Monthly Archives: January 2009

Not Really About Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry

I’m trying to warn you that this post says very little about Winterson’s book Sexing the Cherry, so if you want a discussion of the actual book, as opposed to an analysis of my feelings about it, I would check out the posts over at the Slaves of Golconda blog.  There is just something about this book, and about Jeanette Winterson’s writing generally, that doesn’t sit very well with me, and I suspect this problem has more to do with me than with the writing itself.

To back up a bit, I first read Winterson during my very first semester in grad school when we were assigned her novel The Passion.  I liked the book, and I decided to write a paper on it, one which made some connections between Winterson and Virginia Woolf and drew some conclusions about modernism and postmodernism.  That was interesting, and I was pleased to be able to write about Woolf, whom I had fallen in love with just a couple years before.  And then I read a couple other Winterson books, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Written on the Body, and while I liked Oranges, I liked Written on the Body a little bit less, and then as time went on and I thought about Winterson now and then, I started to like her work less and less, and then I became profoundly ambivalent about it, and now after reading Sexing the Cherry I’m beginning to think Winterson is just not a writer who works for me.

I now think I was trying to like what I felt I was supposed to like, back when I read The Passion in grad school.  I did experience some genuine pleasure in reading the book, but I felt some uncertainty about it too, and I didn’t listen to that part of my response because … well, because everyone else loved it and because it seemed so smart and hip.  Winterson has a lot to say about our unstable identities, the uncertainty of space and time, the mixing of past and present, and all that stuff is so very postmodern, and I was all into postmodernism, and so of course I was going to like this book.

But … there’s something about Winterson’s writing that doesn’t work for me, and I’m trying to pinpoint what it is.  It has something to do with the fact that her books seem like they are written for the sake of the ideas rather than for the sake of the characters or plot, and I’d prefer it if they all fit together seamlessly.  But this can’t be the entire story, because I do like idea-driven novels very much, and if the ideas are interesting enough and the writing is good, I don’t mind if characters or plot are sacrificed.  And, actually, Sexing the Cherry has some great, memorable characters (I liked Dog-Woman quite a lot) and is mainly lacking plot, and plot is most often the last thing I care about in a book.

Another factor is that I’m not really fond of the fantastical, magical-realism stuff in Winterson’s work.  I’ve read some Rushdie and Garcia Marquez, and now that I think about it, I felt the same sense of queasy uncertainty when I read them.  Yes, they are smart, yes, they are great writers, and yes, they are important, but no, I can’t say I love their work.  I guess — and I kind of wish I didn’t feel this way — that I want realism to be realism and fantasy/science fiction/fables/fairy tales to be their own thing.  Generally I’m all for people breaking the rules, but it appears there are limits to my tolerance of disorder and rule-breaking and boundary-crossing and genre-bending.

And then there’s the mean-spirited, grouchy, cynical side of me that doesn’t like the light-hearted, playful, celebratory tone of the book.  The moments I liked best were the darker ones — the passages about how Dog-Woman and Jordan misunderstand each other or the descriptions of religious violence.  I wasn’t so fond of Jordan’s fantastical travels or the twelve princesses or the speculations about the fluidity of identity and the centrality of love.  And I don’t really like the prettiness of the language either.

But here I’m starting to go off the deep end a little bit, and you can see how I just don’t get along with this book and should probably just stop now.  I do understand, in an abstract, detached kind of way, how other people can like it; maybe this is just one of those matters of taste, kind of like the way I don’t like potatoes but I understand that most people do, and I’m fine with that.

Check out other people’s  posts here and the group discussion here.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Seduction and Betrayal

Elizabeth Hardwick’s collection of essays Seduction and Betrayal is fascinating reading.  She has essays on the Brontës, three women from Ibsen’s plays, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Jane Carlyle, and she finishes the book with the title essay, an examination of the figure of the betrayed woman in fiction.

Hardwick’s style is clear and direct; she writes forcefully, in sentences that seem to get straight to the point.  I’ve read Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights, and while the prose style may be similar (I don’t remember well what the sentences were like), the novel seems much more diffuse, more wandering and suggestive, than the essays.  I have to say I like the style of her essays much better.

Hardwick’s sentences are direct, but she still takes time to build up her argument about each author; she tends to make her case slowly, looking at instances from the life, some examples of the writing, and then slowly putting together a picture of how the life and writing fit together.  It’s as you reach the end of an essay that the picture comes into focus, and one of the most satisfying parts of the book is how this picture is both crystal clear and complex.

One of my favorite essays is about Dorothy Wordsworth.  In this essay, Hardwick describes Dorothy as extraordinarily dedicated to her brother, William; her life was focused on helping him write his poetry — taking long walks with him, reading and talking about poetry together, sharing descriptions of local landscapes and people:

Dorothy Wordsworth is awkward and almost foolishly grand in her love and respect for and utter concentration upon her brother; she lived his life to the full.  A dedication like that is an extraordinary circumstance for the one who feels it and for the one who is the object of it; it is especially touching and moving about the possibilities of human relationships when the two have large regions of equality.

As the essay goes on, Hardwick adds to this description of Dorothy a more troubling picture — she could be peculiar and intense and something like a Brontë heroine.  She was vulnerable and needed an outlet for her great amounts of energy.  We learn from De Quincey that she sometimes stammered and that her education had large gaps in it; he implies that she might have been happier had she not been quite so dependent on William to be the center of her life.  Hardwick ends the essay discussing the very impersonal tone of Dorothy’s journals, questioning why it was Dorothy revealed so little of her inner life:

One of the most striking things about the record she left of her life is her indifference to the character of her “dear companions.”  She could not, would not analyze.  There is more to think about the poets in a paragraph of De Quincey’s Reminiscences than in all of Dorothy Wordsworth …. We cannot imagine that she was incapable of thought about character, but very early, after her grief and the deaths, she must have become frightened.  Her dependency was so greatly loved and so desperately clung to that she could not risk anything except the description of the scenery in which it was lived.

And so we end up in a very different place than where we started, with a full and complicated understanding of what motivated Dorothy to write what she did.  Many of the other essays proceed in this manner, including essays about real people and about fictional characters.  Hardwick argues that Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is wrongly seen as foolish and flighty and suddenly turning serious at the play’s end, when really she is full of energy and a love of life and freedom all the way through.  Her carefree attitude at the play’s opening is an expression of this energy, as is her final dramatic decision at the play’s end.  Hardwick’s conclusions about Sylvia Plath are powerful and convincing:

In the end, what is overwhelming, new, original, in Sylvia Plath is the burning singularity of temperament, the exigent spirit clothed but not calmed by the purest understanding of the English poetic tradition.

Hardwick is also good at dealing with literary groups; she captures the spirit of the Brontë family and of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set very well.

All in all, if you like reading well-written literary criticism, this is an exellent book to pick up, and if you are unfamiliar with the genre and want to get a taste of it, this is a good place to start.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Monday or Tuesday

First of all, the dramatic reading of Edna O’Brien’s play about Virginia Woolf was very enjoyable.  It took place in a little theater in the basement below the Drama Bookshop, and I got to chat with some students who are in the grad program I graduated from.  Anne Fernald started off the program by reading a beautiful personal essay connecting her family reading history, her scholarly interests, and Virginia Woolf.  And then three actors read the play, which basically covered important events in Woolf’s life, most memorably her relationships with Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.  I would like to read the play, partly because this performance didn’t include the entire script, but mostly because it was beautifully-written, capturing Woolf’s spirit and her brilliant use of language.

I recently finished a book by Woolf herself — her short story collection Monday or Tuesday.  It doesn’t feel quite right calling it a short story collection, because many of the works are more like sketches or essays, and only one or two have anything like a plot (and that’s a bit of a stretch).  The book is very short — less than 60 pages in my edition — and it contains eight stories, some of which are only a page or two.  Each piece is experimental in some way; some of them are like prose poems and others, my favorites, follow a character’s thoughts or Woolf’s own thoughts, as they move from subject to subject.  The story with the strongest sense of narrative, “A Society,” is a humorous take on patriarchy.  It tells of a group of women who agree that “the objects of life were to produce good people and good books,” and decide they will go out into the world to see just how well men have done with these tasks.  They meet periodically to discuss their conclusions. Monday or Tuesday is very short, but I like the way it reveals many of Woolf’s preoccuptions — feminism, consciousness, and the power and beauty of language itself.

As I read along, I thought about how I would have reacted to the pieces if I’d read them when they were first published or if I had read them without knowing anything Woolf.  It’s impossible to know what I would have thought, but my guess is that I would have fallen in love with a few of the pieces and found others bewildering or off-putting.  The shorter, more poetic pieces (“Blue and Green,” “Monday or Tuesday”) left me a little cold.  I can see that Woolf is experimenting with language, but I had trouble piecing together exactly what was going on in them.  The feminist tale “A Society” is amusing and light, although with a serious point to make, and “Kew Gardens” interestingly widens its focus to describe the world from the perspective of a snail.  There are people in “Kew Gardens,” but they don’t have their usual privileged position and have to share the spotlight with the natural world.

The ones I liked best, though, the ones I would have fallen in love with even if I hadn’t known a thing about Woolf, are the stories specifically about consciousness.  There is “The String Quartet,” which follows the thoughts and perceptions of a person at a musical performance.  The narrator offers her own wandering thoughts, interrupted now and then by the conversations of others.  There is also “An Unwritten Novel,” a story about a train trip where the narrator observes a fellow-passenger and creates an entire life story for her, one that would explain her strange twitch and the unhappy look on her face.  The story is about the power of the imagination and of sympathy — and it’s about the way life is sometimes very different from what our imaginations conjure up.

The masterpiece of the book, though, is “The Mark on the Wall,” a personal essay that tells of Woolf’s thoughts as she sits near the fire and notices something on the wall, something she can’t quite place.  As she sits there wondering if it is a nail or a smudge, her thoughts roam from the small — wondering about the people who lived in the house before her — to the large — the mystery of life itself.  She wants to lose herself in her thoughts and so starts to tell herself a story, which she soon abandons to consider the complications of identity, and soon she returns to the mark again, wondering what it is, but too happily lost in thought to get up and investigate.  I love the way Woolf follows the stream of consciousness — this requires such a carefully crafted, contrived style and yet Woolf makes the flow of thoughts on the page seem utterly natural — and the way she uses the stream-of-consciousness style to contemplate thought itself.  As she records her thoughts, she makes an argument for the multiplicity and complexity of identity and the way art will reflect this in the future:

As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes.  And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted …

After reading the stories, I turned to the relevant chapter in Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and she talks about how the stories in Monday or Tuesday are like warm-ups for Woolf’s later experimental fiction.  “The Mark on the Wall” is more than that, but it does indicate what Woolf hoped to do in her own work and it helps us understand how to read what came later.

I’m slowly reading my way through Woolf’s fiction, which means that Jacob’s Room is next.  I’m a little frightened of this book, as I tried to read it a long time ago and didn’t do very well, but I’m counting on greater age and experience to help me out.  I’m excited to see what the second time through will be like.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Reading Notes

I’d meant to write about Virginia Woolf’s collection of short stories Monday or Tuesday, but that isn’t happening this evening.  On the subject of Virginia Woolf, however, I’m going to see a staged reading of Edna O’Brien’s play Virginia at The Drama Bookshop, performed by the Shakespeare’s Sister Company.  The play “encompasses Virginia Woolf’s mercurial inner life, as well as the relationships of her three great loves: her husband, Leonard; her lover, Vita and her greatest writings. Ms. O’Brien touches the heart and captures the essence of Virginia’s character and brilliant mind.”  Fellow blogger Fernham will be there giving a brief talk about Woolf.

And that’s not all — next weekend I’m going to see a performance of Woolf’s own play, Freshwater.  Until recently, I didn’t even know she had written a play.  It’s a comedy about Woolf’s aunt, Julia Cameron, a photographer.  I don’t usually connect Woolf with comedy, so it will be interesting to see what it is like.

And what else is going on in my reading world?  I recently finished Elizabeth Hardwick’s collection of essays Seduction and Betrayal; it’s a very enjoyable book that makes me wish more literary criticism were written as well as Hardwick writes it.  I’ve also finished Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, the Slaves of Golconda group read for January.  It’s a very short book (160 pages in my edition), so you have time to join us if you would like.  And now I’m reading another Jeanette — Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, for one of my in-person book groups.  So far it’s a very good read, rather harrowing in an un-put-downable way.  It’s a memoir of Walls’s childhood; normally I wouldn’t go in for that sort of book, but Walls’s story is captivating.

But there’s more … I’m still plugging away at William Gaddis’s The Recognitions; in fact, I’m approaching the halfway point in the book (it’s about 950 pages).  I’m not finding the middle sections as captivating as I found the beginning, but there is still much to enjoy and ponder.  There are moments of confusion, too, I’ll admit — it’s a challenging read — but I can generally understand what I need to to keep going.  I’ve also begun reading Montaigne’s essays as part of my ongoing essay project (the idea being to read as many essays as I can).  Montaigne is such a wonderful reading companion; he’s even interesting when he’s writing about battles and ancient history, two subjects that don’t generally interest me all that much.  But he is most fun when he is writing about himself, and I think he begins to do this more and more as the book goes on.  I have a lot to look forward to.

Finally, I’m slowly making my way through Wallace Stevens’s poetry collection Harmonium (I have the collected poems, but am only reading the first part of it, for now).  Stevens is an odd poet.  I didn’t realize that when I was familiar only with his most famous poems, but reading deeper into his work, I’m coming across lots of unusual vocabulary and strange images; I have had the experience over and over again of reading a poem and thinking it’s utterly bizarre, and then re-reading it multiple times and realizing that it’s beautiful in its strangeness.

The reason I’m a bit too tired to write a proper review this evening is that I spent the afternoon shopping — clothes shopping.  This is highly unusual.  I love book shopping, but any other kind leaves me feeling weary and miserable.  But I really, really need some new clothes and my birthday is coming up, so Hobgoblin arranged for the clothing-shopping expert at Musings From the Sofa to take me on a shopping spree.  If you hate clothes shopping as much I do, this is a great way to fill out the wardrobe a little bit; it’s so much better shopping with someone who can tell you what colors and styles work for you and can give you ideas and take you straight to the right shops.  I came home with some nice new things — and, very importantly, a promise that we can do it again.


Filed under Books, Life

Recent Acquisitions

I’ve gone on a bit of a Book Mooch spree over the last couple days, something I haven’t done in a long time.  But I can only let those points sit there for so long before the fact that each point can get me a book for free (or for “free,” since I earned points by mailing books to other people) becomes too much to contemplate, and I break down and use them.  I requested seven books recently, and that still leaves me with nine points — plenty left in case some really cool books become available.  Here’s what I got:

  • Henry Green’s Loving, Living, Party Going.  These are three separate novels, collected into one volume.  I’ve never read Green, but he’s someone I hear of now and then, not frequently, but just enough to keep him in mind.  I believe Francine Prose praised him in her book Reading Like a Writer, which brought him to my attention once again.  I could love him or hate him — I have no idea.  It will be interesting to find out.
  • Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  Here is another author I have never read and don’t know much about, so I am taking a bit of a risk with her.  It’s a memoir of her relationship with her mother.
  • Maria Edgeworth’s Helen.  I’ve read one Edgeworth novel (Belinda) and am looking forward to reading more.  She is an early 19C novelist; she sometimes writes about Ireland and Irish/English relations and was also known in her day for her children’s writing as well as her adult novels.  Helen was published in 1837.
  • Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault. I enjoyed Shriver’s novel The Post-Birthday World, and this one looks fun — it’s about a tennis-playing couple who become rivals and suffer from competitiveness and jealousy.  I’m not suggesting, let me be clear, that this is at all parallel to the experience Hobgoblin and I have racing bikes together!
  • Emile Zola’s Germinal. I’ve never read Balzac, and I’ve never read Zola, and this book seems like a good place to start.  I’ve been saying I’m going to read those two for years — maybe I’ll actually get around to it this year.
  • Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings. I like reading travel writing now and then.  Here’s a description: “In a 35-foot sailboat Raban traverses over 1,000 miles of often treacherous waters … Passage to Juneau is a lesson in comparative literature, the history of the Northwest’s Indians and the first European explorers, and a sociological treatise on class and technology. But most of all, Passage to Juneau is a fascinating navigation through Raban’s psyche — a brave interior exploration of family, relationship, and mourning.”
  • Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence.  I do already have one unread Pym novel on hand (No Fond Return of Love), but Pym is so good, it’s impossible to have too many of her books around.  And I’ve heard such good things about this one.

Now that my Book Mooch spree is over, maybe I can let my remaining points sit for a while …


Filed under Books, Lists

Two reviews

First of all — yay for President Barack Obama!  I watched the inauguration at school with a crowd of faculty and students, and it was exciting.  It’s amazing how much optimism I see and feel out there, and it’s wonderful to have something to feel hopeful about and proud of.  I thought his speech was great.  I was also immensely cheered to read this article from the New York Times about how important books and reading have been for Obama.  There is a lot I don’t know about Obama, but that article makes me feel like he’s someone whose mindset I can understand, unlike a certain former president of ours (it was such a relief to hear the words “former president George W. Bush”!).

But on to books.  I thought I would write briefly about two books today, in an effort not to fall too far behind in my reviews.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia are two very different books — one of them is quiet and serious and dark and the other is bright and comic — but they have a surprising amount in common.  They are both set in small, isolated towns in England where tradition reigns and newcomers are held in suspicion, and they deal with how tight-knit communities define and redefine themselves when change threatens them.  They also have similar types of characters — in particular, the gossip mongers and the matrons who pride themselves on supporting the arts.

But their differences in tone are striking.  Fitzgerald’s book tells the story of Florence Green, a widow with enough money, although barely, to buy a bookshop.  Her town has never had a bookshop and seems like the perfect place for one, given its distance from other town centers and its summer tourists.  Florence has settled on Old House, a building in need of repairs but with some promise, as the perfect place for her shop, but, unfortunately, Mrs. Gamart, the town’s most powerful woman, has had other ideas about how Old House should be used.  She wants to see it as an arts center, and she has ideas about who should run it and how.  But Florence takes her chances and bucks Mrs. Gamart’s wishes, and her bookshop opens.

The book is only about 120 pages long, and it’s tightly focused on Florence and her bookshop’s fortunes.  I’ll admit I found the tone of it a little uneven and I had trouble orienting myself in the story, but I’m not sure I was reading the book under the best circumstances and may not have done it justice.  I’m planning on reading Fitzgerald again to see if I can do better with another novel.  Eventually, though, the story clicked with me, and I was thoroughly involved in it when I got to the ending — which I won’t say anything about except that it’s incredibly powerful.

I’m wondering if this is a book someone English might be better suited to understand.  It took me a while to figure out just how to understand the characters, just what to make of the glimmers of humor that appear in an otherwise somber book, and I wonder if there isn’t something about the tone and mood that could be hard for an American to pick up on.  I’m not sure.  I’ve got Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which I’m looking forward to reading.

As for Queen Lucia, the book was also very English, but in such an over-the-top way that anybody who knows anything about the English and stereotypes of the English will find it amusing.  Queen Lucia, otherwise known as Mrs. Lucas, reigns supreme in her little town, dictating the artistic sensibilities and the social calendar of anybody who has pretensions of being anybody.  She plays piano, puts on tableaux, talks Italian with her husband, and is so very proud of her performance in all these things.  Her admirers, most importantly her two best friends Daisy Quantock and Georgie Pillson, glimpse now and then the fact that Queen Lucia is not quite as talented as she likes to think she is, but they are still reasonably happy to live in her shadow.

Until, that is, a guru shows up in town ready to teach them all yoga and universal benevolence, followed by a spiritualist ready to perform seances and communicate with the dead, followed, most devastatingly, by Olga Bracely, the famous opera singer.  With each of these intruders a fight breaks out over who will “own” them — who will get credit for introducing them to their small town and who will take charge of their social calendar, dictating who can see them and when.  Benson has a wonderful time delicately skewering all the characters with his light, satiric tone — and the characters really do do some ridiculous things, especially Queen Lucia — but it’s clear that he’s also fond of each of them, and no one is seriously hurt by the satire.  It’s just a lot of fun for everyone involved.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Life

A lovely day

Yesterday was a lovely day, the kind of day that does a lot to pull one out of the winter blues, even if it means spending a little more time than is ideal in temperatures in the teens.  Hobgoblin and I spent the day in New Haven with some friends, visiting the Beinecke library and then browsing through bookshops.  It was the first time I’d visited the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and it turned out to be a lovely place to go — it’s a modern building with marble panels that let the light shine through so it feels light even though there aren’t many windows.  There are special exhibits open to the public that wrap around the outer edge of the building with the middle part taken up by stacks and stacks of very old books.  This middle section is behind glass, so you get a view of some of the shelves.

The main exhibit yesterday was about alchemy, so we saw old textbooks on the subject, some of them complete with charts and models and pictures of very early chemistry labs.  I particularly liked seeing books where the reader had taken notes in the margins (writing in books is a good thing!  People in the future will be interested in your marginal notations, maybe!).  My favorite comment was something like this: “There is neither worth nor merit to be found in this chapter.”  Ouch.  There is also a Gutenburg Bible on display, which was marvelous to look at.

After staring at old books for a while, we went off to find old-but-not-quite-so-old books at the Book Trader Cafe, and after a couple hours there (it’s not a huge store, but the selection is great), we spent another hour or so at Atticus Bookstore.  I had a grand time looking through the books and an even better time talking about them, but I was remarkably restrained and bought only two books.  When I came across Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey I knew I would be bringing it home, given my developing Janet Malcolm obsession and Zhiv’s intriguing post on the subject.  I also couldn’t say no to the eighteenth-century novel Nature and Art by Elizabeth Inchbald.  I’ve read her novel A Simple Story and found it a very interesting treatment of mother/daughter relationships and problems with women’s education, and I’m looking forward to reading another of hers.

It was so cold yesterday, I really couldn’t help but have a couple lattes to help keep me warm, and those two large chocolate chip cookies I ate went so well with my coffee I couldn’t resist.  And what’s wrong with a little indulgence now and then, right?


Filed under Books, Life

Hmmm …

INTP – The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.


That’s my result for the “What type is that blog?” test.  I like the idea of being logical and analytical, but am I really arrogant and insensitive?  Perhaps this analysis doesn’t include comments, where I think I’m pretty nice … Thanks to Litlove for the link.


Filed under Blogging

The Assistant

14724782 Many thanks for all the well-wishes offered in response to my existential crisis post — I find your comments very comforting!  True to my nature, I suppose, instead of going to see the upbeat Slumdog Millionaire today, I chose instead to see the much more serious and sad Doubt.  But it was a wonderful movie, and I find myself convinced that while sometimes escapist books and movies are what’s called for, at other times, meaty, serious works can help make a person feel less alone.

And I am very glad I read Bernard Malamud’s novel The Assistant, even if it is incredibly sad.  It’s a beautiful novel, and a nearly perfect one.  What’s memorable about it is the emotions it evokes in the reader — you come to care about the characters and the hardships they experience and you find yourself unable to put the book down even as you’re ready to cry at what’s happening.  The novel is also important for what it says about America and the immigrant experience in the 1950s (it was published in 1957).  In this book, America is not the land of promise for immigrants; instead, it’s a place where a lifetime’s hard work can land a person with exactly nothing.  The characters spend their entire lives mistrusted and viewed with suspicion, at the mercy of hostile strangers.  They are particularly vulnerable because they are Jewish and are surrounded by anti-semitism.

The novel tells the story of Morris Bober and his family; Morris owns a small grocery in Brooklyn, which he and his wife run, with some financial help from their 23-year-old daughter, who has a secretarial job in Manhattan.  The business has had its ups and downs, but lately business has been particularly bad, especially since a bigger grocery opened just around the corner.  Even the tenant living upstairs from the Bober’s cramped apartment sneaks out now and then to visit the new grocery.  Morris and his wife Ida work incredibly hard, keeping the shop open 16 hours a day, seven days a week.  Only occasionally on Jewish holidays did the family ever take an excursion together, but in recent years, Morris has stayed almost entirely on his small block, and almost entirely in his small store.

It’s a lonely, isolated, narrow life, but Bober sees little choice but to keep on living it.  Ida has been urging him to sell the store, but he despairs of finding a buyer and isn’t sure what he would do with his life if he could find one.  Their hope lies in their daughter, and specifically in their daughter making a good marriage.  She would like to go to college, but can’t afford it, although she has managed a couple night classes.  She is uninterested or uncertain about the few men she knows; she would like to get married and have a family, and she would also like to please her parents, but she also has dreams of finding a relationship based on intellectual equality and respect, and no such prospect has yet offered itself.

Into this situation walks the assistant, a young man named Frank Alpine, who looks as though he has seen some very rough times.  No one knows where he came from, although he has a vague story which later turns out to be a lie.  He starts hanging around the neighborhood looking for odd jobs and eventually Morris takes pity on him, although he soon enough learns that Frank has been stealing bread and milk from him.  But Morris is good-hearted and understands that Frank’s life has been hard, and soon enough, although Ida resists this as strongly as she possibly can, Frank becomes an assistant and works for room and board and very little pay.

From here on out, the novel’s tension builds, as Morris comes to depend more and more on Frank, but Ida never gives up her suspicions of his motives.  She is particularly worried about Frank’s interest in the daughter, Helen — she is terrified that Helen might fall in love with a non-Jewish man, and her fears seem to be confirmed when she catches the two of them spending time together.

I won’t describe the plot any further, except to say that Malamud does a wonderful job with Helen’s character; he describes her complicated feelings very well as she is drawn to Frank but aware of how little she knows about him and how little reason she has to trust him.

The feelings the characters have for each other and the situations they find themselves in are heart-wrenching, but it’s a satisfying kind of emotional roller-coaster, as everything about the book feels vital and true.  Reading this book you can’t help but feel that you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Existential crisis reading

I’ve been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster lately; I’ve been going through something like an existential crisis, for reasons there is no need to go into, except to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people were experiencing something similar right now, given the state of the world, and this has made me think about how my reading relates to my emotional state. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who has no trouble reading depressing books, someone who can pick up bleak, despairing novels and come away from them filled with sorrow over injustice and sadness at suffering, but still able to put things in perspective and to figure out how to go on. I tend to think of sad books as offering bracing insights into the true nature of things, and I think of myself as someone who wants to know the truth about how things really are.

And I still believe these things about myself.  But my faith in my ability to read sad books has been put to the test lately, as I’ve matched my emotional roller coast experience with some incredibly sad books in such a way that has sent me reeling.  The sad books I’m talking about are Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, both of which I enjoyed (I will write about them in more detail later) and both of which made me despair.  It’s funny the way sometimes your reading matches your mood, and sometimes this works in your favor and sometimes it doesn’t.  I didn’t know what I was getting into with either of these books (I read one because a friend gave it to me for Christmas and the other because it’s been on my shelves for a while and I thought a book about bookshops might be nice), but it turned out they both had something to say about things I’ve been pondering.  I appreciate that chance or fate or whatever is bringing along books that make me think and seem to speak to me personally, but sometimes this kind of convergence can be overwhelming, and this is one of those times.

I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about comfort reading; it’s fairly new, actually, for me to consciously turn to a book for comfort.  I mean, I found comfort in books and retreated to them when other parts of life were overwhelming, but I didn’t tend to pick up specific books that I thought would make me feel better.  I didn’t have the category “comfort reading” in mind when choosing a book.  I would reread books now and then, which is the closest thing to comfort reading I had, but I didn’t tend to think of that rereading in comforting terms — it was just something I did when I felt like it.

This has changed lately, largely due to hearing other people talk about comfort reads, and I’m more aware of choosing books for their comforting qualities and more likely to pick up something light when I feel I need to.  But still, in spite of knowing better, there’s a part of me that feels that if I pick up a comfort read I’m seeking an escape that’s too easy.  It’s one more manifestation of the curse of the puritan work ethic, I suppose, a work ethic I’ve been thoroughly, soundly, completely cursed with.

I have, you will probably be happy to know, recently picked up a comfort read, and many thanks to Musings from the Sofa for lending me a particularly good one — it’s E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia, and so far it’s been a lot of fun.  It’s probably exactly what I need.  I think I’ll go read a bit of it and see if it makes me feel better.


Filed under Books, Life, Reading

Sherlock Holmes

My mystery book group read two Arthur Conan Doyle novellas for its last meeting: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.  I think I read some Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid because I remember the volume my father owned, and I remember  pulling it down off the shelves and reading at least some of it.  But I have no memory of the actual stories, so this is essentially a first reading.

It’s interesting to read the books now that I know at least a little something about the Victorian era, because they seem so much of their time.  They are obsessed with rationality and order, with list-making and codification and analysis, which suits a culture undergoing industrialization and running an empire.  But they are also obsessed with all that they feared could undermine these things, most especially with the dangerous, uncertain colonial periphery — a good chunk of A Study in Scarlet is about the Mormons out in the wild west of America (not colonial, obviously, but a threatening boundary area) and The Sign of Four uses the 1857 Indian mutiny as a backdrop.  I was interested in the fact that so much of A Study in Scarlet is given over to the Mormon story; in an abrupt, disorienting shift, you all the sudden find yourself whisked away from London out to the hot desert and suddenly you are reading a romance or what could be the plot of a western movie.  It’s as though the book didn’t quite know what it wanted to be, as though it’s trying to bring in as much material as it possibly can and tame it all and make it all make sense, and it only partially succeeds.

The books also seem very much of their time in terms of their narrative structure — the focus of the books seems to be Sherlock Holmes, but he isn’t the narrator and we don’t have an anonymous third person narrator who focuses closely on him.  Instead we have Watson, who, with the exception of the American section, tells us about Holmes from his own first-person perspective.  There is a distancing effect from what seems to be the main show, so instead of getting Holmes directly, we get him filtered through another character.  This reminds me of the structure of The Great Gatsby, but all the other models for this type of narrative that come to mind are 19th century — Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Jekyll and Hyde. This structure puts more emphasis on the relationships among the characters, so what is interesting about the Holmes books becomes the relationship between Watson and Holmes, rather than just Holmes himself.

And without Watson, Holmes would seem even odder and more bizarre than he already does.  He’s a manic-depressive drug addict, after all, and although his drug use was perfectly legal at the time, it still is a striking feature of his character.  He makes it clear that he solves mysteries in order to keep from falling into boredom and depression, and when he doesn’t have a case to keep his mind active, his drugs keep him from despair.  When Watson asks him if he is currently working on a case, this is his answer:

None.  Hence the cocaine.  I cannot live without brainwork.  What else is there to live for?  Stand at the window here.  Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world?  See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-colored houses.  What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material?  What is the use of having powers, Doctor, when one has no field on which to exert them?  Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth.

Fortunately, right at that moment, the doorbell rings, and a young woman (a young woman Watson finds most interesting) enters with a new case.

Not only is Holmes someone who today would be on medication and in therapy (or at least someone would strongly encourage it), he has some very peculiar quirks, such as the fact that he is so focused on his work that he blocks out everything else that could possibly distract him from it.  So he knows next to nothing about literature and philosophy, because those won’t help him solve cases, but he knows everything there is to know about chemistry and law and footprints and the various types of cigar ash.

But Watson, who perhaps has his own peculiarities but is someone we can actually imagine knowing, instantly takes a liking to Holmes.  The two of them room happily together and work on cases together, and it’s this relationship that makes Holmes seem a little more approachable.

The more I think about this book, the odder it seems, and now as I’m writing this, I’m realizing that this quality of oddness-that-creeps-up-on-you is one I prize highly.  I turn to Sherlock Holmes expecting to find something that matches the cultural image many of us carry around in our heads, but instead I find something a lot stranger.  Fun.


Filed under Books, Fiction

The Great Mortality

mortality John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time is a very good book in a horrifying kind of way.  I suppose that’s what inspired me to read it — to see just how horrifying a horrifying event can really be.  Much of the interest this book held for me came simply from learning a little more about what life was like during the middle ages.  There’s something disturbingly enjoyable about learning how people in earlier times lived, especially in times as far from ours as the 14th century — to think about the isolated villages, the stinking cities, the primitive homes, the sharing of houses with farm animals, the near-complete absence of bathing, the lack of modern medicine.

But learning about the plague itself was fascinating too.  Kelly gets repetitious at times, but generally he does a good job telling the story of how and where the plague developed (or at least our current theories on the subject) and how it spread through Europe and Asia.  He covers the science of it pretty thoroughly — how the virus works, what it does to bodies (horrifying), how it travels — and then looks at various regions of Europe, telling how the plague affected each place differently and describing the various ways people responded to it.  Often this meant vicious anti-Semitism; Kelly tells of groups of people called Flagellants, for example, who traveled around whipping themselves and killing Jews, in the hope that this would somehow save them.

I was glad for all the information Kelly offered on what life in the 14th century was like, but I found myself particularly fascinated by the larger sweep of history he described.  He told the story of collapse after the fall of the Roman Empire, a period when the population dropped and plague was uncommon because it was harder for the virus to travel when fewer people were around.  This was followed by a period of resurgence, when the population slowly grew, more and more farming took place, more food was grown, and living standards rose.  But by the 14th century, the population was becoming too large for the amount of food people could produce and things began to stagnate.  Not only that, but temperatures began to drop and the climate became unstable.  These developments caused a lot of death and suffering themselves, and then the plague came along to make an awful situation that much worse.  Kelly talks of mortality rates as high as 60-70% in some places.  He says that many areas of Europe lost so much of its population that the numbers didn’t get back to their pre-plague levels until the 19th century.

I found this history of the up and down fortunes of Europe to be so compelling partly because we are living in such uncertain times ourselves and it’s interesting to think about how people in earlier times handled the uncertainty.  It makes me wonder how people will write the history of our times (and it makes me annoyed to realize I’ll never know).  It’s also easy to think of the vast sweep of human history as moving generally in the direction of improvement — the population steadily goes up, science and medicine steadily improve, we gradually become more and more tolerant and enlightened.  But that’s not true, obviously, and something as out of our control as climate (oh, wait — something that used to be out of our control) can easily disrupt our always-tenuous civilization.

I seem to have a knack lately for choosing depressing books — I’m glad I read this one, and I generally have no problem whatsoever with depressing books, but with doom and gloom in the news these days, it’s probably not the best time for them.  I suppose I could be grateful that we’re not experiencing anything as horrible as the mass deaths of the plague, but my mind doesn’t work that way.  Instead, I just get sad at all the suffering out there and the senselessness of it all.  I will never go back to being a believer, but there are times I miss the sense that there’s a God out there watching over everything.  But the idea that there’s a God out there watching over everything makes no sense at all, so I don’t really want to believe it.

Okay, time something light to read, right?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Everything Passes

I’m a bit behind on my reviews, which is odd for me, as I don’t usually read enough to have trouble writing about everything I read, in one form or another.  Part of the problem, though, is that I need to write about Gabriel Josipovici’s extremely short novel Everything Passes, and I find myself at a loss for words.  I’m tempted just to link to Litlove’s post on the book and leave it at that — her review does the job wonderfully well and I’m not sure what I can add.

But, I suppose, in addition to linking to Litlove’s post, I can also describe the book a bit.  It’s incredibly short — really short story-length rather than novel or even novella-length.  It’s 60 pages, but there is so much white space that the text itself is quite short.  I read it in maybe half an hour, and that was taking it slowly.  I read it twice in the same evening.  Added to the book’s brevity is the fact that there is a lot of repetition, which means that Josipovici uses even less space to tell his story than is immediately apparent.  The repetition takes the form of a refrain returned to again and again, with some variations:

A room.

He stands at the window.

And a voice says: Everything passes.  The good and the bad.  The joy and the sorrow.

Everything passes.

It’s in between repetitions and variations on this passage that Josipovici finds a way to tell his story.

In spite of its brevity, the book gives you a full picture of the main character, Felix’s, life.  We know something about his children, his wives, his friends, and his work.  Josipovici gives hardly any detail about Felix or his family, but he still creates a sense of fullness, as though we have seen and understood all we need to know about the full sweep of the character’s life.  This book shows that you don’t need a lot of nitty-gritty detail to create that sense of completeness and fullness — you can tell a story that feels rich by using broad brushstrokes and letting readers use their imaginations and their emotions to complete it.

It’s no surprise that a book that departs so radically from general expectations of what a novel or a novella is takes up the issue of the purpose and form of fiction directly.  Felix has thought much about Rabelais and his fictional innovations.  Rabelais, he claims, is the first to realize that the innovations in printing and publication of his time meant that he was no longer writing for an audience he knew, but instead was writing for strangers.  Given the growth of mass publication, he couldn’t know his audience personally as Shakespeare might have or as anybody who wrote for a patron might have.  This meant he wrote in an entirely different way:

Rabelais invented modern prose fiction.  And no one really understood what he was up to for the next four hundred years, except for a few kindred spirits like Cervantes and Sterne.  I want to make our culture aware of what he sensed and how he responded to the crisis of his time, which is also the crisis of our time.  I want to sweep away the popular image of Rabelais as a writer of bawdy stories and nothing else.  I want to make people aware of the issues he faced and so clear the ground for a genuine renewal of fiction writing in our day.

These are Felix’s thoughts, but it seems as though Josipovici is asking his own readers to consider what Rabelais accomplished and how he himself is trying to respond to changing circumstances by creating a new kind of fiction.

Josipovici’s own fiction is quiet and spare — he has pared down a story as far as it can possibly be pared down and yet it still has the power to move and surprise.  He shows how a writer, with the help of sympathetic, willing readers, can do so much with so few words.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Lady Audley’s Secret

14568278 I finished Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret and felt that I had enjoyed every minute of it.  I described it to someone as trashy Victorian fiction, but that description can too easily be misleading — the book is an example of Victorian sensational fiction, dealing with deception, bigamy, madness and a whole bunch of other exciting things, but it’s not a throw-away novel meant merely to titillate.  There are a whole lot of interesting ideas that come out of the book too.

I was surprised at one aspect of the book’s structure — the fact that Lady Audley’s secret isn’t much of a secret and you figure out what it is very early on.  There are some things you don’t find out until the end of the book, but the basics of the plot are no surprise at all.  What makes the book interesting is not what the secret is, but how the characters go about discovering the secret. This sounds like it might be dull, but it’s not at all — the hunt for the truth is exciting in and of itself.

That secret has to do with Lady Audley’s past — before becoming Lady Audley she worked as a governess and before that, nobody knows much at all.  The other part of the plot has to do with George Talboys, a young man without any money who left his wife and child, both of whom he loved dearly, in England to go find his fortune abroad.  This takes him much longer than he expected, but eventually he returns only to find his wife recently dead.  Except the circumstances of this death turn out to be strange.  Putting these stories together, it’s not hard to figure out who is who and what the secret really is.

But the revelation of that secret is so much fun!  It’s George Talboys’ best friend Robert, who just so happens to be Lady Audley’s nephew (by marriage), who becomes the detective.  He’s a fun character — he’s a very lazy man who is a lawyer without ever taking on any cases and who can’t even find the energy within himself to fall in love with the charming, beautiful woman who loves him.  He is so taken with George Talboys, though, that when things go dreadfully wrong and George disappears, he finds himself goaded into action.  Soon enough he is tirelessly searching for clues to George’s fate and desperately fearing the worst.

The characterization is a big part of what made this novel fun for me.  First of all, there is a definite edge of homoeroticism in Robert’s obsession with George.  Nothing else in his life has inspired Robert to exert himself except this friend.  When he does meet the right woman, she turns out to be not so different from George himself, in all kinds of ways.  But Lady Audley is the most fascinating character — I found it interesting the way she was never able to transcend her lower-class roots.  She is captivating and charming, and she has her husband wrapped around her finger, but she betrays herself in her vulgar love of finery and her penchant for spending time talking closely with her maid.  It’s possible to read her as a character who admirably refuses to live up to the Victorian ideal of passive, accepting womanhood — she manages to create a good life for herself out of some very difficult circumstances, after all — or it’s possible to read her as a dangerous, violent, thoroughly-unreliable upstart who needs to be put back in her place.  Of course, she manages to be both of these at once, and by making her both of these Braddon gets to have all kinds of fun — she can create a powerful female character who, as the back cover of my edition puts it, makes “an unabashed bid for freedom from the constraints of Victorian womanhood,” but she can also keep herself out of danger as a writer by making sure the ambitious upstart gets properly punished.

This is the perfect book if you like Victorian novels but are in the mood for something that’s lighter than Eliot or the Brontës.  You can read it for the pleasure of the story and you can also, if you want, read it for the ideas about gender and class.  It’s fun to read a book that allows you to do both.


Filed under Books, Fiction

New Year’s Non-resolutions

I’m writing this New Year’s resolutions post three days late and having just spent the morning sleeping in until 11:00 because I was out late last night at a surprise birthday party eating way too much sugar and having lots of fun.  Is this a good way to start the new year or a bad one?  It looks like a good year in which to make no resolutions whatsoever and instead just go with the flow, have fun, and not worry too much.  Yeah, right — like you’ll ever catch me not worrying.

But this does fit with the anti-resolutions attitude I’ve had for the last year or so.  At the beginning of 2007 I made a long list of books I’d like to read and things I’d like to accomplish, and that was kind of fun, because planning can be fun, but then I spent too much time worrying about not doing the things I said I would, and I haven’t been all that interested in plans and resolutions since.

That said, I was embarrassed at how few books in translation I read last year, and I wished I’d read more books from my favorite century, the 18th.  It would be great if I could read more in those areas.  It would also be great if I could spend less time online.  I’ll try to keep those things in mind, at least for a little while, but I’m not going to make any requirements for myself.  If I do them, I do them, if not, that’s fine.

As far as cycling and triathlon training goes, my main plan (it’s really hard to be anti-resolutions when it comes to training) is to stay healthy and keep from getting injured.  The best thing I can do to avoid injury, as far as I can tell at least, is to make sure I build up my level of training gradually instead of rushing into a difficult training schedule (as I am apt to do) and to make sure I keep working on core strength.  I foresee a lot of sit-ups in my future.  I loathe and despise exercises of all types, but I will do them if it means I can keep from hurting myself.  Other than that, I’ll race when I can, have fun with my training as much as I can, and that’s it.

Who knows what will happen in 2009.  All I can do, really, is recognize how little control I have over what will happen and try not to let that worry me.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Reading, Triathlon