Recent Reading: Five Fine Finds!

I can’t seem to muster the mental or physical energy to keep up with regular blogging right now (blame an excess of computer time for other purposes plus a spell of back pain – happily now subsided – making it particularly unappealing to spend yet more time at my desk!). But I also can’t stand to watch the pile of read books growing without saying something about them, and I don’t feel like waiting to do a monthly survey, which seems to be a bit of a trend. So let’s see what I can manage to say about these five rather miscellaneous but all, in their own ways, very good books. They all deserve more than passing attention, but it’s 2020 and that means sometimes less has to be enough!

Steven Price, Lampedusa. This was my local book club’s most recent choice, and it proved an excellent one. Everybody loved it, which is actually pretty rare for us. I think the last book we were all this excited about was Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead. One thing we wondered about going into this was whether it would be important to have read The Leopard beforehand–some of us had, some of us hadn’t. I read it, but years ago (with the Slaves of Golconda group, which sadly faded away) so my recollection was pretty vague. Some who hadn’t read it before opted to read it in preparation for Lampedusa, and some watched the Visconti adaptation. But some just went ahead with Price’s novel, on the theory that he can’t have expected readers to ‘prep’ for it. And we were all fine! Those who knew The Leopard were able to make or appreciate some connections, but Lampedusa is plenty good enough to stand alone as a beautifully written (it genuinely deserves that over-used word ‘lyrical’), evocative (another over-used but well-earned word) and very moving account of creativity, memory, middle age, loss, and death. Oh, and Sicily too: it is very much about a particular place at a particular time.

Lampedusa joins Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel. Here’s a sample:

After that first night, Mirella did not again react to the story. She responded neither with surprise nor disapproval nor delight. Rather she was quiet and precise and wholly present, like a shadow on a wall. He was grateful for this. Some part of him understood that these were the cleanest and purest working hours he would ever know; hearing the language aloud, steady, slow, permitted him to edit as he went; and later, after Mirella had left, he would lift the new typed papers to a random page and begin making alterations almost at once, unable to help himself. There were truths inside the story that surprised him, that he had not intended. It felt at times as if he were overhearing the novel speaking to itself. HIs prince, he saw, whom he had always thought of as hollowed out by an absent faith, in fact was the last of the devout. But his prince’s faith was a faith in tradition, in the fate of a bloodline, and at such moments Giuseppe saw that he had written his way through his own bitterness, towards the man he might have wished to be. His prince stood alone, impassive, needing no one; and because of this, and because there is no true survival in isolation, it would be his prince’s very strength that destroyed him.

There is more to the novel than writing and contemplation–there’s family drama, and war, and myth, and also failure, as he dies before knowing “his prince” and his novel would be published, acclaimed, and lasting, the masterpiece he felt but could not be certain it was.

I loved the idea of Lampedusa when I first heard about it but I admit I was prepared for disappointment. The genre is a risky one (I have yet to read a George Eliot novel that hasn’t bored, annoyed, or outraged me), and the only other novel by Price I’ve read is By Gaslight, which I liked just fine but which is a very different kind of thing altogether. I’m so glad I didn’t let those hesitations deter me: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read all year, and this is a year that included Hamnet and The Mirror and the Light.

Up next for the book club: We usually follow a theme of some kind from one book to the next, so this time we chose Italy and Elsa Morante’s Artur’s Island.

Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet. The subtitle of this book is ‘A Personal History with Jigsaws’ and I plucked it off the shelf (where it had malingered for a few years mostly unread) because I have been doing jigsaw puzzles as a form of meditative distraction since early in the lockdown. I thought–rightly–that this might mean Drabble’s book, which hadn’t interested me much when I began it before, might have found its moment, and it had. It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part  reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death. There are many parts I would love to quote but in the interests of actually finishing a blog post before age too much more, here’s just one:

One of the reasons why the jigsaw appeals to me … is that it is pre-made, its limits finite, its frame fixed. No ordinary degree of manual clumsiness (and mine is advanced, and inevitably advancing) can yet prevent me from finishing a jigsaw. It can’t be done badly. Slowly, but not badly. All one needs is patience … In this aspect, the jigsaw is the very opposite of the novel. The novel is formless and frameless. It has no blueprint, no pattern, no edges. At the end of a day’s work on a novel, you may feel that you have achieved something worse than a lack of progress. You may have ruined what went before. You may have sunk badly into banality or incoherence. You may have betrayed or maligned others. You may have to scrap not only the day’s work, but the work of the preceding week, month, year, lifetime. You may have lost ground, and for ever. You may have lost your nerve, and indicted all that you have achieved. Writing fiction is frightening.

She goes on to note that when she was working on The Oxford Companion to English Literature, it had more of the character of a puzzle: 

The pieces fitted together, they interlocked … Assembling and fitting the pieces together was a form of carpentry.

Writing novels is not like that.

Actually, here’s one more passage. Perhaps because I am currently working on a puzzle that is one of Monet’s paintings of his gardens at Giverny, I appreciated her discussion of the way jigsaw puzzles help us understand and appreciate works of fine art by forcing us to pay meticulously close attention:

From jigsaws, you learn about the brush strokes of Van Gogh, the clouds of Constable, the reflections and shadows of Manet, the stripes of Tissot and Rousseau, the brickwork and tiles of the Dutch masters, the flesh tones of Titian, the undulating fabrics and limbs of Botticelli, the business of Bosch and Brueghel. While struggling to recreate Titian’s Venus of Urbino, you discover that the little dog at her feet is painted in almost exactly the same shades of russet and apricot as the naked Venus herself. According to Julian Mitchell, himself a master puzzle solver, the dog represents her politely concealed public hair …

I learned more about the appreciation of clouds and of Constable from doing jigsaws of The Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral than I learned from my first encounters with the original paintings. Now, when I see clouds, I see clouds and Constable, not clouds and the shapes of a jigsaw puzzle, but the puzzle was the medium that introduced me, that fixed my attention, that made me pause. This may sound ridiculous, but it is true. I could have learned about clouds at the Courtauld, but I didn’t have the opportunity. I learned through Clementoni.

One thing the book made me realize is that my local jigsaw options are sadly limited! Her book inspired me to go looking for a Brueghel puzzle and I found this line of what look like beautiful art puzzles—how I would love to work on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus!-but they are not to be had in Canada, as far as I can tell.

OK, just one more bit, to give you a sense of how much more this book is about than idle pastimes–or, more accurately, of how it makes you think differently about your pastimes, which may not be as idle as they seem:

The concept of life as a journey, a pilgrimage, a quest, a ladder, or a spiral track may be attractive to some, but to me the notion of a goal is not. The very word ‘goal’ has unpleasing associations. Board games, unlike jigsaw puzzles, necessarily admit elements of competition and victory … Whereas the Greek telos can mean an end, an aim, an ultimate purpose, a final cause, and need not embrace the concept of competition. In the larger pattern, all the solitary journeys combine, and we arrive together.

The jigsaw, with its frame, is a simulacrum of meaning, order and design … if you try hard enough, you can complete it. That galactic scatter of inert and inept fragments of wood or cardboard will come together and make a picture.

Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple. I enjoyed this thoroughly. It combines a brisk personal history of Goodings’ years with Virago Press with comments on the books and writers the Press published–some of whom I knew of but without having connected them explicitly to Virago, like Sarah Waters or Sarah Dunant. Goodings is clear that in its origins Virago was a product of second-wave feminism and so had some of the shortcomings you’d expect; she’s also explicit and occasionally defensive about Virago’s determination to be a feminist press that reached mainstream audiences. The tension between ideology and marketing was real sometimes but she makes a good case for the value of having a range of approaches to feminist publishing, including theirs. It was slightly disorienting reading enthusiastic sections about Virago’s close relationship with Margaret Atwood, who of course has long been an ‘iconic’ feminist writer but who has become a controversial figure, in her home country anyway, because of her entanglement in the Steven Galloway case. I suppose this particular mess is not really relevant to Goodings’s story, but it’s a long time since I read anything admiring about Atwood that didn’t have at least an implicit asterisk by her name–a sign, as I expect Goodings herself would readily acknowledge, that feminist critique is always evolving.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. This is another book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while (one thing lockdown has done is encourage me to look more closely at the books I already have, since things like leisurely trips to the library or bookstore are not currently options). I loved Lolly Willowes and liked Summer Will Show, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read this one yet! Maybe it too was waiting for its moment, and like The Pattern in the Carpet, it found it, since I read it in one delicious sitting and absolutely loved it. It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do. Mr. Fortune is kind of a stupid man in many ways, but he finds a lot of wisdom by the end. A snippet:

‘Because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him. How dreadful it is that because of our wills we can never love anything without messing it about! We couldn’t even love a tree, not a stone even; for sooner or later we should be pruning the tree or chipping off a bit of the stone. Yet if it were not for a will I suppose we should cease to exist. Anyhow it is in us, and while we live we cannot escape from it, so however we love and whatever we love, it can only be for a few minutes, and to buy off our will for those few minutes we have to relinquish to it for the rest of our lives whatever it is we love.’

My nice NYRB Classics edition comes packaged with the short sequel Townsend Warner wrote for it, The Salutation. I didn’t read it (yet): I was so satisfied by Mr. Fortune’s Maggot that I didn’t want anything to distract or detract from it! I won’t forget that it’s still there, though, waiting for me. Perhaps it perfectly completes or complements the original: some day I’ll find out.

Kerry Clare, Waiting for a Star to FallI was so looking forward to Kerry’s new novel: I really enjoyed and admired Mitzi Bytes and of course I know Kerry well from her wonderful blog and from Twitter (though sadly for me, she is rarely there now!) and for all her work reading, writing, talking about, and cheering on Canadian literature. Waiting for a Star to Fall did not disappoint, though it is a different kind of novel than Mitzi Bytes–at its heart is a painful personal struggle that is really well summed up in Stacey May Fowles’s review in Quill & Quire:

In sketching the nuance and power imbalances of Brooke and Derek’s romance, Clare has successfully rendered a spectrum of abusive behaviour and articulated a vital cultural tension between two seemingly opposed concepts: being 23 and being taken advantage of, and being 23 and having agency. In doing so, she asserts that both can exist simultaneously and that those who mistreat young women are not relieved of responsibility because their victims “should have known better.” 

Waiting for a Star to Fall is a highly topical novel, what I suppose we will come to call (maybe we already do?) a #MeToo novel. It doesn’t feel forced or formulaic, though, mostly because it walks us through the problem of recognizing the harm, rather than insisting on it or hectoring us about it from the very beginning. Brooke’s struggle to make the right kind of sense of her own experience is hard to watch and harder to participate in vicariously, which the close third-person narration requires of us. I appreciated that while by the end it is clear even to Brooke that she needs to understand the story differently, even it it means letting go of ideas about herself that she wants and needs to hold on to, the pieces do not fall so neatly into place that labels like ‘victim’ really fit. Real life is full of ambiguity, after all, and she did make choices; her relationship with Derek is not something that just happened to her, without her participation. At the same time, there’s some wishful thinking in Brooke’s own insistence that right and wrong are not so easy to determine:

‘But it’s not nothing,’ said Brooke, trying to explain. ‘It can’t just be either/or–there is something in the middle.’

‘There are many degrees, aren’t there,’ Derek’s mother eventually says to Brooke, ‘between perfection and being a sinner And who among us hasn’t sinned? … It’s not all or nothing.’ This is true, but it’s also not really good enough, especially for Derek as Brooke finally comes to see him.

So there we have it: five good books I’ve read recently!

Free to Be: On Idiosyncrasy

This post may be a contribution to the vast genre of “someone finally noticed something obvious to everyone else,” but it is about something that has been a bit of a quiet revelation to me, a small insight that on my good days (I do still have a few, in spite of it all) makes me feel not just better about what I’ve done so far but optimistic about what I might do next. So I thought it was worth saying something about here!

Recently we’ve been really enjoying the shows Landscape Artist of the Year and Portrait Artist of the Year (in Canada, they air on the ‘Makeful’ channel, which is also where you can watch the Great British Sewing Bee, in case that’s your jam). Like all ‘reality’ shows, they are a bit artificial and micro-managed, and the gamification of creativity can seem problematic: much more so than with, say, baking shows, where there’s something definitive about a “soggy bottom” or a collapsed soufflé, in these shows there’s  something mysterious to us about the judging, as the judges often rate most highly the paintings we thought were clearly the worst. It’s thought-provoking, in that it raises a lot of questions about what we and they are looking for: clearly they are seeing things we aren’t, or valuing things we don’t.

But the question of artistic merit (while one I am always interested in puzzling over) is not actually what’s on my mind these days. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how these shows celebrate the value of what I will call (for lack of a better word) idiosyncrasy, by which, in this context, I mean the  value of finding the distinctive approach that is yours, or the specific thing you are good at and doing that thing, not some other thing. Given the identical task (paint this person, paint this scenery) the artists all do every single step differently: some sketch first in pencil, some slather background colors on their canvas; some work in meticulous grids, some block in big shapes; some use pastels, some watercolors or oils or acrylics. In the episode we watched last night, someone worked on scratchboard, which I’d never heard of before. The end results are also enormously various, ranging from photographic realism to much more abstract or conceptual versions of the assigned subject.

Watching the artists just do their thing, which they are often asked to explain but never expected to excuse or justify, I realized how often in my own life I have felt inept or inadequate because I couldn’t do things in a certain way, or do certain kinds of things well, across a whole range of activities from the professional (writing and scholarship) to the personal (knitting or cooking or quilting, for example … or drawing). I have often felt sheepish about the variations I was reasonably good at, or enjoyed doing even if I wasn’t that good at them, as if they signaled my limitations, not my own special (if modest!) gifts. I struggled for a long time to make quilts in traditional pieced patterns, which I love the look of–but I have always found simple applique patterns more fun and gotten better results with them. I thought this meant I was not good at quilting. I struggled for a long time to learn to knit and have never really got the knack of it; once I figured out how to make granny squares, I quite enjoyed crochet. I thought this uneven result meant I was pretty mediocre at yarn crafts. One crochet pattern I have found particularly congenial, for whatever reason, is the so-called ‘virus shawl’; it didn’t occur to me to celebrate this as my niche rather than wonder why I couldn’t do other patterns as readily.

Switching to professional examples, I found most of the critical approaches I was expected to engage with as a graduate student inaccessible, and none of the criticism I actually ended up finding meaningful and useful was ever assigned. I often interpreted this as evidence of my unfitness for academic scholarship, but what if it isn’t, but is just me finding my academic style? I seem to be pretty good at some kinds of essays – ones that think through a body of work, for example, like all of Dick Francis’s novels, or all of P. D. James’s – and not so good at, or at least not so eager to try, or able to pitch,  other kinds. What if the pleasure I take in doing that kind of work is not a sign of weakness, but (and I think this is important) not a sign of strength either: what if I thought of it instead without those hierarchical judgments, just as a mark of my idiosyncrasy, of my individual intellectual style? What if the freedom and curiosity and occasional exhilaration I experience when I’m writing on my blog, for that matter, is also about finding my own way, using the tools that feel natural in my hands, making this site a self-portrait in words rather than a shelter from the uncongenial demands of “real” academic writing? What if feeling some comfort, pleasure, and ease in a particular kind of work means that it fits, and that’s a good thing?

Perhaps this is just another way to explain what it is like to try to break out of certain academic habits of mind, and to recognize just how pervasive they are. Academia is an environment in which (for some good reasons, to be sure) we spend a lot of time trying to fit ourselves – and our students – to specific models, trying to conform to standards and practices, to produce certain kinds of outcomes and results, to attain certain styles of writing. We rarely have either the time or the courage for idiosyncrasy, and it isn’t likely to be rewarded. I’m not rejecting the whole idea of standards or rigor or expertise as foundational values. I’m sure it’s true that all of the artists on these shows have had to master a lot of fundamental skills: they can all draw anatomically correct figures, create likenesses, sketch landscape elements to scale. They have an enormous amount of technical know-how as well. But the whole point of being an artist is to go past that common ground into your own territory, which is where you really expand and define yourself. Maybe that is what’s different: a lot of academics spend a long time in that first phase, the “do it this way” phase, which fills us with lasting fear that we aren’t doing it right and so we get stuck there.

As I said, maybe I’m just restating the obvious, and maybe what I’m really probing is more an individual neurosis and not a general condition (though I expect a lot of academics will recognize my description of the way we are trained to think and work). Still, when I started thinking about idiosyncrasy in this way it felt exciting and even a bit empowering. Imagine being free to be you and me in this way! I’m not 100% sure what that would even mean for me in practice, especially as a writer, but for now I’m going to just sit with the idea that it’s not just OK but actually desirable to do my own thing rather than feeling awkward or deficient because I can’t or don’t want to do some other thing.

Histories of Violence: Experiments in Narrative Nonfiction

say-nothingI read a book that wasn’t for work! In fact, I read two books! I cant remember another teaching term when this has felt like such an accomplishment. Sometimes I read the most, paradoxically, when I am otherwise the busiest! There’s something enervating about the way I am busy this term, though, including (as previously noted) that everything about it is done on my computer, and also, just to state the obvious, that we are in the middle (she says optimistically – what if it’s just the beginning?!) of a global pandemic that has made everything harder and sadder.

Perhaps because of this context, which among other things has made me anxious and fretful and thus often makes it harder for me to concentrate, I have been drawn more than usual to non-fiction. Two of the best books I read early in the pandemic were Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting and Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life, both of which engaged me as much the best novels do. In some ways, though, nonfiction creates or relies on a different kind of engagement, something I found myself thinking about as I read two more highly acclaimed works of nonfiction, Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland and Karen Abbott’s The Ghosts of Eden Park.

McConvilleI’m not going to recapitulate the intricate details of the stories either book tells. Briefly, in case neither title is familiar, Say Nothing starts from the abduction of a Belfast woman named Jean McConville by (it is presumed) the IRA, and from that harrowing incident layers on contexts and characters to explore the social, political, and especially moral complexities of life in Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles.’ “Who should be held accountable for a shared history of violence?” Keefe asks? At every turn, difficult questions arise about motives, culpability, and, ultimately, accountability. One example, about a key player in the IRA’s so-called “nutting squad” who turned out to be an extremely valuable informant (if you think about it, you’ll figure out how they got that name and you will shudder, as you will often reading this book):

If an agent is a murderer, and his handlers know that he is murdering people, does that not make the handlers–and, as such, the state itself–complicit? British Army sources would subsequently claim that Scappaticci’s efforts saved 180 lives. But they allowed that this number was a “guesstimate,” and this sort of thinking can degenerate pretty quickly into a conjuectural mathematics of means and ends. Scappaticci would ultimately be linked to as many as fifty murders. If a spy takes fifty lives but saves some larger number, can that countenance his actions? This kind of logic is seductive, but perilous. You start out running numbers in your head, and pretty soon you are sanctioning mass murder.

This ruthless calculus is disturbing enough, but even worse (I thought, anyway) is what Scappaticci’s handlers eventually do to protect the secret of his identity. It isn’t necessarily the number of deaths that carries the most weight, but their context: should an individual with no direct part in the shared violence be sacrificed, for example, in service of either party’s long-term efforts to end or win the war? Most of us probably accept that, at least in theory, there are causes worth not just dying for but killing for, but this book will make you ask over and over who gets to decide–about which causes, about which deaths. It also raises profoundly difficult questions about what price is right to pay for ending the violence, which turns out to be linked in fascinating ways to questions about research, sources, and even academic freedom.

Boy and flaming car outside Divis flats.

In other words, Say Nothing is not just a gripping work of historical reconstruction and exploration, it is also a morally weighty book. Like good fiction, it insists over and over on the complexity of its topics and its people. It has no heroes and, surprisingly, not really any villains either, because those categories rely on absolute perspectives that are simply not sustainable. Many people in it do or condone appalling acts. The disappearance of Jean McConville is one such act: she is never seen alive again, and for decades her children, who watched her be dragged away, have to live with the uncertainty of her fate, and thus in turn with unanswered questions about her possible guilt or innocence of the ‘charges’ against her.

eden1The second book I recently finished is also an accomplished work of narrative nonfiction, Karen Abbott’s The Ghosts of Eden Park. Its long subtitle tells you a lot about its flavour: The Bootleg King, the Women who Pursued Him, and the Murder that Shocked Jazz-Age America. My interest in this book was piqued by our recent viewing of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, in which Abbot’s main character, the bootlegger George Remus, features prominently. It was fun learning how many aspects of his character were based on reality, such as his peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person.

There is a lot of violence in this book as well, but Abbott brings no underlying gravitas, no moral weight, to the story she tells about it, and so for me The Ghosts of Eden Park was a much less satisfying read. There are plenty of moral grey areas, surely, around the legalities of prohibition and bootlegging. As we see over and over again in the book, vast portions of America were happy to break the law, and without market demand, there would have been no fortunes for the bootleggers to make, while without prohibition itself driving the trade underground, the circumstances around it would not have been so murderous. Related conversations go on today around arguments for legalizing drugs, and I would have been interested in questions about culpability and accountability being part of Abbot’s project.

remusThey aren’t, though: that’s just not the book she is writing, and of course that’s fine. She tells a brisk, entertaining, fairly sensational story about Remus, whose success as a bootlegger actually is just background for what becomes his obsessive love-hate relationship with his wife Imogene. While Remus is being prosecuted and imprisoned, Imogene begins an affair with one of the agents who had investigated him, which drives Remus (or so he later argues in court) insane. He never seems very stable: Abbott’s reports from his own statements and writings as well as other people’s reports and observations make him out to be a highly erratic and, frankly, extremely annoying character, someone who never at any moment aroused a glimmer of empathy in me. This is a problem, or it was for me, because after a while reading about his antics and histrionics was like watching some kind of strange zoo animal go berserk and hoping eventually someone will just sedate him and get it over with. Imogene is no better: she’s an opportunist who lies and manipulates and takes everything she can from Remus. When he shoots her in the middle of  Chicago’s Eden Park (not a spoiler – this is where the book itself begins!) it seems pretty grim, but by the time we circle around to it after hundreds of pages of backstory, I felt much less, rather than much more, horror–which, in my view anyway, is something of a failure for the book, or perhaps more generally for the project. We should not be indifferent to murder: it should not feel like no more than a plot point. It is, as P. D. James says over and over in her essays on detective fiction, “the unique crime.” That Remus and Imogene and most of their cohort of friends and accomplices have become indifferent to its moral significance is telling, about them and about the world they (thought they)  lived in. I was disappointed, though, that Abbott’s treatment more or less accepted their terms. It’s a wild story, with many remarkable twists, but Abbott’s exhaustive research didn’t make it seem any less shallow.

Mabel_WillebrandtThe one element of Abbott’s book that will really stick with me is Mabel Walker Willibrandt. One of my questions watching Boardwalk Empire was about the plausibility of the character Esther Randolph, the U. S. Attorney who tries to bring down Nucky Thompson. It turns out that there were a few women who made careers in the law even that early in the 20th century, and Willibrandt was one of them. She and her “Mabelmen” ought to have their own TV series, if you ask me: she is bold, fierce, and sharply self-conscious about the extra burden her sex adds to her work. “Why the devil they have to put that ‘girlie girlie’ tea party description every time they tell anything a professional woman does,” she wrote to her parents,

‘is more than I can see.’ At the same time, she felt compelled to play along, trying, at least in public, to strike a balance: not too masculine or too feminine, too aggressive or too demure; too indifferent or too emotional; too much or too little of any quality that would highlight her sex instead of her work. ‘I try not to think of myself as a woman in going before a jury,’ she told the Washington Evening Star. ‘by this I do not mean that women should be mannish but that they must forget about themselves.’

One consequence of her dedication to her work is that she divorces her first husband and then declines a later proposal on the grounds that the demands of her job would inevitably ruin the balance and happiness of their relationship. (She does adopt a daughter, though, to raise on her own.) I thought the book would turn on a showdown between Remus and Willibrandt, but in the end she is not the one who faces him in his last, most important trial, the one in which a jury has to decide what, if any, price he should pay for his most decisive act of violence.

boardwalkI realize there’s something of an apples and oranges problem with comparing these two books. It’s inevitable, though, that reading books back to back prompts some consideration of what they do or don’t have in common. I would say both are good of their kind, but Say Nothing is of a more important kind: it demands that we look at its events, not as colourful stories about the past, but as parts of our ongoing, imperfect, and morally weighty attempts to understand the place and consequences of violence, especially in our politics. It’s easy to condemn violence, but absolute pacifism can be (as Vera Brittain found, in a different context) difficult to defend. Even if there are cases in which violence seems necessary or justified, though, so many questions still remain. We are watching the Norwegian series Occupied right now, which of course is speculative fiction, not history, but I think it too provokes these questions. At what point would you agree with blowing something up, or worse? My complaint about The Ghosts of Eden Park is that not only do none of the people Abbott talks about seem to care very deeply about these problems – Abbott herself, or at least her book, also does not engage with them. In her book, the story is everything, and it’s actually a pretty cheap and lurid one. Maybe this is not so different, really, from the standards I apply to fiction: I have always found it (pace Oscar Wilde) important to be earnest, at least where matters of moral weight are involved.

This Week On My Computer

1015StartHere-cropIf you’d asked me on March 13 of this year (the last “regular” day before we were all locked down!) whether I ordinarily spent a lot of time working at my computer, I would have said “Yes!” without hesitation. It turns out, however, that I used to greatly underestimate the amount of time I spent away from my computer–at least, relative to the balance (or, rather, imbalance) between these two options in my pandemic life. While preparing for class always involved at least some time typing up notes and preparing handouts, worksheets, slides, and other materials, for example, going to class meant gathering up actual books and papers and markers–and sometimes toys!–and moving to a different space, sometimes even going outside to get there! Teaching meant being in a classroom looking at and talking to and listening to other people. Office hours meant sitting in my office talking to other people face to face. Meetings meant sitting in yet another room, talking to yet more other people in person. Lunch time meant going to get food somewhere else and then eating it at my desk … wait, that at least is still exactly the same! Now that all of these activities mean staring at my screen and typing, I find that it is hard to motivate myself to do other things, like blogging or personal correspondence, that also involve screen time: when I finally call it quits on my actual work, I need to get away from the computer, both for physical relief (my eyes and especially my shoulder are not at all happy these days) and to restore some sense of boundaries, of difference, to my days.

NorthandSouthOUPBut here I am now, ready once again to take stock of how things are going in my classes. And the disconcerting truth is that a third of the way through this strange term, I still don’t really know, because I have no base line for comparison, no past experience to check this one against. I’m working pretty incessantly on one teaching task or another, but I get very little feedback compared to the ongoing opportunity, in face-to-face teaching, to “read the room”–which could, of course, be discouraging if you could tell they weren’t with you, but at least there was some immediacy to that input and enough flexibility to the whole operation to let you change things up, on the fly or more deliberately. One of the most disorienting things about online teaching so far, in fact, is the time lapse: because a lot of materials need to be ready ahead of time, I’m usually working on next week’s lectures and handouts while the students are working on this week’s. (Yes, that gets very confusing sometimes!) If I sense that something isn’t clicking this week, it can be pretty hard to figure out where or how to adapt.

CaptureCertainly some parts of this feel easier now than they did at first. The start of term is always chaotic, and this year it was worse than ever before because communicating by writing is just less efficient than talking to people or showing them things directly. (That said, at least when everything is written down there is less chance of details just getting lost or forgotten: the documents are always there for reference! The sheer quantity of written materials becomes its own kind of burden, but there’s still something to be said for having what amounts to a detailed instruction manual for the entire course.) By and large my classes seem to have settled into a rhythm now, though, and as a result the stress has gone down on both sides and the quality of actual work has gone up. It’s clear that the online model is harder for some students who would almost certainly be better off with more external structure and tangible support–but there are also students who find the move away from in-person pressures congenial. At this point I personally feel that, given the option, I would never teach online again: I have not had the transformative experience I’ve heard about from other instructors who ended up wholly converted to this mode of instruction. But it’s early yet, I suppose, and of course right now I don’t have a choice–and in spite of everything, I’m glad about that, as it’s not as if being in the classroom under current circumstances would be a return to the kind of work I loved. I’m also very grateful to have the job security I do, and that, along with my real desire to do the best I can for my students, keeps me pretty motivated and determined to keep trying to do this as well as I can.

conciseBILThe best thing I can say about my courses right now is that I do finally feel as if I am paying more attention to content than to logistics–which means that when I post about them, I might start talking  more about what we’re actually studying in them, like I used to! A trial run: In my intro class (“Literature: How It Works” – a dull title but a pragmatic focus that actually suits my usual approach to first-year classes) we are wrapping up our work on poetry.  This week students get to choose a ‘cluster’ of related poems to discuss, hopefully showing off what they have learned about literary devices and poetic form and interpretation so far; then next week we will turn our attention to short stories. I expect a lot of them will like that change of focus; I just hope I can coach them to keep paying attention to details and form and not relax into plot summary.

oupIn 19th-Century Fiction we start Middlemarch this week! I, at least, am very excited about this! (Honestly, though: isn’t the cover of the new OWC edition dreadful? They could hardly have made the novel look less fun and inviting. Dorothea is supposed to be blooming, not gloomy!) Rereading the novel and working on my slide presentations to launch our discussions of it has been pretty fun, and also very intellectually challenging, because I have had to make a lot of decisions about how to package the concepts and examples and approaches I would usually lay out over the first few class meetings. While I would certainly do some lecturing in a face-to-face course, I always prefer to draw students towards ideas about how the novel works and what it means through discussion, using a lot of open-ended questions and brainstorming on the white board (where I draw lots of what one of my students [hi, Bea!] recently described as “demented stick figures” 😊). This is hard to reproduce asynchronously!

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My basic approach this term has been to use my recorded presentations as starting points: I lay out any important contexts then try to set up questions and frameworks that will help them consider specific examples on their own. I think this is actually working pretty well–though, again, I miss being able to read the room, and being able to follow up on their suggestions and questions in a way that involves everyone at once, instead of there being a wide range of contributions diffused across different threads. I’ve been brooding a lot about how to convert this breadth into more depth–but, interestingly (to me, anyway!) when I polled the class about subdividing them into smaller groups so they could engaged with a narrower set of responses, most of them preferred the variety they get from seeing everyone’s posts and choosing where to follow up. (There are 30-something students; the discussion boards are set up with three different headings for each week, and they can contribute wherever they want.) This week’s discussions of North and South have really been very good, so I guess if it ain’t broke, I shouldn’t try to fix it!

Middlemarch 5I do expect a bit of stuttering as we get going on Middlemarch: my experience of teaching it in the classroom, where I can play ‘cheerleader-in-chief,’ has been that even with me absolutely radiating enthusiasm for it, it can be a hard sell at first, and though I am trying to be as enthusiastic as I can this time too, I have to communicate so much more indirectly that I can’t be sure it will come across, much less be contagious! The stumbling block is usually the amount of exposition, which requires a different kind of attention and patience and can muffle, on a first reading, the sharpness and comedy of the dialogue as well as of the narrator herself. I’m also often surprised by how little students like Dorothea: is idealism so out of fashion these days? But there are always some students who love the book, at first or eventually, and of course my job is not to make them like our readings but to help them learn about them.

I really hope that by the end of this term I am not so bewildered about what’s working and what’s not. Some of that should be evident from the results, by which I mean the students’ work as well as their feelings about that work and the course experience. One thing I think I am doing right is what the learning-and-teaching folks who provided so much training over the summer called “teacher presence”: I am as there for them as I know how to be. My biggest regret in this respect is that I haven’t figured out how to have fun the way we do in the classroom, where on a good day we laugh a lot. (I did sneak a crack about Mr. Casaubon’s “low wick” into this week’s Middlemarch lectures.) I suppose under the circumstances, though, if we aren’t crying, that’s good enough.

“The Complexity of Life”: Marina Endicott, The Difference

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‘Still, was it right, to take a child from his people?’

Thea shook her head and got up from the rocker. ‘You make me tired, Kay,’ she said. ‘You have a way of simplifying an argument that ignores the complexity of life.’

Marina Endicott’s The Difference was a near miss for me. It has a lot of elements and qualities that I usually enjoy, and that I mostly did enjoy in this case. It is meticulous historical fiction–though ‘meticulous’ is not my highest term of praise because it rightly implies that the novel made me a bit too aware of the care with which it renders its imagined version of a particular time and place. I prefer more exuberance, and The Difference as a whole only occasionally risks more expansive expressiveness.

When it does so, it is around the wonders of the sea and its creatures: it is very much a sea-faring novel, and while (again) this meant it was filled with good things, things I usually like (like vivid descriptions of water and light and dolphins, and plenty of neepery about sailing) often it felt to me as if we were proceeding at a speed a bit too close to real time on the Morning Light‘s voyage from Yarmouth to the South Pacific and around again. For over 250 pages (so, much more than half of the novel) The Difference seemed to be going nowhere in particular except on that literal voyage, which provides a deliberate, well-crafted, but rather protracted set-up for the problem that is supposedly the crux of the story and its themes.

The Difference tells the story of Kay, her half-sister Thea, and Thea’s husband Francis, the ship’s captain, as they travel the ocean on Francis’s trading route. Endicott’s account of both the trip and their many varied stops are full of fine detail and Kay is a well-developed character: young, thoughtful, unconventional (of course – she has to be, I guess, to be a protagonist), excited to be tutored in Greek.

Part of the backstory for both Kay and Thea is their father’s work at an “Indian” school, where conditions were harsh and the treatments punitive for the pupils who were taken away from their own families and cultures. It’s clear that Endicott means this large-scale wrong as a counterpoint to the specific wrong on which the book’s plot eventually pivots: about half way through the book, off the coast of a small island called Pulo Anna, the ship encounters boats full of men eager to trade – including, it turns out, one of their own number, a young boy whom they leave on the Morning Light in exchange for four pounds of tobacco. Thea, who has had multiple miscarriages, essentially adopts the boy, whom they call “Aren”; she delights in being his “mother,” and Kay embraces her role as his big sister. Aren adjusts with seeming ease to his new life but becomes ill with TB, and they end up stopping in New York so he can recover.

difference1We pick up again about a decade later and much has changed. Most importantly, Aren has left his adopted family and is living a bit of a rough life in Halifax. Distressed and frustrated, both on his behalf and her own, Kay comes up with a plan to take him “home” to Pulo Anna. Once more we find ourselves on board ship and traveling across the seas. Although the next part of the book is as carefully and thoughtfully crafted as the first part, as I made my way through it, and even more so at the end of the novel, I found myself preoccupied with what Endicott had left out by not addressing the intervening years: a lot was missing, I thought, that would have illuminated both the action and, more importantly, the meaning, of the novel’s resolution.

The moral heart of the novel is the question of whether, as Kay very belatedly asks, it can have been right for them to take Aren away with them. Near the end of the novel, Thea reveals in a letter to Kay that when Aren was very sick, he yearned for his original family to “come to get me.” This is the first and almost the only explicit evidence we get that Aren did not in fact accept his new situation as placidly as it seemed, and while perhaps it should go without saying that his experience was traumatic, I can’t understand why that truth (assuming it is supposed to be the truth) was so completely suppressed in Endicott’s story-telling. Perhaps the point is to indict both Kay and Thea for taking his contentment for granted – an assumption as reductive to his humanity as the more overtly racist things people say to him or about him after he has joined their family – and thus to indict us by association if we haven’t questioned their points of view. Still, it seems odd to make the alternative perspective – a potential source of significant moral conflict not just elusive but invisible almost to the very end.

It’s Kay who has the most chance to be a figure of resistance and an ally for Aren, as she is set up as a bit of a maverick or nonconformist from the start, but she doesn’t express any concerns until that late and quite muted confrontation with Thea, and her relationship with Aren is genuinely affectionate, and (as far as we are ever shown) mutually so. Only her tutor, Mr. Brimner, shows any shock at the crude transaction these kindly people have engaged in. “We’ll leave Thea to tell the tale of her purchase of this little fellow,” Francis says lightly, at which

Mr. Brimner’s eyes snapped up to Francis’s face, as if he checked for a jape or jollity, but he schooled his expression quickly to one of objective interest.

His reaction does cast a skeptical shadow over the family’s own account, which casts them as benevolent saviors (“One could not credit how desperate the people were,” Thea explains to Mr. Brimner), and perhaps that is supposed to be enough to drive a wedge between us and them, even though the novel proceeds to depict both them and Aren as carrying on quite happily together.

I wonder if Endicott decided not to show the actual years Aren spends with his adopted family (skipping ahead as she does to his eventual alienation and departure) because that actually avoids treating Kay’s question as one that presents a genuine moral problem. Is the idea that we should not even try to weigh the life he had against the life that, in some sense, he should have had, or that at any rate he would have had, if his brother (as it turns out) had not so cavalierly traded him for tobacco? If the question of whether he might not, by some measures, have benefited from the trade is simply inadmissible, than I can see that it would be wasted time, argumentatively at least, to lay out the results as if there is any value or meaning in doing so: as if the specifics of his experience of being raised as  part of Thea and Francis’s family could possibly make any difference to the absolute moral wrong of his having been take away in that way from his own home. (Does he consent? What would count as consent, for a child and in those circumstances? Would it matter if he did?)

Taking that initial trade as a kind of original sin, from which no good can come, there is a certain simplicity, rather than complexity, to the novel’s moral framework: no matter how kind you are or how good your intentions, you have no right (to answer Kay’s question) to take a child from “his people.” If that is the novel’s point, it approaches it quite circuitously and by omission, rather than inquiry or dramatic enactment. Why not more directly expose the inadequacy of Thea’s version of the story, for one thing? (“A benevolent God,” she thinks, “had given her the chance to save this one soul at least from poverty and starvation,” and she considers this repayment for, not duplication of, “the deaths of all those poor Blade Lake children.”) Why not show us, too, what exactly Aren gave up, what the loss is to him, which remains not just abstract but actually a bit hard to take for granted, because something else we learn on that final voyage is that “his people” have not survived: war and then famine have wiped them out. If he had never left, he would presumably have died with them; his body might well have been one of those found “littering” the beach. I guess what I missed as I finished the novel was clearer evidence of how (or, I guess, whether) the novel thought we should wrestle with these alternatives. Is the news of the island’s catastrophe actually evidence of complexity after all, because it is hard to say for sure whether Aren was, ultimately, better off for being spared this fate? Or, again, do the terms of his “adoption” make any further moral considerations moot as there’s nothing that can possibly compensate for or mitigate that harm?

Endicott’s acknowledgments suggest she intends the latter. The Difference was inspired by real events, and she says that she “heard Miss Ladd’s story of the boy bought for four pounds of tobacco with an instantaneous feeling of revulsion.” She also makes explicit the connection I alluded to between Aren’s story and “the terrible legacy of residential schools in Canada.” Kay and Thea both carry profound guilt with them for how their father’s pupils suffered; it is surprising that they do not more readily make this connection themselves, though Kay moves closer to it by the end. One of the reviews quoted on my edition of The Difference says that the novel shows “how many mistakes can lead to kindness.” To me, the thrust of the novel seems rather to be “how many intended kindnesses can lead to mistakes.” I just wish the novel had been more direct about both dramatizing and philosophizing about – making the arguments for – that theme.

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.

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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!