Monthly Archives: September 2008

Ruth Hall

Fanny Fern’s 1855 novel Ruth Hall surprised me a little bit, partly in terms of its plot, but even more so in terms of how it is written.  The plot has a fairly traditional structure to it — a heroine happy but precarious, a heroine in trouble, a heroine in more trouble, a heroine in new kinds of trouble, a heroine saved — although within the traditional structure are some innovations.  The novel begins with a marriage rather than ending with one, which is a twist on the coming-of-age novel so popular at the time.  Fanny Fern actively resists ending the novel with a marriage, in fact, as she could easily have had Ruth accept Mr. Walter’s hand, but instead Ruth insists on staying single and supporting herself.  Also innovative, of course, is the way that Ruth engineers her own salvation, instead of relying on a suitor or a family member to save her.  The very point of the novel is her claim of independence and the success she has at insisting on it.

To me, the novel’s style is most striking, though, particularly the short chapters and the juxtapositions of varied scenes and character sketches.  The style is disjointed, with abrupt transitions from one character to another. Fern’s newspaper writing must have influenced the development of this style, as the chapters are similar in length to the essays Fern published (my book has a sampling of these essays, although I haven’t yet read them), the type of essay her character Ruth Hall became famous for.

This disjointedness works for me because of the way it offers a kaleidoscope view of the story, all the little pieces fitting together to create a sense of the society Ruth moved in.  The style also fits with Fern’s relative lack of interest in extensive detail or psychological depths; instead of long sections of text that delve into the details of a scene or the depths of a character’s mind, we get a quick sketch of a conversation or a dramatic moment, and then we are on to the next one.  Fern is very good with the telling detail and the revealing conversation that informs you of everything you need to know without belaboring the point.  This is not to say that the characters have no depth or that the narrative isn’t fleshed out, but what depth and complexity there is (and really Ruth is the only character that is coming to mind right now that has some psychological substance to her — or am I missing something?) is created through quick flashes of insight.

The book has some odd moments.  I couldn’t quite figure out the point of the phrenology chapter, one of the longest chapters, in fact, except that Fern wanted to make a joke about phrenology, which seems like an odd thing to in the middle of a novel.  And I didn’t understand the characters’ obsession with puns either.  The fact that Hall’s daughter Nettie likes puns makes sense, since this is possibly a way of indicating that she has inherited her mother’s facility with language, but Mrs. Skiddy likes puns as well, and she’s not exactly one of the sympathetic characters.

But I like the book’s oddness; it seems to fit with its comic tone, and it does have some wonderful comic scenes, especially those describing just how horrid Ruth’s family and her in-laws are.  You could not possibly have a worse extended family than Ruth has — they are people you can rely on to behave in as selfish and mercenary a manner possible.  Even though these people cause much of Ruth’s suffering, their ridiculousness is so unbelievable that they provide a kind of comic relief to all the gloom of Ruth’s life.

In a way, Ruth’s story is at odds with the rest of the book — her story is about suffering, hard work, sacrifice, and triumph; it’s very serious and sentimental stuff.  The rest of the book, though, is about the humor and the folly of humanity, with Hyacinth and his narcissistic preening, Mr. and Mrs. Skiddy and their marital battles, and those letter writers who foolishly hope Ruth will write their school compositions for them.  For me, all these disparate parts work together to create a lot of energy; in formal terms, the book is a bit of a mess, I suppose, but it’s a fun mess.

If you like, feel free to follow and contribute to the discussion of Ruth Hall over at the Slaves of Golconda blog and the discussion board at Metaxu Cafe.


Filed under Books, Fiction

The Aging Meme

Becky tagged me for this meme, created by Zoesmom.  Sometimes I ignore tags (sorry!), but this time I think I’ll be a good sport, so here goes.

At a certain age women should stop listening to what everybody else is telling them to do.

At a certain age men should stop listening to what everybody else is telling them to do.  (I ignore gender differences whenever I can!).

When I was a kid I thought I would be a teacher.

Now that I am older I am glad I’m a teacher (but I’m glad for different reasons than I would have expected as a kid.  As a kid I would have talked about wanting to help people.  Nowadays I talk about loving my summers off.  I was a better person as a kid).

You know you are too old to try something new when you’re in your grave.

You know you are too young to give up when you’re still alive.

When I was in high school I listened to the music of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, Beck.

Nowadays I find I spend much more time listening to audiobooks and NPR than listening to music.

On my last birthday I had to go to school to begin a brand new semester.

On my next birthday I want to take the day off (although I probably won’t — sigh) .

The best birthday present I ever got was my engagement ring.

The first time I felt grown up was when I taught my own class (terrifying!).

The last time I felt like a kid was … I don’t remember.  I was kind of glad to grow up and leave childhood behind.

When I read for the first time it changed my life. (And did it ever!)

Last year was pretty okay.  Bad things happened, good things happened … it was kind of normal.  It won’t stand out as a memorable year, I don’t think.

Next year I hope something really cool and wonderful and unexpected will happen.

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


Filed under Life

Intro to the Arts

I wrote last January about sitting in on an “Intro to the Arts”-type class in order to learn how to teach it myself, and now I’m actually doing the teaching.  So far it has gone well.  I wasn’t particularly pleased when a student I’ve taught in several classes and who is taking my Intro to the Arts class now figured out that I’m teaching it for the first time; I prefer to act as though I’ve got experience in the classroom even when I don’t.  It’s not that I need to be an expert all the time — I have no problem telling students when I don’t know something or acknowledging that in some fields they know more than I do — but it’s easier to feel like an experienced authority when the students think I am one, so the pretence helps.  And this particular class requires that I teach fields I’m not an expert in, so I need all the help projecting authority that I can get.

The class starts off with discussions about creativity (what it is and why we need it) and the creative process — how we go about fostering creativity and trying to find moments of inspiration.  Those discussions were fun, if a little abstract, but now we’re getting into the nuts and bolts of various art forms: visual art, music, dance, literature, and film.  We spend a few days (such a short time!) on each area, breaking it down into its elements (line, color, shape, space, and texture in the visual arts, for example) and learning how to use those elements to analyze various works of art.  Here is where I have to work hardest to know what I’m talking about because in some cases the students will know more about areas such as music or painting than I do.  But all those piano lessons I took as a kid are paying off, as, thank God!, I have some idea about things like 4/4 time and what a quarter note is.

The first major assigment the students complete is to look at one example of each of the five types of art we study and to write a response to it where they discuss their first impressions and their sense of the work’s meaning.  I’m reading through their papers now and am pleased.  The papers are fairly informal, which means they have the chance to respond personally, discussing emotions the work conjures up or memories it evokes.  The students who produced the best papers take this seriously, using their personal experiences to say interesting, new things about the art.

I’m also pleased at the way some of the students are trying their hardest to keep an open mind about the art.  I’ve asked them to watch a dance that they find challenging, mostly because it doesn’t have a clear narrative to it and so is hard to interpret.  They have to look closely at the dancers’ movements and use their imaginations to figure out what they think it means.  Several students described the process they went through while watching it — surprise, bewilderment, and frustration at first, and then after another viewing or two the inkling of an idea, and finally some confirmation after they came to class and figured out other students were thinking along the same lines they were.

It’s hugely satisfying to watch them go through this process and realize that some art takes time and patience to understand, and that the more they understand it, the more likely they are to enjoy it.  I don’t kid myself that all students are responding this way, but teaching is always like that — you reach some and consider that a success, and then you try to reach more.  The class scares me a little bit, I’ll admit, but it’s a good kind of scared.  It’s probably not so different from what the students themselves feel.


Filed under Teaching


This triathlon training … it’s fun but crazy.  For one thing, while I’ve been a regular weather forecast checker for a while now, I’ve become utterly obsessive about it.  If the weather this weekend doesn’t clear up, I won’t be able to get my rides in, and I really need to ride! Would it be too uncomfortable to ride in the rain when it’s 65 degrees out?  Am I that dedicated??  Probably not …

And another thing — this training means I’m out at all hours taking swim lessons.  I’m swimming with a masters group right now and the lessons are from 8:30 to 9:30 pm, which doesn’t seem that late, except that I like to be in bed by 9:00 or so.  And when I go to a late evening class, I usually can’t sleep afterwards because I’ve built up so much energy and adrenaline. It would be nice if the class tired me out and made me ready to fall asleep, but instead it perks me up and makes me feel wide awake.

And then I have days like today, where I got to school at 9:30 or so, stayed until 7:00 when my last class ends, drove home and stayed for about 15 minutes before heading out again to the pool.  And tomorrow I hope to wake up early enough to run before heading out to school again … all this means  not enough time for reading, I’m afraid.  I need somebody to agree to pay my salary so I can quit my job and train and read full-time.  Any takers?


Filed under Life, Triathlon

The Dogs of Riga

Now that the school year is underway again, I’m back to listening to audiobooks on my drive in.  I started the year off with Henning Mankell’s crime novel The Dogs of Riga, which I snatched up at the library after remembering that Kate from Kate’s Book Blog praised this series highly.  I think Kate was right — I enjoyed the book, both for its plot and for the main character, Kurt Wallender.

Wallender is a police officer in Sweden, and is the kind of character who seems much too nice and normal to get caught up in the kind of violent plots he finds himself enmeshed in.  He comes across as unassuming — he’s not particularly ambitious; he’s competent but doesn’t seem brilliant at what he does, or at least he doesn’t think he’s brilliant at what he does; he can make mistakes and bumble along like any average person.  And yet when he finds himself caught up in a plot involving international politics that could potentially put his life at risk — yes, he hesitates and agonizes over what to do, but ultimately he jumps into the fray.

The story begins with two men out on a ship who see two dead bodies afloat on a life raft; they pull the life raft closer to shore and then abandon it for the police to find.  Wallender is assigned the case.  Initially the case moves slowly, and Wallender has little idea where their few leads will take them.  But then the dead men turn out to be of eastern European origin and are traced to Latvia, at which point the situation becomes an international one and suddenly much more complicated.  Wallender travels to Latvia and has to negotiate a world that is entirely unfamiliar to him — it’s set during the time when the Soviet Union’s grip on eastern European countries is loosening and new forces are beginning to take its place.  The situation is complicated further when Wallender falls in love with the beautiful widow of a Latvian police officer.

The Dogs of Riga offers a satisfying plot, but it also offers much to think about, particularly in Wallender’s musings about the way the world seems to be falling apart around him.  The book has a mournful tone to it — Wallender himself is quietly sad — and much of this sadness comes from Wallender’s feeling that it no longer makes sense to be a police officer and to try to carry out justice in a society that cares about it so little.  He toys with the idea of applying for a job as a security officer and leaving his police work behind because of this loss of confidence in society and because of the toll his job takes on him personally.  He’s drawn back to the fight for order and justice, however; as much as he longs for a life that is simpler, he can’t quite leave his idealism behind. He’s a reluctant romantic — he wants a simpler, less complicated life, but at the same time when the chance comes along to be a hero and help a woman in distress, he can’t say no.

Listening to this book on audio worked particularly well because of the way the reader’s voice helped to create a sense of atmosphere.  I respond more emotionally to a book when I’m listening to it, and this means I get caught up in the character development and the excitement of the plot twists and turns that much more.  Now I’m left hoping that my library as more Mankell books on CD …


Filed under Books

Stupid articles about books

Now and then I love to criticize people who write stupid articles about books in well-known newspapers, and I have another chance today; if you want to scoff a bit, go check out this article fromThe Times on books you shouldn’t bother to read (via).  It’s by Richard Wilson, the author of Can’t Be Arsed: 101 Things Not to Do Before You Die, which is a book I’m pretty sure I don’t need to read before I die.  Yes, the author is trying to be offensive and stupid in his list, but even if you enjoy that sort of thing, it’s not particularly well done — the best he can say about War and Peace is that “it’s way, way too long.”  And he’s got Jane Austen on the list, complaining that he gave up on it after fifty pages because “the characters spoke in a very oblique way and it seemed to be all about hypocrisy and manners and convention.”  Actually, Austen’s dialogue isn’t particularly oblique (you’d think the author would love Hemingway’s relative straightforwardness, but he doesn’t — Hemingway’s on the list too) and hypocrisy and (bad) manners can make for very good reading. Here’s what he says about The Iliad:

The Iliad is one of the most boring books ever written and it’s not just a boring book, it’s a boring epic poem; all repetitive battle scenes with a lot of reproaching and challenging and utterances escaping the barrier of one’s teeth and nostrils filling with dirt and helmet plumes nodding menacingly. There’s a big fight between Achilles and Hector and that’s about it.

Why do people like this get published?  Why?


Filed under Books, Reading

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a moving, beautifully written, emotionally taxing, very well-told novel.  It’s the kind of book that’s difficult, not because of the way it’s written, but because of the direction you know the story is headed in — you get caught up in the novel’s world and want to stay in it, and yet you know things are going to go bad at some point and you dread the thought.

The novel is a retelling of Hamlet, a fact that shapes your experience of it one way or another.  If you are familiar with the play, then you have the pleasure of trying to figure out which character in the novel corresponds to which character in the play, and which plot event is a version of the play’s events.  The novel doesn’t follow Hamlet exactly, but it’s close enough that there are plenty of convergences to pick up on. You also have a general sense of the direction the plot will take and it’s satisfying to watch exactly how Wroblewski works everything out.

The risk of retelling a well-known story is that the reader might lose a sense of urgency or feel that what happens is too expected and familiar, and I did feel a laxness now and then when the novel followed the play particularly closely.  But the method offers plenty of other pleasures (although perhaps “pleasure” isn’t quite the right word, since we’re talking about a tragedy here), not least the experience of hoping against hope that things will turn out differently than you are afraid they will.

If the reader isn’t familiar with Hamlet, there is another possible risk, which is that some of the plot events may seem a little strange and out of place.  I read this book for a book group (which hasn’t yet met) and another member who hadn’t realized that it’s a version of Hamlet was a little startled to find that a ghost makes an appearance in a novel that is otherwise very down-to-earth and realistic.  But this friend said it was only a small jarring moment in what was otherwise a good experience.

If you do get the Hamlet reference, there is the intellectual pleasure of seeing just how Wroblewski reshapes a story originally set in a very different time and place.  He does this wonderfully well; with the possible exception of ghosts, there is no awkwardness in having a Hamlet who lives on a farm in Wisconsin in the 20th century and grows up raising dogs.  Wroblewski handles the relationships among the Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude characters marvelously well, and his take on Ophelia is astonishing.

But to set the Hamlet issue aside, the world of the novel is remarkably well-realized and his main character an appealing one.  Edgar’s life is simple — he attends school but spends most of his time working with the dogs his family is known for, the Sawtelle dogs, distinguished by their unusually strong ability to communicate with humans.  He and his mother and father raise and train the dogs, pouring their energy into them so that they are among the best-trained dogs available.

Edgar’s life is also shaped by the fact that he was born unable to speak, although he can hear normally.  This is a mystery to the doctors, who conducted test and after test on him but could never figure out the problem.  Something about this inability to speak gives him an unusually close rapport with the dogs, so close that his ability to train them sometimes suffers.  His companion, Almondine, is always by his side; she is trained to keep an eye on him and to alert the others if he is in trouble.  Her devotion to him — and his to her — is almost too moving to bear.

The novel’s point of view is most often focused on Edgar, with some chapters that shift to other characters and now and then even to Almondine, and Wroblewski often tells us what Edgar is thinking and feeling, but he rarely tells us what Edgar thinks of his inability to speak.  This fact is simply a given, something Edgar seems to accept.  (The one exception to this general rule is horrifying, however — all the more horrifying because of this earlier reticence.)  We also don’t learn much about Edgar’s life off the farm.  We know he attends school, but what his experience is like there we have no idea, and we never hear of any friends or outside interests or future plans.  For such a long novel, it’s remarkably focused on just a few people in a constrained setting.  This narrowness of focus intensifies the sense of doom that slowly settles over everybody; if things are going to go wrong, they are going to go spectacularly wrong and it will be a horrifying sight.  The farm is all that Edgar knows — it’s his whole world, and this gives him a strength and a vulnerability that are wrenching to behold.

This is Wroblewski’s first novel, and I’m very curious to see what he will publish next; this is a wonderful debut from a writer I hope gives us many more books in the future.

(If you decide to read the hard cover version of this book, I’d suggest not reading the front flap, as it gives away way too much of the plot.  After all I’ve said about Hamlet, you might think I’ve given away too much too, but the description on the front flap gives many more details than I have here, and I wish I hadn’t known them when I was reading.)


Filed under Books

Starting new books

I’ve just started some lovely new books that I would like to tell you about.  One is Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, which starts out at a fast pace, with a quick survey of the heroine’s childhood and then the early years of her marriage.  I am horrified at her struggle with her in-laws, who do their best to make her life as miserable as possible by ordering, manipulating, and guilting her into living as they think she should.  It reminds me of Evelina and the way that character got knocked around and ordered about by nearly everyone.  It’s painful.  But I have a feeling the action hasn’t really gotten going yet, and the book is about to take off in another direction.

Then I started Kenko’s Essays in Idleness, a collection of thoughts from a 14th century Japanese writer.  I picked up this book because of Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, which has a brief selection from Kenko.  I was utterly charmed by the very first entry (it is now on my sidebar):

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.

This is such a perfect description of blogging!  Or at least what blogging can be.  It doesn’t really describe my method, as I tend to keep my nonsensical thoughts to myself, but I enjoy reading bloggers who use the medium this way, and I love the idea of spending whole days doing nothing but jotting down thoughts.

While comparing Essays in Idleness and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, the editor of my edition writes that both books:

… belong to the random mode of composition known as zuihitsu (follow the brush) in Japanese.  This form — or lack of form — was most congenial to Japanese writers, who turned to it perhaps because it was less “dishonest” than creating fiction.  The formlessness of the zuihitsu did not impede enjoyment by readers; indeed, they took pleasure not only in moving from one to another of the great variety of subjects treated but in tracing subtle links joining the successive episodes.

Leaving aside the question of the honesty or dishonesty of fiction versus nonfiction (a point we could argue about for days), I’m drawn to this lack of form, the loosely associative kind of writing you find in essays and diaries and blogs.

Thinking of loosely associative kinds of writing brings me to my third book, Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, which I already have fallen in love with.  It’s a travel book, sort of, but also an anti-travel book, meaning that Diski seems to be fighting against the usual approaches to travel every step of the way.  In the book’s first section, she describes riding all day on the London underground’s Circle Line, which, as the name implies, travels in a continuous circle, so she never had to get off.  She would visit the library, find three books to check out, and read them as she rode around in circles underground.  This is a perfect introduction to a book that, so far at least, is about trying to stay still while moving through space, or maybe I should say it’s about the hope that moving through space can offer a novel way of staying still.  The next chapter describes a sea voyage she took that allowed her to spend three weeks doing hardly anything but staring at the sea.  She’s traveling, but really she’s trying to find a section of time where nothing at all happens.  As someone who believes that if only life would slow down and nothing would happen for a while I would be able to think and come to grips with things and finally do something, I find this immensely appealing.  Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure, but I can’t help but admire her for trying.

Diski might be trying to stay still, but her book wanders all over the place, through time and space and from story to philosophical reflection back to story.  It reminds me of Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, another travel book that is about learning to stay still, and which also has a difficult, prickly persona who meanders through places and ideas, trying to make sense of life.  This is another genre I need to read more in — the anti-travel travel book.  I wonder what other examples are out there.


Filed under Books

Used bookstore visit and a reminder

First of all, the reminder: the Slaves of Golconda are reading and discussing their next book soon — it’s Ruth Hall, and posts are due September 30th.  Anyone is free to join the group; just write about the book on your own blog and/or join the discussion at Metaxu Cafe.  It will be fun!

And now for the used bookstore.  I spend a couple hours yesterday afternoon with friends (three of whom have blogs!) browsing in the Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut.  This is no ordinary used bookstore.  It’s got multiple buildings, first of all, each of which is jam-packed with books, over 350,000, as I learned from the website.  These buildings vary in size and in their holdings; there is the main barn, which is where the store first began and which has all kinds of subjects, from African American studies to women’s studies and woodworking.  There is also an area called Ellis Island, which houses books new to the shop that haven’t yet been sorted.  You can shop here, but nothing is alphabetized.  Then there is the Annex, where the fiction is kept and where I spent most of my time.

There is also Hades, with this sign:

And there is the haunted book shop (horror, mystery, science fiction), the “last page” (travel, sports), and another building about a mile away, with a whole range of subjects.

And that’s not all — there also also sheds and tents and other makeshift spaces that hold books that you can look through on your way from one building to another.  And there were goats!  And cats too, and the shop owners offer coffee and donuts, just in case you tire yourself out from all that browsing.

It was a mix of indoor and outdoor shopping — people sat around on park benches and at tables scattered around the property, and you wandered indoors and out and hardly noticed the difference.  It was lovely!

Of course I came home with some books:

  • Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses.  I love Elizabeth Taylor and want to read as many of her books as I can.  This one is a Penguin edition, but it was also published by Virago.
  • Vivian Gornick’s The End of the Novel of Love.  This is a collection of essays on love in novels by people such as Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, and others.
  • Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate, a Virago edition.  The store had a lot of Viragos, and I could have come home with a dozen, easily.
  • Rosamund Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets, another Virago.  This is a sequel to her novel Invitation to the Waltz.

I will certainly be visiting this store again!  After shopping, our group went out to dinner and told stories of bike crashes through much of the meal.  These friends are readers, and they are also cyclists.  Who could ask for a better day, right?


Filed under Books


Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost is a strange and difficult book, and I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about it.  It was a book with very little plot, which I often like, and it wasn’t much like a novel, which I also like, but this one … I wasn’t sure I enjoyed what it had to offer in place of the usual things.  It was bewildering and unsettling.  It’s beautiful in places, dark and despairing much of the way through, with uncomfortable truths about life that I often agreed with but didn’t much want to think about.  It’s the kind of book that’s a challenge — it never lets you get comfortable or lose yourself in it.

In some moments I liked the challenge and was glad to grapple with its difficult ideas, and in other moments I just wanted the book to end.  I thought about quitting with it several times, but the insights I got now and then were enough to keep me going.

The novel centers around two characters, one of whom, the narrator, is a medical student who accepts a mission to travel to the little Austrian village of Weng to observe his mentor’s brother and to report back what he sees.  The mentor’s brother is a painter named Strauch, although he hasn’t actually painted anything in a long time.  Instead, he spends his time taking walks in the forests surrounding the village and talking with the locals.

The two quickly become friends — friends of sorts, at least — and take many walks together; most of the time on these walks the painter talks and the narrator takes it in.  The novel consists mainly of the narrator’s reports of these conversations, jumping back and forth between his own words and long stretches of quotation from the painter.

What the painter talks about is not always clear — sometimes he’s coherent and other times his long ramblings are full of quick, confusing transitions, vague quasi-philosophical musings, and rants against the people in the village and against humanity in general.  I haven’t decided if it’s better or worse that the narrator frequently declares himself confused as well — it makes me realize maybe I’m not meant to understand the painter’s speeches but then I can’t help but wonder what the point of it all is.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the way the narrator becomes more and more drawn into the bizarre world of the painter.  He is both attracted to and repelled by the strange man. He struggles to report back to the painter’s brother as he is supposed to do, but he loses the ability to think objectively about the painter and can barely find the words to describe his experience.  He starts to lose his sense of the boundary between himself and the painter, wondering if his feelings about the situation are his own or are actually the painter’s feelings that he has internalized.

I might have hated this book, but there is some great (though gruesome) writing in it; here are the opening sentences:

A medical internship consists of more than spectating at complicated bowel operations, cutting open stomach linings, bracketing off lungs, and sawing off feet; and it doesn’t just consist of thumbing closed the eyes of the dead, and hauling babies out into the world either.  An internship is not just tossing limbs and parts of limbs over your shoulder into an enamel bucket.  Nor does it just consist of trotting along behind the registrar and the assistant and the assistant’s assistant, a sort of tail-end Charlie.  Nor can an internship be only the putting out of false information; it isn’t just saying: “The pus will dissolve in your bloodstream and you’ll soon be restored to perfect health.”  Or a hundred other such lies.  Not just: “It’ll get better” — when nothing will.  An internship isn’t just an academy of scissors and thread, of tying off and pulling through.  An internship extends to circumstances and possibilities that have nothing to do with the flesh.

The book is fearless in the way it talks about ugliness, despair, and death; it’s bracing in the steadiness of its gaze at the dark side of human experience — or perhaps “the dark side” isn’t the right way to say it, but rather the dark truth of human experience.  I suppose some might see in the book some grisly humor; it isn’t all heaviness and seriousness, although the humor is pretty dark indeed.

I may have picked the wrong Bernhard novel to read; this is his first one, and from what I understand his later novels follow similar formats (one character reporting on the thoughts of another character) but are shorter.  This one could have benefited from some cutting; I would have been much happier (so to speak) reading 150 pages about existential angst and despair than I was reading 300.

I might be open to reading another Bernhard novel if anybody convinced me it would be worthwhile; I have nothing against reading dark, difficult books now and then, and it would be interesting to see what else Bernhard has done with his unusual method and style.  But I think I’ll need a while to recover from this one …


Filed under Books, Fiction


Triathlon training feels a lot different than training for bike races — it’s not just that I have three sports now instead of one, but that I have more workouts a week.  I used to ride 4 or 5 times a week most weeks, but now I’m riding 3 or 4 times a week plus running 3 times and swimming 3 times, so that’s 9 or 10 workouts instead of the old 4 or 5.  Since many of the workouts are fairly short, I’ve added only maybe 2 or 3 hours a week total to my training, but it feels like more because of the greater number of workouts.  Each workout requires its own preparation time and usually some time for stretching afterward, and getting to the pool takes some driving time.  And then I have to shower more, especially if I work out once before work and then again afterward.  It’s a lot!

But it’s fun, and it’s a great way to deal with work stress.  After my evening workout, I’ve completely forgotten about my day at school, which is a good thing, even if it wasn’t a particularly hard day.

So, about books.  First of all, I’m excited because Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder appeared in my mailbox the other day, a book I swear I read very good things about over here, but I can’t find the link right now. I also have Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata and David Lodge’s Author, Author on the way from Book Mooch.  Oh, and then I ordered Kenko’s Essays in Idleness when I read and liked an excerpt from Philip Lopate’s Art of the Personal Essay (I’ve still got the essay project going that you can see on my sidebar; I just don’t move very fast because every time I read a new essay I find another writer I like whose work I have to read in more depth).

And then I have a trip to a used book store planned with some friends this weekend, which, of course, will make this a very nice weekend indeed.

I’m now in the middle of David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle; this is a book Hobgoblin recommended to me, and while I often ignore his recommendations (and he ignores mine), he chose this one for our book group, and so I was stuck.  But I’m loving it!  (And of course I know that I should follow Hobgoblin’s suggestions more often, but it’s a tradition not to.)  It’s such a good story.  More on that later.


Filed under Books, Triathlon

How Novels Work

I’ve now finished John Mullan’s book How Novels Work, and I enjoyed it, with only a few reservations.  The book is a survey of the various technical aspects of fiction-writing; it has chapters on “Beginning,” “Narrating,” “People,” “Voices,” “Genre,” and so on, and each chapter is broken down into smaller sections on, for example, the various types of point of view, different character types, or various literary techniques such as the use of epigrams and novels-within-novels.  The book is a thorough and systematic introduction to the basics.

As someone who has studied literature for many years and taught it for quite a few as well, there wasn’t much that was new to me here, although some of the vocabulary I’m not sure I could have defined (I can never remember words like “prolepsis” and “ekphrasis”) and I had to look up the term “roman-fleuve” (which, oddly, Mullan doesn’t define).

But I think anyone who wants to know more about how novels work will enjoy this book and learn a lot from it, and for me, much of the pleasure of reading the book came from the way Mullan deploys his examples.  Mullan’s procedure in each chapter is to take one or two contemporary novels and analyze their use of the relevant formal element.  In fact, the book came out of a series of Guardian articles meant to explore contemporary novels that might be popular with book groups.

Mullan doesn’t draw solely on contemporary fiction, however; what I like about the book is the way he makes connections between contemporary novels and older fiction, particularly from the 18C, showing how recent writers are part of a tradition.  For example, in a section on “Addressing the Reader,” Mullan moves from Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones to Martin Amis’s Money, showing how each novelist tries to establish a certain kind of relationship with the reader by addressing him or her directly.  He talks about the rather strange continuing reliance on letters as a plot device in fiction, a reliance that made perfect sense in Jane Austen’s day, but not as much in ours.  It’s easy to think that writers are working in entirely new ways these days, and Mullan reminds us of the continuity of forms and techniques.

I did get a little tired of seeing the same books appear again and again as I worked my way through the book.  Mullan has his favorite writers (Ruth Rendell, Michael Cunningham, Mark Haddon and others) who make multiple appearances in different chapters, and while I can see how finding new examples might have been difficult (particularly since Mullan had that material from the Guardian articles already ready to go), the book does get a tad repetitious in places.  This problem may stem from the book’s source in those Guardian articles; the articles were organized around particular novels that Mullan used to elucidate a number of different literary techniques, so in the migration to a book organized by technique, the insights about particular novels necessarily got spread around into different chapters.

Still, I liked this book more than Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer (which I posted on here and here).  The books both attempt to dissect fiction into its parts in order to help readers understand it better, although Prose’s book is more focused on helping people who want to write, while Mullan’s is aimed more toward an interested, general reader.  Both books are most interesting in the way they use examples and both books offer a useful overview of the basics.  But Prose’s advice-giving tone bothered me at times — she’s clearly trying to get you to read in a particular way — while Mullan’s mode of analysis rather than didacticism suits me better.

Given my last two posts, you can see how obsessed I am with what makes a novel a novel.  It’s part of the reason I love studying the 18C, as it gives you a chance to see how it all began (unless, that is, you think the novel actually began much earlier!).


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

The Novel

I’m working my way slowly through Franco Moretti’s collection of essays The Novel, Volume I: History, Geography, and Culture and am about halfway through it.  It’s the kind of book that’s best for browsing in rather than reading straight through, except that I’m the kind of person who prefers to read straight through if possible, and this book rewards it.  I decided when I picked the book up that I would give up on any essay that wasn’t interesting, but I’ve quit reading only one essay (because it was horribly written, full of the worst kind of academic jargon) and have skimmed my way through only a couple more.  Otherwise, I’ve read and enjoyed each one.

The essays generally take up a time period and a country and give you an overview of what was happening with the novel at that time, so, for example, there are essays on the novel in 19C Japan, premodern China, 19C Russia, ancient Greece, medieval France, and early modern Spain.  There are also essays that take up a particular type of writing that is related to the novel or to narrative more generally and explain that relationship, forms such as midrash, myth, monogatari (a Japanese form), romance, and qissa (an Arabic form).

I just finished a section with some of the most fascinating essays in the book so far.  The essays in the section take up the question of book production and consumption in various locations at various times.  So, for example, the first essay analyzes how many novels were published in Britain from 1750-1830, as well as how many novels were published anonymously, how many publishing companies were involved in producing new novels, how many of the new novels were epistolary in form, and how many translated novels were published and from what languages.  There are similar essays describing the situation in the United States, Italy, Spain, India, Japan, and Nigeria, covering periods from the 19C into the 20th.  Each of these essays has lots of tables and charts, and each one makes an argument about how looking at statistics on book production and consumption can alter the accepted wisdom about each place and time.  Literary critics and historians tend not to be number crunchers, but these essays make the case for looking at the publishing and marketing context within which writers write.

There is so much good information here!  I’ve been tempted to write posts on individual essays as I’ve gone along, but it was the kind of thing that got pushed aside when I had other books to write about.  But if all this sounds interesting to you, the book is worth a look.

It is written by various people, though, which means the quality of writing varies, as well as the level of difficulty and the use of jargon.  My biggest complaint about the quality of writing is that many of the essays seem to presume the reader is already familiar with the field.  This would be fine, as it seems to be marketed toward academics or at least toward very knowledgeable general readers, except that the book covers so many fields that even an expert can’t be an expert in all of it.  With my academic background I’m pretty well equipped to read this book, and yet I still found some of the essays disorienting and difficult to follow because I lack a background in, say, narrative forms in ancient Greece.  I sometimes wanted a little more explanation, a little more by way of introduction to each piece.

But not all essays have this problem, and some of the best have made me think about time periods I’m familiar with in new ways.  One of the best essays is by Franco Moretti himself, and it explores, among other things, the role of “fillers” in fiction — those sections of a narrative where no major plot events, no turning points in the narrative, occur.  One of the main innovations of the 19C novel is the way it draws on this filler more and more; whereas 18C novels often have one major plot event after another in quick succession (unless you’re Samuel Richardson, I suppose), Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice gives us three major plot events and the rest of the novel is made up of smaller moments:

Narration: but of the everyday.  This is the secret of fillers,  Narration, because these episodes always contain a certain dose of uncertainty (how will Elizabeth react to Darcy’s words?  will he accept to talk with the Gardiners?); but the uncertainty remains local, circumscribed, without long-term consequences “for the development of the story,” as Barthes would say.  In this respect, fillers function very much like the good manners so important in Austen: they are both mechanisms designed to keep the “narrativity” of life under control – to give a regularity, a “style” to existence.

He then goes on to talk about the role of the everyday in the 19C novel — why it all the sudden became so important and what this has to do with the social and economic conditions of the time.

I’m only about halfway through the book, so I’m looking forward to what’s coming up, although at the rate I’m reading, it might be another half a year before I finish.


Filed under Books

My last race

Last night was my last race of the season — there are others I could do, but I feel as though I’ve done enough, and I have no desire to do any more.  It was a fine race.  It went as it usually did — I rode hard, stayed with the pack the entire way, and finished near the back, trying to stay out of people’s way.  Since I have no hope of winning these things, I don’t even try.  I’m there for the workout and the fun.

It’s been an odd year for riding.  I started out the year hoping that I might do a triathlon, but I had to give up that plan when I injured my foot.  My continuing desire to do a triathlon, though, meant that I became very aware of all the things I don’t like about bike racing.  I allowed myself to feel dissatisfied in a way I hadn’t before.  So even though I rode in lots of bike races, I was always thinking that I really wanted to do something else and that my focus would soon be elsewhere.  This is not a great mindset to have when competing in races, and I never did all that well (although I didn’t embarrass myself either — I did respectably).

Now my foot is all healed and I’m running and swimming as well as riding, and I still feel odd because I’m training in all these sports, but the first triathlon I’ll do won’t be until late spring next year, and it feels so far off and not at all real.

But at least at this point I can concentrate on one thing instead of feeling all scattered — or rather I can concentrate on three things, the three triathlon sports.  In running, I simply need to keep from injuring myself, first, and also work on endurance.  I can add in some speed work later on when my endurance has improved.  In swimming, I need to work on technique and endurance.  It looks like I may be able to attend a master’s swim class at least once a week this fall, and that should help tremendously.

In cycling I feel a little more uncertain at the moment, as my basic skills and endurance are there already, and the triathlons I’ll be competing in aren’t long, but it’s too early to be working on speed.  I suppose I just need to maintain my cycling fitness for now, and keep from getting burnt out on the sport.

After the race last night we had a little end-of-season party, and the race organizer gave out awards for the top 10 finishers in the series competition.  Hobgoblin got first place!


Filed under Cycling, Triathlon

The Explosionist

I really loved fellow blogger Jenny Davidson’s young adult novel The Explosionist; it was a good story with an appealing heroine and an interesting concept — what would the world be like if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo?  It’s an alternative history novel where the political configurations are nothing like what we know today — much of Europe is one entity that has taken over England, and Scotland, where the novel is set, is allied with various other northern European countries to form the New Hanseatic League.  These two groups are perilously close to war.

The novel is set in the 1930s and tells the story of Sophie, a teenager in Edinburgh who lives with her great-aunt and has a fairly normal life attending school and spending time with friends.  But her great-aunt has some peculiarities — she is politically well-connected and influential, for one thing, and she also has a strong interest in mediums and the spirit world and holds séances at her house.  In this alternate universe, though, this kind of spiritualist interest is more wide-spread than it is in ours, so the great-aunt’s involvement in it is only mildly unusual and not alarmingly strange.

It does become alarming, however, when Sophie attends a séance conducted by a woman who delivers a frightening prophecy and then ends up dead just a little while afterwards.  Sophie and her friend Mikael investigate the death and find themselves in a much more complicated situation than they ever expected — they run into trouble with the law, investigate suspicious politicians, communicate with the spirit world, and much more.

I loved the novel for a bunch of reasons; one of the main ones was Sophie herself, who is smart and thoughtful, and although she does doubt herself at times, which is what one would expect in a 15-year old who has to deal with some strange situations, she trusts her insights and her intelligence.  She knows that boys and girls, men and women, are equally capable and smart, and she makes sure she holds her own in her adventures with Mikael.  She believes just as strongly that children are basically young versions of adults and are capable of much more than adults usually give them credit for.  Her actions in the novel prove her point.

All the historical and cultural differences between the novel’s world and our own are a lot of fun to discover as well.  Many famous names appear in the novel, but they are famous for different reasons than they are in our world — Sigmund Freud, for example, has a talk show on the radio and blathers on about the Daedalus complex.  Albert Einstein writes poetry and James Joyce is famous for his operas.

And, of course, it’s a good story, too, with a plot that moves along at a steady, satisfying pace.  One of the most chilling parts of the plot has to do with an organization called IRYLNS, the Institute for the Recruitment of Young Ladies for National Security.  The acronym is pronounced “irons,” and its activities, which I won’t describe here, are horrifying.  Sophie learns more about it than she ever wanted to know.

Like all good young adult novels, this one is excellent reading for people of all ages.  If you’re interested, you’ll find an author’s blog here.


Filed under Books, Fiction