Monthly Archives: May 2008

The criticism of loving adoration

I have now finished George Saunders’s collection of essays The Braindead Megaphone, and I’m sad there are no essays left to read.  I wrote about the first half of the book here, where I concluded I liked the collection very much, and now having finished the book I can say I loved the collection absolutely.  Not every essay is on the same level of wonderfulness, but even the not-so-wonderful ones are great, and the truly wonderful ones are breathtaking.

The book’s second half offers an essay on conflicts at the U.S./Mexico border where Saunders spends some time with members of the Minutemen, an anti-immigration group, and one on “Buddha boy,” Ram Bahadur Bomjon, who supposedly meditated for many months without food or water.  In both of these essays, Saunders creates a persona who is out to see what he can see, keeping an open mind about everything and preparing to be surprised.  He doesn’t withhold judgment entirely — it’s clear, for example, that he doesn’t agree with the politics of the Minutemen — but he does look for the stories and the details that might surprise readers and himself.  Saunders’s specialty, it seems to me, is seeing, and then getting readers to see, the complexity of the situations he describes and the people he meets.  The entire book is an argument for reserving judgment, for taking one’s time to think about things, for really looking to see what’s out there before drawing any conclusions.  It’s a particularly humane argument and one I think our culture needs.

All that was great, but what I really, really loved were his essays on literature, the ones that made me realize there’s a genre of criticism, or perhaps I should just call it writing about literature, that I love, which is the sort of writing about literature that enthuses so eloquently, with so much passion and very little attempt at critical distance, that the reader finds it irresistible, even if the reader doesn’t know or like the literature being written about.  TJ and I have been talking about this mode of writing because of his Loving Iris blog, which promises to be a fine example of the kind of writing I’m talking about.  The title of his Iris Murdoch blog reminded me of the book Loving Dr. Johnson, which I haven’t yet read but hope to soon, and which is about the love many people have for Johnson, including the author.  All this reminded me of Nicholson Baker’s book U & I, which is a completely over-the-top celebration of Baker’s love for Updike, and then I read Saunders’s essays on Huck Finn and the Donald Barthelme short story “The School,” two brilliant examples of what I’m describing here.

TJ and I agreed that we love this form of criticism, but we can’t decide what to call it.  TJ suggested “adoration crit” but wasn’t really pleased with it, and all I can think of is my post title, “the criticism of loving adoration,” which has a nice rhythm to it, I think, but is obviously too unwieldy.

Can you think of a better term for what I mean, if what I’m meaning is making sense?  More importantly, can you think of other examples of this type of writing?

Saunders’s essay on Huck Finn was written as an introduction to the Modern Library paperback edition to the novel, but it’s not a typical introduction, which comes as no surprise if you know Saunders at all.  It opens with this sentence:

Let me begin by confessing that I have had more trouble with this piece than I’ve ever had writing anything in my life, mainly because I love this book and was deathly afraid I would fail to do it justice, which caused me to rush off to the library and do hours and hours of research, which only terrified me further and reduced me to writing quaking tautological sentences like “Much has been written about the fact that much has been written about the fact that, whereas the shores of the Mississippi, mythologically speaking, represent America’s violence, the center of the river, which traditionally has been represented as Utopian, is also occasionally seen to contain bloated floating corpses.”

Fortunately, Saunders gets past this difficulty and comes up with his “Tentative Narrative Theory regarding Huck Finn” (he capitalizes Important Ideas in all his essays, a tic which would usually annoy me but which somehow seems to work with Saunders), which he explains by way of a brilliant analogy involving airport people movers and piles of dirt.  Saunders can work magic with an analogy.  I’ll let you read the essay to find out what the Tentative Narrative Theory is, but I will say that the essay deals with the complicated issues of race and class in the novel in a way that’s both accessible and profound.  It manages to say good things about the book and about American culture both, all the while using Saunders’s personal, colloquial, loving voice.  He loves the novel, it’s clear, but he also sees its flaws — in fact, he seems to love it for those very flaws.

And then there’s the essay “The Perfect Gerbil” on Barthelme’s short story.  This is a 10-page masterpiece of loving adoration, an essay that says wonderful things about Barthelme’s “The School” but also about the short story genre itself. Here’s an example of one of his brilliant analogies, which he uses to analyze what Barthelme does:

When I was a kid I had one of these Hot Wheels devices designed to look like a little gas station.  Inside the gas station were two spinning rubber wheels.  One’s little car would weakly approach the gas station, then be sent forth by the spinning rubber wheels to take another lap around the track or, more often, fly out and hit one’s sister in the face.

A story can be thought of as a series of these little gas stations.  The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story.  Any other pleasures a story may offer (theme, character, moral uplift) are dependent upon this.

So: if the writer can put together enough gas stations, of sufficient power, distributed at just the right places around the track, he wins: the reader works his way through the full execution of the pattern, and is ready to receive the ending of the story.

These “gas stations” can be plot events, but they can also be interesting uses of language — they are any sort of surprise that brings the reader pleasure.  Saunders’s essay charts how Barthelme uses these little surprises to delight the reader and then how he creates the perfect ending, though the entrance of the “perfect gerbil” of Saunders’s title.

Saunders essay becomes like a short story itself, the story of reading and delighting in Barthelme’s story. It’s complete with tension — how will Barthelme pull this off?  Will Saunders like the ending? — and surprises — where did that character Helen come from?  Wow, there’s a love story appearing now! — and a narrator whose charming personality comes through in the tone and syntax of every page.

I’m not sure why, but writing like this pleases me in a way that no other kind of writing does.  I suppose it’s a reminder of how much fun reading can be — a reminder experienced directly in my own reaction to the piece and indirectly through the writer’s own pleasure.  Anyone want to help me with a name or more examples?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

A day in Salem: Hawthorne, witches, and terrifying bookshops

People, I am tired. Many thanks to those of you who wrote nice comments about my crash on Tuesday — I’m doing fine, although the bruises are getting uglier. I felt so fine, in fact, that I went on an 81-mile ride today, at a much faster speed than usual for a long, hilly ride (16.7 mph). It was a group ride, with four other people, including Hobgoblin. I started off feeling sluggish and nervous about riding with others — when anyone would yell or wobble in the slightest I would panic — but pretty soon my energy returned and I forgot about the crash on Tuesday and began to ride normally. The only thing that brought the crash back to mind was that whenever I went over a pothole or a crack in the road (which was often, as those of you who know Connecticut will readily believe), the bruises on my arm hurt.

It was a beautiful day, in the 60s and 70s, dry, and sunny, and we rode through beautiful Litchfield county. The riding doesn’t get any better in Connecticut, that’s for sure.

I also wanted to tell you about my day yesterday, which was Hobgoblin’s birthday and was spent taking a day trip to Salem, Massachusetts. The first thing we saw was the house where Hawthorne was born, and the House of Seven Gables, made famous by Hawthorne’s novel. The two houses are now right next to each other, although this is because Hawthorne’s birth home was moved in the 1950s. Both of the houses are great fun to walk through — I love looking at old houses, even if they aren’t historically famous — they have the low ceilings and small rooms you would expect from houses several centuries old. The House of Seven Gables has a secret staircase that takes you from the dining room up to the attic, and it has an interesting history, with additions added and then removed, gables removed and then restored, fortunes of the owners gained and lost, and, of course, Hawthorne’s own visits to the place. I have yet to read the novel, but now feel inspired to try to get to it soon.

Next we checked out the Peabody Essex Museum and managed to see only a small part of it, as it’s surprisingly large and we have limited endurance when it comes to museums. We spent a lot of the time looking at their very cool collection of model ships (which made me feel like reading Patrick O’Brian), and then we headed off to their special exhibits, including one on weddings around the globe and another on Mauri tattoos.

After that we had time and energy for one more museum, this one not as erudite as the other two — the pirate’s museum, which was silly but fun; it wasn’t much of a museum, actually, but more of a tour through some rooms with models of pirates and a guide who told us stories of piratical violence and betrayal.

Salem has a ton of museums, most of them probably like the pirate’s museum, which, although fun, wasn’t a lot more than an excuse to have a gift shop. It’s got several museums about witches, and in fact, much of the town is witch-obsessed. There are many witch-themed shops, and the entire month of October is basically a festival celebrating witches and all things Halloween-related. The irony of this is, of course, obvious. I couldn’t help but wonder what those women accused of being witches would have thought of the modern-day town, and also what Hawthorne would have thought of the place — would he like or hate it?

To recover from our museum-attending, we checked out two of the local bookshops, the first one a good independent store, and the second a used bookstore. The used bookstore is memorable, not for its stock, which was pretty mainstream with its multiple copies of extremely famous contemporary authors, but for the terror it inspired in me. For perhaps the first time in my life I breathed a sigh of relief when we left the shop. Believe me when I tell you that the books there are dangerous. Life-threatening, in fact.

The problem isn’t with the books themselves, but with the way the owners decided to cram them into the shop — most of them are stacked on top of each other rather than shelved side by side, and the stacks tower over you, threatened to topple on your head. I made the mistake of pulling a book out of one such stack and then I panicked because it started swaying towards me. I got my hand up in time to keep it from falling on me, but the stack wouldn’t stay put, and I couldn’t figure out how stabilize it with my one free hand. Thankfully the store owner came to my rescue and fixed the pile himself. I then decided I would look only at books toward the top of the stacks, but I embarrassed myself once again: the aisles are so narrow that as I walked down one of them, my handbag brushed against one of the piles, knocking it over. Once again the owner came to my rescue, restacking the books for me. The owner’s facial expression made it pretty clear that he spends a good bit of every day rescuing klutzy customers from themselves.

I couldn’t believe the place. The book stacks bulged and teetered, making me dizzy. One section was even wrapped in a thick cord to keep the books from sliding off their stacks and onto the floor. There is no cash register in sight; instead, near the door there is a gap in the book piles, about the length of a mass market paperback, through which customers carefully hand their purchases to the cashier, who carefully hands them back once the books are paid for. I went through this process with a P.D. James novel that sounded good and walked out the door relieved that I hadn’t done even more damage.

After that we got dinner, stuffed ourselves with chocolate cake, and headed home. We had such a good time, we’re hoping to head back before too long and see the things we didn’t have time for that day. I highly recommend a visit if you get the chance, but do be careful — danger lurks in some unexpected places.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

Race report — with crashes!

Today was my first crash in a bike race! I’ve crashed before, but always on my own, because of black ice or failure to pay attention to the road. This evening I got the thing over that I was dreading — my first real bicycle race crash. And I’m fine — I’ve got a nasty-looking bump on my knee, some bruises on my hip, a few red marks on my elbow and calves, a sore ankle, and that’s the worst of it. Except for my bike, which has a broken front wheel. It now has a curve in it it didn’t have before. Fortunately Hobgoblin has some extra front wheels, so I’ll be able to ride again before I get a new wheel of my own.

I’ve done two races in the last three days, and neither race went particularly well. Sunday Hobgoblin and I drove up to Hartford to ride in the criterium there; it was a beautiful day, in the 70s and sunny, and I’d just come off a week of easy riding and should have been well rested, but I just couldn’t quite get into the spirit of racing. I’m not entirely sure what the problem was, but I think part of it is that I ate too much before the race — always a potential problem for me because I’m more afraid of eating too little than too much — and my stomach felt heavy the whole race. I also don’t think I warmed up enough, but it could also be that I simply wasn’t into racing that day and so didn’t have the energy to put into a proper warm-up.

At any rate, the race started off fast but manageable, and I hung on and felt okay for a while. My heart rate was high, but I remember that happening on this course last year; it’s a fast course, mostly flat, which means the pack keeps a fast pace the entire time, with no chance for a break. I was okay until the 14th lap (out of 20 laps total), when I fell back a bit — I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I might have grabbed the wrong wheel and started following someone who couldn’t hold on. So there was a gap between me and the field, and I started chasing. I chased the field for a lap but couldn’t quite catch on again, and finally I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I rode the last 5 laps on my own — pretty unusual for me, because I hate riding all on my own in a race.

That was a disappointment because I finished the race last year and thought I could finish it again. But it just wasn’t my day, for whatever reason.

The race tonight, though, was another story. I got in a good 40-minute warm-up and worked hard enough to feel my energy levels pick up — something that never happened on Sunday. When the race began I could feel that I was going to do pretty well; I had no trouble climbing the hill, my heart rate stayed at a good level (in the upper 160s and 170s on the hill), and I had a lot of energy.

There was one ominous moment, however, when a particularly unstable rider (I’d noticed him as potential trouble in earlier races) crashed seemingly out of nowhere, all on his own. He may have been bumped and I missed it, but it looked like he just fell over, for no reason. No one else went down, but the warning was there. Everything was fine after that until the very last lap. I was feeling great, getting ready to make a big effort to stay with the pack as they sped up the hill, when I saw some wobbling in front of me, heard some yelling, and then the next thing I knew I was heading straight toward two bicycles lying on their sides on the road. I skidded forward a little ways, but landing on the bicycles meant I didn’t end up with as much road rash as I would have gotten otherwise. I discovered I was lying on someone’s leg, so I jumped up immediately. I’m not sure how many others went down, but it was 6 or 7, and it quickly became clear that the unstable rider, the one who crashed all on his own earlier, was the cause. I stood for a moment watching him lying there on the road, feeling anger — he should have learned his lesson after the first crash and his stupidity caused a lot of pain and will cost everyone involved lots of money in bike repairs — but also pity — I would never want to be a cause of a crash and I feel badly for anyone who has to deal with the guilt.

People slowly got up and assessed the damage; someone helped me figure out what was wrong with my bike and someone else drove up in a van to transport injured people and bikes back to the start line. People were complaining about the sloppy rider and he, the poor kid, was apologizing profusely, offering to buy me a new wheel and offering to replace everyone else’s broken parts. He kept apologizing, even well after we’d recovered from the crash. Mostly people ignored him, probably because, like me, they didn’t know what to say. Crashing is a part of racing, and everyone out there takes the risk that they might injure themselves or their bike, so I would never take anyone up on the offer to pay for bike repairs, but I do hope that rider learns how to ride a bit better.

So — now that I’ve crashed I can stop worrying about when the first time will be. I imagine I’ll be a little sore tomorrow, but I’m planning on doing a long ride on Thursday, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be just fine by then.


Filed under Cycling

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is a delightful novel, although calling it a “novel” doesn’t seem quite right, as it’s really more a series of sketches which only eventually settle into a conventional plot. It tells the story of a place, the small, isolated town of Cranford, more than it tells the stories of people’s lives, although it does plenty of that too. Cranford is old-fashioned, peaceful, beyond the reach of fads and fashions, and seemingly unchanging, although, of course, new people do arrive now and then, and people grow up, get married (or more often don’t), and grow old, as people must. Hardly anyone does any traveling, and London is portrayed as a far-away exotic place, different in all respects from Cranford, and by no means an object of anyone’s desire. People in Cranford like their lives and don’t see any need to try to make them any better.

As the very first sentence points out, the town is dominated by women:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.

To call these women “amazons” hardly seems right, as they are by no means warrior-like or fierce. But they do keep their town going, establishing their own customs and habits — their clothes are forever out of date and their social rules different from other places — and they take care of each other, at least when they aren’t involved in petty feuds about such things as whether Samuel Johnson is a more worthy author than Charles Dickens.

The book is not all about the town on a general level, though; it starts that way, and then moves into the lives of particular characters. There is the narrator, first of all, who doesn’t live permanently in Cranford, but visits friends there frequently. We never discover much about her life, except that she has never traveled beyond the bounds of Cranford and her hometown. She makes a good narrator for the novel, as the inhabitants of Cranford ask her to visit whenever anything exciting happens, after which she heads home again, a circumstance which allows Gaskell to skip around in time at will, just giving us the good bits without having to fill in the rest or make awkward transitions from one time period to another. The novel is told in the first person, and the narrator’s voice is quiet and contemplative, as it should be to portray a place such as Cranford properly, but it is also sensitive to the humorous aspects of Cranford, and now and then gently ironic, showing the reader how odd and charming the place can be, but never criticizing or complaining about it. There were moments when I laughed out loud at some of the narrator’s observations.

There is also Miss Matty, who becomes more and more important as the book goes on; she is a sweet, timid woman, getting on in years but still dominated by the memory of her now-deceased sister whose strong opinions ruled her life for many years. Miss Matty comes to seem like Cranford itself — she has her quirks and oddities and is extremely old-fashioned and set in her ways, but she proves to have sources of strength in the face of trials she must face, trials that form what there is of the book’s plot.

In some ways one might call this a conservative novel; it celebrates tradition, stability, and permanence, and it explicitly contrasts the quiet, virtuous lives led in Cranford with the uncertain, dangerous, ever-changing world around it. It values self-sufficient community, where people live peacefully with what money they have rather than seeking riches and self-aggrandizement. The characters are also extremely class-conscious, carefully maintaining boundaries between middle-class merchants and the genteel leisured class.

On the other hand, there is something subversive about this town made up mostly of women. Yes, at the novel’s end money comes in the form of a long-lost male relative returning from the east, but throughout the novel, the women take care of themselves and each other, deciding on their own when they want to invite in some male help. Many of them are suspicious of men, and they clearly value their female-centered community and don’t want it disrupted. They are “amazons” in the sense that they rule their own little world, finding their fulfillment in each other. Men seem to be largely beside the point.

This is the third Gaskell novel I’ve read; at this point I’m looking forward to reading and rereading more.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Summer plans

I’m back from the retreat and now my summer vacation is officially beginning. I’ll still have plenty of work to do all summer, though. Some things are minor like reports to write and articles to polish off, and other things are more time-consuming, like preparing for a new class in the fall. Most of my working time this summer, though, will go toward preparing to teach and then teaching my first online class, which will run in July. I’m thrilled to be able to teach without having to leave my study and without having to pay for gas and spend the time commuting, although I’m guessing I’ll end up preferring classroom teaching to online teaching.

Now I’m going through the awkward transition time between the busy semester and the more leisurely summer; inevitably I go through a few days or a week where I feel all out of sorts and strange and as though I don’t quite know what to do with myself, before I settle into a pattern of work and leisure that I can maintain for a few months. I always expect to feel nothing but euphoria when I’ve wrapped up the school year, but of course it doesn’t work that way.

I’m tremendously excited about one thing coming up this summer: I’ll be spending a weekend with Emily, and it looks like the two of us will travel to the middle of Pennsylvania somewhere to meet Courtney. Another blogger meet-up! I’m becoming addicted to hanging out with bloggers. I’ll be sure to write up the details.

I’m also hoping to go backpacking or perhaps rent a place in northern New England somewhere to do some hiking and bike riding. I wanted to do such a trip last year, but my illness got in the way, so I’m determined to make it happen this year. I’ve felt a longing lately to do a bit of traveling, or at least to get out of my house more, so although we don’t have money to do much in the way of real traveling, I want to see some of the beautiful local or relatively local places I haven’t yet seen. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire this year.

And, of course, I’ll be reading. There’s the list I created here with some books to choose from and also the list of nonfiction books I posted here that still looks enticing. There will be the summer library sales to visit and the library itself and of course there are all the books I’ve got unread on my shelves (I just recently added Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost).

I’ll be racing too; I’ve got races every Tuesday night and races many weekends through July, and I hope to fit in many rides in between all those races. I’d love to do another 130-mile ride like the one I did a few years ago; perhaps I will be able to do it without crying from pain for the last ten miles as I did last time. Sounds like fun, right?

Now I’m off to finish reading Cranford, an utterly charming novel. Then I’ll have the fun of deciding what novel to read next.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

The Braindead Megaphone

I’m going on a school retreat for most of the upcoming week, and so won’t be around to post for a while … just so you know.

I’m about halfway through George Saunders’s book of essays The Braindead Megaphone and am enjoying it very much.  When I picked it up I wasn’t sure what to expect; I’ve read some his short essays in the New Yorker and found them interesting and entertaining in their bizarre other-worldliness, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to read an entire book like that.  What I discovered, though, is a mix of seriousness and strangeness that is appealing.

The essays I like best are the more traditional ones, the ones that have more-or-less traditional essayistic elements such as a thoughtful, reflective voice and a mix of personal experience and social commentary.  The title essay, for example, makes a point about the dumbing down of our culture caused at least in part by certain media figures blaring stupidities at us all day long — these figures are like a guy coming into an intelligent, literate party with a megaphone and starting to talk.  He’s not necessarily saying the stupidest things that could be said, but in fact it hardly matters what he says because everyone is forced to listen to him and they find it hard if not impossible to keep their own conversations going.  The smart people are drowned out and everyone suffers because of it.

I don’t find the argument of this essay particularly original, but his style makes it worth reading — it’s funny, conversational, insightful in a low-key, understated kind of way.  Here are the closing two paragraphs to give you a taste of what it’s like:

This battle, like any great moral battle, will be won, if won, not with some easy corrective tidal wave of Total Righteousness, but with small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic, delivered titrationally, by many of us all at once.

We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself.  Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.

This is so typically George Saunders (if I’ve read enough to make such a claim), with its capitalized “Total Righteousness” and the whipping of our own asses — the directness of it — and it’s inspiring and moving in a way I don’t see in his more satirical pieces.  I like this more personal, intimate, sincere voice.

I enjoyed some of the later essays even more, though; the second essay is about a trip to Dubai in which Saunders describes the fabulous wealth on display, as well as all the poor people working to make those displays possible.  His persona in the essay is that of a man who hasn’t seen much of the world and is thrust into an entirely new situation and left to grapple with it alone.  His reactions vary wildly as he notices the extreme economic inequities but also the happiness with which exploited workers live out their exploitation, for their home countries offer much less opportunity than they can find here.  All this sounds so serious, though, and while the essay has a serious point to make (and a very moving conclusion, but I don’t want to keep quoting his conclusions here), it’s lightly humorous at the same time.  One of Saunders’s strengths, I’m seeing now, is using humor to make you want to relax and enjoy the ride, and then with the easiest, most natural of transitions hitting you with a moving scene or a profound thought, and then moving off in another direction toward another point that adds to or modifies or maybe even contradicts the first one.  It’s a style that invites pleasure and contemplation both and that allows for nuance and complexity, as Saunders wanders here and there, exploring an idea or an experience rather than preaching about it.

There is also a wonderful essay telling how Kurt Vonnegut transformed his ideas about reading and writing and another one on Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain as an early inspiration to become a writer.

What matters most to me in an essay collection is the voice, the sense of the person behind the words (the extent to which this sense is an illusion doesn’t matter), and it’s this quality that makes me wish this book wouldn’t end.  I’m a bit surprised to say that Saunders makes a good companion; I knew he was a funny, sharp social satirist, but not that he could write essays with so much feeling in them.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Against Against Happiness

One of my book groups was supposed to meet today to discuss Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness, but it got postponed, so I’ll have another couple weeks to stew over this book’s flaws. No, I did not like it one bit (first thoughts here). The idea sounded interesting, if not entirely new — that Americans are obsessed with happiness to the detriment of our souls and our deeper imaginative, creative selves — but the execution failed. At times I got so annoyed with the book I found myself wanting to defend happiness. Can it really be so bad??

The problems begin with the writing itself. It’s overwritten, florid, occasionally verging on the incomprehensible. There are too many passages like this:

The American dream might be a nightmare. What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins. Our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies — for all those curious thrushes moving among autumn’s brownish indolence, for those blue dahlias seemingly hollowed with sorrow, for all those gloomy souls who long for clouds above high windows.

I sort of see what he means here — the demand for constant happiness can flatten out experience and make it bland — and yet does happiness really mean that one does not notice thrushes and dahlias and the beauty of clouds? The writing too often veers toward bad poetry, the sort of thing angsty adolescents might compose. It’s also repetitive, and I couldn’t discern what made one chapter different from another. Against Happiness would have been much better as an essay rather than a book; it feels bloated at a mere 150 pages.

A friend told me that Wilson incorporates short biographies of famous depressives, and my first response was to be suspicious of these, thinking that I’d be bored by the familiar list of people like Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh whose depression may have contributed to their ability to produce great art. And yet when I sat down to read the book, I came across these sections with relief, as they helped to ground the writing a little bit. But even so, these sections are the familiar, clichéd portraits of famous depressives I was afraid I was going to find.

The argument can be vague as well. He assumes we know what he means by the difference between happiness and joy and by his talk of “polarities,” as in:

What is existence if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms?


to be alive is to realize the universe’s grand polarity. Life grows out of death, and death from life; turbulence breeds sweet patterns, and order dissolves into vibrant chaos.

All this sounds grand, but what does it mean? I can get a vague emotional sense of what he means, but not a concrete logical understanding.

He works with two categories of people, the melancholic and the happy, that are vastly oversimplified. At times I feel like I know the kinds of people he’s talking about when he talks about “happy types,” the people who look for an uplifting lesson in everything they read, for example, or people who don’t have the imagination to understand the suffering that someone else is going through. But most of the time the “happy types” he describes don’t seem real to me. My guess is that many people, certainly more than Wilson claims, will acknowledge the tragic side of life, even if they need to be pressed, and they’ll agree that the search for happiness is ultimately bound to be futile. He makes much of the statistic that 85% of Americans claim to be happy, but he (or perhaps the study that generated the statistic) doesn’t define what people mean by that claim. If I were asked whether I consider myself happy, I might be among the 85% that said yes, although I don’t consider myself a “happy type.” I would probably say yes, though, because even though I suffer from melancholy and maybe even mild depression now and then, I have a good life and I have joyful moments and I feel like I’m doing okay even though life is so harsh and our existence ultimately doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’m muddling along, and that’s about the most anybody can hope for, and so I’d call that a kind of happiness.

The book has an uncomfortable feeling of self-congratulation, of pleasure taken in the fact that the author is part of an elite group of people who aren’t deluded like the vast majority of idiots out there. Maybe I’m too optimistic about what “most people” are like, but this attitude doesn’t sit well with me.

I did feel a moment of recognition when Wilson described how the happy types long for complete control over their lives; they don’t like the idea that a sad event can occur at any moment or that their lives could be turned upside down in an instant. I recognized myself in his description, as I am always looking for just the right way of doing things — the right balance of work and life, the perfect job, the perfect place to live, the right way of organizing my day, the right balance of social and solitary time. I want to feel perfectly organized and on top of things so that nothing takes me by surprise to cause any busyness or stress or worry. Obviously this is impossible, but I still hope, somehow, to make things perfect. I would be better off learning to see, as Wilson recommends, that the stability I long for is really a sort of premature death, and that living means constant change.

I wanted to have more moments of recognition like this one, however, and was disappointed. I’ll have to look to other writers for a more convincing celebration of melancholy.

You can read Hobgoblin’s take on the book here.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction


I had little idea of how my students would react to Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, although a couple of them had read Waiting for Godot and so knew what they were in for. To the others I suggested that they expect something odd and that they keep an open mind about it. We’d read some challenging writers and talked about how some kinds of literature require that you suspend your need to understand what’s going on, sometimes even on a basic level, at least for a while, so by “keeping an open mind” what I meant was to expect strangeness and to try to roll with it as best as they could.

Most of them loved the play, it turned out, and what they noticed most of all is the play’s humor. This is not something I’d paid much attention to on my first reading, and I don’t remember noticing it much when I studied Waiting for Godot, so it’s interesting to me that this is what my students picked up on. I suppose I’m more naturally attuned to darkness and despair than I am to humor (which is too bad for me), but the more I read and thought about the play, the more obvious it became that it is really very funny.

If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s about four characters — Hamm, a blind, paralyzed man who spends his days sitting in his chair as close to the middle of the room as possible; Clov, Hamm’s servant and companion of sorts, who continually threatens to leave Hamm; and Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, who live in ashbins. They poke their heads up every once in a while to say a few words and then retreat back into their cans. The characters stay in one room (except for Clov who wanders off into the kitchen now and then) and talk about the same things over and over. They live in a world that seems post-apocalyptic, although just what has happened is never clarified, but there seems to be nothing and no one outside their home, very little food available, and no hope of change whatsoever.

The dialogue wanders here and there, covering ground the characters have covered again and again — their dislike of one another, their questions about the weather and what’s going on outside their windows (generally nothing), their physical suffering, their memories, their weariness with life. Hamm and Clov contemplate suicide, but they always back off from acting on this impulse. They tell stories now and then, but often the stories don’t have an ending; they just trail off.

Here is a typical exchange:

Hamm: I feel a little queer. [Pause.] Clov!
Clov: Yes.
Hamm: Have you not had enough?
Clov: Yes! [Pause.] Of what?
Hamm: Of this … this … thing.
Clov: I always had. [Pause.] Not you?
Hamm: [Gloomily.] Then there’s no reason for it to change.
Clov: It may end. [Pause.] All life long the same questions, the same answers.
Hamm: Get me ready. [Clov does not move.] Go and get the sheet. [Clov does not move.] Clov!
Clov: Yes.
Hamm: I’ll give you nothing more to eat.
Clov: Then we’ll die.
Hamm: I’ll give you just enough to keep you from dying. You’ll be hungry all the time.
Clov: Then we don’t die. [Pause.] I’ll go and get the sheet.

Much of the dialogue is like this, and it doesn’t sound funny at all, right? And yet there are funny passages, particularly when you read them out loud, which we did a little of in class. There are exchanges like this one, for example:

Clov: I can’t sit.
Hamm: True. And I can’t stand.
Clov: So it is.
Hamm: Every man his specialty.

Or this:

Clov: What is there to keep me here?
Hamm: The dialogue.

I love the way this exchange refers to the dialogue between the two characters — dialogue that surely wouldn’t keep anybody anywhere — and also to the fact that there’s an audience in the theater who is kept in their seats by the very same repetitive, despairing talk.

Then there’s a passage where Hamm starts talking like a pretentious artist and insists that Clov play along:

Hamm: I’ve got on with my story. [Pause.] I’ve on with it well. [Pause. Irritably.] Ask me where I’ve got to.
Clov: Oh, by the way, your story?
Hamm: [Surprised.] What story?
Clov: The one you’ve been telling yourself all your days.
Hamm: Ah, you mean my chronicle?
Clov: That’s the one. [Pause.]
Hamm: [Angrily.] Keep going, can’t you, keep going!
Clov: You’ve got on with it, I hope.
Hamm: [Modestly.] Oh not very far, not very far. [He sighs.] There are days like that, one isn’t inspired. [Pause.] Nothing you can do about it, just wait for it to come. [Pause.] No forcing, no forcing, it’s fatal. [Pause.] I’ve got on with it a little all the same. [Pause.] Technique, you know. [Pause. Irritably.] I say I’ve got in with it a little all the same.
Clov: [Admiringly.] Well I never! In spite of everything you were able to get on with it!

Beckett is having a little fun with artistic pretension and also taking up one of the play’s themes: the point of creativity in a world that makes no sense and that leads only to death. Clov is speaking ironically and only playing a role when he admires Hamm for continuing to work on his story “in spite of everything,” and yet there’s a sense in which the admiration is real — who, after all, would get on with it, in spite of everything?

This play is certainly despairing — the title refers to the part of a chess game where the end result is beyond doubt but there are a few moves still left to play, which becomes a metaphor for the situation of all human beings as they approach death — but there’s something energetic and exhilarating about the play too. It doesn’t leave you — or at least it didn’t leave me — feeling like there’s nothing to do but commit suicide. Instead, it left me with admiration for Beckett for creating something intricately, beautifully, well-made out of some of the darkest feelings people can have. In spite of everything, most of do get on with it, and there’s something wonderful in that.


Filed under Books

A Wallace Stevens poem

I mentioned a poem by Wallace Stevens the other day that surprised me with its beauty — surprised me because I thought the title was ridiculous and I was afraid the poem might be as well. The poem I’m talking about is “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” Now with a title like that, what would you expect in the poem itself? The title sounded flippant to me, and silly, and like it was the title of a short poem that was full of little but irritating sound effects.

I was surprised to look further and find that the poem went on for several pages. When I read it, I found that it contained serious subject matter, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. I’m still not entirely sure how the title relates to the poem itself, and I certainly think it wasn’t a good idea to title the poem that way, but, then again, do I really want to question Wallace Stevens?

The poem has 12 sections of 11 lines each, and it’s loosely about middle-aged love, aging, and disillusionment, but also about the pleasures and consolations of the familiar. It’s got melancholy and exhilaration, vitality and nostalgia — a whole host of emotions, actually, and this is what makes it a little hard to follow. There is no narrative or sense of development; instead it moves back and forth among various thoughts and impressions, creating a mood rather than advancing an idea.

It’s got some lines that I really don’t like — I’ll get the stuff I don’t like out of the way and then talk about what I do like — including these:

And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
I wish that I might be a thinking stone.

The only way I’ll accept these lines as anything but laughable is if the last line is part of the self-mockery — I mean, if telling us that he wishes he could be a thinking stone is part of his way of making fun of himself. Because otherwise it sounds too much like adolescent self-pity to me, and the alone/stone rhyme sounds absurd. The poem doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, which makes this rhyming couplet stand out.

But many of the poem’s sections are wonderful, like this one, section 8:

Like a dull scholar, I behold, in love,
An ancient aspect touching a new mind.
It comes, it blooms, it bears its fruit and dies.
This trivial trope reveals a way of truth.
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof.
Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
The laughing sky will see the two of us
Washed into rinds by rotting winter winds.

I like the rhythm of line 3, the way the line, in perfect iambic pentameter sums up the whole story of love, and I also like the short, abrupt sentences of lines 4-5, which state directly and unflinchingly what the lovers have experienced. Line 5 captures the contradictory nature of the experience — it moves from the bloom being gone, an image of aging, to the idea that they are fruit, which sounds full of sweetness and potential. The following lines revise this possibility, however; they are “golden gourds distended on our vines,” “splashed with frost,” “turned grotesque,” and, most amusingly, they “hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed.” The sky laughs at them. And the speaker sees why the sky might laugh at them: the section’s very first line indicates why — the metaphor is one a dull scholar might produce.

Section 11 is great too:

If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.
But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,
That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout
Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth
From madness or delight, without regard
To that first, foremost law. Anguishing hour!
Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords.

Love, as opposed to sex, is caused by “the unconscionable treachery of fate,” making us not heroic but ridiculous — we weep, laugh, grunt, groan, and shout. The closing image is ridiculous as well: as the lovers are sitting beside a romantic pool watching the stars, a frog is booming “odious chords.”

I’m seeing now how full of the ridiculous this poem is, even though, at the same time, it’s also full of what feels to me like thoughtful sincerity. These two modes go hand-in-hand, in fact. Look at lines like these:

The fops of fancy in their poems leave
Memorabilia of the mystic spouts,
Spontaneously watering their gritty soils.
I am a yeoman, as such fellows go.
I know no magic trees, no balmy boughs,
No silver-ruddy, gold-vermilion fruits.
But, after all, I know a tree that bears
A semblance to the thing I have in mind.

I do not like that phrase “fops of fancy” — it’s too reminiscent of the poem’s odd title — and I think it’s part of the ridiculousness that runs through the whole poem, but I do like the phrase “I am a yeoman, as such fellows go,” the way it quietly contrasts his own modest poetic claims with those of the fops of fancy. He may not know magic trees or balmy boughs, but he does know “a tree that bears a semblance to the thing I have in mind” — he knows, in other words, something that is true.

Here are the closing lines; I’m not entirely sure what they mean, but I think they are beautiful:

A blue pigeon it is, that circles the blue sky,
On sidelong wing, around and round and round.
A white pigeon it is, that flutters to the ground,
Grown tired of flight. Like a dark rabbi, I
Observed, when young, the nature of mankind,
In lordly study. Every day, I found
Man proved a gobbet in my mincing world.
Like a rose rabbi, later, I pursued,
And still pursue, the origin and course
Of love, but until now I never knew
That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.

Stevens makes me follow advice I give my students, which is that they should read poetry with a dictionary next to them.  The word “gobbet” can mean “a piece or portion (as of meat),” a “lump or mass,” or “a small fragment or extract.”  So I picture the speaker, in his younger version, arrogantly studying human beings, eating them up, so to speak, as he looks around him from on high.  His older self, however, is much more circumspect.  He seeks after knowledge of love instead of assuming he already has it.  But only now does he know “that fluttering things have so distinct a shade.”  I’m not sure exactly what that line means, but it hints at the beauty and mystery of living things.  In the last two lines the speaker seems struck with awe at what he has learned, sorrowful that he didn’t know it before, but grateful that he knows it now.

Okay, so when I think about how the ridiculous and the absurd run through much of the poem, the odd title makes a little more sense.  But I’m still not sure Stevens should have risked titling the poem that way.  I almost skipped it, after all.  I’m glad, however, that I didn’t.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Saturday rambling

There are a number of posts I’d like to write soon, including one on a surprisingly beautiful Wallace Stevens poem (surprising because I thought the poem’s title was one of the more ridiculous titles I’ve ever heard — more on that later) and one on Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, which I recently read for class and which is wonderfully strange. But I’m in a mood to write something rambling and disconnected instead of a more focused post, so that’s what you’ll get.

I spent a lovely evening in Manhattan yesterday with a fabulous group of bloggers (and one fabulous woman who unfortunately doesn’t blog); you’ll find them at Telecommuter Talk, Musings from the Sofa, ZoesMom, and The Reading Nook. Have I mentioned before how much blogging has enriched my life? Well, it has. All of these people, and quite a few others besides, I’ve met because of blogging. We had fun traipsing around from bar to restaurant to bar, celebrating Becky’s impressive new job and drinking unbelievably overpriced cocktails. That’s Manhattan for you — fun but expensive.

In the train on the way to the city, I discovered to my horror that the book I chose for one of my reading groups is terrible. I didn’t choose it all on my own, actually; it was one of three books I selected that everyone else voted on, but still I’m instrumental in the choice, and now I feel guilty. I can see why one of the group’s members was noncommittal in her reaction to it, perhaps not wanting to offend me. Hobgoblin has yet to pick it up, but when he does, I’m looking forward to the conversation in which we mock it mercilessly.

Okay, now I’m a little afraid to mention what book it is, just in case the author googles himself and finds my unkind comments. But — oh, well. It’s Eric Wilson’s book Against Happiness, a book I’d heard some bad things about but also some good things, and so was prepared to like, if possible. It does exactly what the title says — argues against America’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness. This is fine in itself, but the way he makes the argument is the trouble … but more later, when I’ve actually finished the book and can write a proper review.

Have you had the experience of choosing a reading group book that everybody hates? Did it feel terrible? (I may be in luck though — perhaps the other members won’t agree with me …)

Today I went on a 3 1/2 hour ride, heading out to the Housatonic Hills race course to practice climbing all those hills; it was in the mid-60s and dry, pretty much perfect bike riding weather. All the way around the race course, though, I remembered what it’s like to race up those hills, and it filled me with dread. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself at the bottom of a steep hill with your heart rate already maxed out, chasing a pack of riders so as not to get dropped and hoping that you don’t fall over from exhaustion. I have this experience to look forward to in June …


Filed under Blogging, Books, Cycling, Life, Nonfiction, Reading

Hearts and Minds

It seems about right to be writing about Rosy Thornton’s campus novel Hearts and Minds on a day my students have given me a headache.  Yes, the end of the semester is terrible, as usual.  It’s too bad I’ve already finished this novel, because reading it would provide some comfort after a long day, whereas the book I’ve just begun, Against Happiness, will not.  But maybe it will make me feel better to write about somebody else’s problems with faculty politics and student drama rather than dwelling on my own.

Hearts and Minds is a thoroughly entertaining novel.  It takes place at Cambridge, specifically at an all-women’s college, St. Radegund’s, which has recently hired a male Head of House, to the consternation of many of the faculty.  James Rycarte is his name, and although he’s an able administrator and knows how to deal with difficult people, he finds himself with some formidable opponents, especially faculty member Ros Clarke, who is determined to undermine his leadership and see him gone.

The other main character is Martha Pearce, an Economics faculty member and Senior Tutor, an administrative post that is due to end at the close of the year, leaving Martha without a job.  Because of the demands of the Senior Tutor position, she has neglected her research, which will make it difficult to find another post.  In addition to this looming problem, her husband has been more and more distanced of late and her daughter is showing signs of serious depression.  She is left to manage this all on her own.

The plot thickens when a potential donor appears, a friend of Rycarte’s, whose money could save the library, which is sinking into the mud at an alarming rate.  This friend appears to be the college’s savior, until he declares that his daughter will be applying for admission and implies that he expects the donation and his daughter’s acceptance to go hand in hand.  Here is an issue that could potentially divide the faculty and give Ros Clarke the ammunition she needs to force Rycarte out.

I enjoyed the story and liked spending time with the characters, but another of the novel’s pleasures is reading about the college itself, with its traditions and oddities.  Very near the beginning of the novel Rycarte arrives on campus for the first time since his interview, and so readers can learn about the college at the same time he does, watching him figure out details like the powers of the Head Porter and the lack of copy machines, and can follow along with him as he figures out who’s who amongst the faculty.  It’s a good introduction to a place that in a lot of ways sounds charming — nearly everyone travels around on bicycles, which sounds wonderful — but which has its share of troubles, not least of which is a severe shortage of funds. The signs of financial hardship are everywhere, from the decision to stop offering the college’s residents breakfast to the existence of research fellowships that offer no stipend whatsoever.  The college has been limping along for quite some time now, and Rycarte hopes the potential donation will turn things around, but he is unsure at what cost.

One aspect of the book bothered me — Martha Pearce’s relationship with her husband was hard to take.  Martha is an extremely hard-working, extremely dedicated person, one who cares deeply about the college and is willing to do whatever it takes to serve the school and to keep her family going.  Her husband, though, spends his days lounging around, napping, and claiming to be working on his poetry.  He offers her very little support, most distressingly when their daughter is obviously suffering.  There were moments in the novel when I wanted Martha to walk out on him immediately and not look back.  Martha’s self-sacrifices happen in real life quite often I’m sure, so it’s not a failure of realism, but still I couldn’t help but get annoyed at this character that readers are clearly meant to sympathize with.

But this issue aside, I read the novel with great enjoyment; it’s a good book for when you want something that’s both smart and plot-driven, and I think lots of people would enjoy it, even those who haven’t set foot on a campus for decades.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Race report

The Tuesday night race series has begun, and it has begun well. I was worried about the race all day today because I knew I was going to have to rush away from class and hope the traffic wasn’t going to be too heavy to make it to the race on time. I had Hobgoblin do everything possible to help me get ready, including pinning my number on ahead of time. But as it turned out, I had plenty of time and was able to warm up for a half hour or so.

And then I was anxious, of course, about how I would do. This is the third year I’ve ridden in these races, and in both the previous years I’ve started off not able to finish the race and have had to slowly work my way up to the point where I could stay with the pack the entire time. I could only accomplish this steady improvement by working so hard I sometimes felt like I was going to die out there on the course. My first season I got so tired of working this hard I stopped racing in mid-July because I was burnt out.

So I was nervous. I was going to be racing with category 4 and 5 men, including Hobgoblin and other people who are clearly stronger and faster than I am. There was one other woman out there, someone who’s also much stronger and faster than I am. But when we got started I relaxed, and I was pleased to note that my first trip up the hill wasn’t that hard. I could sit comfortably the whole way. I’ve discovered that sitting on that hill is the best thing I can do; if I stand I expend more energy and tire myself out faster. But sometimes I panic that I’m falling behind, and I feel like I have to stand to stay with the group. As the laps went on, though, I found I could sit the whole way up nearly every one. In fact, sometimes I was passing other racers and sometimes noticing that other people were breathing harder than I was.

The race was 22 laps, 17 miles, and with each lap I told myself, okay, one more down — let’s see if I can do another one. I kept going this way until 5 laps to go when the sprinting started. It was a points race, which meant that certain laps, in this case the last five laps, awarded the first two racers across the line a certain number of points and the rider with the highest number of points at the end wins. What this meant for me is that the last five laps were hard. On the first points lap the field felt very tense and riders were doing foolish things, trying to get in the best position possible for the sprint. This made me nervous, as we’d already had one crash, and I didn’t want to see another. I did my best to stay away from squirrelly riders and kept on. Somewhere in those last five laps I noticed a teammate of mine off on the side of the road, throwing up onto the pavement, and then riding on. Yes, this was intense.

And I made it all the way to the end. Yay! I was afraid I wouldn’t, as at the very beginning of the last lap my calf muscles started cramping up horribly and I thought I might have to stop, but I did my best to stretch them out on the bike and kept going. I stayed right with the pack all the way through the last lap and crossed the line just behind the crowd.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this good on that course. The hill almost seemed easy. I was working hard though, as my average heart rate was 171, maximum 187. We were riding for about 41 minutes, and my average speed was 24.3 mph.

I hope my Tuesday night races continue to go this way, so I don’t have to experience that awful “I’m going to die out here” feeling again. That’s no fun.

You can read Hobgoblin’s account here.


Filed under Cycling

Reading update and a question

I think I’m past my reading slump, and I think I owe this largely to Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds (kindly sent to me by the author), which I read happily all weekend and of which I am now about 50 pages from the end.  I needed a book that is smart and well-written but also plot-driven and entertaining, and this one fits the bill nicely.  I’m a sucker for academic novels, too, and this one is set in Cambridge and is all about faculty intrigue and student protests and classes and exams and meetings and all the stuff one would think I get enough of at my day job.  Why I like academic novels is beyond me, actually, but I do.

I will be picking up Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness next for a book group meeting in a week and a half; I’m looking forward to digging into some nonfiction, as I’ve lately been reading a string of novels.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that I like a little more variety.  After that I think I’d like to pick up something either older or more challenging than what I’ve been reading lately, or both.  I’ve haven’t had the energy lately for much but contemporary fiction, but now I’m feeling ready to venture into more difficult material.  I’m also planning to read more in my Wallace Stevens collection and to get back to the George Saunders book of essays, the first one of which I read and enjoyed, but which I haven’t picked up in a while.

But now for my question: have you noticed what WordPress has been doing with the “Possibly related posts (automatically generated)” links they have been appending to each post?  Some of these are links back to my own blog but others link to other WordPress blogs, most of which I haven’t heard of before.  I can’t decide if I want to keep this feature, and I’m wondering what you think of it, those of you who use WordPress and those of you who don’t.  I don’t like it because I don’t like the idea of there being links to blogs I have never read and don’t endorse on my posts.  Also, I’m not entirely sure everyone who reads me will know that I didn’t put those links there myself.  On the other hand, WordPress claims that these links will ultimately bring me more traffic, which is hard to resist, even though I suspect these hits won’t be coming from people who will return.  So what do you think?  A cool, new idea, or just annoying?


Filed under Blogging, Books

PEN World Voices: Rushdie, Eco, and Vargas Llosa

When I saw that Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Mario Vargas Llosa were to appear together at the PEN World Voices festival, I bought tickets immediately, and I’m glad I did — the event was fabulous. Even before the event itself began, good things were happening; I ran into Anne Fernald from the blog Fernham and got to chat with her for a couple minutes. Then Hobgoblin pointed out that Richard Ford and Jeffrey Eugenides were sitting two rows in front of us. I also had a nice conversation with the elderly woman sitting next to me; she told me about her book that had been published years ago and her successful career and her great-grandchildren who are too busy to visit very often.

Then the event began; first there was a general introduction, and then Umberto Eco appeared. He explained that each writer would read from his work in his native language, and then he began to read a section from Foucault’s Pendulum in Italian, while the English translation was projected onto a screen. It was thrilling to hear Eco read in his native language; the Italian was beautiful to listen to, and I soon stopped following the words on the screen and in order to pay more attention to the way the language sounded. When he finished he left the stage and Rushdie came out to read from his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence. It was a funny passage (or maybe it’s just funny when you’re listening to it in a crowd) about the Emperor Akbar who has built a “house of worship” in honor of reason, which turns out to be a tent because rationality is an impermanent thing. Then Vargas Llosa read from his 2007 novel The Bad Girl, in Spanish. This time I followed the English words to see what I could understand from the Spanish; the passage was about the narrator falling in love with the flamboyant Lily, a girl newly arrived in his town of Miraflores. The passage had the same light and humorous tone that I saw in the one work of his I’ve read Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a book I read with enjoyment.

After the readings, all three writers came out on stage and were joined by Leonard Lopate (a WNYC talk show host), the moderator for their discussion, and things really got going. They began talking about the “Three Musketeers” theme — this was the title of the night’s event — and the story of how the three writers had met a decade earlier and had such a fabulous time they gave themselves the name from Dumas. Now they were here for a reunion. This story quickly turned into a discussion of Dumas himself, and how badly The Three Musketeers is written — Rushdie and Eco took great pleasure in describing just how sloppily Dumas could write and how wordy he could be, and one of them said, “The magic of The Count of Monte Cristo is due to the fact that it is badly written.” These two had the audience laughing uproariously; they both have fabulous senses of humor — Rushdie is dry and witty, and Eco exudes energy and expressiveness in that stereotypical Italian way, complete with hand gestures. He was utterly charming. Then Vargas Llosa, who is funny too but in a more dignified way, stepped in with a defense of “bad writing”; he argued that if the writing draws you in and moves you then it can’t be bad writing and that good writing isn’t merely a matter of good grammar and pretty words. This drew hearty applause from the audience.

Then Lopate stepped in started asking them serious questions about the clash of cultures in their novels — I would have preferred that he just let the writers keep up their debate and their jokes because the minute he asked a serious question the energy fell and the mood changed. But the conversation was good, of course; they talked about how writers in the U.S. don’t have any meaningful political role, which is often not the case in other countries, and why this might be so, and they debated whether writers flourish more in dictatorships rather than democracies (because they are the only ones speaking truths the country wants and needs to hear). They all seemed to agree that the U.S. is a special case because of the way its writers are seen as entertainers rather than as important political figures. In his deadpan way, Rushdie claimed that this problem is entirely due to movie stars, which then turned the conversation to Rushdie’s own experiences acting in movies, and he quipped, “I’m so glad you’re asking me about my best work.”

Then Lopate asked a couple questions solicited on index cards from the audience; the first question, asking the writers to describe their writing methods, got only boos from the audience because of its banality, and I was delighted to see Richard Ford yell out “Next question!” Before they moved on, though, Eco, looking inordinately pleased with himself, explained his writing method — he starts on the left side of the page and works his way over to the right. This got a laugh.

The next and last audience question got them talking about the virtues of the English language; Rushdie described it as “a bendy language,” and one of the others, I can’t remember who, argued that its flexibility is both a virtue and a risk — its openness and adaptability have led to some of the world’s greatest literature, but these same qualities can possibly lead to its dissolution, as people from all around the world make English their own.

And that was it — afterwards was a book signing, but we didn’t stick around, as we hadn’t brought any of our books and needed to run off to catch the train. I left vowing once again to take advantage of opportunities like this more often than I do; living within easy traveling distance of NYC can be a wonderful thing.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Life

Dreaming in Cuban

I’m not sure I’m going to do justice to Cristina Garcia’s novel Dreaming in Cuban for a couple of reasons, one of which is that while I’m slowly emerging from my reading funk I still don’t feel like I’m reading well, and the other is that I’m particularly tired this evening but I’m also not willing to put off writing this post any longer. So I’ll just have to make the best of things.

I did enjoy reading this book, and I’m happy that the Slaves of Golconda chose it because otherwise I doubt I would ever have picked it up. It’s a good read — an entertaining and smart novel about the intersection of family, politics, and religion. I’ll admit that I’m generally not fond of the kind of point of view switching that goes on in the novel — it shifts not only from character to character, which I have no problem with, but between first and third person, which does irritate me a bit — but
since having multiple voices speaking throughout the novel is so obviously important to Garcia, I can see why she chose to do it. Part of the point of the book is to get multiple perspectives; not only does the narrative focus shift from character to character, sometimes rapidly, but we see at least some of the characters from the inside, where they sometimes speak for themselves, as well as from the outside. Interspersed throughout the novel are one character’s letters as well, offering another perspective on the story. All this has the effect of capturing a great amount of complexity in relatively few pages (240 or so); the technique mimics the interconnectedness and the web of relationships it seeks to describe.

The story is about a Cuban family as it changes throughout the politically turbulent years of the mid-20C. At its heart is the matriarch Celia, a self-sufficient woman living on the Cuban coast who gets caught up in the furor of the revolution headed by Castro, who is never named but is a powerful presence in the novel. Her two daughters (she has a son as well but we don’t learn much about him) follow very different paths as adults; one of them, Lourdes, emigrates to the U.S. and becomes a proper American capitalist, working hard and eventually owning two successful bakeries. Her daughter, Pilar, isn’t impressed by this success, however, and finds ways to rebel against her mother’s strident pro-Americanism and moral conservatism. She becomes a painter and attends art school; one of the novel’s best scenes tells of a painting she completes for her mother’s new bakery, which is supposed to be patriotic in its message and ends up being something quite else.

The other daughter is Felicia, who remained in Cuba and who struggles throughout her life with mental illness. Her story is a sad one, as she is caught up in a difficult marriage and has trouble raising her three children; one summer, the summer of the coconuts, she and her young son survive on nothing but coconut ice cream. Her children are torn between their need for and love of their mother and their curiosity about their estranged father; they suffer from their mother’s bouts of illness, but she, too, is a victim. Celia does what she can to help her grandchildren, but her interventions can only do so much good.

The novel is ultimately about the ways our families shape who we are — they define us, whether we live in close proximity to them or thousands of miles away. Several of the characters are haunted by the ghosts of dead relatives or are able to communicate telepathically with far-away family members. Others, such as Pilar, are haunted by memories of the lost home in Cuba; while her mother wants only to live securely in America, Pilar wonders what life is like on her lost island and what kind of relationship she could have with her grandmother Celia. No one can escape the influence of family, whether it be the memories they create for us or the standards they set against we can try, often unsuccessfully, to rebel.

No one can escape their political context either; the Cuban revolution divides the family both ideologically and physically, causing a rift that is symbolized by Celia’s picture of Castro which she has placed over a picture of her husband and which Lourdes flings into the sea in a fit of rage. The picture symbolizes how political and familial forces blend in intricate ways to shape each of the novel’s characters. They can’t change the circumstances of their birth; they can only respond to them in the best way they can.


Filed under Books, Fiction