Monthly Archives: July 2008

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, written by a court gentlewoman in 10th century Japan, is thoroughly enjoyable.  It’s the kind of book best read in small bits and pieces, kind of like a diary, although it isn’t one, exactly.  In fact, although I didn’t choose to do this, you could take a hint from the book’s title and read a little bit of it as you hit the pillow every night.  The introduction to my edition explains that the meaning of the book’s title is uncertain, but that we can possibly imagine Sei Shonagon:

taking away her pile of paper to keep by her pillow and write, in the form of private jottings and as if purely for her own entertainment, a work that would redound to the credit of Teishi’s court — a work conveying the brilliant wit, exquisite taste and sheer ‘delightfulness’ for which that court had become known and which Sei Shonagon was felt to epitomize.

The book is made up of small sections, some of them as short as one line and the longest ones reaching to 10 or 15 pages.  Many of the entries are lists; Sei Shonagon will list, for example, “Things that make you feel nostalgic,” or “Occasions that induce half-heartedness” (including “Preparations for something still far in the future”) or “Things people despise” (including “People who have a reputation for being exceptionally good-natured”).  She will also list interesting place names or the names of flowers that sound good in poetry or names that are significant for one reason or another.

Other sections tell stories, many of them having to do with love intrigues and flirtation and cultured conversation.  There are many stories about men visiting their lovers at night and women waiting for the note that is sure to come after such a visit.  Sei Shonagon also writes about visits the court members make to one another and about court ceremonies and religious festivals.

An element of almost all these stories is poetry, which plays a surprisingly important role in Japanese court culture.  Again and again, Sei Shonagon tells stories about receiving letters with poetic allusions to which she must respond with a clever reference of her own, or stories about challenges to produce a poem on the spot, a challenge she must live up to, as she has a reputation for her quick wit.  There was a body of poetry that everyone — or at least everyone who hoped to succeed at court — had memorized, and which formed the basis of a whole system of communication.  You were expected to write poetry as well.  To write a bad poem was a deeply embarrassing thing, as was the failure to write one at all when one was expected of you.  To write a clever or beautiful poem could greatly increase your reputation and earn you respect.

The Pillow Book is fascinating for the glimpse it provides into a culture radically different from our own, and it’s also a pleasure to read for the sake of Sei Shonagon’s personality, which shines through every page.  She is an astute observer of the world and the people around her, and she never spares judgment, telling her stories and writing up her lists with a forthright, honest, and often funny voice.  One of the most famous passages from the book (it’s excerpted in my Art of the Personal Essay anthology) is a list of “Infuriating things,” and here’s a taste of it:

A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do and stays talking for ages.  If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation….

A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on….

It’s also quite disgusting to witness men getting noisy and boisterous in their cups, groping round inside their mouth with a finger or wiping their whiskers if they have them, and forcing the saké cup on others.  “Go on, have another!” they’ll cry, and they wriggle and squirm and wag their heads, and pull down the corners of their mouths in a grimace, and generally perform just like a child singing “Going to See the Governor.”  I’ve seen even truly great men behave in this way, and I must say I find it most offputting.

I also really hate the way some people go about envying others, bemoaning their own lot in life, demanding to be let in on every trivial little thing, being venomous about someone who won’t tell them what they want to know, and passing on their own dramatized version of some snippet of rumour they’ve heard, while making out that they knew it all along.

A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something.  A flock of crows clamouring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings.  A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.

A man you’ve had to conceal in some unsatisfactory hiding place, who then begins to snore.  Or, a man comes in on a secret visit wearing a particularly tall lacquered cap, and of course as he scuttles in hastily he manages to knock it against something with a loud bump ….

And I could go on … it occurs to me that this book would make an excellent source of memes.  Perhaps we should start an “infuriating things” meme?  Or how about “splendid things” or “things later regretted” or “times when someone’s presence produces foolish excitement” or “endearingly lovely things”?

Sei Shonagon is someone who becomes a companion as you read her thoughts and stories; I’m sorry to have finished this book and will miss her.


Filed under Books

Training updates

I just got home from another fun Tuesday night race.  In spite of the fact that I am officially burnt out on racing, I still enjoy the Tuesday night races, largely because I have no hope whatsoever of doing well, and so there is no pressure.  I just hang out in the back, watch what is going on, and get a good workout.  I like hanging out in the very back these days because from there I can see clearly what the people up front are doing as they ride around the corners.  That way I keep an eye on where Hobgoblin is — and he’s generally up front somewhere, usually winning or in the top five.  He’s leading the series by a ridiculous number of points.  At this point, I’m much more interested in how he does than how I do.

So my triathlon training is going pretty well, all things considered.  My feet don’t protest the running too much, although I run only a very little way.  I started with a mile and am all the way up to a mile and a quarter!  Yes, it will take me quite a while before I can run a marathon, but I hope to get there one day.  The doctor tells me I can increase my mileage by 10% each week or 15% at most, assuming I have no serious pain, so you can see how slow the whole process is.

But the big news in my training is that I am now taking swimming lessons.  I can get myself across a pool, and can even do it a decent number of times, but I can’t do it with anything like proper technique, so I decided to get myself some lessons before my bad habits get any further ingrained.  My teacher, who was very patient in the face of my occasional incomprehension, gave me some drills to do, and a workout to do on my own, and I’m so happy to have some direction, instead of just floundering around trying to figure out the right way to swim but not really getting it.

My goal is to run and swim three times a week and ride my bike four times a week, or perhaps three if I do long rides.  All that is easy to do right now, although it will be more of a challenge when school starts.  I had my eye on a September triathlon I thought I might be able to do, but I don’t think I’ll be ready for the running part of it.  But that’s okay — if all goes well, I’ll compete in triathlons beginning in the late spring, and that will give me plenty of time to figure out what I’m doing.


Filed under Cycling, Triathlon

The Boat

Nam Le’s book of short stories, The Boat, has an incredible range of settings, situations, and types of characters. The first story is the most traditional, the most stereotypical, perhaps (although this is not to say it’s not a good story), with its main character who is a student in the famous Iowa creative writing program. From there, though, we take off to Colombia and read about 14 year old hitmen (hit children?) and then to New York City, Australia, Japan, Iran, and Vietnam. Le writes about each of these places with admirable ease and assurance, describing them as though he knows the places and the people intimately (leading me to speculate about the author’s life, although I generally try to be more sophisticated than that).

The stories are all action-filled, each one centering on some highly dramatic moment, often a violent one. For example, the story set in Iran tells of political protests and arrests through the lens of two estranged friends trying to understand each other, and the Australia story tells of teenage love, jealousy, bullying, and schoolyard fights. The last story is a harrowing account of Vietnamese “boat people” on a journey that lasted much longer than it should have.

But these stories aren’t simply interesting for their plot; they are wonderfully written as well. Le’s sentences beautifully capture the characters’ exterior world as well as their interior landscapes; they often startle you with a brilliant image or an unexpected observation. At times the writing veers toward stream of consciousness as Le takes you deep into a character’s mind. Here’s a passage that shows how Le writes about action and consciousness all at once:

Finally the storm arrived in force. The remaining light drained out of the hold. Wind screamed through the cracks. She felt the panicked limbs, people clawing for direction, sudden slaps of ice-cold water, the banging and shapeless shouts from the deck above. The whole world reeled. Everywhere the stink of vomit. Her stomach forced up, swashed through her throat. So this was what it was like, she thought, the moment before death.

She closed her eyes, swallowed compulsively; tried to close out the crawling blackness, the howl of the wind. She tried to recall her father’s stories — storms at sea, waves ten, fifteen meters high! — but they rang shallow against what she’d just seen: those dense roaring slabs of water, sky lurching overhead like a puddle being mucked with a stick. She was crammed in by a boatload of human bodies, thinking of her father and becoming overwhelmed, slowly, with loneliness. As much loneliness as fear. Concentrate, she told herself. And she did — forcing herself to concentrate, if not — if she was unable to — on the thought of her family, then on the contact of flesh pressed against her on every side, the human warmth, feeling every square inch of skin against her body and through it the shared consciousness of — what? Death? Fear? Surrender? She stayed in that human cocoon, heaving and rolling, concentrating, until it was over.

How can you read this and not want to know what happens next and also not want to know more about this young person caught in horrible circumstances?

The stories have an interesting metafictional element too. The first story about the creative writing student seems highly autobiographical (particularly as the character shares the author’s name), and in it, the character grapples with the question of whether he should write about Vietnam. Ethnic lit., he is told, is incredibly hot right now, and he could exploit that trend with tales about his father, a victim of the war, and with stories about Vietnamese boat people. A friend tactlessly tells him:

You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans — and New York painters with hemorrhoids.

Interestingly enough, most of the stories his friend lists appear in Le’s book (the lesbian vampire story isn’t there, unfortunately). So the whole collection becomes an exploration of writing and identity. What should a person write about? Should a person write about his or her roots, particularly if that’s what people want to read about and if it’s more likely to get published? Should a person instead explore other worlds?

Le does both of these things, writing about the familiar (he himself was a student in the Iowa program)  and writing stories about Vietnam (the first story about personal consequences of the Vietnam War and also the closing story about the boat people) and also writing stories about places and situations that seem remote from him. The book seems to argue that a writer can have it all, can write about his experiences and can stray far from them. And why not?

I admire the way Le uses the opening story to prepare the reader for the rest of the book and the way that story gives it a kind of unity, while at the same time the collection as a whole is incredibly diverse. Added to this unity-in-diversity is a self-awareness I admire, a questioning attitude about the relationship of writers to their material. All-in-all, Le has managed to pull off a pretty wonderful feat with this book.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Short stories


Since I’m feeling intensely irritable at the moment (I’m fine, just tired), it seems a good time to point out how much I hated this article on so-called “reader’s block” (via The Literary Saloon).  Let’s just say that I will do my best to make sure I never use the phrase “reader’s block,” and if I ever develop an attitude like the author’s and make the mistake of blogging about it, please tell me and I’ll shut up immediately

There.  Now I’m off to read.


Filed under Books, Reading

Thoughts for Thursday

I seem to be having trouble blogging regularly this week. It’s low motivation partly, which surprises me, as I’d expect to have all kinds of energy because it’s summer and my schedule is much slower than usual.  But instead I feel sluggish. It’s also harder to blog this summer because I’m spending more time online than usual with my online class.  After an afternoon of grading papers on the computer, I just want to put the thing away.  Posting may be light for a while, although generally when I write such a thing here, my motivation comes back almost instantly.

My online class is going well, by the way, although summer courses have such a fast pace, I can tell my students’ energy is flagging, as is my own.  It will be over in a week, which is hard to believe, as I feel I’ve just gotten started.  I’ve had a few students not appear in the class at all, and some are there only occasionally, but the ones who are into it are doing a great job.  It’s fun to look through the discussion board and see them politely agreeing or disagreeing with each other, backing each other up, debating things.  I’m generally a nice person in the classroom (sometimes with some effort), but it’s even easier to be nice and friendly online, when I don’t actually have to see people.  I like seeing people, I really do, but it’s nice sometimes not to have to 🙂

As for reading, I’m almost finished with Nam Le’s The Boat, which I will write more about later, but for now I’ll say that I’m amazed at the range of material he’s got to work with.  The stories are set in various places all over the world and deal with an incredible variety of people and situations.  I’m curious what places and experiences the author has had himself, what ones he has learned about from other people, what ones he learned about solely through research, or what it was he did to get all that material.  I suppose what I want to know is the answer to that obnoxious question I would never ask an author: where do you get your ideas?

Finally, I realize I never wrote my final thoughts on Fingersmith.  I don’t suppose there is any real need for another review of the book, though, as it’s one that most people out there seem to have heard a lot about if not read themselves.  So I’ll just say that it’s a fabulous story, very well told, and if you like historical fiction at all, you’ll be likely to enjoy this.  I thought there were a few places where the pacing was a little off and a few places where the action was implausible, but that was very minor compared to all the pleasure this book offers.  If you read it, you will enjoy the story, but you will also learn interesting things about 19C London and how thieves operate and what it was like to be a woman at the time.  I’m looking forward to more Sarah Waters already.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading, Teaching

The Silent Woman

Thanks for all your comments about how you choose books; I enjoyed reading about people’s methods.  In addition to the Nam Le book of stories (which I’m now half way through and am enjoying a lot), I picked up Adeline Mowbray, a novel published in 1804.  I figured if I’m going to read something from 2008, I should also read something from an earlier century.  Both choices have turned out well so far.

But I never gave you my final thoughts on Janet Malcolm’s book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Silent Woman (first thoughts here).  In short, it was wonderful.  Litlove talked about enjoying nonfiction with “a bit of a twist to it,” and this book fits that description perfectly.  It takes familiar genres — biography and memoir, mainly, but also philosophy and literary criticism — and turns them upside down.  It’s a book about biographies, the various ones written about Plath and Hughes, and also a book about biography itself, the paradoxes of the genre and the trouble it can get people into.

Malcolm places herself in the middle of the book, describing her experiences interviewing the various people involved in shaping the Plath myth.  Each meeting becomes a little story, a vignette that reveals something about Plath or Hughes, or more often about the interviewee or about Malcolm herself.  By placing herself in the center of things, she acknowledges that biography is far from an objective form of writing, and that the biographer shapes the story almost as much as a fiction writer does.

The book is actually a little like a novel in the way that it sets out to tell a story and then keeps your attention so well you can’t wait to find out what turn the action will take next.  I usually read nonfiction slowly, but I flew through this book, drawn in by the fascinating characters — particularly Ted Hughes’s sister Olwyn, a woman you might see as a villain if you find yourself sympathetic to Plath or wanting to write a book about her (she was in charge of the Plath estate for many years), and Anne Stevenson, a writer who had a disastrous time working with Olwyn to produce a biography of Plath only to find herself villainized by Plath advocates (“libbers” as Olwyn calls them because most of them are feminists).

Malcolm says that any writer, including biographers, must take sides, and that she has taken the side of Hughes, defending him against those who have turned his life into a living hell by invading his privacy and pronouncing judgment on his most intimate moments.  But my sense is that in spite of her claims about the impossibility of objectivity and her obvious emotional involvement in the story she tells, she has produced a book as close to objective as is possible.  She may take Hughes’s side at times, but she also describes moments when her feelings toward him harden, and while she writes about how difficult and disturbed a woman Plath is, she also portrays her with great understanding and sympathy.  By being honest about her personal reactions to the players in this story, Malcolm earns the reader’s trust, or at least she earned my trust; I couldn’t help but feel that here was a writer doing her very best to tell the story as accurately as possible, and while she might fail now and then, she has succeeded as much as any writer can.

To give you a sense of what her writing is like (extraordinarily vivid, I thought) and what kinds of conclusions she draws about biography, here is a passage on the subject (lengthy, but worthwhile):

Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world.  The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.  The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity.  The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor.  He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses.  There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.  The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre.  The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.

Even if you are not remotely interested in Plath and Hughes (I am interested in them, although not enough to read traditional biographies; this book does, however, make me want to read more of their poetry), there is much to enjoy here.  Even if you aren’t interested in biography as a genre (which I suppose I am, although that fact surprises me, as I never realized it before), you will still like the book — in short, unless my description leaves you completely cold, read this!


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Moving on

So I finished my two un-put-downable books, and now I am in the slightly angsty position of having to choose what to read next.  Debby asked me recently how I choose my next book, and I have a few different ways, but I don’t use any one of them consistently, and I often find myself agonizing a bit.  The easiest way of selecting my next book is to pick up whatever I need to read for my next book group meeting.  In this case, that means I’ll be reading Nam Le’s The Boat, a brand new collection of short stories.  I don’t know anything about the book except that it’s gotten some good reviews and that my friends have liked it.  I’m excited to be reading some short stories again.

But I will want a novel to read too, I’m suspecting, and so will probably pick up something else as well.  If I’m not relying on my book groups to choose my books for me, the task is a little harder.  Sometimes I go with an impulse; I’ll just scan my shelves and see what jumps out at me.  Sometimes I go with a friend’s recommendation, which is what I did with both Fingersmith and The Silent Woman.  Sometimes I’ll have a desire to read a particular genre or from a certain time period, and I’ll see what I have on hand or can find at the library that fits the category.  Often I will try to think of what book would be as different as possible from what I just finished to get as much variety as I can.

But still, I rarely find the choice easy.  I make too big a deal of it, I know, but it sometimes seems that choosing a book is like making a statement about who I am.  If someone comes along and asks me what I’m reading, what will they think of my choice?  What will they assume about me?

But enough angst.  What shall I read?  Perhaps Adeline Mowbray or Shirley if I want to go with an earlier time period.  Perhaps Thomas Bernhard’s Frost if I want something edgier.  Perhaps Antonia White’s Frost in May if I’m in the mood for a Virago.  Perhaps Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker if I want something more contemporary.

Oh dear, maybe I should put the decision off until tomorrow … how do you choose?


Filed under Books, Reading

Two wonderful, entirely different books

There are two wonderful but entirely different books I’d like to write about tonight. The first is Keith Devlin’s The Math Gene, which Emily kindly loaned to me. I wrote about the first half of the book here (raving about it and going on about how much I like math). The second half isn’t quite as good as the first, but it’s still very good. What I like about the book as a whole is how much it covers and with what remarkable clarity. It has a whole lot to say about math, of course, including what it is, what it’s like to be a mathematician, how we learn math, what animals know about numbers, why some people think they can’t do math. It also has a chapter explaining one aspect of math — group theory.

But that’s only part of it. It also covers current theories in linguistics and the universal structure of language. And it also covers theories about how and why language and math evolved, and how the two are connected, giving a history of human evolution along the way. It’s a lot, right? And yet I never felt he rushed or skimped on anything. I was able to follow all of it.

The book was published in 2000, and I’m curious what new research has appeared on the subject subsequently (although probably not curious enough to do the work to find out …). I can’t say whether Devlin’s argument — briefly, that our ability to do math comes from the same brain capacity that gave us language — is right or not, but what interests me most about the book is not so much the larger argument, but all the information he gives about math, linguistics, and evolution along the way to make that argument. If you are at all interested in those subjects — or if you think there’s a chance you might be — I highly recommend this book.

The other book I wanted to write about is the latest in Ella’s Absent Classic series, The Folktales of the Bezai. I’d love to rave about this book, but I feel a little badly doing it, as it’s not something widely available, and I don’t exactly want to make anybody long for a book they can’t have (although if you come visit me, I’ll let you read it). The book does promise a catalog and more information if you email Ella (the address is on her website). This is a homemade book, and you can read about the bookmaking process here, here, and here.

This edition of Ella’s fake books has a foreword by Maurice Glassoni, Ph.D., which tells of the discovery of the papers of Josephine Winterbottom, a former student of Glassoni’s who supposedly disappeared while traveling in the 1930s. However, she left behind diaries and notes from the time she spent living with an unknown tribe called the Bezai. In these papers is a long manuscript recounting stories told about a man named Anah. The Folktales of the Bezai offers a small selection of these.

The stories work together to tell the tale of a journey Anah undertook to save a peacock who has been imprisoned in a tree. The journey takes Anah to many strange places where he undergoes adventures and meets challenges and sees many strange things. It’s a charming story, told with simplicity and humor. Each segment of the story ends with a proverb of the sort you often find in folktales; in this case all of the proverbs sound borderline nonsensical and borderline profound, for example, “For he who gambles must make cheese of his own heart,” and “For he who smiles with sharp teeth is not to be easily kissed.” None of the proverbs relate in an obvious way to the preceding story, which means you can simply laugh at them and move on, or you can exercise your imagination to try to find connections between the proverb and the story. I found the latter exercise kind of fun.

What I love about the Absent Classic books is the sense of humor underlying them. In this case, I found myself laughing during the story itself, but I’m particularly fond of the foreword, which is written by a professor who apparently is quite judgmental, stuck on himself, and not interested in seeing a former student of his succeed in any way. His disdain for Winterbottom’s anthropological work is clear:

As a reader of fiction, I can see little quality in the work — it is trite, sexless, and composed around proverbs that bewilder in their nonsensicality — perhaps a problem in the translation? — and as an anthropologist, I can see even less value in the tale ….

Perhaps one day the Bezai will be discovered or a very clever fraud revealed. Who can say? In the meantime, Mr. Bishop of the Absent Classic has decided to publish a small selection for the public’s amusement, and it is my sincere hope that it may interest a few readers in the study of folktales with genuine anthropological interest.

In other words, forget about my former student and buy my book instead.

The other wonderful thing about the book is its illustrations, which, a note explains, are copies of a series of “Bezai tiles” which were based on Winterbottom’s sketches of Bezai pottery. They are little pictures of birds and plants, presumably from the landscape in which the Bezai lived.

I am now eagerly awaiting Volume 4, which, I understand, is entitled “A Guide to Lost Colors.” I can hardly wait.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

Training update

I went swimming today!  And I ran!  And I raced yesterday on my bike and will race again tomorrow.  I’m becoming a triathlete, it seems.  My triathlon training plans got put on hold last February when I hurt my foot and decided I’d better stop running, but now they seem to be back on track.  My foot is still a little iffy, with some aches and pains now and then, but I’m seeing a doctor who helps tremendously — one who is a triathlete himself, which is a wonderful thing.  There’s nothing like seeing a doctor who really gets it.  There still is a chance my foot might get bad again, and then everything will go on hold once more, but there’s hope, at least.

The swimming was fun; I haven’t been in a pool to do laps in a decade or so, so I wasn’t sure how it would go, but I was more nervous about figuring out how things work at the pool — rules and etiquette and such — than about the swimming.  I found a nice motherly woman who I shared lanes with and who explained everything to me, so now I feel much better, and I’m excited about going back.  I hope to take swimming lessons at some point this fall.

Yesterday’s race wasn’t particularly fun; I’m feeling burnt out on racing right now, and with my fairly frenetic schedule of races I’m not really surprised.  I’m not enjoying the pack-riding aspect of racing right now — the aspect of racing where fitness, at least once you’re at a certain level, doesn’t matter as much as tactics and aggression do.  I’m no good at tactics and aggression, and I’m not really interested in getting better at them.  This is where the appeal of triathlons comes in; it’s a much more individualized sport where you’re racing against yourself as much as you’re racing against others.

My goals in yesterday’s race were to not get dropped and not to crash, and I accomplished both of those things without trouble, so that’s good, even if my finish wasn’t that great (12th out of 18).


Filed under Triathlon

Un-put-downable books

So what do you do when you are reading two books neither of which you can put down?  I can’t exactly read them both at the same time.  I’m stuck going back and forth between them. But that’s not at all a bad way to spend a weekend.

The first one is Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, which I’m already over half way through.  The plot starts off at a fast pace, and I’m dying to know how it all turns out, but, as is usual for me, it’s not just the plot that captures my attention — I want to know more about the characters.  The book fulfills that desire too; the second section retells the events of the first, but from another character’s viewpoint, so while the plot itself isn’t the interest here, the different interpretations each character has of what’s going on is.  I love the way this technique allows you to see how little the facts of a situation matter — what matters is your interpretation, the sense you make of those facts.  It’s a little disturbing at the same time, though, because it makes you realize how little solid ground of certainty any of us have to stand on.

The other book is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, a book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, the legends that surround both of them, and the way biographies have created those legends.  Litlove recently wrote a beautiful review of this book, which was one of the reasons I picked it up, and the other is that I’ve had my eye on Malcolm’s books for years, since they seemed to be the sort of nonfiction I like best — the uncategorizeable sort.  I have now determined that I need to read every book she has written; Malcolm is someone I will like no matter what she writes about.

The book has lots of information on Plath and Hughes, but mainly it’s about the afterlife of Plath and the sort of life-in-death experiences Hughes has had after her suicide.  It tells the stories behind the memoirs and biographies that have appeared, and the wars that advocates of Plath and those of Hughes have waged with each other over how to interpret their relationship.  It tells about Malcolm’s own experiences researching her subjects, and it also advances an argument about biography itself.

Both of these books, I’m realizing now, have much to say about the uncertainty of knowing anything.  The characters in Fingersmith think they understand and can control what is happening, but they discover, painfully, that they can’t.  The people in Malcolm’s book believe they understand exactly what sort of people Plath and Hughes were, and yet there are others out there who are equally certain the opposite is true.  There’s really nothing a person can do but flounder through all the uncertainty and hope not to get it too terribly wrong.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction, Reading

A reading meme!

The wonderfully talented Ella has tagged me for a meme, for which I am grateful, as I would like to post this evening, but am also feeling a little tired from the 46-mile ride I went on today, as well as the three-mile walk I took later, so my previous plan to post on The Math Gene seems like a bit too much work.  A meme is perfect.

What kind of book are you most comfortable reading? I love reading nonfiction, but I’m most comfortable with novels.  If I have the chance to read more than one book in a day, I’ll pick up the nonfiction first, and then turn to the novel as a treat.  I’ll usually read in a novel before I head to bed as a way to unwind from the day.  As for what kind of novel, I read more contemporary ones than ones from earlier centuries, although I love those too and am devoted to them.  In fact, I’d like to think of myself as someone who reads primarily in earlier centuries, but that’s just not true, especially these days.  I generally turn to literary fiction, although I can get bored by it — contemporary literary fiction at least.  When I’m bored by it, it’s time to turn to an earlier century.

What kind of book do you love to hate? I love to hate self-help books because I pretend to be superior to them, but the truth is that I’m not superior to them at all.  I have benefited from some of them and I’m sure I could benefit from others.  I just pretend otherwise.  I don’t like being this kind of snob … I genuinely love to hate religious self-help, though, at least of the conservative Christian kind, The Purpose Driven Life kind.  I hate Christian apocalyptic fiction too.  And I love to hate those personalized Bibles — the women’s Bible, the men’s Bible, the couple’s Bible, children’s Bibles, the Complete Personalized Promise Bible on Financial Increase.

What was the last book you surprised yourself by liking? I’m going to copy Ella on this one and say Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.  I haven’t read much science fiction, but this book convinced me I’m missing out on some good stuff.  I’ve recently taken up reading lots of mysteries, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

What was the last book you surprised yourself by disliking? Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart.  Bowen seemed like just my kind of author — psychological, character-driven, domestic.  I thought I’d like her as I like Henry James or Edith Wharton.  Instead I found the book dull and confusing.

What book would you take with you if you suspected you might be marooned in the near future? If we’re talking about the really near future, and the marooning wasn’t going to be long, something along the lines of being stuck in an airport for a few hours, I’d take along Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, as I’m deep into it and don’t want to quit.  What a great read!  If we’re talking something more long term give me all of Austen’s novels in one volume, please.

What forces you to read outside your comfort zone? Other bloggers!  Well, they don’t force me, but they encourage me by making some books sound so appealing I think I might like them even if they aren’t “my thing.”  Book groups do this too.  I never would have read H.G. Wells if it weren’t for a book group or Margery Allingham or Bruno Schulz or Charlotte Jay ….

If this meme looks fun to you, consider yourself tagged!


Filed under Books, Memes, Reading

Maisie Dobbs: An Incomplete Revenge

I recently finished the latest Maisie Dobbs novel, An Incomplete Revenge, and it was an interesting experience because this is the first in the series (of five novels so far) that I read in book form rather than listening to it on audio.  I have to say it was very different reading as opposed to listening.  I enjoyed the novel and got wrapped up in the story, but I found myself more critical of the writing and plotting than I was with the earlier books.

The story takes up interesting themes, particularly class and racial tensions; it’s set in a small town known for growing hops and every fall a number of people from various places and backgrounds convene there to pick the hops for a little break from the city and a way to make some money.  There are Londoners who come for some fresh air, including Billy Beale, Maisie’s assistant, and there are gypsies who set up camp for a while, working but keeping themselves aloof.  This creates some tension, as the locals resent the presence of these other groups, although they rely on them too.

But the tension in this particular town is even more complicated, as it has a dark and mysterious history, which it quickly becomes Maisie’s job to uncover.  During World War I (or simply The War, as they would have called it), a zeppelin raid destroyed one of the town’s families, and the memory of this violence still haunts the place.  No one wants to talk about what happened.  And no one wants to talk about the series of fires that have occurred around the same date every year.  No one is surprised by these fires and no one calls the authorities for help; they just put the fires out themselves and go on with their business.

So, as is usual in this series, the mystery revolves around the lingering effects of the war, and Maisie must help people face what happened and come to terms with it.  She must also come to terms with her own experience — in this novel she faces the death of her war-time sweetheart and needs to learn how to put that episode of her life behind her and move on.

There is a lot going on that I like — the historical aspect, Maisie’s own appeal as a character, the class/race tensions, the spiritual and psychological aspects — but I found myself reading with more of a critical distance than I expected.

One problem is that I thought the dialogue was awkward in places.  Now, I never noticed this when I listened to the earlier books on audio, and I find it odd that I would only pick up on it while reading the words.  If the dialogue is awkward, wouldn’t it be more noticeable when someone is reading the text rather than less?  Perhaps the readers were doing a particularly good job, or perhaps I’m wrong in my initial assumption.  Maybe my greater emotional involvement when I’m listening rather than reading means I don’t pick up on awkward spots.

Another issue is that I figured out the mystery, at least most of it, fairly early on.  I’ve said before on this blog that if I can figure out the mystery there must be some kind of problem with the plotting, because I’m terrible at figuring things out.  I never figure things out.  With this book, though, as the plot moved toward the conclusion I found myself just a tiny bit bored with it because there weren’t a whole lot of surprises left.

The truth is, though, that I’m more interested in the characters and the history than I am in the plot, so for me this issue ultimately didn’t matter all that much.  I still enjoyed reading this book, and I’m looking forward to future installments in the series.  I really want to know what happens to Maisie!


Filed under Books, Fiction

The Gentleman’s Daughter, continued

First of all, make sure to check out the choices for the next Slaves of Golconda group reading — everyone is welcome to participate!

I have now finished the second half of Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, and I found the second half at least as interesting as the first (which I wrote about here).  The second half contains chapters on “Prudent Economy,” “Elegance,” “Civility and Vulgarity,” and “Propriety.”  Some of these chapter titles don’t fully make sense to me, as the chapter on propriety is about all the public entertainments that were available to women at the time and doesn’t analyze the word propriety at all, but that’s a small quibble.

The chapter on “Prudent Economy” was particularly interesting as it was about women’s duties as household managers, and it emphasizes the point that maintaining a household was seen as a prestigious and important role, and women were determined to enjoy what power that role gave them and not let men encroach on it:

As the mistress of a household, the genteel bride tasted of administrative power and exuded quasi-professional pride.

Now, of course, being able to manage a household would be small comfort to a woman who wanted to do other things and couldn’t, but Vickery’s point is that many women did take pride in this work and it did require considerable management ability.

One of the hardest parts of this management job was dealing with servants; when people complained about a “servant problem” it wasn’t just idle and privileged complaining.  Vickery points out that servants’ wages rose throughout the 18C and opportunities for other kinds of work, in factories for example, became more plentiful.  So genteel women were constantly having to replace their servants, particularly their female servants, who were much more likely to leave than their male counterparts.  Vickery makes the job of managing servants sound complicated:

… in its staffing the household functioned like most eighteenth-century commercial enterprises.  In the acquisition, coordination, and direction of a range of different workers, the managerial effort of the genteel mistress-housekeeper was akin to that of a putting-out master or gentleman farmer,  and far removed from the received picture of the unruffled lady of the manor.

Hiring servants was one part of the problem, but maintaining authority over them was another:

The construction and maintenance of a mistress’s authority over her servants could not be taken for granted; a point reinforced by the detailed printed advice on the preservation of supremacy and widespread warnings about a lack of innate deference in the servile.

Now this makes me wonder what the experience of the servants was; I’m pretty sure I can’t blame them for running away so often, but Vickery’s focus is specifically on the experience of genteel women, so I’ll have to find out about that in another book.  She does say that women servants seemed not to worry much about whether they could get a good reference or not and that they were “strikingly independent and mobile.”

The chapter on “Elegance” covers women’s experiences with fashion, particularly clothes and household furnishings.  Vickery’s argument here is that shopping was considered a “form of employment” and was not a frivolous pursuit as some historians have assumed; women were not simply consumers buying up the latest fashion in order to compete with their neighbors, but rather shopping functioned as a way of establishing networks among women who would help each other get information and make decisions:

Beyond its instrumental role, the exchange of information ‘in the fashion way’ had wider implications for feminine culture.  Filling their letters with ‘fashions, flounces, and flourishes’, women shared doubts, advice, and experience.  Basic to female relationships was the exchange of consumer services.

The last chapter is particularly interesting, arguing that the possibilities for entertainment outside the home increased dramatically over the course of the 18C.  Vickery goes through many examples of what was available, including the theater, various kinds of musical entertainments, and other spectacles such as militia reviews, ladies’ processions, firework displays, magic shows, and trials, which were public.  There were also assemblies, masquerades, ridottos, musical parties, and routs, as well as pleasure gardens where people could gather and experience a greater degree of freedom (and also potential danger) than they found elsewhere.  Women also participated more and more in charitable institutions, as well as other kinds of clubs devoted to literature or science.  Many of these social opportunities were available in London, but increasingly they were also popular in outlying cities.

There is so much to learn from this book. I found it highly readable; it is an academic book, so she spends a good bit of time discussing what other historians have argued and arguing against their conclusions, but it’s interesting to learn about the debates that historians have engaged in about the time period.  Overall, it’s a great description of what women of the genteel classes in the 18C were likely to experience, and a good example of history that is a pleasure to read.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

The next Slaves of Golconda book

Stefanie has asked me to choose the next Slaves of Golconda book, and I’ve picked out four possibilities for people to vote on. Come on over and let me know what you think!

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Filed under Books, Fiction

4th of July ride

I rode my first century of the season today.  A friend of mine is training for an ironman, and she asked if we wanted to ride 100+ miles today, and of course I couldn’t say no.  So we set out at 7:30 this morning with a group of five: it was two triathletes, one road racer, and Hobgoblin and I.

The first part of the ride was good, except for some sprinkles, but rain when the temperature is in the 70s doesn’t bother me.  But then disaster struck: the other road racer all the sudden went down.  I was behind him, but I didn’t really see it; all I saw was bike parts flying across the road and the rider skidding across the pavement.  We never discovered exactly what happened, but it appeared that somehow his fork detached from his front wheel, sending the front wheel flying and snapping the fork in half.  The rider was okay, amazingly enough, suffering only some scrapes and road rash, as well as tearing his jersey.  No broken bones or head concussion.  His bike frame may be salvageable too.

The crash really shook us all, though.  I’ve been behind too many crashes and too often have had to slam on my brakes and swerve to avoid bodies and bike parts and then hope that the fallen rider is okay.  It can happen all too easily.

We waited for about an hour for the rider’s wife to come pick him up, and then we decided to keep our original plan and finish the ride.

From there on out things were better, although we wished our other rider could have been there.  The rain cleared out, although it never got sunny — which I can’t say I minded that much, as it kept things reasonably cool.  Our route was hilly (of course) and beautiful, through farm country in Connecticut and New York.

I was the slowest rider there, but up until the last hour or so I kept up with the others reasonably well.  Even in the last hour when I was tired and no longer felt like pushing very hard, I never got that far behind the others. We finished in around six hours, which is a good time for me.

It was a nice way to spend the holiday, and I hope to do more long rides like this one later in the season — and maybe ride even farther next time.


Filed under Books


I just finished Amanda Vickery’s book on women in the 18th and early 19th centuries, The Gentleman’s Daughter, and I enjoyed it very much; I learned a lot from it, it was very well written, and it had cool pictures — lots to like there!  I hope to post on it again soon.

But having finished one nonfiction book, my eye was just caught by two others, one of which has to do with the same time period as Vickery’s book.  It’s Posthumous Keats by Stanley Plumly, and I heard about it in a New Yorker review by Adam Kirsch.  I love Keats, and so any book about him would catch my eye, but this one focuses on ideas about death and immortality and is subtitled “A Personal Biography,” both of which sound particularly appealing.  Here is what Kirsch says about it:

Instead of simply recounting the life and analyzing the poems, Plumly pursues his intuitions through a series of linked essays, all of them concerned with aspects of the poet’s death and afterlife … Through this interweaving of themes and episodes—a “walk around in Keats’s life and art, not simply through them”—Plumly emphasizes, as a more conventional biography never could, the fatal, fated quality of Keats’s career. He shows how Keats, in a way that feels unique even among the doomed Romantics, became posthumous while he was still alive.

Everything about this appeals to me, from the pursuit of intuitions to the series of linked essays to the quotation about walking around in Keats’s life and art.  I do love biographies that take unusual approaches (although truthfully I haven’t read that many, which doesn’t make sense, but … it’s true).  This sentence from Kirsch was interesting:

To understand why Keats meditated so constantly on death, it is not necessary to look to his biography; one need only listen to his writing.

Plumly’s book is biographical, and yet from what I can tell from the review, it doesn’t look for easy answers in the biography, but makes more complicated arguments about the relationship of art and life.

Perhaps I should read a more conventional biography of Keats too, but this kind of book appeals to me more.

The other book that caught my eye also came from the New Yorker.  One of their short reviews mentioned Collections of Nothing by William Davies King, an autobiographical book about collecting things nobody wants, like food packages and labels and illustrations from old dictionaries.  Collecting as a hobby doesn’t really interest me, but something about a person who collections illustrations from old dictionaries does.  And I like the idea of an autobiography told from a particular slant.  Here’s what the review says:

What makes this book, bred of a midlife crisis, extraordinary is the way King weaves his autobiography into the account of his collection, deftly demonstrating that the two stories are essentially one.

Now that I think about it, midlife crises don’t interest me either, but still, I want to read this book!  The author strikes me Nicholson Baker-esque, and you all know how I feel about Nicholson Baker.  Plus the author spent hours in the Yale library “reading the most obscure books he could find.”  Doesn’t he sound interesting?

This is my favorite kind of nonfiction — the kind that takes a familiar genre such as biography or autobiography and tweaks it a little to create something new.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction