“Perishable Moments”: Jo Baker, The Telling

A marriage, a birth, a death. This wasn’t a life. It was nothing like it. Life’s what happens in between. The tease of a flame at a dry twig. Snowflakes melting in upturned palms. The drip of chlorinated water from soaked curls, lips unsticking in a smile, outstretched arms with fingers crooked to coax a child into swimming. The dip of the tongue’s tip to the palm of the hand to lift a sweet blue pill from a skin-crease. These tiny things that change the world, minute by minute, and forever. These perishable moments, that are gone completely, if we don’t take the trouble of their telling.

I wish Jo Baker had not written Longbourn: if I hadn’t assumed that she was just one more unimaginative barnacle on the unstoppable ship Austen Always Sells, I might have read her other books sooner. Well, OK, I don’t wish that, since against all my expectations Longbourn, when I finally brought myself to read it, turned out to be really goodA Country Road, A Tree convinced me to try it; I went on to read The Undertow, also excellent—and now I can add that so too is The Telling.

The Telling is described on the cover as a “ghost story,” which would have put me off if Baker hadn’t already earned my trust. In fact, the blurb writers left out all the details that would have sold me the book: that it’s set in an old house called Reading Room Cottage, for example, named for an upstairs room featuring a massive built-in bookcase with an “archeological feel,” and that the historical story interwoven with its contemporary one is about the Chartists. In fact, it isn’t really a ghost story at all, at least not in a hokey haunted way. It’s more uncanny than supernatural, more about reverberations between past and present literalized as humming static in the air than about phantoms or visitations. The “ghost” sensed by Rachel, the modern-day protagonist, does have an identity, a story, one that Rachel eventually tries to uncover, only to be thwarted by the inadequacy of the archival record. We are the ones who know who Lizzy was and what happened to her in that house with the bookcase.

Lizzy’s presence in Rachel’s life — Rachel’s feeling that there’s someone else there and yet not there — does bring a frisson or chill into the novel. Baker’s as good at this kind of thing as Sarah Waters:

I felt it. A teetering, pregnant silence as if a breath had been drawn, and someone was about to speak. I looked up, glanced around the room. The daffodils on the windowsill, the grey paths across the floor, the silky ashes in the grate; it was all absolutely ordinary. The view from the window, grey sky and green fields. As I turned my head to look, I felt slow, as if moving through water. The air was thickening; if I lifted up a finger, and ran it through the air in front of me, it would leave a ripple. But it was too much to move a finger. I couldn’t move a finger. Each breath was a conscious effort.

Like Waters, Baker is smart enough to keep everything suggestive in this way: there’s no face looming through the window, no voice whispering in Rachel’s ear, no books shifting inexplicably about or lights mysteriously turning off or on. Everything abnormal thing Rachel (thinks she) feels could even be explained away by her unstable condition: she is recovering (barely) from depression brought on by the overlapping traumas of her mother’s death from cancer and the birth of her daughter. She has come to Reading Room Cottage to sort out her mother’s things and prepare the house for sale, and also to evade her husband’s loving but burdensome concern.

Lizzy, in her time, lives in the cottage with her parents. She is a housemaid; they are basket weavers and farmers struggling to sustain their family since the recent enclosure of some common land. To get by, they take in a lodger, a master carpenter who is also a radical—if, that it, it is radical to encourage working people to read, to question inequality, and to aspire to political representation. He’s the one who builds the shelves and stocks them with books which he begins leaving around for Lizzy to read. Until he came, she had “always read everything the way [she] was taught, as if it were gospel truth.” Fiction, to her, is an uncomfortable revelation: “I never knew that books could lie.” The books he lends her—Paradise LostHamletThe Odyssey, but also works of natural history and Lyell’s Principles of Geology—up-end Lizzy’s mental life, just as his presence, and the reading room he sets up for meetings and debates, disturb the already uneasy equilibrium in the community.

What brings Lizzy and Rachel together, across time (if we want to believe in ghosts) or just across the novel? Good as both strands were—both are convincing, gripping, moving—I was not 100% convinced that they made a unified whole. At any rate, the parallels between the two women’s stories were not obvious to me. What stands out most to me, thinking about them together, is that Rachel’s grief for her mother makes her acutely aware of how much of every life is ultimately lost. Lizzy’s sorrows are different; what draws her close to Rachel is not that their experiences are similar but that we don’t, or rather Rachel’s doesn’t, know anything about her. All that remains are fragile records, just as all that remains of Rachel’s mother are remnants already losing their meaning: “the photographs that Mum had selected, the moments of her life that she had wanted to keep, to return to, to experience again.” How different, too, is a memory from a haunting? Rachel’s mother is also now no more than an imagined presence. Stories are what remain. In a local bookstore, Rachel finds what we know are some of the books Lizzy read, and in its turn The Telling recreates and preserves the “perishable moments” of what Lizzy’s life might have been.

Painting Around the Obstacles: Molly Peacock, Flower Diary

book-cover-flower-diary-by-molly-peacockIn an era where Mary Cassatt eschewed marriage and a fully adult life to live with her parents in Paris so that she could produce her work, Mary Hiester bounded into an adulthood of painting with a grown-up’s problems of money and sex and logistics . . . Existing with an ambitious man in a socially constricted world for women of which a person today can barely grasp the demeaning dimensions, she lived, by her lights, “cheerfully.” She painted around the obstacles of an artist’s life by employing a woman’s emblem, the rose, and later an emblem of independence, the tree.

Molly Peacock’s Flower Diary weaves together three stories—each of which is also, in its own way, more than one kind of story: there’s the biographical account of artist Mary Hiester Reid, including her marriage to and working relationship with her husband George Agnew Reid; there’s the story of Peacock’s second marriage, which is also the story of her second husband’s illness and death; and there’s the story of Mary Evelyn Wrinch, who married George Reid after the first Mary Reid’s death. “The three of them,” Peacock notes, “are even buried together

in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, section 18, lot 22. Not side by side, but on top of each other; MHR is the foundational layer. Then George on top of her. Last, Mary Evelyn on top of George.

art-books_40_mary-hiester-reid-a-firesideLike Peacock’s earlier, similar work The Paper Garden, the biographical and autobiographical material is interwoven with commentary on art and creativity, especially in this case Mary Hiester Reid’s paintings. For me, these were the best parts of the book. Peacock is a wonderful observer. “A Fireside is rich, warm, and pillowy,” she says of one of Mary’s early paintings:

It’s full of interest for the beholder’s engagement (books, copper tea kettles, a Japanese print brought back from Paris, George’s copy of a huge Velazquez that Mary admired). To the side of the umber beams bloom paperwhite narcissus bulbs in a ceramic bowl. The sparkler flowers hurl out their scent in swift dashes of white that make you know it must be snowing outside. (Canadians plant them to bloom in January or February, life in the dead of winter.) Painted in 1910 when she was fifty-six, it is of a generous room where MHR lit her own art fire, warmed others, and somehow negotiated the complexities of a spiritual, aesthetic, familiar, and perhaps sexual, quasi-ménage à trois.

“Like the continent’s Depression, or perhaps her own,” she says later, of the still-life “Three Roses,”

Mary’s roses languish, looming from the dark background. One of them even drops two tear-shaped petals onto the table below. Another rose—the youngest?—barely out of the bud, has tightly folded petals. Each one is flushed, the pink of the inside of a mouth. The top flower almost pats the back of the one that has let two weeping petals go. It is a highly emotional scene—roses acting out a romance? The still life has a narrative quality. 

Now that she’s described it that way, I can see it: does it make her description any less plausible that it never would have occurred to me to read so much drama into these quietly lovely flowers? I remember having similar questions about her interpretations of some of Mary Delaney’s paper flowers—and about some of the commentary in William Kloss’s ‘Great Course’ on Masterpieces of European Art. “You see, but you do not observe,” Sherlock Holmes famously chides Dr. Watson: it takes a trained eye, a sympathetic eye, perhaps a poetic eye, to see what Peacock sees. Her poet’s words, of course, also make the difference between plain description and illumination.Three Roses

I found Mary’s paintings really beautiful. (Flower Diary itself is a beautiful object, with heavy, glossy pages and rich, high quality reproductions, a treat for the eyes.) I hadn’t heard of her before. Peacock explains that MHR’s influences were the “tonalists,” painters who “attempt to represent emotions in their paintings through times of day like sunrise, twilight, or sunset, and weather like fog and rain”— a key example is Whistler, whose portrait of Thomas Carlyle was a significant inspiration for MHR’s late composition “A Study in Greys.” MHR, Peacock says, “made [tonalism] her own, with a Realist’s touch”; she had “zero interest in the hard abstraction of modernism.” These labels and abstract explanations mean less to me than Peacock’s insights into the paintings as reminders “that a moment existed, that it flowered fully, that it was fraught and complex, and that a woman in a lace collar holding a palette insisted on its essence.”

MHR by GARFlower Diary follows Mary’s artistic development, integrating it with the story of her personal life—as indeed the two were intricately related in reality. There are lots of parts to both, including the art school Mary and George ran and many trips to Paris and Spain and time spent in an artistic community in Onteora, in the Catskills. Peacock emphasizes Mary’s “persistence” as an artist. Hers was not a bad marriage, or an unsuccessful career: George was a supportive partner, and she was productive and accomplished and recognized. The times were not kind to ambitious women in general, though, or to women artists more particularly. “I don’t know where the assurance and conviction required for Mary’s sort of persistence comes from precisely,” Peacock comments,

but daily circumstances—the vector of a husband’s energy, an active social life, the maintaining of meals, clothes, sleep, friendship, sex, when no one expects you, a weaker vessel, to do what you do—require an internal stamina that must connect to a conviction that something inside of you will perish if you don’t protect your gift. I marvel at the ability to access emotions so thoroughly and to organize an art life, to display rage and to turn toward a canvas with plans. It is consummately adult to hold at once these contradictory responses and urges. “Going cheerfully on with the task” was her method. Eight paintings equaled health, equaled survival, equaled a truly textured life that could have disintegrated if the rage and disappointment she modeled had been enacted.

reid787“Going cheerfully on with the task”: there’s no doubt that this is admirable, and getting on with things rather than enacting one’s rage may indeed by a truly adult—the only possible—adult response to the complexities of life, including married life. There’s ultimately something a bit stolid about the woman we meet in Flower Diary, though, or about Peacock’s characterization of her anyway, and I think that’s why Flower Diary, interesting as it is, and full as it is of beautiful pictures and wonderful bits of writing, was a disappointment to me after the revelation that was The Paper Garden. The story of Mary Delany discovering and fulfilling her own peculiar creative genius late in life was so exhilarating; it seemed to offer so much hope. It is, as I said in my post about it “a subversive, celebratory view of growing older as a woman”: in Peacock’s wonderful phrasing, “Her whole life flowed to the place where she plucked that moment.”

When I wrote about The Paper Garden, it resonated with my rising hope that I too might be finding my moment. Now, almost a decade later, I feel less buoyant, more tired and uncertain. It’s not that I don’t recognize myself in MHR: it’s that I do (except maybe the ability to carry on the endless negotiations between life and work, reality and ambition, as “cheerfully” as she apparently could). Where Mary Delany offered inspiration, Mary Hiester Reid represents something more like sensible resignation: do what you can, keep on doing it as well as you can, be satisfied if the work is good. That’s exactly right, of course, and MHR’s work, as Peacock shows it to me, is good indeed. And yet at the same time it seems uncomfortably apt that the culmination of such a life is a study in greys and not an exuberant flowering.

art-books_40_mary-hiester-reid-a-study-in-greys

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“A Discordant Narrative”: Rabih Alameddine, The Wrong End of the Telescope

wrong-endDid you believe that writing about the experience would help you understand what had happened? You still cling to romantic notions about writing, that you’ll be able to figure things out, that you will understand life, as if life is understandable, as if art is understandable. When has writing explained anything to you? Writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative.

Like the ‘author’  invoked throughout Rabih Alameddine’s The Wrong End of the Telescope (clearly an avatar for Alameddine himself, a very close autobiographical proxy), I cling to romantic notions about writing—if, that is, it is ‘romantic’ to look to writing to give shape and meaning to the experiences it invites us to contemplate. I’m not sure that is naïve in the way that this excerpt insists: writing is art, not life; it is representation, not reality. A writer can choose fragmentation and incoherence, or unity and design: these are just different ways of managing the relationship between form and content. In this novel, Alameddine has sought—against his usual instincts or habits, this metafictional commentary suggests, and after many failed attempts to do otherwise—to find a form that resists the wished-for resolution.

“Why did you keep at it for so long?” his narrator, Mina Simpson, asks of his efforts to find “the one key that would unlock your mystery”:

Did you believe that if you wrote about Syrian refugees the world would look at them differently? Did you hope readers would empathize? Inhabit a refugee’s skin for a few hours? As if that were some kind of panacea.

Mina goes on to mock this idea of fiction as a device for inspiring empathy: “At best, you would have written a novel that was an emotional palliative for some couple in suburbia.” Maybe that’s true, but it also strikes me as tendentiously reductive: does anybody actually think novels are a “panacea”? and on the other hand, does anybody really think that it makes no difference at all to change or add to the stories people tell or know about the world? These are false alternatives, and I’m not sure how satisfactory a tertium quid it is to write a novel that ends up being more about how to write a novel about Syrian refugees. Metafiction directs our attention back to the author’s struggles (as this novel relentlessly does), which is just a different kind of key to the puzzle, and a somewhat solipsistic one. “Empathy is overrated,” Mina declares. Fair enough, but but at least it tries, and literary history suggests it isn’t always futile.

wrong-end-2I’ve created another false alternative myself, though, in my irritation at this aspect of The Wrong End of the Telescope. I didn’t much like the book as a whole, mostly because of the way it scattered its and thus my attention around, but it is a very empathetic novel; over and over it does put its reader into different stories, inviting them to understand better the fear, horror, desperation, and hope that lead people to crowd into boats and risk everything to cross the sea. Its structure does have some linearity or continuity to it, through the story of Mina’s arrival on Lesbos and her efforts to help the refugees there, especially one woman, Sumaiya, who is dying of cancer. Mina’s narrative is like a tree limb, with other stories branching off it.  Cumulatively they don’t make the situation “understandable” or even, narrowly speaking, “legible,” though there are certainly moments in which one character or another offers the elements of an explanation. “I loathe these Westerners who have fucked us over and over for years and then sit back and wonder aloud why we can’t be reasonable and behave like they do,” Mina’s brother Mazen exclaims at one point—this and other pieces of the novel offer historical and political frameworks for the ‘refugee crisis’ along with pointed criticisms of the West’s response. Overall, though, it is a novel built primarily of vignettes.

Whether this is a better way to write a novel on this topic than any other, I don’t know. The Wrong End of the Telescope evades what I wrote about once as ‘moral tourism’; it also tries not to turn suffering into spectacle and us, or the author, into voyeurs (like the “do-gooders” on the island preoccupied with taking selfies of themselves with refugees as a particularly offensive form of virtue signaling). At the same time, its deliberate refusal to “figure things out” means it leaves its readers with impressions, with experiences, that in themselves are incomplete as the basis for any next steps—moral or political. Its self-consciousness also risks framing the refugee crisis primarily as an aesthetic problem. In that old post, alluding to some of the reading I had been doing on ‘ethical criticism,’ I quote Geoffrey Harpham’s comment that “without action, ethics is condemned to dithering,” and note on my own behalf that “nuance and complexity are, perhaps, luxuries permitted to those who need not make decisions.” Whether a novel can or should drive people to decisions is debatable, of course.

Ironically, after complaining about the metafictional aspects of The Wrong End of the Telescope, I have written primarily about them rather than about the novel qua novel. Here’s Mark Athitakis doing that job well in the LA Times, if you’d like to know more about it; there are lots of interesting aspects to the novel that I haven’t touched on at all here. I particularly like Mark’s description of the novel as “threading a needle between that urge to witness and the recognition that doing so may be pointless.” Probably the major difference between our readings is not whether we think that effort is successful but whether we think it is worthwhile.

“Beneath the Surface”: Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You

rooneyWere they aware, in the intensity of their embrace, of something slightly ridiculous about this tableau . . . Or were they in this moment unaware, or something more than unaware—were they somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper, something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world?

I did not expect to love Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You. I found Conversations with Friends so boring I didn’t finish it; I was won over by Normal People, but only after watching the adaptation, which taught me to “hear” the book in a gentle Irish lilt. This mixed experience made me curious but hesitant about Beautiful World, Where Are You. I’m really glad now that I gave in to my curiosity rather than letting my annoyance at the ubiquity of the novel’s coverage put me off it. It is an odd novel: self-conscious and artificial and yet at the same time palpably earnest, touching, and, yes, at times beautiful. I don’t know if it is a great or even an entirely successful novel, on its own terms or on mine, but from the moment I began reading it I never stopped wanting to read it. I even stayed up a bit late to finish it, a rare impulse in these dreary middle-aged pandemic times.

It wasn’t the plot that drew me in: there’s actually hardly any plot! In this respect Beautiful World is as minimal as Rooney’s other books—it’s about four friends in a mix-and-match set of relationships that ebb and flow on currents of feeling, from suspicion to tenderness, from annoyance to deep affection. They meet, they separate, they have sex, they eat together, they talk: it couldn’t be more mundane, really, but sorting out their history and following their often prickly interactions lets Rooney quietly explore questions about why and how we love the ones we do, how our work defines us—for ourselves or to others—and why or whether any of this matters or means anything. A number of metafictional comments make sure, a bit heavy-handedly perhaps, that we see this kind of novel as problematic: trivial and irrelevant at best, an exercise in “suppressing the truth of the world” at worst. “The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel,” writes Alice—herself an award-winning novelist—”is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth.” (It is impossible not to see Alice as at least partly an avatar for Rooney herself, though collapsing the two identities completely into one seems like a rookie mistake.) Though I think Beautiful World takes this possible criticism seriously, I also think that by the end it has, if not rebutted it, at least answered it. rooney

That quotation comes from one of the emails between Alice and her longtime best friend Eileen that alternate with the third-person narration of the characters’ lives. There is nothing realistic at all about these email exchanges, or at any rate I don’t know and can’t really imagine anyone whose correspondence is like these messages. I don’t see that as a flaw. For one thing, most real life correspondence is superficial, more or less incoherent, and full of banalities. All epistolary fiction is incredibly artificial, and often the more so the better (or would be). Letters are just another device, another tool for the novelist to use. What fascinated me about the emails in Beautiful World is how deliberately they went “beneath the surface.” Even the very best conversations between friends rarely engage with the kinds of questions Alice and Eileen consider about meaning, ethics, and beauty: it’s hard enough going about our day-to-day business without constantly confronting what Alice calls early on “the unlikeliness of this life”:

I felt dizzy thinking about it. I mean I really felt ill. It was as if I suddenly remembered that my life was all part of a television show—and every day people died making the show, were ground to death in the most horrific ways, children, women, and all so that I could choose from various lunch options, each packaged in multiple layers of single-use plastic.

“Of course,” she goes on to say, “a feeling like that can’t last,” and she’s right: we rely on degrees of deliberate ignorance, or ignoring, to carry on living. I was reminded of the famous passage in Middlemarch about the squirrel’s heart beat, which concludes that even the best of us “walk about well wadded with stupidity.” The emails are an experiment in fictionalizing an examined contemporary life. They made me think about how much we—or at least I—don’t talk about, even with those closest to us.

This isn’t to say that Alice and Eileen arrive at insights that are either profound or satisfying. I am pretty sure I know at least one philosopher who would fault them even for the way they put the questions sometimes, especially questions about the meaning of life, or about how to navigate morality without a religious framework. I don’t know if this is because Rooney is not a great philosophical thinker herself or because, at this level, the emails are just being realistic about how far and how well two people, otherwise fairly ordinary, might do at hashing out big questions. That doesn’t make the exercise (on her part or on theirs) misguided, though. I wouldn’t call Beautiful World a “novel of ideas,” but it is a novel in which ideas are taken seriously, and it provoked me to wonder how we maybe could have more conversations like that in real life, or why we mostly don’t.

NPThe third-person parts of the novel are quite different. The narrator is observant but conspicuously (and, I’m sure, deliberately) not omniscient: the commentary has a hesitancy, an uncertainty, so that the effect is like watching the characters from across the room, or looking in the window at them—hence the frequent tags like “seems like” or “appears to be.” The descriptions are very precise, but they are mostly external; the characters’ thoughts or feelings have to be inferred from their movements, actions, or speech. This too is artifice, of course, and it can feel a bit stilted. But there are also lots of lovely passages like this one:

In the darkness the main room of the apartment lay quiet again and still. Two empty bowls had been left in the sink, two spoons, an empty water glass with a faint print of clear lip balm on the rim. Through the door the sound of conversation murmured on, the words rounded out, indistinct, and by one in the morning silence had fallen. At half past five the sky began to lighten in the east-facing living room window, from black to blue and then to silvery white. Another day. The call of a crow from an overhead power line. The sound of buses in the street.

Or (and this is just part of a longer passage I’d quote in full if I weren’t wary of how long this post is already getting!),

And already now behind the house the sun was rising. On the back walls of the house and through the branches of the trees, through the coloured leaves of the trees and through the damp green grasses, the light of dawn was sifting. Summer morning. Cold clear water cupped in the palm of a hand.

Style is incredibly subjective, of course, and maybe you don’t like these moments as much as I do. There’s nothing elaborately poetic about them, but to me their imagery is captivating because it’s so simple; the sentences—and sentence fragments—seem to me to hit each note just right and then stop.

I said that I thought Beautiful World answered its own criticism that “the contemporary novel is (with very few exceptions) irrelevant.” I’ll wrap up this post by trying to explain what I meant. I don’t mean that it somehow proves that the contemporary novel is in fact “relevant”; I don’t think it is a “novel with a purpose,” a novel purporting to be or to offer solutions to the far-reaching crises its characters acknowledge. Part of what it does is just set those problems aside. Like Alice in the shop, most of us just can’t carry on in a state of constant crisis about what Dorothea in Middlemarch hyperbolically calls “all the troubles of all the people on the face of the earth.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care, or shouldn’t put effort into making the world a better place, but it’s not really, or not just, the novel that’s irrelevant on that large scale: it’s all of us, it’s everything. It’s ridiculous to put such grandiose expectations on everything we do—or on anything we read.

I think Beautiful World also offers a more affirmative response, though: that there is value in both love and art, that they are what can make the world beautiful, that they are worth believing in and standing up for, and that the novel (including this novel) is one way of doing that. “So of course in the midst of everything,” Alice writes to Eileen, “the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?” “A couple of nights ago,” Eileen writes to Alice,

I was getting a taxi home on my own after a book launch. The streets were quiet and dark, and the air was warm and still, and on the quays the office buildings were all lit up inside, and empty, and underneath everything, beneath the surface of everything, I began to feel it all over again—the nearness, the possibility of beauty, like a light radiating softly from behind the visible world, illuminating everything . . . I was tired, it was late, I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi, remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me.

“As I write you this message,” the novel concludes, “I’m very happy. All my love.”

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Gene,

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

Dear Gene,

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

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

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

Recent Reading: King, Lawson, Mitford

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

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

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

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

“Sad Stories”: Katherena Vermette, The Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In My Classes: Persuasion and Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriarchy did this.

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

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

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

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

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