“My Struggles”: Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

kingsolverPractically from our first meeting, she’d been after me to write a recovery journal. I told her I don’t write, I draw. She said this would be for myself only. I could share it, but only if I chose to do so. The idea being to get clarity and process some of my traumas. On that particular ball of yarn I didn’t know where to start. She suggested pinpointing where my struggles had started with substance abuse, abandonment, and so forth . . . I’ve made any number of false starts with this mess. You think you know where your own troubles lies, only to stare down the page and realize, no. Not there. It started earlier. Like these wars going back to George Washington and whiskey. Or in my case, chapter 1. First, I got myself born. The worst of the job was up to me. Here we are.

For a novel that has (more or less) exactly the same plot and (more or less) the same characters as David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead is remarkably unlike David Copperfield. This confused me a lot when I read the first half of Kingsolver’s novel back in January—confused and also alienated me, to the point that I not only put it aside unfinished but wrote plaintively to my book club asking if maybe we could choose something else for our next read. I’m glad now that other members said they were enjoying it and so we stayed the course: with our meeting to talk about it finally looming, I picked it up again yesterday and ended up reading right through to the end in a few hours. I was not delighted by it, but I became engrossed in it, and though overall I am still disappointed in it as a revision of Dickens’s novel, as its own novel Demon Copperhead is, I think, actually pretty good.

It is tempting but probably pointless to track through Demon Copperhead comparing its main ingredients to their counterparts in David Copperfield. On the other hand, some comparison is irresistible, if only to illustrate how Kingsolver both does and doesn’t do what Dickens does. “First, I got myself born,” her novel begins. Here, in contrast, is the famous opening of David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

copperfieldKingsolver jumps right into the action, and really, it never stops, for the next 500+ pages. Demon Copperhead is a rush of narrative—a copious, colorful, fast-moving torrent of words. Although it is clear by the end of the novel that it is, like the original, retrospective, it has none of the layers of David Copperfield, which is complicated and enriched by foreshadowing and dramatic irony. It is perhaps surprising, given his reputation for exaggeration and hyperbole, that, on my reading anyway, Dickens is by far the more subtle and nuanced author of the two. Kingsolver (or, properly, her first-person protagonist Damon Fields) just keeps going and going and going, a kind of tireless Energizer Bunny of grim revelations about the hardships of life for a child born in poverty in Appalachia and growing up through the worst of the opioid crisis. At a time when the idea that fiction should have a purpose is (in elite circles, anyway) often dismissed as incompatible with real art, Demon Copperhead is, unapologetically, a fully committed ‘social problem’ novel: it has more in common, in that respect, with Mary Barton, or even with Bleak House, then with David Copperfield, which is, as its opening line tells us, a story about moral development—an individual story, a Bildungsroman. Its action is always, more than anything else, about David’s character, and especially about his tender, loving heart.

As novel about Appalachia and the opioid crisis, Demon Copperhead is quite compelling, although it is also pretty heavy-handed. (I might not have thought this about the novel if I hadn’t recently watched the excellent series Dopesick, which covers a lot of similar sociological territory and hits some of the same beats, in terms of storytelling.) What I figured out, when I returned to the novel after my long hiatus, is that the David Copperfield framing is a red herring, perhaps based on a misunderstanding or a misapplication of the kind of novel Dickens wrote. This point really clicked for me when I reached Kingsolver’s Acknowledgments, at the end of Demon Copperhead:

I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting this novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend.

kingsolver2It’s notable to me that the rest of her acknowledgments are to people who helped with expertise related to social problems (“foster care and child protective services . . . logistics and desperations of addiction and recovery, Appalachian history” etc.) – not to Dickens or David Copperfield. It isn’t that David Copperfield is not about child poverty and harsh social conditions; it’s that (I would say, anyway) these circumstances are incidental in David Copperfield to David’s perceptions of his experiences, and to Dickens’s own preference for addressing material conditions as external manifestations of moral and imaginative conditions. At best, Kingsolver is taking Dickens more literally than is usually appropriate; at worst, she is entirely overlooking his preoccupation with David’s inner life.

One of the costs of Kingsolver’s approach is prose that is also excessively literal, chock full of vivid, concrete details but leaving very little to—or providing very little stimulation for—our imaginations. Something I often discuss with my classes is the way Dickens’s writing itself creates in us, as we read it, the kind of mental activity he fears modern life is devaluing and suppressing: the flights of fancy in his language do for us, cultivate in us, what he fears we are losing. He writes in defiance of political economy, of utilitarianism, of facts—at least, of facts reduced to discrete and definitive units of measurement, the way they are in the famous opening of Hard Times:

hardtimesNow, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!’

Hard Times is Dickens’s most insistent and programmatic condemnation of sticking to “facts,” and also his most dogged but also (I think) rhetorically powerful defense of what he calls “fancy.” But he fights this fight in all of his novels in ways I have talked about here before, including in reference to David Copperfield, at least as much, if not more, through his style as through his explicit content.

I’m not saying Kingsolver’s prose is devoid of fancy. Most of its creative energy seems to me to rest in Damon’s voice, which is blunt and colloquial and observant, but not at all poetic. There is a lot of vivid imagery, although so much of it is in aid of things we’d rather not see that it can be hard to appreciate it as artistic. It’s the other qualities that, to my mind, define “Dickensian” writing that I really miss, though. For one thing, Kingsolver’s novel is entirely unleavened with humor. OK, our introduction to her version of Aunt Betsy and Mr. Dick (here, Damon’s grandmother Betsy Woodall and Brother Dick) is amusing, but oh, how I missed Janet and the donkeys! And though the basics of the plot about Uriah Heep’s malevolent machinations are the same, the exposure of U-Haul has  none of the exuberant joy of Mr. Micawber’s increasingly vehement denunciations:

And last. I am now in a condition to show, by—HEEP’S—false books, and—HEEP’S—real memoranda, beginning with the partially destroyed pocket-book (which I was unable to comprehend, at the time of its accidental discovery by Mrs. Micawber, on our taking possession of our present abode, in the locker or bin devoted to the reception of the ashes calcined on our domestic hearth), that the weaknesses, the faults, the very virtues, the parental affections, and the sense of honour, of the unhappy Mr. W. have been for years acted on by, and warped to the base purposes of—HEEP. That Mr. W. has been for years deluded and plundered, in every conceivable manner, to the pecuniary aggrandisement of the avaricious, false, and grasping—HEEP.

Yes, he goes on like this for pages—and (as Joe Gargery would say), what larks!

Dickens PortraitWhat I missed most of all in Demon Copperhead was the melancholy tenderness that suffuses David Copperfield, and the way Dickens shades David’s highs and lows with his profound understanding of both the necessity and the heartbreak of losing our childhood innocence. The David that worships Steerforth and adores Dora is so loving and lovable: he is wrong, of course, in both cases, but Dickens is so good at making us feel to our core the cost of outgrowing mistakes like these, of becoming someone too savvy and knowing and suspicious to follow our hearts without question.

There’s also just nothing in Demon Copperhead that rises to the level of Dickens’s sheer virtuosity as a writer in David Copperfield. The scene in which Kingsolver’s Steerforth (Fast Forward) comes to his end is dramatic and suspenseful but it has neither the rich pathos nor the glorious prose of Dickens’s chapter “The Tempest”:

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

The ending of the chapter is in a different register altogether from the extravagance of that description: quieter, sadder, and resonant with everything that David has known and been and loved and lost:

As I sat beside the bed, when hope was abandoned and all was done, a fisherman, who had known me when Emily and I were children, and ever since, whispered my name at the door.

‘Sir,’ said he, with tears starting to his weather-beaten face, which, with his trembling lips, was ashy pale, ‘will you come over yonder?’

The old remembrance that had been recalled to me, was in his look. I asked him, terror-stricken, leaning on the arm he held out to support me:

‘Has a body come ashore?’

He said, ‘Yes.’

‘Do I know it?’ I asked then.

He answered nothing.

But he led me to the shore. And on that part of it where she and I had looked for shells, two children—on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered by the wind—among the ruins of the home he had wronged—I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.

Honestly, it seems kind of unfair to point out that Kingsolver doesn’t—perhaps can’t—write like that. There’s a reason Dickens was called “the Inimitable!” No doubt, too, there are some of you who prefer what she does to what Dickens does. (To each their own, of course, but also, you’re just wrong!) To invite comparison with the greats is to set yourself up for failure, and I definitely wouldn’t say Demon Copperhead is a failure. I doubt I’ll read it again, though, whereas I am wholeheartedly looking forward to rereading David Copperfield again this fall with my students.


“Simple Truths”: Alice Elliott Dark, Fellowship Point

darkThey belonged here. Of course. It was obvious. They belonged here and they should be here. Why not? Why on earth not? Why should she and Polly leave the Point to a land trust rather than to the people who had loved it the longest? Her heart pounded. It had taken her her whole life to see it, but now that she did, nothing could be as clear. The simple truths are always hidden in plain sight, only veiled by the complications of the human mind.

I read almost all of Fellowship Point‘s 575 pages in a single day, which is a testament to how engrossing I found it. That said, by the time I finished it I was disappointed in it: although it is admirably smart and ambitious and encompasses a lot of people, events, and themes, there’s a central plot “resolution” that I found very artificial, not satisfying in any way except as a planned revelation to pull things too neatly together. Furthermore, the final resolution about the future of the land known as Fellowship Point, while the right answer in probably every way, nonetheless felt awkwardly didactic as it actually played out. (Note that I avoid saying exactly what that plot point is or what happens to the land: this is partly because I consider it a courtesy to avoid spoilers here, but also because if you do go on to read the novel itself, I don’t want my stamp of disapproval to mark these elements too prominently. My guess is that you’ll recognize them in any case, but you may well respond to them differently!)

Fellowship Point is like a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel if it were written by Elizabeth Strout: it’s a family saga that sprawls across generations, and it’s a close-up study of two idiosyncratic older women, Agnes and Polly, long-time best friends, whose lives are intimately connected to their neighboring family properties on the coast of Maine. These two women are the best part of the book, and since they are a big part of it, that’s a good thing! Agnes is the most Strout-like of the two, acerbic, independent, uncompromising, unmarried—a grouch with a heart of gold. Polly is kinder, gentler, easier, more accommodating. She is married to a Casaubon-like scholar, a retired philosophy professor struggling to sustain his self-esteem and sense of purpose now that he’s cut off from formal academic life. I had to laugh at his response to Polly’s helpful suggestion that “until his next book came out he write a weblog to express his opinions”:

“Are you serious?” He frowned. “A weblog, on the computer? I’d be laughed out of the profession. . . . ” He’d adopted blog as a catchphrase rather than an activity. “Time to work on my blog,” he’d say for all kinds of transitions—when he repaired to the bathroom, for example.

OK, fair enough! But Polly’s ideas aren’t in fact foolish ones, in this case or in other circumstances, and much of the novel is about her learning to trust herself and her judgment, to stand up against his and then her sons’ tendency to belittle or dismiss her, often in the condescending guise of loving concern.

dark2Agnes, in contrast, has to get out of her own way, to stop guarding her secrets and make space in her life for love and forgiveness. This means reckoning with a traumatic incident from her past, which we learn about through the device of a long series of letters she wrote to her dead sister, which she eventually decides to share with the novel’s third protagonist, Maud Silver, an ambitious young editor eager to convince Agnes to write a full and frank memoir.

For me, it was the letters that began to sap the energy of the novel. They felt like a device, for one thing, an answer to “how do we get this backstory in?” Agnes as shown through the third-person narration is a more vivid and engaging character than Agnes in their first-person voice, too. And the backstory itself took way too long to unspool. I was curious about it, but after a while I was tempted to skim through the letters so I could just find out what the big deal was. Once I knew and I began to suspect how the other pieces fit together, I got somewhat irritable about it all, even though I liked Agnes and Polly enough to want to know how it all turned out.

Thematically, the most substantial issue in the novel is people’s relationship to the land they live on: how ideas about ownership or stewardship, about belonging or sharing or developing or loving the land, affect how it is treated and reflect other, broader, values about how we live in the world. In her acknowledgements, Dark says

As a child I learned that I lived on land where indigenous peoples had lived for hundreds of years. I never stopped thinking about this and wondering what to do about it. The question found its way into this novel. I hope we all find a just answer.

I think the novel does offer “a just answer” to its own specific scenario, but it comes across as pat, rather than as artistically satisfying. It’s true that clues about what that answer might or should be are present from early in Fellowship Point, and maybe if I reread it I would find that this thread (political, ethical, and thematic) is interwoven more richly than I noticed. Maybe, too, it’s thematically appropriate to keep the better alternative to the two options that are more overtly the novel’s central conflict out of sight until nearly the end: it makes sense, I suppose, that the third option wouldn’t even occur to Agnes, loving Fellowship Point and its family history as she does, until quite late—indeed, almost too late. Maybe this answer was meant to feel disruptive of our expectations, especially given the novel’s otherwise familiar genre. All I can say is that I wasn’t convinced by it, however just and right it is in principle, as the right ending for Fellowship Point or, to look at it the other way around, Fellowship Point didn’t read to me like the right novel for that ending. There’s just too much else going on in it that doesn’t really tie in to it.

I also wasn’t in love with Maud’s plot, and I really didn’t like the Big Reveal about it . . . but enough criticism. Really, it’s strange that I have so many complaints about the novel, considering how immersed I was in it in the moment. It is very readable, clearly. I don’t mean that as damning it with faint praise: it’s a lot! Many novels don’t achieve even that much. I appreciated, too, the obvious ambition of the novel, even if, in my judgment, its ambition is not matched by its achievement. Before I read it, I was surprised that my local independent bookstore has it filed under “fiction,” rather than “literature.” I’m always amused by their confident distinction between these two categories and I’m often tempted to challenge them both on the concepts and on their choices about what goes where. Now I think that in this case, they got it right—which isn’t to say it isn’t a good novel, but I am not at all convinced that it’s a great one.

Taking Stock: This Term In My Classes

Arcimbolo LibrarianIt was a strange teaching term, at times hard, awkward, and demoralizing, but also at times invigorating, engaging, even restorative. This is true of every term, I suppose, but I really felt this emotional ebb and flow this time, probably because I am still grappling with what it means to carry on with my “normal” life after Owen’s death: I can’t really take any aspect of it for granted, and the more normal things seem in the moment the more vertiginous the return to my new normal. I am also just less stable myself, more susceptible or less resilient, meaning that while the highs are welcome, the lows can drop me, however unreasonably, into the Slough of Despond. I’ve had waves of plagiarism before, for example, but never before have they reduced me to tears or made me wonder how much longer I can keep doing this work.

Some of the challenges of the term (and the year), though, are not specific to me and my grieving. Every academic I talk to is dealing with high absenteeism, unusually uneven levels of student engagement, overwhelming demand for accommodations and support services, and confusion around expectations about what is reasonable, appropriate, possible, responsible—on both sides, for students (from us) and also for us (from students). The consensus seems to be that we are in a transitional period, for better and for worse. Because of the disruptions of COVID, our current student cohorts have had a different experience of both high school and university than earlier generations. One consequence seems to be that they do not recognize or understand (or, arguably, accept) the intrinsic value of showing up to class, of being present for it, tending (not universally of course) to equate “taking the course” with completing the required assignments. While of course we all want our assignments to matter, I don’t think I’m alone in believing that they are not the point of a course and that they are far from the most (or at least not the only) meaningful modes of engagement with the course material, at least not in an English course. The work we do collectively in the classroom is always going to range more widely and offer more ways to think, more questions to answer, more practice at thinking and answering questions well, than any individual component, however ingeniously devised.

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsI have always worried that students who attend irregularly are missing out on that broader learning experience, and also that sporadic attendance can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you just show up occasionally, you might not recognize the value of what we are doing or know how to join in to get the most out of it. The most obvious policy response is to require attendance, and I do believe in a version of “if you build it, they will come”—if you mandate it, they will (maybe, eventually, hopefully!) start to see the value of it. Mandatory attendance creates its own problems, though, from the administrative burden of recording it (especially with large classes) to the difficulty of having and applying fair policies that take accessibility and other issues into account and don’t lead to constant wrangling over what counts as a “legitimate” absence. For many years now I have not required or graded attendance, though I do always take attendance, so that I have some sense of who is or isn’t showing up and can reach out to anyone who seems like they might be in trouble. Before COVID, I also experimented with a range of different in-class exercises for credit, using them both for low-stakes practice at key course objectives and to “incentivize” being present. I think this is the approach I will go back to next year.

escher12Another reason to return to more in-class work is the relentless encroachment of AI. Other people have written well about what it means for those of us whose life’s work is helping students learn to read, think, and write better, and about what we can and can’t, should and shouldn’t, do in response. (See this thoughtful article in Public Books, for example.) My main practical and pedagogical concern is the way its ready availability serves the unfortunately widespread but hopelessly misguided idea that the point is to generate X number of units of “writing” in order to get a course credit, not to learn the things the writing expresses, to go through the mental and intellectual experience of grappling with questions and thinking through answers, of weighing evidence and arguments and reaching conclusions you, personally, understand and believe in. It has always been possible to substitute other people’s writing for your own, and in fact the majority of the plagiarism cases I submitted this term were of the old-fashioned “copied from the internet” kind. Students in these cases sometimes seemed surprised when I emphasized in my statements that the words and ideas they had used came from other actual people, not from some abstract entity called “the internet”—when you Google something, what comes up is (or was!) the product of someone else’s effort to do what you’ve been asked to do. AI is a stranger kind of thing: nobody “knows” what the bot generates. At the moment students seem naïve about the bot’s capacity in ways that help us spot its presence and intervene: “AI wouldn’t make this kind of mistake,” a student in a recent hearing insisted, but in fact the bot makes a lot of mistakes—or, to put it more accurately, it generates a lot of nonsense. I’ve been running tests on ChatGPT and it has offered up some remarkable howlers, including this hilarious answer to a prompt asking it if the narrator of Middlemarch is judgmental about Celia and to give a specific example from the novel (this seems to be a good strategy, btw, to expose its limitations):

ChatGPT on Mmarch

OUP MiddlemarchActually, I kind of love the idea that the novel’s narrator “would rather have tea than everything else in the world” (me too!)—but of course this is absolutely not a passage from the novel; it’s just a jumble of nonsense. Students are already willing to put in a remarkable (to me) amount of effort “hiding” or “fixing” material they have copied from other sources, to conceal their reliance on it, but I doubt most of them are up to the task of getting crap like this into passable form. Mind you, to know it’s crap, they would need at least some familiarity with the novel: what shocked me with the ChatGPT cases I had this term was that they included quotations that were simply not in the actual assigned text, and the students didn’t even notice. As students get more familiar with the bot’s limitations, they may (may!) find it is actually less work (and less risk) to just do the reading and assignment themselves.

But of course the real answer to this kind of subversion of our teaching and learning goals is to convince students of the value of the work itself. Lots of folks giving advice about ChatGPT emphasize this. I couldn’t agree more, but I think it’s naive on their part to just say this, as if, however good our intentions, our circumstances don’t militate against it. Good writing pedagogy alone, without even worrying about plagiarism, ought to be reason enough for small class sizes that would enable real working relationships between professors and students, that would make process work (outlines, drafts, revisions, portfolios) feasible and meaningful. For the last few years my first-year writing classes have had 120 students in them (up from 90, which was up from a longstanding norm of 55). One good result of some otherwise very unfortunate budgeting issues in our department may be that these caps come back down, maybe even by half. That’s still a far cry from the caps of 17 in the writing seminars at Cornell where I trained, but a lot of things are possible with 60 students that aren’t with 120—and I don’t just mean logistically, although that matters too. With 60 students you can see all of their faces and learn all of their names! If I’m going to convince at least most of them (some of them will never believe this, or care about this) that reading and writing well is exciting and important, that poems and stories are worth their time, that Virginia Woolf is worth their attention (it was crushing how many students copied and pasted material for their journals and discussion posts about “The Death of the Moth”) then making our classrooms even a little bit more personal is surely an essential first step. woolf-by-bell

This post has already gotten pretty long and I haven’t said anything very specific about my actual classes this term! I think that reflects the kind of term it was for me: one in which big questions about the job, about pedagogy, about how and why to do all of this really dominated. Still, for my own sake I think it’s also important for me to note, so that I don’t forget, that there were some wonderful students and some really rewarding moments in both classes. I think specifications grading went reasonably well in the first-year class: as before, a number of students have commented explicitly on ways in which they found it effective and supportive. Although attendance was the worst I’ve ever seen in Mystery & Detective Fiction, it settled in to a pretty consistent group, and we had some excellent discussions; I think these students did see that there was more to “taking the class” than paging through the books and completing the basic requirements, and it was heartening that several of them told me on the last day how much they had enjoyed the class. Some of them are even coming back to read more books with me next term!

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973Next term: what a thought. A year ago the very idea of being back in the classroom was completely overwhelming. It seemed impossible, unthinkable. “How do they do that?” I puzzled as I reflected on all the other sad people I knew were around me:

I don’t imagine that it feels easy to any of them, or that they are “over it” or have “moved on,” but there they all are, carrying on with their lives while also somehow carrying their grief.

I know now how easy the answer is, though the reality it reflects is so difficult: they just do. We just do. We have to. “You don’t get over it, you just get through it” is one of the many clichés about grief that turn out to be exactly true. Getting through it is pretty hard work, I find, and I am so grateful for the help and support I have had and still have, from friends and family—my elephants—and from the excellent therapist I had my first appointment with last May, whose compassion, insight, and expertise continue to be invaluable. I am also truly grateful to the many students who showed up, in person and online, to engage with me about our readings, and whose curiosity, hard work, and good will helped me resolve that yes, I do want to keep doing this job: they make the endeavor worthwhile, and I hope I managed to convey my enthusiasm and commitment to them in spite of the term’s challenges.

Postwar: Valérie Perrin, Fresh Water for Flowers

perrinAnd then, just like the cemetery cats, the sun reached as far as my room, reached under my sheets. I opened the curtains, and then the windows. I went back downstairs to the kitchen, boiled the water for the tea, and aired the room. I finally returned to the garden. Finally gave fresh water to the flowers. I welcomed the families once again, served them something hot and strong to drink.

I didn’t know when I began it that Fresh Water for Flowers is a novel about a bereaved mother. I did know that it was about a cemetery keeper, so I expected it to be about death, which it certainly is. “My close neighbors,” it begins,

don’t quake in their boots. They have no worries, don’t fall in love, don’t bite their nails, don’t believe in chance, make no promises, or noise, don’t have social security, don’t cry, don’t search for their keys, their glasses, the remote control, their children, happiness . . . They’re dead. The only difference between them is in the wood of their coffins: oak, pine, or mahogany.

That voice—wry, incisive, self-aware, equal parts droll and melancholy—belongs to Violette Toussaint, who narrates most of Fresh Water for Flowers. She’s the reason the novel is neither depressing nor sentimental (though it is often heartbreaking and sometimes romantic): Violette is too careful, too private, for overt or self-indulgent displays of emotion. She speaks like she dresses: winter outside (“classic, somber clothes, for the eyes of others”), summer underneath (“light, colorful clothes meant only for me”), “nothing to do with the seasons, but rather the circumstances.”

perrin2It isn’t that Violette isn’t warm or compassionate: reflecting on the demands of her strange job, which include assisting and often comforting those who come to bury or visit their loved ones in the cemetery she oversees, she says “for a woman like me, not feeling compassion would be like being an astronaut, a surgeon, a volcanologist, or a geneticist. Not part of my planet. Or my skill set.” She has been “destroyed,” though, and as a result has retreated into herself, leaving love and happiness to others—until things change and she resolves that “unhappiness has to stop someday,” even unhappiness stemming from a grief as intense as hers for her dead daughter Léonine.

We don’t find out about her daughter’s death for some time (nearly a third of the novel). In the meantime we are getting to know Violette’s story, including about her marriage and her first job as a level-crossing keeper, raising and lowering the barriers as trains pass. The novel cuts back and forth between her past and her present, gradually moving us towards an explanation of how she came to be where she is  and also why she is there alone there, without her husband Philippe. One—perhaps the—crucial reason is that she moved to be closer to Léonine, but because the reason Léonine herself lies in the cemetery is a key plot point, the engine behind a lot of the developments and revelations of the novel, I will leave out the details.

perrin3As a cemetery keeper, Violette is surrounded by other people’s death and mourning: a connoisseur of funerals, she believes you can understand and maybe even judge someone’s life by the send-off they get.  She records every one in her notebook: the weather, the coffin, the flowers, the family and friends, the speeches. She knows her quiet neighbors’ birth and death dates and often much of the story of what came in between; she tends affectionately to their graves, watering, weeding, cleaning. Her work and thus the novel is a provocation to think about the many ways people live and then die. “Death,” as Violette observes

never takes a break. It knows neither summer holidays, nor public holidays, nor dentist appointments. . . . It’s there, everywhere, all the time. No one really thinks about it, or they’d go mad. It’s like a dog that’s forever weaving around our legs, but whose presence we only notice the day it bites us. Or, worse, bites a loved one.

Violette herself has been badly bitten by Léonine’s death: this is what “destroyed” her. “Ever since my childhood,” she says to Léonine, who is no longer there, “I had never made a noise, so that I wouldn’t be abandoned anymore. I left yours, your childhood, screaming.” It takes her years to emerge from the absolute paralyzing devastation that follows. Her description of what comes next is one of the hardest, truest things I’ve read about carrying on after losing a child:

Yes, the war was drawing to a close. I sensed it. I would never recover from the death of my daughter, but the bombing had stopped. I would live through the postwar period. The longest, the hardest, the most pernicious. . . . You pick yourself up, and then find yourself face to face with a girl of her age. When the enemy has gone, and there’s nothing left but those who are left. Desolation. Empty cupboards. Photos that freeze her in childhood. All the others growing, even the trees, even the flowers, without her.

Later in the novel she runs through a litany of all the things that won’t happen:

You won’t put your teenage years behind you.
You won’t celebrate being twenty-five and still unmarried by St. Catherine’s Day.
You won’t dance any slow dances . . .
I won’t see your wrinkles and liver spots appearing, or your cellulite and stretch marks . . .
You’ll marry no one.

perrin-changerIt’s a long list, two pages, and even though it’s not Owen’s list, I couldn’t (can’t) stop crying as I read it, because it’s so true that part of what you are grieving is that future, the one you pour your hope, your effort, your time, your love, your heart into as a parent. Thankfully, Perrin avoids easy, inadequate clichés about consolation, the kind of implicit or explicit messages that hurt rather than help. There is no silver lining for Violette, though she finds a beautiful way to express the ways Léonine, absent forever, will stay present in her life:

You will grow up differently, in the love I will always have for you. You will grow up elsewhere, among the murmurs of the world, in the Mediterranean, in Sasha’s garden, in the flight of a bird, at daybreak, at nightfall, through a young girl I will meet by chance, in the foliage of a tree, in the prayer of a woman, in the tears of a man, in the light of a candle, you will be reborn later, one day, in the form of a flower or a little boy, to another mother, you will be everywhere my eyes come to rest. Wherever my heart resides, yours will continue to beat.

Taking over care of the cemetery where Léonine lies makes these continuing bonds literal, but there’s a risk that it also commits Violette to death rather than life. Fresh Water for Flowers is about her choosing otherwise, eventually, which happens because the mother of a man named Julien Seul asked for her ashes to be placed on the tomb of a man he, Julien, doesn’t know. Julien’s arrival at the cemetery is the instigating incident for much of the novel’s present-day plot; the story of Julien’s mother Irène becomes an almost co-equal part of the novel, woven through Violette’s narrative by the inclusion of Irène’s diary. Irène’s story is a love story, though not an unequivocally happy one; there’s also a kind of mystery plot, around the circumstances of Léonine’s death.

tulipsIn fact, there’s quite a lot going on in Fresh Water for Flowers, and although overall I really enjoyed the novel, I did wonder sometimes if it needed quite so many elements. Violette seemed like enough to me, although I suppose it would be harder to appreciate the journey she makes from death back to life without the rich ambience the novel provides, in which life and love and loss and death and humor and tragedy and pain and beauty are constantly mingling and the sheer variety of human character and experience is a recurrent motif. Every chapter begins with what I saw as epigraphs, but which are referred to in the discussion questions at the end of the novel as “epitaphs,” which surprised me and then made perfect sense, even though many of them are not quite the kind of thing you’d actually carve on a tombstone. It’s a novel that immerses us in death, but in the spirit of inviting us to think about life. Violette’s specific path from the darkness back into the light felt a bit pat to me, a bit too easy and romantic, but maybe that’s what novels are for, at least some of the time. In the book of life, after all, as the epigraph / epitaph for Chapter 5 reminds us,

when we want to return to the page on which we love, the page on which we die is already between our fingers.

“A Gift, A Blessing”: Nicola Griffith, Spear

spearShe wanted more than anything to be Dawnged to her mother now: a gift, a blessing. She was tired of striving, tired of the sideways look of those who did not trust her. She wanted to belong; to sit before the hearth and dip soup from the hanging bowl, or sit cross-legged before her mother who perched on a stool that she, her daughter, had made, to hear Elen use her name, Peretur . . .

I loved Nicola Griffith’s Hild, so I ordered Spear as soon as it was available last year and started reading it as soon as my copy arrived — only to find myself bogged down in, rather than entranced by, the language. Where Hild invited me to luxuriate in its vivid exposition and lured me through its sometimes bewildering complexity with its powerful characterization of Hild herself, Spear seemed mannered, even portentous, at first:

So it was that her mother, to keep the girl interested, taught her the language of books, and with great reluctance showed the girl her chest of scrolls. “These are tales of the world,” she told her. “All the adventure, all the different and new you need.” The tales of heroes and great deeds, and the riddles and tragic tales, did interest the girl, but many were stories of how to bind a wound and grow a garden, how to husband a flock and dress a fresh-killed fowl, and she already knew these things. And all the people in the stories had names, and she did not; and she would never find her name here in the cave.

I gave up on Spear last year, but I came back to it this weekend and it went much better, though I never quite lost the sense that there was too much artifice in its style, and also that it is as much the working out of a concept as the realization of a fiction with its own organic necessities.

The concept is explained in some detail in the Author’s Note at the end: it is Griffith’s contribution to Arthuriana, her own version of the story of Percival. Like HildSpear is thoroughly researched — not just the other versions of the Arthurian legend but also the “material culture” of the period in which Griffith places her story, the early 6th century. You can see the results in her description of Caer Leon, which has the same tactility as the more abundant exposition in Hild:

In the inner fort was the king’s hall and byre, lesser buildings for the Companions and their folk, for many had wives and, some few, children; there was a well, bread ovens, a granary, may small plots for fresh herbs, a still room, and food cellars dug deep in the dirt. A rooster crowed; a chicken, still half asleep, pecked; soon geese would waddle and the goats come pitter-pat to the midden to chew side by side, staring with their yellow, slot-centred eyes.

hildGriffith brings the same dedication of detail to the fight scenes, which are brutal but also fluid in a way that reflects Peretur’s mystical connection to nature and especially to animals, including the horse she rides in a dramatic test bout with Lanza (better known to most of us as Sir Lancelot). And she brings a commitment to another kind of historical accuracy: inclusion. “This could not be a story of only straight, white, nondisabled men,” she explains;

Crips, queers, women and other genders, and people of colour are an integral part of the history of Britain — we are embedded at every level of society, present during every change, and part of every problem and its solution. We are here now; we were there then. So we are in this story.

This presence is embodied in Peretur herself, who passes as a man and fights as a knight but is a woman and loves women, especially Nimuë, the Lady of the Lake. Griffith also revises key conventions of the heroic quest plot: “her real goal is connection.”

There’s plenty of drama in Spear as Peretur faces antagonists from bandits to supernatural agents. Because it’s novella length, it moves very quickly through the action, and as a result the personal relationships meant to give it emotional depth — particularly with her mother but, in some ways more urgently, with Nimuë — felt underdeveloped, too thin to do the affective and thematic work they seemed meant to. And to the end I could not shake my slight dissatisfaction with the prose. I think Griffith may have been deliberately aiming for a cadence that would sound faintly archaic, to give us the feeling that we were dipping back into legend:

And so between them Nimuë and Myrddyn found the stone and the sword, and one day she looked deep into him and saw all that he had done, and would do with the power of the treasures of the Tuath.

Maybe this style is typical of fantasy, which is not a genre I typically read; I don’t much like it. But there were also moments of bright simple clarity:

The late afternoon sky over the lake this time was grey, but the water laughed and sparkled, reflecting the blue sky and summer sunshine of some other time and place. Peretur watched the flickers of light and thought perhaps her mother looked down from that place, giving her blessing.

April, Come She Will

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

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

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

Another night, he wakes up and can hear birds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Roots March 2023March was a rough month. For one thing, I had more academic integrity hearings stemming from a single assignment than I’ve ever had in one term. It was an exceptionally disheartening experience, especially given the lengths I have gone to in my introductory class to reduce the risk for students of just trying to do the work for themselves: this is the class in which I’m using specifications grading, meaning there is really no risk involved. As I plaintively reminded the class as it became clear just how widespread the problem was, the class is designed to make it safe to be wrong, safe to be confused, safe to be learning. But if you don’t actually do your own writing, you strip the whole process of its meaning. Plus (as I pointed out to many students in the actual hearings), if your uncertainty leads you to copying other people’s writing, you will never build your own skills and your own confidence: you will never find out that you can in fact do the work, and get better at it.

I’ve written here before about plagiarism and my overall attitude remains the same. I’m just crushingly disappointed that things went so badly this term, despite my considerable efforts to educate and support students so that they would make better choices. It was incredibly demoralizing that so many students clearly saw the course as a means to an end, hoping to get the credit for it without engaging in the process. It has also been predictably destabilizing seeing or even just suspecting that students are using ChatGPT to do “their” work. (Literally the only good news about this is that the bots are pretty unreliable about any but the most widely familiar literary works, and even with them they can produce real howlers.) One consequence is that I am reconsidering specifications grading, even though I remain convinced that it is pedagogically sound and also ethically preferable to traditional approaches to writing assessment.  At the very least, if I use it again next year, I’m going to have to rethink the kind and number of components I require: with as many moving parts as my current course design includes, it is just overwhelming trying to scrutinize submissions as closely as it turns out we need to. Next year the class will be in person rather than online, which may make a difference: for one thing, I can do some in-class writing that will both give me a baseline indication of how the students’ own voices sound and, maybe, give them the hands-on experience they need to believe they can actually do the work themselves. English 1015 Academic Integrity Explainer

So that was a dreary part of the past month or so that took up an enormous amount of my time and energy. That’s one reason I didn’t get much good reading done: I was too tired and sad and distracted to concentrate. I did finish a few books, though, and a couple of them were excellent. An unexpected highlight was Stephen Marche’s On Writing and Failure, which I quoted from in my last post. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness was not for me: it seemed to be aiming for some of the same effects as Anthony Doerr’s Cloud-Cuckoo Land, but I found Doerr’s novel much more engaging. Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind was gripping and thought-provoking, if unpleasantly unsettling: I didn’t think much about its genre when I picked it up at the store, but it is as much horror as dystopian fiction. I appreciated the slow but steady increase in tension and the imaginative creepiness of details like the flamingos. I was disappointed in the ending, though. Like The Road, it never specifies its calamity, which frustrated me more in this case because it focuses so much more, at least initially, on the question of what happened: in The Road, we are always already in the aftermath, and it hardly matters any more how we got there. The author interview that follows Leave the World Behind clarifies that the novel’s open-endedness is deliberate, but given how strenuously Alam avoids telling us either what happened (the cause) or what happens after (the effects), I found the little proleptic teasers about the characters’ futures annoying.  So, for me, it was good (I did appreciate reading a genuine page-turner, given my own general malaise) but not great.

pineiroEasily the best novel I read in March was Claudia Piñeiro’s Elena Knows. This was recommended to me last year when I was (as I so often am) casting about for new ideas for my two mystery fiction courses. I started it then but had to abandon it, as a novel about suicide and a mother’s grief was not an experience I could bear. I kept it on my mental TBR, though, and I’m glad I tried again, because it really is exceptional: slight but fierce and complex, with its overlapping interests in disability, ageism, misogyny, and autonomy. I think it would be a really interesting book to read in my course on Women & Detective Fiction, even though in many ways it is not really a mystery. It is certainly about a crime – or, crimes, if you think socially and systemically – and there is an investigation, even if there isn’t a detective, or evidence, or any of the other conventional elements.

I also read Jo Baker’s The Midnight News and quite enjoyed it, but this one was for a review, so I will save more detailed comments for that purpose. I will say that I admire Baker’s versatility: like Sarah Moss, she clearly likes to try new things. There’s a snarky comment in Toby Litt’s A Writer’s Diary about Sarah Waters always writing the same book. I bristled, because Waters is one of my favorite novelists and that seems unfair and reductive! But there is a grain of truth in it: she is drawn to similar problems and scenarios in all of her books, and her recent novels do all have a fairly similar tone. I think that’s fine! She’s really good at what she does. But Longbourn and The Body Lies and A Country Road, A Tree are completely different books, as are Signs for Lost Children, Cold Earth, and Ghost Wall: I don’t think you would necessarily recognize them as being by the same authors. ghost-wall

March was rough for me emotionally, and April has its challenges as well. There are some bright spots to look forward to, though, notably Maddie’s graduation recital. She began her music degree in 2019: it has been a strange and often very difficult four years of university for her, between COVID and online learning and the particularly disruptive effects of lockdowns for the performing arts. She has accomplished so much, in spite of all that and everything else. Her 3rd-year recital was a triumph, and it is an understatement to say that I am looking forward to this year’s longer program.


Heart Rock November 22It has been quiet around here. I’m not really sure why that is. I’ve been busy at work, but that has never stopped me before. When this term began, I intended to make posting about my teaching routine again. When I kept that up, in the old days, it didn’t matter if I felt I had something in particular to say when I started: eventually I would discover what I had to say, because (as I’ve been trying to convince my first-year students) that’s how writing works. My reading hasn’t been going very well, but I used to write about it anyway.

One challenge for me right now, something not directly related to my blogging or teaching or reading and yet maybe essential to them, or to me, to what I can do, is that I am still in what I imagined a year ago (a whole year ago!) as the corridor:

One way I suppose I could think about where I am right now is precisely in a corridor between two blocks, one of them my previous life, which included Owen, and the other my future life, which will go on without him. In a literal sense, of course, I am already in that new life, but it doesn’t feel that way yet: I feel disoriented, adrift, unsettled.

Then, when I was still (to an extent that I didn’t really understand) in the first shock of my loss, I felt the passing of time, and especially the coming of spring, as an offense against my grief. Spring is here again, officially anyway, and though on the surface my life appears much as it did before Owen died, I still have not figured out “how to incorporate his death into my understanding of my life”; although my life continues, I cannot understand or experience it yet as continuous. “Superficially ‘fine,'” as Denise Riley puts it, sixteen months after her own son’s death,

as my daily air of cheerfulness carries me around with an unseen crater blown into my head, the truth is that my thoughts are turned constantly to life and to death; all that I can attentively hold.

Two years after, two and a half years after, three years after, she is still writing her shock: “The severance of a child’s life makes a cut through your own”; “No time at all. No time.” The corridor, it turns out, is long, longer than I could have known, or was willing to know (she tried to tell me) — and now that so much actual time has passed I feel self-conscious, even a bit defensive, that I haven’t emerged from it yet.

It’s not that anybody has said or even implied that I should be “over it” by now, but — rightly, understandably — for most people the urgency of my loss is over, the tide of sympathy and care has receded, new demands and crises and losses have come up. Life goes on, and “how are you doing,” while still a kind question, and sincere, becomes perfunctory, a question I answer in the same spirit, superficially, because what else, really, can I do? If sometimes I’m just going through the motions, well, at least that means I’m moving, and how else can I get to the other end of this corridor, whatever it means, wherever it leads? If I look straight ahead, it’s not so bad, either, although sometimes that’s actually the worst. “There’s no denying,” C. S. Lewis comments in A Grief Observed, “that in some sense ‘I feel better,’ and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness.” He’s wise about the complexity of that reaction:

We don’t really want grief, in its first agonies, to be prolonged: nobody could. But we want something else of which grief is a frequent symptom, and then we confuse the symptom with the thing itself.

Lewis talks of recurrences and cycles, like Riley seeking to articulate the temporal disruption and disorientation of grief. “Am I going in circles,” he asks, “or dare I hope I am on a spiral?”

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

How often  — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss until this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again. a_grief_observed

When people say “it takes time,” they aren’t thinking about the knife, about the craters. “What a different result one gets by changing the metaphor,” George Eliot says in The Mill on the Floss. At least a corridor connects, rather than severs. Maybe it also shelters, protects, directs.

One book I did finish recently is Stephen Marche’s On Writing and Failure. If it sounds like a discouraging read, well, it is, but it also isn’t, because amidst the real talk and the cynicism there is also sincerity, even conviction. I loved this little passage, which helped me understand why I keep this up (why I want to keep this up):

I do not know who I am writing for, or for what time, or to what purpose. But there is a deep longing in me — and that’s not a lie, not a fraud — to make these words for you. These ephemeral connections are the substance of victory, to belong to a constellation of meanings, to alleviate a specific, miniscule cosmic loneliness. It seems like such a small satisfaction to expend your life on. It isn’t. “You ask, why send my scribbles,” Ovid, in his exile, asked. “Because I want to be with you somehow.” Somehow, anyhow.

I also read a book of poems by Linda Pastan. I especially loved “The Bookstall” (“For life is continuous / as long as they wait / to be read”). Her poem “Yahrzeit Candle” begins “On the second birthday / of your death / nothing / much / has changed.” I’m not there yet. I don’t want to be there. It seems impossibly far off, which is both good and bad, but time passes.

Cold Trees Feb 2 23

A Warm-Hearted Reading Update

strout-againAfter I finished Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, I commented on Twitter that I was finding cold, meticulous novels wearing and asked for recommendations of good, recent warm-hearted fiction. Along with the understandable and spot-on nods to writers I already know well (such as Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler), I got a lot of good tips, which I am still working through. Here are the ones I have read so far. I have to say that while they have all been fine, none of them really got much traction with me: I don’t think it is necessarily the case that “warm-hearted” means lightweight, but that’s how these mostly felt. I don’t think I will remember much about them. The exception so far is Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, which I found very moving; that’s why it got its own post!

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again. I read Olive Kitteridge years ago – long enough that I didn’t write it up here, that I can find. I remember enjoying it, but it seemed dispensable, so after a while I put it in my “donate” pile. I didn’t like My Name is Lucy Barton much, and that seemed like the end of my relationship with Strout. Still, she’s much beloved, and so I picked up Olive, Again to see if I’d underestimated her. My conclusion is “not really.” I liked it fine, but it felt incidental, meandering. The ‘linked short story’ effect irritates the novel reader in me: it feels lazy, as if the author couldn’t be bothered to do the work of actually integrating the characters and events into one more substantial and meaningful whole. I’m a lover of Victorian multi-plot novels, which I consider, at their best, a high form of art. If the whole is supposed to be more than the sum of its parts, I’d like the author to be the one who does the work of building that up. Don’t just give us the pieces and assume we’ll believe there’s more to it than that.onan

Stewart O’Nan, Emily Alone. I read this right after Olive, Again, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still reading the same book. There was nothing (to my ear, anyway) to distinguish the voice or tone or prose of one author from the other; Emily’s story could easily have been one of the chapters in Strout’s book (see, I’m reluctant to call it a “novel”!) – except, of course, for being book-length itself. I liked Emily herself just fine, and “older woman living alone” is one of my favorite tropes (see Plant Dreaming Deep, for a cherished example) but the novel recounted day to day events in tedious detail. I like exposition, but I like it to be more than an accumulation of (fictional) facts.

mccrackenElizabeth McCracken, The Hero of This Book. I liked this one quite a lot except for the uneasiness it created in me about what kind of book it is, exactly. I realize that is one of the main points of the book, to destabilize assumptions about what constitutes a memoir or a novel or autofiction or whatever. I understood this because McCracken makes rather a lot of noise about it: “What’s the difference between a novel and a memoir?” she asks; “I couldn’t tell you. Permission to lie; permission to cast aside worries about plausibility.” “It’s not a made-up place,” she says about a trip she and her mother make to the theater (or do they?),

though this is a novel, and the theater might be fictional, and my insistence fictional, and my mother the only real thing, though this version of her is also fictional.

OK, whatever. I found these intrusions distracting. If I wanted to explore theoretical differences between genres in that kind of explicit way, I’d read critical writing; if you want to play with genre, you can do it without so much handwaving about it. And yet as a book about love and mourning, The Hero of This Book was sometimes quite powerful:

Was this grief? I could feel my mother’s joy on the London Eye, her love of heights and good views. That streak of daredevilry and thrill-seeking. I had once taken her on a helicopter tour of downtown Miami, after she’d seen somebody parasailing and had guessed aloud that she couldn’t do that. My mother laughed as the helicopter wove through skyscrapers; I believed that I would fall to the ground at any moment and thought, I’ve had nightmares like this. That was actual joy; the joy I could apprehend now had not occurred, was counterfeit, made of regret and set in regret. osman

Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club. When Levi Stahl recommended this, he prefaced it by asking if I read or liked “cozies.” I don’t, much, but this one sounded really charming – which it is, or at least the cast of characters is. By about half way through, however, I had completely lost interest in the actual murder case. (I also got irritated at the repeated device of revealing some key bit of evidence to the characters but withholding it from us: I get that it’s a provocation for us to figure out what it might be on our own, but IMHO it’s a bit of a cheap trick.) This had some ripple effects on the quality of attention I paid to the rest of the novel: I read just closely enough to find out what happened to the people I liked, but overall I wasn’t very invested, and I don’t think I’ll read on in the series.

The Decline of Reading (in My Classes)

trollope-wardenI’ve been ordering next year’s books — not because I’m that ahead of the game in general but because early ordering enables the bookstore to retain leftover copies from this year’s stock and students to get cash back at the end of term if they have books we’re using again. I’m teaching a couple of the same classes again in 2023-24 (my first-year writing class and Mystery & Detective Fiction) and so it isn’t too hard to get those orders sorted out. While I was at it, I thought I’d also make my mind up about which novels I’d assign for the Austen to Dickens course (this year I’m doing Dickens to Hardy — once upon a time I taught them both every year, but now I do them in alternate years) . . . and this has had me thinking about how my reading lists have changed over the past twenty years.

I don’t mean substantively, although over the years titles have come and gone and been offered in many different combinations. But going back over recent book lists to get ideas, what stood out to me the most is that in the early 2000s I routinely assigned six novels in these one-term courses, often including one really long one (Vanity Fair, Bleak House or Middlemarch, say). Then around 2008 I went down to five, which remained standard for my book lists until 2020, again usually including one of the big ones but often balancing it with one pretty short one (The WardenCranford, or Silas Marner, for example).

Then in Fall 2020, when we “pivoted” to online teaching, I took the widespread advice to reduce students’ workload, both because online pedagogy is more laborious for everyone (because of things like written discussion boards replacing more impromptu in-person discussions) and because of the additional stress of the pandemic. That term I assigned just four novels. I taught the 19th-century fiction class online again in Fall 2021 — and again I assigned four novels. Both times one of the four was a big one, but overall, there was less reading than I used to require.

OUP MiddlemarchWhen I came back to in-person teaching last term, I was wary about going back to pre-pandemic norms. Things in general didn’t really seem normal, after all. So once again I assigned just four novels. OK, one of them was Middlemarch! (But again, I used to assign Middlemarch routinely as one of five or even six.) My impression was that for many of the students, this reduced reading load was a lot — overwhelming, even, for some of them — and so I have ordered just four novels again for next year (although one of them is David Copperfield).

What this has me wondering about is what has changed. Was I delusional, back in 2003 or 2004, thinking that most of the class was actually getting through six Victorian novels in a term? My memory of those years is that they included some of the best classes I’ve taught: lively, engaged, enthusiastic, with students often showing up again and again to work with me. Perhaps that was just a very self-selecting fraction of them; perhaps I focused too much on those who were keen and keeping up and the others coasted through somehow (SparkNotes, maybe?) without my being any the wiser. What about all those years I assigned five novels? Again, I always thought things were going fine, if not for everyone, then for most of the class. I certainly don’t remember complaints about the reading load in those days, but over the last two years I have had quite a few students contact me to express concern about their ability to get through, and also just to comprehend, the novels on my reading lists.new-austen

Did the pandemic make that big a difference, with its disruptions to students’ learning and study habits perhaps undermining their patience or capacity for sustained reading? Are students working a lot more outside of school now than they were in 2008 or 2015? Is it an ongoing generational shift, as the trend towards easier modes of media consumption continues? Or is it a question of my own lowered expectations lowering their expectations — of their classes and of themselves? If I put five novels back on the list, would they rise to the occasion? I do feel there have been losses as the number of titles we work on goes down, because there’s less variety, but I have heard the wisdom that less content actually means more learning. I could address the variety problem by replacing the one big novel with two shorter novels, I suppose, but I am reluctant to give up the chance to work through one of the long ones, not least because that kind of doorstopper is one of the literary glories of the period — and not many students are likely to try any of the really big ones on their own, so my class is a rare opportunity to offer them that experience.

copperfieldI could still add a fifth book to next year’s list if I want to. So far, I’m committed to Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreDavid Copperfield, and The Warden. In 2017 I assigned Persuasion, Vanity FairJane EyreNorth and South, and Great Expectations for the same course; in 2013 the list was PersuasionWaverleyJane EyreDavid Copperfield, and North and South (I remember that year distinctly, because it was the year of the Waverley intervention!). I wouldn’t dare add Waverley at this point, I don’t think (I last taught it in 2020, just before we all got sent home, and oh my goodness does looking back at that post make me nostalgic) but I wonder if Mary Barton or Adam Bede would break them, or maybe little Silas Marner. Or maybe I should accept that for whatever reason, at this point less really is more, or at least enough.

What about the rest of you who assign reading for a living? Do you find that the amount of reading you dare demand keeps going down? If so, do you mind, or do you think it is a net benefit? What do you think are the causes? Is it just reality catching up with us (after all, if we’re in this line of work, we do probably read more, and faster, than most) or has something really changed? Students out there — current, former, or prospective — what’s your perspective?