Recent Reading: Johnson, Mitchell, Sage, and Mitchell

Somehow that post title ends up sounding like a law firm! Its somewhat miscellaneous character matches my recent reading experiences well, though.

Diane Johnson’s Persian Nights is the first book on my blogging catch-up list. I picked it up on a recent trip to Doull’s because I’ve been spending a fair amount of reading time in Iran lately and also remembered having read Ahdaf Soueif’s review of Persian Nights in her collection Mezzaterra, so it just seemed like a good book for me to try. Soueif seems to have liked it better than I did: she found it ” a serious tale, a tale of altered perceptions and of moral responsibility.” I’m quite prepared to believe that she is a better reader of this book than I was, but I was disappointed precisly by the lack of seriousness and by the sideways, slightly satirical way it touched on issues of moral responsibility. The book clings closely to the point of view of Chloe Fowler, an American doctor’s wife who ends up spending alone what was meant to be ‘together’ time for them in Iran. I felt that her limitations became the novel’s limitations, that the opportunity for a complex narrative about cultural misunderstandings and crosspurposes was handled instead as a rather sour comedy of manners. I agree with Soueif that Persian Nights “is a story about the limits of change — and, finally, its impossibility,” but I would press a little on that, or add in that it is about the limits of change that are possible for someone like Chloe.

The first ‘Mitchell’ on the list is for David Mitchell: I’m reading Cloud Atlas. Notice that I say “reading”: it’s a work in progress. I was doing really well until “An Orison of Sonmi-451.” I’m not a science fiction reader, largely because I find the elaborate artifice of ‘world-making’ tedious, and while I accept intellectually that the genre at its best works as an indirect way of exploring themes or problems in our actual world (though of course I’m sure it doesn’t always, or have to, do this)–still, there’s a machinery to it that I don’t read well. Still, I persevered with Sommi 451 and eventually became adept enough at the futuristic dialect to feel a pulse of readerly excitement as it came to its (interim) conclusion. But then Mitchell hit me with “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” and ground to a halt. Egad. It’s like reading “Caliban Upon Setebos” but for 100 pages. Still, the novel as a whole is clearly genius, and I know my expectations and reading habits are just being tested. I’m going to return to it and just read, even skim, if I have to, until I feel that pulse again, because I’m quite keen to return to all the other narratives, each of which caused a terrible hiccup of interrupted attention as I began it the first time–like grinding gears!–but each of which also had drawn me right in within a few pages. I enjoyed seeing the threads of connection gently laid down for us, too, and I’m pretty confident that the experience of following them back out of the labyrinth of stories will be quite thrilling. I just have to get past “Sloosha.”

‘Sage’ here is for Lorna Sage, whose memoir Bad Blood I’m also stalled in the middle of. I’m not sure why, except that the atmosphere of the book was depressing and I have been discovering, also, a strain of resistance in myself to memoirs as a genre.

And the second ‘Mitchell’ here is for Margaret Mitchell: I’ve just finished reading Gone with the Wind for (and I’m not making this up) the 32nd time. I know this exact number because GWTW was a favourite of mine in my misspent youth and I used to note each rereading on the inside cover (the copy I now have takes me from 23 to 32). I have many thoughts about how this book looks to me today–but I’m saving those for what I hope will become an essay for Open Letters on just that experience of rereading something in a different way, from a different time–almost, as a different person. I’m thinking of drawing (not too heavily, I hope) on Wayne Booth’s discussions of books as friends in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. In this case, not to spoil the ending of my future essay or anything, I have to say that this friendship right now is under a lot of strain, but I think, despite myself,  its longevity may sustain it. Don’t we all, after all, have a friend (or a relative) we still love, warts and all, in spite of everything that’s wrong with them? We’ll see.

In the meantime, because clearly I don’t have enough unfinished projects on the go, I’m about to start work on this nice bookish sampler from Little House Needleworks. I’m going to try and sneak “George Eliot” in instead of “Wilder”–not that I didn’t read and love all the Little House books as a girl, but really, if it’s going to hang in my office when it’s finished, she just has to be there. There’s some nice lurking irony in this project, given how many of these writers felt about needlework! Canadian readers with a crafty tendency may want to know that I ordered my copy of the pattern from the Button & Needlework Boutique in Victoria. You Yankees are on your own.

3 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Johnson, Mitchell, Sage, and Mitchell

  1. Annie Em August 10, 2010 / 1:26 am

    Thanks for the post: interesting how all of Johnson’s book covers look exactly alike. I thought Le Divorce when I first saw it, despite the title.

    And, love the needlework!

  2. Rohan Maitzen August 15, 2010 / 11:29 am

    Thanks for your comment, Annie Em (is that a deliberate play on ‘Auntie Em’ from The Wizard of Oz?). This isn’t actually the cover from my edition of the novel: I couldn’t find it on the internet! But I have the edition of Le Divorce that (you’re quite right) looks exactly like this one.

    When I finish the sampler, I’ll post a photo…

  3. Shelley August 18, 2010 / 2:48 pm

    Gone With The Wind is a puzzling slap in the face–always so bad on race, sometimes so bad on women, but sometimes way ahead of its time in its portrayal of Scarlett’s strength and her friendship with Melanie, and always so…vivid!

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