The Past Two Weeks In My (Online) Classes

Hardy-FAQ-cropIt has been two weeks since my last post. That sounds almost confessional: forgive me, gentle readers; it has been fourteen days since my last attempt to articulate what it is like to do something you usually love in a completely different way than you ever have before, under circumstances that remain (however awkwardly accustomed to them we have become) unprecedented. It’s not a sin, but it certainly is a sign of what those two weeks have been like.

In my previous post I said it was hard to reflect on the online experiment because I had no idea how it was going. Disconcertingly, I still have no real idea, though I have some feelings – not conclusions, yet – about individual aspects. Probably what I am most aware of right now is the gap between ‘best practices’ in theory and what they actually demand of all of us when we attempt to follow all that well-intentioned advice. In particular, I’m thinking about the oft-stressed recommendations about the value of frequent low-stakes (but graded, or else they won’t do them!) assignments, and about ‘overseeing’ but not actively engaging with online discussions. The former creates what feels like an endless barrage of busywork, because for some reason receiving, recording and returning so many bits and pieces electronically feels enormously more burdensome than collecting (as I routinely did) stacks of paper at every class meeting and returning them, marked, the next time we met. And the latter is both more disappointing than I anticipated (I want to participate, especially in the discussions for my 19th-century fiction class) and more difficult: I had planned, for example, to write ‘highlight’ posts after each round of discussions, to draw out the really good stuff and, if necessary, counteract confusions, and so far I have not managed to do that, as the submissions are both so copious and so diffuse. (Note for next time: less is more!)

GE-Help-Icon-cropI think my overwhelming impression at this point (and it may get better as we all get more and more used to doing things this way) is that I am spending a lot more time managing logistics and a lot less time engaging robustly with my classes about our readings. I can understand how online structures of the sort we were encouraged to develop would work pretty well for more mechanical subjects, and I think, too, that there is some good cross-talk going on between the students that does accomplish some of the goals of classroom time. That I feel a bit left out does not mean it isn’t valuable: this is what the experts mean, I guess, when they tell us online teaching “decenters” the teacher. But I don’t think I have so far found the strategy that makes an asynchronous course feel like what a face to face class (at its best) feels like. I don’t see where the energy comes from this way: even if I admit that the best classroom discussion doesn’t actually generate that energy for everyone, it still does it for some of us, and I just really miss that.

northandsouthI expressed cautious optimism when the term began and I do still feel some of that, even if at times over the past couple of weeks it has been challenged by fatigue and frustration and sadness. The students are there and most of them are really trying; in my turn, I am doing my level best to demonstrate “instructor presence” and make them feel that I care and am paying attention, not just tracking submissions. I’ve already made a few adjustments to the requirements, too, to reflect what we are all learning about how long all of this takes. Also, although preparing recorded segments is not my favorite thing to do, I find devising topics and shaping them into what seem (to me at least) like engaging little packages intellectually stimulating and even fun sometimes. 

MOTHThe readings, too, are as good as they always are, and when I have time to linger over them, that really boosts my morale. I reread the first half of North and South this week (a bit hastily, but still all through) and got excited about the many ways it provokes comparisons with Hard Times, which we are just wrapping up. And in my intro class we are doing Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” which was also a tonic to revisit. It’s so beautiful and so sad and so oddly uplifting, in its contemplation of

the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings … Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.

Woolf’s vision of that “pure bead” of life and its inevitable failure against “so mean an antagonist” is, indeed, moving, and it also feels timely, as we all spend so much time staring out of our own windows, confronted by the limits of our own power against oncoming doom but still fighting to retain what we value. It’s life that feels transcendent in her essay, not death, however strong it is,  and that’s where the importance of this whole exercise ultimately remains–in the words and what they offer us, and also in the reminder that art itself is one of our best ways to outwit our inexorable enemy. 

This Week In My Classes: Online

1015StartHere-cropIt is hard to know how to begin the 2020-21 iteration of this ongoing series without cliches about how everything about it is unprecedented. In recent years I had started to worry that continuing to post about my teaching might be boring–a bit, perhaps, to me but more so to the people who still come by and read this blog–because in so many ways, things had been going on more or less the same for so long. I kept tweaking things, including both my teaching methods and my course design and reading lists, but the academic year has a predictable routine and one way or another I have kept teaching more or less the same material. And now none of that seems boring to me at all. I would so much rather be writing again about how annoying our long add-drop period is than about what’s actually going on. But here we all are, in general, without the option to go back to the way things used to be, and here I am, in particular, one week into the unprecedented experience of an all-online semester.

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgSo how is it going? One of the oddest things about it, to be honest, is that I really have no idea. The whole past week felt like a massive anti-climax: after months of work, trying to re-train myself and take on board an overwhelming amount of information about “best practices” for online course design and student engagement and teacher presence, after taking a 9-week online course myself to learn about how to do this, after countless hours revising my course outlines and schedules and learning new tools and building my actual Brightspace course sites … all with September 8 as the looming deadline for when the students would “arrive” and the whole experiment would really begin … After all of this, there was no one moment when we were back in class, no online equivalent to that exhilarating and terrifying first face to face session. Instead, because this is how asynchronous online teaching works, students just gradually and on their own timeline started checking in and making their first contributions, while I watched and waited and wondered and tried not to pounce too fast whenever a new notification appeared.


It was strange–it is strange–but in many ways the lack of drama is obviously exactly what I should want: it means that, so far anyway, nothing has imploded. Students seem to be doing fine learning their way around Brightspace; I haven’t had a wave of messages (I haven’t had really any, in fact) asking for clarification of policies or procedures; I haven’t heard, so far, of anything at all going wrong, from acquiring the course books to viewing the uploaded video lectures. I’m sure that eventually there will be problems, at their end or mine, but I am relieved that we seem to have had an uneventful roll-out in both courses.

hello badgeI’m also genuinely pleased about the contributions that have come in, especially, in both courses, the introductions students have been posting on our “getting to know each other” discussion boards. As I said to them, our first crucial task is to begin building the class into a community, and it has been lovely to see them embrace that goal by telling us a little bit about themselves and then (best of all) responding with great friendliness to each other. I don’t usually solicit individual introductions in all of my F2F classes, only in the smaller seminars, so actually I know more about these groups than I think I ever have this early in the term. While a lot of what I read and practiced this summer was about how to make myself present to my students as a real, if virtual, person, this exercise has been great for making them present to me, not just “students” in the abstract but two really varied and interesting groups of people who bring different perspectives, interests, and needs to our collective enterprise.

Latour reading womanStill, I find the spread of the experience out over all hours of the day and all the days of the week disorienting, destabilizing, uncomfortable. Usually my weekly schedule involves regular build-ups to each class meeting: preparing notes and materials and ideas and plans, doing the reading, summoning the energy. Then there’s the live session, which in the moment absorbs all my concentration. When it’s over, I’m drained, even if (especially if!) there has been a really good, lively discussion: being in the moment for that kind of exchange is unlike anything else I do in terms of how focused but also flexible, how attentive to others but also on-task I need to be. I love it, and I really miss it already. I know we can have engaged and intellectually serious exchanges in our online format, but they won’t have the same rhythm, or perhaps any rhythm at all, who knows. Not having to be up and dressed and out the door early in the morning (or ever!) is some compensation, and I expect I will find more of a routine as we settle into the term, but (and I expect I’m going to be saying things like this a lot this term, so sorry for the repetition) it’s a strange new way of being a professor.

hardtimesAs for specifics, well, we’re discussing Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” and Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tiger” in my intro class this coming week, and in 19th-Century Fiction it’s time for Hard Times (which I assigned this term because we ended up cutting it last term when we ‘pivoted’ to online). These are all texts I like a lot, though in my experience Hard Times is often a hard sell, even to students who otherwise like Dickens (which is never all of them, of course). Will I be able to communicate my enthusiasm and generate the kinds of discussions I aspire to in the classroom without being in the classroom? I guess I’ll find out. I’m trying to create recorded lectures that open up into writing prompts, rather than drawing conclusions, much as I would move in the classroom through laying out some ideas, contexts, or questions and then opening things up to their input. I am actually having some fun with this, though yet one more unknown is how effective my first attempts will be. I have the next two weeks of material nearly completed, so that buys me a bit of time: as I see what works and what doesn’t, and which approach to the lectures they prefer, I can adapt the next round accordingly.

I guess I would characterize my current feeling about this term as “cautiously optimistic.” Besides, it doesn’t really matter how I feel: this is what we all have to do. Doing it as well as possible under the circumstances remains the only plan I have.

Summer Reading: 2020 Edition

It has become something of a tradition for me to post a retrospective of my summer reading, partly because I enjoy revisiting the books and partly  on the theory that people spend less time online in the summer and so even those who ordinarily like to know what I’m reading and what I think about it might have missed some posts  and want to catch up as the changing season brings us back to our usual routines.

I honestly don’t know if either of those reasons holds up this year! I didn’t read nearly as much, or with nearly as much pleasure, as I would in a typical summer: it’s not that I didn’t read some good books, but the pleasure always felt precarious, and the many hours I’ve spent struggling to re-train and prepare for online courses meant I spent a lot less time on our back deck basking in warmth and words. I also think a lot of people spent more hours online this summer than they ordinarily would–not just those who, like me, have had to make over their skills for work, but also those whose plans to travel or have visitors were disrupted, and those who were housebound for whatever combination of COVID reasons, from illness to care-taking to personal precautions.

Still, books remained a constant source of comfort and distraction, and it’s nicer thinking about them than doing a lot of the other things I still have to do before classes officially start up again on Tuesday, so here’s a review of my April to August reading.

Though I actually read it in March, Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life deserves to be included here, because it is so good and also because it rescued me from near-despair early in the lockdown, when everything seemed scary and uncertain and, to make matters worse (or because matters really were worse) I was struggling to concentrate on reading anything at all. As I said in my post about it, it is a “marvelous, inspiring, touching, and extremely wide-ranging account of the myriad ways needle crafts of all kinds have mattered and made meaning throughout history.” It was a great reminder of the many forms hardship has taken over the years and of the many creative ways women have responded by making practical or beautiful or expressive objects.

Another welcome reminder that it was still possible for me to lose myself in reading came from Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, which I thought was quite extraordinary: harrowing but also uplifting, smart and high-concept but also heartfelt. I’d like to go back to it, and maybe (circumstances and class assignments permitting) teach it some day; the only reason I wouldn’t do that is my suspicion that a lot of academic readers felt the same way about it that I did and so it might become one of those ubiquitous “I have to read it for all my classes” books (the way The Handmaid’s Tale was back in the 1980s, or Never Let Me Go more recently).

In May, I joined the swarm of other readers excited to finish up Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy with The Mirror and the Light. I didn’t find it as propulsive as Bring Up the Bodies, which to my mind was the best of the three, but a second-best installment in this remarkable series is still better than most other books, and its last 100 pages or so are as good as anything I ever expect to read. For me, The Mirror and the Light especially provoked questions about length–not because I thought it was “too long” (a measure for which there can be no generally applicable standards) but because I was fascinated by what its length ultimately meant about Mantel’s project and the form she gave it.

I very much enjoyed Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting – and I hope it doesn’t sound cynical to say that I also admired the marketing savvy that enabled her to repackage these particular biographies, some of which have been told often, and make something new, engaging, and appealing out of them. I brought my Woolf / Holtby materials home with me the day the term ended so abruptly: in retrospect, that was a pretty optimistic thing to do, but I was still thinking in terms of weeks, not months (or years, sigh), and it seemed reasonable that once the winter term wrapped up, I would turn my attention back to whatever that project was going to become. There’s a possible world in which I am presenting on just that question at the MSA in Brooklyn this October–not in this world, though.

I got caught up immediately in Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, which was a gift! I ended it not entirely sure what all of its parts added up to, which isn’t necessarily a fault of the novel: the habit of looking for that kind of unifying “reading” is just hard to shake for someone with my particular training.

The fun we had reading An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good sent my book club to Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss as our next read. I didn’t enjoy it all that much but it is definitely an interesting example of a crime novel with a “relatable” female detective as its protagonist. We have since also read Yrsa Sigurdasdottir’s Last Rituals; we haven’t “met” yet to discuss it, so I don’t know how well it went over with the rest of the group, but I found it quite tedious, though again (as with the Tursten) it might be an issue with the translation more than with the novel itself. I liked Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent much better, though I never wrote it up properly here, and will be looking around for the first in that series.

In June and July a lot of what I read was the entirety of P. D. James’s Dalgliesh series (16 novels, if you count, as I did, the two Cordelia Gray books, as they take place in the same fictional universe–a lot of them really quite long!). You will be able to read what came of that endeavor (which to be honest sounded more fun in theory than it turned out to be in practice) in the TLS a bit later this month: the September 25 issue, I’ve been told. I did try to read other things (and managed some miscellaneous light reading, mostly romances)–but A Time of Gifts, which I’d hoped would be the perfect antidote to lockdown, proved once again not to be my thing. I guess I need a story to motivate me to keep going–or a lot more life, which is just not what this beautifully written book communicates to me.

Hamnet and Judith, on the other hand, though in one sense a book all about death, was engrossing and immensely satisfying, as was William Trevor’s Love and Summer. Both are quiet novels with little overt drama; I think what is so pleasing about them both is that they perfectly execute what they set out to do (as far as I understood that, at any rate), whereas Sandra Newman’s The Heavens left me feeling thwarted, as if either the novel or my comprehension of it was a near miss, a lost opportunity. I was also really pleased and impressed with Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, which turns a risky premise into a smart, touching, and thought-provoking novel.

One more highlight of my summer reading was Sarah Moss’s new novel Summerwater. Like Ghost Wall, it is a terse novel that turns out to have a lot packed into it: it gets bigger (not longer, of course!) the more attention you pay to it. I was estopped from reviewing it for the TLS because of having reviewed Ghost Wall for them, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to write it up for the Dublin Review of Books.

That’s not such a bad summer, really. There’s no Moby-Dick or To the Lighthouse (though there was Flush, which was a lovely little diversion), but there’s plenty to look back on with appreciation. Also, while it hasn’t been possible to support every cause or business that has been struggling because of the pandemic, I have tried to do my bit for our local bookstores at least! Getting new books delivered by bicycle has brightened many dreary days; I am really grateful to both Bookmark and the King’s Coop Bookstore (and manager Paul specifically!) for providing this heartening service.

My last book of the summer–or my first book of the fall–has been Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. I actually didn’t like it as much as I expected to. I loved aspects of it, but Ántonia herself never really came to life for me: she felt like a device, partly for a story about America and immigration and values, but also for a much less appealing and rather tired story about ambitious men and their stay-at-home muses who get to be inspirations, not protagonists. It’s definitely not Stoner-level annoying in this regard, but the novel in which Ántonia is actually the main character is the one I would rather read–or the one about Lena and Tiny.

And with that, this long, strange, uncertain summer winds up. I am really struggling to picture the fall term that is about to begin. I plan to keep up my “this week in my classes” series. Sometimes I have wondered whether the posts have gotten too repetitive, given the similarity of the routine every year and the reiteration of courses I have now taught many times. That certainly won’t be the case this year: a silver lining, perhaps! I’m wary about taking on any formal writing or reviewing assignments, in case I am overwhelmed with the different demands of online teaching, but I hope and expect to be able to keep reading, and to keep writing the results up here.

I know I’ve said this before, but I think it’s worth repeating that keeping up with other people’s blogs has been a great source of intellectual stimulation and comfort for me over the past few months, so thanks as always to everyone whose bookish thoughts help make the internet a better place. This has mattered so much at a time when our virtual communities are almost all we’ve had to keep us company!

Dissolved Into Something: Reading My Ántonia

catherI’m reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonia for the first time. I like Ántonia just fine so far, though I haven’t yet reached Jim Burden’s level of fascination with her. What I like best at this point is Cather’s writing, which is graceful and evocative without being at all fussy, and is full of marvelously specific and sensual details about the land and the landscape of the novel. My two favorite bits so far:

I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There were some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps it feels like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

I’m the opposite of a country girl by experience and inclination, but that passage made me want to find a vast field of tall grass, lie under the sun, and dissolve into its warmth and life.

This next excerpt is more melancholy–it takes the proximity of peaceful sleep to death more literally–but it is just as delicately splendid:

Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed action lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence–the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.

I don’t personally believe, as a matter of fact or faith, that it matters at all to the “sleepers” where they lie, but I do believe it can matter a lot to those who hold  their memories close. The happy dissolution imagined in the first passage is a comforting way to think about a final resting place, isn’t it? In these passages Cather prepares us for that inevitable return to the earth. It doesn’t seem so sad or scary if we think of it as becoming part of a place that we have loved.

Sunset at Jericho

“He Smelt”: Virginia Woolf, Flush

FlushWhere Mrs. Browning saw, he smelt; where she wrote, he snuffed.

Is there anything more fun, as a reader, than recognizing as you read how much fun the author was having? This is the joy, for me, of reading Dickens – not all the time, but whenever he abandons any pretense of trying to tell us his story in as plain and direct a way as possible and goes spinning off into the kind of “excesses” that other readers just find tedious It’s also the great joy of Woolf’s Orlando, which “feels ebulliently excessive and joyfully disorderly.”

It is a shame that the common perception of Woolf is so dour: her depression and suicide dominate the story most people know about her (see The Hours, for instance). One of the not-so-incidental pleasures of Holtby’s memoir is that Holtby didn’t know how Woolf’s life would end and so the book is full of curiosity and optimism about the future. “She is in love with life,” Holtby wrote, free of the painful irony that description now evokes;

It is this quality which lifts her beyond the despairs and fashions of her age, which gives to her vision of reality a radiance, a wonder, unshared by any other living writer.

This is a long way around to what will actually be very brief comments on a very short book, Woolf’s tiny “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel Flush.

This little book is the very definition of a literary bagatelle. The concept will either charm you or strike you as irredeemably twee, but in either case I suspect Woolf’s own embrace of it will win you over completely. For one thing, the whole exercise of looking at the world from a dog’s point of view is something Woolf pulls off with panache, reaching as far as she dares towards Flush’s own doggy experience while always acknowledging that we mere humans can never really know what it’s like to experience the world as a dog:

To describe his simplest experience with the daily chop or biscuit is beyond our power. Not even Mr Swinburne could have said what the smell of Wimpole Street meant to Flush on a hot afternoon in June.

I’m a cat person, not a dog person, but I still thought Flush was a pretty good boy. I enjoyed the way Woolf traced his changing emotions, especially as they were filtered through his loyalty to “Miss Barrett” and his resentment of other creatures who come between them.

flush2And this brings me to the other thing I really liked about Flush, which is the clever way Woolf conveys the daring and intensity of the romance between EBB and Robert Browning. Flush is keenly sensitive to changes in his mistress’s mood and the progress of her feelings for Browning – from keen but uncertain interest to expanding confidence to love – is beautifully conveyed through Flush’s peripheral and often peevish point of view:

He shifted his position at Miss Barrett’s feet. She took no notice. He whined. They did not hear him. At last he lay still in tense and silent agony. The talk went on; but it did not flow and ripple as talk usually flowed and rippled. It leapt and jerked. It stopped and leapt again. Flush had never heard that sound in Miss Barrett’s voice before – that vigour, that excitement. Her cheeks were bright as he had never seen them bright; her great eyes blazed as he had never seen them blaze.

Flush is stolen (in real life, apparently not just once but three times!), and that incident is full of peril and drama; Miss Barrett elopes with her devoted lover, and it’s the smells of Italy that most excite Flush – but we can tell, all the same, how EBB’s life has expanded. They are both much happier away from their safely muffled existence on Wimpole Street.

The story has a sad ending, as it must, but Woolf does Flush’s death so delicately it sounds more like a quiet caress: “He had been alive; he was now dead. That was all.” Flush, we learn from Woolf’s notes, is the only member of the Browning household actually buried at Casa Guidi in Florence – a fit resting place for such a good boy!

“Utterly Disordered”: Kathleen Rooney, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey


I shook mightily, casting the grime from my feathers. Then I rose, bringing my wing tips together with a terrific burst of claps. The air above me was deformed, chaotic, utterly disordered by the detonating shells. I found still air, and I dug my wings into it. I found billows of heat, and I rode them up. . . In moments of extraordinary difficulty, one rises above oneself: one becomes an aura, overcast and vaporous. Above the ooze and above the bursts, above the horizontal hailstorm of bullets from the hills.

One reason I relished Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey so much is that the novel could easily have been a disaster. Its whole concept is hugely risky, and instead of rising above the difficulties it creates, as she (more or less) does, Rooney could well have ended up with something twee or cutesy or wretchedly sentimental. Instead, she has somehow written a touching and (mostly) believable novel in which the narrating voice alternates between Charles Whittlesey–gay, wry, upright, and heroic–and Cher Ami, a smart, affectionate, heroic nonbinary homing pigeon, now stuffed and in the Smithsonian.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is a fictionalized re-telling of the true story of the “Lost Battalion,” an American regiment that got cut off from their main force and ended up under a terrible barrage of friendly fire that ended thanks to Cher Ami, who carried news of the catastrophic mix-up back to the commanders behind the front lines. Whittlesey, as Rooney explains in the “historical note” that concludes the book, was “the courageous and compassionate commanding officer of the Lost Battalion.” Both he and Cher Ami earned medals and fame for their brave actions.

Cher_Ami_croppedRooney actually took at least two big risks in taking on this particular subject–or, in taking it on the way she did. The first is the obvious one: a pigeon narrator! But I think this leap of imaginative faith was necessary to mitigate the second risk, which is telling yet another story of bravery and brotherhood in the trenches. To some extent Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is exactly that kind of book, and this literary ground is so well-trodden that even the best new treatments can seem clichéd (and the not-so-good ones are worse).

Rooney’s war story has all the familiar elements–mud, gas, bullets, shattered bodies, horror, courage under fire, dug-outs, No-Man’s-Land–and her version is terse and tactile:

Starting the next day, time became featureless, a fever fugue of suffering punctuated by German attacks. Those arterial pulses of horror only underscored our swampy passivity: the routine of the ordeal. . . . The customary barrage flew over our heads: tons upon tons of shells loaded with shrapnel and high explosives, bring detonations and pandemonium to the territory we’d be advancing through, concussing the men’s skulls. . . The battalion advanced, sending its wounded to the rear. Every prospective path forward was snarled by underbrush or barbed wire or both, often in tangles deeper than the men were tall. The forms of these sprawling barriers seemed to reflect the madness of the war, antic and perverse and sometimes wickedly clever.

Rooney’s trench tale is well told, but it wouldn’t be particularly memorable if it weren’t for Cher Ami–both her role in the specific incident Rooney recounts and Rooney’s daring decision to let her tell it herself, and in doing so to treat her as in every way as equivalent to Charles Whittlesey, in her depth as a character, in her perceptiveness about the war she’s fighting in, and as a figure of historical significance. The execution of this concept didn’t always work for me: I couldn’t always shake off the sense of its artifice, especially given the way Cher Ami speaks, which I’ll come back to in a moment. The attempt itself was exciting, though. It brought novelty; it felt imaginative, which I enjoy; and it also (or so I thought) ended up showing that Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is in some sense only incidentally a war novel.

Rooney draws attention to the equivalence between her alternating narrators by starting off their paired chapters the same way every time. A couple of sample openers:

Chapter 1: Cher Ami

Monuments matter most to pigeons and soldiers.

I myself have become a monument, a feathered statue inside a glass case.

In life I was both a pigeon and a soldier. In death I am a piece of mediocre taxidermy, collecting dust in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Chapter 2: Charles Whittlesey

Monuments matter most to pigeons and soldiers.

Some matter more than others. None matter more to me than the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side.

It’s not a monument for my war, the Great War, the war that has caused me to be known these past three years as “Go to Hell” Whittlesey, heroic commander of the Lost Battalion.

Chapter 11: Cher Ami

Take the thing that bothers you and place it in parentheses.

I’ve told myself that a thousand times since we got stuck in the Pocket. Bracket the death that spatters against you.

But not a day has slipped by these past hundred years that I haven’t recollected my final flight.

Chapter 12: Charles Whittlesey

Take the thing that bothers you and place it in parentheses.

I’ve told myself that a thousand times since we got stuck in the Pocket. Bracket the death that spatters against you. Set that clotted mess aside and do not look at it any more.

But hardly an hour has slipped by these past three years without my recollecting those five days under fire without food or water, when we, the 308th, bled out, only to rise again like revenants as the Lost Battalion.

whittleseyThis is a structural reflection of Rooney’s commitment to equivalence between her human and her animal protagonists, and by the end that equivalence seemed to be the real point of the novel. It’s making the case against speciesism; it pushes us repeatedly to consider why we (including novelists) typically treat animals as accessories to human stories if we consider them at all, rather than accepting that they have their own whole, intrinsically meaningful lives and perspectives. “I think of these numbers still all the time,” says Cher Ami as she reflects on the devastating human casualties on the front; but also,

I think of the eight million horses who died in the Great War, roughly the same number killed as all the soldiers of all the human armies.

I think of how humans used over a hundred thousand of us pigeons on the battlefield, and with a 98 percent success rate. Of how twenty thousand of us lost our lives in combat.

“Humans make their mighty interventions in our lives,” Cher Ami notes,

hunting, taming, training, breeding, eating; warping our bodies and instincts away from nature, towards their own ends–and they imagine that their great power puts them beyond our regard, beyond our judgment.

To Cher Ami, and in this novel, the truly heroic humans are not the ones who stand tall under fire or courageously lead their troops over the top to their deaths but those who, like Bill Cavanaugh (“the 308th Infantry Regiment’s greatest pigeon man”) look at their animal colleagues “with a feeling of reciprocity.” Whittlesey is a brave soldier, but his love for Bill Cavanaugh and the respect he shows for pigeons are what matter most to Cher Ami’s judgment of him.

Giving Cher Ami fully half of the novel is a way of making its form reflect this principle, and overall it works surprisingly well if you are prepared to take the leap, to willingly suspend your disbelief that you are listening to a pigeon–and not just a pigeon but an inexplicably immortal one. You have to buy a few other unlikely things too, including the ability of animals of various species to “talk” with each other. Again, this is all pretty deftly done, and against its unreality Rooney sets a lot of fascinating lore about pigeons, how they live and fly and love and home, which anchors her fanciful approach in fact.

Stuart_Little_2_MargaloThat said, her whole approach is a flamboyant adventure in anthropomorphism: if I were inclined to be critical about the book, I might start there, with the idea that the best way to earn our respect for animals is to depict them as essentially human-like. For all the specific references to pigeon behaviors and preferences, Cher Ami doesn’t really seem much more bird-like in her consciousness than Margalo in Stuart Little 2. I also got a bit tired of Rooney’s using her as a device for social commentary and criticism: for a stuffed bird, Cher Ami gets pretty preachy about racism and sexism and militarism. Those were the moments when my own commitment to Rooney’s experiment got the most wobbly. In contrast, my engagement with Charles Whittlesey never wavered. The sad story of his inability to recover from what he saw and did in “the Pocket” during those terrifying days–the very things that, to others, made him a hero–is a more powerful critique of war and the cynicism of its leaders and promoters than any of Cher Ami’s more didactic remarks.

wars-penguinThe other World War I novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey most reminded me of was Timothy Findley’s The Wars, because there too it is animals who force a moral reckoning. Findley does not go as far as Rooney in addressing the animals’ own perspectives: in fact, it’s their inability to speak or act for themselves that arouses Robert Ross’s rage and, ultimately, rebellion. The horses are provocations for his crisis of conscience, not meaningful agents in themselves. The affinity between the two novels lies in their aversion to the human arrogance that subordinates other living creatures to our often highly destructive priorities. World War I is often talked about as particularly tragic because its losses served no higher purpose. “The defeat of Hitler and company,” as Cher Ami remarks,

can be presented as a quest far more noble and necessary than the First World War, the obscure origins and anticlimactic end of which are befuddling even to superlative armchair historians.

Again, this is a familiar take on a well-known story. Perhaps we don’t really need a pigeon to tell it to us one more time! On the other hand, as Rooney’s novel suggests, maybe if we listened–really listened–to the creatures we share our planet with, we could avoid some further horrors, or at least understand better what the real costs are of our way of life, and who pays them along with us.


Falling Down, Catching Up

Bluhm PergolaI have fallen out of the habit of regular blogging in the last little while. One of the odder features (to me) of my blog archive is that early on, I actually posted much more frequently, even though my life back then was much more hectic. I think in those days writing blog posts felt intellectually liberating–which it still does, but less urgently so, given the ways in which my life has changed. Time to myself is a less precious commodity now, too, so blogging feels less like an escape and more like another task (which is silly, of course, as it remains entirely voluntary). Then when I find myself in the doldrums, as I have recently, it is hard to muster up both the energy to post and enough faith in myself to believe I have something to say.

Still! Though I posted only four times in July, two of those posts were about really excellent books (Love and Summer and Hamnet), so that’s good, and another, about binge-reading P. D. James, pointed at one of the chores that was keeping me from reading or writing much else. My TLS feature on James was due in to my editor by August 6, so I was quite preoccupied and stressed out over the last couple of weeks as I wrestled all the notes and rough material I had generated into tight enough shape to send it off. 1400 words doesn’t seem like much when you’ve read thousands of pages! But I got it in on time–and though I have some revising to do based on my editor’s feedback, it’s not a lot, which is a big relief.

steinerThings were a bit hectic and stressful around here for some family reasons too, so I have been struggling to concentrate on the more demanding books in my reading pile. I read Amy Jones’s Every Little Piece of Me but didn’t like it nearly as much as We’re All In This Together — its protagonists just didn’t appeal. (I think I was the wrong demographic for their stories.) Then I ordered a couple of recent crime novels I’d seen recommended (thanks, Dorian and Kay!) and happily they hit the spot. One was Ann Cleeve’s The Long Call. which was good–better than solid, though not gripping in the way the other, Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent, was. Steiner’s is the third in a series and usually I wouldn’t start at the end like that, but it was the only one available locally. It convinced me I should read the other two when the opportunity comes. Steiner’s was an especially interesting contrast to all the P. D. James I’ve been through lately: she writes briskly and colloquially, and her story was both timely and explicitly political. (The absence of timeliness in James is something my essay touches on.)

conciseBILThe other reading I’ve been doing is in the Broadview anthology I ordered for my first-year class, as it contains a lot of stories and poems I don’t know at all. I’m impressed at the range of styles and voices in the reader–and mine is the concise edition, too! I haven’t quite pinned down the specific readings for the course yet, but in this, as in my other fall class prep, I do feel I am making progress. I have spent such a lot of time thinking about online teaching this summer that I was starting to panic about not actually having built my course sites or created content for them. I hope that theoretical time will pay off, but in any case it is definitely time to stop thinking and start doing–and since the TLS piece went in, that’s what I’ve been focused on. It is daunting to feel September is so close, but at the same time I am looking forward to it for the same reasons I usually welcome the return to classes: activity, conversation, intellectual exercise, the stimulation of being busy in more concrete ways. Sure, it won’t be the same kind of activity or conversation, but I’ll take it.

rooneyAnyway, the main point of this post is to break the silence–here and in my head! I have another writing deadline coming up but it’s not as onerous (a shorter review, of Sarah Moss’s Summerwater, which I’ve read twice already). I’ve got My Antonia and Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Amie and Major Whittlesey at the top of my TBR, both of which look very tempting, and at the moment things are quiet on the home front, so I hope to be in a better space for reading and blogging.

“I will go”: Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet and Judith

hamnetHe breathes in. He breathes out. He turns his head and breathes into the whorls of her ear; he breathes in his strength, his health, his all. You will stay, is what he whispers, and I will go. He sends these words into her: I want you to take my life. It shall be yours. I give it to you.

They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was. And if either of them is to live, it must be her. He wills it. He grips the sheet, tight, in both hands. He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Judith began with a fragment, a scrap, of knowledge, about “a boy who died in Stratford, Warwickshire, in the summer of 1596,” a boy named Hamnet whose father, just a few years later, wrote a play called Hamlet. The names are the same, “entirely interchangeable,” according to Stephen Greenblatt, whose essay “The death of Hamnet and the making of Hamlet” provides one of O’Farrell’s epigraphs. In her author’s note, O’Farrell explains just how little we know about the real Hamnet, and also tells us that the central event of her novel, Hamnet’s sudden death from the bubonic plague, is a fiction: “it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died.” From this slight material O’Farrell develops a novel that is a delicate combination of historical recreation and literary excavation, of intimately portrayed human lives and undercurrents of meaning that flow almost unnoticed towards Shakespeare’s tragic drama.

hamnet3It is impossible not to have Hamlet in mind while reading Hamnet (as it is more simply and, I think, more aptly titled in its UK release), and I imagine that someone who knows the play better than I do (so, a lot of people!) would find many echoes and resonances that deepen O’Farrell’s effects. But she resists, rightly I think, making either Shakespeare or Hamlet the most important thing about Hamnet–she avoids holding out their future fame (unknown and unforeseeable to her characters, after all) as what matters most about the lives her people are living in the moment. Instead, she focuses our attention and ties our emotions to their small family circle, and especially to the story of Hamnet’s mother Agnes (better known to us as Anne). The novel’s themes of love and loss, grief and guilt, parents and children, are (some of) Hamlet‘s themes as well, and by the end O’Farrell has convinced me of their connection, but in her telling Hamnet’s death does not matter because it inspired Hamlet, but rather Hamlet matters because it is an offering to Hamnet:

Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. . . . He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.

That seems, perhaps, like a subtle difference, but it is an inversion of priorities that I think reflects O’Farrell’s determination to subvert expectations for a novel “about” Shakespeare, to refuse the “great man” model of history and literature that made Sandra Newman’s The Heavens dissatisfying. (I think Newman too aimed to reject or ironize this model, but I found O’Farrell’s approach, though superficially more conventional, ultimately more effective at unsettling it.)

agnesShakespeare’s greatness, as Agnes understands it, is as a father, not as a playwright. In fact, Shakespeare (who is never directly named–he is always “the glover’s son” or “the Latin tutor” or just the husband or the father) is just barely a main character in O’Farrell’s novel. Hamnet is really Agnes’s book, and O’Farrell portrays her with wonderful specificity, from her knowledge of medicinal herbs to her uncanny ability to read a person’s character and future from pinching the bit of flesh between thumb and forefinger:

A person’s ability, their reach, their essence can be gleaned. All that they have held, kept, and all they long to grip is there in that place. It is possible, she realises, to find out everything you need to know about a person just by pressing it.

When she first takes the Latin tutor’s hand, she feels something different, “something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town”:

It was far-reaching: this much she knew. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents. There wasn’t enough time for her to get a sense of it all — it was too big, too complex. It eluded her, mostly. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them.

Her understanding that there is more to this young man than his current circumstances can accommodate becomes part of the story of their married life, as she prompts him to leave their household in Stratford and make his way to London.

Shakespeare-ChandosIt’s there, of course, that he finds his vocation and begins the work that will lead him to Hamlet and beyond. But that richer life keeps him apart from Agnes and his children: his older daughter Susanna and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. He is away on the day Judith becomes ill, which turns into the day Hamnet dies. Agnes too is away, though not as distant, and O’Farrell writes with devastating clarity about what it means to her when she discovers that her harmless expedition to gather honey meant that her son faced catastrophe alone:

Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. Him standing there, at the back of the house, calling for the people who had fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out of a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water.

It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.

Though this incident is also the hub of the novel, Hamnet is composed of multiple strands woven around it: Shakespeare’s fraught life with his parents, Agnes’s unhappy relationship with her stepmother and then with her mother-in-law, the children’s games and loyalties and fears. O’Farrell is good with tactile details, so that it is easy to picture the small apartment Agnes and her husband share, the apple shed where they make love for the first time, the woods where she goes seeking privacy for the birth of her first daughter. There’s no weighty exposition but the book feels full of historical life.

hamnet2What O’Farrell does best, though–and this is no surprise, given her previous books–is to evoke emotions. Hamnet’s death is the novel’s entire premise, so grief is built into our expectations, but it was still harrowing reading her account of the illness that overcomes first his sister and then Hamnet himself, and then following Agnes through the nightmare experience of trying and failing to save him:

Inside Agnes’s head, her thoughts are widening out, then narrowing down, widening, narrowing, over and over again. She thinks, This cannot happen, it cannot, how will we live, what will we do, how can Judith bear it, what will I tell people, how can we continue, what should I have done, where is my husband, what will he say, how could I have saved him, why didn’t I save him, why didn’t I realize it was he who was in danger? And then, the focus narrows, and she thinks: He is dead, he is dead, he is dead.

The three words contain no sense for her. She cannot bend her mind to their meaning. It is an impossible idea that her son, her child, her boy, the healthiest and most robust of her children, should, within days, sicken and die.

She describes so well that constant restless exercise of a mother’s thoughts about her children, always checking where and how they are, “what they are doing, how they fare”:

And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bit, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he?

Even though I knew the novel was leading me towards Hamlet, and even when I know that one answer the novel gives is that he is there, in Hamlet (“The ghost turns his head towards her, as he prepares to exit the scene. He is looking straight at her, meeting her gaze, as he speaks his final words: ‘Remember me'”) this despairingly simple but unanswerable question by a mother about her son seemed, as I was reading, much more important than any art that could be made from such a loss.

hamlet-folioBut of course Hamnet itself is built, artfully, on just that moment, and art’s ability not just to convey pain but also to console is one of the reasons we value and need it, though artists are often ambivalent or uneasy about that. “I sometimes hold it half a sin,” writes Tennyson in In Memoriam A.H.H.,

To put in words the grief I feel,
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold;
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

Hamlet does not compensate Agnes for Hamnet’s death, and nothing about Hamnet suggests that it should. That way lies Bardolatry, for one thing, something Hamnet scrupulously avoids. The novel is instead a form of ‘herstory.’ Inevitably, the name of Hamnet’s twin reminded me of Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare–“who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” But O’Farrell rejects that model too. Instead of setting her Shakespearean woman’s life up against Shakespeare’s and lamenting her failure to thrive on his terms, she gives us a life rich on its own terms and insists–and more importantly, makes us feel, through her engrossing story-telling–that it matters as much as, and also shares much more with, her husband’s life than we can understand if we focus on Hamlet at the expense of Hamnet.

“These Moments”: William Trevor, Love and Summer

love-summerThey sat for longer at the table, the cigarette Florian had put out to smoke unsmoked, the tea he’d made gone cold. This was what he would take with him, he thought. This was what he would leave behind. These moments now would haunt whole days.

Love and Summer: what a beguiling title, full of sunshine and promise! But this quiet little novel turns out instead to be full of heartbreak, of lives that have lost the bright sheen of hope and settled into melancholy that is all the sadder for being somehow, thanks to Trevor’s delicate treatment, quite beautiful.

lucy-gaultIt has this quality in common with The Story of Lucy Gault, which I read last summer and loved. The earlier novel, however, is fast-paced and action-packed compared to Love and Summer, which drifts along so gently you almost don’t notice how much pain many of its characters are living with, or discover along the way. It starts with the funeral of Mrs. Connulty, for example, whose life “had been one of good works and resolution, with a degree of severity in domestic and family matters.” Her daughter–now known only as “Miss Connulty,” because “twenty years ago, her mother ceased to address her by either of the saints’ names she had been given at birth”–hardly mourns, and we gradually realize that’s because of how she suffered from Mrs. Connulty’s “severity.” She carries with her the memory of a trip with her father to a chemist’s shop in Dublin; “her mother said that he was a murderer when they got back,” and ever after he slept in the attic. Miss Connulty’s past has made her severe as well, not because she is harsh by nature but because she remembers what love was, or could have been–and this, in turn, makes her fierce in its defense. “If Dillahan turns her out she’ll come here,” she says of the young woman whose illicit summer love is the crux of the novel’s plot; “Ellie Dillahan will live in this house and hold her head up.”

trevorAs for Ellie, her expectations of happiness in her life are low enough to content her with her marriage to a man burdened by guilt and grief for his part in the accidental death of his first wife and their baby. It isn’t until she glimpses Florian Kilderry passing through her small community that she is awakened to the possibility of something more. Theirs is a sweet friendship but not a great mutual passion, and by the end of the summer Florian himself regrets the part he has played in it and the price Ellie pays in dashed dreams:

He had pitied the infant left in the corner of some yard or on a convent step, had pitied the child given a place among the unwanted, the girl who had become a servant. Her loneliness had been his when they were friends — before, too greedily, he asked too much of friendship, and carelessly allowed a treacherous love to flourish. She had come to him, and pity now was nourished by his greater guilt, and guilt was lent some part of pity’s dignity.

Their romance–such as it is–cannot survive, but there is no great cataclysm, no confrontation, no epiphany, just confusion and disappointment and recognition that they each belong, in fact, to a different story, a different life. Ellie must stay, and Florian must go:

He cycled slowly, the air raw on his face. The signpost to Crilly was lit up by his lamp as he went by. The road straightened, became a hill to freewheel down, and then the twists and turns began again. How useless being sorry was, and yet that, most of all, was what he felt, a soreness in him somewhere. Her grey-blue eyes had been no more than smudges in the dark.

Miss Connulty sees him go, and alone in her own darkness she imagines a future in which she and Ellie are close, bound by their secret pasts, “both of them knowing it could be, neither of them saying what should not be said and never would be.”

sumer-loveIt’s an intensely small-scale and personal novel, but I thought Trevor was also drawing out a particularly Irish tragedy through Miss Connulty’s suffering for her “craven appetites” and the story of Ellie’s stern convent upbringing:

You were punished if you repeated bad words. You were punished if you talked to the delivery men, or whispered ‘You Are My Sunshine’ or “Besame Mucho’. You were punished if you danced in the ballroom. You accepted what there was. You were fortunate.

Dillahan too struggles under the weight of what he fears are the community’s judgments (“Is it put about I could see her behind the trailer? . . . Sometimes at Mass I’d know people would be looking at me”). It felt somehow flighty, careless almost, of Florian to be so set on leaving–so ready to leave Ellie behind–but his departure also brings a sense of welcome escape, of the past letting go of him, so that he at least can be free and happy in the sunshine:

The last of Ireland is taken from him, its rocks, its gorse, its little harbours, the distant lighthouse. He watches until there is no land left, only the sunlight dancing over the sea.

“Holes in the Fabric”: Sandra Newman, The Heavens


Because Kate’s anomalies had now spawned enigmas, discrepancies, holes in the fabric of Kate. It wasn’t that she was crazy, or not like any crazy girls he’d known before. She didn’t weep; she didn’t scream. She wasn’t hyperemotional. If anything, she was all too sanguine–wore the same clothes for days on end and forgot to brush her hair and was perfectly content. . . . But there was also the incident where Kate told Ben a story about an ex-Green Beret who had climbed the White House fence and broken into the White House and bearded the president and the First Lady in bed, and instead of calling for the Secret Service, the president called downstairs for tea, and they sat drinking tea in the president’s bedroom and discussing the treatment of veterans, and the man became the president’s personal friend. She couldn’t remember which president. It had happened sometime in the nineties.

I found Sandra Newman’s The Heavens really engaging until I started getting confused about how exactly it worked, about what the essential conceptual links were between its variable pasts and presents. It is, definitely, a high-concept novel, one that invites that kind of probing: it’s clear that Newman is using the elements of her genre-bending time-traveling speculative historical dystopian romantic novel to say something–lots of things, probably–rather than simply as plot devices. If I understand her at all, some of these things are about the better alternatives we can imagine to the world we actually live in. Some of them are about how to get to that world we would have to, or have had to, make different choices, including about what, or who, or whose stories, we value most.

What I couldn’t ultimately hang on to, though, was why exactly Shakespeare is somehow placed at the center of this project. Is the novel a critique of something exemplified, maybe, by what is sometimes called ‘Bardolotry,’ so that Sad Will (as Kate, or, rather, Emilia, knows him) is present more as a symbol than a character? Is the notion that our fixation on individual accomplishment and fame–what we routinely but perhaps sloppily, think of as ‘genius’–crowds out other kinds of achievement that might lead to better communal futures? If that’s the idea, I feel as if I should be more certain of it, as well as clearer about why Emilia Lanier is the specific device Newman chooses to set up that implicit argument.

heavens2I also didn’t understand the relationship between Kate’s specific choices in the past and the outcome she hopes for from them. She believes (or Emilia believes) that she has some kind of mission to save the world, but as the novel wound on I got more confused about the nature of that mission and the metaphysics that presumably make sense of it, never mind how she and we are supposed to get from what she does then to what happens now. (It probably didn’t help my attempts to never mind all that and just go along with Newman’s unexplained model of time travel that I’ve been proofreading my husband’s book on determinism, which includes compelling arguments about the logical consequences of any speculative ‘what if’ re-imaginings of the past.) Newman is writing fiction, so she doesn’t necessarily have to meet a stringent philosophical standard, but there wasn’t even enough narrative coherence to her version to hold doubts at bay. As far as I can remember it, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (to which The Heavens has inevitably been compared) is every bit as metaphysically confusing and implausible but was at least an intensely gripping story.

By the end, then, my appreciation had become quite fragmented. Newman does some things really well, and I was able to sustain an interest in the love story that threads through the novel as well as in the various versions of their ‘now,’ each of them a bit worse than the last but all vividly recognizable. The 9/11 section in particular had a grim emotional intensity without sentimentality or sensationalism. The historical novel that is Kate’s dream life (or whatever it is rightly called) as Emilia is also really well done–again, vivid, specific, and tense. The question of whether Kate is mad or actually somehow having experiences outside of linear time is well handled, often painfully as those around her try to secure her in what they believe to be the only reality. I just couldn’t sort out my thematic and conceptual confusions well enough to feel satisfied with the novel as a whole. That said, I’m not at my most patient and attentive right now as a reader, and it is quite possible that the fault lies not with The Heavens but with me.newman2

Matt Keeley’s review of The Heavens is worth checking out: he is much less equivocal about it than I am, and I think he is right about all the strengths of the novel. As always, if you read this novel too I’d love to know what you thought.