Monthly Archives: September 2009

Book Notes

Just a few thoughts for a Friday evening. Since finishing Infinite Jest, I’ve been focusing on Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which I’m reading for my non-mystery book group, even though the book happens to be a detective novel. I’m almost finished with it, and I’ll write a proper review later, but my conclusion will be that the book is a disappointment. It has many potentially interesting things in it, but it never manages to pull everything together to be a really engaging read, and if a detective novel isn’t an engaging read, there’s a problem. From what I’ve heard from my book group friends, I don’t think there will be much controversy over this one; everyone so far has agreed it’s not that great. Oh, well.

I received one new book in the mail this week: Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev. I know nothing about Dessaix and have never read Turgenev (although I’ve been meaning to for a long time), but this book interested me because it’s a combination of memoir, travel narrative, and literary history, and I love books about books and writing that mix genres in this way. This is what Publisher’s Weekly says:

While the problem of irrational love in a world of reason is the dominant theme, Dessaix’s work explores much more: Russian theology, the experience of being far away and therefore barbarian in European eyes, the modern confusion of the erotic with the sexual, and of course, the problem of death.

And on the topic of books about books and writers, I recently learned that J.C. Hallman will be publishing a very interesting-sounding anthology called The Story About the Story, a collection of essays by writers about writing. The Table of Contents looks absolutely fabulous. It has selections by Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie, Cynthia Ozick, Geoff Dyer, Randell Jarrell, Susan Sontag, and a whole bunch of other great people. The idea is that these selections are personal approaches to literature — great writing about great writing. (As I look over the Table of Contents I’m wondering why he didn’t include a selection from Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but, of course he couldn’t include everything).

Amusingly enough, I found out about the book on this blog, in the comments of which I called Hallman an impolite name (if you read the post, you’ll see why), and then Hallman himself appeared and responded. The internet can be such a great place, can’t it? I love it that people can be having a book discussion and then all the sudden the author can show up and contribute. Even if I do get caught out being impolite…

After I finish reading Laurie King, I’m not entirely sure what I will pick up next, although perhaps something I’m more likely to like, perhaps something older and canonical. Or perhaps an interesting nonfiction. We’ll see.

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On finishing Infinite Jest

Wow, people. Infinite Jest is a great book, and it’s going on my list of favorite novels ever. I don’t know if it would be on my top 10 or top 20 or top 50 or what, but it’s up there somewhere. Many people on the Infinite Summer forums and other places talk about rereading this book, in some cases many times, and in some cases rereading it pretty much immediately after finishing it for the first time, and while I’m not ready to reread it right away, I think I probably will someday. It’s a book that would reward rereading, without a doubt. And it’s a book worth spending lots of time with.

I appreciated having the Infinite Summer blog and forums available to help me sort out the plot events and to help me remember things I would otherwise have forgotten, but as far as I’m concerned the chief pleasure in this book is not piecing together its intricate structure or following the plot. The book is so enjoyable because of the narrative voice. The trick to enjoying the book for me was not to get caught up in figuring out all the details, and instead to just let it all wash over me. I picked up on the major events, but mostly I came to understand, eventually, that I would be able to figure out enough not to get lost and so I could relax and not worry about details. And not worrying about the details freed me up to enjoy the intelligence, the cleverness, the humor, and the wisdom of that voice. It’s a voice that varies from section to section with each new situation and narrator, but the truth is, it’s mostly the same voice throughout, or maybe more accurately it’s the same sensibility. It’s a similar voice to what Wallace creates in his nonfiction, and if you like that voice, I’m guessing, you’ll like whatever Wallace writes.

I was surprised to find so much wisdom in this book, and so much heart. Before I began reading I thought it was going to be a dry, detached, ironic kind of book, the kind that’s all about thinking and not about feeling. I’ve heard people criticize this book for being cold, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t read the same book, because that’s just not true. The book is incredibly funny, it’s overflowing with linguistic inventiveness, it has so much energy it feels like it’s bursting at the seams, it’s hyperactive and show-offy, its sentences can go on and on, and it has odd quirks like Wallace’s use of the word “like” throughout the whole book pretty much no matter who the narrator is or what the level of formality is. But it also made me tear up, and I cared about the characters, more than I usually care about characters in fact.

So, I’ll try to get more specific. I thought it was wise about how difficult it is to live in one’s own head and how hard it is to communicate genuinely with other people. And it was wise about how easily we get into the habit of running away from everything that is difficult and painful and instead turn to diversions, whether they be drugs or alcohol or sports or sex or endlessly-entertaining movies or whatever. In this novel, it’s mostly drugs and alcohol. And it was wise about just how hard it is to overcome addictions and that overcoming addictions means facing those difficult things we were running from in the first place. And also about the incredible variety of ways people are hurting and hurt and damaged and deformed, so much so that pretty much nobody is whole and perfect, and everybody is trying to recover from something.

So what is the book about? I don’t think I’ll spend much time describing that because what it’s about is just so random and, frankly, doesn’t sound all that interesting. It’s got one set of characters who are students at an elite tennis academy, and another set of characters who are residents of a drug and alcohol addiction halfway house, and another set of characters who are involved in political intrigue. It’s set in our time, roughly, but in a world different from our own, with slightly different technology and wildly different political structures. You’ll recognize the world, but it’s not ours.

I’m afraid that people may be too easily intimidated by this book. Yes, it’s long and challenging, but it’s very readable, and while it does throw a whole bunch of characters and scenes at you right at the beginning and you have to orient yourself a bunch of times to new situations, it does settle down eventually and you begin to sort out who is who and what the main storylines are. I think if you are at all tempted to read this book, you should, and if you aren’t sure, then you might try Wallace’s nonfiction and see if you like that. You might try Wallace’s 2005 graduation speech given to Kenyon College, which I think is really wonderful and which gives you an idea of why I think he’s a wise writer.

And now I’m glad I have more of Wallace’s writing available to read; at this point I’ve only read one novel and one nonfiction collection and a couple things online, so there is much more to look forward to.

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A cycling post

I haven’t written about cycling in quite a long time, and that’s partly because there’s not much going on, but even more so because I’ve felt so strangely about it over the last month or two. Or perhaps to be more accurate I should say I’ve felt strangely about racing. Which is, actually, the way I usually feel about it.

Anyway, I did go on a lovely ride today. Seven of us left from the bike shop this morning and headed south to the beach, and on our way back home we stopped at a cupcake shop. Stopping at the cupcake shop is so much fun that we ride there regularly and now call the ride our cupcake ride. It was a gorgeous day that was perfect for riding, sixties and sunny. The company was good, and we rode hard-but-not-too-hard, which is just the right speed. I got home with SO much more energy than I had when I left.

The racing, though. I rode in my last race on July 22nd, and it was the last in a series of races where somebody around me crashed. I’ve managed to stay upright so far this season, but it was beginning to feel like everybody around me was destined to crash. And then cycling friend Sprinter della Casa got in a pretty awful crash from which he is still recovering, and it was all just too much. I had chances to race after that last race, but I wasn’t interested anymore, and I’m still not interested.

But I also recognize that I go through a yearly cycle: I start racing in March and am into it, and I stay into it until June or so at which point I start getting burnt out. I’m really burnt out by August and am ready to quit the entire racing enterprise entirely, for good. I enjoy riding all through fall, at my own pace and in my own way, and I start telling everyone that I’m not going to race next year. And then December and January roll around and the people around me start to train for races, and I’ve forgotten a little bit how much I don’t want to race and I remember how much I like having a goal to train for, and the next thing I know, it’s March and I’m racing again.

So now I’m in September feeling burnt out, and I’m tempted to say I’m not going to race next March, but what I need to do is to acknowledge this cycle of mine, recognize the cycle might continue or it might not, realize I have no idea what I’ll do next March, and leave it at that. So that’s what I’ll do.

As for regular old riding, I may have mentioned here before that my goal for this year is to ride 5,000 miles, which would mean beating my current record of 4,300 miles set last year. I’ve now ridden 3,580 miles this year, so unless something goes wrong, I should reach my goal. I’ll need to do a little less than 400 miles a month. There was talk on the ride today of doing some longer group rides this fall, and I’m excited about that. I hardly rode at all in August and I lost some fitness, but I’m starting to get it back now, and it feels good.

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Books, books, and more books

The last thing in the world I needed to do yesterday was to go check out the library sale going on in the town just south of mine. But I wanted to do it, and so I did it and came back with six books. It was a day for classics, with a few other things thrown in. Here’s what I found:

  • Henry James’s The Awkward Age. Henry James is a controversial figure in my house, but I’m the one who’s most likely to defend him, so I like to have an unread James novel on hand, just in case I get in the mood.
  • Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. I really enjoyed A Lost Lady and My Antonia, so I thought I might like to read more of her work. After reading Elaine Showalter’s glowing appraisal of her work, I’m even more interested, and Dawn Powell  put me in the mood to read more about midwestern America.
  • The Modern Library collection of novels by William Dean Howells, including A Foregone Conclusion, A Modern Instance, Indian Summer, and The Rise of Silas Lapham. All for a dollar! I have never read Howells before and will probably begin with the last novel in the volume.
  • Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. She Knits by the Seashore recommended this one to me, and it sounds delightfully bookish.
  • Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. I’ve already read this book, but I read a library copy and I wanted to own it. It’s such a great collection of essays about bookish subjects that I’d like to read it again at some point.
  • And finally, Dubravka Ugresic’s collection of essays Nobody’s Home. I do love good essay collections, and Stefanie wrote a great review of this one, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Not a bad haul, right? And in other news, my mystery book group had a great discussion of The Moonstone last night. All but one of us loved it, and we spent much of the meeting raving about how great a book it is (the one dissenter must have felt a bit left out …). We came to the conclusion that, oddly enough, The Moonstone is really an anti-detective novel since ***Spoiler Alert!*** the detective fails to solve the case (it’s solved, but by other people) and order is not restored at the novel’s end, since the moonstone ends up back in India and not hanging on Rachel’s neck. You could say that the return of the moonstone to India IS restoring order, but that’s not the kind of order one usually finds, since it signals a failure of British power. And there’s no one person in the novel who is in control of everything and who knows what’s going on; instead, there are multiple narrators each of whom only knows a little piece. Or, if you want to say that Franklin Blake is the one who is in control since he is organizing the writing of all the novel’s sections, he’s an odd form of order since he spends most of the novel in ignorance of his own role in the story. Again, what a great book!

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On rereading The Moonstone

I’m SO close to finishing Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone that I will have no trouble finishing it tonight before I drop off to sleep. My mystery book group is discussing the book tomorrow, so I’m finishing it just in time. I believe this will be the third time I’ve read the novel. I think I read it first as a teenager, grabbing it off my dad’s shelf of classics. I read it again sometime in my twenties probably, just for the fun of it. This time around, it was my pick for the book group; we had been talking about the possibility of reading it for a while, so I decided that it was finally time. I think many people in the group had already read it, so it will be a reread for a lot of us. I’m looking forward to hearing what other people thought.

My memories of my previous experiences reading The Moonstone are a little vague (I wasn’t blogging back then and so don’t have a record — alas), but I do recall enjoying the book’s multiple perspectives a lot. In fact, that’s what struck me most strongly during my first reading, and I remember thinking that I wanted to read other books with similar structures and that that structure would probably remain a favorite of mine, which it has. If you haven’t read it, The Moonstone has multiple narrators who pick up the thread of the story when they have something important to contribute. These narrators often respond to each other and disagree with each other. The first two narrators are particularly entertaining, as they are strong characters with amusing quirks who happen to dislike each other severely, and it’s funny when they tell you not to believe a word of what the other says. I also like how these multiple narrators allow you to see many of the characters both inside and outside. We get to hear Gabriel Betteredge, the first narrator, explaining how important Robinson Crusoe is to him, which he does with such enthusiasm we almost come to agree with him and go look for a copy of the novel ourselves, and we also get to see a different character completely bewildered at the fact that Betteredge is pushing Defoe at him as a source of wisdom on par with the Bible. It’s all a lot of fun.

I enjoyed the multiple narrators this time around too, but I noticed Collins’s wonderful sense of humor even more. His characters are just so entertaining. There’s Betteredge with his Crusoe obsession, his digressions, his strong opinions, his dignity combined with his failure to notice or to comment when Franklin Blake treats him rudely. And there’s Miss Clack with her tracts and intrusiveness and insatiable curiousity disguised as piety. The scene when she watches from behind the curtains as Rachel and Godfrey Ablewhite get engaged, watching while pretending not to, is classic comedy.

I’m not entirely sure I want to read this book again; perhaps I’ll change my mind, but I feel right now as though I’ve gotten what I can out of it, and I’d like to move on and read other Wilkie Collins novels. But three good experiences reading any novel is a pretty good record, I think.

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