Recent Reading Roundup: Reviews and Romances

You’d think from my recent blog posts that I wasn’t doing anything but teaching these days! That’s not quite true, but like a lot of people I know, I’m finding myself too distracted to get a lot of “quality” reading done in my leisure time – what ability I have to concentrate hard I’m expending on work, and on books I am reading for off-blog reviews that have deadlines. The rest of the time my reading alternates between anxiety-inducing news stories and pleasantly diverting romance novels.

The most recent book I finished for a review is Simon Tolkien’s No Man’s Land: my review will be up in the March issue of Open Letters. It has actually been a difficult review to write because I neither loved nor hated the book: I’m afraid that even with whatever revisions I come up with after my colleagues’ useful input, the piece is going to sound fairly perfunctory. Now I’m reading Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, which I’m reviewing for Canadian Notes & Queries. So far, it seems pretty interesting, so I’m hopeful that it will be more fun to write about. And next up after that will be Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light, which is backround reading for the review of Signs for Lost Children I’ve promised to Numero Cinq. Moss looks like a writer I should have been reading already, which is one reason I proposed this particular title — my ideal reviewing “assignment” converges with my existing reading intentions!

I have some completed reviews that should see the light of day in the near future. One of those is my TLS review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First (which I loved); another is my Quill & Quire review of Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House (which is strange and uncomfortable and gripping); and the last is my review of Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, which I wrote last summer and is expected to show up, at long last, in The Kenyon Review Online in early March. Though there are some down sides to all this reviewing, one definite up side is that it has made me a bit more sure-footed as a critic, including with books that are not obvious “fits.” I can’t really say if I am developing my critical voice or style: I’m not deliberately trying to do anything other than what I’ve always done here and at OLM, which is find the best way to express whatever I think about the book. I don’t focus on answering “should I buy this book or not?” — because that’s the kind of review I find the least interesting to read — but instead I try to figure out what kind of book it is and what’s the most interesting conversation for me to have with it or about it. Academics (myself included) often hesitate to get into conversations outside their official area of expertise: this is an anxiety I have largely overcome when it comes to fiction, partly because blogging loosened me up so much as a reader and a writer, and partly because the more I teach, the more I’m aware that my expertise is as a reader — it’s my skill and experience at reading, as much as or more than my body of scholarly knowledge, that equips me to do this kind of criticism.

As for my romance reading, I’ve been rereading some favorites, just for the good cheer (Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, for instance, and Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do), but I’ve also read a scattering of new ones. I have all of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister novels but hadn’t gotten to Talk Sweetly To Me before: it’s charming. (The Countess Conspiracy is still my favorite in this series, though.) I read Alyssa Cole’s Let It Shine and found the love story well done, but while I appreciated her evocation of the historical context, I thought the novella (sexy bits aside) read too much like YA fiction for me to find it really engaging: it seemed to assume readers who had very little idea about either the civil rights movement or the Holocaust. Everything about it was very pat and predictable. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t about important things, or that it didn’t include details that make very clear, how devastatingly this history affected people’s lives.

I read Eloisa James’s Seven Minutes in Heaven and thought it was fine — as I mentioned on Twitter, I especially appreciated the heroine’s competence, which is a quality not often portrayed as attractive, and I enjoyed following the character through to their HEA. I also read Fool for Love, which I chose somewhat at random from the ebooks the library had available: I liked the set up but was a bit let down by the conclusion, for reasons I won’t give in case they are spoilers! I have yet to really fall in love with one of James’s novels. They seem very competent and usually keep me interested to the end, but they don’t make me laugh the way Loretta Chase’s do, and I don’t find them as entertaining as Tessa Dare’s (which seem more sprightly, somehow) or as touching as my favorite among Mary Balogh’s. Maybe I haven’t found the right one for me (not all of Dare’s work well for me either, after all).

Now I’m rereading Ruthie Knox’s Truly: I liked it the first time, partly for the beekeeping ‘neepery,’ and it’s holding up well on a reread. I am starting to feel a bit restless, though, as if it’s almost time for me to read something  else again. I picked up Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk on a recent trip to the bookstore: it looks like it might be a good intermediate step between light and really serious reading.

This Week In My Classes: The Comforts of Cranford

We’ve started our discussions of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford in 19th-Century Fiction, and like last week’s reading, it has special resonance in these turbulent times, but not because it is a call to action: more because it provides a refuge. This is not to say that it’s “escapist” in the pejorative way that term is often applied, or that it is all (metaphorically) rainbows and lollipops. Actually, rereading the first few chapters I’ve been particularly struck this time by how melancholy they are, despite the wonderful touches of comedy. There are so many deaths — not nearly as many as in Valdez Is Coming, of course, but whereas in that novel most deaths leave little emotional mark, each of the losses in Cranford is deeply felt. There’s little drama (well, Captain Brown’s is pretty startling) but much tenderness. I love the delicacy with which we are brought to understand the depths of Miss Matty’s grief after Mr. Holbrook dies:

Miss Matty made a strong effort to conceal her feelings–a concealment she practised even with me, for she has never alluded to Mr. Holbrook again, although the book he gave her lies with her Bible on the little table by her bedside. She did not think I heard her when she asked the little milliner of Cranford to make her caps something like the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson’s, or that I noticed the reply–

“But she wears widows’ caps, ma’am?”

“Oh! I only meant something in that style; not widows’ of course, but rather like Mrs. Jamieson’s.”

This effort at concealment was the beginning of the tremulous motion of head and hands which I have seen ever since in Miss Matty.

One thing I want to talk about with my class is the structure of the novel, which seems especially loose and episodic coming right after the elaborate vastness and intricate patterning of Bleak House. Though there is a bit of a through-line, Cranford is really built around vignettes; it’s heard even to identify a central protagonist. This makes sense for a novel named after a town, and before long I think we realize that the town itself has a personality, and that’s what the novel is about. And what characterizes Cranford above all is the way it operates as a community. In it, people go to all sorts of trouble–mostly but not only on a very small scale–to help everybody else along. Here too there are comic elements, such as the amiable pretense not to know that the hostess “who now sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up,” had been busily baking them all morning: “she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew,” as Mary Smith explains. It’s not just about keeping up appearances, though. “But, to be sure,” says Miss Jessie,

“what a town Cranford is for kindness! I don’t suppose any one has a better dinner than usual cooked, but the best part of all comes in a little covered basin for my sister. The poor people will leave their earliest vegetables at our door for her. They speak short and gruff, as if they were ashamed of it; but I am sure it often goes to my heart to see their thoughtfulness.”

When Miss Matty opens her tea shop, even her competitor “repeatedly sent customers to her, saying that the teas he kept were of a common kind, but that Miss Jenkyns had all the choice sorts”– and there are so many other examples of similar small acts of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity that even when it makes you cry, Cranford also makes you hopeful.

It definitely also makes you laugh, though, and I hope that my students can appreciate its humor, that it won’t seem too quiet and twee after the flamboyance of Dickens’s comedy. One of my favorite bits in this week’s chapters is the “great event” of Miss Jenkyns’s new carpet, and the great struggle to protect it from the unruly sun:

Oh the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless windows! We spread newspapers over the places, and sat down to our book or our work; and, lo! in a quarter of an hour the sun had moved, and was blazing away on a fresh spot; and down again we went on our knees to alter the position of the newspapers. We were very busy, too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper, so as to form little paths to every chair, set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet. Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?

Not in Halifax we don’t, no–but we do pull the living room drapes to protect floor and furniture from the afternoon sun, which may be why this amuses me so much. We’ve also had the furtive orange-eating, the difficult peas, and (particularly funny because Cranford was published in Household Words) the great Boz vs. Dr. Johnson dispute. What a nice place Cranford is to be for a while!

This Week In My Classes: Social Justice and Warriors

Although it is often difficult to concentrate on reading fiction right now, amidst the clamor of current events, it is also the case that current events have their usual uncanny way of making some of the novels I’m reading seem more important than ever.

Take Bleak House, for instance, which we have just wrapped up in 19th-Century Fiction. As I mentioned in my post about teaching Hard Times last March (remember last March, when the possibility that Mr Bounderby would actually win the U.S. presidency seemed absurd?), there are plenty of reasons to look skeptically at Dickens’s approach to the problems of the day. Jo is every bit as safely pathetic a focus for our reforming zeal as Stephen Blackpool, for instance, and as much an argument for preserving ignorance and poverty (so as not to spoil instinctive virtue) as Joe Gargery in Great ExpectationsBleak House may focus eloquently on dysfunctional systems, but it returns us repeatedly to well-meaning individuals as our best hope for change, keeping its political radicals securely on the margins (in the form of, for example, Mrs. Rouncewell’s son, the insufficiently respectful ironmaster) while idealizing benevolent paternalism (in the form of, among others, Mr. Jarndyce — who is never held accountable by anyone for his enabling of the odious Mr. Skimpole). It mercilessly satirizes women who care about causes more than about their children — and that’s not all.

Yes, yes, I am well aware: for all these reasons and more, Dickens is not the ideal standard-bearer for today’s resistance. (And that’s just with respect to his fiction, without even getting into his moral failings as an actual man and how they ought to figure in our reading of his novels.) But (as I also said about Hard Times), I think there are things about both the arguments and the affect of a novel like Bleak House that could (maybe even should) trump those objections — especially now. I’m not saying these are just petty quibbles, but there are times when picking fights with people who in their own way are fighting on your side can seem counterproductive. As a friendly cynic standing next to me at the recent Women’s March rally said during one of the speeches, “That’s the thing about coalitions: you probably won’t all agree on everything.”

Bleak House, for instance, is eloquent about the ethical obligations of both a shared society and our common humanity. One particularly brilliant thing about the novel is the way it formally enacts the interconnectedness of even the most seeming disparate elements of its complex and widely dispersed universe. “What connexion can there be,” asks the third-person narrator, at once coy and portentous,

between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world who from opposite sides of great gulfs have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!

The answer Bleak House makes over and over is not just that everyone is connected but that it is both morally and practically destructive to act is if they aren’t — to pursue only narrow self-interest, or single-minded partisanship. Dickens may wring every possible tear out of Jo’s story, but his cry that such children are “dying thus around us every day” is meant to compel his readers out of their comfortable chairs and into constructive action. Esther may be a cloying embodiment of every Victorian cliché about woman’s nature, but Lady Dedlock’s story is a devastating indictment of some of those very ideals, some of which (such as the sexual double standard) are not ones we can complacently claim to have left behind. Bleak House is a novel obsessed with getting us to care about how other people — people unlike ourselves — live, and how they die, and what we might have to do with them. It champions the vulnerable, the persecuted, and the unloved; it makes us feel, over and over, that the best thing anyone can possibly do is — quietly, unassumingly, tenderly — offer whatever help they can, whenever they see the need.

Bleak House is and does more than this, of course. It is a dramatic detective novel, a shameless melodrama, a somewhat peculiar and repressed romance, a vast compendium of images and objects and whimsy and tragedy and sheer, delirious delight in language. It contains multitudes! What moved me particularly about it this time, though, is something not quite reducible to its many component parts, to its characters and events … something like its spirit, or its heart. Heartsick as many recent events have made me, I’ve never felt less inclined towards a hermeneutics of suspicion, whatever its justifications. Maybe Dickens hadn’t worked out the best way to make the world a better, fairer, more compassionate place, but reading Bleak House you can sure tell that’s what he wanted to do, and wanted us to do. Right now, I’ll take it.

The other novel I’ve been working on for class is Valdez Is Coming. It is a pretty different reading experience in almost every way, but it too turns on questions about what’s right and what’s fair, and about when and where to draw the line in the face of an injustice. “Why do you bother?” Valdez is asked about his quest to get restitution for a widow whose fate nobody else cares about because she’s Apache and her dead husband (though shot by Valdez himself) was the victim of their unrepentant racism. “If I tell you what I think,” he replies, “it doesn’t sound right. It’s something I know.” By that time we know too why standing up to the men who mocked him, shot at him, then crucified him when he asked for justice is something he has to do. It’s about not letting them win, yes, but that outcome matters because of who they are, and who he is — and, if we’re on his side, who we want to be, and how we want the world to be. “You get one time, mister, to prove who you are” he tells his antagonist during their final showdown. Valdez (true to his genre) proves who he is through action, including a lot of violence. (I wouldn’t like this novel as much as I do if this violence were treated differently — simply as action, for instance, or drama — but Leonard imbues it with moral and even existential meaning.) A lot of us are thinking, now, about what actions we can take, in our world and in our own quieter way, to prove who we are.

This Week In My Classes: Ups and Downs

The past couple of weeks have felt pretty hectic to me, mostly because any time you teach a new course, or just new material, you have to build up all its materials from scratch. This term it’s Pulp Fiction that needs, well, everything! Not only do I not have any lecture notes to draw on for most of the readings (but boy, am I looking forward to our weeks on The Maltese Falcon, which I have taught before!) but I have no pre-existing handouts, worksheets, tutorial plans, or essay topics, and also not many strong instincts about what kinds of exercises or discussion questions or essay topics will get good results. You can only find that out by making some stuff up and seeing how it goes, which means inevitably there are some hits and some misses. I never usually finalize a lot of course materials in advance, because I want them to develop organically — to be responsive to discussion, and to my ongoing discoveries about what’s interesting or useful, but at this point I have a lot of files I can draw on for ideas for my standard teaching assignments. All I have for Pulp Fiction is my preparatory research and my best guesses!

That said, I think it’s going reasonably well, especially now that the initial anxiety of the start of term has faded and I’m trusting myself and the class more to generate ideas and work with them together. I lectured a bit too much at first, but our last couple of sessions have been about as lively as I usually expect from a class at that level and of that size (it’s settling down to about 80 students). So far we’ve read four short stories, three of them westerns, and today we start work on Valdez Is Coming, which will also be the focus of their first longer assignment. One pedagogical challenge for me is that the characteristic style of the western does not lend itself very well to the kind of close reading strategies that I usually focus on in introductory courses. I’m not saying it’s impossible — just that it has been harder to find passages that seem likely to reward that kind of attention, mostly because the prose is very terse and often very literal, and the stories are quite action- and character-driven. Usually by this point in the term I would have spent quite a bit of time on figurative language, and so far all we’ve really seen examples of is a bit of potential symbolism and some strong imagery, especially of the landscapes. I suppose this is more revealing about what I’m typically reading (or urging them to read) for than anything else: I am having to retrain myself to think about action and dialogue more, and about things like sentence length and rhythm and pacing.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are nearly through Bleak House. They seem to be hanging in there! In this class too I have felt myself falling into too much lecturing, but I have been consciously working on balancing that out with some much more open-ended sessions. I feel as if lecturing in a more orderly way can be an important part of our work on a novel as long and complex as Bleak House, where a risk for newcomers to the novel is getting overwhelmed by minutiae: I try in my lecture segments to give them big grids or maps on which they can later place specific characters or incidents as they arise, or rise to prominence. I also try to plant interpretive seeds in the form of questions to be followed up on as they read further. That way, when we do approach topics through discussion, they will already have been thinking about some of them on their own — which usually seems to work!

Today’s installment of Bleak House was Chapters 46-54, which include the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn and then Inspector Bucket’s investigation, culminating in the dramatic “reveal” scene in which we find out that [redacted] is the murderer. In the same sequences, Bucket tells Sir Leicester the story we already know about Lady Dedlock’s past. One of the big surprises of the novel is that these revelations bring out the best in Sir Leicester, who until that moment has seemed little more than a buffoon, a walking anachronism. His one redeeming feature has been his devotion to his Lady, and now we see that this, at any rate, is neither foolish nor superficial, but comes from everything that is best in him. As he looks out the window of his ancestral home, bewildered and hurt at the vision of “thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him,” because of his wife’s disgrace, it is she to whom “he addresses his tearing of his white hair, and his extended arms”:

It is she in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honoured, and set up for the world to respect. It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself, and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.

These are also the chapters in which Dickens gives us one of his most tender and pathetic deathbeds (“The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end”), and I am always touched to tears by it, but Sir Leicester’s yearning heart touches me as much, perhaps because it feels like such a generous moment, not just on Sir Leicester’s part, but on Dickens’s, to allow something so beautiful to come from such a ridiculous source. As much as the stalwart assistance of Mrs. Bagnet in negotiating on Mr. George’s behalf, or the staunch friendship of Liz and Jenny, who have only each other for comfort, Sir Leicester’s compassion reflects the hope that permeates Bleak House — that against the mud and the fog and the bleakness of it all, we can set the equally pervasive possibility of kindness and love.

Family Drama: Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

I enjoyed reading Commonwealth: I was engaged all the way through. But I was never gripped by it. I kept waiting for it to go deeper, or get darker, and it just stayed the same: the prose is cool, almost detached, the diffuse ingredients assembled with that air of meaningful randomness that seems to govern a lot of contemporary novels. Why this detail, this memory, this connection, right now? Why tack back into the past at this point, and then skip forward again? Where are we going? The transparent assumption is that simply laying out the story in chronological order isn’t interesting or artful enough, and that can certain be true. Also, sometimes things are dispersed like this so that the climax or revelation comes upon us unexpectedly, or so that the crisis is discerned in its effects before it actually breaks over us, the readers. That’s sort of what goes on in Commonwealth, but maybe because I’m rereading Bleak House right now, I felt a lack of central purpose in Patchett’s novel: I’m fine with a lot of moving parts, but I didn’t feel hers were in service of a deeply felt meaning.

To be fair, I don’t actually think Commonwealth is a swing and a miss at a more profound type of novel. It’s a novel about family drama, so relatively small in scale, and it is sharp in its insights into the ways people come together and move apart. Even allowing for that, I do think Commonwealth isn’t really excellent of its kind. There is a crisis at the heart of Commonwealth — two, I suppose, a tragedy and its exposure — but Patchett never made either of them feel urgent to me. I was interested, sometimes amused, sometimes touched, by the tangle of family relationships Commonwealth presents — and nothing more. This can be enough, of course: there are plenty of books I like a lot that are similar. Is that the real problem, maybe? that Commonwealth slots in too easily in among many similar novels by, say, Anne Tyler or Joanna Trollope? To me, it didn’t really seem to stand out either stylistically or thematically: its effect on me is already fading.

I don’t mean to sound unduly negative about it. I did think it was a good novel; I was just hoping, even expecting, that it would be better than good. Probably it’s another case of my expectations being raised unreasonably by the generally effusive reception it got, or maybe I just read it too soon after A Spool of Blue Thread to appreciate another novel more or less in the same tone and vein. (Or maybe I just read it badly and missed whatever made it special.) Because Commonwealth turns in part on the death of child, too, I can’t help comparing it unfavorably to my favorite novel in the ‘family saga’ genre, Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field. I hardly cared at all about the loss in Commonwealth, while the tragedy in Schwartz’s novel still breaks my heart every time I read it — really, every time I think about it. There’s an emotional intensity in Schwartz’s novel that for me was completely missing in Commonwealth: the whole thing had a more or less flat affect, which felt a little too safe to me, as if Patchett was deliberately steering away from the rapids, or the depths.

I’m uneasy about my own experience of Commonwealth, as you can probably tell, especially as I only just wrote a much more forgiving post about A Spool of Blue Thread. In that post I explicitly welcomed the familiarity of Tyler’s novel — and here I am complaining, if mildly, because Commonwealth didn’t provoke, startle, or particularly delight me. There’s nothing with perfectly good novels! I like family dramas, too: we need them, and not just because a steady diet of books like The Orphan Master’s Son, or King Hereafter, or Hild, or Wolf Hall would be debilitatingly rich. I’m a firm believer in the significance of small-scale stories. Their importance can be harder to discern at first, though. I didn’t really appreciate Unless until I reread it: maybe it will be the same way with Commonwealth.

A Decade of Novel Readings!

My very first post to Novel Readings went up 10 years ago today. It wasn’t much: a quick comment on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Rereading it today, I’m amused to see that careless applications of the label “Dickensian” was already a pet peeve, but I’m also interested to see that my appreciation for Dickens himself, as a self-conscious and effective artist, has increased since then.

As I’ve often remarked, starting a blog was not, at first, a very purposeful action for me. It turned out to be a life-changing one, though. I’ve written before about the ways blogging has opened up new opportunities for me, but today I find myself thinking more about the intrinsic value of Novel Readings itself. For me, blogging turned out to be an outlet, a distraction, a pleasure, a challenge, a learning experience, an intellectual adventure.  In some circles, Novel Readings is the work of mine that deserves the least credit. But in many ways I am more proud of my archive of blog posts than of any other writing I’ve done, precisely because the value of doing this lies all in the doing! I’ve never been under any obligation to blog, or had any extrinsic incentive to do it, or received any external reward (or, god knows, any professional advancement) for it. As a result, there’s an authenticity to this writing, a freedom, that means Novel Readings has allowed me to discover a lot about who I am as a reader, a writer, a critic, a scholar, and a teacher — which is to say that blogging has contributed a lot to my understanding of myself as a person. A lot has changed for me, both personally and professionally, since 2007, and some of that is indubitably because of the degree of reflection this blog has prompted, as well as of the habits, skills, and interests it has helped me cultivate.

At the same time, Novel Readings has never been primarily a personal exercise, a vehicle for self-exploration or self-expression. In fact, I’ve deliberately kept a lot of aspects of my private life off the blog! Though like all blogs Novel Readings ebbs and flows somewhat in its aims and accomplishments, overall I am as proud of the results of my blogging as I am pleased with the process of it, because I think I have actually (if, initially, accidentally) made something of substance here. Over the past decade I have produced a significant body of thoughtful, articulate commentary on books, on criticism, and on academic and pedagogical issues. I have done this in the face of a fair amount of skepticism — even some outright scorn — but also buoyed by some precious encouragement. In the end, though, what really mattered was my own commitment, and that came (as I expect it does for all bloggers) from my belief, born of experience, that it was something that, for me, was worth doing.

So, Happy Birthday, Novel Readings! And sincere thanks, as always, to those of you who help make this effort worthwhile by reading, commenting, and writing your own wonderful blogs.

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


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.

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