The Soundtracks of Our Lives

On Facebook there’s a meme going around of people posting a list of the albums that inspired or defined their teenage identities. One thing all the lists I’ve seen so far have in common is that they’re all pop music of one kind or another. I wonder if that’s because it’s a genuine rarity for a teenager to listen to classical music, or jazz, or folk, or opera — or because popular music is in some sense more personal, or speaks more immediately to mood and time and place.

My own teenage listening was a pretty odd mixture. I probably listen to more pop music now than I did in high school. I was an opera lover from a young age, and the music I heard at home was most often classical or folk: my parents deny ever being hippies, but their record collection certainly bore signs of their having lived in Berkeley for much of the 60s, with lots of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, & Mary. During my high school years, most of my family was quite involved in international folk dancing. My father and I, more specifically, were involved with a group called the “Philhellenic Dancers”: we met weekly to learn and practice dances from all regions of Greece, and a subset of the group, including the two of us, gave performances in restaurants and at festivals, including a few times at Greek Day. (As almost none of us were actually Greek, I have thought a lot about this group in light of current debates about cultural appropriate. But that would be — maybe will be — a separate post some day.) flute logo

In Grade 11, I started working part-time at The Magic Flute, a classical record store that for many years was a Vancouver institution: this was a job that both reflected and supported my orientation towards classical music. My first gig there was doing inventory, for which I was paid in store credit. The fruits of that labor are now boxed up in my parents’ basement. With vinyl making a comeback, maybe I should finally get the boxes shipped out here for sorting. (I can’t find any photos of the store online, but I did find this clip of its graphic logo, which was on all our shopping bags and on the cover of the mail-order catalog that I assembled and edited for many years.)

Acentral_parkll of these activities and interests infused my listening life. I didn’t have any sense of disdain for whatever the top 100 might be; I just didn’t pay that music much attention. I knew and liked some older stuff: when Simon & Garfunkel did their reunion tour in 1983, for instance, I lined up overnight with a friend to get floor tickets, and enjoyed their B.C. Place concert from our spot maybe 3 yards back from the stage. I got to be good friends with Veda Hille (now an original and successful musician in her own right) and she introduced me to the Beatles (imagine needing an introduction to the Beatles in the mid-80s, but I did), and then when we were co-editors of our high school year book, we listened to a lot of David Bowie while developing photos in the darkroom. Other people’s influence brought in other music: my boyfriend was a Eurythmics fan, for instance (I died my hair purple to go with him to their concert — though since my hair is naturally quite dark, the result was more like a purple aura than a bold statement). It was Vancouver in the 80s, so perhaps Bryan Adams fandom was inevitable, and when Born in the USA came out, my best friend and I put it on our Sony Walkmen and listened to it over and over. (That friend liked to get out and have some fun, so she is also the reason I saw Michael Jackson live when the Victory Tour came to Vancouver.)

Bryan at New Kent HotelBut there really isn’t a list of 10 albums that for me made up a distinct soundtrack of those years, at least not one that really speaks to who I was. Instead, there are particular songs or albums that now have astonishing power to summon up different periods of my life. It’s remarkable how music can do that, isn’t it? A song comes on and suddenly there you are immersed in a whole set of feelings, as if you are being dunked into a vat of memory. These are often not songs that are personal favorites – what matters is that for some reason they became part of a moment in time for me. I was in the grocery store yesterday, for example, and Billy Joel’s “I’m Moving Out” came over their annoyingly loud sound system — and I was instantly back in the New Kent Hotel in London, where my sister and I stayed at both ends of our 6-month tour of Europe in 1986. (I just looked it up, and what do you know: it’s still there.) It was really a kind of hostel, with a lot of long-term guests, many of them Australians on work visas, and the ones we roomed with played Billy Joel a lot. In the photo you can see the Bryan Adams poster my best friend gave me to take along, to remind me of my roots (I guess). I took photos of it on display in a lot of different hostels! The song brought it all back to me, perhaps because I don’t think I have ever played it myself in any other context: I remember all the excitement and anxiety of being on that big adventure.

surfacingSarah McLachlans’s “Building a Mystery” is another really evocative song for me. It’s on her album Surfacing, which came out the year Owen was born. I was up a lot at night nursing, and I used to play it softly as I rocked with him. It was a hot summer, and I was equal parts miserably exhausted and desperately in love with this new little person. If I hear songs from that album without warning — especially “I Love You” or “Angel” — I am liable to get teary, though I’m not sure why these memories are quite so poignant. Maybe it’s the sense of distance, the realization of just how much has changed, and how inexorably time keeps moving forward. Then there’s Enya’s “Caribbean Blue,” which my husband and I danced to at our wedding rehearsal dinner in 1992: an unlikely choice, perhaps, but it is a waltz and it had become one of “our” songs. One of our first joint activities (cliché alert!) during our daringly brief courtship was taking ballroom dance classes together, so we actually did a pretty good job of our dance, if I may say so myself! Of course I can’t hear that song now without remembering what a happy weekend that was, as our friends and family gathered around us to wish us well. We walked down the ‘aisle’ (we were married in a restaurant, so it was pretty informal — the plan had been to use their waterfront garden, but it rained) to one of Dvorak’s string serenades: this, along with my turquoise silk dress, helped make the ceremony itself seem less clichéd!

Joan-Sutherland-005Although I listen to music almost all the time now, there’s little that has the same emotional power over me: I have to go deeper into my past to get the same effect. I wonder if it’s just that the more immediate events and their associations haven’t yet distilled into part of my history. There is certainly some music that is fundamental to my life — that I have loved for so long, that has given me so much pleasure, that when I hear it it restores me to myself. At the top of that list would be Joan Sutherland’s 1962 recording of La Traviata: my parents gave me the highlights LP as a birthday gift in 1972 and I cherished it even before I had the honor of getting Sutherland’s autograph on the cover years later. (Richard Bonynge’s autograph is on the back: I still feel a bit embarrassed about how indifferent I was to his offer to sign it too, but I was 9 and Sutherland was my idol.) No piano music has ever displaced Chopin’s in my heart since I first tried to learn some of his easier waltzes as a student: practicing the A-major Polonaise in the little room I signed out in the music building helped me sustain myself emotionally during my terrible first year of graduate school at Cornell. And speaking of graduate school, The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” promptly delivers me back to my friend Bernie’s green pick-up truck and all the times we drove in it across the Catskills to my sister’s house in Mamaroneck…

I think my problem with the “10 albums” meme is not that there is no soundtrack to my teenage years but that my teenage years were just a few in a much longer musical history, an idiosyncratic collage of constant listening. What about you: are there songs or albums that invariably recall either high school or some other memorable moments in your life?

This Week In My Classes: Here We Go Again, Again

januaryIt starts to feel as if I have written a lot of these ‘start of the term’ posts: I’ve used up every variation I can think of for titles! It’s in the nature of academic work to be cyclical, though, and on the bright side, this term I am doing one all-new course, so at least you can look forward to some novelty in my teaching posts!

This Week In My Classes‘ was one of the first regular series I started up on Novel Readings. The very first was ‘Books About Books‘ – and there aren’t really any others, except, sort of, my book club updates. Otherwise, as I’ve observed before, for better or for worse I pretty much just write about whatever I’m reading, or whatever else is on my mind about either literary or academic / professional topics. It’s interesting (to me at least) that reading and teaching so quickly took on equal importance here: that’s actually what I was thinking about as I contemplated this post, more than any specifics about this week’s class meetings (though I’ll say a bit about those in a bit). I didn’t know anything about blogging when I began doing it, so I didn’t know there was such a thing as “academic blogging” or “book blogging” — or “mommy blogging” or anything else. As a result, I really didn’t have a plan, except to post some updates about reading I could share with friends and family when they asked what I’d been reading lately and if I had any recommendations. (I’ve written at some length about the transformation in my reading, writing, and scholarly life that ensued: if you’re reading this post, you probably don’t need to hear any more about it anyway! I’ll probably make a few remarks around my anniversary, though.)

cassatI’ve sometimes wondered if I should have had a plan, or developed one, in order to give Novel Readings a more definite identity. In the decade since I launched this blog, I’ve seen quite a lot of articles or posts giving advice on blogging, and the key to success is apparently having a mission, or filling a specific niche — along with posting on a regular (and frequent) schedule, and keeping your posts under 1000 words. (Hey, I’m 0 for 3!) I do think the hybrid identity of Novel Readings — which is not really, or at least not just, a book blog, and not really, or not altogether, an academic blog — has probably limited its appeal, because for some bookish people there’s no doubt too much academic stuff here, while for some academics, there’s too much book talk (or, too much book talk that’s not sufficiently academic).

But because I didn’t have a plan, or a purpose, Novel Readings evolved based only on what I wanted to write about. That I still want to write it is, for me, the surest sign that on my terms, it has been successful. I think this is true of all of the bloggers I follow, in fact: we blog because we like the activity itself (including both the writing and the community and conversations we’ve found through the comments). After my very first year of blogging about my teaching, I wrote about how valuable I’d found the experience. If I didn’t like doing it, I could have just stopped: my blog, my terms! And that could still happen — but it hasn’t yet.

bleakhouseoupSo: what’s up for this winter term? Something old and something new. I’m doing another iteration of 19th-Century British Fiction (Dickens to Hardy), beginning, this week, with Bleak House, which I haven’t taught (or read) since 2013. I was so sad to read Hilary Mantel identifying Dickens as the most overrated author: “The sentimentality, the self-indulgence, the vast oozing self-satisfaction, the playing to the gallery.” Them’s fightin’ words, even from a writer I admire as much as Mantel. I’ve never written anything more formal than a blog post about Dickens: 2017 might be the year that changes.

My other course this term (and how lucky I feel, to have just two!) is my new intro class, Pulp Fiction. So far we’ve just been warming up, but next week we start our unit on Westerns, which means I have been busy putting my miscellaneous notes in order for an introductory lecture, after which we read some short stories and then launch into Valdez is Coming. I just read through the first batch of reading journals (about Lawrence Block’s twisty little crime story “How Would You Like It?”) and it looks like a good group.

“In This House”: Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread

spoolofbluethread

For years, they owned next to no furniture, having sunk every last penny into the down payment, but he refused to go out and buy just any old cheap stuff, no sir. ‘In this house, we insist on quality,’ he said. It was downright comical, the number of his sentences that started off with ‘In this house.’ In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even though the Whitshanks could not possibly have started out Episcopalians. So ‘this house’ really meant ‘this family,’ it seemed. The two were one and the same.

A Spool of Blue Thread is quintessential Anne Tyler: it’s exactly what you expect to get from one of her novels. If you like Anne Tyler’s novels, which I do, that’s a good thing, though I think there’s no getting around the potential objection that it’s also a sign of their (or her) limitations. Her novels are all more or less the same. They sound the same, they feel the same, they are about, essentially, the same things — especially families, in all their idiosyncratic variations, with all their friction and fondness and foibles. Not any families, though, and certainly not in any way every family. Tyler’s families are (again, more or less) all white middle-class families living in Baltimore, as if in deliberate adaptation of Jane Austen’s injunction that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.”

I don’t mean to diminish Tyler’s accomplishments. Austen, after all, used her stories about “three or four families in a country village” to do an awful lot, from minute moral analysis to pointed social commentary, and I think Tyler does some of the same things. It’s also true, as another famous writer said, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and Tyler’s families — though they aren’t universally unhappy or in any way tragic — always have a crack or two across the heart of their story that lets in just enough unease or dissatisfaction to generate tension and interest. That is certainly true of A Spool of Blue Thread, starting with the Whitshanks’ difficult son Denny (whose erratic comings and goings and enigmatic motivations disrupt his family’s routines) and including unhappy compromises, wounded feelings, and devastating losses.

spool2A Spool of Blue Thread is chronologically wider-ranging than some of Tyler’s novels, which means it has a wider range of characters and some sense of being not just a personal story but also an American story — not as overtly as Smiley’s Some Luck and its sequels, with their relentless chronological march through American history, but still, we get a sense of people shaped by different eras, from the Depression through the Sixties and into the 21st century. I liked the novel’s structure, reaching back into the past and then back yet again, so that we first meet the characters and then learn more about how they came to be who they are, or to be with who they’re with (a process that turns out, in some cases, to be much more fraught than the cherished family stories reveal).

I liked, too, the way the family’s stories are organized around the house that Junior Whitshank built and then finagled away from its original owners. As new generations are born, the house is both a place for them to live and a symbol of their history and identity — but just as the house proves to need constant attention, so too a family is a structure that needs maintenance and may over time show small but irreparable signs of wear. Tyler is adept at the nuances of fretful disappointment:

Junior got his house, but it didn’t seem to make him as happy as you might expect, and he had often been seen contemplating it with a puzzled, forlorn sort of look on his face. He spent the rest of his life fidgeting with it, altering it, adding closets, resetting flagstones, as if he hoped that achieving the perfect abode would finally open the hearts of those neighbors who never acknowledged him. Neighbors whom he didn’t even like, as it turned out.

Life, like houses, doesn’t always give you what you expected, or wanted, or needed; happiness is never guaranteed in Tyler’s world. Just as for the Whitshanks, “the disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice,” however, failures aren’t necessarily the defining features of anyone’s story, and Tyler doesn’t ever let them dominate hers. She is equally good at showing the compensatory grace that comes with forgiveness and reconciliation, for one thing: in her books, people may leave, but (even after death) they almost always come home again, including in my own personal favorite, Ladder of Years.

ladderofyearsI think that’s what, for me, makes Tyler an author whose new books I always seek out, in spite of (or maybe because of) the strong family resemblances between them. They are all books about people coming to terms with life, which is, after all, what most of us are doing ourselves, most of the time — and the wry, resigned tenderness of her storytelling seems to me a model for how we ought to approach both ourselves and others: with honesty, but also with kindness and humor.

2017: In with the New Year, Much Like the Old Year!

fireworks-at-emera-oval-216-for-webWe don’t stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve anymore. I can’t remember when we gave up on this tradition, exactly. The last New Year’s Eve I specifically remember was 1999-2000: remember the Y2K panic? We didn’t really expect a dramatic catastrophe on the stroke of midnight, but it was hard not to wonder just what would go wrong. I think we rang in the New Year a few times after that, but there came a point at which it was just too obvious that nothing significantly changed with a new date, and also while the children were small, staying up late on purpose when we were already tired all the time didn’t make much sense. This is one way in which I have broken with my upbringing: to this day my intrepid parents and whoever’s celebrating with them stand out on their front porch in Vancouver and listen for the ships in the harbor to tell them when it’s officially midnight, then bang enthusiastically on pots and pans — a ritual I participated in with glee for many years. (To my knowledge, none of our neighbors ever complained.) I don’t think they still have Pêches Flambées for dessert, though: that used to be the showy finale to our elaborate New Year’s Eve dinner.

calendarAnyway, here we are now, writing 2017 instead of 2016 but otherwise puttering along more or less as usual. For me, that means getting things in order for my winter term classes, which begin on Monday — a week later than is typical, which has been a real boon. The campus itself, including the administrative offices, opened up this week, so I’ve been able to get handouts printed and copied and all kinds of other preparatory business done, including a trek across campus to scout out the room where I’ll be teaching ‘Pulp Fiction,’ which is in an unfamiliar building. Will that preemptive action ward off anxiety dreams about getting lost en route? Here’s hoping.

It’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ that I’ve been working on the hardest so far, because although it is “just” a first-year writing class using popular fiction for its main texts, most of the readings are ones I haven’t taught before, which means I have no notes or handouts or exercises or assignments to draw on. The general remarks I want to make about the course’s aims and interests are also affected by the shift in focus to ‘pulp fiction’: I’ll be talking more than usual about canonicity, for example, and paying more attention than usual to best practices for talking and writing about difficult topics, or about books that include problematic language (like the racial slurs in Valdez is Coming). As Westerns are the first genre we’re working with, I am also working on synthesizing the historical and contextual material I’ve been reading (which is all new to me) into lecture notes.

century-of-noirThe very first reading we’re doing, though, is a nifty little short story by Lawrence Block called “How Would You Like It?” I often begin the fiction unit in an introductory class with Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”: it’s really short, but also full of things to talk about, so it makes a great warm-up exercise. It didn’t really fit ‘Pulp Fiction,’ though, so I hunted through my anthologies looking for something else equally brief that would help us get some key literary terms on the table right away while also (hopefully) catching people’s interest. I found the Block story in an excellent anthology called A Century of Noir; though it actually isn’t exemplary of noir, I liked that it was twisty as well as short, so I thought I’d try it out. One of the topics I always address early on is point of view, along with the different options for narrators; the story will work well for that, and it also provocatively introduces questions about vigilante justice that we will be discussing with both our Westerns and our mystery readings.

adambedeMy other course this term is 19th-Century British Fiction from Dickens to Hardy. As regular readers will know, I do this class (or its prequel, 19th-Century British Fiction from Austen to Dickens) pretty much every year, but I mix up the reading lists at least a little every time to keep it fresh. This year I’m using almost the same list as in 2013, which was organized around the theme of “troublesome women”: then, we read Bleak HouseCranfordThe Mill on the FlossLady Audley’s Secret, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (More recently, in 2014-15, the list was VilletteGreat ExpectationsMiddlemarchThe Odd Women, and Jude the Obscure.) This year I’m substituting Adam Bede for The Mill on the Floss: I think Hetty’s sad story will make a nice complement to both Lady Dedlock’s and Tess’s. I have taught Adam Bede several times in graduate seminars, but never in an undergraduate class, so I’m curious to see how it goes over. Because I have never actually lectured on it, that means a bunch of new prep there too, but otherwise I’m on pretty familiar ground in this course.

I haven’t made any particular resolutions about research or writing for the new year — which doesn’t mean I don’t have ambitions in these areas, just that at this point I’m mostly still thinking over my priorities. I submitted three book reviews over Christmas (you can see one of them now in the January issue of Open Letters) and I have a couple more lined up. I’m never sure how much other writing I’ll manage during a teaching term, especially one with this much new prep. I will certainly keep up my blogging, though. Novel Readings will be 10 years old later this month, which is somewhat astonishing! I was reading Tom’s New Year’s post at Wuthering Expectations and feeling a bit sheepish that my own blogging (meaning, in part, my own reading) is so much more random than his: what a journey he has been on, since he too started up in 2007. But one of the great pleasures of blogging for me is being able to go wherever my interests take me — or my life and work. I will almost certainly say more about blogging and what it has meant to me when that anniversary arrives.

The one way in which I really hope 2017 is not like 2016 is in the level of angst around my professional life. I’m not doing as well as I’d like at putting my promotion debacle behind me, but though it can still work me up into mental knots when I think about it, I am certainly not thinking about it as often anymore. It would help not to be constantly running into the people responsible for it, but there’s not much I can do about that. I mostly don’t mutter epithets under my breath as I pass them in the hallway now: that’s progress, right? And one resolution I do have is, as I said in my post about my year in writing, “to stop seeking validation on other people’s terms.” This is a very hard habit for me (and most academics) to break, but if nothing else good comes from last year’s experience, it has certainly clarified for me just how debilitating and counterproductive it is to focus on getting approval, rather than on doing the work.

So, 2017! Bring it on.

Happy New Year!

It’s time to ring out 2016 here at Novel Readings. Here’s some of what I have to look forward to in 2017 — and thus some of what you are likely to read about here:

christmas-books

Thanks as always to everyone who came by to read and, especially, to everyone who left a comment here or chatted with me on Twitter. As I approach my 10th anniversary as a blogger, I continue to be cheered and motivated by all the other readers I’ve gotten to know this way and by the good conversations we have. Best wishes for the new year! See you in January.

2016: My Year in Writing

2016 was an odd year for me as a writer. On the one hand, I wrote a lot of literary criticism, for a wider range of venues than ever before. This experience was challenging, educational, exhilarating, and occasionally frustrating: in some cases, I had to write shorter and faster than I ever had before, and in others I had to find an angle on books or writers that weren’t immediately congenial or intelligible to my critical sensibilities. I also had to work with new editors and adapt to their different styles and priorities. Overall, I’m very proud of the results.

On the other hand, I also got the clear message from my employer (and many colleagues) that this is not the kind of writing they value, and that if I hope to advance professionally, I’d be better off giving it up, scrambling back into the ivory tower and devoting myself to a very different model of literary criticism. I actually wrote thousands of words in 2016 trying to turn this judgment around — attempting to persuade people on campus (none of them, ironically, actually literary critics of any kind) to recognize my essays and reviews, and the other elements of my diverse portfolio of projects and publications, as worthwhile contributions to my academic discipline. Of all the writing I did this year, this was the least pleasant, and ultimately the least rewarding.

Where does this leave me? Well, mostly it leaves me wondering how much more writing about literature I could have done in 2016 if I hadn’t wasted so much time (and, perhaps even more relevant, so much angst and energy) on a futile quest to change academic priorities — even if it did initially seem as if I was just urging everyone to live up to their oft-stated commitment to outreach, public engagement, and innovation. It certainly hasn’t persuaded me to do as I was told: I’m not against academics doing specialized research leading to peer-reviewed publications in academic venues, but I strongly believe enough academics in my field are doing this already and that it is both right and imperative that universities loosen their grip and encourage, support, and even reward faculty who do other kinds of work as appropriate to their disciplines.

bonnard-young-woman-writing

Institutional issues aside, I feel as if I made a lot of progress as a writer this year. Book reviews are not the be-all and end-all of my writing ambitions: I would particularly like to write more, longer, better, wider-ranging essays. I wasn’t able to do much of that this year, but the reviewing I’m doing is both honing my skills and helping me build up my credibility (one interesting and humbling thing about writing outside the academy is that my formal credentials and my academic c.v. mean very little “out here,” where authority is something you have to earn in other ways). I hope that in 2017 I will keep moving forward — both as a reviewer and as an essayist. This includes hoping that I make more progress compiling my existing essays on George Eliot into a book: now that I’ve self-published one e-book, I feel emboldened about doing another.

There’s a complete list of my publications under the ‘Other Writing’ tab above. Here I’ll just mention a few from 2016 that stand out to me, for one reason or another.

At Open Letters, I was particularly pleased with “Our Editions, Our Selves,” which was ostensibly a review of the lovely new Penguin Deluxe Classics edition of Middlemarch but which also gave me a chance to ruminate about my personal history with my favorite novel. Writing this review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved brought me some comfort and joy, and it was also my first attempt to write something thoughtful about romance fiction.

At The Quarterly Conversation, I wrote about David Constantine’s The Life-Writer and In Another Country, which I already mentioned in my previous post as some of the best reading I did in 2016. Because Constantine was new to me, and because his fiction is so elegant, I was a bit intimidated when I started working on the review, but in the end I felt that I had found something interesting to say and said it pretty well.

I published four reviews in the Times Literary Supplement in 2016. My favorite was of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder — to me, anyway, this little piece reassured me that I am starting to be more at home in shorter reviews, that I can still sound like myself in a more compressed form. (I think my forthcoming review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is actually better, though; it will be out in January, I expect.) I was proud of my only longer piece in the TLS (so far), which discussed three recent scholarly books on Victorian women’s writing: this was not as much fun to do, but (again, to me, anyway) it seemed like a good example of my academic expertise being used in the service of a wider public.

I was very happy to write about Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bastards of Pizzofalcone novels for 3:AM Magazine: these were two of many good examples of crime fiction I read and/or reviewed in 2016. And I also appreciated the reviewing opportunities I got from Quill and Quire, including two neo-Victorian novels (Smoke and By Gaslight) that, again, let me draw on my academic background a little while nudging me out of my comfort zone.

Overall, then, on my own terms 2016 was a productive year for me as a writer and a critic. A key goal for me in 2017 is to stop seeking validation on other people’s terms!

2016: My Year in Reading

van-gogh-still-life-french-novels2016 has been a somewhat unusual reading year for me because quite a few of the books I read were ‘assigned’ for reviews — or else were books I chose not entirely because I wanted to read them but because they looked like books I could pitch for reviews. Although at times I ended up feeling a bit stifled as a result, because it felt as if reading obligations were crowding out reading pleasures, at other times it meant a thrill of discovery, as a book or author I wouldn’t otherwise have read turned out to be wonderful. This was also a sign that as a writer I was being pushed in new directions and, as a result, learning new skills and finding (I hope) new strengths — about which, more in my next post on my year in writing!

Looking back on 2016, here are some of the books that stand out.

moby-dick-penguinBook of the Year: Moby-Dick. Really, how could it not be? I’m not saying I read it particularly well, but hey — it was my first time! And I read it with a great deal more pleasure than I expected, and also a sense of expanding horizons. Yes, it’s about whales, the way War and Peace is about Russia — it’s not only about so much more but it just does so much more that’s surprising and amazing and, yes, occasionally tedious, or just plain baffling. I was just reading an earnest article about the importance of revising and revising and revising to perfect every last word: though I don’t actually know what Melville’s own writing process was, it seems to me that this is the kind of well-intentioned advice for novelists about their “craft” that yields books as impeccable but somehow lifeless as Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena while guaranteeing us no more fearless Moby-Dick-like masterpieces.

Runners-Up:

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth and Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady. Together with Daniel Deronda, these make a remarkable trilogy of variations on a theme. Each of them features a young woman of great intelligence and high spirits hemmed in on every side by social and personal contexts that deny her suitable outlets for her energy. My love-hate relationship with James’s prose continues; Wharton, on the other hand, proved much more congenial, and I’ve got The Custom of the Country on my list of books to read in 2017.

Other Highlights:

L132AInspired in part by The Portrait of a Lady, I finally read  Colm Tóibín’s The Master — and loved it. I’d put it off because I was so underwhelmed with Brooklyn (an impression that was basically confirmed when, inspired by The Master, I reread it), but The Master is artful and tender and brilliant. I expect it’s even better to a true Jamesian, who would get all the subtle allusions and nuances, but it’s a sign of Tóibín’s skill that even a James-skeptic like myself could become totally absorbed in his character.

I loved David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl. Above all, it is a story about the kind of love and acceptance we all dream of, but it’s also about art and beauty and identity, about how we see ourselves and each other.

A friend recommended Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and I’m so glad she did: I ended up reading three of his novels and being touched and impressed by all of them. I think Plainsong is the best (most complex, most ambitious) of them, but my personal favorite was Our Souls At Night: something about its evocation of loneliness, and the delicacy with which it explores the possibility of overcoming it, really spoke to me.

constantineAnother author I discovered thanks to a prompt from someone else was David Constantine: Scott Esposito asked me to review The Life-Writer and In Another Country for The Quarterly Conversation, and as he predicted I was really impressed. Constantine is a writer’s writer, meticulous and nuanced, but like Alice Munro he embeds both plot twists and emotional surprises into his understated but beautiful prose.

I read Andrea Levy’s Small Island soon after the U.S. election, and it turned out to be unexpectedly timely and somewhat comforting in the tenderness with which it shows disparate people doing their best to live together.

With an eye to my upcoming ‘pulp fiction’ class, I dipped into westerns, a genre I previously knew almost nothing about. I sampled quite a few but the only ones I read attentively all the way through were Charles Portis’s True Grit and Elmore Leonard’s Valdez is Coming. I enjoyed them both thoroughly, but I can’t really see myself reading many more westerns for my own pleasure: reading about them will probably do. Lonesome Dove, maybe? And speaking of genre fiction, I read some good new crime novels this year too, including Phonse Jessome’s gritty Halifax noir Disposable Souls and Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bastards of Pizzofalcone books.

dutton-margaretFinally, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals was an absolute tonic as this rather depressing year drew to its close. And one more last-minute success was Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First, which turned out to be a small, glittering jewel of a novel. (My review will be out in the TLS early in 2017.)

Low Points:

This is 100% about a failure on my part, and also my own disappointment — with myself, though also (however irrationally) with the novel: I tried and failed to read To the Lighthouse. I did read it, in the sense of turning every page, but I could not seem to find the novel I knew was in there somewhere, waiting to transform me. I will try again, after a decent interval.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Ineligible made me swear off Austen pastiches forever. And I vehemently disliked Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon, which I reviewed for the TLS. I saw another novel about George Eliot in the bookstore not long ago and shuddered away from it: though it would be nice to be pleasantly surprised, I have yet to read a really good example of this particular species.

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell was the worst book I may ever have read by an author I fervently admire.

Not Reading, Exactly, But:

buffyI finished my first full viewing of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel this year. I’ve been rewatching both shows intermittently ever since, which tells you a lot about how interested I got in them. It also indicates something that those who’d seen both series before already knew: both reward rewatching (which is a kind of reading, really) more than many television shows: they reveal layers and connections and themes that aren’t always obvious at first when you’re caught up in the immediate drama. Even when I found the particulars absurd, which did occasionally happen (maybe more for me than for people who are more at home in fantasy as a genre), I never stopped caring about the characters, and now that I’ve seen how all the story arcs turn out, I’m finding myself even more emotionally involved with them.

My 2017 TBR List:

There are a lot of books I look forward to reading in 2017, including (as already mentioned), more Edith Wharton. I have David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife standing by, along with volumes 2 and 3 in Jane Smiley’s “Last 100 Years” trilogy. In the same stack is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, partly because of my questions about My Name Is Lucy Barton and minimalism in fiction, and partly just because; Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers is there too, and Sarah Moss’s Body of Light, and China Mieville’s The City and the City. My success with Moby-Dick has had me wondering if I should stop being scared of Ulysses and give it a try in 2017. Part of what’s exciting about a new year, though, is not knowing yet what great books lie in wait that I haven’t even thought of reading yet!

Happy Holidays!

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It has been quiet around here again! And what’s my excuse, since I turned my grades in so long ago? Well, in my infinite wisdom I had committed to three book reviews to be done by the end of the year, so while I have been reading and writing, it hasn’t been for Novel Readings. I’ve sent along two of the reviews now, though (one of Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House, for Quill & Quire, and one of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First, for the TLS), and started on the last one, of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which I hope will be ready for the January issue of Open Letters Monthly (where my byline has been sadly scarce recently).

We’ve also been enjoying our traditional (and entirely secular) Christmas celebrations, which today include pancakes for breakfast and roast pork for dinner, along with some presents and perhaps a family Christmas movie tonight — it’s shocking, actually, that we’ve made it all the way to December 25th without having seen The Muppet Christmas Carol!

I will be back soon with my traditional look back at highs and lows of my reading — and writing — in 2016. I always get so many good books as Christmas presents that I don’t like to start these posts too soon. Who knows: the best of the year may be yet to come! Until then, my best wishes for the season for all those who also mark it in some festive way.

“The Magic of the Island”: Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals

durrell

Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquility, a timelessness about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.

Last night my book club met for our holiday potluck and a discussion of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals — which we all agreed had been a great choice to cheer us up at the end of what has been, for all of us, a pretty challenging year. Reading it in between our other obligations and distractions had been, as someone said, like slipping away on vacation, just for a while, to a place full of sunshine and laughter and, of course, amazing (if often disconcertingly anthropomorphized) animals.

What is it exactly about My Famly and Other Animals that makes it so delightful? When I mentioned I was reading it, a number of my friends responded enthusiastically that it had been one of their favorite books as children, which at first I found a bit puzzling: I’m not sure that as a child I would have enjoyed it, with its long descriptive passages and its anecdotal shapelessness. Reading it now, though, I loved Durrell’s word paintings:

The moon rose above the mountains, turned the lilies to silver except where the flickering flames illuminated them with a flush of pink. The tiny ripples sped over the moonlit sea and breathed with relief as they reached the shore at last. Owls started to chime in the trees, and in the gloomy shadows fireflies gleamed as they flew, their jade-green, misty lights pulsing on and off.

durrell2Lovely as Durrell’s scenery is, he’s at his best (as you’d expect) with animals:

The inhabitants of the wall were a mixed lot, and they were divided into day and night workers, the hunters and the hunted. At night the hunters were the toads that lived among the brambles, and the geckos, pale, translucent with bulging eyes, that lived in the cracks higher up the wall. Their prey was the population of stupid, absent-minded crane-flies that zoomed and barged their ways among the leaves; moths of all shapes and sizes, moths striped, tessellated, checked, spotted and blotched, that fluttered in soft clouds along the withered plaster; the beetles, rotund and neatly clad as business men, hurrying with portly efficiency about their night’s work. When the last glow-worm had dragged his frosty emerald lantern to bed over the hills of moss, and the sun rose, the wall was taken over by the next set of inhabitants. Here it was more difficult to differentiate between the prey and the predators, for everything seemed to feed indiscriminately off everything else. Thus the hunting wasps searched out caterpillars and spiders; the spiders hunted for flies; the dragon-flies, big, brittle, and hunting-pink, fed off the spiders and the flies; and the swift, light and multi-coloured wall lizards fed off everything else.

Maybe the appeal lies in the imaginative way he brings these communities to life, giving the players so much character and purpose: there is something childlike about that blurring of lines between “us” and “them,” so that (as the title of the memoir declares), people and animals are all part of the same vibrant landscape, humming and buzzing and barking and talking. There’s no sense in the book of adult Gerald watching or judging or second-guessing his younger self, but instead he seems to have done his best just to recapture the wide-eyed curiosity and patient attention of a boy set free on an enchanted island to follow his bliss.

durrell3Perhaps, then, the child’s point of view (though of course the sophistication of the writing subtly belies it) is one reason children have loved this book. Another would be its humor: when things do happen, they are usually very funny. There’s some high drama, as well: the epic battle, for example, between the gecko Geronimo and the giant mantid Cicely:

His speed and weight told, for he crashed into the mantis and made her reel, and grabbed the underside of her thorax in his jaws. Cicely retaliated by snapping both her front legs shut on Geronimo’s hind legs. They rustled and staggered across the ceiling and down the wall, each seeking to gain some advantage. Then there was a pause while the contestants had a rest and prepared for the second round, without either losing their grips.

“I wondered,” Gerald comments, “whether I ought to interfere; I did not want either of them to get killed, but at the same time the fight was so intriguing that I was loath to separate them.” This detachment surprised us a bit: of course in some ways it is the necessary attitude of the scientist, watching but not intervening, but at the same time Gerald takes all of his animals very personally and often seems more interested in their well-being than in his family’s.

We were also surprised that, at the end, Gerald took his collection of animal friends with him back to England — we had all expected he would set them free. One of the group said that this brought home to her one way in which the memoir seemed somewhat dated: she thought there was something colonial in the Durrells’ expedition, heading off to a foreign country to observe it curiously and then collect what they wanted to take back with them. I can see her point, but the book didn’t strike me that way, mostly because the curiosity and interference is quite reciprocal between the Durrells and the Greek residents of Corfu (their guide and mentor Spiros, for instance, who adopts and manages them at least as decisively as they take any part of the island as their own). Here again, I think the book’s point of view may be the real issue: we can’t help but put this “English abroad” story into the context of British colonialism, but it never occurs to (young) Gerald, and why would it?

We wondered more about the absence of any shadows of impending war: though the reason he gives for their return to England is the need for him to go to school, apparently the real reason was the outbreak of war, and it’s unusual to read a retrospective narrative about the 1930s that doesn’t include even the faintest hint of what is to come. Is this, too, part of a determination the book will be bathed in childlike innocence — and is that resolution one of the reasons it reads like such a lovely escape from reality? It would certainly be a very different book if it let history or politics, or even adulthood, play a larger role. As it is, it has a combination of buoyancy and beauty that we all found irresistible.

This Week In My Classes: Whither the Apostrophe?

escher12In case you were wondering why it has been so quiet here at Novel Readings, I’ve been grading papers industriously, trying to get through them as efficiently as I could consistent with still paying really close attention. I did well at sticking with it, partly thanks to my students, many of whom wrote really good essays! Not only does that speed things up, but it makes the whole process more enjoyable.

I finished with the essays yesterday and now my final grades are all filed as well. It feels good to have wrapped up the term’s work, not least because next term is already looming on the horizon and I still have a lot to do in preparation for it. I also have some book reviews to get done before January — I filed one today, in fact, and hope to get a good start on the next one soon. But it’s also the holiday season, and that means some fun and relaxation as well, including my book club’s annual pot luck dinner tomorrow, at which we will discuss Gerald Durrell’s delightful memoir My Family and Other Animals.

apostropheBefore I put this term completely behind me, though, one question lingers after hours spent poring over student writing: what’s up with apostrophes? Actually, I have two questions, because my follow-up to that one is, should I care about apostrophes?

The apostrophe is by far the most misused piece of punctuation in the writing I evaluate. This puzzles me, because (as I have often explained to my first-year classes) it is governed by pretty simple rules. There are no judgment calls with apostrophes, the way there are, say, with commas. For some reason, though, students have a terrible time knowing where (or whether) to use them. They are frequently missing when they are needed, and just as often they show up where they aren’t — this time, for instance, in discussions of Ishiguro’s protagonist, Mr. Stephens, who got apostrophed (yes, I verbed that) even worse than poor old Dickens usually does.verbing-weirds-language

Why should this be? Some errors are certainly due to poor proofreading rather than genuine confusion, but the sheer pervasiveness of the problem demands a deeper explanation. Are students not taught basic punctuation in school any more? Or do they just not retain it? How does it end up being my problem — or is it? I’m not supposed to be teaching punctuation: at least, not in upper-level literature courses — am I? Given that, should I even bother pointing out the errors? But evaluating essays does mean (doesn’t it?) taking into account how well they are written, and one aspect of that is (isn’t it?) how well they follow the conventions of standard written English. So even though the main course objectives are elsewhere, I do point out the errors, and I usually also quickly explain what’s wrong. I do this in a pedagogical, not punitive, spirit, so that they can get it right next time. Since I’m morally certain I’m not the first or only person to be doing this, though, I don’t have much reason to think that my corrections will have any effect: if they wanted to use apostrophes correctly, surely they would already be doing so. Maybe what’s missing is sufficient incentive. I certainly have never failed an assignment because of incorrect apostrophes: to me, that makes no sense, as they are just one small piece of a much larger and more complex effort. But if you can always do basically fine without fixing this small problem, why fix it, right?

I’m not about to start failing papers on such flimsy grounds, though — so what can I do? Fellow professors, what do you do?

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