Monthly Archives: March 2009

Winner of Sorrow review

I’m coming out of my blogging break momentarily to send you over to a review of Brian Lynch’s novel The Winner of Sorrow I published over at The Quarterly Conversation. I’ve written about the book here, but I wanted to do a more formal review and The Quarterly Conversation seemed like the perfect place. Check it out!

I hope to be back soon to write about Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl for the Slaves of Golconda group, but it’s been so busy around here, I may be a little late …


Filed under Books, Fiction

A brief break

I think I’m in need of a blog break. Litlove is taking one, and it sounds so nice, I think I need one too. I love blogging and all, but sometimes … I’m out of energy.

I do have a habit of announcing that I’m going to back off on posting and then immediately finding myself inspired to write, so who knows how long the break will be — possibly not long at all. But at the moment I feel a need for some more room in my life and blogging is the thing to go.

Before I go, though, I want to encourage everyone to go congratulate Hobgoblin on his good news.


Filed under Blogging

Saturday thoughts

  • I am resolutely ignoring the fact that I will be racing tomorrow, and, even worse, riding in two races. I find that denial is the best way to manage nerves. So — tomorrow will be a quiet day where I sleep in, spend lots of time reading, see some friends, and that’s it. Yes, it is.
  • I am the kind of dork who does homework on Saturday nights. I just spent a good bit of time reading through material for the online class I’m taking on how to teach online classes. It was interesting, although now my head is spinning with educational and technical jargon, including ugly words like “chunking,” which refers to the practice of breaking up text into manageable bits.  Apparently in an online class you are not supposed to simply upload your lecture notes for students to read, but instead are supposed to break the material up into separate shorter pages that are easier to process and then to intersperse activities and assignments and such to help students understand and remember everything. Makes sense to me.
  • I finished the book for my next mystery group meeting, Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers. I’ll post more on it later, but in the meantime, I’ll say that I liked it, although it’s very different from the sort of thing I usually like. It’s fast-paced and focused on the action, without a whole lot of character development or analysis. But the style fits the subject it covers — the dark, crime-ridden side of Harlem in the 1950s. What interests me about the book is the fact that Hobgoblin read a chapter or two and declared he couldn’t stand it and thought the writing was horrible. I picked it up thinking I’d probably agree and found I didn’t at all. So now I’m really looking forward to the discussion next week.
  • I couldn’t resist wandering over to the town library the other day and there I found a few nonfiction books I’ve been meaning to read, including Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking and Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil. What I brought home, though, is Julian Barnes’s book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which is sort of a memoir, sort of an extended essay on death. So far (I’ve read maybe 30 pages), it’s rambled around and touched on his family history, his relationship with his brother, his religious history, and his fear of dying. So far, so good — this is exactly the kind of book I like, and Barnes is such a great writer.
  • I’m looking forward to picking up Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl very soon for the Slaves of Golconda discussion beginning at the end of the month. As usual the group has chosen a book that sounds great and is one I’m happy to read although I probably wouldn’t have gotten to it soon on my own. That’s precisely why I’m so happy to be a part of that group — it gets me reading things I might not otherwise.
  • I’m going to try to finish the William Cowper biography I’ve been working on before I begin the Zweig, though — I don’t want to have too many books underway at once or I might start to feel overwhelmed.
  • And no, I’m not racing tomorrow … no, really …


Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction, Nonfiction, Reading, Teaching

Elizabeth George’s A Great Deliverance

Well, this one didn’t work out as planned. Several people whose taste I respect recommended Elizabeth George to me, so I was happy to pick up the first installment of her Inspector Lynley series, A Great Deliverance. There are lots and lots of books in this series, and I thought it would be fun to have a series to read that I could turn to whenever the mood struck. I’m not in the habit of reading through a series of mystery novels in an orderly way, and I thought it would be fun to try.

So what am I missing? I’m willing to admit in other circumstances I may have liked this book more, but as it is, I just never got caught up in the story. Those of you in the know, does she get better as she goes along?

The main problem is that I just never really “bought” the characters. I didn’t feel as though I was given enough information to make them come alive. Inspector Lynley struck me as annoyingly perfect. (But really, “annoying” is a word I’ve been using a lot lately, so perhaps I’m not being fair, and I can see that in another mood I might not mind unrealistic perfection at all.) He’s the 8th Earl of Asherton, and not only is he an earl, but he’s smart and charming and handsome and understanding and a great detective, etc., etc. He has some experience of suffering, but rather than making me pity him, this makes him seem even worse — he seems even more annoyingly perfect because his less-than-perfect life means he’s capable of compassion and a deeper understanding of other people. I think if I’d had a chance to get to know him better, his charm might have worked on me, but the novel’s introduction to him seemed too rushed, so I was left feeling distanced and unimpressed.

Given all of this, I might have been drawn to the other main character, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who resents Lynley’s perfections with a passion. She comes from a troubled family and a difficult past, and she is solidly working class. She is also very, very angry at the world, an anger she takes out on nearly everybody, but especially on Lynley. When she is assigned to work with him on a case, she is certain disaster is about to happen.

But I wasn’t particularly taken with Barbara either. Again, I didn’t have enough information about her to be able to care all that much about her pain. Instead, her self-sabotaging behavior just got irritating and her anger seemed excessive. Her psychological problems seemed overly obvious and contrived.

The story seemed fine, but the truth is, I never care all that much about the story; I look, instead, for some interesting people and ideas to think about. I’ll admit, things did start to get interesting right at the very end with the resolution of the mystery, but that’s much too late. The interesting ending makes me wonder if her later books take off in good directions — it seems there’s some potential there — but I’m not sure I want to take the time to find out.

I wonder if this is a matter of a new writer not having everything figured out yet, or perhaps the problem of getting a series underway — surely, if you envision a series based on your characters, it’s not easy to write a book that is complete on its own but also paves the way for future books.

Oh, well — if Elizabeth George isn’t for me, that’s okay! There are surely other mystery series that I will find more satisfying.


Filed under Books, Fiction

On biography

I decided to take Zhiv’s advice and continue reading David Cecil’s The Stricken Deer, a biography of William Cowper (I also wrote about the book here). I am maybe a third of the way through it at this point. It’s been interesting to read so shortly after finishing Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen because it’s allowed me to compare biographical styles from the 1930s and the 1990s, and they turn out, no surprise, to be very, very different.

Cecil, for example, is much more likely to make blanket statements about what humans are like than Tomalin is.  Tomalin does a little of this too, but Cecil is strikingly willing to tell us just how people in general behave, with a confidence that I don’t think many writers today share or at least would be willing to express. It seems we’ve become (to make my own blanket statement) much more hesitant about our assertions. Cecil says things like this:

Youth can not take a consistently pessimistic view of its lot, for it thinks of its mode of existence, not as real life, but as the preparation for it. So that, however much it may deplore the present, it is hopeful about the future, which must be different, and will probably be pleasanter. But with maturity hope begins to flag. One has grown up and settled to a profession and made one’s friends, and the course one’s life will wend is clear before one. If one is still weighed down the the burdens of youth, it seems likely that one will carry them to the grave.

Now this seems like a very reasonable observation to make, and yet I can’t imagine many modern biographers going on about what happens to “one” quite so long. And there are lots of passages like this, passages that project a calmness and a confidence powerful enough that it makes one wish things really were that simple and obvious.

Cecil also never bothers to tell the reader where he got his information from or to express doubts about whether his interpretation is correct or to acknowledge other possible interpretations or conflicting views out there. This is another manifestation of the confidence that can pronounce on “how things are”; the style implies there’s no need for justification or explanation. Cecil doesn’t include notes or a bibliography either, although he explains in a short preface that he didn’t intend this to be a “definitive and documented” biography, so that exclusion makes some sense. But even so, I would guess that a modern biographer doing something similar to Cecil would mention what sources information came from and would make a point of discussing uncertainties of interpretation, as Tomalin does regularly. Instead what we get is a smooth and uninterrupted narrative, one written as though it were a novel or autobiography where the author had no need to offer verifying background information.

Generally this highly self-confident style would annoy me, but here I like it. It’s fun to listen to a voice of authority now and then, rather than having to grapple with questions and uncertainties all the time. And when the voice of authority is as charming and beguiling as Cecil’s is, that makes it even more enjoyable. In the back of my mind I know, of course, that what Cecil is telling me about Cowper might very well be open to debate, and I do wonder how much is speculation and how much comes from reliable sources, but still, I don’t mind a little simplicity and straightforwardness now and then.

Another difference between Cecil and modern biographers is how they handle issues of sexuality; in fact, I’d like to find a more modern biography of Cowper to see just how that biographer deals with Cowper’s possible impotence. Here is what Cecil says on the subject:

… obscure hints reach us of a more somber cause for Cowper’s youthful sufferings. It is alleged that he suffered from an intimate deformity, and from early years the thought of it preyed on his mind. The whole subject is mysterious. In later life his emotional experience was normal and developed perfectly spontaneously. On the other hand, he never was a passionate man; and there are certain facts in his later life for which such a deformity would offer a convincing explanation. If he was deformed there is no doubt that he must have learned about it early, possibly from the deriding lips of his tormentors. The effect on him must inevitably have been disastrous. Boys dislike above all things to be different from other people; nor was Cowper of an age to estimate coolly the relative importance of his abnormality.

The next paragraph begins, “at any rate,” and continues on with the narrative. Cecil refers to this subject a couple times in later passages, but always obliquely, and as though he’d prefer not to.  Can you imagine a modern biographer discussing impotence without ever using the word itself and without getting precisely anatomical, not to mention psychoanalytic?

I have to rush through the rest of this book to get it back to the library, but the truth is, it’s an enjoyable, quick read, and I’m learning a lot — about Cowper and also about biography itself.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Race report: two races, 53 miles, lots of fun

I did something today I’ve never done before — I rode in two races. I see other people doing this all the time, but usually I feel so beat-up after just one race that I can’t contemplate doing another. But my racing buddy said last week that doing two races would be a good challenge, and I thought, well, if she’s up for it, then why can’t I be too? Unfortunately she couldn’t race today, but I thought I’d give it a try on my own.

The first race is the women’s race, and it went well, although not quite as well as last week — I stayed with the pack the entire time, but didn’t get a top-20 finish. They only list the top 20 finishers, so I don’t know how I placed. Most of the pack stayed together the entire time, so the finish was a pack sprint, and I’m not terribly good at those, not having much of a sprint, and not liking to fight my way to the front of the pack. I’m just not aggressive enough to be a really good criterium racer. But still, it was a good race, and I worked hard, but not so hard I was in serious pain.

The second race was right after the first, with maybe a 20-minute break. It was a master’s race, which means in this case it’s for men 40 and older, but women are allowed to ride in these races and they can race ten years older than their real age, so my 35 years qualified me to ride. You might think that a race for older people would be easier, but that’s not true at all. In bike racing, years of race experience make you a much stronger rider — many people gain more from years of experience than they lose from getting older. Plus, people from any category can ride in the master’s races, so you’ll find category 1 riders (near pro) as well as category 4. Master’s riders are fast, and they know what they’re doing.

My initial plan was to ride 20-30 minutes, just to get a little extra workout and a few more miles. I rode 20 minutes and thought okay, I’m doing all right, no reason I can’t ride 30; once I reached 30 minutes I realized that the race was only going to last maybe 15 minutes more, so I thought, why not finish? It sounds so much better to say I finished than I rode for 2/3 of the race. So I hung on until the end.

I spent much of that race in a fog — I was watching what was happening, to stay safe and make sure I didn’t do anything stupid, but I got in this zone where I wasn’t really thinking about anything, where I was just hanging on, not even feeling any pain or much fatigue, just hanging on and watching the laps fly by. It’s an odd feeling. I expected to struggle, and instead I just settled in and rode.

Interestingly, while the master’s race was significantly faster than the women’s — 25 mph vs. 22 mph — it didn’t feel harder. What happens is that the bigger pack in the master’s race makes going faster a lot easier — there are more people to draft on, and I have more protection from the wind and more momentum going up the hill.

The 53 miles comes from the two races plus all the miles I rode warming up and cooling down. 37 of those miles were from the races. There’s a good reason I’m feeling so exhausted right now! But it’s a good kind of exhaustion.

Update: Here’s Hobgoblin’s account — we rode the master’s race together.


Filed under Cycling

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

33092233 Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog has me thinking about the ways plausibility and realism aren’t necessarily that important in fiction.  Sometimes, with certain kinds of books, yes, they are important, as some books set up an expectation that the events they describe could possibly happen and the characters in them are ones you could possibly meet. But sometimes all that is just beside the point, and I think that’s true in Barbery’s book.  As I read the first few pages I felt some resistance because the voices were unfamiliar and the feelings the characters described struck me as odd and unbelievable. But as I read on I began to change my mind, and by the time I reached the middle I was entirely won over and stayed won over all the way through.

There are two narrators in this novel, and the book moves back and forth between them. We start with Renée, a woman in her 50s who works as a concierge for a building populated by wealthy families. She looks and behaves exactly as people seem to expect a concierge will look and behave — dumpy, unattractive, slow, uneducated — but secretly she spends her free time reading literature and philosophy and watching art films. She is remarkably intelligent and knowledgeable, but is determined no one will ever find that out. She is lonely, with only one friend who visits her regularly, but she prefers to be lonely than to risk the kind of meaningful interaction with other people that terrifies her. So she puts on a blank face and mangles grammar whenever any of the building’s residents are nearby and labors her way through Edmund Husserl and phenomenology when she is alone.

The other narrator is one of the building’s residents; she is 12 year-old Paloma, also utterly brilliant, who hates her family, hates her prospects in life, and plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. She has thought this through carefully and sees nothing else for it but suicide. She is a much-smarter version of Holden Caulfield — she sees the phoniness of the world around her and loathes the phony adults in her life, most particularly her mother and sister, and refuses to join in. Her narrative sections take two forms; one is made up of her “profound thoughts,” in which she records her best thinking so she can do something valuable with her life before it’s over, and the other is called “The Journal of the Movement of the World,” in which she makes a point of focusing on the body so as not to get too caught up in the mind. Here, she records moments of physical beauty.

Until fairly late in the book, these two characters know of each other only in the vaguest way, and they could hardly be more different in their place in life and their age and appearance, but they turn out to have similar preoccupations and ways of thinking. And here is where we get to the book’s real charm — the ideas these two characters explore and the meaning they try to make out of life. This is really a philosophical novel about the quest to understand how best to live, how to make meaning and find beauty, and how to reconcile the coexistence of beauty and suffering. What makes these ideas so interesting is that you come to care about the people thinking them — over the course of the novel their struggles move from abstract philosophical problems to vital personal ones that you feel you yourself have a stake in solving.

I loved the fact that this novel isn’t afraid to be a novel of ideas — it’s unabashedly philosophical. One of the things that makes it so interesting, I think, is that it combines passages of abstract thought with a focus on the physical world and sections that capture the comedy of bodily life. It never gets so abstract it leaves its real people with their real bodies behind. Renée is particularly amusing in this way; as long as she is caught up in her thoughts, she is comfortable, but as soon as anyone reminds her of her physical being, she is flustered and lost and messes everything up. Both narrators are exquisitely aware of the physical world around them, even if they aren’t always comfortable in it, so the book manages to be both cerebral and down-to-earth at once.

And the book is beautifully-written as well. The only criticism I’ve heard of this book that made me pay any attention at all is that its characters aren’t realistic, but given all the wonderful things to be found in this book, I don’t think that matters one bit.


Filed under Books, Fiction

The 25 influential writers meme

I saw this over at Reassigned Time and thought it would be fun to do here. The instructions are to “name 25 writers who have influenced you. These are not necessarily your favorite writers or those you most admire, but writers who have influenced you. Then you tag 25 people.” I won’t be tagging 25 people, so if you want to do this, please do! I’m going to list names roughly chronologically (following my life).

  1. Authors of the Bible
  2. Laura Ingalls Wilder
  3. Maud Hart Lovelace
  4. Lucy Maud Montgomery
  5. Louisa May Alcott
  6. Jane Austen
  7. Charles Dickens
  8. George Eliot
  9. Virginia Woolf
  10. Mary Shelley
  11. Flannery O’Connor
  12. Michel de Montaigne
  13. Fyodor Dostoyevky
  14. Mary McCarthy
  15. Samuel Richardson
  16. Laurence Sterne
  17. Henry Fielding
  18. Sarah Fielding
  19. Mary Wollstonecraft
  20. Olaudah Equiano
  21. Dorothy Wordsworth
  22. Nicholson Baker
  23. David Foster Wallace
  24. Jenny Diski
  25. Janet Malcolm

#1-5 are about my childhood, pretty clearly, and then I read a lot of #6-8 in high school, which formed my taste for the Victorian novel (and the novel itself — this list is very novel-heavy).  #9-14 were college discoveries, and you can see the turn to the eighteenth-century I took in grad school in #15-21.  I could easily have added more authors here, including Boswell and Johnson. After that, I tried to think of authors I’ve been most excited about over the last few years; these ones I could possibly change up a bit, depending on my mood. The last few reflect my increasing enjoyment of nonfiction, which is why I like their presence there. I could also put Philip Lopate on the list, not because his writing has influenced me, but because the book he edited, The Art of the Personal Essay, has been so important.

It’s a pretty canonical list, isn’t it? But I suppose at heart I’m a pretty canonical kind of reader. Maybe it’s also true that people’s reading is often from the canon when they’re younger (at least English major types) and branches out afterward.  I haven’t read all of the canon, by any means, but I’ve read enough to feel that I’m ready to branch out more.

Anyone else want to try this?


Filed under Books, Lists, Memes, Reading

The Stricken Deer

Because of my recent interest in William Cowper, an interest inspired by Brian Lynch’s novel about his life, The Winner of Sorrow (which I wrote about here), I requested from my library a copy of David Cecil’s 1930 biography of Cowper, The Stricken Deer. I thought I might just skim through it and see if I found anything interesting, but I took a look at Cecil’s prologue and quickly became entranced by the writing. Apparently they wrote biographies in the 1930s much differently than they do today — which is not to say there aren’t some well-written ones today, but they aren’t quite like Cecil’s.

The prologue isn’t actually about Cowper for the most part; he comes in only at the end of the 15-page essay as a transition into the biography itself.  What it is, instead, is a meditation on eighteenth-century society and on the various preconceptions and misconceptions people in the early 20th century held about that time. Even so, he takes a while to get around to the eighteenth century itself. I always tell my students that if they want to open their essays with general statements and then move to more specific ones, they had better be careful not to start too generally (no “since the beginning of time” please), but Cecil shows how to start off very generally and how to do it beautifully:

Past periods, like foreign countries, become the fashion. Just as people like one sort of hat because it suits the type of beauty they admire, so people are attracted to a particular place or period because it suits their prevailing mood. Mankind, in its restless search for some ideal and fairy country which satisfies a fancy, dissatisfied with that in which it lives, will identify it with the civilization of some other time or people which appears to possess the qualities it most values, and to lack those which it most dislikes.

From there he goes on to consider various time periods and when they were fashionable, and only after four long paragraphs devoted to contemplating this phenomenon (including a leisurely discussion of objects we associate with various times and places) does he get around to the eighteenth century itself.

When he gets there, he argues that our conceptions of the era are entirely wrong and that we generalize about it too much and don’t understand its complexity. He sets about correcting our mistake by setting up a little library scene:

For a happy moment let us shut the door on the modern world and retire in fancy to some Augustan library. The curtains are drawn, the fire is lit; outside the silence is broken only the faint crackling whispers of the winter frost. How the firelight gleams and flickers on the fluted moldings of the bookcases, on the faded calf and tarnished gold of the serried rows of books: the slim duodecimo poems and plays; the decent two-volumed octavo novels; the portly quarto sermons, six volumes, eight volumes, ten volumes; the unity of brown, broken now and again by a large tome of correspondence, green or plum or crimson, only given to the public in our own time. The whole eighteenth century is packed into these white or yellowing pages; all its mutifarious aspects, its types, its moods, its morals, self-revealed; the indefinable, unforgettable perfume of the period breathing from every line of print. For the shortest, dullest letter really written in a past age can bring its atmosphere home to you as the most vivid historian of a later time can never do.

Can’t you picture yourself there? He goes on to take a short survey of important eighteenth-century writers in a similarly imaginative style, capturing the essence of respectable Whig aristocracy and nobility, the somewhat less-respectable middle classes, the travelers and adventurers, the fashionable men and women of sensibility, and the literary intelligentsia.

And then we get to Cowper himself. Much of his writing, Cecil says (rather surprisingly), is dull and lifeless. But then —

… suddenly one’s attention is caught by a chance word; the page stirs to life; a bit of the English countryside appears before one’s mental eye as vividly and exactly as though one really saw it; or an ephemeral trifle, a copy of verses addressed to Miss M. or Mr. D., laughs out of the page with the pleasant colloquial intimacy of a voice heard over the teacups in the next room. And now and again, as if from the strings of a tarnished, disused harp stumbled against in one’s rambles around the library, there rises from the old book a strain of music, simple, plangent, and of a piercing pathos, that fairly clutches at the heart.

He briefly discusses Cowper’s life, focusing on the thing that’s most memorable about it — his artistic creativity combined with his mental suffering.  Here’s how the prologue ends:

But he was under a curse. From his earliest years there loomed over him, born in disease, nurtured in fanaticism, the frightful specter of religious madness. And his life resolved itself into a struggle, fought to the death, between the daylit serenity of his natural circumstances and the powers of darkness hidden in his heart. For a time it seemed that they would be defeated. Yet even when the light shone most brightly on his face, the shadow lurked behind his back; around the sunny, grassy meadows crouched the black armies of horror and despair. At a moment’s weakness they would advance; inch by inch they gained ground; till, with a last scream of anguish, his tortured spirit sank, overwhelmed.

Okay, in that last bit he goes a little overboard, but tell me, do you see writing like this in modern-day biographies? I found this prologue utterly charming, and I was tempted to read the entire book, although now I’m not sure I will, as time is short and my interest in Cowper does have its limits. But this book does make me a little sad that contemporary nonfiction prose can be so … prosaic.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

First race of the season

My first race of the season was today and it didn’t suck! Yay!

Actually, I did the best I’ve ever done for the first race of the season, which is to say that I finished with the pack. My usual experience is that I’ll fall behind the pack around half way through the first race (which means my race is over, since there’s no way to catch up when I’m out there by myself and can’t draft on anyone), and then steadily improve with each race so that I can finish a race eventually. Last year, my best year so far, I managed to finish the second race of the season. So I’m happy to have improved.

I got 17th place out of maybe 35 women or so, which puts me right in the middle of the pack. What happened, though, is that the pack basically split in two somewhere in the middle of the race, and I managed to stay with the front group, which eventually lapped the group that fell behind (the course is about .8 of a mile, so a faster group can lap a slower one sooner or later). When it came to the final sprint, I was at the back of the fast group, but placed in the middle overall because of all the lapped riders.

And, just to clarify, I’m particularly pleased about this result because I’m riding in a women’s open field, which means that there are championship racers out there and people who have a whole long history of winning races, as well as women who are new to the sport.  Women’s open fields are hard because you never know who you’re going to race against. In men’s races, you generally race against people of roughly your ability, but there aren’t enough women to justify multiple racing categories, so we all get lumped together.

I’m also pleased because just a month or so ago I thought I wouldn’t race at all because I wouldn’t be ready.  Silly me. What I’ve learned, besides the fact that experience helps, is that I don’t need tons and tons of miles before I’m ready to race. I didn’t do a whole lot of riding in December and January, which I thought would hurt me. But I did fine by starting training right at the end of January, riding solidly through February, and adding in a few sprint workouts in the few weeks before the first race. That’s good to know, especially when I’m faced with tough winters that don’t allow me to do a lot of outside riding.


Filed under Cycling


I’m taking an online course! I’m weirdly excited about this. It’s an online course in how to teach courses online — and yes, I’m doing this backwards because I’ve already taught courses online. Two, in fact. And it’s only now that I’m taking the course to learn how to do it. But that’s the way things generally work when it comes to college teaching — you get thrown into it with only the tiniest bit of training or maybe none at all and you figure things out on your own. You learn things from colleagues and maybe pick up some training here and there and you do the best you can. The course I’m in will run for nine weeks and I’ll get a certificate at the end of it if I complete at least 80% of the work.

I guess I’m just a nerd who likes learning new things. The fact that I’m looking forward to the class tells me that while teaching is fun, being a student is much more so (especially since I won’t be getting A, B, C-type grades).  Maybe I should take classes more often.


I really loved the recent New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace. It gives an overview of his life and, most interestingly, talks about his unfinished novel and what it was he was trying to do with his fiction. It sounds like the unfinished novel — which will be published some time next year — is fascinating and majorly ambitious, so much so that Wallace had a lot of trouble making progress. Part of the trouble is that its subject isn’t well suited for fiction — it’s about boredom and tells the story of IRS workers dealing with the dullness of their jobs, so the issue is how to make boredom interesting. He took on a difficult subject, but he also was trying to write in a new style:

Wallace was trying to write differently, but the path was not evident to him. “I think he didn’t want to do the old tricks people expected of him,” Karen Green, his wife, says. “But he had no idea what the new tricks would be.” The problem went beyond technique. The central issue for Wallace remained … how to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” He added, “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

This is such an interesting combination to me — acknowledging the darkness of life but not succumbing to despair and managing to write about “the possibilities for being alive and human” without being trite or cheaply sentimental. I’m also intrigued by the way he is influenced by postmodernism — its irony and self-consciousness and playfulness with language — but also cared about writing fiction with a moral interest and with real emotional weight to it, things that the postmodernists sometimes ignored.

Apparently his last novel was only about one third finished, but it still sounds well worth reading.


My cycling is coming along pretty well, with the exception of a few days last week when I couldn’t ride because of a snow storm. I was supposed to ride in my first race last Sunday, but it was canceled because of snow, so now my first race of the season will be this coming Sunday.  It may rain that day, but it’s supposed to be in the upper 50s, so I doubt we will be in danger of snow.

This week was bitterly cold, but it’s finally warming up a bit, and I am more than ready for the change. I really should have gotten on the trainer on those cold days, but I just couldn’t. I don’t like the trainer ever, but it’s particularly bad when it’s March and spring is on the way. Riding on the trainer in January is tolerable, barely, but riding on it in March is just impossible. I’d prefer to sit around and do nothing, even if my I lose some fitness and my mood plummets. That’s silly, probably, but oh, well.


And now I want to go read some more of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a book I’m greatly enjoying.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life, Reading, Teaching


I came across a really great talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (via Chekhov’s Mistress), which you can find here.  She talks about what it’s like to have written a best seller and then to feel paralyzed because she may never write anything as successful ever again.  And then she goes on to talk about creativity and genius and how to keep doing your creative work without driving yourself mad. She turns out to be a really great speaker — she’s funny and fluent and has great examples, and I found myself tearing up at the end. I really do like Elizabeth Gilbert; I realize her writing style can sometimes be a bit glib and that the very fact she’s been so successful might turn people off, and maybe Eat, Pray, Love is a little self-absorbed (I don’t think this, actually, but some people do — I don’t mind if writers are self-absorbed as long as they are interesting), and maybe her interest in spirituality isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but she’s just one of those people I’m ready to admire no matter what and I have a hard time understanding you if you don’t agree with me.

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought this about an author.  There are some writers I feel absolutely loyal to, and I know this feeling isn’t a rational or a logical one — because even the best writers write bad things now and then, and why should I feel such loyalty and even affection for writers I’ve never met and who in some cases are long dead? And why should I care if someone happens to disagree with me?  After all, disagreements keep things interesting, right?  We don’t want to have all the same opinions.

And if you disagree with me about Henry James, I won’t take it personally.  I happen to love Henry James, but I can see why people might find him insufferable and boring. And this is true for most authors — if you don’t like George Eliot, fine; if you don’t like Laurence Sterne, well, you’re missing out on some great fun but that’s your problem; if you don’t like Flannery O’Connor, then something may be wrong with your sense of humor, but I won’t hold that against you.

But there are some authors I can’t be quite as open-minded about. If you don’t like at least some of Virginia Woolf’s work, I’m sorry, but I have grave doubts about you (even if it’s just the essays — how can anyone not like this?) If you were to read Jenny Diski and not be at least a little charmed by her orneriness, I’m not sure we’ll ever really understand each other. If you aren’t awe-struck by David Foster Wallace’s essay on dictionaries, or thrilled by Nicholason Baker’s The Mezzanine, then I can’t help but suspect our friendship will always have its limits.

I don’t know. In theory, at least, I like the idea of civilized conversations about books where we can discuss the merits of this or that author and agree to disagree, but there are times when my patience runs out and I get tired of being open-minded and tolerant.

I recognize, of course, that you are entitled to have grave doubts about me because of books I like or don’t like. So — are there books or authors you are completely loyal to and don’t understand how anyone could possible disagree?


Filed under Books, Reading

A final Jane Austen post

19608102 I had a lovely snow day today — well, except for the snow — in which I did a lot of nothing: some reading, some email writing, some napping, some gazing out the window. There was some work I could have done, but I didn’t do it. It was great.

So, I finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austena few days ago and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s less than 300 pages, which has something to do with the scarcity of information on Austen’s life, surely, but at the same time is a welcome change from the usual thick biographical tome. I am reluctant to read those long biographies because as a slow reader, they take me forever to get through.  It’s a pleasure to feel that I’ve gotten a good glimpse into Austen’s life without it taking months.

Tomalin has an engaging prose style and offers a good mix of material — enough information on Austen’s family and friends to give a sense of what her milieu was like, for example, without overwhelming the reader with names and relationships that few will remember. She quotes from Austen’s letters frequently — which are always a pleasure to read — and also gives examples of Austen’s poetry and poetry written by her family members, especially her older brother James. She offers brief readings of the novels, which are always well-done and insightful, and with each novel she considers the question many Austen lovers ask: to what extent does Austen resemble her heroines?  The answer is, generally, not a whole lot.  Tomalin notes possible sources for Austen’s inspiration, both in the people around her and in her own life and experience, but she argues strongly for Austen’s imagination as her chief source of material. As much as we might like to, we shouldn’t imagine Austen as Elizabeth Bennet. (I’m not quite ready to give up this idea, though — ready as I am to believe Tomalin, what I’ve learned about Austen’s sense of humor and liveliness does make her seem like Lizzie, my favorite.)

One thing that stands out in the biography is the way Austen depended on particular conditions in which to write and — most significantly — the fact that she had almost no power to create those conditions for herself. Up until the age of 25 she lived happily in her family home in the village of Steventon and was able to do a lot of writing while she was there, completing drafts of three of her major novels, but at that point her parents decided to leave Steventon and take up residence in Bath, and the news came as a complete surprise and unpleasant shock. Tomalin’s description of the time is sad:

There is a briskness and brightness in Jane’s letters at this time, much keeping up of spirits, but no enthusiasm. She is doing what she has to do, making the best of a situation over which she has no control, watching the breaking up of everything familiar and seeing what was left eagerly taken over; fitting in with plans in which she she has no say, losing what she loves for the prospect of an urban life in a house not yet found; no centre, no peace, and the loss of an infinite number of things hard to list, impossible to explain.

What happened is that she spent the next ten or so years of her life living in Bath at times, but also spending a lot of time traveling from one friend or relative’s house to another, and doing very little writing. Tomalin argues that she wrote best when she could live a quiet, regular life, settled comfortably in one place, but this she couldn’t arrange for herself, as she depended on her parents and other relations for her livelihood.

Eventually her mother (after Austen’s father died) settled in a house at Godmersham where one of her brothers was living, and Austen’s life quieted down enough to allow her to pick her writing back up again, arranging to have Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudiced published and finally getting some recognition and earning a little bit of money for her work. And here is another one of the interminable “what if” questions — what if Austen hadn’t lost those ten years of writing time?  What other masterpieces might she have produced?

There is also the fact that she died when she was only 41, a very young age. What might she have produced if she had lived another few decades? The cause of her death is unknown, but is possibly a lymphoma such as Hodgkin’s disease. Tomalin writes that she was brave and energetic until the end; she suffered for some months before she died but was still writing her unfinished novel Sanditon and towards the very end she wrote some lines of comic poetry, which she dictated to her sister Cassandra.

It seems possible that Austen could have written so much more than she did, but, of course, we do have six wonderful novels and some fun juvenilia, and that’s plenty.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction