I’m heading to Boston tomorrow–again! I had a great time there last year (touristy post, bookish post) and expect to have just as much fun this time. Once again a primary reason for going is to meet up with some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues: we work well together in our various virtual spaces, but it’s definitely a good thing to cultivate face-to-face relationships too, not least because in email and other online correspondence there’s always that pesky issue of tone, which is much less difficult to interpret the better you know somebody. (As an aside, I think tone is also easier to interpret if an online relationship goes back a ways, even if you haven’t met in person: you get a sense of someone across a range of moods and modes that makes a difference, as I realized when my book club discussed the discussion between Amateur Reader and Litlove on my Madame Bovary posts. They found the exchange more ornery than I did, and I think that’s because they had no previous experience of either voice. This is not by any means a criticism, direct or indirect, of the tone of any of those comments, which I found fascinating, respectful, and also very mentally stimulating. It was just interesting to reflect on the kind of familiarity you can feel with someone even if you know them only ethereally.)
Another happy feature of this trip to Boston is that I’m meeting up with my mother there. She’s a born and bred New Englander, though long transplanted to Canada’s west coast (by way of Berkeley), so she has many associations with Boston and the surrounding area; she’s also a Smith College alum, so we’re including a nostalgic stay in Northampton along with our bookstores-and-museums-and-libraries tour of Boston. Doesn’t that sound like a lovely time?
I had hoped to write up a proper post about my book club session on Madame Bovary but got caught up in the miscellaneous errands and obligations involved in traveling.( What an unpleasant chore it has become, from the early check-ins and security hassles to the cramped quarters of the planes themselves–and I hate flying, too. When I went to London last summer, the London Review Bookshop was my ‘happy place’: en route to Boston it will be the Public Garden, I think, and the placid swans–and the statue of Mrs Mallard and her ducklings.) The discussion at the book club was energetic: the book clearly provoked most of us, though reactions varied. Probably the most controversial subject was whether we felt (or Flaubert encouraged) any sympathy for Emma. One proposal was that, in seeking to be unlike the rest of the dreary people around her, she is like Dorothea Brooke. This is not one of the parallels I made in my post comparing Madame Bovary and Middlemarch, and ultimately I didn’t find it a persuasive suggestion, beyond a kind of structural similarity. Dorothea’s aspirations are certainly misguided, but her aim is to have a spiritually significant life. She begins imagining how to do this in fairly egotistical terms, but she learns from her experience–and from the start, she has an instinctive generosity, even in error. We didn’t get a chance to pursue this topic at the time, and in fact one thing I find difficult about these sessions is precisely that we move on (and around) so fast. I find it mentally exhausting! I enjoy the occasion, and it’s good to hear a range of ideas and views from so many smart opinionated people, but it also sometimes feels frustratingly chaotic. Well, it’s not meant to be a seminar, and heaven forbid one of us should assert herself as group leader! At the same time, it does give me renewed appreciation for the challenge of seminar discussions, which need to combine direction and focus with organic development and spontaneity. And it helps me see why I enjoyed the comment thread so much: writing things out forces a certain slowing down, and then reading and replying allows also for some reflection and cogitation.
The other book club discussion I was involved in last week was of The Yacoubian Building, with the other Slaves of Golconda. The novel didn’t seem to excite a great deal of enthusiasm, though I think most of us found it quite interesting. The forum where discussion usually breaks out has certainly been very quiet! Perhaps the next selection will work better.
I don’t expect to be posting again until I get back, as not only will I be busy frolicking but I’m taking only my iPad, which as far as I’m concerned is no good for producing content. See you then!