“My name is Ruth.”

January 31, 2007

I like it when books start like this. Simple. This is me. This is my story- my life. No embellishment, just my story. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is just that, a life story. As the story begins, Ruth is a young girl, which adds to the realism. Something about a young narrator makes a story more believable. Her life is not a typical life- her world changes regularly in a ways that the majority of children don’t have to face.

Although Gilead brought Marilynne into the limelight, I enjoyed Housekeeping more. It may be that the book took place in an era that I could relate to. Not quite, but closer to my childhood that I experienced than that experienced today. (hint- I remember getting to miss church one Sunday night to stay home and watch the Beatles storm the US via the Ed Sullivan show on our old 12 inch black and white tv.) Some of the insignificant scenes in the novel were the most appealing-

“In my earliest memories of her my grandmother was already up in years. I remember sitting under the ironing board, which pulled down from the kitchen wall, while she ironed the parlor curtains and muttered “Robin Adair.” One veil after another fell down around me, starched and white and fragrant, and I had vague dreams of being hidden or cloistered, and watched the electric cord wag, and contemplated my grandmother’s big black shoes, and her legs in their orangy-brown stockings, as contourless, as completely unshaped by muscle as two thick bones. Even then she was old.”

Remember when kids went outside to play after school until the streetlights came on, then dined on casserole, followed by homework and a warm bed? It was that time, but the childhood dealt to Ruth and her sister Lucille was not so simple, but well worth reading about.


The Reading Room

January 30, 2007

About 15 years ago, due to unusual and unavoidable circumstances, I lost my reading room- the retreat at home where I could close the doors, blocking out all the normal, but distracting sounds of family life. I recently recovered the room and now I’m trying to construct the perfect reading space. The bookshelves and lighting will be pretty easy- I love going to websites like Levengers just to look at things that I can’t usually afford. As long as I can remember I’ve been intrigued by the paraphernalia of reading and writing- pens, pencils and papers. Journals. Diaries. Desk accessories and little lights that one can clip on books. I can’t walk past an office supply store without at least a quick trip through the aisles. (I miss all the independent stores- the chains are much less interesting, and are becoming overrun with electronics). I have a collection of journals- many never used. I own reading glasses- 1.25x, 1.50x and 2x- now I read best with no enhancement. I have fountain pens that are gorgeous, but not practical. I love Moleskines. I remember once being intrigued by art tools and I bought a set of watercolors and set out to become an artist. My first attempt was awful and I gave up, but I still like looking at brushes and little tubes of paint. Maybe it is just an obsession with the whole concept of art in all of its renditions. Wow- what a digression. What I want right now is the ideal reading chair. I’ve looked at recliners (Barcaloungers are beautiful things). I’ve looked at non-recliners with matching ottomans, or the huge cushy arms perfect for draping the legs over. Reading in bed is nice, but there is nothing like the perfect chair, with the perfect lighting, overlooking a well-filled bookshelf setting on a hardwood floor with a lovely rug to enhance all the woodwork. But where do I find the right chair?

A Novel of Malgudi

January 28, 2007

After an awful work week – several days of some kind of stomach flu that had me wishing only for sleep, and then a dreaded presentation to “upper management” at the office- I was ready this weekend for a relaxing read. I received another eBay purchase in the mail, The Vendor of Sweets, by R.K. Narayan. At under 200 pages, it was perfect for a one sitting reading, and it would be the third completion in the “Reading Across the Borders” challenge.

The story takes place in an imaginary city in India, Malgudi- according to the frontflap is a city that Narayan has used in other novels. It focuses on a loving father and his son struggling with cultural differences and change. The son leaves India and college for America, in hopes of becoming a writer. He soon returns to India with a woman and a dream (a story-writing machine no less) that would require a burdensome investment from father- and the stuggle begins.

Narayan doesn’t take the subject matter too seriously, there are many comic moments throughout the book. Jagan, the father, contemplating death –

“If I do not perish in the water, I shall perish of pneumonia. In my next life, I’d like to be born “… His mind ran through various choices. Pet dog? Predatory cat? Street-corner donkey? Maharajah on an elephant? Anything but a money-making sweet-maker with a spoilt son.

Jagan is also chastised by his sister for having a “beef-eating Christian girl for a daughter-in-law…no one can blame Mali for having a father like you.” And when Mali is jailed for having half a bottle of alcohol in his car, the blame falls to, well, the car – “It’s the motor car that creates all sorts of notions in a young fellow.”

One of the things that can make reading so interesting is learning about a different culture or different time. This book was published in the 1960’s, so it is easy to think that things have changed significantly since then. They have, but it is still a very different culture than what we know here in the US. India is growing rapidly and a lot of companies from around the world are locating manufacturing facilities there. The typical construction site in the US is converged upon with pickup trucks are various makes and models each morning throughout the building process. In India, whole families move to the constuction site and live in makeshift homes until the project is complete, and then move on to the next site.
India workers

I sometimes wonder if writers in more affluent countries are at a disadvantage. It seems that in other cultures, people just seem somehow closer to life. I then watch the news, or think about my son on the way to Baghdad again, or Bloglily facing a month of radiation treatments, and realize that no matter who we are or where we are, we all struggle with life.


January 27, 2007

James Joyce’s Dubliners is an easy introduction to Joyce, and was by far the most accessible of his works that I have read. I haven’t had the patience for Ulysses yet and have given up twice. I did enjoy his Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but his short stories are an easier read.

I am not typically a big fan of short stories, preferring novels, but I am a fan of good characterizations, and Joyce manages to accomplish character development even in this short form. His also manages to create a portrait of the lives of Dubliners in the early 20th century. His self-proclaimed purpose was to show Dublin under four of its aspects, “childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life. The stories are ordered in that general manner.

This is not a “feel-good” book. Most of the characters do not achieve the happiness that they are looking for, victims of a time, place and circumstances that preclude it. The concepts of the individual stories are not unusual, but based on my (limited) experience with short story collections, the way that all the stories form a single unified whole, is unusual.

I have to admit that I enjoyed Portrait of an Artist more than this collection of stories. I suspect I may be in the minority.

I didn’t find much time for reading this weekend. A particularly vicious stomach flu attacked all but me, thus leaving me with all the weekend duties- cooking, cleaning, aundry, grocery shopping. I did manage to get through a few of Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners, as well as a start on Tristram Shandy

After a couple of paragraphs of Sterne’s novel the influence of Cervantes and Don Quixote was very clear. A few more pages and there was the reference to Don Quixote’s horse. My first reaction was that I knew I was going to like this book. I also experienced that feeling one gets when remembering a particularly enjoyable reading experience. I must have picked up and read Don Quixote at just the right time in my life. I now have two copies of it on my shelf- the one I read years ago, and the more recently published Edith Grossman translation, which I plan to read next summer.

I’m sure most can remember particular books or reading experiences that remain special to them for one reason or another. I’m likely dating myself with this comment, but I still remember those first Dick, Jane, and Spot readers I experienced at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary back in 19–. “See Spot. See Spot run. Run Spot, run.” The first book I owned is still in print- Dr. Suess’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. My parents were not regular readers other than the newpaper and the Bible, but they always encouraged me. I also was allowed to purchase 1 or 2 books from those little Scholastic Book order forms that the school sent home monthly. “Encyclopedia Brown” was a favorite. I also had a subscription to “Highlights.” A few years later I started getting the Hardy Boys novels for Christmas and birthdays. (I wish I had hung onto those early editions- they are probably valuable now). I will always remember the more “mature” book that really hooked me for life. I was at the school library in middle school looking for a book for a book report. I picked up Mutiny on the Bounty. I loved it. After completing the book report, I went on to read the rest of the trilogy for enjoyment. A Great Books class in high school lead me to enjoy the classics- It was my first reading of the books of Homer and Virgil, and I learned to appreciate them.

I know that it is difficult for readers to pick one favorite novel, but if some wierd other-worldly experience absolutely forced me to choose, today I would have to choose Don Quixote. Just thinking about it now makes me smile in anticipation of that experience this summer. Now back to Tristrim Shandy. It is always possible that Cervantes will move to #2.

Anyone else willing to commit?

In “Fail Better,” an article recently published in the Guardian, Zadie Smith speaks out on writers, readers, and critics. An interesting discussion point is the fact that not only the writer, but the reader may be responsible for the lack of more truly great novels.

The first section of the article describes an imaginary writer setting out to write the perfect novel. He knows writing, has studied the techniques, and does all the right things. He completes the novel, but recognizes his failure to achieve what he set out to do. The novel is critically and financially successful, and he starts on the sequel. Smith aptly points out at this point that “A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones.”

Smith elaborates on the necessity of the writer to tell the truth, his or her own truth-

The insight of the practitioner is, for better or worse, unique. It’s what you find in the criticism of Virginia Woolf, of Iris Murdoch, of Roland Barthes. What unites those very different critics is the confidence with which they made the connection between personality and prose. To be clear: theirs was neither strictly biographical criticism nor prescriptively moral criticism, and nothing they wrote was reducible to the childish formulations “only good men write good books” or “one must know a man’s life to understand his work”. But neither did they think of a writer’s personality as an irrelevance. They understood style precisely as an expression of personality, in its widest sense. A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don’t think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth…

In what form, asks the writer, can I most truthfully describe the world as it is experienced by this particular self? And it is from that starting point that each writer goes on to make their individual compromise with the self, which is always a compromise with truth as far as the self can know it…

With a cliche you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have represented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth.

I like the idea that a truly great writer reveals his own truth, not the truth the reader may expect or hope for, not the truth that the reader is comfortable with, but the truth and reality that only the writer can know. As I think about that novels that have stayed with me, it is not those that were necessarily the most entertaining, but those that revealed a different world to me, a different life. Zadie does a better job of explaining that I can-

A great novel is the intimation of a metaphysical event you can never know, no matter how long you live, no matter how many people you love: the experience of the world through a consciousness other than your own.

Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry – we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing – great writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non- sequitur, a dog dances in the street.

The next section of the article describes the reader’s role, and Smith gives the reader equal responsibility with the writer. I really need to think about this one for a while- an equal effort required from the reader as that of the writer? That is just hard to imagine.

A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing – I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers.

Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason.

What I’m saying is, a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it, too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns, as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens, or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston’s capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland’s strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert’s faintest nuance, or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought? The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it’s a conjurer’s trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.

“A work of art,” said Nabokov, “has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me.”

I love this description of a single novel shining brightly and creating a cottage industy of novels surviving in its shade. I have seen it so often;

A writer with such strong opinions would find it hard to survive in the present literary culture, the idea of the “individual reader” having gone into terminal decline. In writing schools, in reading groups, in universities, various general reading systems are offered – the post-colonial, the gendered, the postmodern, the state-of-the-nation and so on. They are like the instructions that come with furniture at IKEA. All one need do is seek out the flatpack novels that most closely resemble the blueprints already to hand. There is always, within each reading system, an ur novel – the one with which all the other novels are forced into uncomfortable conformity. The first blueprint is drawn from this original novel, which is usually a work of individual brilliance, one that shines so brightly it creates a shadow large enough for a little cottage industry of novels to survive in its shade. Such novels have a guaranteed audience: an appropriate reading system has been created around the first novel and now makes room for them.

I have to think about to what degree I have helped to perpetuate the growth of “less than great” writing. I know that I did at one time. I remember at a younger age reading through a slew of “spy thriller” type novels that have been showing up as movies the last few years. They were entertaining novels, but did nothing more.

I think I am a better reader now, but there is always room to improve.

Here is the link to the article:

Fail Better

Planning for Virginia Woolf

January 19, 2007

Time to start a new novel, and based on the recommendation of some of you whose opinion has proven valuable, I am starting Tristram Shandy. I just received the slipcased Heritage Press edition that I picked up on eBay for the incredible price of $5.99. I like the richness and feel of some of these durable editions (Franklin Press, Easton Press, etc) but they have quite a heft that limits the options for reading position.

After that I would like to start something of a reading “project.” I would like to read some Virginia Woolf, and I know that there are a lot of fans out there. What is the best way to approach Virgina’s writings? Other authors that I have read extensively, I have enjoyed reading something about their life and/or times before delving into the novels. I read most of Dickens randomly based on which novel sounded good at the time. I read through Thomas Hardy in order of publication, as I did with William Faulkner. (I was fortunate enough at one time to have had a job where I could read through much of the shift.)

I read Cunningham’s The Hours a couple of years ago, and like many others went out and picked up Mrs. Dalloway, as well as To The Lighthouse. I have not yet read them. The multi-volume diaries seem to be a bit much, unless I discovered a strong interest after reading a few of the other books. Diary of a Writer looks interesting- I imagine that includes just a portion of the aforementioned diaries.

I have a trip to Dallas coming up in several weeks, which will include a trip to the Half Price Book Store, and Woolf is one author I will be looking for. Any suggestions, either in what to purchase or the best approach to reading Woolf?