April, Come She Will

DucksApril comes and April goes, whether you want her to or not. In the teaching term, it is always a blur of a month—a bit out of control, like rolling down a hill. I used to welcome the feeling—the exhilaration of finishing up, the anticipation of summer—but this year it is just one more reminder of how relentlessly, and how strangely, time passes.

I have been busy and tired and sad this month, which means that I haven’t done much reading outside of work. The good news is that all three (just three!) books I finished this month were very good. The first was my friend John Cotter’s memoir Losing Music. I was completely engrossed by this searching account of John’s experience with what he eventually learned was Ménière’s Disease, a syndrome that has devastating effects on balance—lengthy, debilitating bouts of vertigo—as well as on hearing. As the title indicates, an important dimension of the book is what it meant to John to be unable to hear music, which had always been a significant part of his life and identity. One of the most moving passages describes a night when (as occasionally but unpredictably happens) his hearing comes back— “but who knew for how long.” “I knew exactly how to proceed,” John tells us:cotter

Carefully, I laid myself down on my childhood bed . . . and set in place an expensive pair of Audio-Technica headphones I’d been saving against the day. Jascha Heifetz, back in 1952, in Hollywood, playing Bach’s partitas for solo violin. It’s vertiginous, sinister, and somehow a kind of duet, the way he plays it, a dance at the edge of a cliff.

Another night, he wakes up and can hear birds:

I can hear them fading, going—they’ll be gone at any second. As I listen to the last catches of song, I can feel my heart break in every sound. Don’t let that one be the last one. Don’t let that one. Don’t let that.

Losing Music follows John’s extensive and often desperate quest for first a diagnosis and then a treatment (there is no cure); he is frank about his occasional, very understandable, collapses into self-pity and also about his painful depression and frequent suicidal thoughts. He looks for help but also for ways to sustain some meaning and purpose in a life spiraling out of his control. He finds sustenance in teaching, in volunteering, in love and friendship, and also, vitally, in writing; he finds, eventually, a kind of peace born of hard-won compassion:

Compassion for the world, over which we have only narrow dominion, and awe at the world’s mutability, can germinate in the cultivation of a gentleness in one’s self, a gentleness for one’s future self, over which we have only narrow dominion. In feeling a little sorry for myself, I also feel sorry for the world, the evening world of half measures and regrets, the morning world when we sweep up and start again.

I was frequently moved to tears by Losing Music, and I feel very proud to have had a small part in it (it began as an essay for Open Letters Monthly) and to be mentioned in the acknowledgments.

barkerThe other books I read all of in April (I’m assuming I won’t finish another one by Sunday) were Elspeth Barker’s O, Caledonia and Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture. It’s hard to imagine two books with less in common! I enjoyed O, Caledonia a lot, although it is strange and wild and—I thought—a bit random, almost artless: as I read it, I was often surprised, even confused, by it, uncertain why this was what was happening or this particular detail was in it. Yet it felt unified, nonetheless: maybe that strangeness itself unifies it! Its fierce protagonist Janet takes the “not like other girls” trope to an extreme: she’s equal parts compelling and appalling. It has something of the flavor of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

The Guest Lecture, by comparison, is more cool and cerebral. Its whole premise is so unlikely—who would write (and who would want to read) a novel about Keynes?—and yet I found it completely engaging, and I always like that feeling of seeing someone succeed with a completely idiosyncratic idea. The plotline about tenure denial had a lot in common with my own experience of being turned down for promotion, although the consequences of the former are of course more dire. Still, when Keynes says “Part of you clearly thinks they are right about you, even though they canriker‘t be, they have to be wrong or else your life’s work is pointless, and that is a level of personal negation you cannot possibly survive”—well, yes, exactly. Just thinking about the report of the final appeals committee for my promotion case still makes me shrink back inside myself. I appreciated The Guest Lecture as an attempt to show the examined life from the inside: what is it like to be someone who takes ideas seriously, and who tries (successfully or not) to live with and among them in some kind of meaningful way? It’s no picnic, that’s for sure: the unexamined life may not be worth living, but (as I have often thought myself in recent months) surely in many ways it is an easier way to live. I liked the last part of the novel the least: it spirals into a version of the “teaching dream” every academic has had, where things make sense but don’t, and you are ready and present but somehow, also, you aren’t. Rebecca pointed me to an interview with Riker that I hope to listen to soon. I’m sure there are many subtleties about it, especially its form, that I missed.

I started but abandoned a couple of other novels this month. One was Mexican Gothic. It looked like so much fun—but I really wasn’t into it. Maybe another time. Another was Niall Williams’s This Is Happiness. It looked like the kind of novel I would love, and actually there wasn’t anything wrong with it. If I hadn’t been tired and busy and sad, I might have loved it, so again, another time. Up next is Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, which I’ve just begun* and am liking so far, and then maybe Nicola Griffith’s Spear, which has been in my TBR pile for quite some time. Oh, and I need to get back to Demon Copperhead, which I bailed on months ago: my book club is meeting in May to talk about it, which is just the incentive I need. I wasn’t finding it Dickensian enough, which is perhaps not a fair criticism, except that it is so closely modeled on David Copperfield in its plot and characters that it is hard not to expect it to have something of the same heart and humour as well. I know Mark Athitakis really liked it, which encourages me to approach it with a more open mind.

I will save reflections on this term’s teaching for another post.

*Just a quick update to note that I actually did finish Small Pleasures already (it’s amazing what a difference it makes to my mood and concentration to be done with grading!) and it’s very good. It seems at first like a charming period piece, full of 1950s atmosphere and mores depicted with an edge that keeps it from tipping into nostalgia, but it gets more emotionally intense as it goes along—which it does at a pretty good clip, as the “what really happened?” question underlying its plot gives it momentum. I thought the answer we finally get to that question was underwhelming, but the mystery is more of a device than the real heart of the novel, and its actual resolution hit harder than I expected.

*  “April Come She Will” is one of the songs I used to sing to Owen at bedtime when he was little. Like so many things, it will always make me think of him; maybe it won’t always make me so sad.

Breaking the Blogjam!

logjam“Something will break the blogjam!” said an encouraging friend on Twitter when I remarked on how long it has been since I wrote anything here. The problem is, that “something” has to be me actually writing something here, and it turns out that doesn’t just happen by itself! So I figure I have to just write something here, and maybe that will help me get back in the habit. Because for all the talk these days about blogging being over, it remains, for me, the best form the internet has come up with for the kinds of things that I value about the internet. I love Twitter but its conversations (while, at their best, informed, convivial, and supportive) are dispersed and fleeting. I’m not a fan of newsletters: as far as I can tell, they are just emailed blogs, which means if you want discussion to flow from them you have to go on Twitter (see previous comment!) or click over to the newsletter’s site … which is a blog, right? But because most people are getting the material delivered to them privately, there’s much less chance of conversation breaking out over there. I’m for blogs! Which means I’d better get back to writing my own and do my small part to keep them going. (I am so grateful to the book bloggers I follow who have been steadfastly keeping up regular posts lately: reading them is always a tonic, a reminder of the community and meaning created by books and the people who care about them.)

flightsThe thing is, I haven’t actually finished many books lately: that’s one reason I haven’t felt as if I had anything to post about. I don’t blame the books. They were just the wrong ones for me right now. (These include Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, Simone St. James’s The Sun Down Motel, and Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.) I may well return to a couple of them at another time, as I picked them up in the first place because they looked worth reading! I did finish a couple of others that I felt too inert to write up in detail: Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close (that’s a wrap on my experiment with “true crime”) and Mary Lawson’s Road Ends (I liked it! I have nothing else to say about it.) The one book I’ve read through recently with anything like eagerness is Miriam Toews’s Fight Night, and I’m going to be reviewing it so I can’t write it up here!

lonesome-doveAs I struggled through this slump, I picked up and put back a number of books from the array of unread ones I have on my shelves. I have much fewer of these than a lot of you do, I know from your Twitter posts and pictures! At times like these I wish I did have stacks and stacks of them, to increase the odds of finding something that looked really tempting. It turns out you don’t have to have thousands of them, though: you just have to have the right one, and happily I think maybe I do. Some months ago (maybe longer, who can keep track of time anymore) I bought Lonesome Dove, thinking it would be a perfect book for long lazy afternoons on the deck. This summer has been so humid and/or so rainy that sadly there haven’t been very many of those, and it’s just such a big book that I kept putting it aside. A couple of days ago, though, determined to throw myself into reading at least something, I picked it up and just started reading; I’m nearly 200 pages in now and I am loving it. Hooray for old-fashioned storytelling!

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYOther than that, my main preoccupation for the next little while is going to be gearing up for the fall term. I was always going to be offering my big first-year class online again, and after waiting as long as I could stand it for more information about Dal’s “return to campus” plans, I took my Faculty up on their promise that we could switch any other courses from in-person to online and decided to do the 19th-century novel class online too. I have many regrets about this, but they are mostly about being sad that we aren’t more clearly out of the pandemic yet, so that returning to the classroom would not be a simple or self-evidently safe experience. It’s not so much that I anticipated being anxious for my own health (though as we know, risks remain for the fully vaccinated) but that there just seem to be too many disruptive scenarios well within the range of probability, and I am much happier being able to plan out an online term than having to cope with a lot of complications and accommodations on the fly, or (heaven help us) another ‘pivot’ to online if things go south.

KellynchSo I’ll be here working away at Owen’s old desk for another term, spending hours every day on Brightspace instead of on campus. This means I can re-use some of the materials that took so much work to prepare from scratch last year, which frankly was a significant incentive for keeping the intro class online again! I have been doing a lot of revision and reorganizing for that class (including of my specifications grading system) to iron out wrinkles, and I am also applying what I learned last year to the 19th-century fiction class (Austen to Dickens), which is a new prep: I’ve simplifed the logistics compared to last year’s version (which was the Dickens to Hardy class). If things are going well on campus, perhaps some in-person office hours will be possible eventually, but for now at least I know what I’m dealing with and I can put my effort into doing as good a job as I know how. I’ve actually been having some fun working up slides on Persuasion for the Austen to Dickens class. It’s not the same as going back and forth in the room, but I do what I can to convey the same sense of energy.

OK, that’s a start. I don’t know if ideas and posts will start flowing freely again, but at least I won’t feel quite so fretful about neglecting Novel Readings.

#Sigh: Another Miscellaneous Week

hunt7Has it really been a week since my last post? I wish I had more to show for it, but it has not been that kind of week. For one thing, I came down with a cold — not a bad one, but bad enough to sap my energy, disrupt my sleep, and generally make it harder to get through the demands of an ordinary day. Colds are such undignified ailments, aren’t they? And precisely because they are both minor and common, you can’t really justify taking any actual sick days.

Luckily for me, though, last week included not just Remembrance Day, which is a statutory holiday, but Dalhousie’s Study Day — plus, on the theory that attendance was likely to be terrible on the one day in between those two days off and the weekend, I had preemptively cancelled the Friday tutorials for my Intro class and replaced them with extra office hours. So I did get a break from the parts of the job that are hardest to manage when you can’t breathe very well: instead of lecturing or leading discussion, I marked quizzes and essays and reread the first half of Daniel Deronda.

It would be nice if the change in schedule had allowed me to concentrate on some good reading that I could then have blogged about. It didn’t work out that way, though. For one thing, I got very preoccupied with a work issue that took both a lot of emotional energy and a lot of actual time to deal with. On top of that, we had some serious technical problems on the larger Open Letters Monthly site, in which this blog is embedded, that literally blocked me from Novel Readings for some time. Also, the most interesting reading I’ve done recently is Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but I’m working on a formal review of that for OLM so I don’t want to go into detail about it here. Then on Friday the terrible events in Paris unfolded, and that made it hard to imagine writing about something else for a while.

So, here I am again, at the end of another week that has left Novel Readings a bit neglected. That’s how blogging goes, though, or at least how this blog has always gone for me: it ebbs and flows with the rhythms of my life, rather than being coerced into a regular schedule. I don’t feel guilty when I don’t blog better or more often: why would I? It wouldn’t make any sense, since I’m not answerable to anyone about it. I just feel disappointed, because I really like writing here, especially about books that have stimulated, moved, or provoked me, and when I’m not doing that kind of writing here, it’s often a sign that I’m not quite living the life I want. Well, to everything there is a season, right? And I’m feeling perkier and looking forward to next week in my classes: we’re wrapping up A Room of One’s Own in Intro and then starting Unless, and we’re starting Daniel Deronda in the George Eliot seminar.

Weekend Miscellany: Atkinson, Chase, Wallander

godinruinsI haven’t been a very diligent blogger lately! Well, I did write up another ‘This Week In My Sabbatical’ post on Thursday, but it was so dull I deleted it without posting. The gist of it was that I have been writing more stuff (quite a bit of it, which is good, at least), and doing some reading, but there really didn’t seem to be much to say about any of it, and who wants more moping from me about how difficult it gets for me when my schedule is so amorphous (and it isn’t even summer yet!) or more angst-ridden second thoughts about the state of my career?

Actually, one of the things I read was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, and there is plenty to say about that — but I’m going to write up a “proper” review for Open Letters Monthly, so I don’t want to say much about it here. Is it silly to worry about “spoilers” for a review? That’s not exactly the concern, but duplication is. I will just say, then, that I read the book with absolutely rapt attention and, eventually, helpless tears, but that nonetheless I ended up feeling extremely frustrated, not so much with the novel itself but with Atkinson as a novelist, which may, I suppose, be a distinction without a difference.

I was so impressed with so much of A God in Ruins, though, that I’ve taking Case Histories off my shelf for a reread. I don’t think I’ve read it since I first got it, which was not long after it came out in 2004. I remember thinking it was very good, and I’ve read all the subsequent Jackson Brodie books, but I’ve never really considered them as options for my mystery class. Since I’m not teaching it until the winter term, I have a bit of time to consider tweaking the reading list (again!). It’s easier to switch up older books from the classic subgenres than to find recent books that have a tempting balance of innovation and thematic complexity. (Two recent contenders were Finding Nouf and The Unquiet Dead, but neither quite convinced me.) I’ll report back! And as always, if you have suggestions, let me know. Another option I’ve been thinking about is including a “literary” crime novel (Alias Grace, for instance), since one of our ongoing topics in the class is precisely the validity and/or usefulness of the whole notion of “genre” vs. “literary” fiction, or to add Paul Auster’s City of Glass back to the list — but its postmodern posturing was getting on my nerves the last time I assigned it, so maybe not. Someone recently recommend Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn to me: thoughts on that one? Should I give it a try?

hellionI’ve been reading some romance novels in between other things. One of them was Loretta Chase’s The Last Hellion — which I didn’t really like. Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels was one of the first historical romances recommended to me back when I was taking my tentative (and skeptical) first steps into the genre. I thought it was ludicrous! But I’ve come a long way since then, and now it is among my favorites, though I still find the prose a bit too purple for my taste at times, and the last 25% of it doesn’t interest me very much. (I’ve mentioned before, I think, that I often don’t like or don’t even read the conclusions of romance novels — once the tension goes out of them, my inner cynic kicks in, or something.) Chase’s Mr. Impossible has become even more of a favorite. But something about The Last Hellion just didn’t work for me. The hero was uncomfortably aggressive in his advances, the story around the central romance seemed unnecessarily contrived, the heroine was too beautiful — which has become a bit of an ongoing annoyance. As an antidote, I returned to Judith Ivory’s The Proposition, which I remembered having a heroine who for once was not conventionally beautiful. What a relief! And the story is fun: it’s basically Pygmalion meets Dirty Dancing.

For our evening TV, my husband and I have started watching the Wallander adaptations starring Kenneth Branagh. I didn’t get along very well with Wallander in the books (though to be fair I haven’t read many of them). The show is no less grim, but everyone who told me how good the adaptations are was right. In particular, I think they are among the most beautifully filmed TV shows I’ve ever watched: stills from many of the scenes would look wonderful mounted and framed, though they are a bit stark or melancholy — which of course is appropriate for the series. Branagh is superb, as well: the show is as much (maybe more) a character study as a crime drama, and without his charisma it would be too dreary to bear, but he pulls it off. We’ve only watched the first three installments (we’re taking a break to watch Season 3 of Homeland, about which I am pretty ambivalent) but I expect we’ll come back to it. I’m excited that Netflix Canada (which is pretty badly stocked compared to the American version) has just added Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries! We ran a good essay on the series at OLM a while back that piqued my interest, and having now watched the first episode, it definitely seems like good fun, if that isn’t too perverse a thing to say about murder!

Weekend Miscellany: Reading, Writing, Renos, and Buffy

IMG_0332Why does it seem as if my days are more miscellaneous than usual lately? I suppose one cause is the relative lack of routine that comes with being on sabbatical. This week was also another busy one in the kitchen make-over that we began in April: we finally got the countertop installed on Monday, which meant that the final plumbing and electrical work could get done on Tuesday. Hooray for having a proper sink again! All that remains to be done is the wall tile and then some touch-up painting, so I’ve been moving our plates and cups and pots and pans into the cabinets and getting back to cooking regular meals. The whole project was a lot of work, especially for my husband (who basically did all the work of a general contractor, plus a remarkable amount of research into fixtures and appliances), and also quite a bit of disruption, but we managed better than we’d feared with our temporary kitchen set-up and somewhat ad hoc menus including several casseroles that I made and froze ahead of time. It is nice to be putting things to rights again — and especially to have everything in the kitchen all shiny and new and in perfect working order!

I didn’t get a lot of really focused work done this week as a result of the commotion and distractions. But I did finish up and submit one writing project, and that means I’ve cleared the deck for another one with an early June deadline. (As that’s a book review for a book I haven’t actually received yet, I’m getting a bit anxious about the timing — I read (and reread, and write) pretty slowly when I’m doing a formal review. On the other hand, there’s nothing more motivating than a looming due date!) I had a work-related meeting to go to on Thursday and used the rest of my time on campus to do some administrative chores, like completing my Annual Report. This is actually a good stock-taking exercise, and it’s interesting to look back at earlier ones to see not just what I’ve accomplished but how the nature of my accomplishments has changed over time. I’m an examiner for a PhD comprehensive exam that’s taking place next week, so the committee has also been finalizing exam questions.

As for my reading, well, it has mostly been quite desultory since I finished Unbroken. I started Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us and was liking it fine until it turned out to be inhabited by some kind of ghosts or spirits — I guess by the time I finish it I will be better able to grasp why they seemed like something the novel needed, but at this point they just seem a rather twee distraction.

conradI put that book aside to concentrate on my book club reading for Monday, Conrad’s The Secret Agent (which we chose as a good follow-up to Lessing’s The Good Terrorist. It’s funny: there are markings in my copy that suggest I read it once before (presumably for an undergraduate course, as it has my unmarried name on the flyleaf and) but I have absolutely no recollection of doing so, or of any of its details. Once I got going I found it quite engrossing. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Conrad’s style, which struck me as conspicuously Dickensian here, in its flourishes and its imagery as well as in its evocation of London’s crowded streets and peculiar characters. It seems much clearer here than in Lessing that there’s no sympathy to be had for those who plot destruction. I found myself wondering if it would even be possible to write a novel that takes the other point of view. Generalizing about “the novel” is always risky, of course, and I’m sure someone will set me straight (Tom, probably) with examples that make nonsense of this suggestion, but the novel seems so directed towards individuals — and certainly both Lessing and Conrad emphasize that terrorism requires thinking instead about abstractions. The same is true (isn’t it?) about war: its requirements are dehumanizing, which is precisely the tendency great war novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front resist. I can imagine a novel that makes a much stronger case for political revolution or violence than either The Good Terrorist or The Secret Agent, but it certainly would need radicals who don’t speak in empty slogans, or appear either ridiculous (as both Michaelis or Ossipon, in their own ways, do) or flat out terrifying, like the Professor.

buffyFinally, I’ve been giving Buffy the Vampire Slayer another try, as I needed another TV show to distract me on the treadmill. (As it has warmed up — somewhat, some days — I’m almost ready to start running outside again, though I’m a bit wary because I’m still struggling with leg and foot pain, diagnosed in the fall as a variety of tendinitis, and the switch to running on pavement last summer seems to have been one cause.) This is my third attempt at Buffy, and it’s motivated by knowing how many of my friends think the show is just great. I’m about 5 episodes into Season 1, which is three further than I’ve ever made it before, but I’m still really turned off by how cheesy the vampires (and other supernatural beings) are, by the hokey melodramatic plots about them, by the cliched dialogue (I realize some of it is tongue-in-cheek), and by the rest of the show basically seeming like a low-grade teen drama. I guess my question for Buffy fans is: does it change? or is this what it’s like, and I either have to get in the groove or go back to watching The West Wing for the fourth time? Maybe I’m just too earnest for its arch style, or too literal for its blood-sucking, shape-shifting gimmickry.

Current Reading: Karlinsky, Stout, Lahiri, with Bonus Sonnets

stonehengeIt would be nice to be able to call this post “Recent Reading,” as that would indicate I’d actually finished some (non-work related) books since The End of the Affair. However! I’m going to count it as a victory that in spite of work and other distractions, I am at least making my way through all of these:

1. Harry Karlinsky, The Stonehenge Letters. This was recommended to me by Steven W. Beattie, in response (if I remember correctly) to some Twitter discussion about recent Canadian fiction. His instinct was excellent: it’s just the right kind of book to suggest to someone with a long-standing interest in overlaps between history and fiction, for one thing, and for all the eccentricity of its premise, its style is decisively lucid, with no postmodern flourishes. It’s so prosaic, in fact, that I blame its very transparency for my difficulty getting through it (I’m about 150 pages in): honestly, if I didn’t know there was no secret codicil to Alfred Nobel’s will promising a prize to the Nobel Laureate who solved the mystery of Stonehenge, I would think I was reading a slick work of popular nonfiction. There are even footnotes! As of my current location in the book, what there isn’t is much of the old-fashioned kind of plot, and so I’ve been having a hard time falling into the novel in the way that keeps me coming back when I have lots of other calls on my time and attention. I will finish it, though, and I won’t be surprised if I end up retracting some of that objection once the people I have met as this eccentric pseudo-history unfolds play out their parts. The other comment I can make at this unfinished stage of my reading is that the book itself — meaning the physical object — is lovely, one of the nicest I’ve held in a long time. It has heft, the paper is smooth and feels rich to the fingers, the whole thing is just handsome in an unassuming way. Nice job, Coach House Press!

Stout2. Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance. After my shocking recent confession that I’d never read any Nero Wolfe mysteries, I was delighted to receive a care package in the mail from my supplier. Being a by-the-rules kind of girl, I started at the beginning, with Fer-de-Lance (1934). The perverse charm of the Wolfe-Goodwin duo is obvious from the first page, with their Odd-Couple-like array of complentary strengths and their repartee — which is witty on Wolfe’s side, at least. The case has the absurdity of a Golden Age puzzle mystery (a poisoned dart shot out of a rigged golf club? really?) but the atmosphere of the book, while not hard-boiled, is not really cozy either: I find myself wondering how the series is usually fit into the various categories or subgenres of detective fiction. It doesn’t need a label, of course: maybe its chief virtue is its resistance to pigeon-holing! My appreciation of the main characters hasn’t been quite enough to carry me to the end yet, though, because I’m not really interested in the case they’re on. As I’ve often remarked here, I’m not really an avid reader of detective fiction qua detective fiction, so I need a little better incentive to read on than wondering whodunit. I’m sure my relationship with Archie and his strange beer-drinking orchid-growing boss will continue, though. The vintage copies Steve sent have their own peculiar charms, too. Fer-de-Lance does not have as lurid a cover as Invitation to Murder, but its blurb is pretty irresistible;

He likes his orchids rare, his beer cold, his food gourmet and plentiful. He’s Rex Stout’s brownstone-based, one-seventh-of-a-ton, super-sleuthing genius of detection . . . in Fer-de-Lance, a viper’s nest of deadly dilemmas!

lowland 3. Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland. Like The Stonehenge LettersThe Lowland is one of my Vancouver holiday purchases. I have really enjoyed the stories I’ve read from Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and I’ve read only good reviews of The Lowland (it even made the Stevereads “Best Books of 2013” list!), so I’ve been really looking forward to reading it, and I decided to start it now even though I had other books on the go, partly because I felt like my reading life needed an infusion of energy. It turns out The Lowland is not quite the novel for that: Steve describes its self-control as “almost arctic” in its coldness, and he’s not wrong about that! To say the novel is understated would itself be a profound understatement. But it does have an underlying drive, like a quiet steady beat, and at nearly half way through, I think I can detect a slight quickening of its pace.

sonnet4. Out of the same impulse to speed up my reading pulse somehow, I picked up The Art of the Sonnet (edited by Stephen Burt and David Mikics). I sometimes feel adrift in seas of prose and long for the greater emotional and verbal density of verse, but I rarely — too rarely! — make time for it in my leisure reading. In the summer I spent a happy interlude reading Philip Larkin thanks to a prompt from Miriam Toews, and I have some other collections to hand that call to me intermittently. I have really liked the idea of The Art of the Sonnet since I heard about it — it’s a collection of sonnets (obviously) each accompanied by detailed commentaries by the editors — and I thought it would be a great dipping and browsing book. And so it is! I opened it at random at first, and found myself at Shelley’s “England in 1819,” and then I flipped around a bit and ended up at Christina Rossetti’s “Later Life 17.” I know the Shelley reasonably well, having assigned it more than once (it’s especially good for scansion practice), but the commentary brought out aspects I hadn’t fully appreciated. I had never read the Rossetti before, though, and it hit home uncannily when I read it on a recent somewhat dreary rainy evening:

Something this foggy day, a something which
Is neither of this fog nor of to-day,
Has set me dreaming of the winds that play
Past certain cliffs, along one certain beach,
And turn the topmost edge of waves to spray:
Ah pleasant pebbly strand so far away,
So out of reach while quite within my reach,
As out of reach as India or Cathay!
I am sick of where I am and where I am not,
I am sick of foresight and of memory,
I am sick of all I have and all I see,
I am sick of self, and there is nothing new;
Oh weary impatient patience of my lot! —
Thus with myself: how fares it, Friends, with you?

And thus it is with my reading: how fares it, friends, with yours?

Summer Plans: Adding Things Up

Finally, the winter term is well and truly concluded (our annual May Marks Meeting was yesterday). As my last few posts show, I wallowed in aimless reading for a while after classes ended (aimless in the sense of “not in service of anything else,” not pointless or useless: it was certainly a very interesting run of books!), and then this past week my parents have been visiting, so I’ve been spending less time on social media and more time being sociable in person. (I had written “actually being sociable” but then realized how much that would misrepresent how I feel about my time online and the relationships I’ve formed here, which are just as “actual” to me as any of my “F2F” ones!)

And now it’s time for another end of term ritual, which is sorting out what I hope to accomplish in the next couple of months, while the fall term is still remote enough not to demand any attention beyond monitoring my waiting lists. I have mixed feelings as I look back at last year’s post about this. I did get the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site completed, but I haven’t really figured out how to get the word out about it. I’ve made some tentative efforts on my own, and I had some dim but disappointed hopes about possible synergies with the Middlemarch readalong at The Toastbut the biggest boost has certainly come courtesy of the generous mention of it by the Atlantic’1book140 Twitter book clubThis month I’ve also been invited to participate in a Twitter “party,” so if you’re on Twitter, feel free to join in! I’ll post a notice here when I know the details. I may make some changes to the site this summer based on my observation of what actual book clubs talk about when they talk about Middlemarch, though I remain determined that the site will reflect the kind of conversations I like best and want to promote, not the more solipsistic kind that still seem to be typical of the guides included with new releases.

This time last year I also had aspirations to get a lot done on my phantom book project: “the final, most ambitious but at this point most amorphous plan is to think about where I’m going with the various George Eliot essays I’ve written over the past few years: do they, could they, add up to something larger, perhaps some kind of cross-over book project?” That question of what my “various” publications add up to has been fraught to me since a dispiriting interview last year at work about my prospects for promotion. Now, I knew perfectly well that if I chose to apply, mine would be (will be) a tricky case, and I wasn’t at all sure that I was in a position to make a strong application, which is why I set up the meeting in the first place. (Getting promoted to full professor is not a high priority for me anyway: if it were, I would be doing different kinds of things with my time, for just this reason!) But as my list of non-traditional publications and projects grew, it seemed like it was worth having a chat about how my c.v. looked to someone who would have to make a supporting case if I did apply … and the response (to put it mildly) was dismissive: “All this [with a wave of the hand towards the Open Letters and LA Review of Books essays] doesn’t really add up to anything.” There are ways and ways to deliver negative judgments, of course, and that one could have been made in a less deflating way. It might have been worth considering the possibility that they do add up to something (knowledge dissemination, anyone?), if not the usual thing. Still, that was a good preview of the challenges I would face if I chose to pursue promotion without a c.v. that looks more like what academics expect. If there were a book there, however — even a different kind of book … well, academics really like books.

Now, the book I aspire to write is not an academic book. And the reason I want to write it is not that it might help me get promoted. But the observation that my work wasn’t adding up to much is the kind of thing that mattered anyway because it made me think about what I hoped “all this” would add up to, or, indeed, whether I thought it already did add up to something. A body of work is a cumulative something, isn’t it? So there’s that, which isn’t nothing. And yet it isn’t a whole lot, compared to some (as bodies of work go, mine is petite, we might say!) and it’s not as if I’ve established myself in the non-academic world in some marked way. Indeed, the challenge of making yourself known in the broader book world is pretty overwhelming!

It would be nice if I was learning from the process, though, as if the small steps I have taken so far were building up to some kind of greater insight, if not some separate and larger-scale accomplishment. Who am I, as a critic? What can I do? That’s the kind of question that my book project will help me answer, for myself if for no one else. I did not get as far on it last summer as I hoped, but I did do some ground-clearing work, including a survey of everything I’d written so far on George Eliot and a stop-overthinking-it post on why I like George Eliot “so very much.” I got caught up in smaller writing projects over the fall and spring, but one of those was my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, so that kept me thinking about how to write about George Eliot for a broad audience. I have also started several files and documents to help me conceptualize the project. It helps me to believe it will all actually come to something that last summer I began talking informally with an agent interested in helping me get it done; this summer I am determined to ward off the distraction and temptation of other reviews and essays (for instance, I was really thinking about pitching a Robert B. Parker piece to the LA Review of Books to follow on from last year’s Dick Francis essay! that would be so fun to do!) and start turning the brainstorming into actual readable writing.

In the last couple of weeks, and especially the last couple of days, I have just begun doing this…and here’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed. I have already looked up several old blog posts of mine to draw on ideas or references in them that bear on the critical framework I am trying to set up. Yes, the ones explicitly on George Eliot are among them, but so too are some of the ones I’ve written about principles of criticism more generally (such as, just today, this one on Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic,). Will this material end up in the final version of whatever it is that I’m writing? I don’t know. But it was encouraging to realize that my previous work (unofficial and informal as it may seem in some contexts) was relevant and helpful: ideas I’ve been working out here, both explicitly and implicitly, are shaping the way I am now thinking and writing. The critical voice I’ve been practicing, too, here and at OLM and LARB, is the one I want to write the book in — not the much dryer, drearier tone of even my most recent academic papers. This scattered work may not add up to a single thing that’s tangible or measurable, then, but it may do that eventually, and in the meantime what it adds up to is, quite simply, the intellectual sum of all of its parts. Looked at that way, it seems like quite a lot.

February Break(down) Posticle

IcebergIt’s odd how it sometimes seems I need to break the ice on my own blog — but as I’m sure other bloggers can attest, leave a blog alone for long enough (which in my experience needn’t even be very long) and it starts to loom imposingly and inhospitably across the horizon of one’s other activities. How can this be — why should this be — when blogging is something I do wholly voluntarily? It’s possible, actually, that its gratuitousness adds to the difficulty: there’s no obligation, no accountability — and so when you fall into a slump, there’s no external pressure to get on with it. There’s just, at least in my case, an uncomfortable feeling of disappointment in myself that, as the days go by, becomes a self-defeating conviction that when — if — I ever post something again, it had better be good!

In my defense, it has’t really been that long. Also, it is our February break from classes, and so I’ve been doing other writing, which often leaves me mentally lazy by the end of the day. It hasn’t helped that I’m struggling much more than expected with what I thought would be a fairly straightforward writing project, so when I stop working I feel little sense of accomplishment, only bemused frustration. I’ve also (and I know from Twitter that I’m not alone!) been rather in the doldrums. It’s partly because of this dreary winter, which just makes everything harder to do; it’s partly because I’ve fallen prey to a bad case of what I think of as ‘Salieri Syndrome’ (I’m guessing the symptoms are familiar to all aspiring writers but perhaps especially those who spend a lot of time online); it’s partly that I worked for several days preparing a public talk that apparently wasn’t of much public interest, which was both anticlimactic and a bit demoralizing; and it’s partly that — probably because for a few years now my center of intellectual gravity has been tilted away from my academic colleagues and department — I’ve been feeling somewhat adrift and even unmotivated at work. I’ve actually started dreaming about retirement, which isn’t necessarily a good thing as it will be many years (18, but who’s counting?) before I reach retirement age and even then it isn’t clear I will be able to realize my dream of finally moving back to Vancouver. (And as far as that goes, I seem to have regressed significantly since the progress I had made towards reconciling myself to Halifax.)

I don’t need anyone to tell me how lucky I actually am and that this is all hardly the stuff of great tragedy. I know!  But it’s been enough to make me feel kind of blah, and during this break I’ve chosen to hunker down and read or watch TV and just try to be cozy while I have the chance. Classes start up again Monday and from that point on we will hurtle unrelentingly towards the end of term. There won’t be time for moping!

And actually I’ve about had enough with moping in any case, while as far as this blog goes, I’ve decided to forget about good and settle for posted. Then perhaps I’ll get my momentum back. So here’s my own version of the much-loathed (including by me) “listicle” — a “posticle” of things I have almost but (obviously) not actually posted about in the past week or so.

  1. Attendance. This was going to be the next entry in my “This Week In My Classes” series but every time I turned to it, it turned into a rant and I didn’t really want to stir up that kind of negative energy. Seriously, though, what’s up with students not coming to class, and especially with the accelerating trend of students leaving early for and returning late from scheduled breaks? I believe very strongly that you learn to be a critic by trading ideas with other readers (coduction!) and that in English classes we both exchange and analyze information and practice vital skills. So I take attendance seriously — and I also take it literally, every class meeting. Over the years I have used various policies to encourage students to attend regularly, from strict “every [unexcused] absence counts against your mark” versions to “there’s no explicit penalty for missing class but there are also no make-ups for graded in-class work.” I have tried being authoritarian, paternalistic, encouraging, or simply detached (“come or don’t come, it’s your choice — just don’t make it my problem”); I have even cited research (it is out there!) showing that good attendance is strongly correlated with success in a class. I try not to take it personally when, as last week in my Intro class, a whole mess of people just don’t show up … and yet, inevitably, I do take it personally, because I not only show up but work hard preparing for every precious hour we have together…oops. This is getting rant-like! Fellow teachers, what do you do about attendance?
  2. Books we “should” read. I spent a fair amount of my scarce mental energy this week imagining a response to the recent piece at The Millions urging us (tongue in cheek? surely!) to choose our next book to read for some pretty random reasons. Even assuming the author didn’t actually mean her suggestions, or at least not the silliest ones (“read the book that you find left behind in the airplane seat pocket”? “read the book whose main character has your first name”?) I wonder if there isn’t a better conversation to be had about whether there are any books we “should” read, or about how we pick and choose among the many books we could read, given just how many more books there are than we’ll ever have time to read (well, unless we’re Steve!). I wouldn’t want to rule out serendipity altogether, of course, but it seems pretty risky and, indeed, wasteful to follow around behind random strangers, see what makes them cry, and assume that is the best next option for me. They might be idiots! But I don’t find it much better to line up behind (most) reviewers either. When I’m not reading deliberately (for work or research or reviewing myself, that is) I tend to listen to other readers I trust, whose take on books I find sharp and interesting, whose taste I think I understand something about. Where there’s a good conversation, I usually expect to find good reading, or at least reading I won’t regret. I do also think, though, that depending on the relationship you want to have to literature, or the conversation you want to be part of, there probably are some books you should read. How do you choose your next book? Do you think there should be no “shoulds” in reading?
  3. Middlemarch on Toast. Actually, I think I do need to write this post, but it’s going to take me a while to do the reading and thinking for it. Ever since The Toast ran its My Life in Middlemarch book club I’ve been brooding puzzling thinking about why I felt so incapacitated by it. When I first heard about it, I thought it might create some synergy with my Middlemarch for Book Clubs site. It totally didn’t, and once it was underway I could see why not: by and large, the kinds of things I built into my site, including into its discussion questions, were not the things people were talking about at The Toast. There were plenty of sharp comments, and there was also plenty of enthusiasm, but somehow the conversation was in a different register, and it was mostly (eventually I’m going to do some statistical analysis!) about characters and motives, not about literary form, narration, history, philosophy… which is fine, of course: people should (there’s that word again) talk about what interests them in a book (“to start with,” says the irrepressible teacher in me). I wasn’t very familiar with The Toast before they did this, and what I’ve seen of it since suggests that it aims for a certain hip insouciance. So I should not necessarily take away any lessons from this about how to revise my own materials. Or should I? The number of people who want to chat at The Toast (like, apparently, the number of people who like the idea of choosing their next book from their neighbor’s trash can or something) is apparently  much higher than the number of people who want … oh dear, here comes Salieri again.
  4. Rules of Civility. I enjoyed reading this novel a lot. And yet, this is as much as I felt like writing about it. (But here’s an excellent review of it by Lisa Peet at Like Fire.)
  5. Farthing. I also mostly enjoyed reading this novel, and yet. (Jo Walton is a good example of a writer I picked up because so many other readers I’m interested in have mentioned her.)

OK, that’s the dam broken. It’s actually a relief to clear those topics out of the way, even though I still feel annoyed with myself for not having addressed each of them properly in turn in its own post. Now I’m reading We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which I mentioned as a pending interest in my post on Sonali Deraniyagala’s devastating memoir Wave. Then I’ve got Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name lined up; it’s the sequel to My Brilliant Friend. In class Monday we’re picking up with Night in Intro and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in Women & Detective Fiction (Dorian’s probing post has helped rekindle my interest in it). My book club, which met last week to discuss This Rough Magic, is following Amateur Reader’s advice and reading The Murderess for next month. It seems impossible that with so much interesting material around, I won’t be blogging up a storm. We’ll see, anyway.

Bits and Pieces, and a Break

I’m heading to Boston tomorrow–again! I had a great time there last year (touristy post, bookish post) and expect to have just as much fun this time. Once again a primary reason for going  is to meet up with some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues: we work well together in our various virtual spaces, but it’s definitely a good thing to cultivate face-to-face relationships too, not least because in email and other online correspondence there’s always that pesky issue of tone, which is much less difficult to interpret the better you know somebody. (As an aside, I think tone is also easier to interpret if an online relationship goes back a ways, even if you haven’t met in person: you get a sense of someone across a range of moods and modes that makes a difference, as I realized when my book club discussed the discussion between Amateur Reader and Litlove on my Madame Bovary posts. They found the exchange more ornery than I did, and I think that’s because they had no previous experience of either voice. This is not by any means a criticism, direct or indirect, of the tone of any of those comments, which I found  fascinating, respectful, and also very mentally stimulating. It was just interesting to reflect on the kind of familiarity you can feel with someone even if you know them only ethereally.)

Another happy feature of this trip to Boston is that I’m meeting up with my mother there. She’s a born and bred New Englander, though long transplanted to Canada’s west coast (by way of Berkeley), so she has many associations with Boston and the surrounding area; she’s also a Smith College alum, so we’re including a nostalgic stay in Northampton along with our bookstores-and-museums-and-libraries tour of Boston. Doesn’t that sound like a lovely time?

I had hoped to write up a proper post about my book club session on Madame Bovary but got caught up in the miscellaneous errands and obligations involved in traveling.( What an unpleasant chore it has become, from the early check-ins and security hassles to the cramped quarters of the planes themselves–and I hate flying, too. When I went to London last summer, the London Review Bookshop was my ‘happy place’: en route to Boston it will be the Public Garden, I think, and the placid swans–and the statue of Mrs Mallard and her ducklings.) The discussion at the book club was energetic: the book clearly provoked most of us, though reactions varied. Probably the most controversial subject was whether we felt (or Flaubert encouraged) any sympathy for Emma. One proposal was that, in seeking to be unlike the rest of the dreary people around her, she is like Dorothea Brooke. This is not one of the parallels I made in my post comparing Madame Bovary and Middlemarch, and ultimately I didn’t find it a persuasive suggestion, beyond a kind of structural similarity. Dorothea’s aspirations are certainly misguided, but her aim is to have a spiritually significant life. She begins imagining how to do this in fairly egotistical terms, but she learns from her experience–and from the start, she has an instinctive generosity, even in error. We didn’t get a chance to pursue this topic at the time, and in fact one thing I find difficult about these sessions is precisely that we move on (and around) so fast. I find it mentally exhausting! I enjoy the occasion, and it’s good to hear a range of ideas and views from so many smart opinionated people, but it also sometimes feels frustratingly chaotic. Well, it’s not meant to be a seminar, and heaven forbid one of us should assert herself as group leader! At the same time, it does give me renewed appreciation for the challenge of seminar discussions, which need to combine direction and focus with organic development and spontaneity. And it helps me see why I enjoyed the comment thread so much: writing things out forces a certain slowing down, and then reading and replying allows also for some reflection and cogitation.

The other book club discussion I was involved in last week was of The Yacoubian Building, with the other Slaves of Golconda. The novel didn’t seem to excite a great deal of enthusiasm, though I think most of us found it quite interesting. The forum where discussion usually breaks out has certainly been very quiet! Perhaps the next selection will work better.

I don’t expect to be posting again until I get back, as not only will I be busy frolicking but I’m taking only my iPad, which as far as I’m concerned is no good for producing content. See you then!

Recent Reading Update

Blog evidence to the contrary, I have in fact been doing some reading besides that for my classes. Since The Last Samurai, there hasn’t been anything that really excited me, and between that and the usual late-term mental exhaustion, I just haven’t felt that motivated to write anything up in detail. Here’s a quick run-through of what I’ve been reading.

I did enjoy Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine, if “enjoy” is the right word for a book that is really quite sad, as well as occasionally disturbing. It’s the story of Eliza Peabody’s journey through a mental breakdown, told all in her letters to a departed neighbor…sort of. The novel thrives on uncertainty about what is real and what are Eliza’s delusional (or compensatory) imaginings. Even as much of the story proves unreliable, Gardam manages effectively and poignantly to make Eliza’s emotions real and vivid, and to balance the pathos of her situation with comedy.

I had high hopes of Laila Lalami’s Secret Son, because I admired Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits a lot, but I found it a somewhat disappointing read. It’s a thematically and politically interesting and carefully structured book, but the language felt stilted and often even cliched, and as a result I never became very engaged.

I have been urging Maddie to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for ages, and one night I decided I should leave her alone (she’s busy enough reading her way through the novels of Jacqueline Wilson) and revisit it myself. The story of the brother and sister hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum is still a delightful fantasy to me (the “period” rooms in the museum are my favorite parts and I love the idea of camping out there!), but this time I was less caught up in those specifics than in the sense that the book is really about a different kind of quest-as the author says in her afterword, “the greatest adventure lies not in running away but in looking inside, and the greatest discovery is not in finding out who made a statue but in finding out what makes you.”  I wonder what it means that I often feel closest to finding this out when I am “away,” including when I’m in New York.

I’ve continued my adventures in contemporary romance with some more Jennifer Crusie titles, including Welcome to Temptation and Bet Me. I found Welcome to Temptation a bit too zany, but I quite enjoyed Bet Me. I don’t mean to condescend to the genre when I say that for me, the appeal I can see is that it doesn’t demand to be taken very seriously, and indeed these titles are quite conspicuously light-hearted. Especially when the books I’m reading for work are not that at all, it’s actually nice to have something to pick up in between that makes me laugh.

Now I’m reading Mr. Golightly’s Holiday for those in-between times, along with Mollie Gloss’s Wild Life, which is this month’s selection for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. I felt bad that I didn’t get through last month’s choice, Anabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean: I just wasn’t interested in it, and it’s hard, with so many books around, to make one a priority that isn’t otherwise a priority for me. I admit I’m feeling the same about Wild Life, that it’s not a book I would otherwise be reading–and I also feel that about The Paris Wife, which my local reading group settled on for this month. I have books stacked up that I’m more interested in! But then, one of the points of belonging to a reading group is that it pushes you outside your usual reading habits, which if unchallenged can actual be limits, and may prevent the discovery of new pleasures. So I will finish these, I swear! One thing I do like about Wild Life so far is its West Coast setting: it reminds me of big trees and blue mountains, and a little bit of one of my favorite meta-historical novels, Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic…except that Wild Life, as I understand it, is going to take its fantasy in a different direction, one that I fear is going to involve something like Big Foot…

And in the meantime reading for work continues. This week we begin North and South in my 19th-century fiction class, which I’m looking forward to, and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we are moving on to Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only and then our last book of the term, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, while in the Victorian ‘Woman Question’ we have just The Odd Women left. It’s amazing how fast the term goes by! Reading will actually be the least of my problems this week, as I get in 70 midterms and 20 paper proposals on Monday, followed promptly by 40 essays on Wednesday. Egad! I should really do something frivolous today, as it will be my last chance to play for a while.