier about not exactly loving Rosamond Lehmann’s novel The Echoing Grove; I was interested in the book in a sort of detached, intellectual kind of way, but it never grabbed my attention and made me love it.  I did love her book A Note in Music, and I was hoping for more of the same but didn’t quite find it.  This has something to do with my mood; I’m not in a mood to think very hard about my fun reading (I picked up a Georgette Heyer novel, Venetia, after finishing Lehmann), and The Echoing Grove was more challenging than A Note in Music.  But I’m not sure it’s just a matter of mood.  I suspect that even if I’d wanted a challenge this book wouldn’t have satisfied me, and I would have still preferred the other.

In both cases, Lehmann works with a small group of characters, describing in great detail their mental and emotional states and their relationships with one another. She writes about friendships and love affairs, about desire and longing, and about shifting moods and emotions. So what makes The Echoing Grove more challenging than the other? She does interesting things with point of view, which can sometimes make the book a bit hard to follow; while the novel is written in third person, she will suddenly slip into first person and give us a character’s thoughts directly. There are passages that slip into stream of consciousness narration, with shifts in time and topic that are disorienting. There’s a particularly long example of this early in the novel, and I began to wonder just what I’d gotten myself into, but the novel returned to more straightforward narration eventually, and I decided to keep plugging along. There are also long sections of intense, emotionally-draining dialogue, of the sort that made me wonder whether people really talk that way (I felt similarly when reading Elizabeth Bowen). There is also a complicated time structure in the novel – the narration jumps around in time so much that I had a hard time figuring out what took place when.

So what is the story about? Simply put, Madeleine and Dinah are sisters; Madeleine is married to Rickie and Dinah has an affair with him. You can imagine, I’m sure, the family tension this creates. Madeleine is a fairly conventional woman, raising a family and participating in an acceptable social circle, while Dinah is more adventuresome and bohemian, getting caught up in love affairs with questionable men and disappearing for long stretches of time, doing nobody knows what. The novel begins with a meeting between the two long-estranged women, an awkward meeting where they seem to want to discuss their past but are hesitant. It then moves back in time to tell their history with occasional returns to the present moment to chart the sisters’ attempts to make amends. Although other characters make appearances, the interest of the novel is in the nature of these three main characters – Rickie’s haplessness when it comes to women, Dinah’s free-spiritedness countered by her suffering, and Madeleine’s calm patience and longsuffering.

My struggle with the novel was simply that I never came to care a whole lot about these people, and the formal elements, while interesting, weren’t enough to make up for my lack of emotional connection. I certainly don’t need to be emotionally connected to every book I read, but something has to catch my attention and either make me feel or make me think or, ideally, both. Now, if my description of the book intrigues you, don’t be scared away by my doubts – you may find a way into this book that I couldn’t. And I certainly am not turned off of Lehmann forever; I plan on reading more of her work, and I fully expect to like it.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Race report

My races the last two weeks have been unspectacular, but I did at least finish both of them, making it up to the finish line with the pack, albeit at the back (I just found out I got 14th out of 17 riders). Today’s race was the hardest of the three I finished; we were a little faster than the previous races, at 21.2 mph, and there were many attacks, lots of chases, and several near disasters as I fell a little bit behind and had to work as hard as I could to catch up, or, if I was lucky, had to stay on someone’s wheel and trust that she could pull me up to the pack. A racer whom I’ve talked to a few times at various races had fallen behind and gotten lapped but after getting lapped joined the pack again — she was riding along with me at the back on the last lap, and when we were in danger of falling behind she made a superhuman effort to bridge the gap up to the pack and I followed gratefully on her wheel. I thanked her for the pull and she laughed and said no problem. It’s fun to help each other out; I may not have been able to help this particular racer, but I know pulled along a rider or two, at least for a little while.

So now this race series is over, but I have another race at a different location (Massachusetts) in two weeks and a week and a half after that the Tuesday night series starts. There’ll be lots of racing coming up — lots of chances to suffer and sweat and try to get stronger.

And oh, my, is there suffering involved. It’s not just the cramp in my side as I ride or the fatigue in my muscles as I climb that goddamn hill for the 22nd time or the splitting headache I develop at the end of the race; this afternoon as I was sitting in my chair grading papers, I could feel a deep ache settle into my muscles that’s with me right now. I’m waiting for the Advil to kick in. Oh, yes, racing is fun.

And now I’m going to indulge myself with some fun reading. I’ve finished The Echoing Grove and am now ready to start something new. I’m not sure what it will be, but I’m looking forward to choosing.


Filed under Cycling

Wasting time

Alan Lightman’s closing essay “Prisoner of the Wired World,” from his book A Sense of the Mysterious, is interesting, although not entirely original in its argument. But it has made me think a lot over the week or so since I finished it, which surely is the mark of a good essay. Lightman opens the essay this way:

Not long ago, while sitting at my desk at home, I suddenly had the horrifying realization that I no longer waste time.

He goes on to describe how connected we all are, through our computers and our cell phones and other forms of technology, and how all this connectivity means that the pace of life is faster and we spend more and more of our time working, at the expense of enjoying the kind of down time that nourishes our souls. He lists what he sees as the unpleasant effects of the wired world (developing each item in a paragraph or so):

1. An obsession with speed and an accompanying impatience for all that does not move faster and faster… 2. A sense of overload with information and other stimulation… 3. A mounting obsession with consumption and material wealth… 4. Accommodation to the virtual world… 5. Loss of silence… 6. Loss of privacy…

The essay is a call to resist this speed and unthinking acceptance of technology; Lightman argues passionately for taking time to be still, doing nothing, and letting our spirits flourish.

I’m drawn by this argument, although suspicious of it at the same time. I find that people who criticize modern technology, especially the internet, rarely take the time to acknowledge sufficiently all the good it can do people. The internet can be a distraction and it can be a way to keep us chained to our jobs (answering student emails, for example) so that we rarely enjoy true leisure, but can’t it also be a place where that leisure can happen, where we can explore our minds and spirits, express our thoughts, and find people who think the same way we do? I find the internet to be an exciting, freeing place, a place where I can take risks with writing and read people doing the same thing. At the same time as I’m writing my blog posts, though, I’m sometimes checking my work email. I suspect tons of people have this complicated relationship to technology, and I wish I found it reflected in the writing on technology I encounter.

That said, I believe strongly in doing nothing and think I should do more of it. I suspect, also, that I should spend less time on the internet, hard as that may be. There’s a restful quality to time spent goofing off outdoors, for example, that I don’t experience goofing off online. But however I decide to do nothing, I hope to be able to keep doing it.

So I’ve been thinking about Lightman’s essay and have been more conscious of moments I allow my mind to drift. One of my favorite moments is in the morning when I have a chance to linger in bed after I’ve woken up. I think about my day, but I also think about … nothing. My mind works this way when I’m walking or riding my bike too. These things don’t feel like work to me; they feel like an escape from work.  A friend asked me today what I think about when I’m riding, and I had a hard time answering her. Sometimes I think about things I’m working on or plans for when I get home, but other times — a lot of the time — I can’t even say what’s on my mind. I like this. I like riding for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is that it gives my mind a break.

So even if I don’t fully agree with him, I’m grateful to Lightman for making me think of all this — for reminding me of the value of doing nothing and wasting time.


Filed under Books, Lists, Poetry

Wednesday whining and some poetry

This semester is dragging along, as slowly as it possibly can. I really don’t like wishing for time to pass by, as I feel like I’m wishing my life away, and that can’t be a good thing, but still … I’m longing for summer when I’ll have more time to read and sleep and ride my bike and go to yoga class and walk and read blog posts without feeling rushed. My semester, unfortunately, goes all the way through the middle of May and then some, so I have over a month left. Not that I’m counting or anything (okay, I have 4 1/2 weeks, dozens of classes to teach, hundreds of meetings to attend, and thousands of papers to grade, or something like that).

Unfortunately, I’m in a bit of a reading rut too, as I’m not enjoying Rosamund Lehmann’s novel The Echoing Grove as much as I thought I would. I loved Lehmann’s A Note in Music and thought I’d like anything she wrote. But The Echoing Grove hasn’t captured my attention and imagination as much as I’d hoped. It’s slow-moving and narrow in focus, but neither of those things is a problem for me, as I generally like that sort of book. It’s about relationships and love and family, and I generally like books about those topics. But in this case the characters haven’t grabbed me. I’m having trouble figuring out what to make of them, and I’m not finding myself very interested in their fates. Surely this is a bad thing. It was quite the opposite when I read A Note in Music, as I found myself responding emotionally to the characters and the situation. I’m not going to give up on Lehmann, though; I’m convinced I’ll like her other work. It’s just this one that’s not working for me.

I did begin a book of poems, which I’ve had a hankering to do for a while; I picked up Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems. I’m not expecting to read through the whole collection, as it’s quite long, but I thought I might try to read the first section, his 1931 collection Harmonium, and then decide where to go from there. So far I’m enjoying the poems, although they are not yet knocking me off my feet. When I find one that does, I’ll post it here.

As for poems that do knock me off my feet, though, there is the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet we covered in my class today. I’m not a religious person these days, but Hopkins almost makes me wish I were. How can you read a poem like this one and not be tempted to believe in God?

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

Praise him.

I love the way Hopkins uses sound in the poem, for example, the alliteration that appears in nearly every line: Glory/God, couple/colour/cow, fresh/firecoal/falls/finches, plotted/pieced/plough, trades/tackle/trim, fickle/freckled, swift/slow/sweet/sour. This is a poem that simply must be read out loud to be fully experienced (true for most poetry I suppose). Hopkins likes to use alliteration and other sound effects because they reflect the design he sees in the world around him — the design created by a God taking great care of the world he’s made. Hopkins also likes to write lines that are difficult to read out loud, lines with odd rhythms and strings of words that you have to work hard to spit out: “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings” or “with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.” As you are reading it, you are forced to slow down, which makes you linger over the words and perhaps take more time to consider their meaning. Reading a Hopkins poem out loud makes the words feel like physical things themselves; you can almost feel them in your mouth as you read.

And if I were to believe in God, I’d want to believe in one like Hopkins describes — one who has created and sees the beauty in “all things counter, original, spare, strange; / whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?).”


Filed under Books, Fiction, Life, Poetry

Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil

I have recently finished listening to W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil on audio, and I had a fabulous time with it. Now, I do tend to enjoy books in a simpler, more visceral kind of way when I listen to them, so I can’t say what my reaction would have been if I’d read the book, but I’m pretty sure I would have liked it that way too.

Its charm comes from the simplicity of the tale — generally speaking it charts the course of a marriage — combined with the complexity of the characterization. It tells the story of Kitty, a foolish, vain, and inexperienced woman who panics when her younger sister marries well, and in response immediately becomes engaged to Walter, a man below her social ambitions but one who has asked her to marry him when other once-plentiful suitors have stopped appearing. After the marriage, they head off to Hong Kong where Walter works as a bacteriologist; here Kitty meets Charles Townsend, an attractive, flirtatious man who quickly seduces her. This is the point where the novel begins, with Kitty deeply in love with Charles and afraid that her husband has learned about the affair.

Once the truth has come out, Walter forces her to accompany him to a province in mainland China where a cholera epidemic is raging. His ostensible reason for traveling here is to put his medical training to use to help stop the epidemic, but Kitty fears – with justification – that the real reason is to ensure that she catches cholera, as a punishment for her unfaithfulness. Kitty is terrified of the new place, seeing things she earlier had no inkling of – poverty, death, bodily decay, political unrest. The sisters of a nearby convent invite her to visit them, and she soon begins to help them with their charity work, raising young girls cast off by a society that sees them as a burden.

So, as you can guess by now, the story is about Kitty’s growth from a selfish and inexperienced person to one who begins to look outside her own small concerns to see the larger world around her. She learns something of the true worth of her lover Charles and also of her husband, who, though he is ready to commit an indirect sort of murder, is not portrayed in the novel as a monster, but as a man who is passionate and foolish in love. The pleasure of the novel, for me, lies in following the twists and turns of Kitty’s growth, as she comes to realize exactly what she has done to her husband, her lover, and herself. Maugham sticks to Kitty’s point of view, so we see the world through her eyes and watch it open up for her.

Another pleasure to be found comes from the relationship of the novel to the novel’s prologue; in the prologue the narrator (or Maugham himself) tells the story of traveling in Italy and learning Italian from a young woman who uses Dante in their lessons. From Dante he learns of the story of a man who suspected his wife of having an affair and took her off to a place where she was bound to catch an illness and die. When she fails to die soon enough, he arranges to have her pushed out of a window. The narrator broods over this story for weeks until he decides to use it in a novel of his own. I won’t tell you the extent to which the plot of The Painted Veil follows the story from Dante, but the effect of the prologue is that you know, or suspect you know, the plot events that are coming, and you can observe how Maugham leads you toward the conclusion, hoping all the while that what you suspect is coming won’t come after all. There is something enjoyable about watching an author lead you towards a known – or suspected – conclusion.

As much as I enjoyed these aspects of the novel, though, I was bothered by the portrayal of China and the Chinese. The English colony in Hong Kong is guilty of a kind of racism that is disturbing – they simply don’t see China or the Chinese, as though they don’t exist except as a source of servants – but the novel makes clear the hideousness of this attitude and one of the things Kitty must learn is to see the humanity of the Chinese people. More bothersome for me was the way China became merely the backdrop for a tale of western spiritual growth. China in the novel is a place westerners travel to in order to learn something about their own spiritual emptiness, at which point, the lesson learned, they move on. It becomes a source of enlightenment, a place where, with the aid of its beautiful landscapes and mysterious ancient religious traditions, people are able to question who they are and what they are seeking in life. It’s important for what it can teach westerners, not for what it is in itself.

So ultimately I had mixed feelings about the novel. This, too, offers its own pleasures. In my experience so far, Maugham has not let me down (Of Human Bondage is a great novel), and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the future.


Filed under Books, Fiction

The language of dance

Last night Hobgoblin and I went to see a dance performance in New York City. This was a new experience for me as I’d never been to a professional dance performance before.  We went with a colleague of mine and her husband; she is the one whose class on creativity and the arts I am sitting in on this semester in order to teach it myself in the future. Part of the training process I’m undergoing is for my mentor and I to attend some arts event of our choosing, which the school will pay for. So I decided I wanted to see an art form I’m not terribly familiar with, hence our trip. 

We saw a performance by the Stephen Petronio Company; there were two dances in the first half of the show, the first one loosely telling a story about a woman at a beach who meets a sexy but amusingly ignorant man. The second one was more abstract; it had music by Rufus Wainwright that used poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in the lyrics. What stood out to me most was the point when the lyrics began repeating Dickinson’s line “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”; the entire dance was performed in simple costumes with nothing on the stage and lighting that would change with different sections of the music, and at the point where Dickinson’s line began, the light warmed to a bright orange color and the dancing was exuberant and acrobatic – hopeful – with lots of leaps and pirouettes. After an intermission a longer piece was performed with five sections, each one with different music and a different concept. I didn’t quite figure out how all the pieces fit together, but each one had, if not its own story, then an idea or a feeling that the dance communicated.

I have trouble when it comes to describing the dances themselves, though; I have a much easier time writing about costumes, lighting, and music. These things seem more concrete to me. In my colleague’s class we are talking about terms with which to analyze dance, terms such as line, stage use, symmetry and asymmetry, geometrical patterns, and form. I was able to pick out some of these elements in the dances; I noticed now and then the use of the canon form, or I’d see how the bodies were symmetrical or the use of line was particularly effective or the choreographer was using space of the stage in an interesting way. 

But when it comes to dance moves themselves I don’t really know what to say; I recognized some moves that come from ballet, but there was much more going on and I have no vocabulary with which to describe it. I watched some of the more intricate scenes, and I couldn’t imagine how the choreographer could possibly think all this up. I know there must be a dance language, a vocabulary of moves and a tradition of how to put these moves together – a syntax I suppose – but I know nothing of the language and so feel speechless.

We talked about this after the performance and I found others felt similarly uncertain, and it reminded me of how some people feel about poetry and the challenge of analyzing a poem. Readers don’t need a critical vocabulary to respond to poetry, but without it they can feel at sea and so shy away from attempting a response at all.

What was interesting for me, though, was the degree to which I was comfortable with knowing I was not fully getting it, knowing that while I was appreciating the beauty of the dance there was so much communicated through it that I couldn’t understand. I think I am much more comfortable dealing with not getting it in dance than I am in poetry, an area I have much more experience with; when I come across a poem whose meaning I feel I can’t penetrate I can get frustrated because I feel I should get it, whereas with some of the more obscure dance sequences I didn’t mind feeling lost. There was something freeing about not having the expertise to fully understand what was going on. I could relax and just let it happen. That’s not to say I would ever want to give up what expertise I have in order to approach a poem with that freedom, but I did appreciate how experiencing something new forced me to find the pleasure in being a beginner.


Filed under Life, Poetry

A Sense of the Mysterious

I’ve been enjoying reading Alan Lightman’s book A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit; I am nearly finished, with only a few essays left. The essays I liked best were the first few; these first looked at Lightman’s life and his experiences in science and novel-writing and then turned to his ideas about creativity, science, and language. There follows a series of essays on famous scientists including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and others. These essays are interesting, each one telling a little about the scientist’s life and contributions plus something about their quirks as people and as researchers, but I prefer the more theoretical essays that look at science more broadly. I think the remaining essays may turn again in this direction.

One of the things I love about the book is how sensitive Lightman is to what happens to a scientist when he or she is working, what goes on in their minds and how their bodies are involved in the process. He describes his own experiences of inspiration, the moment when he finally breaks through to the core of a problem and finds he can solve it, and the description is intensely physical:

Then one morning, I remember that it was a Sunday morning, I woke up about five a.m. and couldn’t sleep. I felt terribly excited. Something strange was happening in my mind. I was thinking about my research problem, and I was seeing deeply into it. I was seeing it in ways I never had before. The physical sensation was that my head was lifting off my shoulders. I felt weightless. And I had absolutely no sense of myself. It was an experience completely without ego, without any thought about consequences or approval or fame….

The best analogy I’ve been able to find for that intense feeling of the creative moment is sailing a round-bottomed boat in strong wind. Normally, the hull stays down in the water, with the frictional drag greatly limiting the speed of the boat. But in high wind, every once in a while the hull lifts out of the water, and the draft goes instantly to near zero. It feels like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone. It’s called planing.

This feeling is not unique to science, of course; it’s a feeling one can have in any creative moment, but it’s interesting to me that while science can seem so cerebral, Lightman draws attention to the way it affects the scientist’s body as well as his mind.

Not only does scientific discovery manifest itself physically in the scientist’s body, but Lightman says the scientific manifestations can be different than those of art:

Over the years, I have learned to recognize the different sensations of science and of art in my body. (Sometimes the sensations, such as the creative moment, are the same.) I know the feeling in my body of deriving an equation. I know the different feeling in my body of listening to one of my characters speak before I have told her what to say. I know the line. I know the swoop of a idea. I know the wavering note. Most of the time, these feelings all swirl together as a rumbling in my stomach, a wondrous and beautiful and finally mysterious cry of the world ….

Am I mistaken, or is this kind of writing, physical and mystical at the same time, not at all typical of science writing?

Not only does Lightman write about how the body is involved in scientific discovery, but he writes about emotion, too, and aesthetics. He quotes the mathematician Henri Pointcaré on the subject:

The privileged unconscious phenomena, those susceptible of becoming conscious, are those which directly or indirectly affect most profoundly our emotional sensibility. It may be surprising to see emotional sensibility invoked à propos of mathematical demonstrations which, it would seem, can interest only the intellect. This would be to forget the feeling of mathematical beauty, of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. This is a true aesthetic experience that all real mathematicians know, and it surely belongs to emotional sensibility.

“Mathematical beauty,” “geometric elegance” — doesn’t this make you want to become a mathematician? It has that effect on me, at any rate. He goes on to talk about how Einstein and others were surely motivated by aesthetics when they looked for new theories, and he gives examples of scientists who judge theories based on their beauty or ugliness or elegance:

The Nobel chemist Roald Hoffmann tells his students that it is the awareness and appreciation of the “aesthetic aspects of science,” rather than mere quantitative analysis, that leads to discovery.

This makes me realize that science and art are not so far apart after all, which, I’m sure, is part of Lightman’s point.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Kate’s poetry challenge

Kate has an intriguing challenge for April: post something critical about poetry once during the course of the month. She notes that while she often sees poems on book blogs, she doesn’t as often see writing about poetry, and so wants to challenge herself and others to do some critical — meaning analytical — writing about the genre.

I’m up for that, I think. Over the last couple years I’ve taken to reading poetry more often than I did before and I’ve loved it; I’ve discovered some new (meaning new to me) authors such as Jane Kenyon and Mary Oliver, and I’ve reread some old favorites, like Keats. Over the last couple months I’ve been reading one particular poem, Paradise Lost, but I decided early on that I wasn’t going to post about it, so I haven’t mentioned it. All I’ll say about that experience is that I loved the poem and am in awe of it. Kate writes about feeling uncertainty when it comes to voicing an opinion about poetry, and this is exactly what I felt when faced with Milton’s poem. I didn’t want to challenge myself to write about the poem; instead I preferred simply to enjoy it. (And I decided to leave the insightful writing to Imani, who has a great series of posts about Paradise Lost).

But now perhaps it’s time to start writing about poetry again. I’m also in the mood to read more more contemporary poetry — meaning 20th or 21st century poetry, as opposed to works from earlier centuries. I’ve been considering looking into my copy of Wallace Stevens’s Collected Works, or I might take a look at what my local bookstore has and see if something strikes me. I can also write about some of the poems I will be teaching in my classes; I’m about to enter the poetry section of my Introduction to Literature class, and we read poetry regularly in my British Literature class. There will be lots of poems to choose from.

If this interests you, do check Kate’s site out, as she will be offering prizes for participants. I’m hoping to learn about some new poets from everyone who takes part.


Filed under Books, Poetry