Monthly Archives: June 2008

The Loving Couple

The Loving Couple is written by Virginia Rowans, who is really Patrick Dennis, the guy who wrote Auntie Mame. The authorial gender switching makes the book that much more interesting because it is split in half, one part from the perspective of a woman and the other from that of a man — in fact, the two parts each have their own cover complete with a title page and publishing information so you can’t tell which part you are supposed to begin with. You just pick one side, read to the middle, flip the book over and start with the other.

I started with the woman’s story, and as I was reading I found it jarring when I remembered that a man wrote it. I felt as though it were written by a woman. But then when I got to the man’s story, I found it hard to believe that the same person had written the woman’s version I’d just finished. It felt like two different people wrote the book. This is pretty impressive, I think.

The novel covers one bad day in the life of a marriage — it begins with a horrific fight and a breakup, and then follows the man and the woman as they have one of the worst days ever. They meet awful people, get caught up in awful parties, get tracked down by angry family members, feel trapped, get betrayed, learn things about other people, and learn things about themselves. The structure is interesting as the characters go through parallel events; for example, each character meets someone who tempts them into a possible affair, and they have to decide how they will respond.

The parallel narratives cover the same day, but for the most part they don’t cover the same exact events, so we don’t get the psychologically-interesting technique of having each character’s perspective on the same conversation or event. Instead what we get is a more exterior view, a satirical look at what happens to two people as they try to recover from their vicious fight by running away to fascinating new people and places.

The book is light and entertaining, as it was meant to be, and yet it offers a contemporary reader a lot to think about, as it is very much a book of its time, 1956, in terms of the way it portrays social issues. My God, is this a snobby book. Rowans has all kinds of fun lampooning the awful suburban culture the characters have moved into — the elite development somewhere on the Hudson that cross-examines potential members to make sure they are the right sort, although the right sort can be pretty horrid, as we learn when we meet the neighbors. Opposed to this stuffy suburban life is the wild city where you can meet bohemians and artists deep in the heart of Greenwich Village. Part of the plot is the characters’ need to figure out just where they belong — who are their real friends and where is their real home?

The city/suburb conflict is amusing, but the pervasive sexism and racism is not. I’m not sure how much of this Rowans is satirizing or how much is simply a reflection of the way people, including the author, thought at the time, but it’s hard to read casual comments about, for example, how one family was excluded from membership in the development because of a Jewish ancestor and to see that the only African-Americans are servants and are very stereotypically portrayed.

It’s a good reminder of all that has changed in the last fifty years, which isn’t that long, really. As I read I went back and forth between enjoying myself and wincing at some new dismissal of women or some other detail offensive to modern readers. It’s not as though in 2008 we’re so terribly enlightened, but a book like this can show that we’ve made some progress at least.

So all in all it’s an interesting read, and for a number of different reasons. I’m glad I picked it up.

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Race report: the Housatonic Hills race defeats me again

Update: I got 18th place out of 35 starters in this race — not as bad as I thought.

No, I did not have a particularly good race today. Housatonic Hills is a god-awful road race with horrible hills that make me feel like I’m going to die when I climb them at race pace. This is the third year in a row I haven’t had a good race there. You might wonder why I keep going back, and the only thing I can say is that it’s because of pride. I wouldn’t like to skip a race just because it’s hard and I don’t like it. That sounds wimpy. Perhaps next year I can fake a serious illness??

The race promoters changed the course this year to avoid some patches of rough road that have caused trouble, and this meant that whereas before we had something like 7 miles of flat road to ride before the hills began, this year we had to start the race heading uphill. It was supposed to be a neutral start to the top of the hill, meaning that we would ride up it slowly and only start racing once we’d reached the top, but it didn’t work out that way; instead, since there wasn’t a car at the front of my pack to set the pace as there usually is, people rode up the hill fast, and I reached the actual start of racing already tired. We headed downhill for a bit and I started to feel better, but then we hit another hill, the pack split up, I ended up in the back half of the pack, the back half of the pack split up, and that was that — I was dropped and had over 20 miles left to ride.

It wasn’t completely horrible — I found other women to ride with and we worked together to keep a decent pace, and, of course, it wasn’t all uphill, but still …

I did have fun hanging out with racers afterwards — the social part is often the best thing about bicycle racing, I sometimes feel. And there’s also the feeling of accomplishment — I didn’t finish all that well (I’m guessing I got something like 30th out of 40 riders), but I did ride and finish the damn thing, which is more than most people will do. And I earned the big pasta dinner and ice cream I had this evening. And now I have another year until I have to race that stupid course again.

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The Gentleman’s Daughter

I’m really enjoying Amanda Vickery’s book The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England; it is a survey of women’s lives in the 18th and early 19th centuries, making arguments about women throughout the country, but looking specifically at certain families in Yorkshire and Lancashire, largely because women here happen to have left lots of letters behind that are rich with information.  The book also focuses on a particular class, women of the lower gentry and those connected to the professional classes — wives and daughters of landed gentlemen, doctors, attorneys, clerics, and certain kinds of merchants and manufacturers.

The author critiques some of the arguments and assumptions that previous scholars have made about the time period, including the idea that the 18th and early 19th centuries saw the dramatic rise of the domestic woman enshrined at home and kept from all contamination by the outside world, whereas in earlier time periods, women had a more active role in public life.  Vickery writes that many scholars:

offer a narrative of decline and fall, using women’s manuscripts to  illustrate a tale of increasing female passivity and ever-tightening domestic encirclement.  In fact, it is almost impossible to open a book on wealthier British women between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries that does not offer a catalogue of declining female options.

The actual situation was not that simple, however; the separation between home and outside world was never clearcut, and women stayed in touch with that outside world in various ways throughout the centuries.  In terms of the kind of work women did within the home and outside of it, the situation in the 19th century doesn’t look so different from earlier centuries.  Scholars argue that the idea of “separate spheres,” public and private, for men and women became more and more important in this time, and yet, Vickery argues, this idea has always existed and still exists to a certain extent today.

Vickery also argues that the category of women she’s discussing tends to get lost in scholarly accounts, that people focus on the aristocracy and also on the merchant and manufacturing classes and see these two groups as separate and antagonistic.  They miss, however, a middle group of lower gentry and professionals that connects the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie and that shows how complex social status and family connections could be.  Some families have such a mix of people, including landed gentry, professionals, and manufacturers that they are nearly impossible to classify.   She’s arguing for a more complex view of status than many scholars have seen:

It has been customary to imagine the gentry, the professions and the upper trades as distinct strata of the social hierarchy.  It makes more sense, however, to see each as a thread in the complicated texture of genteel society — a woven fabric or an intricate cobweb being more exact metaphors to conjure social structure and social relations in the provinces.

After an introduction and a chapter describing the class system, Vickery moves to chapters on love and marriage and on motherhood.  There’s all kinds of interesting stuff here, including a detailed description of one particular courtship that is representative of the time and that shows what a long drawn-out process it often was.  Getting to the altar required a lot of time and patience — all that persuading of parents and the extended family and all that negotiating about money to be done — and involved some danger on the woman’s part: if the engagement ended during the negotiation period, the woman’s reputation would be damaged, so once she accepted a proposal, it was in her best interest to finalize the marriage as quickly as possible.

Vickery also argues that we shouldn’t think in terms of arranged marriages versus love matches (one older scholarly account says that the 18th century saw the fall of the arranged marriage and the rise of the love match); instead, most marriages were a mixture of the two — a combination of affection, prudence, and parental approval, and that people could easily find themselves genuinely torn between their romantic inclination and their desire for parental approval.

In the chapter on motherhood, Vickery discusses another common story told about the 18th century, which is that the decline of the midwife and the rise of doctors to oversee births is evidence of a decline in women’s power.  At one time, the story goes, childbirth was an entirely woman-centered event and a manifestation of female solidarity, but then male doctors began to intrude on this women’s space and to establish their own power there.  Vickery argues, however, that women themselves often wanted to have the doctors present, and that women themselves can therefore be seen as responsible for the decline of the midwife.  Vickery sensibly points out that when women realized doctors were able to help them in ways midwives couldn’t, they chose in favor of the doctor.

One other interesting thing: in the writings Vickery researched, she found lots of references to the physical discomforts of pregnancy, but very few references to nausea, which is such a common thing to talk about today.  She hypothesizes that vomiting was “seen as both normal and healthy given the universal reliance on purging as a prophylactic and general cure-all.”  Much greater emphasis was put on “melancholy, aches and immobility of pregnancy.”

I’ve only gotten through the first few chapters of this book — I’m greatly looking forward to reading the rest.

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New books

I am now reading six books at once, and although I know plenty of people read that many at once and more, I can’t help but feel that my reading is getting a bit out of control.  Six is a lot for me, and I have a couple books I need to get to soon for book groups, so the number may go up.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Emily promised to leave some books on the nightstand for me to look into while I was there, and I ended up bringing two of them home, in spite of the fact that I need no more books whatsoever (and she calls me a pusher!).  One of them is Keith Devlin’s The Math Gene, the first couple chapters of which I’ve now read.  I keep talking about how I want to read more about math and science and yet I haven’t done much of it, so it’s high time I got to a book like this.  So far it has discussed the definition of mathematics and its relationship to arithmetic; the factors that go into possessing mathematical ability, such as number sense, numerical ability, and algorithmic ability; and the extent to which animals and babies have a sense of numbers.  If phrases like “algorithmic ability” sound frightening, I can assure you that Devlin is a very clear writer with a knack for explaining things.  Eventually he’s going to get to an argument about how math is like language, and I’m looking forward to learning about it.

I am also borrowing Virginia Rowans’s 1956 novel The Loving Couple, written under a pseudonym by Patrick Dennis, the same guy who wrote Auntie Mame. It’s a fun novel, set in the New York City area and telling the story of a young couple whose marriage is falling apart.  What’s interesting about it is the way it’s told in two parts; one half of the book is from the woman’s perspective and the other is from the man’s.  The book itself is in two parts, with one cover devoted to her and one to him, one story starting in the usual way and proceeding until the middle of the book, at which point you have to flip the book over and start at the other end.  It’s impossible to tell which side you are supposed to start with — you just have to pick one arbitrarily.  I started with the woman’s perspective and finished it this morning; now the story will start over again from the beginning, but this time from the man’s point of view.  It will be interesting to get his take on things.

I wonder if, when picking up this book, most people begin with their own gender as I did, or if people are just as likely to begin with the opposite gender.  That would be an interesting thing to know, wouldn’t it?

The book is highly entertaining, even if it is dated and not masterfully written.  It’s a good light read, and I always enjoy reading about NYC and its environs — there’s a lot going on here with the tension between the city and the suburbs.

I’ll just have to tell myself there’s no rush to finish all these books; it’s only when I start to want to finish something that reading many things at once begins to feel like a burden.

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Weekend at Emily’s

Well, I had a fabulous time at Emily’s. Heavenly, you might say (ha, ha, sorry, inside joke). I went not knowing what we were going to do, except talk a lot, of course, and talk a lot we did, and we did many other interesting and surprising things too. As I wrote on Saturday, Emily and Bob have a fabulous house chock full of books, and any free moment I had I wandered around from room to room checking them out. But mostly I spent the time lounging around on sofas deep in conversation, and now and then we headed out into the heat to do some sightseeing.

The weekend is memorable for lots of reasons, but among them is the fact that I got to talk with a real live minister to whom I could relate as a friend rather than as an intimidating person who might ask me embarrassing questions about my (lack of) faith. I’ve never had that experience before, and I took full advantage of it. Actually Bob did do things like tell me I’m a sinner and need to confess, but he did it as a joke, and I just laughed at him. Can I just say it’s delightful to be irreverent and joke about religious matters with a minister? To swear and take the Lord’s name in vain in front of a minister and have it be no big deal? There’s something positively healing in being able to do that.

I don’t remember exactly how the topic of religion came up, but pretty soon I was asking Bob questions like “what’s your conception of God?” and we were off into deep theological waters. What I learned, among other things, is that if you ask a minister a question like that, you’d better be ready to spend a few hours talking about the answer. Bob did a wonderful job of answering my question, which really requires several years and a book-length response, in a short period of time and with great clarity and lots of good anecdotes.

I also got a kick out of attending a church service run by the minister with whom I’d spent much of the weekend being irreverent; I was pleased to discover that he wanted to hear my critique of his sermon afterwards, and that he’d added in a phrase or two at the last minute that addressed our earlier conversations. Part of my pleasure in all this is that it made me feel like such a grown-up — a church leader genuinely wanted to hear my opinion and took it very seriously and was really listening to what I had to say, rather than waiting for an opportunity to start preaching to me once again, which has been my experience with ministers in the past.

But the real highlight of the weekend was being able to talk with Emily; we talked about books and houses and friends and family and churches and theology and teaching, and also quite a lot about blogging.  It’s interesting that, although we both have been blogging for about two years and have already had many a long conversation about it, we haven’t run out of things to say; the experience remains rich enough to require even more conversation.  Also interestingly, Bob is a skeptic about the value of blogging, so the three of us argued about things like whether blogging is democratic in the sense that it gets people with different ideas and beliefs in conversation with one another or whether it makes it easy for people to retreat into groups of like-minded people who never challenge each other, and so is contributing to the fragmentation and isolation of our culture.  Although Bob had other arguments against blogging, this struck me as the most interesting; I think that blogging is whatever you make of it, so it can lead to increased exposure to different ideas and people, but I suspect that in practice it often doesn’t.  I’m not sure.  Thoughts?

Emily and Bob live in the heart of Amish country, so I saw buggies and men with long beards and women in modest dresses all over the place, and also fields and farms and livestock.  We saw some of the tourist sights, including a little village with shops selling local cheese and fudge and jam, all of which I brought home samples of, and we toured the local market, which contains mostly organic and locally-grown food, and which I really want to have just up the street from me. I had fun at the Lancaster Brewing Company, although the ghost story Bob told while we were sampling their beer is still scaring me a little at night.

Among the unexpected things we did was to spend time at the local hospital and rehab center; Emily and I would hang out in the lobby and talk while Bob visited church members.  Bob seemed to feel bad for dragging us along on these trips, but I was fine with it, as the air conditioning was a blessed relief from being outdoors, and I really just wanted to talk with Emily anyway.  It also gave me a glimpse into a pastor’s life, and I have a new respect for all the hard work they do — it’s not just the frequent visits pastors make but the fact that each one could potentially be an emotionally wrenching experience.  I saw just how much a pastor’s job is never ending and isn’t really a job at all, but more of a lifestyle.

So, to conclude, if you ever get the chance to visit Emily, don’t turn it down!  You never know what bracing debate you might find yourself in or what local public institution you might visit.  Plus, there’s the frog shrine, which is not to be missed.

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Sneaking in a blogging moment

I’m at Emily’s house right now and am sneaking in a moment to blog while Emily and her minister husband are out doing ministerial duties — I just wanted to say that oh, my god, does Emily have a great house filled with amazing books.  This is a house to die for.  I want one just like it.

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More on Anne

Tomorrow I am leaving to go visit Emily in Pennsylvania; in addition to the pleasure of seeing Emily herself, I have something else to look forward to: she has promised to leave a stack of books on my nightstand for me to look through and perhaps borrow.  I’m very curious to see what she chooses.  I’ll be back on Monday.

For now I want to write a bit about my Anne of Green Gables rereading.  As much as I admire Kate’s plan to read the book slowly, I can’t follow suit; if I hadn’t had a busy couple of days and if I weren’t reading a few other books I would have finished the novel already.  I don’t think I’m capable of showing any discipline when it comes to that book; I can’t resist reading just one more chapter.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the source of Anne’s appeal is for me.  I’m not at all like her.  I don’t talk much, I have little imagination (at least of the sort Anne has), I’m not artistic, and I am not, as the narrator describes Anne, “feminine to the core.”  But of course I don’t have to be like a character to feel drawn toward her.  I suspect I’m much more like Diana Barry, who is different from Anne in a lot of ways too.  Diana doesn’t have Anne’s imagination or talent for coming up with ideas (or for getting into trouble), but she is willing to go along with whatever Anne proposes and is ardently devoted to her.  I could see myself happily being Anne’s sidekick.  As I read along I find myself wondering if Anne would consider me a kindred spirit if I met her in real life, and I can’t help but hope she would.  Perhaps that’s part of her appeal too — the reader can’t help but want to be a part of her inner circle, one of the chosen, one of those people who really gets her.

I’ve also been thinking about religion in the novel, something I’m pretty sure I didn’t pay much attention to as a kid, although perhaps I absorbed some important lessons without being aware of it.  I’m struck by Anne’s irreverence and her determination to stick to her own view of God and of people, no matter how much Marilla rebukes her.  This comes up, of course, in Anne’s doubtfulness about the value of prayer when Marilla first asks her to say her prayers at night (“Mrs. Thomas told me that God made my hair red on purpose, and I’ve never cared about him since”), and in her response to the minister’s prayers in church (“He was talking to God and he didn’t seem to be very much interested in it, either.  I think he thought God was too far off to make it worth while”).

It’s not that Anne doesn’t believe in God, exactly, but that God seems kind of beside the point in her life.  As Marilla describes her, she is a “freckled witch of a girl who knew and cared nothing about God’s love, since she had never had it translated to her through the medium of human love.”  She also seems to value her own perceptions of the world most of all, and she will admit to the existence and importance of God only to the extent that this makes sense to her. I don’t get the sense that Anne would ever subordinate her own instincts about life in order to conform to traditional piety in the name of religious faith.  She trusts herself too much to do this.  I find this attitude appealing; it’s a confidence I myself have developed only very slowly and mostly as an adult, but I wonder if I didn’t learn a little bit of it from Anne.

I also am struck by one particular way Anne talks about imagination; in the Aunt Josephine episode, the one where Anne and Diana incur her wrath by jumping into her bed in the middle of the night, she says this:

Have you any imagination, Miss Barry?  If you have, just put yourself in our place.  We didn’t know there was anybody in that bed and you nearly scared us to death.  It was simply awful the way we felt.  And then we couldn’t sleep in the spare room after being promised.  I suppose you are used to sleeping in spare rooms.  But just imagine what you would feel like if you were a little orphan girl who never had such an honor.

Anne is asking Josephine Barry to empathize with her and to do so through an act of imagination.  Here is one aspect of Anne’s imagination I care a lot about and hope to share — to be able to understand people, to put myself in their place, by thinking creatively and thereby, maybe, to refrain from judging them or from getting angry at them.  There is an ethical aspect to imagination, and I admire Anne for drawing on it here.

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