“The Weight Of It”: Lindsay Zier-Vogel, Letters to Amelia

book-cover-letters-to-amelia-by-lindsay-zier-vogelThis is the first trip in seven years where she is going to be the only one to remember everything she saw, everything she did. There won’t be anyone to remind her of the smell of fish and freshly cut grass in Harbour Grace, the rain that pooled on the plaque with Amelia’s name on it, Pat’s bologna sandwiches, the salmon burgers at Anna’s, the lobster she couldn’t eat. This trip is hers, only hers, and the weight of it feels terrifying.

I couldn’t decide if I wanted my epigraph for this post to highlight the ease and freedom of flying or the weight of being earthbound. I went with the latter (as you can tell!) because I’m not sure that Grace, the protagonist of Letters to Amelia, really takes off. I don’t mean that in the sense that she isn’t believable or appealing as a character, because she is both of those things. I mean that I think the novel is equivocal about the possibility of soaring, of leaving the ground. Earthly things hold you back, or tie you down, keeping you in the life you have. You can’t just leave it all behind, and though this is a novel that conveys plenty of the fretfulness of that quotidian reality, it also suggests, or so I thought, that being anchored or tethered is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Amelia Earhart, with whom Grace becomes obsessed, is not a straightforward symbol of escape or liberation: sure, she broke barriers and flew away, but eventually she also, tragically and mysteriously, never came back.

lockheed-vegaI didn’t know much about Earhart going in to Letters to Amelia and I found it fascinating learning more about her life. Possibly she is a bit too pat or obvious a choice to represent women’s struggles to be seen in full: not to be reduced to an exception, or a first, to experience but not be defined by relationships. Grace is struggling to figure out who she herself is; it makes sense that she finds courage and inspiration in Earhart’s example. “Amelia is so much more than her relationship with Gene,” she reflects near the end, after a whole novel spent reading the letters that recorded that relationship and sorting through her own broken-off relationship with her boyfriend Jamie: “So much more than her disappearance.” When she thinks this, she is standing next to Earhart’s red Lockheed Vega at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It looks so light and fragile! I have serious fear of flying, so it was a leap of both faith and imagination to participate vicariously in Earhart’s joy in flight and Grace’s pleasure in looking out airplane windows, in her turn, to see the world as Earhart saw it.

earhart-propellerI liked a lot about Letters to Amelia, especially Grace’s discoveries about Earhart’s life (including its Canadian connections) and Grace’s trip to Newfoundland, a nearby place where—for reasons partly to do with inertia and partly to do with my dislike of both driving and flying—I have never been. A bit perversely, perhaps, given its title, my least favorite parts of the novel were the letters. The disclaimers at the beginning tell us that the letters in the novel written “by” Earhart are “entirely fictional.” Given that, I wondered why they were mostly so dull. They were realistic—but they didn’t have to be, did they? They had a lot of (what I assume are) actual details about Earhart’s life, but I got very little sense of her personality from them:

Dear Gene,

I’m sorry we got cut off. I don’t know what happened there. You were asking about the FriendshipEveryone made such a big deal about it, but I really just sat there like a sack of potatoes. The view was lovely, but I didn’t get to fly at all . . . Bill and Slim despised me afterward for all the accolades I got for their work. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t flown the plane, that they had . . .

Dear Gene,

I just got your letter and tore it open on the front steps. Okay, okay, we don’t have to go up to Trepassey to go trout-fishing (it is a bit rural) but what about Harbour Grace? It’s in Newfoundland, too, and it’s really quite charming. It’s right on the ocean, and the hotel there has some of the best tomato soup I’ve ever eaten.

There are nice bits in them, like the description of a scarf as the “exact color” of the fields “ready to be harvested” when seen from the air—”goldish green-brown.” Overall the letters are hardly transporting, though, and that bothered me because Grace (who is tasked with cataloguing them for the library where she works) comes to feels so strongly about them: I thought I should be able to as well. The other epistolary aspect of the novel is Grace’s letters to Earhart. This works well—in theory, anyway—as a device to connect the two women and to highlight the ways in which Grace starts looking to Earhart for things—answers, support, a model for her life—that she is struggling to get from her friends and family. In the end I wasn’t convinced that it worked that well in practice, though: the letters felt a bit gimmicky, and I thought the novel would have worked just as well without them, though of course then it would have needed a new title. 🙂

I accepted a review copy of Letters to Amelia from Book*hug Press. I’m glad they thought of me for it, because I did like it a lot. It turns out, however, that it felt surprisingly inhibiting knowing that someone was waiting and watching for me to write something up here. (I got a couple of follow-up emails.) I think that’s because I’ve always thought about blogging as not exactly reviewing. Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference.

Recent Reading: King, Lawson, Mitford

I have read three NFW (not for work!) books since finishing The Strangers: Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, Mary Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge, and (sort of) Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing. None of them was very demanding, unless you count the struggle to persist with The Blessing, which by about half way through I was just tired of. I didn’t really finish it: because it was for my book club, I really tried, but I ended up short on both time and patience and so did a very sloppy speed read so that I could at least say I saw the last page. 🙂

I was inspired to order The Other Side of the Bridge because I read Lawson’s latest, A Town Called Solace, for a review and also had recently read and liked Road Ends. I am pretty sure I read Crow Lake back when it was a new release, but that was in the Before Blogging so I can’t be sure. That I hadn’t followed up with her subsequent novels suggests that if I did read it, I didn’t love it. I don’t know if I would say I “loved” any of these other ones, but they are all very readable. They are all on a small scale: if I were devising a marketing blurb for them I might describe them as “Anne Tyler in Alice Munro country,” intimate family stories, often shot through with loss or trauma but softened by a kind of tenderness in the point of view, set in rural landscapes that are bleak but sustaining.

I looked up Writers and Lovers because of a swell of Twitter endorsements: I forget the exact context (as one does, with Twitter recommendations) but recently someone asked for smart but light(er) books for their mother to read on vacation, IIRC, and Writers and Lovers got a lot of shout-outs, and I already had it on my ‘watch list’ because of some earlier mentions. Twitter is both wonderful and terrible this way, of course: sometimes you are just (or, at any rate, I am just) sucked in by buzz around new, hot titles, but sometimes—and these are the good times!—you learn about books you’d never heard of before from readers whose range is wider than yours and whose judgments and sensibilities you believe in. (And yet I still can’t bring myself to read Bear, in spite of Dorian and everyone else. I went so far as to suggest it for my book club, and everyone’s expression on Zoom was basically ‘WTF you weirdo?!’) Anyway, I didn’t much like Writers and Lovers at first: plots about young people’s boyfriends and dating and break-ups sometimes seem as alien to me now as stories set on Mars. The novel’s protagonist is not exactly “young,” though, and she’s a writer, and her mother has just died quite young and very unexpectedly, and her struggles with her novel and her grief add layers to the story of her love life. A lot of the people I follow on Twitter are writers, and of course even more of them are readers, and I do sometimes think this skews the books that get a lot of attention, the way that following so many academics made The Chair seem like such a big event on Twitter when in fact surely it is quite a niche little thing. Writers and Lovers spent a fair amount of time on workshops and creative angst and agents and things—and on the stress and logistics of waiting tables, work I am pretty sure I would be terrible at. I expected something lighter, but in the end it was the sadder parts I liked the best, especially because (spoiler alert) they are capped off with a happy ending. It felt earned.

Now I am reading Lindsay Zier-Vogel’s Letters to Amelia, which is going well so far and has even made me think perhaps I should get to Newfoundland one of these days. Also in my TBR pile: Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (because I decided I might as well find out for myself), and Molly Peacock’s Flower Diary, which is a physically beautiful object. Some of you might recall how much I loved The Paper Garden. It is a bit stunning to realize it has been nearly a decade since I wrote it up. It inspired me so much, including to reflect on my own efforts to find “[my] own form among the endless varieties of life on earth.” “Five years ago,” I wrote then, “though I had done a lot of writing, I would never have called myself a writer. Now, that identity lives for me as a possibility.” I am still not entirely sure that I call myself a writer, but I certainly have done a lot more writing since then, including here!

“Sad Stories”: Katherena Vermette, The Strangers

vermetteThat’s what everyone became, small stories, tiny really, to explain their whole lives. Those too-short lives.

Margaret used to think this was normal, that all families were made up of so many sad stories. But as she got older, it seemed only Indians, Métis, who had sorrow built into their bones, who exchanged despair as ordinarily as recipes, who had devastation after devastation after dismissal after denial woven into their skin. As if sad stories were the only heirloom they had to pass on.

This excerpt from Katherena Vermette’s The Strangers perfectly captures the kind of book it is: it is a collection of the sad stories that make up the family the novel is named for. They are sad stories indeed—and sometimes also infuriating or horrifying—and they are important stories to tell. The value of that project makes The Strangers a difficult book to criticize—but on the other hand, if all I wanted was information, I would choose a documentary form, not fiction.

The challenge of writing a highly topical novel is to make it compelling as art. Vermette did this brilliantly with The Break, which used the structure and momentum of a whodunit to explore complicated and ultimately far-reaching questions about guilt, responsibility, and social justice. By the end of The Break it is obvious that knowing who committed the specific assault that launches the novel’s plot is not going to fix anything that really matters about the world Vermette has shown us. The world of The Strangers is the same one—it is not so much a sequel as a companion to its predecessor. But it lacks the feeling of urgency that made The Break so readable: it just plods unhappily along. Even as time passes in it, The Strangers doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It ends on a faintly hopeful note, but the conclusion doesn’t feel like a resolution: it’s just the next thing that happens. Like The Break it has an array of voices and an intricate narrative structure, with multiple timelines and perspectives interwoven; in The Strangers I often found the shifts in time or point of view confusing, rather than thought-provoking, and the characters blurring into one another. It feels awkward to say this about this particular novel, given the stories it specifically tells, but it just wasn’t very interesting to read qua novel.

It’s certainly possible that I’ve underestimated The Strangers, and also that the degree to which I kept comparing it to The Break as I read put it at an unfair disadvantage. It’s not that I object in principle to novels that have what we might broadly call sociological or political aims, or aims to give voice or space to stories that are too often denied them: Gaskell fan here, after all! But Gaskell knew well the importance of plot, of drama, even of melodrama, for carrying her vision outwards. Vermette, on my reading, does not create memorable or impressive fiction out of her sad stories this time—she just tells them, and in the end that isn’t quite enough.

“With no real part to play”: Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls

silenceLooking back, it seemed to me I’d been trying to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’ story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story—his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.

First of all, a confession: I have not read the Iliad. I do have it, and I dipped into it both before and during my reading of The Silence of the Girls. It looks awful: all violence and testosterone and posturing. I’m sure that’s not true, or not fair, or not entirely true or fair, but still I don’t expect I will dig in and read it properly any time soon. Just flipping through it, though, however inadequate otherwise, did help orient me better in what Barker was doing and why. Paradoxically, perhaps, it also increased my sense of dissatisfaction with her novel, because while The Silence of the Girls is billed as an alternative version of Homer’s epic, I thought it was still very much Achilles’ story. Yes, a lot of it is from Briseis’s point of view, in her voice, but nonetheless she seemed very much a cipher, a blank: she never came to life for me as a character but felt all the way through like a device.

That’s not to say I didn’t find the novel gripping: I did, though at times my faith in it was shaken by Barker’s deliberate choice to write the dialogue in an insistently contemporary idiom. I don’t necessarily object to that, and one thing that technique accomplishes, besides avoiding the “faux Homeric epic archaism” trap, is that it makes the scenes and contexts recognizable. More, it pushes that sense of familiarity to the point that the novel potentially doesn’t have to be about the Trojan wars at all but is about all war, any war, every war. Even with all the details about spears and chariots, I sometimes almost forgot, reading the battle scenes, just how remote from us this particular irruption of bloody horrors was supposed to be. The same sleight of hand also lets the book be about Briseis and the other traumatized and abused women of Troy and about women today and always who suffer in similar ways.

barkerCollapsing the distance between “us” and “them” in that way did sit a bit uncomfortably, I thought, with the less easily domesticated aspects of the story: you can’t really have both modern warfare and parents who are gods and goddesses. Are these ancient people just like us or radically different? Both, I guess is the answer, and maybe it’s the right one, but I found the result uneven. I wonder if my inability to quite believe in Briseis arises from a related problem: she is at once of that world and of ours. She seemed a bit too deliberately conceived as a way to push back, to write back, against her role and treatment in the Iliad. “I shall take the fair-cheeked Briseis, your prize,” says Agamemnon in my Lattimore translation, “I myself going to your shelter, that you may learn well how much greater I am than you.” Barker’s starting point is this dehumanizing treatment of women as “prizes,” but (and again I can only speak as someone who is not at all intimately familiar with the Iliad) she didn’t seem to me to go very far with that pretty obvious point: she doesn’t build Briseis into a character who can dominate the novel (which would mean dominating Achilles, not in act, of course, but in perspective and significance and charisma qua character). We are told Briseis comes to love Patroclus, but we do have to be told: I didn’t think we were every brought to feel it deeply. We feel Achilles’ love for Patroclus much more vividly, and it’s their love that has extraordinary consequences.

What about Briseis’s feelings for Achilles, or his for hers? This seems like fruitful territory but again, Barker doesn’t go very deep into it. Looking at the glancing references I could find in Homer (“even as I now loved this one from my heart, though it was my spear that won her”), there seems like room for a version of their relationship that makes much, much more of it than Barker does.

iliadWhat we get instead are comments that seemed both anachronistic and  perfunctory, about women as sacrifices and victims of male violence, about men’s inability to see the women they have enslaved as people, about her desire to free herself from his story to tell hers. And the thing is, not only is a lot of The Silence of the Girls itself still largely his story, but his parts in it were by and large the most interesting parts. Why, if what she wanted was to displace Achilles as the protagonist, did Barker give him so much space? Also (and these are just a few more quibbles) who is Briseis supposedly talking to? And why are some parts in the present tense?

Sometimes as I write up something I’ve read here, I find my admiration for it growing. The opposite seems to be happening here! I don’t want to misrepresent my reading experience, which overall was pretty good. Maybe if I did know the Iliad I would have picked up on thematic layers that complicate what to me felt, in the end, like a somewhat superficial exercise. Maybe the things I wanted from the novel would have meant too much deviation from its origins. Maybe the next book in the series is the one where Briseis really comes into her own; after all, this one ends “Now, my own story can begin.”

This Week In My Classes: Persuasion and Perspective

1015StartHere-cropI am still finding it challenging to think in what were once my usual ways about what happens “in my classes” every week, because of the diffusion effect of asynchronicity. Another change from the Before Times is that it sometimes seems that teaching is now all about logistics, from setting up the Brightspace sites to … well, actually, the Brightspace sites are where it all begins and where it all ends!

It feels a bit less like that this year than it did in 2020-21, because one of my classes is a repeat, meaning a lot of the logistics were already in place and I just (just!) have to revise and update and improve it. Also, my other class, while a “new prep” as an online offering, leans heavily on the structures I developed for my most similar courses last year, so while it is definitely laborious putting them all in place again – adjusted to reflect the lessons I learned about reducing and simplifying expectations – the exercise is much less baffling and moderately less tedious.

The fun part of online teaching remains conceptualizing and preparing actual course content, and happily, the easing of pressure around logistics means I really am able to focus more of my energy there this term and to feel at least a bit more in the moment. Even responding to students’ discussion posts seems more like actually teaching and less like desperately trying to keep up!

conciseBILSo what have my classes actually been about this week, then? Well, in my introduction to literature class, we have moved on from Module 1 (What words?) to Module 2 (Whose words?). The course overall is designed to keep complicating students’ engagement with the readings, so we start with the most basic (diction, connotation, denotation, etc.) and then add layers, this week some issues about voice, point of view, irony, and unreliability. Our readings feature speakers whose positions are worth interrogating: Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything?”, Aga Shahid Ali’s “The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood,'” and Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” (Our reader is the concise edition of Broadview’s Introduction to Literature, so all of our readings are chosen from their admirably varied selections.) Next week we move on to “About What? Subject and Theme.”

I have always begun my introductory courses with poetry (unless they were specifically “prose and fiction” offerings). I do wonder about this approach sometimes, because students often don’t like poetry, or maybe more accurately, don’t trust themselves as readers of poetry, and this skepticism can come between them and the fun I always hope they’ll have as we warm up as close readers. Poetry is the most condensed literary form to work with, though, and also the form in which individual words tend to matter the most, so for lessons in the rewards of really paying attention to every detail, it nonetheless seems like the best place to start. Also, with fiction there is a strong tendency to resort to plot summary, so I like to put it off until they are a bit more used to being asked to stop and question what’s on the page and what it does.

oup-persuasionIn the 19th-century fiction class, which this term is the Austen to Dickens option, we are wrapping up our work on Persuasion, or we will be as more students get to the end of the module and submit their discussion posts. Anne Elliot can be a bit annoying in the first half of the novel, with her tendency to martyrdom and her inability to reach out and claim what she wants. I always find it interesting that so much of the novel’s resolution continues to be cautious, even reticent: this is not a novel celebrating impassioned outbursts, rebellion, or (to a point anyway) self-assertion. That will make Jane Eyre a dramatic contrast when we shift to Brontë’s novel next week, something I have been thinking about a lot because of course I can’t wait until Monday to start working on Jane Eyre but have to have my recorded lectures ready to go—which I do! I have discussed Jane Eyre with so many classes over the past 25 years that it hasn’t been hard to decide what the lectures should address, but it has been extremely hard to figure out how much they (I) should actually say. The model I have in mind is that they should include the equivalent of the opening comments I typically make in class, to set up the discussion to follow; explain any key critical or theoretical or historical contexts that I think are helpful to analyzing the novel well; and then prompt students to think about various elements of the novel in light of what I’ve said, rather than trying to cover what could be said about those elements. I pick some specific examples, but then I try to get out of the way, and then I show up in the online discussions to poke and provoke and steer as seems useful.

marybartonOh dear: I’m back to logistics again! I do miss the simplicity of in-person teaching. In 2019-20, I had actually been working deliberately on weaning myself from more detailed lecture notes (not from lecture plans, just notes) and, trusting to my long experience, letting the discussion in class be more free-flowing. It was going well. I remember especially clearly the last class meeting for the Austen to Dickens class on March 13, 2020. We knew classes were going to be cancelled the next week, but we had a robust discussion of Mary Barton nonetheless and wrapped up not realizing that we would not meet again in person. I know that I could be back in person right now if I’d made that choice, but it would not have been a real return to that kind of ease and energy. I think I chose right, for me, for now, but that doesn’t make everything about this easy. I do still get the same satisfaction from engaging with students’ ideas and especially from being able to be present for them, albeit virtually. And on that note I guess I should go check on what new submissions are waiting for me!

I’m Against Lucy Ellmann’s Things Are Against Us

ellmann thingsI have to be careful here. What I disliked the most about Lucy Ellmann’s book of “essays,” Things Are Against Us, is that much of it reads like intemperate off-the-cuff ranting about things Lucy Ellmann doesn’t like. (These include electricity, men, travelers, Americans, bras, crime fiction, people who object to her ill-informed criticisms of crime fiction, and teenaged girls who make or watch YouTube videos about their morning routines.) If I start ranting intemperately about the book, I won’t be doing any better myself! But at the same time I honestly don’t think Ellman’s screeds are either stylish or substantial enough to warrant the time it would take to respond thoughtfully and meticulously to each one.

I certainly laughed at some of the acid humor and sharp one-liners in Things Are Against Us, and Ellmann addresses topics about which most of us are probably also concerned: racism, sexism, climate change. She deals primarily in hyperbole, though, and her favorite literary devices are long lists and irruptions of ALL CAPS, neither of which constitutes an actual argument and both of which quickly get tedious. (An example from the essay “Ah, Men”: “MEN HAVE RUINED LIFE ON EARTH.”) I was intrigued by the concept of the essay “Three Strikes,” inspired by Woolf’s Three Guineas, but within a page or two it was clear that Ellmann’s version would have none of the artistry, complexity, subtlety, or surprise of Woolf’s:

Patriarchy did this.

These people hate us! These people are trying to kill us! I don’t know why we’re all so goddam nice about it, but nothing is ever done about the way men carry on. Instead, it is feminism that is for ever in retreat.

OK, yes? but also, no? Not no to every claim, not no to anger at patriarchy, but no to wanting to be yelled at about it for pages, especially because I already basically agree. Woolf is furious in Three Guineas but her prose, her design, is never anything but sophisticated. The book’s title essay says nothing of any real interest but Ellmann capitalizes THINGS every time, so I guess that’s clever or funny or something. “The Woman of the House,” about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairieellmann2 series, seemed the most thoughtful and grounded of the collection; the one on bras was kind of amusing; the five pages generalizing angrily and ignorantly about crime fiction and its readers strongly suggest Ellmann had either no or very weak editors.

“In times of pestilence, my fancy turns to shticks,” Ellmann says at the outset of the collection: “let’s complain.” That’s really what this book is: it’s performance art, posturing, venting. Ellmann can write like this, publish the results, and convince people to pay for them because of who she is, not because what she’s offering is either good writing or good thinking. Some readers will certainly enjoy it because it is, in its own way, entertaining. I think I would have been more able to take pleasure in the spectacle if Ellmann didn’t seem so self-satisfied, didn’t hold herself up (especially but not exclusively in those insufferable pages about genre fiction) as such a special contrarian snowflake. We get it: you aren’t taken in like the rest of us sheeple!

ducksI bought Ducks, Newburyport a couple of years ago because my curiosity about it overcame my skepticism. So far I have started and stalled out in it three times. I am determined not to let Lucy Ellmann be the reason I give up on it altogether, even though in every interview with her that I’ve read I have been put off by her posture of superiority and Things Are Against Us more than confirms all my previous bad impressions. Could the person who says and writes these tiresome things actually write a novel that transcends the snarky small-mindedness of the persona they project? I want to believe that’s possible: I have always argued that someone’s writing, someone’s work, can be better than they are. I think there’s hope for all of us in that idea, given how imperfect we all are. So I’ll keep Ducks, Newburyport on my shelf. I need to let my irritation with Things Are Against Us fade before I try it again, though. It might take years.

I am grateful to Biblioasis for the review copy. I hope they don’t regret sending it along. All publicity is good publicity, right?

 

“The Possibility Exists”: Zoe Whittall, The Best Kind of People

whittallIf only she could have the privilege of believing him entirely. What kind of person, what kind of ungrateful daughter, doesn’t believe her own father? She had never doubted him before. She never thought he was anything but moral and civilized. She wasn’t even sure what those words meant. But if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head—and people around you believe it—you can’t go back to thinking it completely inconceivable. The possibility is there whether or not you choose to believe it, and you can’t go back to not knowing that the possibility exists.

Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People would adapt well as a TV miniseries. I don’t mean that in a slighting way at all! It’s just that like, say, Little Fires Everywhere, it’s at once an intimate family story and a story about the way we live now. It turns on a specific accusation of sexual assault; it attaches the particularities of its plot and characters to threads about the different interest groups that turn a question of right and wrong into a cause, with varying degrees of solicitude for the facts of the case. It raises questions about knowledge and complicity, and about love and forgiveness. How could you not know the person you are closest to? How far are you liable for the parts of them you don’t know? How far should your trust for the part you do know shape your assumptions about what they are capable of, about whose side you should be on? Whose support will you have—and whose should you want, if the price of it is your values? These are all good and often surprisingly hard questions for the characters in the novel, and they are not neatly resolved when the question of guilt or innocence is answered.

whittall3The novel focuses on the family of the accused teacher, George Woodbury: his wife, his daughter, and his son. In its attention to the fallout of the accusation, rather than to the details of the case, The Best Kind of People reminded me of the TV series Rectify, which defers answers about its protagonist’s guilt or innocence, so that we have to sit in the same uncertainty as his family. If you love someone, both stories emphasize, you will want to think them incapable of wrongdoing – but, as the excerpt I chose for my epigraph highlights, once the possibility is raised, you don’t really have the option of ignoring it. To do so, also, is to ignore the claims of the victims. Whittall does a good job tracing a range of possible reactions, including how they ebb and flow, from trust to anger, from loyalty to horrified conviction, depending on what is known or said, or just on the mood of the moment. The accusations alone trigger reassessments, from every angle, of an entire family history. The resulting destabilization has ripple effects through the lives of everyone affected.

The Best Kind of People teases us, through its characters’ attempts to discern or rationalize the truth about George’s conduct, with the possibility of a moral or circumstantial grey area in which the accusations can be true and he can be exculpated, or at least found “not abhorrent,” if not “not guilty.” The ending of the novel is somewhat irresolute, but in ways that made it quite dissatisfying, both morally and personally. I think perhaps that was the point: even if we (like George’s family) want this kind of both/and result, it isn’t really an option, while at the same time the difficulty of getting any kind of definitive outcome, much less justice, makes things worse rather than better.

whittall2The other reason The Best Kind of People struck me as well suited to adaptation is that stylistically I would describe it as workmanlike rather than particularly artful. I don’t think much would be lost in the translation into a different medium. This is something I sometimes say about Jane Austen too, though for slightly different reasons (so much of the action of her novels is in dialogue, for one thing, or can be shifted to it)—so again it isn’t meant as a slight. I did feel, though, that the novel read like a plan being well executed more than something being written really well. Given how hard it is to get two people to agree on what “well written” means, maybe that’s a distinction without a difference. Anyway, I enjoyed reading the novel, though it is sad and hard going at times. I think it’s smart about its central scenario, and it created a believable version of how something so unpleasant might play out among those used to thinking of themselves as “the best kind of people.”

This Term In My Classes: Online Again

3031 STARTI fell out of the habit of writing teaching posts last year, partly because I was doing so much else on my computer that blogging about it felt like a bridge too far, but also, and more so, because of the flattening effect of teaching asynchronously, as I discussed in this post in January. As I head into my third fully online term, I am more used to the strange sense that I am teaching somehow both all the time and never. With at least some of last year’s materials re-usable, too (if in need of tweaking and updating), I hope I won’t be so constantly overwhelmed with preparations for the next text or topic that I find it hard to focus on the current discussions. Maybe, too, I’ve been thinking, blogging regularly again about my classes would actually help restore more sense of structure and occasion. We’ll see.

laptopLast year we were pretty much all online, in my department and across the university. This year, almost everybody else is back to teaching in person. Early in the planning process I had committed to doing my first-year course online. One reason was that it was such a big job planning and building it that I wanted to get more return on that investment. But it was also was the course that I least missed teaching in person. If our first-year classes were smaller, I might have felt differently, but teaching 120 students in a big auditorium, wearing a microphone, relying on PowerPoint, and knowing (and sometimes seeing) perfectly well that a lot of students in the room are only there because someone told them they had to be – that’s not a great experience, to be honest. I have always considered first-year teaching really important and I love engaging with the students who get excited about the material and the work – the ones who really show up for class (not just physically in class). It is especially gratifying when students taking intro primarily for their writing requirement discover a passion for analyzing literature and come back for more. Sometimes they even change their majors! But I don’t think lecture classes of 120 or more (however diligently you try to make them interactive, as of course I have always tried to do) are the right way to teach either literature or writing, and the crowd control aspects of it are always particularly disheartening. I also thought my online course went pretty well, all things considered. So why not do it that way again?

oup-persuasionThe harder question, as we headed into the summer, was what to do about 19th-Century Fiction. These courses are my absolute favorites to teach, and I did really miss the energy of in-class discussions last year, even though I thought the online version went quite well (again, all things considered). Offering this year’s version in-person seemed reasonable, even likely, back when our second dose dates got moved up and it looked like widespread vaccination was going to turn everything around. Then came Delta, and with it a lot of renewed confusion and uncertainty about what an in-person fall term would actually be like, along with slower than ideal vaccination uptake among the main student demographics. I remembered only too well how much work it was creating the materials for last year’s Dickens to Hardy course online and I knew I would not be able to do a good job on Austen to Dickens (there’s no overlap in the readings) if I put off the decision to the last minute, so I set August 1 as my deadline to make the call, and when things still looked too precarious for my liking, I committed to moving it online as well and got started right away on setting up the Brightspace site and creating materials.

dalhousieA couple of weeks later, Dalhousie did finally implement a vaccination requirement, along with mandatory masking for at least the month of September (neither of which was in place when I made up my mind to go online). I really hope that these measures and a generally high level of diligence help make it a safe and positive term for everyone now back on campus! For myself, though, while I do have regrets (anyone who has followed this blog knows how much I love being in the classroom), I appreciate the clarity of my situation and the continuity I can be sure of providing to my students. I don’t need to have multiple contingency plans – or to lecture masked or to dodge crowds in the hallways, or to work in my overheated office where at the moment I am not allowed to open the window. I do also feel that I am serving a need: there are students who themselves could not get back to Halifax, or who aren’t confident about returning to in-person classes, and I honestly think we should have tried harder to make sure they had more and less haphazard options given the predictable complications of this in-between phase, especially for international students.

computerClasses began here yesterday, and the discussion boards in my courses are now filling up with students introducing themselves and checking out how things are going to work. It’s not the same as meeting them face to face, but those of us who are online a lot one way or another know that you can communicate a lot about yourself through virtual interactions, and also that it is possible to create, sustain, and cherish real communities that way. I think the most important things I learned last year, which did involve a lot of trial and error, was that simpler is better and personal is best of all – not personal in the sense of over-sharing personal information, but personal meaning you bring yourself to the work, you show yourself in the work, and treat everybody involved as if they are people too. I’ve been trying to welcome each student individually to the class as they make their introductions: I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep this up as the pace of their contributions increases (there are 150 students all told across my two courses) but I want to make my presence felt from the beginning.

KellynchAs for course content, well, the first week of Literature: How It Works focuses on the idea and practice of close reading, with an emphasis on word choices. This is how I always begin my introductory courses, so the only difference is delivery. Across the next few modules we just keep adding things to pay attention to (“stocking our critical toolbox”!) – all the while trying out our ideas through low-stakes writing. I’m using specifications grading again, simplified and clarified (I hope) from last year’s version. In Austen to Dickens we warm up (again, as always) with a bit of background on the history of the novel: nothing fancy, just a rough sketch to give some context for our actual readings. Next week we start on Persuasion. My favorite part of class prep last year was devising slide presentations in which I tried to capture not just the main talking points of what would have been our classroom discussions, but the spirit of them. I actually found – find – this work quite creative! I don’t do anything fancy, but I do try to have a kind of unfolding narrative, illustrated by apt graphics (and sometimes silly graphics, because I miss drawing stupid stick figures on the whiteboard). This year I’m going to be more explicit about the limitations of the lecture components, which are never (in person or online) meant to “cover” everything or answer every question. Last year some students expressed frustration that I raised questions in my lectures but didn’t go on to answer them: realizing that they had this expectation surprised me a bit, because my in-person lectures also can’t possibly answer every question that comes up, but I think the recorded delivery seems like it should maybe be more definitive or complete.

So that’s where we are now: poised at the beginning of a term that, for my students, will be a hybrid one. One unknown factor is how they will feel about or treat what may well be their lone online courses. Will it seem less real or important to them in contrast to their campus work? I hope instead they will appreciate that they can tune into it on their own schedules – and know I will (more or less) always be there for them. 

Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

I open my notebook again, looking at my everyday’s study, my everyday’s effort. I see myself trying hard to put more words and sentences into blank pages. I try to learn more vocabularies to be able to communicate. I try to put the whole dictionary in my brain. But in this remote countryside, in this nobody’s wonderland, what’s the point of this? It doesn’t matter if one speaks Chinese or English here; it doesn’t matter if one is mute or deaf. Language is not important anymore. Only the simple physical existence matters in the nature.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers explores some profound questions about language, identity, culture, communication, and love. Its depths aren’t immediately apparent, though, because Guo approaches these issues carefully through voice and form, illustrating them through her narrator’s experiences and gradually changing self-expression, rather than addressing them directly.

The novel is narrated by Zhuang Xiao Qiao (or “Z,” as she comes to be called because most people she meets can’t actually pronounce her name), a young Chinese woman who moves to London to “make better life through Western education.” She’s dubious about the goal: “I not caring if I speaking English or not,” she says: she’s doing it at her parents’ urging (“Why they want changing my life?”) and she’s wary about what it will be like (“how I living in strange country West alone?”). Once arrived, she attends language classes and carries her Chinese-English dictionary with her everywhere. Looking words up isn’t enough, though: the novel emphasizes that knowing definitions still leaves plenty of room for confusion and misinterpretation—because language carries not just nuances and idioms but also assumptions, contexts, whole layers of culture that make one-to-one translations impossible. “After grammar class,” Z says early in her lessons,

I sit on bus and have deep thought about my new language. Person as dominate subject, is main thing in an English sentence. Does it mean West culture respecting individuals more? In China, you open daily newspaper, title on top is “OUR HISTORY DECIDE IT IS TIME TO GET RICH” or “THE GREAT COMMUNIST PARTY HAVE THIRD MEETING” or “THE 2008 OLYMPICS NEED CITIZENS PLANT MORE GREENS.” Look, no subjects here are mans or womans. Maybe Chinese too shaming putting their name first, because that not modest way to be.

Z’s English narration captures the misfit between her complex thoughts and the limited language she has available to express them; one of the cleverest aspects of the novel is the gradual closing of that gap as her English becomes more fluent—though as she reflects, the process is also one of internal transformation, as she changes herself in response to her new experiences of life in England and travel abroad.

Though it is structured as a love story, between Z and an Englishman she meets at the cinema and then moves in with, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers avoids the cliché of setting the lovers up as representatives of different, sometimes clashing, cultures who resolve their differences by finding some third way—a new language, either literally or metaphorically. In fact, their relationship is an uneasy one from the beginning, or at least it was to me. For one thing, he is quite a bit older, and because Z is so focused on learning English (and learning about England), there is a pedagogical dimension to their interactions that doesn’t sit well, even before we start to know him well enough to doubt he’s a keeper. He isn’t always comfortable with it either, bursting out at one point,

It is too tiring to live like this. I cannot spend my whole time explaining the meaning of words to you, and I can’t be questioned by you all day long.

As Z’s linguistic education continues, he also comes to feel threatened by it, protesting her habits of constant reading and writing. In her turn, Z gets frustrated with him, as well as with the need for constant effort in her communication:

I am sick of speaking English like this. I am sick of writing English like this. I feel as if I am being tied up, as if I am living in a prison . . . I wish I could just go back to my own language now. But is my own native language simple enough?

Why do we  have to study language?” she goes on to ask; “Why do we have to force ourselves to communicate with people?  Why is the process of communication so troubled and so painful?

I think these questions may go to the heart of the novel: the specific differences between Chinese and English are important but are also just a device for arguing that communication through language is never actually transparent. Thinking about the novel this way helped me make sense of the attention it pays to the lovers’ sexual relationship, and to Z’s exploration of her own sexuality outside of it as well.  It’s not that physical sensations are perfectly straightforward: sex, like language, is something we understand only in the terms we learn from our culture. A lot of effort goes into trying to find words for what we experience, though, including all of our emotions and sensations, a struggle Z’s efforts with English literalize. Sometimes it seems as if the novel, or at least Z, suggests that Chinese culture is better at integrating the mental and the physical world. “In China,” Z tells her lover,

we don’t name all these kinds of diseases. Because we think all the illnesses actually causes from very simple reason. If you want to solve your illness then you must start to cam your whole body, not just taking pills every time.

As she gains confidence in her English and in their relationship, Z also pushes back against her lover’s didacticism, which (she angrily points out) tacitly assumes she has nothing to teach or contribute to his understanding of the world:

You never really pay attention to my culture. You English once took over Hong Kong, so you probably heard of that we Chinese have 5,000 years of the greatest human civilisation ever existed in the world . . . Our Chinese invented paper so your Shakespeare can write two thousand years later. Our Chinese invented gunpowder for you English and Americans to bomb Iraq. And our Chinese invented compass for you English to sail and colonise the Asian and Africa.

Tying those Chinese achievements to acts of war, violence, and imperialism is not exactly claiming superiority—just relevance. Perhaps it is not a novel about these two cultures but about cross-cultural engagement more generally, and about how language both does and does not create mutual understanding.

One good thing Z’s lover does (though it too arises from a paternalistic impulse that is a bit cringe-inducing) is send her off to travel around Europe: “I think you should see a bit of the world without me,” he tells her. Her trip does add to her experience and her knowledge of yet more cultures; it’s another layer to the novel as a story of her individual development. “I think it’s important you go by yourself,” her lover says, and while there’s some selfishness to his motives (at least, I thought so), because he is chafing a bit against their proximity, he’s right that—young and unworldly as she is when she arrives in London—she will benefit from a chance to think about who she is when she isn’t defined either by what she recalls as a highly regimented life in China or by their romantic entanglement.

It seemed significant to me that Z’s Bildungsroman is international in that way. Although it is very much and very specifically a novel about differences between particular countries and cultures and languages, I finished the novel thinking that (as with the issue of languages) to some extent its Chinese-English set-up is a device to make us question how far these differences really matter—if we could only find ways to communicate between or across them. “I want to become a citizen of the world,” Z says at one point. Lots of details about A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers make that notion seem naïve, and perhaps the way her relationship with her lover turns out is more evidence for a pessimistic reading. But I didn’t think their affair was meant to represent a “solution.” It’s a stage in Z’s journey, which ends, as seemed right, in her reflections on what she has learned so far, and with memories of travel and togetherness that will shape where she goes next:

The address on the envelope is familiar. It must be in west Wales. Yes, we went there together. I remember how it rained. The rain was ceaseless, covering the whole forest, the whole mountain, and the whole land.

The novel begins with Z stumbling through her sentences, but by the end her language is close to poetry—the hardest form to translate, but the most beautiful to speak.

“In My Mind”: Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

piranesiIn my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall. I imagine I am walking the path from the vestibule to the hall. I note with precision the doors I must pass through, the rights and lefts that I must take, the statues on the walls that I must pass.

Piranesi is a strange, wondrous, mysterious novel, the kind of book that makes me marvel that someone ever had the idea to write it, much less carried it out so that a reader like me could be moved and transported by it. By training and inclination I am (more or less) a realist; the two genres I always have the least success with reading are fantasy and science fiction. I gave up on Clarke’s earlier novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – not just gave up, but gave it up, donating it to the book sale after a couple of failed attempts to get into it. Now I wish I still had it, because if Clarke is good enough to make the weird world of Piranesi feel real to me, I trust her enough to try it again.

I’m not going to say much specific about Piranesi, mostly because it’s such an intricately delicate construction that describing or explaining it seems unlikely to do it justice – and might, worse, spoil its carefully unspooled revelations. Most of it takes place in a kind of labyrinth made up of halls and vestibules, populated with statues and skeletons and one solitary living person, the man we know, and who knows himself, only as ‘Piranesi’ – until we learn more about him, that is, and he too is brought to confront some elusive truths about himself.

piranesi2The story of who he is and what he’s doing in this place is the novel’s central plot, and it has elements of an actual mystery, even a thriller, with clues and an investigation and a climactic face-off with a villainous antagonist. In a way it is even a horror story, or at any rate things about it are horrible. The oddity of Piranesi, though, is how beautiful Piranesi’s weird world is and how lovingly he studies and tends to it. It isn’t our world but it has things we are familiar with, including tides and sea birds and seasons, all of which are vividly evoked. Although Piranesi is essentially (we learn) a captive in this place, it’s not a story of suffering. He feels taken care of; in his isolation, he has created meaning through rituals and through relationships that are real and valuable to him. When the truth is revealed and he has to choose which world to live in, it’s not obvious where he will really be better off. Or, at any rate, the right choice may be obvious but it clearly comes with costs, with losses.

I wasn’t really sure what to think about Piranesi as I read it, partly because both Piranesi and his labyrinthine world are so captivating and partly because it takes the whole novel to really understand what is happening in it. It is a fantasy novel of a sort; it is perhaps a kind of parable; it may or may not be saying something about the imagination, or art, or religion, or mythology. I think it’s about freedom in some way – about whether a life can be a good one, for example, if it is lived under duress (even unknowingly), or whether a life stripped down to its bare elements might have a kind of purity that is some compensation for what has been taken away or sacrificed. It is about human needs, including for love, and the way they find outlets wherever they can. It is incredibly sad, but by the end it is also quietly hopeful.

arch-piranesiHappily, other people have written smart things about it, including Teresa at Shelf Love, whose post was one reason I had made a mental note to read Piranesi for myself even though I thought it sounded a bit far out for me (which it is). I also appreciated Ron Charles’s review, and this one by Ilana Teitelbaum in the Los Angeles Review of Books – I don’t know the Narnia books well enough to make the connections she does, but I found them really interesting. The title of the novel of course tells us to make connections to Piranesi, who in turn was an influence on M. C. Escher: these allusions are good visual cues, but whether they help much with interpreting the novel I’m not sure. In any case, because Piranesi is at once so memorable and so enigmatic, I know it will linger with me for a long time.