Sunday, December 27, 2009

Top 10 Reads of 2009

It's the end of the year, and the end of the decade. Everyone's making a list: bloggers, colleagues, newspapers, radio shows. And I have always been a fan of lists. So here goes; one more to add to the pile of lists made at the end of the year. Here are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2009, though only a few were actually published in 2009.

In no particular order:

1. The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt (2009)
A worthy successor to Possession, this novel is a lush, opulent tale spanning the transition from the dawn of the golden new century to the ravages of World War I and modernity. Though The Children’s Book has a long list of dramatis personae, at the center is Olive Wellwood, an E. Nesbitt-like writer of children’s books, and a bohemian mother of a large brood of children. Byatt pays tribute to the zeitgeist of the age by including everything: German fairy tales, wooden puppetry, exhibitions, art and pottery, socialism and free love. Her characters explore contemporary philosophy, attend important events, and cross paths with important historical figures: Wilde, Rodin, etc. Though Byatt’s narrative is weighed down by the inability to let go of the details of her dense historical background, her many characters are so intimately known and the atmosphere of the book so rich and brooding, one cannot help but succumb.

2. The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolano (1998)
The best work of late Mexican/Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano. Reputedly autobiographical, the Savage Detectives is a collision of personalities and desires centering on a small group of poets who call themselves visceral realists, desiring to throw off the yoke of Paz and Neruda. The Savage Detectives is a road trip, a vivid work of the imagination, a literary manifesto, and a near-schizophrenic slide show of characters, relationships, places and ideas.

3. Towers of Trebizond - Rose Macaulay (1956)
A perfect blend of armchair travel, humor and melancholy, the Towers of Trebizond follows Laurie and her irascible aunt Dot to Turkey on camel-back, along with septuagenarian Father Chantry-Pigg, desiring the emancipation of Turkish women and the conversion of the heathens. The narrator struggles between her desire for the church and her desire for distance; her acknowledgment of her sweetest sin, and her desperate inability to relinquish it. Macaulay can swerve between funny dialogue and narrative, and honest, heart-breaking observations with ease.

4. How Fiction Works - James Wood (2008)
In the style of E.M. Forster’s Art of the Novel, preeminent literary critic James Wood explores the construction of Fiction in this elegant exploration. Books about Fiction are becoming a dime-a-dozen, but Wood’s book is set apart by his excellent examples, his passionate intimacy with the books, his down-to-earth tone, and the gorgeous red cover.

5. Asterios Polyp - David Mazzucchelli (2009)
I’m not much one for graphic novels, but this is a moving work of philosophy, psychology, love, and art. Asterios Polyp is a swaggering paper architect, a bombastic thinker and talker, a lecturer of ideas of form and content who has never seen a design of his built. We meet him as he is fleeing a burning house, as he journeys across the country, and back in his memory, to confront his demons. Highly intelligent and deeply emotional, this is an existential marvel. One could spend hours looking at each frame, as the artist has carefully constructed his own world out of careful lines and shapes.

6. The Last Samurai - Helen De Witt
An astounding novel about a genius and her freakishly gifted son, Ludo. Without a father figure for Ludo, Sibyl raises him on Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece of modern cinema, "Seven Samurai". (It was here I learned about Kurosawa, and now I can’t seem to escape hearing his name.) A strong narrative and resonating dialogue. I learned to read Greek while reading it. Enough said.

7. The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
Rarely has a work given off such a dramatic feeling of hatred and anger. I nearly quivered with the narrator’s raging. The story of a man who has lost the woman he loved and tries to get his revenge; this novel is the fist that shakes in the face of God and love. Incredibly moving, sharp and affecting.

8. The Sibyl - Par Lagerkvist
A cursed man meets an ex-oracle on a hill above Delphi and they exchange stories. Mythic and profound, this short novel explores the cruelties and ecstasy of intimacy with the divine. It still chokes me up to talk about it. Beautiful and painful.

9. The History Boys - Alan Bennett (2004)
In this witty and irreverent play, eight boys are trying for Oxford and Cambridge. Their teacher, Hector, makes them memorize poetry and immerse themselves in art and son, but the Headmaster wants their new teacher, Mr. Irwin, to spruce up their skills, to turn them in renaissance men who can, in the new style of Schama historians, turn facts on their heads and debate from any angle. The play pits these two philosophies against each other and adds an unsuspected sexual element into the mix. I loved it for its Oxbridge-ness, but Bennett’s off-hand literariness is impressive and not without unsettling grit.

10. Severance: Stories - Robert Olen Butler (2006)
I can’t remember how I came across this collection of incredibly short fiction, the last ecstatic thoughts of mythic, historic and fictitious characters as their heads are – for one reason or another – severed from their body. It sounds morbid, but it is a powerful work of the imagination, a stream-of-conscious gushing of memories and poetry. Favorites include St. George’s dragon, Walter Raleigh, a chicken (for Sunday dinner), and the poet’s own imagined decapitation.

What was on your list?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

One More Scandalnavian

When I began working at the bookstore, there was a Scandinavian fiction display near the information desk. Having never read any at the time, I went to look at the books and saw that nearly every book recommendation was by a co-worker, Adam W. This storehouse of Scandinavian literature – he’s read Par Lagerkvist and Knut Hamsun and others – was the first person to recommend Norwegian Nobel Prize Winner Sigrid Undset to me, specifically Gunnar’s Daughter. I have yet to read Gunnar’s Daughter, but I’ve enjoyed reading her medieval trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) – all 1124 pages.

Kristin Lavransdatter is a novel of tensions – between Christianity and the waning paganism, between this world and the next, between the head and the heart, duty and desire, wildness and piety.

The intense human experiences that make up a life – birth, love, sex, marriage, friendship, war, death – are recurrent. We are as violent, as exuberant, and as mundane as ancient characters in the Bible and in epic poetry; but reading Kristin Lavransdatter has so convinced me of the enormous breach that divides medieval society and persons from today, just seven hundred years, that I am surprised we are the same race.

Undset’s trilogy (made up of The Wreath/ The Wife/ The Cross) is a success, not only because of the vivid narrative, vibrant characters, and rich writing, but largely because she is able to unapologetically depict these fourteenth century Norwegian characters in a way which attracts and repel the reader. Certain parts of life – love and friendship – have not changed, though others – arranged marriages, family duty, and primogeniture – have. Undset grew up as the only child of an archeologist and his secretary, in a house filled with books, manuscripts and relics, and it is surely this backdrop which enabled her to infuse her fiction with historical detail without weighting it with the historical novelist’s tendency to add heavy Look What I’ve Researched paragraphs.

There is little explanation for the initiate; just a swift push into dense medieval society. It begins with a property dispute, with a small family on a relatively well-to-do estate. Life is built around one’s duties: duty to one’s kinsmen, to the church, to the saints, to the poor, to better one’s property for the heirs.

Kristin is the beautiful and spirited daughter, the apple of her father Lavrans’ eye. From childhood, she is swayed by two conflicting desires, one for the world and the other for the religious life. She grows in relative comfort and affection, and is willingly betrothed to a man her father chooses. When she meets the dashing bad-boy, Erlend, her caution and duty to her family is sacrificed to their burning passion. They are married (Kristin already pregnant), but not without consequence. Kristin’s guilt at their premature seduction plagues their marriage and the rest of the trilogy. It is this marriage, this wrestling of two spirited and proud characters, which is the vital spark that ties the trilogy together.

The narrative continues without much surprise: characters marry, parents die, children are born, characters age. And unlike many other novels, Undset allows us to witness Kristin and Erlend’s marriage in its entirety, all the joys, tedium and cruelties that constitute a marriage.

There is so much to infuriate the modern reader, especially (if I may presume) the female reader. Women are maidens, wives or harlots. They are protected assets and at worst, heifers. Kristin becomes a skilled housekeeper and lady of the manor, and manages her land and possessions. But she grows hysterical, she weeps wildly; she bows to the wisdom of her father, her husband, her brother-in-law, her sons.

The constant presence of the church may be estranging for some, as well as the constant returning to her old sense of guilt and damnation – the repeated litany of old sins. The church is depicted vigorously, with beauty and irreverence.

Undset passes no judgment and proposes no moral; she spins a tale and this medieval background – both the admirable parts and the backward parts - is the fabric she uses.

It would be unfair for me to impose my modern sensibilities, my understanding of individuals and relationships, upon these characters. The characters and their motivations are extremely “other” to me. How do we in the 21st century (we who have passed through the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment, the Revolutions, the Modern era, and inhabit the Postmodern era) understand the person who thinks in terms of a village and clan and heirs, instead of the individual? Kristin regrets her sins, not because they have spoiled her purity and disappointed God (though this does come up), but predominantly because this reflects badly on her father, because she disappoints those she loves, and causes them dishonor. This concept of communal honor, of one’s good name being dependent on relatives and acquaintances, is foreign.

The introduction to this newly translated Penguin edition says that previous translations have been weighted down with antiquated, almost Shakespearean, speech. Tiina Nunnelly’s translation is clear, direct, and helps to bring the gap between this Norwegian woman on her country estate, wringing her hands over her irresponsible husband and seven growing sons, and me in an airport in Denver, passing the time before I catch my transfer.

Her prose is dramatic, but also constantly reflective. The reader is aware of the intimacy with the natural world which was once so inescapable: frost, floods, fire, mosses, grasses, stone, cuckoos, stars, sunrises, sunsets, snow. Before large cities and easy transport, the world was wild. The morning weather meant something; the night skies were portentous. One knew the names of the flowers and herbs that grew in season, and the birds that sang.
The rhythms of nature were effective and intrusive (as, I consider the heavily falling snow’s potential to delay my Christmas flight, they still are now).

Undset makes sure to draw the reader’s attention to the changing seasons and Kristin’s awareness of the world. Here is a paragraph which describes Kristin’s penitential visit to a church, combining the fluidity between man-made architecture and the outdoors:

“Along the galleries of the heavenly palace stood holy men and women, and they were so beautiful that she dared not look at them. The imperishable vines of eternity wound their way upward, calm and lovely, bursting into flower on spires and towers with stone monstrances…She walked as if through a forest. The pillars were furrowed like ancient trees, and into the woods the light seeped, colorful and as clear as song, through the stained-glass windows. High overhead animals and people frolicked in the stone foliage, and angels played their instruments. At an event higher, more dizzying height, the vaults of the ceiling arched upward, lifting the church toward God.”

And here, she doesn’t remain in the valley and on the mountain, but turns her attention to the water:

“Erlend remembered what he had been dreaming. He was walking along a shore somewhere; it was low tide, and he was leaping from stone to stone. In the distance the sea was glistening and pale, lapping at the seaweed; it was like a silent, cloudy summer evening, with no sun. At the mouth of the silvery fjord he saw the ship anchored, black and sleek, rocking gently on the waves. There was an ungodly, delicious smell of sea and kelp.”

Undset’s storytelling is entrancing, her characters are believably flawed and dynamic, and her prose is lively but wondrous. The only struggle, besides the sheer size of the trilogy, is sorting out who is who. As in Russian novels, all the characters seem to have the same names. One can only guess who is who; the levels and ties of kinship become bewildering.

Okay, no more talk of Scandinavians for a while, I promise. But, like Anna Karenina, put Kristin Lavransdatter on your Big Books to Read Sometime List. Its warmth, depth, and exquisite clarity will reward your efforts.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Scandinavian Winters

No sign of snow yet.

Our family’s Scandinavian roots are something which emerged from the closet every second year around Christmas when we flew north to Minnesota for two months. My father’s side of the family, the Edwalls, is a celebratory, gregarious clan which will take any excuse for a feast, or a game day, always ready to pull up a chair or begin a new tradition. Legend has it that my great-grandfather Nathaniel, or perhaps even his father, got off the boat in America and was ordered by the immigrations official to change his name as there were already too many Olsens in the country. So we became Edwalls: Baptists, teetotalers, loggers, woodworkers, musicians, missionaries. Tall, fair-skinned blond and redheads appeared in my generation, the brown hair and brown eyes and brown skin being my mother’s singular gift to my brothers and me.

Our Swedish-ness manifests in only two very distinct traditions: Santa Lucia on December 13th and The Lefse Song. Santa Lucia is the most sacred of childhood Christmas rituals. On December 13th, at the ungodly hour of three or four in the morning, the aunts would rouse my cousins Jessica and Cassie and I (all oldest daughters), dress us in white gowns with red sashes on our waists, and place on our heads gaudy green plastic crowns with battery-operated light bulbs on prongs masquerading as candle-lit wreaths. In their defense, I can’t imagine what sort of mother that would put a real wreath with real candles on the head of a sleepy five-year-old. They would take us to visit family members by knocking on their doors very loudly and calling out our Santa Lucia greetings, rewarding the haggard faces of our menfolk with pastries and coffee. We would sing the Santa Lucia song, which I only remember the opening line (to repeat ad nauseum), the very surprising lyrics “Sant-a Luci-i-a.” This became an even better tradition when I was given my first American Girl doll, Kirsten (who was Swedish) and came with a matching Santa Lucia outfit.

Santa Lucia is a Scandinavian saint imported from Naples, Italy; a virgin martyr who had her eyes plucked out by a fork. Lucy (one of my favorite names) coming from “Lux” or lucis - light, the bearer of light, the bearer of vision, the patron saint of the blind. In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is Lucy who first discovers Narnia, leading her brothers and sister with her vision and pure-hearted insight. In Northern Europe, Lucy comes with candles and lanterns to light the unending darkness.

I made bastard attempts at Santa Lucia during college, running from room to room with a paper wreath on my head and a tin of cookies in my hands. Last year Kristin and I woke early to drive around to wake several of our friends, who reacted with kind, taciturn long-suffering faces. This year, yesterday, Santa Lucia made an appearance at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in lower Queen Anne (an Anglo-Catholic parish with no other connections to Scandinavia other than the general genetic inheritance of Seattleites), dressed in white and red, the same plastic green wreath with battery-operated candles on her (blond) head, serving pastries from a basket. In the corner of the room an American Girl doll, Kirsten, stood on a table in an identical outfit, surveying the basement room with plastic blue-eyed goodwill. And then we sang the song (and I learned all the words).

The Lefse Song is another story for another time.

Nearly every day this November was grey and rainy. December began with thirteen days of brilliant sunshine and crystalline coldness. Freezing fingers, the necessity of scarves and socks and two pants to bed at night.

This past Wednesday we went to Golden Gardens, a beach overlooking the Puget Sound, with islands and mountains in the distance. This past summer, where the city suffered 103 degree weather, we ran to Golden Gardens to cool ourselves, to feel the breeze off the water, and to watch the sun sink into a pink sky that reflected to make the Sound look like a colored bubble bath. People were out on the sand until 10, until the stars came out, and the fires and barbecues were extinguished.

Now, the beach wore its solitude like a morning robe. Everything was spare and isolated; walkers and their dogs passed every ten minutes. There were no gulls, just the sound of the lapping water, the fierce air, and the stripped winter trees.

As Kristin ran, I settled onto a large piece of weathered driftwood, spreading hacked branches like a throne. I sat there this past August with my family. This December, I huddled on the top branch and opened True Deceiver, Tove Jansson's novel of two women in a snowy Swedish village, circling around each other warily. Katri and her brother Mats live in the village where, because of their refusal to play social games and their yellow eyes, they are regarded with suspicion. Anna Aemelin is an artist who is as famous for her children’s books featuring rabbits as Tove Jansson was famous for Moomins. Both women are alone, but when they begin to live each other, their opposing ideals and philosophies cause friction. The heavy snow, the darkness, the austere society - all felt right and mirrored my own wintry reality.

Continuing to want to wallow in Scandinavia, I have picked up Kristin Lavransdatter, the medieval epic by the Norwegian Nobel Prize Winner, Sigrid Undset. I thought about it all morning, and - pow - it arrived at the bookstore yesterday evening. Magic!

To tie it all together, today is my roommate's birthday, who has claimed Saint Lucy for her patron saint. Happy birthday, Kristin. Enjoy your ice cream.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Say it isn't Snow

Do you ever feel that looking at the weather report is cheating?

Lately, I've felt guilty whenever checking to see what's coming; it's like looking into a crystal ball; it is seeing into the future and playing with fate. I do understand that if one is getting married or going to hike to the top of Mount Ranier, one wants to be certain that conditions are favourable. On the other hand, the majority of people looking at the weather (in my ignorant opinion) are doing it because it's convenient, because it's something they do everyday, because it's on the news or the radio or their computer screen.

It seems as though you are attempting to control the future, so that when it rains mid-day (as it inevitably will), you can open the umbrella you clairvoyant-ishly brought with you, and turn to the person next to you and say "I saw this coming."

Without weather reports, without knowing what the skies will bring, we are at the mercy of the outdoors. A co-worker, Vlad, once mentioned that Californians were narcissists because since the skies were so continuously pleasant, they thought they deserved only pleasant weather. The Northwest skies, on the other hand, remind us constantly that the weather will do what it will, and what promised to be a brilliantly sunny day will turn to fierce rain just to remind us that we don't control the elements, that the world is large and beyond our control.

Mary, another co-worker of sorts, mentioned once that when one doesn't look at the weather reports, one is forced to become more observant. Instead of switching on the computer and going to, one stands at the window and looks up full into the face of the sky and studies it for signs of what is to come. One slows down and pays attention.

I've heard it was supposed to snow tonight, so I - hypocritically - looked up the weather to see if snow may indeed be in our future. It isn't. But I'll look out of the windows and watch the sky just in case.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

More Moomins

A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.

Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.

It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. Drawn by the memory of happy summers, disparate characters arrive at the Moomin family home to find companionship and comfort this November. But the Moomins are nowhere to be found, and their house resounds with the emptiness and loss of that warm, congenial family. Instead of what each ailing character hoped to find, the Moomins, they find each other:

Shy Toft, the anxious and obsessive-compulsive Fillyjonk, depressed Hemeulen whose greatest joy is to order and organize people, Snufkin the vagrant, Grandpa-Grumble (whose name says it all), and the tiny and scornful Mymble.

Their oddities – Toft’s reclusiveness, Fillyjonk’s relentless cleaning and fretting – rub up against each other, and each wishes for sole possession of the house and its memories. Instead, the new housemates learn what it is like to live in a community with those you wouldn’t choose to live with, how to be kind, how to fight, how to concede. On the back of the back of the book, a review sums it up: “Although none of the six is a sociable creature, they more or less put up with each other, and, perhaps recalling the warmth of the family, they eventually learn how pleasant communal life can be.”

The novel is not didactic. Jansson’s writing is, as always, careful and fluid. I never know what the characters will think, do, or say next.

We are now about to enter into the season of Advent, the time of preparation, of hope despite the darkness, of the struggle for warmth despite the cold. I hope you keep warm.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Tribute to the Past

As I may have mentioned before, we read very little in high school: one novel a year, one play, four poems and a few short stories. I’ve blamed my slow literary education on this very weak introduction, but as I’ve begun to remember the quality of the short stories we read, I’ve realized they aren’t bad - one by Italo Calvino, another by Roald Dahl. I am beginning to think my head was submerged in something all through high school.

We read Lord of the Flies in Matric, senior year. I remember that. Ralph standing on his head. Jack. Piggy. The Conch. The dead parachutist stuck in the tree tops, his parachute eerily billowing around him. Junior year we read a book by South African writer Richard Rive called ‘Buckingham Palace’, District Six. By the end of the term, after our essays and multiple choice tests, we were all heartily sick of Buckingham Palace, but recently I’ve been feeling nostalgic and hoping to get a hold of a copy. It’s out of print (of course) and I can’t imagine what Seattle bookstore would carry a copy of a book about a now non-existent slum community in Cape Town in the sixties. I’ve looked all at the local bookstores and on the internet and have come up with nothing. I forgot about it.

Last week, after drinking coffee at Allegro’s, and coming around the corner where Magus Books is (lured in by the Greek Harry Potter in the window), I found it on the shelf. $5 for the exact same edition I had read in high school, published in South Africa with educational notes! It is now in my room.

District Six was a once vital neighborhood at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town: a place where Jews, Muslims, Indians, those of mixed race and unknown origin and low incomes lived side by side. Children played in the streets in front of brightly colored houses, neighborhoods consisted entirely of old friends, dominoes partners, churches, mosques, markets, artisans. In 1966, the apartheid government declared District Six a white-only zone and all current residents were to be evicted. Families and friends were split up in the evacuation; communities that had been constructed over decades were split. The District was razed, intending to be sold to whites to make use of the prime property. It still stands empty today. This has long since been a sacred site to those seeking to understand the devastation of apartheid upon communities. It is a barren place consecrated to memory and to the spirit of a hope that imagined a different world could be created.

The author, Richard Rive, was a scholar and an author of international repute, stabbed to death in his home by a burglar in 1989. It is a cruel and ironic testament to the violent reality of South Africa today. Rive had fought against apartheid, and was murdered, not because of his outspoken political stance, but because of a robbery.

I don’t know if the story meant much to me when I read the novel at seventeen. It seemed hypothetical and removed. Picking it up last week, I was immediately won over by its breezy joie de vivre:

“When I was a boy and chirruping ten, a decade after the end of the Second World War, when I was Tarzan and Batman and could sing ‘Rainbow on the River’ like Bobby Breen – in those red-white-and-blue days I remember especially the weekends, which began with the bustle of Friday evenings when the women came home early from the factories and the man came home late although they had been paid off early…Saturday mornings Tennant Street, Hanover Street and Castle Bridge heaved and bustled with housewives, peddlers, skollies, urchins, pimps and everybody else…And the apricot warmth of a summer Sunday morning when almost everyone slept late…And I still clearly remember the characters and the incidents.”

It is an episodic novel, a collection of those characters and incidents, people like Zoot September and his happy gang of Jungle Boys; Mary and her girls at the local house of ill-repute, the Casbah; Katzen, the local Jewish merchant; and Last-Knight the barber.

Funny episodes of “local color” rub up against the poignant last days of the District, the inevitable encroachment of the policy of discrimination.

At the end of the novel, before they go in opposite directions, Zoot draws around a fire with his friends Pretty-Boy and Oubaas and says fiercely,

“We knew that District Six was dirty and rotten. Their newspapers told us so often enough. But what they didn’t say was that it was also warm and friendly…That is was never a place – that it was a people. We must tell how they split us apart and scattered us in many directions like the sparks from this fire…We must never forget…”

There is now a museum on the site of District 6, a collection of memories and of artifacts: wedding pictures, street signs, baby clothes, hairdresser’s scissors, and musical instruments. On the floor there is a map of the District carefully replicated street by street. Families have returned to the museum to mark the spot where they once lived, permanently signing their name to a place which was a bedrock of identity and cultural belonging. It is a sad place, but a pace where the sparks from the fire are still warm.

If you find a copy of Richard Rive’s novel, a superb blend of storytelling, language and history, read it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

La Vie Francaise

I have been bitten by a Frog.

I suppose it's been dormant ever since three days in Paris nearly six years ago, revived briefly by watching Amelie, and by those Berlitz language tapes I still have in my car.

Kristin and I finally watched Kristin Scott Thomas in Philippe Claudel's Il y a longtemps que j'aime, or I've Loved you for So Long, after being tantalized by previews of women with tear-stained faces yelling "pourQUOI" very loudly at each other. We do this sometimes when feeling particularly emotive.

Juliette (Scott Thomas) emerges from fifteen years in prison. Her sister Lea, years younger than Juliette, is thrilled to have her long-absent sister back, but Juliette's bleakness is ghostly in comparison to Lea's shy delight and full life.

It was worth the wait. We sat on the edge of our seats, completely absorbed in the unimportant daily conversations that occur against the backdrop of this significant sometimes unmentioned past, while characters grasp for truth and redemption in the dark.

Sometimes I think this blog is not so much a record of what I'm reading, but a record of the cycles of my obsessions. And now, I have French mania. I find that the French films and books I've been recently exposed to have been quirky, magical, and luminous. That quintessential French combination of existentialism and joie de vivre.

Next on my to-do list is reading Olivier Rolin's Hotel Crystal, the chronicle of a mysterious man's stay in various international hotel rooms. And Eric, a co-worker, has graciously compiled a list of must-see French film. He's into New Wave.

Since I don't know anything about cinema, we've been toying with the idea of starting an unofficial, highly subjective film club. My first proposition is Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary starring Big and Little Edie Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (on the Bouvier side), in their dilapidated Hampton mansion. Warbling to records, fancy-pants dancing, innumerable head scarves, cats peeing on paintings, and the terrible sad decay of time... Need I say more?

But - it is soon time to go home to mon brie et cafe.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

That Old Homesick Feeling

I may be biased, but I think South African history is one of the most fascinating I have had the opportunity of learning. Learning the Groot Trek year after year got old, but that was much preferable to the annual onslaught of Holocaust videos.

There, at the point of the world, the stormy nexus of Indian and Atlantic oceans, the Portuguese adventurers Bartolomeu Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan rounded the tip. The Dutch sent South Africa's own Columbus, Jan van Riebeeck, in 1652 to establish a trading station for the Dutch East India Company. The French Huguenots settled in the seventeenth century, leaving a lush valley of vineyards and chocolatiers. The British arrive in 1812 to annex the Cape to the Empire, sowing the seeds of the Boer War, which was to introduce the first concentration camps. Bloodshed and diamonds, covered wagons and massacres, and endless exploitation.

History may be a treasure trove on her own - but sometimes the story is only ever as good as the teller. My mother, a once-budding historian, lost interest in history on account of a droning lecturer. There are many excellent books on South African history; excellent and dry. I started one in 2006 and still haven't finished it; I petered off somewhere in the early nineteenth century. That's why, when I saw the translation of Dominique Lapierre's exciting and energetic work, A Rainbow in the Night: the Tumultuous Birth of South Africa, published at the end of October, I bought a used copy as soon as it came in. It begins with gusto: with the Dutch fleeing the flames of the Inquisition that swept through Europe in the seventeenth century. For what? "The Bible!"

Lapierre packs the first three hundred years of South African history into two or three chapters and spends the majority of the book on the policy of apartheid and the recent process of reconciliation. It looks like a good read: a tightly-packed, vivid visit home.

Recently, I've experienced a resurgence of pride in my mother country. Earlier this year I read Vladislavic's Portrait with Keys: the City of Johannesburg Unlocked, a poetic homage to a city I'm not too fond of. Despite it's ugliness, grime, and poverty, Vladislavic explores the layers of memory embedded in the city's physical and social structure. I don't usually think of South Africans as a poetic or especially literary people, barring a few (Coetzee, Gordimer, Breytenbach), but this book proved me wrong.

As the days in Seattle shorten and the sun dies at 4.45, I think about the lengthening days at home. The gradual yearning and pulling towards summer, towards the beach and school holidays and Christmas. Instead of getting on the plane for a New Year's Eve flight south, I will have to settle for curling up with Rainbow in the Night and three blankets, drinking rooibos tea with a Frenchman.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

In one week, two things that become ironic side-by-side. Today, I received a copy by the director of Harvard’s library Robert Darnton’s apologia, the Case for Books. The other is that our bookstore has become one of the six bookstores in the nation [sic] to have received an espresso book machine. This enables us to print, for a low cost, any book in the public domain and bind it within minutes (300 pages in 4 minutes). The panels are clear so that you can see the cogs working. (I assume; I haven’t actually seen it run yet.)

There’s an espresso book machine at the Harvard Book Store named Paige M. Gutenborg (the opening was attended by Robert Darnton), one in Vermont, at several at libraries around the country. And there’s one at Third Place Books, north of Seattle.

Of course, this development chilled me to the bone. What will happen to the industries? What will happen to the book? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Could it make bookstores obsolete? (Probably not) But Time will Tell. For the moment, I am going to keep my eye on the big lumbering machine in the corner.

Note: I am feeling guilty and disloyal to the store, so I must admit that the EBM does have its attractions. Perhaps I should admit that there is this wonderful website, Internet Archive, which has free downloads for millions of books that are otherwise hard to get a hold of. These are examples of books that will be rescued from obscurity, like Ivy Compton-Burnett's The Present and the Past, or an eighteenth century guide to running the home. Rare books will no longer be restricted to expensive scholarly editions.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are writers who are widely credited for having introduced and developed the “stream of consciousness” literary technique, which sacrifices traditional grammar, punctuation and syntax in the attempt to chronicle the natural flow and organic development of ideas and sensations, the scattered impressions the mind collects from moment to moment.

But before Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and the Waves, before Ulysses and just after the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) began to publish volumes of her magnum opus, what would amount to life-long project, a thirteen novel sequence called Pilgrimage.

Richardson, who experimented with the “interior monologue,” is the largely un-credited creator of “stream of consciousness”, though she disliked that phrase and parodied it as “shroud of consciousness. Virginia Woolf attributes Richardson with the invention of “what we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender”. Richardson was trying to redefine the novel and create “a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism” (her introduction to the first volume in Pilgrimage).

I discovered Richardson entirely by accident (as usual). I found the first volume of Pilgrimage, containing the first three novels: “Pointed Roofs”, “Backwater”, and “Honeycomb”, on a shelf at Goodwill for $1 a few weeks ago. After noticing Virginia Woolf’s praise on the back cover, and seeing that Richardson was a modernist – a period that interests me – I bought it. I’ve become increasingly glad that I did.

Pilgrimage is a largely autobiographical sequence which starts by addressing the “beginning of economic autonomy [which] corresponds with the beginning of autonomous self-consciousness” (Gill Hanscombe’s intro to Pilgrimage). The first novel or chapter (as Richardson preferred to call it), “Pointed Roofs,” introduces young Miriam Henderson who, in the wake of her family’s economic misfortune, goes to Germany to teach English to young ladies as Richardson did.

I’m only partway through “Pointed Roofs” so I’m no expert, but am excited to read more of Pilgrimage and read more about Richardson and her influence. As with all new discoveries, I am a bit of an evangelist right now. So now you know! Give credit where credit is due. Dorothy Richardson: modernist, innovator.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Before Bed

I find that the best, most luxurious time of the day to read is just before I go to sleep. The house is quiet, the dishwasher might be running, the candles are lit, and everything is solemn and flickering and drowsy. There's a brown chair that is tucked into the corner between my mammoth desk and my bed, and when you sit down there's no getting up. A pillow for your back, a blanket for the legs you can prop up on the foot of the bed.

Some nights I read Rebecca Fraser's Story of Britain, a chronological history. (So far I've just passed the Battle of Hastings, which I've always enjoyed because of the family legend that we're descended on my mother's side from a Norman knight, St. Clair, who came over with William in 1066, and from a Viking. I have a few more opinions about Vikings, those destroyers of architecture, churches, monasteries, schools, villages, literacy, farms, crops, flocks, herds, and households - but that can wait.)

And other nights I read from Lydia Davis, recently hailed as "master of the American short story". Some stories so short they are only a paragraph, or a sentence. Ms. Davis is coming to the Seattle Arts & Lectures this Wednesday night and I am hoping to see her - but we'll see...because I may have chicken pox.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Half the World is Called Thomas

At last, I have finished Hilary Mantel’s Man-Booker winner this morning! For readers of Philippa Gregory and other historical romances, Wolf Hall might seem like it can offer no new thrills. The turbulence of sixteenth century England is old news thanks to the current mania for Tudors. The cast of characters we meet is familiar: dangerously intemperate Henry VIII; the woefully deposed Queen Katherine of Aragon; her successor, the cat-like Anne Boleyn; the doomed churchmen Wolsey and More (and Cranmer and Latimer)…

But there is a new star on the horizon and Mantel gives him a meaty role. When I saw the novel was Tudorian in theme and I had heard it was about a Thomas, I thought it was Thomas More, Catholic saint and writer of Utopia (as in “The Prince has read Utopia”). Wendy, the events manager at the bookstore scoffed, “It’s Thomas Cromwell!”
“Don’t you mean Thomas More?” I frowned. “Cromwell’s first name was Oliver. And he wasn’t alive yet.”
“No, the King killed Thomas More.”
“I think that was Thomas Becket, who wrote the Imitation of Christ. And Henry II killed him not Henry VIII.”
With the trusty aid of Wikipedia search we corrected our (my) abominable English history. Henry II killed Thomas Becket. Thomas a Kempis wrote the Imitation of Christ. Thomas More was executed under Henry’s reign. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s minister, was also executed – but that’s getting ahead of our story. Wolsey’s first name is Thomas. Anne Boleyn’s father’s name is Thomas. “Half the world is called Thomas,” Cromwell thinks acidly.

Our man Thomas Cromwell is self-made: a man born in the gutter and abused by a cruel father. He escapes to Europe, fights in a few wars, and returns to serve Cardinal Wolsey – one of the most powerful men at the time - as secretary and continues to rise. He is a true Renaissance man:
“He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that’s ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make. With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse wit you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate.”
He speaks a dozen languages, and has the entire New Testament by heart. Despite his low birth, Cromwell breaks through the strict social strata that govern Tudorian England and gains access to the ear of the monarch.

He is a complex character: a man who is kind to his family and fair to his household and those under his protection. He is a “charmer and a bully”; he will do you a favor if you do him one. His duality is what makes him such an excellent character. The novel ends with More’s death, before we realize that Cromwell, too, is headed for the executioner’s. (How could we believe it? He has become one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.)

Mantel writes with a collage of details – the smell of lemons, or sizzling flesh, the pine of Christmas boughs, the scratch of a pen. The setting’s authenticity spreads; it is anchored in flesh and is weighted by objects: books, roasted pigs, robes. Her world is believable, her dialogue intelligent and acerbic, and though we know what will happen, Cromwell does not and we, following him, forget that we have the advantage of hindsight.

She contrasts the large events – the religious and political battles, the constant flux of fortunes – with the miniature:

“The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”

Wolf Hall is a novel about power: the struggle to attain it and the subsequent struggle to keep it, the dog-eat-dog nature of living at court, of staying on the right side of a changeable king. It emphasizes the power of words and of incantations, of admissions, of recanting. Saying that the host is just bread earns a beating, reading the Bible in one’s own tongue invites the charge of heresy or treason and a painful death.

I'm not sure whether Wolf Hall deserved to beat A.S. Byatt's Children's Book, but the two provide lush examples of how the historical novel can still succeed. I’ve heard Hilary Mantel is working on a sequel to Wolf Hall and I eagerly await it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I've kept a journal ever since I was in third grade, or Standard One as it was called in George. These diaries included such salacious content as: what I was wearing that day, the time I made toasted cheese all by myself, and long-standing feelings for various boys with bowl haircuts. That's the bad thing about writing in a journal, isn't it? You can't get away from the stupid things you did, or said, or the things you wanted so badly to happen.

Throughout high school, college and now into my semi-professional life, I've accumulated a pile of mismatched journals: gifts from birthdays and Christmases and graduations. Picked up in airports and museums and gift shops and grocery stores and hand me downs. They are on a shelf in my cupboard, in the corner. Shameful and exuberant and badly written and smudged, with terrible poetry in every volume.

I was given my first Moleskine journal two Christmases ago and I started it June 19, 2009, the day after I graduated, while my mother and I were in the car from Illinois to Minnesota. It's a tender volume at a particularly bright transition: collecting our belongings - Kristin and I - squaring our shoulders and moving west to seek our fortune. Last summer the sun shone from July to October, from early in the morning until 10 at night. Job applications, the feeling of failure, the surprise of being employed.

Everybody likes Moleskines. Join the queue, follow the crowd. But after thinking of Virginia Woolf writing in all those identical stitched-together journals, I pictured the exquisite uniformity of a row of books in indistinguishable black and said Yes. These books are slim and slip easily into every bag I own. When one opens to write, the page lie flat. I only write in black ink. The repetition makes it an intentional discipline.

This year I began a red Moleskine. Thought that after the three black journals I finished last year, this could be the Year of the Red. After finishing the red last month, I said No, it's back to black. And I haven't been able to find one since.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Status Anxiety

While I continue through some of the Great Books - Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur at the moment - I admit frequent disheartening twinges. There are just too many. They are just too long. I have started too late. (But this way, I've heard, madness lies...)

I found an excellent article care of Arts & Letters this morning on the role of the Great Books fad in American Middlebrow Culture. I recognize this sort of status anxiety, but the writer of the article enables other middlebrow strivers who adhere to the American myth of betterment through self-education to feel known and vindicated.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Feeling Wolfish

As you might know by now, the winner of the Man-Booker Prize this year was Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall. You can read more about the winner and her novel here.

Mantel was this year's favorite and still won - unlike last year's favorite, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which got the shaft. I was oscillating between Mantel and A.S. Byatt's Children's Book, which was released in the U.S. on the day the Man-Booker was announced. It would have been a triumph for Byatt. But then again, she'd won it already and perhaps one swimming pool (bought with her prize money for Possession) is enough.

Wolf Hall will be released in the U.S. this coming Tuesday, October 13th, and I have my copy winging on its way.

I put up a Man-Booker Prize table at the bookstore to draw more attention to literature presently published and recognized in the UK and to celebrate this month's award. Mostly consisting of various English memorabilia. Here are the pictures:

Very proud of the hanging umbrella, suspended by a safety pin from co-worker Mike's pants, and with Eric as Master of the Ladder.

I am so fond of seeing the Queen on the table. I had to sign a waiver to print out this picture.

Cuppa tea?

Various Booker books.

Can't wait to hang up that homely flag in my room, if it hasn't fallen apart by then.

Monday, October 5, 2009

(One more day until the Man-Booker Prize is announced...)

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Nip in the Air

It is finally October, which is one of the best months of the year. I am thrilled that autumn has arrived! Kristin says that I say this every time the seasons pass and that I am addicted to the change of the seasons. She may be right. I know I was ecstatic when the spring came this year. But autumn and I have a love affair: the rain is falling and the gutters gurgling; it is the perfect weather for candles, for huddling together, for soup, for bedroom slippers and plaid pajama pants, for crocheting hats and afghans, for excavating the scarves and sweaters from their long exile. And the pumpkin latte! (The best, best thing about the autumnal season.)

Let us celebrate this new season with a poem: (Forgive it for being another Philip Larkin so soon. It’s just the first verse.)

“And now the leaves suddenly lose strength.
Decaying towers stand still, lurid, lanes-long,
And seen from landing windows, or the length
Of gardens, rubricate afternoons. New strong
Rain-bearing night-winds come: then
Leaves chase warm buses, speckle statued air,
Pile up in corners, fetch out vague broomed men
Through mists at morning.”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

It's that time of year again...

The Friends of the Seattle Public Library Book Sale! - this year attended by me and my friend Laura (who visited this blog earlier as Bellatrix Lestrange). We woke early and arrived at the Magnusson Park hangar at the ungodly hour of eight on a Saturday morning, but kept each other occupied with strategic planning and other stories.

To my utter surprise, I remained within my budget (I can say no after all!) and financed by a birthday gift from my brothers, I found many treats:

The Brontes Went to Woolworths - Rachel Ferguson (This title always makes me think "The Brontosaurus went to Woolworths." I have no idea why. I never think of Jane Eyre as being written by Charlotte Brontosaurus. Complete mystery. At any rate, this is being reprinted by Bloomsbury and available in the US next March.)

Monday or Tuesday - Virginia Woolf (Lovely slim volume published by Hesperus - though sadly underlined in some places...)

Days of Abandonment - Elsa Ferrente (Published by Europa. I have been thinking about Italy a lot recently, and Ferrente is an Italian author I've been meaning to try.)

Four books from E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia series

Experiment in Criticism - C.S. Lewis (which I just finished reading and will talk more about very soon as this was a work of sincere and concise genius.)

Confessions of an English Opium Eater - Thomas De Quincey (Reading this at work at the present, and so far De Quincey is a fat head.)

Women Against Men - Storm Jameson (Virago)

Jane and Prudence - Barbara Pym (I love Barbara)

Sisters: the saga of the Mitford family - Mary S. Lovell (The Mitfords being a fascinating aristocratic British family famous for their six daughters who turned out to be writers, duchesses, and Nazis. This is a relatively new fascination of mine.)

A Far Cry from Kensington - Muriel Spark (I don't know what this one is about, but have much respect for Ms. Spark's fine pen.)

Eustace and Hilda - L.P. Hartley (NYRB - enough said. Bought it for the cover.)

Sorrows of Young Werther - Goethe (The book that sparked the Romantic novel!...relatively)

Winter Sonata - Dorothy Edwards (Virago Press)

Month in the Country - J.L. Carr (which I've heard is good)

And my favorite: Silk by Linda Chaikin, which was the novel most beloved by my twelve to fourteen year old self, featuring a beautiful (but fragile) British heiress, a sea-roving rogue, Indian orphans/maharajahs, exotic plantations, and palace intrigue. Note the awesome front cover:

Since it's out of print, I was thrilled to find it for $1! Kristin and I have firm plans to read this one aloud...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Annus Mirabilis

On Saturday, I rang up a purchase which came to $19.63. The customer said: "Oh, that must have been a good year for somebody."

To which I invariably - could not help but ask if she'd read Larkin's poem, and when she did not reply I found that to my horror I was launching into the first verse:

"Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP."

And anyway, it slipped out and I mashed it up and swapped some of the lines around but the general effect was realized and instead of grinning at me (like I was hoping she would), she pursed her lips and turned all her attention to her check book.

"Well," she said after an uncomfortable pause, "it was a good year for somebody."

And then we rushed on to talk about the death of J.F.K for whom 1963 was not a good year. I've learned my lesson. I must not recite at the cashier's desk. And I will have to learn by heart some other poems without the words "sexual intercourse" in them.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ernest & Elizabeth

Two books read this week, with very different voices: Hemingway's Farewell to Arms and Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (a sneaky-but-worth-it swerve from the Great Books...)

Again, like Madame Bovary, I knew the ending of Farewell to Arms by osmosis. But - one reads books not only for the conclusion of a plot, but for the enjoyment of the atmosphere the author creates and Hemingway’s voice is so unique.

A Farewell to Arms is the story of an American ambulance driver for the Italian army during the First World War and who falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine. I’m not sure how autobiographic it is – since Hemingway drove ambulances for the Italian army during the First World War. In true Hemingway fashion there is much understatement, there are scenes of drinking camaraderie and the hero’s canoodling with the nurse which leads to a pregnancy regulated by sound medical advice such as: “Do you think I ought to drink another beer? The doctor said I was rather narrow in the hips and it’s all for the best if we keep young Catherine small.”

His injunction to write “one true thing” is recognizable from the first sentences. He is able to bring landscape to life with short masculine sentences and only the barest of adjectival sketching. Though very dry and understated, Hemingway occasionally has metaphors which give his sentences happy weight: “I had been in uniform a long time and I missed the feeling of being held by your clothes.”

Rain is omnipresent in the book, and now when it rains – as it did last night – I can’t help but thinking of Catherine’s worrying words: “I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it…And sometimes I see you dead in it.”

As a nice foil to Hemingway’s brevity and virility, is the sweet and melancholic Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, now a movie with Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend (Wickham of the Kiera Knightley adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). This short novel by Elizabeth Taylor (the British author, not the actress) is set in a rainy London, a grimy but still hopeful stage where the old are neglected by their families and left to wait for memorials as social occasions, but pedestrians watch the cracks in the pavement to watch the flowers grow.

Mrs. Palfrey is a widow with “big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl…would have made a distinguished-looking man and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.” Needing a comfortable place to spend her years as she ages, she moves into a hotel, the Claremont, in London. Surrounded by an island community of seniors, who have their own distinct oddities and rituals, Mrs. Palfrey is lonely and unoccupied.

A chance encounter with a penniless artist who spends his days writing a novel at Harrods, Ludo, allows Mrs. Palfrey a daring respite from the stilted repetition of the Claremont and the souring characters within. Ludo agrees to masquerade as Mrs. Palfrey’s grandson, the real grandson being less than impressive and not willing to visit his grandmother, and the imposter does such a good job that Mrs. Palfrey is smitten. But Ludo, though warm and affectionate, has his own game afoot.

Elizabeth Taylor is a writer of delicacy and feeling but refuses to replace realism with sentimentality. Mrs. Palfrey is an empathetic book towards those who are ageing or alone, full of delights and intuitively crafted moments of connection and mutual sympathy, and also the unavoidable dreariness of life and disappointed hopes. I will have to check the movie out from the library to see if it is as nuanced, and will henceforth keep a sharp eye out for other books by Elizabeth Taylor.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Madame Bovary, c'est moi!

In reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary, I occasionally came to such a feeling of eerie self-recognition in the character of Emma Bovary, that I felt as though I was reading the journals I wrote as a teenager. Frightening and unflattering thought. Sadly, if I had read this as a teenager, I don't think I would have made it all the way through, and I'm not sure I would have been self-aware enough to see my reflection in Emma Bovary's compulsions. But we learn our lessons.

I finished late Friday night, feeling myself starting to sneeze and the cold start to settle, but I couldn't leave it hanging. And still I needed to read on, to the very last death bed scene (because we know that death is imminent. We feel from the beginning, like Anna Karenina, that Emma is doomed.)

Emma Bovary is the desperately unhappy wife of a provincial bourgeois doctor. She thought marriage would be exciting, but it's not. Each anticipated stage of her life is accompanied by the dull monotony of realism that does not seem to afflict the characters in the novels she loves to read. Eventually, her boredom is corrupted by her careless and idealistic desires; she is destroyed by her nerves, by her own duplicity and wanton living (and I would classify this wanton living not as the love affairs she throws herself into but her wild expenditures on frivolous items and inevitable bankruptcy.)

It is a serious novel: Flaubert is ruthless in pursuing his character's motives, her actions and justifications. It is also a funny novel. In one of the first scenes between Emma and her lover Rudolphe, he declares his amorous intentions to her speckled by the announcements of an agricultural prize-giving ceremony. And after a pathetic and prolonged death, the chemist and the priest sit at the corpse's side, sleepily and jocularly discussing religion and science.

And oh! that very sly carriage love scene...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Quotable Morgan

While reading E.M. Forster's memoir of the time he spent in India as a young man, The Hill of Devi, as a companion to his novel Passage to India, I came across this magnificent line in one of his 1921 letters home and I had to share it:

“Religion approaches, to me in a very tangible form, as I have been hit on the head by an iron bar belonging to a sacred swing.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

Cads and Virgins

I have always been wary of epistolary novels. I have no idea why; I love receiving letters, and reading through my grandparents' love letters in early August occupied me for hours. Perhaps because I've always felt that the device was too heavy-handed, and weighs the story down. It's for this reason that I've delayed on reading Laclos' Les Liasons Dangereuses, that scandalous French novel found even in Marie Antoinette's library in an unmarked binding, filmed in the 90's (Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer), and reincarnated for teenagers as Cruel Intentions (Ryan Philippe, Reese Witherspoon).

But I have broken the soil! Evelina was a delightful read despite being epistolary. Burney uses the device without artifice, revealing letters from a variety of characters to round out the narrative.

("The Music Party" by Rolland Trinquesse, 1774)

Evelina Anville is a beautiful, innocent and virtuous country girl, out to see London and the Big Wide World for the first time. Though the clergyman she calls Father is beloved and respected, her natural father, Sir John Belmont, refuses to acknowledge his marriage to Evelina's (dead) mother or approve Evelina's legitimacy. Though Evelina's friends stoutly pursue her case for a cleared name and respectability, Evelina remains less than hopeful, and devout to the Reverend Villars.

Evelina's idea of a pleasant education in societal experience is somewhat altered by the inclusion of her scrupulous French grandmother; the rough and mischievious Captain Mirvan; badly behaved relatives; and forward gentlemen who will not leave her alone.

Annoyingly (for the reader), no male in the United Kingdom can resist Evelina. Lords swoon, bands of men whistle, soldiers proposition - although naive,Evelina's beauty, sensitivity, taste and education elevate her. (Her only deficiences are, I feel, a chronic sense of duty and gratitude; if she could combine her beauty and intelligence with a tad more forthrightness, I would be happy.) The question is : can she win the well-mannered, handsome, kind and extremely gracious Lord Orville's heart despite her questionable birth and the unrelenting farcical characters and circumstances that accompany her?

Lovers of Jane Austen will enjoy Evelina; but where Jane is ironic, Frances is vivid and her comedy is bolder. According to the introduction in the Oxford University Press edition, Burney had aspirations towards being a dramatist, aspirations which were not compatible with expectations for the eighteenth century respectable female. So she wrote novels instead.

If you are feeling a longing for a world where manners were currency, and marriage was crucial - a time of phaetons, assembly dances, proper introductions, scandalous pasts, and passionate overtures - read Evelina. I have picked up Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park on DVD from the library, and am on the way to both estates as you read these words...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Collectible Penguins

It is a truth locally acknowledged that a young woman in possession of continuous overdrafts must be in want of MORE BOOKS.

That being said, I have recently developed quite a crush on Penguin's Celebration series:

Something about the bold, simple design draws my eyes. This morning on a early bookstore jaunt, I wanted a Penguins Celebrations edition of Claire Tomalin's biography of Jane Austen but (that being sold out) found a book on the Classical World instead.

Penguin has a great team of designers. My friend and co-worker Erin obsessively collects Penguin Deluxe editions with their colorful covers, snarky cartoon biographies, French flaps and rough-cut pages:

And then the box of postcards with 100 different Penguin jackets! I wish I could look inside to drool even more, but alas, I have yet to find a way.

It combines two of my favourite things: postcards and books. What better combination? On second thought, Penguin also has these book bags:


Friday, September 4, 2009

Women to Note

Right now, one of the only things to coax me into the car and into the late afternoon traffic rush is the promise of Imogen Heap playing through the stereo, slipping out through the window and into the sunlight. I've been a fan of Imogen's since (like everyone else) I first heard her lush "Hide and Seek" from heard her solo album, and last summer I bought the album she produced as a part of the band Frou Frou. Her newest album, Ellipse, was released on August 25th and kindly given to me by Patrick. I am always half skeptical listening to a new Imogen Heap song since there cannot be much more she can do. I was wrong.

From the persuasive pulsation of the first song “First Train Home” propelling you into her unique blend of electronica and lyricism, to the humorous oddity of a woman confronting the evasive woman in the mirror in “Bad Body Double,” the pared down, eerily synthesized chirping social commentary in “Little Bird,” and the quiet but soaring intimacy of “Between the sheets,” Ellipse displays Heap’s breadth of capability in both melody and communication.

Ellipse does not omit her trademark touches: sighs and groans of cello in the background; sharply rhythmic lists and catalogues of words; collages of sounds - her range is impossibly wide, arcing in the head voice, and a whispered contralto, tight harmonies that weave quickly - songs which ask questions; which describe a banal reality; music which sounds just like London at night, inescapably English and urban. Composer, performer, producer, she is queen of little melodic touches, taking a pointillist approach to both timbre and harmony. Have I praised her enough?

Heap will sing things that make you feel silly singing, as in “Bad Body Double,” or crooning “the many windswept Stickies of my mind,” but the fact remains that you cannot stop singing along. Like one of my favorite choral composers, Eric Whitacre, who specializes in dense clusters of harmony, you can pick nearly any note and find your spot in the choir of Imogen’s voice.

Another birthday treat was the chance to watch Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married again. Of course, our incredibly insensitive and LSD-induced television screen (as big as the Hulk and as receptive) rejected it by going into a spasm of shapes and colors. This happens from time to time and Kristin and I will either smack it sharply and with hate, or squint at the screen really hard. We decided not to accept this kind of behavior from the television and so abandoned it to relocate to a spot in front of a laptop.

For those who have only seen Anne Hathaway in her prettier incarnations, watching Rachel Getting Married is a discomfiting change. Kym (Hathaway) leaves rehab to go home for her older sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie De Witt’s) wedding. A wedding is always a trying time for family dynamics, and this is immediately clear in the Buchmans’ case. Staged at the large house filled with energetic and creative friends and members of the wedding party, and behind the tension of the prodigal daughter returning after cleaning herself up, is a family history that the Buchmans try hard to forget but cannot.

It is clear very quickly what sort of person Kym is – she loves fiercely, but she is prickly, and defends herself with edgy comments and defensive dramatic posturing. Rachel, the bride, welcomes her sister home but is evidently hesitant as to her wedding being derailed by a self-destructive sister and the distracted concern of her parents.

The dialogue is painfully real, and the film is one of the most authentic I have ever seen. You will forget you ever saw Hathaway as an overly pretty Jane Austen when you see her with lanky hair, nervously smoking a cigarette, and accusing her family (“you people”) of neglect. Her Oscar nomination for Best Actress was well deserved.

The music is provided by a small string ensemble (violin, Middle Eastern oud, etc.) that performs constantly throughout the movie, like a Greek chorus or the underscoring to an opera. Rachel Getting Married explores not only human tragedy but color and music, incorporating hip hop, wedding saris, carnival dancers, trumpets, drum rolls and saxophone solos.

Not an easy movie to watch, Rachel Getting Married is a beautiful tribute to sibling love, to the wars that are fought at home, to the difficulties of substance abuse and the rocky road to recovery, the subsequent allowances that are constantly required of family members and, despite all, the vibrant richness of love and new life.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Man of the Hour

Apparently, there is a finite number of books one can expect to read in one's lifetime, provided that one lives to seventy or eighty. This makes reading seem entirely pointless. There isn't enough time to read every good book out there, or even the guilty pleasure books - and what about re-readings? And the fact that literature is constantly, endlessly being produced? "The whole world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great dearth" wrote Montaigne in the sixteenth century; how much more true is this today?

I have found the solution to this dilemma. Being James Wood. Acknowledged as the best critic of his generation by Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and others, Wood is which the Harvard Crimson writes "criticizes with purpose and insight." He writes essays, he writes books, writes book reviews, is on staff for the New Yorker and a professor at Harvard. I'm sure he travels. As a friend said, Wood can go anywhere - anywhere in the world. He just shows up and says "I'm James Wood" and people will say, "We've been waiting for you. We will pay you money to just read and be yourself."

Of course I understand that, like many other noble ventures, literary criticism does not pay especially well unless one is a Superstar Critic like Wood or Harold Bloom or Michiko Kakutani. I also know that there are a slew of talented literary critics both amateur and professional that don't reap the rewards of being a Superstar Critic, but still engage literature and criticize with both "purpose and insight." It is a discipline that must be less glamorous than it appears on the outside - but only slightly less. (Books in the mail, submersion in literary conversation, working from home, writing in coffee shops...)

James Wood's book, How Fiction Works, was a treat. I bought it with my birthday money last year. Not only was it beautifully designed in both hardcover and paperback, but written passionately and concisely. Even more impressive was the intimate disclosure that he only used examples from books he had in his personal library.

My question is: how does one become James Wood?

This is how Wikipedia notates his career path:
a) born to a professor (of zoology)
b) attended good schools (eg. Eton) because of singing voice
c) Cambridge
d) prizes
e) literary reviews (New Republic, Guardian)
f) more literary reviews
g) novel, essays
h) Harvard (Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism)
i) New Yorker, staff writer

Hmmm... I have obviously screwed up on the first two. Also, Wood is British, which lends him authority in American letters. Can't be helped.

Gregory Wolfe, editor and founder of the Seattle-based literary quarterly Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion (more to come on Image), mentioned that he went to Oxford to teach himself the process of criticism. This intrigues me - how does one learn the art of criticism? Why are there not as many books on the art of criticism as there are on the art of fiction? (Fiction interests a wider community of readers, I suppose.)

As with other disciplines, it is a practice involving both imitation and innovation: being immersed in preceding criticism, and responding to it. It is for this reason that I picked up a copy of Henry James' literary criticism and Virginia Woolf's Common Reader a few nights ago, hoping both will rub off on me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Conversations at the Register

I sold a woman Machiavelli's Art of War today. Though a maths teacher, she had recently taken a seminar recently on Machiavelli and developed a fascination. I confessed that I had never read the Prince, and she said that she hadn't read it until very recently either.

"Isn't it modeled on Cesar Borgia?" I asked, remembering also that the familiar picture of Jesus was based on Cesare Borgia's handsome, degenerate face (learned from Gregory Maguire's Mirror Mirror).

She said that it was, and brightened a little. In a flurry of educating she told me the Prince was a treatise sent to Lorenzo de Medici as a job application, that she found Machiavelli realistic rather than cynical. "When he says 'armored'" she said enthusiastically, "he means prepared..." She compared 21st century North America to 15th century Italy, suggested that Obama had certainly read the Prince, and that it is as timely a read now as it was in it's original context. She passionately convinced me and thus the Prince is moving up my reading list several notches.

The same woman later returned for a brief but happy discussion of marvelous comics: Tintin and Asterix and Obelix.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I've Heard Proust Can Change Your Life

For the past month I've been reading Swann's Way, the first book in the seven volume cycle that makes up Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, or the Remembrance of Things Past. Proust is a literary catch-word. If you toss a reference to Proust into a milieu, chances are your companions will either contest what you have (glibly) said, or agree for form's sake. A well-timed mention of this literateur elevates conversation, and endows one with the appearance of cosmopolitanism, erudition, and initiation into the Great Mysteries. (This is observation, not opinion.) Truthfully, I decided I must read Proust when Max Medina gave Lorelei Gilmore a copy of Swann's Way on Gilmore Girls. And I think Rory (my pace-setter, my bookly challenger)had already read it. The book has sat on my shelf for at least six months waiting for the exact hallowed moment when I felt sufficiently intelligent enough to read it. It seems that this was the fated week in which to finish Swann's Way, because there was Alex Ross' essay in the New Yorker about fictional composition in literature, using the piano leitmotif Swann associates with his love for Odette as a central example.

It was both more readable than I expected, and less so. Proust is not a codified author - he is not an Eliot or a Pound or Djuna Barnes, needing continuous referencing. But one does need to pay attention to his blocks of text and his endless verbosity. Swann's Way was more or less a stream of constantly cascading thoughts; not stream of consciousness, but a microscope which looks at an intricate and sometimes ornamental world and provides every noticeable motive, every angle, with a beautiful word or explanatory phrase. Take this beautiful description of rain beginning to fall: "A little tap on the window-pane, as though something had struck it, followed by a plentiful light falling sound, as of grains of sand being sprinkled from a window overhead, gradually spreading, intensifying, acquiring a regular rhythm, becoming fluid, sonorous, musical, immeasurable, universal: it was the rain."

Depending on your sensibilities, you might find Proust haunting, evocative and lush. If you prefer Hemingway's American "one true sentence" method, Proust will lead you through a labyrinth instead of down the main street. If he can explain it in fifty words instead of ten, he will. The author might tantalize you or frustrate you. (Both, in my case.)

It seems I am fated to arrive at opinions of authors that are not only obvious, but ubiquious. After reading Wodehouse, I acknowledged how funnily he wrote his delightful English comedies. Proust is known for his gilded prose and his rambling observations. Ironically, the narrator talks so much at length about beauty and the senses - especially when discussing the aesthetic thrills of reading Bergotte's ecstatic prose. The very process he describes is the one taking place for the reader - at least, for this reader: "...if he had hit upon some great truth, or upon the name of a historic cathedral, he would break off his narrative, and in an invocation, an apostrophe, a long prayer, would give free rein to those exhalations which, in the earlier volumes, had been immanent in his prose, discernible only in a rippling of its surface..." This is exactly Proust's method, light storytelling descending into rapture.

The plot is minimal. The narrator, unnamed in this novel but assumed to be Proust, recalls the landscape of his bedroom as he falls asleep, his mother's late night Freudian kisses, the town he lived in as a child, Combray. There are two paths leading away from his house, the Guermantes Way and Swann's Way, and is the namesake of the latter that forms the protagonist of the third segment of the book and the first segment to continuously engage one narrative, "Swann in Love."

Proust cannot stop making metaphors. His narrator is so entrenched in obsessive thinking that one wants to yell at him to get out of his own head. Yet, therein lies the beauty - take this example, the narrator is discussing being addressed by his first name...
"Recalling, some time later, what I have felt at the time, I distinguished the impression of having been held for a moment in her mouth, myself, naked, without any of the social attributes which belonged equally to her other playmates and, when she used my surname, to my parents, accessories of which her lips - by the effort she made, a little after her father's manner, to articulate the words to which she wished to give a special emphasis - had the air of stripping, of divesting me, like the skin from a fruit of which one can swallow only the pulp..."

I showed Kristin and Patrick the pages, demonstrating the difficulty of reading Proust's Saramago-like blocks of text, the run-on sentences and plentiful commas. Patrick, looking at the text, exclaimed "Oh! He writes in Patrick sentences!"

August is slipping away and soon we will be in autumn, and as much as I'd like to hang onto these long hours of Northwestern sunlight, the idea of cool, sharp air and back-to-school enthusiasm and bright fall foliage appeals to me; it must be the enjoyable feeling of inevitable change. Despite the book's constant references to the ending of winter and cold early spring, this is a wonderful book to read in the autumn, as the smell of damp, decaying leaves fill us with a sense of wistfulness and memory, and the cool air drives us indoors to sip hot beverages. Join Proust's narrator as he sips his tea and dips his madeleine biscuit in the brew (Kristin says that one is able to buy these cookies at Trader Joe's), and ruminate in the sensuous invocation of memory.

Friday, August 21, 2009

(Oh no)

A quote from wikipedia for the word bibliophilia:

"Bibliophilia is not to be confused with bibliomania, an obsessive-compulsive disorder involving the collecting of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged, and in which the mere fact that an object is a book is sufficient for it to be collected or loved."

And bibliomania is
"...characterized by purchasing multiple copies of the same book and edition and the accumulation of the same book and edition and the accumulation of books beyond possible capacity of use or enjoyment..."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The School of Hard Knocks

It is my current hope to go to graduate school for English literature next year: a certain school in a certain place, both a goal and an insurmountable challenge. Having been out of college for a year already, and having graduated as a music major, I am rusty.

Trying to compensate, I googled “books every english major has read” but have had a difficult time finding a list that suggests what every (generalized) English major should have read by the time of (undergraduate) graduation. As a person who attended a high school whose meager syllabus prescribed the study of one novel, one play and four poems a year, and who could only scrape enough college literature credits for a minor, I feel woefully behind. Most American kids got a head start in AP English (seriously – who are those freaks who read Ulysses in high school?). American high schools may have their weaknesses, but a strong and ambitious push to read literature consistently is not one of them.

There are gaps, and I fear that when it comes to the important authors I have read, I’ve read the wrong works. I’ve read Jane Austen, some Bronte, one George Eliot, Homer and Virgil (translations), one Dickens, one Dostoyevsky, one Tolstoy. I haven’t read Madam Bovary yet, or Heart of Darkness or Brave New World or Animal Farm. I’ve read Joyce but no Beckett, and Willa Cather but no Twain. King Lear and Othello and Hamlet, but not Macbeth or Richard III or Henry V.

The lists are being drawn and I’m planning a time table that will stretch through to this January. No more leisurely reading - it’s time to homeschool myself. I’ve decided to call this plan “The School of Hard Knocks”. When I told Kristin, she looked at me flatly and shook her head. “Christy, that’s not what the school of hard knocks is.” Regardless – let it stand.

I'm pretty sure this plan may fail, like my plan to read all the Booker winners last year, and my plan to learn French in the car, or my plan to knit an afghan two years ago, or become a violinist. Oh well. No harm in trying with the foreknowledge that one might fail. At the very least, I will have read some of the Great Books. That's not so bad.

This is what I have so far:

Divine Comedy - Dante
Canterbury Tales - Chaucer
Paradise Lost - Milton
Faerie Queen - Spenser
Gawain & the Green Knight

Mill on the Floss - Eliot
Brothers Karamazov - Dostoyevsky
Swann’s Way - Proust
Madame Bovary - Flaubert
Heart of Darkness - Conrad
Brave New World - Huxley
Great Expectations - Dickens
Animal Farm - Orwell
(Tom Jones? Tristram Shandy? Clarissa? Evelina?)

Richard III
Winter’s Tale
Henry V
Waiting for Godot - Beckett
Lysistrata –Aristophanes
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Albee
Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern are Dead – Stoppard

Utopia – More
The Prince – Machiavelli
Leviathan - Hobbes

Any suggestions?