- I just finished the biography of Jane Austen I’ve been working on for a while, and now I see another biography I need to read: Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Given my mild obsession with that most intriguing writer, I think this is a book I need to read.
- And here’s another biography I’ll need to read: Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. This is, apparently, the first major biography of O’Connor. I just finished teaching a couple of her stories last week, and teaching her work always confirms my feeling that she is a fascinating, wonderful, and wonderfully bizarre writer. I studied her a bit in college and that was fine, but I’m beginning to wonder whether the O’Connor I knew then is the O’Connor I would encounter now if I undertook to read a big chunk of her work all at once. She would be a good candidate for an author read-through, as it wouldn’t take too terribly long, and I could read a biography at the same time. That would make a great reading project.
- I learned today what’s up next for my mystery book group: Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers. The book is from 1959, and is a part of a series of Harlem detective novels. I’m not familiar with Himes at all, so I’m excited to have another new author to discover.
- Musings from the Sofa kindly lent me a copy of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I’m looking forward to beginning. We’ll see if the book matches all the hype.
- I should have the chance to begin the Barbery book soon, as at the moment I’m in the middle of only two books — quite a small number compared with my usual five or so. I finished Wallace Stevens’s first volume of poetry Harmonium yesterday, which leaves me with only (“only”) my Montaigne collection and The Recognitions. I’ve neglected both over the last couple weeks, however, and am looking forward to picking them up again soon.
- I’ve ordered a copy of Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl to read for the Slaves of Golconda discussion at the end of March. Zweig, I’m just now learning, was an early-20C Austrian novelist and short-story writer; he wrote this particular novel near the end of his life in the 1930s as he was driven into exile by the Nazis. It was published only after his death and was just translated into English in 2008.
- I’m reading just as much as ever, probably, but alas, but the reading is not always for fun: I’m in the midst of paper-grading, and let me tell you, student papers are not as much fun to read as mystery novels. If only they were …
Monthly Archives: February 2009
My mystery book group had another fabulous meeting this past Sunday to discuss Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night. I can’t recommend highly enough having a specific theme or genre for your book group; I have limited experience with book groups I’ll admit, but with this one, having a focus has made the discussions so rich and interesting. We’re not looking at the books in isolation, but instead, with every book we read, we’re building a basis of comparison and a body of knowledge about the genre that we can draw on when reading and discussing. Each meeting is as much about the genre and how each example fits into it as it is about the book itself.
I’m beginning to think that there’s actually very little that clearly defines the mystery genre. We’ve seen such a wide range of subjects and styles in the eight books we’ve read so far that it’s hard to make generalizations about them, except for basic ones, like the fact that there is some sort of crime in each of them (often but not always a murder) and some figure who tries to solve the crime (maybe a police officer or maybe an amateur detective or maybe just some random person who gets caught up in the plot), and some solution to the crime offered at the novel’s end. That’s not a whole lot to hang a genre on, but I suppose that’s why the genre does so well — it allows authors to take those basic elements in so many different directions that the genre continues to feel fresh and interesting. The best books we’ve read are about much more than a mystery, reaching beyond the basic plot to say something else.
Gaudy Night pushes the mystery genre in the direction of philosophical treatise, asking questions about duty and where our ultimate loyalty lies, and social commentary, specifically on the question of prospects for women who are smart and would like a career and family both. What I love about the book is that Sayers is unafraid to include long passages of complicated dialogue — long scenes where Oxford dons debate matters of ethics and social policy or conversations where the protagonist Harriet Vane ponders what it means to write mystery novels. There is a plot, but at times the plot seems almost beside the point. What matters are the ideas, and even more so, the changes Harriet goes through as she grapples with those ideas.
Harriet is a marvelous character. I’ve read one other Sayers novel, The Nine Tailors, and I liked it, but it didn’t have Harriet in it and so wasn’t quite as fabulous. I now see that sooner or later I will have to read every Harriet Vane book Sayers wrote. In Gaudy Night, Harriet is interesting because she is conflicted in a dozen different ways. We see her first as she is on her way back to Oxford for a reunion — the gaudy — and it is all she can do to drag herself back. She goes only because she doesn’t want to disappoint classmates who have invited her. The trouble is that she has made a career out of mystery novel writing, which she thinks some in Oxford might not consider a worthy use of her excellent education; she has also offended traditional morality by living with a man she was not married to, and, worst of all, she was a murder suspect herself and only narrowly escaped conviction and hanging.
She finds, however, that the Oxford dons are interested in her writing and are fans of her books, and when disturbing events start happening on campus — threatening letters arrive, lewd pictures and messages appear on walls, property gets destroyed — the dons invite her back to help them solve the mystery.
This turns out to offer her a little retreat in which to think about some of the things that have been troubling her. While working on the case — and also helping an English scholar edit a manuscript and doing some research on Sheridan Le Fanu — she talks with the dons about what it means to live a life of the mind, tucked away in isolation from the world of families and children and domestic responsibilities. She has the chance to think about whether a satisfying life is possible for a woman who has brains and a heart both — one who wants to do more than care for a family but doesn’t want to let a career keep her from experiencing love and romance. She worries that she will have to choose one or the other, career or love, and she worries with good reason, as all she sees around her are single women purely devoted to their scholarly lives on the one hand, and on the other, women who have found themselves caring for a brood of children and have lost touch with their intellectual ambitions.
And then there is Peter Wimsey, the charming, attractive amateur detective who keeps proposing marriage to her, and whom Harriet feels she could care for, if only they didn’t have a singularly unfortunate past. It turns out that Peter is the one who saved her from conviction in the murder case, and now she feels she is on unequal footing with him, owing him her life, in effect, and she is convinced those are the worst circumstances in which to fall in love with somebody. She would like to fall in love, but she would like even more to maintain her independence and her pride.
The book moves back and forth between Harriet’s investigation of the mysterious happenings on campus and her conversations and thoughts about what kind of life she wants, and she also interacts with undergraduates, both men and women, so we get a picture of Oxford life, with all its traditions and habits. As Emily writes in her post, Oxford itself becomes a character.
The book does all these things and more. In our meeting, my book group listed all the book types or genres Gaudy Night references, and we came up with a long list: academic satire, mystery, romance, social commentary, comedy of manners, philosophical exploration, feminist manifesto, novel of personal growth, künstlerroman, literary criticism, even political thriller, as Peter Wimsey is always dashing off to Europe on diplomatic missions and it’s clear that World War II is on its way (the book was published in 1936).
So Gaudy Night accomplishes a whole lot in its 500 or so pages, and yet Sayers manages to make it all hang together. It’s a mystery novel and also an illustration of just how much a “mere” mystery novel can do.
I was all set to write a post on Gaudy Night, but I’m just not sure I have it in me tonight. Soon, though, I’ll write on the book. For now, I thought I’d give you some of my favorite quotations I’ve come across so far in my Montaigne reading (I’ve read 30 out of 107 essays so far). The best parts of Montaigne are when he’s writing about himself or his essays. Here is his explanation for why he started to write:
Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. I hoped it could do that more easily from then on, since with the passage of time it had grown mature and put on weight.
But I find — “Idleness always produces fickle changes of mind” — that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.
I find this description completely and thoroughly plausible, and I’m certain if I ever were to live in retirement with nothing to do but follow the twists and turns of my mind, my mind would give birth to “chimeras and fantastic monstrosities” as well. Nothing sounds more hellish to me than living in isolation with my own mind, in fact. Montaigne’s brilliant move, of course, is to make something great and beautiful out of that isolation.
The following self-description really resonates with me:
I cannot remain fixed within my disposition and endowments. Chance plays a greater part in all this than I do. The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself …. This, too, happens in my case: where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgment.
I love Montaigne’s very strong sense of his changeability; he makes me feel a little less crazy that there is very little I feel I can confidently say about myself. He makes me feel better about my faulty memory, too:
There is nobody less suited than I am to start talking about memory. I can hardly find a trace of it in myself: I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is! All my other endowments are mean and ordinary: but I think that, where memory is concerned, I am most singular and rare, worthy of both name and reputation!
I have a bit of trouble believing that his memory is quite so bad, though … here he strikes a similar note:
I can see — better than anyone else — that these writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge — even that was during his childhood — and who has retained only an ill-formed generic notion of it: a little about everything and nothing about anything, in the French style.
These are very self-deprecating passages, and yet I never get the sense that Montaigne is being falsely modest or that he doesn’t fully believe what he is saying, however exaggerated it seems. He really believes his memory is awful and his writings are like ignorant ravings. But I trust him to describe his good qualities accurately as well without worrying whether he is sounding boastful. I’m not sure there’s another writer who can capture the reader’s trust quite like Montaigne does. It’s passages like these that will make you trust him:
…whatever these futilities of mine may be, I have no intention of hiding them, any more than I would a bald and grizzled portrait of myself just because the artist had painted not a perfect face but my own. Anyway these are my humours, my opinions: I give them as things which I believe, not as things to be believed. My aim is to reveal my own self, which may well be different tomorrow if I am initiated into some new business which changes me. I have not, nor do I desire, enough authority to be believed. I feel too badly taught to teach others.
Reading this passage, I come to trust Montaigne — and to fall in love with his writing.
What are your middle names?
Michael and Lynn. Pretty boring names, but seeing them there like that and realizing they refer to Hobgoblin and me feels very strange. I’m not a “Lynn.” Okay, now I’m having one of those moments when a familiar word all the sudden looks foreign and I’m not sure I spelled it right. It’s especially weird since it’s my own name I’m talking about here …
How long have you been together?
Since August, 1996, married since August, 1998. It’s almost one third of my life at this point.
How long did you know each other before you started dating?
We started dating pretty much right away. It took maybe a couple weeks or so to figure it out 100% for sure, but that’s all.
Who asked whom out?
Neither one did any asking — it just sort of happened. We met when I moved to the Bronx to go to graduate school and Hobgoblin happened to be one of a group of students I hung out with during my first few weeks there. We had a class together — literature of the American Renaissance. We spent some time getting to know each other with the group but soon enough dumped everyone else and started spending time on our own. We had a “first date,” a first formal date in NYC that we dressed up for, but we were already dating, basically, so it didn’t mean quite the thing it usually does.
How old are you?
I just turned 35; he’s 41 and will turn 42 in May.
Whose siblings do you see the most?
Mine. We see all or most of my siblings each year at Christmas and sometimes again in the summer, which isn’t all that often, but they are scattered all over the place: Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and, for the moment at least, South Africa. He has one sister in California whom I’ve only seen a couple of times.
Which situation is hardest on you as a couple?
We’ve always had some uncertainty about where we were going to work and live. We met and married as grad students, both in English, which is a difficult field for one person to get a job in, let alone two, let alone two in the same location. So along the way there was always the question about who would get a job first, whether we could get jobs in the same place, who would follow the other if we couldn’t, where we would be willing to live for the sake of a job or two, etc. We got very lucky and found two jobs in the same area, for which I’m very grateful. But we’re still dealing with uncertainty, as neither of us is tenured. It’s looking likely, though, that we will be able to stay where we are. Then perhaps the question will be whether we want to stay here, but we can deal with that one later.
Did you go to the same school?
We went to the same grad school, but very different high schools and colleges. Our undergrad experiences couldn’t have been any more different — he went to a very large public university where you got ignored and I went to a small liberal arts college where you got babied. Both of us survived.
Are you from the same home town?
Nope — we’re from opposite coasts. I’m from western New York state; he’s from California.
Who is smarter?
Hobgoblin has a much better memory than I do and is a better writer. I think I have more intelligence of the emotional and social sort. He’s smart with facts; I’m smart with relationships. Is that annoyingly stereotypical or what?
Who is the most sensitive?
It very much depends on the situation. I probably am, generally speaking, but there are times Hobgoblin will worry about something I’m able to brush off. I think, though, that I spend more time worrying and obsessively repeating conversations in my head to try to figure them out, so I guess that would make me more sensitive.
Where do you eat out most as a couple?
We eat out at lots of places — it’s one of our favorite things to do. There are maybe half a dozen restaurants we can walk to in our little town, dozens more we can easily drive to, and thousands of them just a train ride away in Manhattan. We do our best to support them all.
Where is the furthest you have travelled together as a couple?
California and Cancun. We went to Cancun for an academic conference. Really.
Who has the craziest exes?
Probably Hobgoblin, but we never shared a whole lot of details, which is just fine.
Who has the worst temper?
Hobgoblin will lose his temper only rarely, but when he does, he really loses it. I don’t have much of a temper if you mean yelling and throwing things, but I’m plenty prone to fits of irritation and pouting, which is probably worse.
Who does the most cooking?
Hobgoblin. He does all the cooking, in fact. I was all set to learn how to cook when I met Hobgoblin, and it just never happened.
Who is the most stubborn?
I’m not sure. Maybe me, but just by a little bit. And of course, it depends on what we’re being stubborn about. Okay, probably me. Hobgoblin has enough of the laid-back California attitude that I generally get my way. I just don’t like to admit it.
Who hogs the bed most?
Me, but I’m not a horrible bed-hog. Sometimes I’ll wake up with more covers than I should have though.
Who does the laundry?
That would be me.
Who’s better with the computer?
Hobgoblin is, but we’re both pretty good with them. I’d say we’re equally good at figuring out new programs and software, but Hobgoblin knows more of the technical stuff than I do.
Who drives when you are together?
It’s about equal. On long drives we’ll take turns. On short trips Hobgoblin is more likely to drive, unless it’s at night, in which case I take over. The glare of headlights bothers him more than it bothers me. I’m more comfortable driving in the snow too, having had tons of experience in my Rochester youth.
I haven’t had much time to read further in Claire Tomalin’s bio of Jane Austen (my limited reading time lately has gone to finishing up Gaudy Night for this Sunday’s mystery book group meeting), but there are still a few things I found interesting I wanted to share with you.
The first is about Tomalin’s treatment of Austen’s relationship with Tom Lefroy, her potential love interest. The main evidence we have about Austen’s feelings comes from a few references to Lefroy in letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra. The story is simple in outline — she met Lefroy at a ball when she was 20, she dances with him on a few separate occasions, they have conversations about books, she makes a few jokes about it in her letters, his family gets nervous about this and arranges to send him away, and they never see each other again.
What all this means, though, is another issue. I’ve read interpretations of Austen’s letters that play down her feelings for him, arguing that her tone is so ironic and joking that it seems unlikely her feelings were very strong, but Tomalin argues unequivocally that Austen was in love with Lefroy, and also that he was in love with her. In reference to the letter in which Austen says she and Lefroy have done “everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together,” Tomalin says this:
… it is also the only surviving letter in which Jane is clearly writing as the heroine of her own youthful story, living for herself the short period of power, excitement and adventure that might come to a young woman when she was thinking of choosing a husband; just for a brief time she was enacting instead of imagining. We can’t help knowing that her personal story will not go in the direction she is imagining in the letter … but just at that moment, in January 1796, you feel she might quite cheerfully have exchanged her genius for the prospect of being married to Tom Lefroy one day, and living in unknown Ireland, with a large family of children to bring up.
Thank goodness for our sakes that she didn’t have the large family of children, but it’s very sad to think of the heartbreak Austen might have experienced after she realized the relationship was going nowhere. The problem was money. Lefroy needed to marry a woman who had some, and Austen was basically penniless. It’s not that Lefroy was mercenary, but that he was dependent on an uncle who had provided for him and that he had siblings who were dependent on him for their livelihood. It’s unromantic but entirely true that his life ran more smoothly without Austen in it. And her heartbreak means that we have the novels. But it’s still a sad story.
The other interesting thing I discovered was that Austen’s younger relatives thought of her as unrefined and a tiny bit embarrassing. I was aware that the Victorians sometimes thought of Austen’s novels as a little crude, a little too open and honest for their prudish tastes in fiction (although I wish I knew exactly what the offending passages were, as it’s hard to imagine seeing her novels as anything but models of propriety). Austen’s niece Fanny wrote that she:
was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent … They [the Austens] were not rich & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course tho’ superior in mental powers & cultivation were on the same level as far as refinement goes … Aunt Jane was too clever not to put aside all possible signs of “common-ness” (if such an expression is allowable) & teach herself to be more refined … Both the Aunts [Cassandra and Jane] were brought up in the most complete ignorance of the World & its ways (I mean as to fashion &c) & if it had not been for Papa’s marriage which brought them into Kent … they would have been, tho’ not less clever & agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good society & its ways.
Fanny was fond of Austen, Tomalin makes clear, but Austen was still very much the poor relation. On the surface, Austen’s life seems so calm and quiet, but after reading Tomalin’s description of how often Austen must have felt insecure and on the margins of society, I can see that it really wasn’t calm and quiet at all.
It’s Tuesday night, which means I’m exhausted. So here’s a meme:
BBC Book List
1) Look at the list and put an ‘x’ after those you have read.
2) Add a ‘+’ to the ones you LOVE.
3) Star (*) those you plan on reading.
1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen X+
2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien (totally not interested)
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte X+
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (read the first one, won’t continue)
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee X
6 The Bible X (I’ve never read it straight through, but I’m sure I’ve covered it all at some point)
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte X+
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell X
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman X+
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens X
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott X+
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy X
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller *
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (Only some — maybe a dozen plays and some sonnets, and would like to read the rest)
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier *
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger – X
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger X
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot X+
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell X
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald – X
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens X
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy X
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh *
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky X+
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck X
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame (can’t remember, maybe)
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy X
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis X
34 Emma – Jane Austen X+
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen X+
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis X
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden (these last few don’t seem to fit in. Probably won’t read them)
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne X
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell X
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (listened to it on audio)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez X
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving X
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins X+
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery – X+ (read multiple times!)
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy X
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood *
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding X
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan (Listened to on audio)
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel (Audio)
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen X+
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens X
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley X
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon X+
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck – X
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov X+
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt *
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (Hobgoblin may convince me to read this some day)
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac X
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy X
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding (Audio)
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie X
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville X
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker X
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett – X+
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce X
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath X
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (Never heard of it)
78 Germinal – Emile Zola *
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray X
80 Possession – AS Byatt X+
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens X
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell X
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro X+
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert – X
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry (Audio)
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White X+
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom (highly unlikely I’ll read this …)
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Some of them)
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad X
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams X+
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole * (maybe)
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare – X
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl X
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
First of all, a cycling update: it appears that I’m going to be racing more this year than I thought. Since I posted on the subject just a few days ago, I’ve had a conversation with a friend who is an awesome Ironman triathlete but who has never ridden in a bike race before, and she basically said she will race if I will. Now I don’t want to feel pushed into bike racing because of guilt, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. The conversation made me feel more enthusiasm for the whole enterprise than I felt before, and I do like the idea of helping other women get into bike racing (and will probably go on to watch them do better than I do, but that’s okay). If they need some moral support, I’m happy to help out.
It’s funny that female solidarity will tempt me to race much more so than the desire to win, but that’s just the way I am. The first race of the season is only two weeks from today, and I’m looking forward to much pain and suffering. Makes you want to race, doesn’t it?
Then I thought I’d tell you about some new books I’ve acquired. First, a copy of Rebecca West’s novel This Real Night recently arrived via Bookmooch. This is the second book in a trilogy that began with The Fountain Overflows, one of her most famous books (if not the most famous). I have a copy of the third in the trilogy, Cousin Rosamund, so, when I get around to it, I can read the entire thing. I suspect that the first novel is the best (although I have no real reason to say this except that the trilogy as a whole isn’t famous — only the first book is), but I’d like to read the whole thing anyway.
And then there is David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, which Hobgoblin gave me for my birthday a few weeks ago. This is not a book I’ll read very soon, as I need more time and energy than I have right now — and I’m in the middle of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, and I need only one large, ambitious, experimental, monumental book going on at a time. Perhaps I’ll get to it this summer. At any rate, I love what Wallace I’ve read so far, so I’m eager to see if I like his fiction.
I also have a copy of Karen Armstrong’s spiritual memoir The Spiral Staircase, which a friend sent to me, also for my birthday. I’ve read this one before, but it was a while ago, and I remember really loving it and I’d like to read it again. Does anybody happen to know of any books similar to Armstrong’s they can recommend? I do enjoy a thoughtful, smart, idea-driven memoir now and then and would like to find more of them.
And then a few books I’d like to have (along with some unlimited time to read them, please):
- Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. This book seems to be very popular right now and it has a quirky title, both of which make me hesitate, but after reading Diana’s review of it, I’m curious. It seems like it might be exactly the kind of thing I like.
- Lydia Davis’s Varieties of Disturbance: Stories. I’m very curious about what this book is like; all I know is that the stories are very (very) short and that they experiment with language. And I know that Davis has translated Proust.
- Maria DiBattista’s Imagining Virginia Woolf: An Experiment in Critical Biography. Everything about this title sounds fabulous to me, from the Woolf reference to the words “experiment” and “biography.” Surely this is a book I will like??
- Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf. I’m reading a biography of Austen right now, and it’s high time I read one of Woolf. I’m slow to pick up biographies sometimes, but I really do need to read biographies of the authors that are most important to me, as those two surely are.
- Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil. I don’t often read this kind of book, but I’m definitely attracted to it — the intellectual history kind about a particular moment in philosophy, science, or religion, the kind of book that’s interesting both for the ideas and for the historical background it offers.
- Marilynne Robinson’s Home. I loved Gilead, and this one is tangentially related to it, and besides, I think Robinson is wonderful.
Time to start reading!
What a marvelous book Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is! It’s so marvelous I talked one of my book groups into reading it next. What strikes me most about this book is the way a description of its plot captures absolutely nothing of the feeling of reading it. It’s a book that has hostages and terrorists, and yet that’s not what it’s about at all. Surely this is the only book out there that purports to be about political violence but is actually about love and joy and friendship? And the only book in which the central act is kidnapping that makes the reader feel so content and happy all the way through?
Briefly, the plot is this: an important businessman is celebrating his birthday in some unnamed South American country and a famous opera singer is brought in to entertain the guests. The party is held at the vice-president’s house, and the president is expected to be in attendance. A rather rag-tag group of terrorists bursts into the house just as the opera singer is finishing her performance and holds everyone hostage. They are surprised to find no president in the house, but they follow through with their plans, holding their less-prestigious-than-hoped hostages and making political demands. Most of the rest of the book tells what happens in the vice-president’s house over the course of many months while everyone awaits a resolution.
What happens in that house is a surprise. I am glad I didn’t know what was going to happen when I read the book, so I hesitate to say much about it here, except that I also really want to write about it, so if you’d prefer to read this book without much foreknowledge, then you might stop reading now.
What happens is that once people get through the first few horrible days when all the women except for the famous opera singer are separated from their husbands and released and when everyone left is certain they are going to die a horrible death very shortly, they begin to relax into their new life. They make friends with each other over time in spite of the considerable language barriers — it’s a very international group with speakers of at least a dozen languages present. Fortunately the businessman whose birthday began the whole affair travels with a very gifted translator who knows languages well enough to do the necessary translation.
What’s really remarkable is that, after even more time has passed, the hostages and the terrorists begin to develop friendships. It turns out that the terrorist group is not the most famous and most dangerous group everybody thought they were; instead, they are a small operation made up of a few generals and a collection of teenage soldiers, recruited from their poor lives in the jungle by the hope of a better life. The generals are in the whole business mostly to free some family members held as political prisoners. It soon becomes clear to the hostages that the child soldiers are more pathetic than frightening, even if they do carry around guns and harass them now and then.
Slowly, as the book goes on, the terrorists’ rules relax, the terrorists and the hostages become friends, and they spend their time playing chess, listening to music, and watching television together. The presence of the opera singer makes a huge difference; after the shock of the kidnapping has passed and she starts to practice her singing again, she enchants everyone in the house, hostage and terrorist alike, and people can’t help but forget their differences for at least as long as it takes for her to complete her daily practice.
Many of the hostages and terrorists come to prefer their life in the vice-president’s house to the one they lived before. It’s such a quiet, peaceful, well-regulated life, one with beauty and companionship and, in some cases, love. All of them have had their worlds turned upside down, and yet that turns out, at least for a while, to be a blessing. The word “blessing” seems fitting here because the mood becomes almost beatific. The main characters undergo transformations that have little to do with the kidnapping and everything to do with becoming more open, more patient, more peaceful, more understanding.
One would think that a book about terrorists would be the last place to turn to to find joy, and yet that’s exactly what this book offers. It’s a beautiful meditation on art, love, and unexpected opportunities for transformation.
This semester I teach Tuesday afternoon and on into the evening until 8:30 and then again on Wednesday morning (and I teach Monday and Thursday, too, but those days are easier), and I’m realizing today just how taxing that schedule can be. So far this semester I haven’t actually had to teach a full week because snow days always got me out of it, but now I’ve done it and my brain is shot. So I thought I’d just chat a bit here before I turn to my books.
I’ve been meaning to write about Peter Ackroyd’s The Lambs of London, but I’m not sure I’ll get around to it. It’s been a couple weeks since I finished it, and I’ve lost the sense of urgency to write about it and don’t have a strong sense of what I want to say. I didn’t love the book, although I wanted to. It’s historical fiction about Charles and Mary Lamb and their obsession with Shakespeare, and that sounds fun. But the book never quite grabbed my attention or captured my imagination or made me care all that much. I think I wanted a little more narrative tension, and the characters always felt a little bit unreal. Which is odd, since many of them were really real. Perhaps this is often a problem with historical fiction that turns real people into characters? I imagine it would be very hard to turn their real lives into an interesting plot for a novel and to make up enough about the people to ensure they are strong characters without violating what we know about the real people’s lives.
Those of you who know Ackroyd’s work, is The Lambs of London typical? Are his other books better/worse?
I’ve begun reading Dorothy Sayers’s book Gaudy Night for my mystery book group, and while I’m only a little ways in, it’s turning out to be such a fun book. I do like reading about Oxford and all its odd people and interesting traditions, and Harriet Vane is a great character — she’s a successful mystery novelist with some experience as a potential suspect herself, and she now has Lord Peter Wimsey pursuing her in search of a romantic relationship. She can’t quite decide how she feels about this. I haven’t gotten to the crime yet, but surely something will happen soon …
I think I’ll go find out!
I haven’t written about my cycling in quite a while, and my training blog is dead at the moment — I haven’t posted there in over a month. That’s largely because the blog was meant as a way to record my adventures in triathlon training, and those adventures have stopped for the moment. I’m still riding, but I’m not running, and only if I’m running does it make sense to me to swim. I’ve just had so much trouble getting over my most recent running injury, that I’m wondering if running is ever going to work for me, or if I’m willing to be patient enough to make it work. My injury from last fall has gotten steadily better over the last couple months, and right now it appears to be gone, but I’m not entirely sure it won’t come back if I try to run again. I did sign up for a couple triathlons for later this spring, and I can still train for them, although I won’t have time to train well, but I can’t decide if I want to.
So I’m in a holding pattern for the moment, waiting for the desire to do one thing or the other to surface and make itself known. My feelings about bike races versus triathlons are still the same: I think I would like triathlons better because they are more individual — I can race against my own best time — whereas bike races are very much about group dynamics and whether I can keep up with everybody else. I also like the idea of being proficient in more than one sport and using different sets of muscles with each one. On the other hand, triathlon training is very time-consuming, more so than training for bike races alone. Even if I train the same number of hours each week for triathlons as I do for bike races, it still takes up more time, since the total number of workouts is higher and the training involves trips to the pool, which means some extra driving time.
I’m also really, really bad at doing strength training and core exercises, which I desperately need to keep me in good running shape and to be a good swimmer. I think a weak core is the main cause of my last running injury, and I’ve tried lately to do core exercises, but I just can’t seem to make myself keep it up. I tell people that I’m really, really undisciplined when it comes to exercise, and they laugh at me, but it’s true — if it’s not 100% fun, I don’t do it. Core exercises are not 100% fun.
So that’s that. As I see them, here are my options for this year: 1. pick up the triathlon training again and give it another go, 2. stick with the bike racing and just deal with the fact that I’m not fond of how bike races are run, or 3. ride my bike mainly as a recreational rider and race only if I really, really want to. I’m training right now as though I’m going to do #2, although I don’t plan to race until a little later in the season than usual. I suppose I’ll keep doing that until I decide to do something else.
I went on a really great, if totally gross, group ride today. It’s the 50th birthday of the local bike shop owner, so he arranged a ride to celebrate. About 30 of us did the beach loop, which is a 50-mile trip down to the Long Island Sound and back. I had a lot of fun, but what made the ride gross was the fact that the roads were thoroughly wet from rain and melting snow, so pretty much from the first minute out, every one of us was covered in mud. Every time we rode through a puddle, which was often, I got a spray of muddy, gritty water in my face and all over my clothes. I know better than I’d like about the taste of mud. We stopped at a coffee shop about halfway through the trip to get something to eat, and we must have been quite a sight — 30 wet, muddy, hungry riders invading the small, clean, quiet place in search of food. It’s all just part of the fun of late winter riding, I suppose.
My book group met today to discuss Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. I have this idea about myself that I don’t like horrible-childhood memoirs, but I’ve read two of them recently and liked them both (this one and Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, although Diski’s book is a travel book as well as a memoir). Perhaps I need to revise my opinion? I don’t like the idea of these memoirs, but the secret truth might be that I really do enjoy reading about other people’s difficult lives.
Walls’s book is a fantastic read. She is a good writer who knows how to tell a story, and I had trouble putting the book down. The “stars” of her story are her parents, both of them highly intelligent, capable, imaginative people who never should have had children, although they wound up having four of them. The father has a wealth of knowledge and a genius for mechanical things, but he’s also an alcoholic and can’t seem to hold down a job for very long. Soon enough he is stealing money from the family to spend at the bar. The mother is a painter. She has a teacing license, which she uses occasionally, but she really wants to devote her time to her art — and she believes she has a right to do this, no matter what is going on in the family.
Walls spends her early years moving from place to place, but the family eventually settles for a while in Phoenix, and later in West Virginia. It’s the West Virginia part of the story that’s the most harrowing. Here they buy a place that might charitably be called a shack, which slowly deteriorates from very bad to much worse. It’s tiny, the roof leaks, they only occasionally have electricity, and their toilet is a hole in the ground. Walls tries to improve the place by painting it bright yellow, but she can’t reach the whole house and no one will help her out, so she ends up making everything look worse. The stairs to the front door fall apart until they can no longer use them and have to enter the house through a window.
I could go on and on with the harsh details — I haven’t mentioned any of the worst ones — but what is so memorable about this family is that the parents seem completely unbothered by all the troubles. The mother transforms all their problems into opportunities for adventure or for learning experiences or for character-building. She is supremely self-absorbed, angry when she is pulled away from her art. The father escapes partly by dreaming impossible dreams about the future (the book’s title refers to the castle he plans to build for the family), but mostly through drinking. Neither of them are able or willing to face up to and take responsibility for their children’s suffering.
It’s easy to get angry at these parents, but they evoke a more complicated response. They both, especially the mother, have a free-spiritedness about them that is admirable, and they are counter-cultural in all kinds of good ways — they are anti-consumerist, they value creativity and art, they are willing to be brave and take risks, and they raise very smart, creative, and talented children who are years ahead of their classmates (whenever they are in school to actually have classmates). They are happy living on very little, being squatters in an abandoned building in New York City, for example, finding all they need from dumpsters. I, at least, admire people who can happily live on the margins of society in this way. They spend a good chunk of their lives homeless, but it’s by choice — they have the skills and resources to live solidly middle-class lives if they wanted, but they don’t care about how the middle class lives.
But my God, if people want to live this way, they shouldn’t have children! It’s not just that the children led unconventional lives — which would be difficult enough but not uncommon or unbearable — but their lives and health were regularly in danger.
Walls sticks to fast-paced story-telling and rarely stops to reflect on her experience. I understand why she has done this — it makes for a tense and exciting reading experience and it allows the story to speak for itself, making it even more gut-wrenchingly powerful. I did want to see some more reflection, though, if only because I’m fascinated by how people process their childhood experiences and integrate them into their adult selves. What I liked about Jenny Diski’s suffering-childhood memoir was the way she told the childhood story but also described how she’s dealt with it (or failed to deal with it) as an adult. But this is asking Walls to have written an entirely different book than what she wrote. Actually, it strikes me as possible for Walls to write a second book on the subject, this time telling how her adult self has dealt with this childhood legacy.
I also can’t help but wonder if Walls feels that she has exploited her family’s eccentricities and her siblings’ suffering for her own gain. I’m not criticizing Walls for telling her story; it’s just that I felt odd at times reading about her harsh life with a certain amount of enjoyment, and it’s strange to sit around a table with solidly middle-class friends chatting pleasantly about just how awful those poor people had it.
But, on the other hand, I’m glad that Walls has found success and made what is probably a fortune on her book, after all she experienced, and I’m glad for the opportunity to think a little with friends about parenting and childhood suffering and materialism and free-thinking. Maybe I won’t become a fan of childhood memoirs, but I should recognize that there are very good ones out there.
Musings from the Sofa asks, “does anyone still feel that there are books they ought to read for any reason (beyond work or study)?” My answer is, well, sort of. I find the question hard to answer because I get stuck on the word “ought.” There are multiple senses of the word “ought,” right? It could mean that I ought to read something, but boy it feels like a chore and I’d rather not. In that case, I don’t read things I feel I ought to. But it could also mean there are books I ought to read because they sound like great books and I might like them or I might hate them, but either way they seem worth a try. These books carry a feeling of obligation too, but also some possibility, and in this case, I do read books I feel I ought to.
But the bigger problem for me with this question is that my feelings about obligation reading and fun reading change, and sometimes they change quickly. There are books that feel like a fun read one day and an obligation read the next, and they might at some later point feel like a fun read once again. These shifts don’t always have to do with the book itself, but are sometimes about how I’m feeling about books or life or work or all of them combined. For example, I like reading multiple books at once — I’m usually in the middle of four or five — and I tend to add to the pile, sometimes getting up to six or seven, during the summer or during winter break. And then the semester hits, and all that reading that felt like so much fun a while back all the sudden now feels like an obligation. So that long classic I was enjoying during a more leisurely time all the sudden seems a little too much like work. I still want to read the book, but it’s become less fun.
Or I’ll pick up a book like Gaddis’s The Recognitions all excited about it and eager to challenge myself with a long difficult novel, and I’ll do fine for a while, and then the sense of newness will wear away and the book will take a turn into some bizarre territory, and I still want to finish the book, but it now requires a little more effort to pick it up than it used to. It begins to feel a tiny bit like a chore.
The problem is that I love challenges in some moods and don’t in others, and this problem is compounded by the fact that I’m a slow reader (and by the fact that I read multiple books at once so it takes me longer to get through each one) so once I begin something I’ve devoted myself to that book for a decent amount of time.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed a strong sense of my own changeability, the way my moods and feelings and desires are constantly in flux, so I have more and more trouble settling on what my actual opinions are. Ask me a question and the answer you’ll get kind of depends on when you ask. I don’t mind feeling this way, really; it’s just a little inconvenient at times. I never know what I’m going to want to read tomorrow, or even an hour from now.
I just began Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen, and so far it’s been great fun to read. I was surprised to find just how much Tomalin emphasizes Austen’s energy, spirit, and attitude in her life and in her youthful writings. She was no quiet, solemn figure at all — quite the opposite. An important influence, Tomalin claims, were the young boys her family took in as students for her father to teach:
Jane Austen was a tough and unsentimental child, drawn to rude, anarchic imaginings and black jokes. She found a good source for this ferocious style of humor in the talk she heard, and doubtless sometimes joined in, among her parents’ pupils, bursting out of childhood into young manhood. If she was sometimes shocked as she listened, she herself was learning how to stock by writing things down.
I’m imagining Austen surrounded by rowdy boys playing their rowdy boy games, and thinking about her observing what went on and taking part now and then. I never thought of her as drawn to black jokes, but I kind of like the idea. I can certainly see her being unsentimental, especially when I think about the sharply satiric tone she uses in her novels.
I haven’t read much of Austen’s juvenalia, but I’m curious about it after reading Tomalin’s descriptions. Comparing Austen’s stories to the moral tales of Arnaud Berquin, some of which Austen owned, Tomalin says:
Where he sought to teach and elevate, she plunged into farce, burlesque and self-mockery, and created a world of moral anarchy, bursting with the life and energy Berquin’s good intentions managed to squeeze out. Berquin’s plays are dead on the page; some of Austen’s juvenile stories could go straight into a Disney cartoon.
She wrote stories with all kinds of bad behavior; her characters are rebellious and do things like steal, get into debt, have affairs, drink too much, gamble, and elope with married people. Her stories sound wild and fun.
I was also interested to read more about Austen’s own reading and influences. One of the most important books she read is Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, which unfortunately isn’t easily available today. Apparently history has judged it not as good as Pamela and Clarissa, but Austen valued it highly, and there has to be a reason for that. She also read a lot of Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson (especially his essays and his novel Rasselas), and Charlotte Smith, whom Tomalin calls the Daphne du Maurier of the 1780s and 90s. (I’m very happy to have a copy of her novel Emmeline on hand.) Frances Burney was also very important, especially Evelina. Here is what Tomalin says about Burney’s influence:
She admired Burney’s comic monsters and her dialogue, but most of what she learnt from her was negative: to be short, to sharpen, to vary, to exclude. Also, to prefer the imperfect and human heroine to the nearly flawless one.
Tomalin argues that even with these influences, Austen never wrote anything in the style of these authors — she kept her own voice and her own vision. I’ve enjoyed reading Burney’s novels, but I can see what Tomalin means about learning a negative lesson — Burney has some great social satire, just like Austen does, but her main characters tend to be models of perfection, and Austen’s imperfect people are much more interesting.
I’m now moving into the sections of the biography that get into her adult life, and I’m curious to see what I’ll learn.