Monthly Archives: December 2008

Best reading experiences of 2008

Now for my last post of 2008. Thanks to everyone who visited here through the last year — I’ve greatly appreciated your company! I hope each and every one of you has a great 2009.

So, to my favorite books of the year. To be clear, this list will have nothing to do with the best books published in 2008; I read only five books from the past year, and only one of them is good enough to appear here (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle).  Undoubtedly, it was a great year for nonfiction. Nonfiction accounted for less than 30% of all the books I read, but I could easily justify a best-of list with nothing else on it.  I’ve raved so much about the books I’m about to list, that most of you will be thoroughly bored by them and are probably eager for me to move on to something else.  Still, if I’m going to write about my favorite books, these ones must appear (links are to my posts on the book):

  1. Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage.  This is a book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence.  I’ve never been a Lawrence fan, but that doesn’t matter — what matters is Dyer’s brilliant, original voice.  The book rages and rambles, and I happily followed Dyer wherever he wanted to go.
  2. George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone.  A friend gave me this book as a gift, and I’m so glad she did because otherwise I would have missed out on something wonderful.  I loved this book so much I’ve recommended it to tons of people, and in fact, I praised it so highly to Hobgoblin that he assigned it in one of his classes.  I hope the students liked it.
  3. Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman. Malcolm is a writer I’ll read no matter whom she writes about.  This book is about the reputations of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and the story of her researches into their lives and their biographers.  Malcolm makes fascinating material out of the way reputations are formed and biographies are written.
  4. Jenny Diski, Stranger on a Train and Skating to Antarctica.  I’ve raved about these books plenty already — no need to do it any more.
  5. David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster.  Wallace’s essayistic voice is so utterly charming and friendly, you don’t want ever the book to end, and you forgive him for being way, way smarter than you are.  He can make any subject he takes up seem like the most fascinating subject in the world.

Also really great: A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf’s Nose, and Joan Didion’s The White Album.  It’s a little absurd to list nine books out of eighteen as being especially great, but the truth is, they all deserve to be there.

But I read more than nonfiction.  Here are some of my favorite novels:

  1. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This book was incredibly odd, and that’s exactly the kind of book I like.  Even better, it’s oddness has to do with religion, a combination I find irresistable.
  2. Cormac McCarthy, The Road.  I’ll never be a huge McCarthy fan and read everything he’s written, but this one was powerful and haunting and hard to forget.
  3. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford.  This is a charming book, plain and simple.  Not a whole lot happens in it, but that doesn’t matter in the least.  It’s a book that will make you happy.
  4. David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  If Cranford makes you happy, this one will make you cry.  But it will awe you at the same time — it’s such a haunting story, so beautifully written, and so moving.
  5. Tom McCarthy, Remainder.  This one won’t make you happy and won’t make you cry — instead, it makes you think.  It’s an experimental, philosophical novel, one that makes you think about happiness, and also authenticity, self-awareness, and existence.  It’s odd and clever and fun.

Also really great: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (review to come).

Not a bad year, right?


Filed under Books

By the Numbers: 2008

Update: I finished another book and so have adjusted my numbers accordingly.

I’ve enjoyed analyzing my reading using some math in years past, so I can’t resist doing it again:

Books read: 63

Fiction (of any genre or length): 44

Nonfiction: 18

Poetry: 1 (although I’ve been in the middle of a second book for a long time)

Short story collections: 2

Nonfiction books about books and reading: 8

Female authors: 32

Male authors: 30 (including one writing under a female pseudonym)

Multiple authors, men and women: 1

Books in translation: 4

Books by authors from England, Scotland, or Ireland: 34

Books by Americans: 21

Books by Canadians: 3

Books by Japanese: 2

Books from the 11th century: 1 (Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book)

Books from the 14th century: 1 (Kenko’s Essays in Idleness)

Books from the 17th century: 1 (Milton’s Paradise Lost)

Books from the 19th century: 10

Books from the 20th century:  22  (first half: 8; second half: 14)

Books from the 21st century: 28

Books re-read: 4 (two of them I re-read for class and probably wouldn’t have otherwise)

Different books from authors I’d read in previous years: 11

The total number of books I read this year is in between the numbers for the last two years, which were 70 last year and 54 the year before (my previous by the numbers posts are here and here).  I think the drop in the total number from last year has mostly to do with the increase in my cycling and triathlon training.

I’m surprised I didn’t manage to read anything from the 18th century, although one of the books, Adeline Mowbray, is usually considered an 18th-century novel, even though it was published in 1804.  I’m embarrassed that I only read four books in translation.  That’s really bad. Maybe I can do better next year?  Compared to the last two years, the gender breakdown has been similar — I tend to read fairly equal numbers of men and women.  I also tend to read similar numbers of older and more recent books — I usually read around 11-12 pre-20th century books — and the same is true for the fiction/nonfiction breakdown.  It’s interesting to me that these numbers are consistent, when I don’t think about them when I’m choosing books and don’t check out how I’m doing during the year.

I don’t intend to make any reading resolutions for next year, but I might think about reading some pre-19th century books and more books in translation.


Filed under Books, Reading

Skating to Antarctica

Skating to Antarctica has confirmed for me that Jenny Diski is a writer I really love, one of those writers I’m incapable of being objective about and whom I will enjoy reading no matter what she writes.  I read Stranger on a Train earlier this year and loved it and this book was great too.  If I had to choose my favorite, I’d choose Stranger on a Train, although this may be for no better reason than that I prefer reading about America to Antarctica.  But both books have a similar structure and accomplish similar things: they are a mix of travel and memoir, and they tease out connections between her difficult childhood and her adult character.

I described this book to a friend, and as I was describing it, I realized that it sounds exactly like the sort of book I wouldn’t like.  I don’t normally go for reading about difficult childhoods.  While I like certain kinds of life writing, personal essays in particular, the word “memoir” makes me think of dull, self-indulgent books that are more about exorcising personal demons than creating art.  So I suppose this makes Diski’s accomplishment that much more impressive — in spite of my biases, I am ready to read about Diski’s difficult childhood in book after book.

What makes the book so good is her voice.  Diski creates a persona I can happily spend time with, no matter what she is writing about.  That voice is of the type I wrote about in an earlier post — brutally honest and not out to please.  She is who she is and you can take her or leave her.  She’s a contrarian, taking pleasure in seeing the world a little differently than everyone else, and this is an attitude I can appreciate, as long as the writer is witty and genuinely insightful, which Diski invariably is.  Done badly, this kind of attitude can be incredibly annoying, but done well, it’s delightful.

Skating to Antarctica is a book about whiteness — Diski’s desire to be surrounded by nothing but shades of white, which to her means a state of nothingness and oblivion.  She wants to get to the point where she has no tasks and obligations, where no one is making any demands on her, where there aren’t even any colors to look at.  I know this feeling, not about whiteness in particular, but about nothingness.  I feel that as long as I have things I need to do I can’t rest, and I want nothing more than days and days ahead of me with absolutely nothing going on.  Never mind that achieving this state would make me miserable (although I’m not sure this is true for Diski) and never mind the more important point that this state of nothingness is really nothing but death — I want rest and this seems like the only way to get it.

Spurred on by this feeling, Diski decides she wants to visit Antarctica, the whitest, most desolate place on earth, the place where she can get closest to her dream of nothingness.  Unfortunately for her, the only feasible way of visiting the continent is on a cruise ship, which means she has to share the experience with dozens of other people.  But since it’s the best she can do, she sets off on the trip, determined to find as much oblivion as she possibly can.

At the same time she is planning and executing her trip, however, life threatens to intrude into her dreams of peace — her daughter has decided she wants to find what happened to Diski’s long-estranged mother.  Diski has spent many years not knowing whether her mother is alive or not — and living in a state of happy ignorance.  In order to explain why it is she really, truly does not care to know whether her mother is alive or not (if you’re thinking it’s impossible not to care at all, Diski has a lot to say to you before admitting you’re right), she tells the story of her childhood, of her horribly mismatched parents, her tumultuous relationships with them, her time in and out of mental institutions, and her knack at getting kicked out of schools.

So Diski moves back and forth between her dream of escape — the whiteness of Antarctica — and the unfortunate fact that the dream is impossible to reach.  The choice is either to commit suicide, which while it was an option earlier in her life is not one now, or to stay enmeshed in the complications and obligations of life, however unwillingly.  I admire Diski for facing this vexing, impossible situation so bravely, and for writing about it so well.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Home again, home again

So Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I are back home after a trip to upstate New York to visit my family.  The trip was fine.  I complain about how hard it is to visit my family, but the truth is that they are totally fine and the problem is all with me.  I just read Litlove’s post about how hard it is to be sociable, especially when you are introverted and sensitive to other people’s feelings, and I recognized myself in everything she wrote.  There is just too much going on when I visit my family — too many people, too many emotions, too many memories, too much conversation, too much uncertainty.  And these days there are new people to meet all the time — new boyfriends and girlfriends (I have six siblings, all of whom are younger than I am), and I have to figure out not only what I think of them but what they think of each other and how they change the family dynamic for better or for worse.  This time around only two of my siblings could make it along with their respective boyfriends, but even though the numbers were relatively small (only eight people, including my parents, out of a possible 15 or 16, depending on whether my littlest brother is dating anyone or not), there was plenty to think about.  I’m tired.

I got a nice stack of Christmas books, though, which is the real point of this post.  First of all, a good friend sent me Bernard Malamud’s novel The Assistant. She said it was the best novel she’d read last year, and as she is one of the most discerning readers I know, I’m sure it’s good.  I read Malamud’s The Fixer quite a few years ago and enjoyed it, but this novel looks to be quite different, as it’s set in Brooklyn rather than in Russia.

On Christmas day I had a few books waiting for me under the tree; first of all, Hobgoblin gave me Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen.  I love Austen so much it’s a little ridiculous I haven’t read a biography of her yet, and after reading Tomalin’s bio of Samuel Pepys, I know she’s the one to read.  Then I got a copy of Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes, which my sister found on my Book Mooch wishlist (I made sure my family knew about that list, just in case they wanted help choosing books — there are something like 170 books on that list, so there is plenty of room for surprise).  After reading Litlove’s review of the book, I’m thrilled to own a copy.  I also got an eighteenth-century novel: Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline, in a beautiful Broadview edition.  Looking at the Broadview website, I see that there are dozens if not hundreds of books I’d like to order right now.  Finally, I got a copy of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, which I’ve seen highly praised on blogs and which promises to be a good read.

But that’s not quite all.  My dad wanted to go to Barnes and Noble on Friday to use his gift cards, so Hobgoblin and I joined him.  I wasn’t planning on buying anything, but I knew if something struck my fancy, I wouldn’t leave the store without it.  So when I came across David Foster Wallace’s book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, I didn’t resist.  It will make a nice contribution to next year’s nonfiction reading.  It’s clear where I got my book-loving genes from — I was exhausted and ready to leave the store a good half hour before my dad made his choices.  I had to retire to the cafe to rest up while he was still happily browsing.

I’ll be back soon to write a year-end wrapping up post or two …


Filed under Books, Life

I’m off!

Hobgoblin and I are leaving tomorrow to go visit my family in the Rochester, NY, area and will be gone until sometime next weekend.  I agree with what my sister said on the subject: “I’m staying until Friday or Saturday, depending on how sane I feel.”  Just because my family can drive me insane sometimes doesn’t mean I don’t love them, right?  The fun part of the trip will be waiting breathlessly by the phone to hear if my sister-in-law has had her baby yet (and to find out the gender, as she and my brother aren’t telling).  The uncertain part will be meeting my sister’s new boyfriend — he’s probably great, but who knows?  The fun-in-a-rebellious-kind-of-way part will be refusing to go to the Christmas Eve service (rebellion is easy when you come from the right kind of family).  The not-so-fun part will be the snow storm we will inevitably get caught in.  I just hope it isn’t an out-and-out blizzard, but we’ll see.

Enjoy Christmas, if that’s your thing; otherwise, have a great week!


Filed under Life

The White Album

I recently finished Joan Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album.  I surely have read some Didion essays before this, but I can’t remember any, and this is definitely the first book-length work of hers I’ve read.  It was one of those books that had been sitting around on my shelves for ages, since before I began blogging even, and I finally decided it was time.

I’m glad I did get around to it, and I’m glad I read it around the time I was reading Jenny Diski, because the two have some similarities in their writing style.  I’ve decided that I haven’t found enough female nonfiction writers like these two; perhaps this is my fault, and I simply haven’t found them, but it seems to me that I don’t often come across women writing nonfiction in their style — aggressive, blunt, prickly, scrupulously honest, and not out to please.  I put Mary McCarthy in this category too.  Virginia Woolf can write like this as well, except that she often does seem like she is out to please, that she could be much harsher if she wanted to, but she chooses to try to woo readers over to her side.  I suppose, though, that all these writers are out to please in one way or another, whether it’s obvious that they are or not.  At any rate, there is something about this style I find immensely appealing, and I have felt this way for a long time.

Does anybody else come to mind who might fit in this category?

The White Album is very much a book about the mood of the 1960s and 70s, particularly in California.  After the lengthy title essay, there are sections called “California Republic,” “Women,” “Sojourns,” and “On the Morning After the Sixties.” The essays in these sections take up a whole range of subjects, from Doris Lessing (Didion doesn’t like her fiction but admires her tenacity as a writer and thinker) to migraines, Hollywood, Los Angeles traffic control, Georgia O’Keefe, the Hoover Dam, and mall construction.  The range of topics is wide, but her style is similar throughout — direct and straightforward with relatively simple and short sentences, and brilliant at creating a mood and setting up a scene.  She tends to work by juxtaposition; in several essays she tells a series of stories not directly related but getting at a similar theme and leaving the reader to piece together all the meanings and implications.  She likes to let her stories do their own work — she lets them speak for themselves rather than rushing in to spell out the meaning herself.

The title essay works in just this way; in it, she tells a range of stories, each one working to capture the feeling of the time.  Among these stories is a personal one of her struggle with depression.  She tells part of the story herself, but she leaves some of the storytelling to a doctor’s report, which she quotes as length.  She introduces it with the words “another flash cut,” and follows it with this commentary:

The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers is me.  The tests mentioned — the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test, the Sentence Completion Test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index — were administered privately, in the outpatient psychiatric clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the “attack of vertigo and nausea” mentioned in the first sentence and shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year.” By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.

Then she moves on to tell stories about her neighborhood, about the arrest of Huey Newton, about watching The Doors recording an album, about student unrest at San Francisco State.  It’s a powerful picture, but Didion refuses to draw any conclusions about it or to bring the essay to any real closure.  In fact, the essay ends with this phrase, “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”  There are no pat answers or easy lessons to be drawn — instead what we have is a series of vignettes that capture a mood but don’t cohere into any overarching idea or argument.  I came away from the book remembering most of all Didion’s distinctive voice.

I recently finished Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, which is an entirely different book from Didion’s, but which left me with a powerful sense of voice as well.  I’ll write about that book soon.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

The Savage Garden

Mark Mills’s novel The Savage Garden is an entertaining comfort read, the sort of book that you don’t have to take seriously and one that can help you while away a cold winter evening (or a hot summer afternoon, or whatever).  I wrote on Litlove’s blog recently that all I ask from comfort reading is that it not annoy me with bad writing, and this one didn’t (okay, there were a couple awkward moments during the love scenes, but nothing unforgivable).

The novel tells the story of Adam Stickland who is beginning to write his thesis at Cambridge and finds himself invited to Italy to study the garden at the Villa Docci, just outside of Florence (all thesis subjects should be that easy to find! and they should all involve Italy!).  Upon arrival, he finds himself introduced to an entire cast of characters — the old Signora Docci, who is ailing but charming and flirtatious; her beautiful granddaughter Antonella, who, of course, is mysterious and captivating; their various relatives; the suspicious servant Maria; the attractive and sexually frustrated innkeeper Signora Fanelli; and assorted townspeople, each with their own uncertain past.

The novel takes place in 1958, and the town and the villa residents are still grappling with the aftermath of World War II, and especially with what happened one disastrous night as the German army retreated and violence unexpectedly broke out at the villa.  Adam learns that Signora Docci’s son Emilio was killed by the Germans under circumstances that are not quite clear.  Although the novel doesn’t read as a traditional mystery (it’s too desultory with the mystery aspects of the plot and it doesn’t have a real detective), there are two secrets at the heart of the story — one of them is the question of what exactly happened to Emilio, and the other concerns the garden Adam is set to research.  It’s a formal garden with statues of classical figures, and Adam finds it strangely unsettling.  It was created in the Renaissance by a grieving husband as a tribute to his dead wife.  Except there is more to the story, and it soon becomes Adam’s job to find out what that is.  He reads Ovid and Dante in an attempt to figure out the message the statues are meant to send, and it’s fun to watch Adam use literature to piece the clues together and solve the puzzle.

These two plots, these mysteries, keep Adam busy — when he’s not already busy pursuing Antonella or glaring at her suspiciously surly uncle or trying to manage his out-of-control artistic brother.  This book is such a fantasy — attractive, smart, insightful but not too bookish protagonist travels to Italy, meets beautiful women, solves mysteries, uncovers material for thesis, and generally has a good time.  What’s wrong with a little fantasy now and then?


Filed under Books, Fiction

Notes on Nothing

  • I’m in the midst of finals grading right now.  I had my last class yesterday, give my last exam tomorrow, and have countless papers to read.  I’ve calculated final grades for 11 of my 70 students.  59 to go!
  • I created a page on the blog for my TBR list (up at the top of the site), which includes both unread books I own and books I wish I owned.  Both lists are rather lengthy.
  • The most recent addition to the list is Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, which many people have recommended highly, and which looks like a very long, wonderfully entertaining read — perfect for winter.
  • I’m about to finish Joan Didion’s collection of essays The White Album, which I have enjoyed very much (more on that soon), and am in the middle of Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica.  I’m very excited about reading her new novel Apology for the Woman Writing, which is about a woman living during Montaigne’s time who becomes obsessed with his writing.  I love Diski and love Montaigne, so surely I’ll love this book, right?
  • I’m taking a break from my triathlon training because I’m injured again.  Sigh.  I’ve had hamstring/hip pain for a while, and was hoping it would go away, but it has refused to.  So I’m seeing a doctor about it and am hoping it will heal up quickly.  At least the weather outside is awful and isn’t tempting me to head outdoors.
  • Once I’m riding again, though, it will be extra fun because I have a new bike!  I was at the bike shop today to get it fit properly, and it looks nice.  It’s white — which isn’t my first choice of color, but we got a great deal on it and part of the deal was taking whatever color they offered.  Actually a white bike would be fine, if it somehow cleaned itself.  As it is, I’ll have to be better about keeping it clean so road grit won’t accumulate and look awful, and I do need to be better about keeping my bike clean, so it’s just as well.  It’s a Cannondale and has the name on the side in red, and it has a black saddle, black wheels, and black handlebar tape.  Nice color scheme, right?


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

Creativity and Romanticism

Cross-posted here.

In light of all the discussion over at Reading Gaddis about originality and creativity,  I was struck by the passage (on p. 89 in the Penguin) where Wyatt quotes Herr Koppel, his art instructor in Munich:

That romantic disease, originality, all around us we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original … Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way.  When you paint you do not try to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates … you do not invent shapes, you know them, auswendig wissen Sie, by heart…

Up to this point, I’d been thinking about originality and creativity in religious terms because of Aunt May’s diatribe about how being creative is usurping God’s role.  But Wyatt didn’t just get this lesson from Aunt May — he got it from Herr Koppel as well, who has entirely different reasons for critiquing creativity.  Herr Koppel, it seems, is an anti-Romantic; he looks back to the pre-Romantic era where artists didn’t value originality (at least not in the same way) and instead focused on honing their craft, which was best done by copying the masters.  You tried to internalize the best techniques that others had already mastered; you believed that there IS a set of techniques out there that constitutes the best techniques possible.

What Wyatt thinks of Herr Koppel’s view isn’t entirely clear; shortly before he quotes the passage I gave above, he says, “I felt like him, just for that instant, as though I were old Herr Koppel,” which leaves some room for distance or disagreement between the two.  But it does make clear that Wyatt has heard the message that originality and creativity are dangerous and undesirable from two different people in entirely different contexts, and it offers another reason why Wyatt’s relationship to creativity is so vexed.

It also opens the possibility that Gaddis is critiquing or responding to Romanticism in some way, a thought that became clearer to me when I came across this passage (p. 95, Wyatt is speaking):

Listen, this guilt, this secrecy, he burst out, — it has nothing to do with this … this passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour … what is it?  What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?  What do they expect?  What is there left of him when he’s done his work?  What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work?  the human shambles that follows it around?  What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.

The artist doesn’t matter; only the work does — in saying this, he’s critiquing the Romantic cult of the artist as genius.  The artist is really little but a conduit for the art itself — once the art exists, the artist doesn’t matter anymore.  Just two paragraphs later, he says, “There’s only one thing, somehow, he commenced, faltering — that … one dilemma, proving one’s own existence ….”  Not only does the artist not matter much, but apparently everyone has only a tenuous hold on their own existence.

This might help explain why so many things are unfinished in this novel, including sentences and conversations — there is very little that’s certain, very little to hold on to, no real reason to try to complete something and make it whole.


Filed under Books

Time for reading

The Booking Through Thursday question from this past week interested me:

1. Do you get to read as much as you WANT to read?

(I’m guessing #1 is an easy question for everyone?)

2. If you had (magically) more time to read–what would you read? Something educational? Classic? Comfort Reading? Escapism? Magazines?

Actually question #1 isn’t easy for me.  I often wish that I had more time to read, but the truth is that if I had more time to read, I’m not sure I’d use it for reading.  The thing is, I love reading (clearly), but there’s a limit to what I can read before I need to give my mind a break.  I can only absorb so much before I feel overwhelmed.  So as much as I sometimes long for hours and hours in which to read, the reality is that if I had them, I’d find myself getting restless and losing focus.

I think the issue for me is that I need a significant amount of time to process the stories and ideas I’ve read.  I’m similar in the way I deal with people — I love seeing with friends, but I need plenty of time afterward to process what happened, to think it through, maybe to turn it into a little narrative, to figure out how I might recount the day to Hobgoblin or to another friend.  Books are like friends in this way — I need plenty of time with them and plenty of time without them.

Anyway, if I magically had more time to read, and also had more endurance and focus for reading, I’d read more of … well, everything.  More classics, more contemporary fiction, more comfort reading, more nonfiction, more mysteries, more philosophy, more biographies, more essays.  A little bit of everything, please.


Filed under Books, Reading

Book Group

My book group met this afternoon to discuss Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, and it turns out we did have some things to discuss, in spite of my suspicions that we’d all say we loved it and then not have anything further to add.  It turns out the other members of my book group didn’t all love it as much as I did.  Some felt that all the attention paid to animals was troubling given what was happening to the humans in the story, and others felt the narrative jumped around in awkward ways and wasn’t as developed in places as it could have been.  The conversation was interesting to me because while I liked the book a lot, what the others said did speak to some doubts that were flickering around in my mind as I read, particularly the point about structure and narration.  As we talked, I was able to think through more clearly what my responses really meant.

Ackerman is doing something complicated in the way she narrates the story.  She has a short explanation at the book’s beginning about how she uses her sources, but after that she disappears completely as a narrator until the very end.  So the book reads something like a novel with a distant third person narrator who only occasionally gives the reader a glimpse into what is happening in the mind of Antonina, the zookeeper’s wife.  Those glimpses come from Antonina’s journal, but it’s easy to forget as you’re reading along that Ackerman was working from sources, since she rarely discusses them in detail.  Some people in my group felt the book would have worked better if it were pushed further in the direction of a novel, with more about the inner lives of the characters.  And I was wondering if it might have worked better if Ackerman had put herself into the narrative more by discussing the sources and the research directly.

But as it is, I think the book captures an important quality.  Without the obvious guiding hand of a narrator, the kind of narrator who gives shape and meaning to the story, it feels jumbled and little chaotic, which is the right kind of feeling to capture, given the book’s subject matter.  Ackerman seems determined to let the story speak for itself and not to become too involved in telling the reader what to make of it.  There’s a lot of room to draw your own conclusions and respond in your own way.  Her largely exterior point of view with only little bits and pieces of interior feeling leaves room for you to imagine what the people were feeling on your own.  The narrator doesn’t fill in the blanks for you.  This strikes me as respectful of the reader, and it also leaves room for some mystery — because it is a kind of mystery, I think, how and why people did what they did when they were risking their lives to save others.


Filed under Books

Intro to the Arts

So my Intro to the Arts (not its real name, but you get the idea) is almost over. We’ve done all the substantive work we’re going to, and now we’re preparing for the final. I have to say I’m very glad to be almost finished teaching this class for the first time; it went very well and I had a great group of students, but teaching it for the first time required a lot of preparation and was a little nerve-wracking. It will be easier next time around.

My students have been doing presentations on their creative project. They were supposed to create some kind of art work in any medium they wanted to, and then present it to the class and talk about what their creative process was like — where they got their idea, how it developed, wrong turns they took, difficulties they encountered, the number of attempts they made before they got it right, etc. It’s been a huge pleasure to see what the students produced and to hear them talk about it. I don’t think I should describe any of their projects in detail, as that seems like an invasion of privacy, but I got some paintings, some poems, some photography, and some projects that don’t fit any traditional category. Those uncategorizable ones were among the most interesting, as those students seemed to be creating something that related to their lives and came out of their experiences in a very direct and genuine way. I could feel the energy in the room as they talked about their work and as the rest of the class asked them question after question about how they created what they did and where they got the idea from.

It was fun listening to the students talk about what they learned. Many students discovered that creating art isn’t as easy as they thought it was going to be. Many of the students who chose photography had that experience — they thought, what’s so hard about taking pictures? But then they got out and tried it and realized that it’s a more complicated endeavor than they realized.

My students also had to go out and have some kind of arts experience — visit a museum, see a dance, go to a concert, etc.. I was reading their papers about the experience today and noticed that quite a few of them had tried something they had never done before; a few of them mentioned, for example, that they had never gone to an art museum as an adult. It’s a little sad that so many people have so little interaction with the arts, and I’m glad the course requires them to get out and see some art because at least it gives them a taste and they might want to go back and see more. The students wrote very well about how exciting and new their experience was and how much they enjoyed it. (They could, of course, just be trying to make me happy, but what they wrote seemed genuine.) We covered so much about various art forms in such a short period of time, but they seemed to have gained some confidence in their ability to understand and appreciate art. Even if they don’t remember any of the vocabulary we learned, I hope they keep that sense of confidence.


Filed under Teaching

The Zookeeper’s Wife

One of my book groups is reading Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, and I found it an engrossing read, although I do wonder how much we will find to say about it.  We’ll say things like, “wow, that was a great story” and “wasn’t it well-written?” and “can you believe how brave those people were?” and I’m not sure where we will go from there.  Maybe I’m wrong, we’ll see, but this book seems to find its power in narrative rather than in ideas, and ideas give you more to say in a discussion.

Anyway, it is a very powerful narrative.  The book tells the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the zookeeper and the zookeeper’s wife of the title, who are in charge of the Warsaw zoo during World War II.  They survive the initial attack on Warsaw by the Germans and then witness the atrocities committed against the Jews in the city, first the imprisonment of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and then their transportation to the death camps to be murdered.  Jan quickly becomes involved in the Polish resistance movement, taking risks whenever he can to undermine the German forces and to help save people’s lives.  Antonina manages their home, which she turns into a underground way station for escaping Jews and other people whose lives were at risk.  They often had crowds of people in their home, hiding during the day and moving around only at night.  Jan would smuggle people out of the ghetto and bring them to Antonina, who would then hide them and make sure the Germans who frequently patrolled the area never knew they were there.  Jan and Antonina — and many other people Ackerman describes — put their lives at risk countless times to help others.

Ackerman herself stays well in the background through most of the book, discussing herself directly only briefly toward the end to describe meeting some of the people involved in the story.  Rather than intruding herself into the narrative, she keeps the focus on her subjects, letting them take center stage.  This is a wise move, as the story needs no embellishment or authorial commentary and can stand very powerfully on its own.

In addition to telling the story of Jan and Antonina, Ackerman also describes the history of European zoos and the debates that were waged at the time, about, for example, whether animals should be expected to adapt to their new zoo environment as best as they can or whether zookeepers should try to create habitats as close to their natural ones as possible.  Ackerman also recounts the fascinating history of Nazi ideas about animals, in particular their attempts to recover extinct breeds of animals that they believed best represented Aryan culture.  By back-breeding — mating animals who held traits characteristic of extinct breeds in order eventually to recover those breeds — Nazis hoped to create an animal culture that mirrored their ideal human one.  They wanted pure-bred animals, particularly ones like wild horses and bison that demonstrated traits they valued — wildness, ferocity, and courage.  Just as they hoped to strip the world of human diversity, so they were devoted to a natural world that reflected their beliefs about racial and genetic purity.  It’s an ugly, not to mention unscientific, picture.  German scientists took advantage of their access to the Warsaw zoo to help advance their projects, and Jan and Antonina had to see many of their animals killed or carted off to Germany.  The story of human suffering the book tells is intensely moving, but animal suffering has its place too, and Ackerman’s descriptions of terrified, confused animals who didn’t understand what was happening to them were hard to read.

Ackerman’s writing is beautiful; it doesn’t draw undue attention to itself, but it does capture the landscapes and people and emotions of the story wonderfully well.  I have been planning on reading Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses at some point, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is confirmation that I should do so as soon as possible.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction


I was struck by a passage in The Recognitions about art and religion (p. 34 in the Penguin edition).  Can you imagine if you were a child and took your first drawing to your aunt with whom you live and who is doing most of the work to raise you, only to get this response?

Don’t you love your Lord Jesus, after all? … Then why do you try to take His place?  Our Lord is the only true creator, and only sinful people try to emulate Him … Do you remember Lucifer? … Lucifer was the archangel who refused to serve Our Lord.  To sin is to falsify something in the Divine Order, and that is what Lucifer did.  His name means Bringer of Light but he was not satisfied to bring the light of Our Lord to man. He tried to become original … original, to steal Our Lord’s authority, to command his own destiny, to bear his own light!  That is why Satan is the Fallen Angel, for he rebelled when he tried to emulate Our Lord Jesus. And he won his own domain, didn’t he.  Didn’t he!  And his own light is the light of the fires of Hell!  Is that what you want?  Is that what you want?  Is that what you want?

It’s astounding that poor Wyatt went on to draw anything at all ever again, but he did, burying his drawings in the back yard and feeling terrible guilt over it, doing it in spite of terror at his own damnation.

The religious argument is astounding as well (not to mention the level of the aunt’s fury) — that it’s sinful to try to be original and creative because that is the same thing as trying to take God’s place. It puts one on the same level as Lucifer and condemns one to hell.  I have had many quarrels with the religion of my youth, but this, fortunately, wasn’t one of them; I was taught not that creativity is an attempt to take God’s place but that creativity is one of the ways that we are made in the image of God and by exercising our creativity, we are expressing our true natures and following in God’s footsteps, in a respectful, loving way, not a proud, ambitious way.  How much nicer this idea is!

I’m very curious to see just how poor Wyatt, who will grow up to become an artist, is going to deal with this legacy of guilt about the very thing he will spend his life doing.  Surely the words “Is that what you want?” must have been lurking in the back of his mind for years afterwards.

Cross-posted here.


Filed under Books, Fiction

And now for something completely different

It doesn’t have to be all books and bikes all the time around here, does it?  I saw the “Homemaking, A-Z” meme over at Emily’s (who found it here) and thought it looked like fun.

Emily says that when it comes to homemaking, she plays a very important role; she’s the person everyone can compare themselves to in order to make themselves feel better.  She says everyone is cleaner and tidier than she is.  She says:

If newspapers, magazines, and books don’t congregate around your living room chairs, sprawling themselves in every direction; if your feet don’t stick to your kitchen floor; if your vacuum cleaner sees the light of day at least once a week; if things don’t fall on your head when you open cupboard doors; if you can actually see a dining room table, rather than what looks like piles of mail and junk levitating on its own; well, then you need to come to my house and start patting yourself on the back for being so tidy and clean.

Well, I’m guessing that if Emily came over to my house, she would start patting herself on the back for being so tidy and clean.  I’ve seen her house, but she hasn’t seen mine, so I’m in a position to know.  Here goes:

A is for Aprons – yes/no? If yes, what’s your favourite? Aprons?  Those are things you wear when you cook, right?  Don’t know anything about those.

B is for Baking – favourite thing to bake? I don’t cook and don’t own any aprons, but I have baked a loaf or two of bread in my life and have made batches of cookies now and then.  That was all years ago though.  If I had to do something in the kitchen, I’d bake bread — the smell!

C is for Clothesline – do you have one? No, no clothesline, but we do have a drying rack, which is usually covered in cycling shorts, since those aren’t supposed to go in the dryer.  I have work pants on there now and then too.

D is for Donuts – have you ever made them? No, never made donuts.

E is for Every Day – one homemaking task you do every day. I’m not sure I have one.  I do the dishes almost every day, but I’ll skip them if I can get away with it (if there aren’t enough dishes to fill the dishwasher — thank God for dishwashers, by the way!).  I never, ever make the bed.

F is for Freezer – do you have a separate deep freeze? No …

G is for Garbage Disposal Unit – do you have one? I don’t have one — well, unless I can say that Hobgoblin is my garbage disposal unit — he takes the garbage out every week.

H is for Handbook – what’s your favourite homemaking resource? Homemaking resource?  Don’t use those.

I is for Ironing – love or hate it? Hate it.  In fact, I make a point of not wearing clothes that need to be ironed.  I used to iron clothes now and then, but these days, if it needs ironing, I don’t wear it.

J is for Junk Drawer – yes/no? If yes, where is it? No, although it sounds like a very good idea.  All our drawers are already full though.

K is for Kitchen – colour and decorating scheme? The same as when we bought the place, and it will probably stay that way as long as we live here — light grayish blue counters, light blue on the bottom of the walls and white on top.

L is for Love – what’s your favourite part of homemaking? I don’t have one! Or no, getting it done so I don’t have to think about it for another …  long time.

M is for Mop – do you have one? Yes, because otherwise our kitchen and bathroom floors would get so disgusting even I couldn’t stand it.

N is for Nylons – machine or hand wash? Neither.  I don’t wear them.

O is for Oven – do you use a window or open the oven door to check? Open the door — usually to check is my bread is toasted or not, because that’s about all I put in the oven ever.

P is for Pizza – what do you put on yours? I tend to stick to boring old cheese and pepperoni, but I’ll have anything on a pizza except for mushrooms and olives.  Hobgoblin makes wonderful pizzas, by the way.

Q is for quiet – what do you do during the day when you get a quiet moment? Check my email and favorite websites, read.

R is for Recipe Card Box – yes/no? If yes, what does it look like? I used to have one when I was much younger, but the only recipe I remember having in there was a recipe for chocolate chip cookies (which were very good).

S is Style of House – what style is your house? A cape — living room, kitchen, bathroom and master bedroom downstairs (this is only because we couldn’t fit our queen-size bed up the narrow staircase), and two studies upstairs.  Hobgoblin and I can talk back and forth between the two upstairs rooms but still have some solitude and quiet.

T is for Tablecloths – do you use them? No.  Don’t really get the point.

U is for Under The Kitchen Sink – organised or toxic wasteland? It’s not organized, but I don’t think it’s a toxic wasteland either.  Just a jumble of stuff.

V is for Vacuum – how many times a week? I’m with Emily on this one; as she said, “times a week?”  Um … I vacuum when it desperately needs it or shortly before we have visitors over. Most often it’s shortly before we have visitors over.

W is for Wash – how many loads of washing do you do each week? I’m in charge of the laundry and do about 3-4 loads every weekend.  Often half of these loads will be workout gear.

X’s – Do you keep a daily list of things to do that you cross off? I keep a list of things to do for work but not for home (I keep the work list in an email, which I edit and then send back and forth to myself continuously).  Hobgoblin and I don’t write grocery lists either, which is a bad habit, as it means we are always forgetting something or other.

Y is for Yard – who does what? Hobgoblin takes care of the yard and I pitch in and help with things like raking leaves and shoveling snow.  He mows the yard unless he’s just broken a rib (which happens all too often …).  He’s very happy that our yard is only about a tenth of an acre.

Zzzz’s – what’s the last homemaking task you do before bed in the evening? Nothing, really, unless brushing my teeth counts.


Filed under Life

Beginning Gaddis

I am an entire 26 pages into Gaddis’s 950-page novel, and I thought I’d let you know how it’s going so far.  So far, so good.  I can tell it will be a slow read, but that’s okay — slow reading seems to be the thing these days anyway.  The story (as much of it as I’ve gleaned) is interesting, and while the writing can be dense — or maybe I should say that it can shift registers in a way that’s mildly disorienting — it’s enjoyable and entertaining.

I’m especially intrigued by how saturated in religious themes the book is.  You have the Reverend Gwyon who travels with his wife Camilla from America to Europe and poor Camilla dies on the way, leaving very strictly Protestant American relatives outraged that Gwyon is not bringing her body home.  Instead, he comes back with Catholic relics and icons (and also a Barbary ape) after having Camilla buried in a ceremony that would have shocked the relatives more than they could have handled, if they had known about it.  Gaddis’s description of these Christians is delicious:

Anything pleasurable could be counted upon to be, if not categorically evil, then worse, a waste of time.  Sentimental virtues had long been rooted out of their systems.  They did not regard the poor as necessarily God’s friends.  Poor in spirit was quite another thing.  Hard work was the expression of gratitude He wanted, and, as things are arranged, money might be expected to acrue as incidental testimonial.

Yes, that’s one form of American protestantism, all right.  As I understand it, the story is really about Reverend Gwyon’s son Wyatt, who at the age of four is already “finding the Christian system suspect.”  I’m curious to find out how he will respond to these religious roots.

I’m very grateful to Litlove for posting about the annotations to the novel.  Already I have made use of them and found out useful information like the fact that Gaddis doesn’t know how he would pronounce the name “Gwyon”; when asked, he said he doesn’t know because he had never said the name out loud (I find that hard to believe — surely he had to be saying it in his head all the time?).  The annotator says that the name should probably “be pronounced as one syllable, like ‘Gwynne,’ its modern form.”  I was relieved to hear that advice because a two-syllable “Gwy-on” doesn’t work very well.

But more seriously, the site has wonderful notes on all the references and also a plot synopsis that I’m sure will come in handy.  As a matter of fact, I feel a little ambivalent about using the plot synopsis regularly.  On the one hand, I’d prefer just to deal with the text directly and not depend on something like a plot summary to help me through any rough spots (the annotations are another matter — they are just footnotes in a different form).  On the other hand, I’m sure a plot synopsis will come in handy somewhere down the road when I’ve forgotten characters and events from earlier in the novel.  I think I will give up on the idea of having some kind of pure encounter with the text and gratefully use all the help I can get.

Cross-posted at Reading Gaddis.


Filed under Books, Fiction