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Showing posts from May, 2010

My Mad Girl

[A Question I am Not the First to Ask: What is it about women and madness? Are they more susceptible to delusion than men are? The subject of many books and hypotheses, we wonder if madness dogs the steps of creative women (eg. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman…) Is it a biological coincidence or a recurring phenomenon? Is it socially reinforced? Do men fear the hysterical women? Is it the uterus (Greek “hysteria”) which turns the brain?]

The reclusive writer, the late Janet Frame, winner of all of New Zealand’s literary prizes, spent much time in institutions and in therapy and, as far as I can tell, her novels commonly include themes of estrangement, mental health and madness. Frame considered her 1963 novel Towards Another Summer too personal be published in her lifetime. As she’d already written an autobiography (Angel at My Table, made into a film by Jane Campion) and been this subject of several biographies, this is telling.

Towards Another Summe…

The Bird in the Cage

It seems one can hardly talk about Charles Dickens without addressing his reputation, his biography, his lifelong career, his oeuvre. No book stands purely on its own, but joins up with the others, like children with a strong family resemblance. In Little Dorrit, the writer’s habit of addressing social injustices and governmental and societal hypocrisies is here, as is his raggle-taggle bunch of characters, high and low, caricatures and miniatures. It seems impossible to say something about the book individually when one could just as easily say – that is well known. Dickens always did so-and-so. Was he habitual? I can hardly pass judgments on the man and the mind behind the novel as I know nothing other than what I read in the brief biographical sketch and the introduction to Little Dorrit. I will soon consult Michael Slater’s biography of Dickens which looks lovely (though Christopher Hitchens feels he left out a few necessaries). So let us assume that I know nothing much about Dick…

More Mr. Boz

As I finish up Little Dorrit (ravenously – it is very good), I think of two other books:

The first is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford when the august and proper Miss Jenkyns discusses literature with the gregarious but gauche newcomer Captain Brown. Miss Jenkyns, a devotee of Dr. (Samuel) Johnson, is horrified when she discovers Captain Brown has a mania for Dickens (“Mr. Boz”). When Capt. Brown asks her if she thinks the Pickwick Papers are “famously good,” she replies acerbically that the writer is a young writer and if he “persevere…who knows what he may become if he will take the great Doctor for his model.” Capt. Brown feels the sting and reads her a few lines from Dickens, whereupon Miss Jenkyns sends someone to fetch a few lines of Johnson which she reads and pronounces “I imagine I am now justified in my preference for Dr. Johnson, as a writer of fiction,” sending Capt. Brown harrumphing.

Dickens is shown, as a contemporary of Gaskell, to appeal to the popular but not high and con…

Natural Love

We sadly miss the beauty and silliness of medieval cosmology:

“The sun, moon, and stars go still round…for love of perfection. This love is manifest, I say, in inanimate creatures. How comes a loadstone to drawn iron to it? jet chaff? The ground to covet showers, but for love? No creature, St. Hierome concludes, is to be found…[that does not love something], no stock, no stone, that hath not some feeling of love. ‘Tis more eminent in plants, herbs, and is especially observed in vegetals…the olive and the myrtle embrace each other in roots and branches if they grow near…” Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy.

Good Haul This Year

While my mother was here last week, I bagged a cache of fabulous finds. (She was kindly, defeatedly, long-sufferingly, patient.) While strolling through the subterranean hallways of Pike Place Market looking for the moomin postcard shop and a headband for my brother, we found a used book store which coughed up a postcard of Graham Greene and this:

Iris M's first novel in the hottest incarnation of a paperback.

The proprietor, who may or may not have been 1) Russian and 2) possessed by the devil, commended Iris Murdoch and said she was one of his favorite writers, but as he had been literally coughing up a hairball not a moment before and was rhapsodizing about Dover publications, I took it to mean he was an enthusiastic salesperson, nothing more, and had no special affection for Iris.

In Victoria we stopped by Renaissance Books, a treat for the soul. I could have spent $350 in a moment. Sadly, I couldn't. I had to leave Dostoyevsky's writing notebooks and the biography of S…

Jeff in Venice, Sophia in Paris

I have been traveling: to Venice, to India, to provincial England, to revolutionary France, an excellent antidote to my own grounded schedule and the envy for a friend’s recent trip to Europe. He promised a postcard.

Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009) was recommended by several coworkers. The book is a composite of two sections: the first being the experiences of Jeff Atman, a journalist in Venice for the Biennale; the second being the experiences of an unnamed narrator (who may or may not be Jeff; his surname after all, Atman, is the Hindu word for the soul) in Varanasi, India.

The novel is clever; the narration honest and real. Its tangible veracity may be a mark of Dyer’s skills as a novelist, but I couldn’t stop the feeling that all of it had been lived. I was transported to a sun-baked Venice, to the swell and hype of the art crowd, to the installations and hotels and coke parties on yachts, to India and all its disorganization, rubbish, dirt, and squalor, whe…

The Art of Good Living

Sunday was an embarrassment of sun-rays; a blatantly blue sky. We did not go stand in the sun. K and I watched Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep’s Child mannerisms seemed clownish and then – suddenly – became charming, joyfully indulgent with laughter and bonhomie. Ah, la vie fran├žaise.

I drowned in a sudden enthusiasm to eat melted dark chocolate slowly off a spoon, and drink fine wine – or cheap wine with fine friends – to soak in the sun and warmth, to light candles and court dinner-party shadows. Joie de vivre! The art of good living.

I remembered Philip Lopate’s essay "Against Joie de Vivre", anthologized in The Art of the Personal Essay, which Lopate edited. Lopate writes, “A flushed sense of happiness can overtake a person anywhere, and one is no more to blame for it than the Asiatic flu or a sudden benevolent change in the weather… what rankles me is the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.”

Lopate blames the French and their picnics, Ren…

M for May or Mothers

In a lucky coinciding with Mother's Day, my own mother visited me on my weekend, Wednesday & Thursday. Since she lives over 6000 miles away, this is a rare gift. All went (relatively) according to plan. I picked her up in a surprising late-night downpour, nearly tipping the car in a combination of the slick roads and a reading of one of Eudora Welty's stories on NPR. ("Do not listen while operating vehicle in unfavorable weather if at all sleepy" should preface...)

So we did what people do in Seattle. We consumed about twenty-five cups of coffee; we jogged to the park; we shopped at Trader Joe's; we took the bus; we wore hoods to stave off the water; ate Thai food in contortedly cross-legged positions in Fremont; Pike Place; after watching the Young Victoria, we appropriately took a clipper to Victoria, B.C.; and, of course, the sun arriving in the city just as my mother was to depart.

People used to say we looked alike. It is easy to see how: dark-haired and d…

A Sinning Saint

Samuel Barber's Sea-Snatch, the sixth of his monkish Celtic Hermit Songs, is a song I think about when I'm around water, even in the bath. It's a tempestuous arpeggiated song for the soprano, a whirling cry from a floundering ship.

The lyrics:

It has broken us, it has crushed us, it had drowned us,
O King of the star-bright Kingdom of Heaven,
the wind has consumed us, swallowed us, as timber is
devoured by crimson fire from Heaven.
It has broken us, it has crushed us, it has drowned us,
O King of the star-bright Kingdom of Heaven.

I thought of this short song constantly while reading Frederick Buechner's novel, Godric, a re-imagining of the life of St. Godric, a medieval British ascetic.

I've liked Buechner's autobiographical writing, Now & Then, and Telling Stories, but it was high time to read his fiction. Buechner writes with the kind of austere beauty belonging to post-war letters that we (or at least in my generation, in our immediacy and decadence) largely la…
It's May Day. A grey, subdued May. Maybe one day there will be riots of color and a wasteful extravagance of color and light, but for now nothing.