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Tommy napping
Tommy did so much reading that he had to take a nap.


Yesterday I finally, finally finished Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. I got so bogged down in it, and it took forever. I wanted to like it, I tried to like it, I am sympathetic to some of Hesse's themes, but I just could not stand Hesse's pedantic and preachy approach to those themes. Hesse seems to believe that his readers are incapable of handling subtlety, so he hectors us with repetitions and lectures and heavy-handed prose. Bah! It didn't help that I found the narrator, Harry Haller, to be insufferably self-absorbed.

Perhaps I should have just put it down, but I didn't. I forced myself to struggle through, and now that it's done, it feels like a relief. Perhaps this is the tail-end of last year's mediocre reading, and I just needed to get it out of the way so I can usher in an era of exciting new books.

After my unpleasant experience with Steppenwolf, I am taking a break from my German literature reading project, at least for as long as it takes me to read Toby's Room by Pat Barker. I love Pat Barker; her Regeneration trilogy has for years been the thing I would choose if I could put my name on the work of any other writer. But of course that makes trouble for her other books--none of them quite live up to Regeneration. Toby's Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (although it begins at a point that falls chronologically earlier than any of the action in Life Class), and I'm excited about it because I thought Life Class was a bit thin, full of interesting ideas and characters that needed further development.

I've only read the first 70 pages of Toby's Room, but oh, is it off to a good start! I stayed up later than I meant to last night because I just kept wanting to read a few more pages and then a few more pages... That hasn't happened to me in ages, and it's a fantastic contrast to scarcely being able to keep my eyes open through Steppenwolf. Barker focuses this time on Elinor Brooke, a character I didn't find particularly interesting in Life Class, but this time Barker has given me some very important and intriguing glimpses into her family life, and I am finding Elinor immensely compelling so far. And, as always, I love reading Barker for her brilliant way with detail. So subtle, so nimble--the way each tiny, meticulously chosen observation lights up a scene.
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A book recommending game!

I spent most of 2012 in a reading rut. You know the sort of thing I mean--reading all sorts of books, always hoping that I would fall in love with the next one, but never quite getting there. This year, I'd like to feel passionate about my reading again. And I'd like it if you, dear LJ-friends, would help me break out of my rut.

Here's how it'll work: I'll give a general description of my taste and the sort of things I like (longtime readers probably already know more than enough about my taste in books!), and you tell me about an author you think I might like or describe the last book that knocked you head over heels. BUT! This is not a one-way street! If you'd like to receive recommendations too, post a comment that tells us about you as a reader, and if I've got any good recommendations for you I'll share them. Others can chime in too, and soon (I hope!) we'll all be sharing our favorites with each other and adding lots of titles to our to-read lists. If this sounds like fun to you, feel free to pass it around--the more the merrier!

My literary taste )

Okay, go!
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Happy New Year, folks! As usual, I find myself with the typical backlog of New Year's posts waiting to be written: a book post, a post in which I think about goals and plans for the coming year, a post in which I tell you about the fascinating and strange museum that Ms. E and I visited on my birthday... But I'll start with the books.

This was a rather lackluster year for me in terms of reading. I'm not exactly sure why--I read plenty of books that I wanted to love, books I thought I would love, books by authors whose other works I've loved... And I admired quite a number of them, but very few ignited any sort of real passion in me. I also did not quite meet my goal for the year; I had decided that I wanted to read 33 books, and I only made it through 32 and a half. I considered putting on a push in these last few days in order to make the number, but decided against it. Trying to rush through a book under the pressure of a deadline (and a rather arbitrary one at that) rarely helps me get the most out of what I'm reading.

With no further ado, here's the list (links go to the post that contains the closest thing to a review of each book that I wrote):

1. Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
2. The Cows by Lydia Davis
3. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
4. Life Times by Nadine Gordimer
5. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
6. Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry by Elizabeth McCracken
7. The Birthday of the World by Ursula K. Le Guin (Re-read)
8. Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson
9. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
10. Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame
11. Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston
12. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
13. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
14. Atonement by Ian McEwan
15. A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley
16. Ransom by David Malouf
17. The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
18. The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
19. The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster
20. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
21. The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
22. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (Re-read)
23. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
24. The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín
25. Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt
26. When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
27. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
28. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
29. The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
30. The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín
31. Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
32. Death in Venice and Other Tales by Thomas Mann (trans. Joachim Neugroschel)

It's very rare for me to read according to any sort of plan or program, so it's often a bit of a surprise to see the patterns that emerge when I put together this year-end reading list. Only two re-reads this year, for instance--I think I often have more than that. And so many short story collections! I wouldn't have said I was focusing on short stories specifically, yet they make up a large portion of the list. For my own interest, then, here is the list divided up a few different ways:

By genre )

By nationality of author )

My favorites this year:
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter: With these three stories, Porter proves that the novella can be just as rich and powerful as the novel. Haunting and deeply felt explorations of memory, family history, and mortality. A wonderful book.

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel: I know that a lot people were not in love with this book, but I was. I read it immediately after hearing Bechdel read from it and talk about it, and I'm sure that influenced my feelings about it, but the book gripped me and resonated with a lot of my own personal history. It's thorny and sort of messy and at least a little bit self-indulgent, but I loved wrestling with it.

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: Sprawling, ambitious, and definitely flawed. The ending was disappointing and Murray allowed it to drag on for way too long, but the first two thirds of this book were as fun, inventive, and devastating.

Death in Venice and Other Tales by Thomas Mann: I liked Mann's novellas better than his short stories, but the novellas alone are good enough to earn him a spot in the favorites list. "Death in Venice" is the famous one, and it certainly is brilliant, but my sentimental favorite was "Tonio Kröger."

Other titles that I recommend include Tree of Codes, Life Times, The Birthday of the World, The Waves, Ransom, The Fixer, and The Empty Family.

By far the worst books on this list are Winter's Tale (sloppy, incoherent, way too long, utter nonsense!) and A Fan's Notes (misogynistic, manipulative, unpleasant from start to finish). Stay away from those two!

Here's to lots of great reading in 2013, both for me and for all of you!
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Since finishing the disappointing Winter's Tale, I've been reading Thomas Mann--a collection of his shorter works translated by Joachim Neugroschel. It's an improvement on Mark Helprin, for sure. The first five stories I read were sharp little sketches that often focused on the ugly side of human nature. Even though none of them really grabbed me, they were interesting.

But this morning I read Mann's novella "Tristan," and I loved it. It is the story of a writer who falls in love with a young married woman while they are both patients at a sanatorium. It is not a sentimental story. In fact, Mann seems mainly to be poking fun at the conventions of high Romanticism and emphasizing the value of daily life over mythic dreams of love and death. The writer is a self-conscious aesthete whose novel is terrible and whose obsession with Beauty is held up for ridicule, and the woman he loves is a rather unexceptional wife and mother. Yet in the midst of all this, at the midpoint of the novella, this weak, self-important man and this ordinary woman are given one truly beautiful scene together. It is, in some ways, a very simple scene. Everyone else has gone out for a sleigh-ride, leaving Herr Spinnell and Frau Klöterjahn alone in the sanatorium. She plays Wagner on the piano for him while darkness falls over the snow outside. That's all it is, but Mann makes the little details of the scene glow so beautifully and describes the music with such precise phrases that this scene is elevated above the rest of the story--a moment of true emotion in the midst of Mann's irony.

I operate in the mode of sincerity rather than irony, always, so it's no surprise that I loved this scene. I loved its language and the way it held me spellbound in the same way that Herr Spinnell and Frau Klöterjahn are spellbound until they are interrupted by the voices and jingling bells of the returning sleigh-riders. But I also loved the fact that it is fleeting, the way it suggests that even a character as ridiculous and as deluded as Herr Spinnell can see clearly, can feel deeply, can be exalted--only for a moment.
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Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, is a big, messy, very very ambitious novel. The book is about a group of teenagers in a prestigious Catholic boys' school in Dublin, but Murray stretches his framework to include lots of history and mythology, string theory, plenty of references to Robert Graves, hints of the occult, and a heaping helping of contemporary social ills. All this, and humor too.

Murray makes no attempt to surprise readers with the fate of his main character. Skippy dies. It says so in the title, and then it happens in the very first scene. Murray then backtracks and spends 450 pages filling us in on all of the various events that swirl around Skippy and the forces that act on him in the months leading up to his death. The material here is great. Murray is, at times, gut-wrenchingly accurate on the horrific emotional muddle of teenagerhood. You will not want to go back to the days of your youth after reading this book. He also does a great job controlling the tension in this portion of the book, winding it up tight sometimes, then letting it out a bit so you can catch your breath, and then winding it just a little bit tighter. Skippy is the heart of this part of the narrative; I liked him so much and found it so easy to get involved in his day-to-day trials and tribulations that I kept forgetting that everything I was reading was moving inexorably toward his death. So the experience of reading that first section of the book was peppered with little moments of shock when I suddenly remembered that Skippy was going to die, and I had to stop and wonder when and how and why it would happen.

Last time I wrote about this book, I was coming to the end of the section in which Skippy is still alive. I talked about how the book was full of humming undercurrents and unseen forces, how it felt full of magic and darkness and infinite possibilities. Then, far sooner than I expected it (with 200 pages to go), I found the story looping back to that opening scene and Skippy was dead again. Instantly the book slammed into a wall of reality, and all that heady and fantastical sense of possibility came crashing down around the ugly truth of what really happened to Skippy. That felt right, even while I was reading about things that were horribly wrong. The book should by changed by what happened; it should shrink and limp forward to its end. The world should be changed by Skippy's death too but it isn't, and I admire the way Murray digs into that fact, showing us exactly how a terrible event can be painted over and everything can continue as though Skippy had never even lived, let alone died. I was as riveted for 50 pages of this stuff as I had been for the preceding 450, but after that the book began to feel too long. There were still wonderful moments, but they were surrounded by scenes that felt artificial and/or unnecessary. It felt like Murray was piling on a bit at the end, perhaps out of uncertainty about how to bring the whole thing to a close. And of course I wouldn't have been nearly so disappointed in the lacklustre ending if I hadn't so thoroughly loved everything that came before.

So Skippy Dies is a flawed book, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't run out and read it. Murray has a lot to say and he takes risks and it's thrilling to watch a writer do this. His prose is fantastic--he writes the sort of sentences that make me want to sit down and work just so I can try to write those sorts of sentences myself--yet so easy to read that the quality of the sentences is sometimes in danger of slipping by unnoticed. Although it is easy to read, it can be emotionally harrowing. Murray is not afraid of making bad things happen to children. The book features parental neglect (both benign and not), drug abuse, eating disorders, sexual abuse, violence, mental illness, and of course death. It flips back and forth rapidly between being fun to read and being awful to read. Murray makes a couple of missteps--the hijinks sometimes seem just a little too wacky, and his attempts at parodying the lyrics to rap and pop songs are not close enough to the real thing to have the necessary satirical bite--but these are pretty minor flaws in what is, overall, a pretty major achievement.
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I wanted to love Teaching a Stone To Talk, Annie Dillard's collection of essays and occasional writing. I wanted to love it and be challenged by it, to wrestle with it, to be raised up by it and at the same time to be humbled by it as I had done when I read Pilgrim At Tinker Creek three years ago. The first piece in the book, an essay called "Total Eclipse," seemed to promise that I would get what I wanted. The essay is a description of Dillard's experience of watching a solar eclipse near Yakima, Washington in 1979, but of course it is also more than that: a meditation on death, on life, on human perception and what happens when that perception shifts radically and suddenly. The essay is breathtaking, brilliant. Dillard observes so carefully and then brings those observations to the page so precisely that the precision itself becomes thrilling to watch.

Alas, none of the other pieces manage to live up to this stunner. Mostly, I think the problem was that they were too short. That's a little strange for me to say, because ordinarily I love short writing--little slips of stories that gesture rather than speaking, pieces where much remains veiled because there is no room to explicate, bits and pieces with a poetic compression of meaning, where each word does the work of a sentence... But in Teaching a Stone to Talke, the shortness of many of the pieces just left me feeling unsatisfied. I wanted more from Dillard; I wanted the digging, the depth, the grand language that I know she's capable of.

The second best piece, after "Total Eclipse," is the last one, an essay called "Aces and Eights" about a weekend Dillard spent at a cottage somewhere with a nine-year-old girl (a niece, perhaps? The relationship is never made clear.) I'm not sure whether I liked this essay because I read it in a cabin in the woods with my own little two-year-old niece, or because it explores questions dear to my heart: questions of time and memory, the way moments distort in memory, the way the foreknowledge of memory distorts moments even as they're happening. It felt more substantial than many of the other pieces in the book, and was a good strong note on which to end.

I wouldn't tell you to run right out and buy this book, but if you ever come across a copy of "Total Eclipse," read it, my friends. Read it!
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I have a bit of catching up to do in the book department! Here are a few things that I read while I was away:

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
The first half of this story collection is made up of stories that grew out of Munro's research into her own family history. The book begins in Scotland; then Munro follows her ancestors across the Atlantic and writes about their lives as they settled in Canada. The second half contains stories that seem to be based on Munro's own childhood in southwestern Ontario in the '40s. It's never entirely clear (in either section of the book) what is fact and what is fiction, but I found that I didn't much care.

As a whole, the book is a bit uneven. The title story was the best by far, a long (at 60 pages, more of a novella than a short story), intricately plotted account of the voyage from Scotland to Canada made by one branch of Munro's ancestors. There are quite a few characters, each with their own agendas and perspectives, and Munro does a tremendous job bringing them to life and managing the various tensions between them. The rest of the stories, unfortunately, paled a bit in comparison. But many of them were still good, and certainly worth reading. I liked the book's long-view approach to history, its acknowledgement of the impossibility of ever truly knowing the past, its reflective tone, and the loose structure of many of its stories, more closely tied to the movements of memory than the need for a climax and a denouement.

The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster
Oh, I do love Forster. This book will not replace Maurice or A Room with a View at the top of my list of favorite Forster novels, but I still enjoyed it a lot. Like most everything by Forster, The Longest Journey is a comedy of manners on the surface, and underneath it is a serious investigation of an individual's struggle between succumbing to the safety of conformity and struggling to maintain an authentic identity. Rickie Elliot begins as a Cambridge student and, although he's not the brightest member of his social circle, he is still free to enjoy the relatively loose student lifestyle: writing short fictions about nature, staying up late talking philosophy in his room, and enjoying what seems to be a deeply coded affair with his friend Ansell. After Rickie leaves school, however, it becomes more difficult to stay true to himself--so difficult, in fact, that he loses sight of who his true self even is.

Ever since I read and fell in love with Maurice, it has been hard for me to resist seeing everything else by Forster through the lens of that book. Obviously this is partly due to the powerful effect that the book had on me, but I think it also stems from the knowledge of Maurice as Forster's secret manuscript; it's so easy for me to imagine it throbbing away in hiding, a toothache that Forster could always feel and that influenced everything else he wrote. Of course it might not have been like that, but that doesn't stop me from thinking of A Room with a View as a heterosexual version of Maurice, and now The Longest Journey seems to me to be what Maurice would be if it had been written from Clive Durham's perspective. Perhaps I would be a better reader if I could do a better job of letting each of Forster's novels stand on its own, but in this case I think a good deal of my appreciation for Rickie's pathos came from connecting him to Clive.

So it was not my favorite Forster novel of all time, and the ending was strange and surprising in ways that I won't spoil but didn't exactly love. Still, I love the way Forster wraps me wholly in his world whenever I read him.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
This book was recommended to me by my friend Krista, and the premise sounded fascinating: it's a book-length meditation on the color blue, written partly as a means of exploring what color is and what it means, and partly as a way for Nelson to process an experience of heartbreak. Nelson draws on her background in both poetry and visual art, as well sources as diverse as Wittgenstein, Goethe, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holliday, etc, to help her think and write about her love for and attraction to the color blue, the connection of blue to grief, pain, suffering, and the implications of these abstract ideas when they occur in an actual human life. To that end, Nelson intersperses her musings on color with short snippets about her relationship with a former lover and about a friend of hers who is paralysed in an accident.

See what I mean? It does sound fascinating, and to an extent, it is. But I am just too much of a fiction reader--I need my philosophical questioning grounded in a narrative, or else I feel my attention wandering. So my favorite parts of Bluets were the bits about Nelson's personal life, particularly her injured friend. Those sections seemed beautiful and moving, but much of the rest of it left me cold. I also think I wanted a bit more from the language. Oh well.
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In The Fixer, Bernard Malamud tells the story of Yakov Bok, a poor Jew living in Ukraine during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. The novel opens with Yakov at a point of frustration in his life: he works as a "fixer," a sort of all-around handyman, but he can't make enough money and is always broke; he wants to be a father but his wife, who has been unable to conceive in five years of marriage, has just run off with another man; he is tired of the poor, grinding misery that surrounds him in the shtetl where he has lived his whole life. Thinking that life can't get much worse, Yakov leaves his shtetl and goes to Kiev where he soon finds out just how much worse it can get. A young boy is found murdered and the authorities, acting out of the deep anti-Semitism of the era, decide that he has been killed in a Jewish blood ritual. Yakov is targeted as the murderer and thrown in prison.

Malamud spends the first half of the book bringing us to the point of Yakov's imprisonment. He gives us descriptions of Yakov's life in the shtetl, long conversations between Yakov and his father-in-law, and lots of detail on the various adventures and misadventures that Yakov has when he arrives in Kiev. All of this is necessary stuff--it gives us a sense of Yakov's character, makes us aware of the world he moves in, and shows us exactly how he comes to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and therefore accused of a murder he didn't commit--but none of it grabbed me. Yakov is a likeable enough character and there are some moments of sly humor in Malamud's descriptions, but the quality of the writing is nothing special and I felt no strong connection to the story.

But then Yakov goes to prison and book is suddenly raised to another plane. It is no longer about the daily tribulations of life as a Russian Jew in the early 20th century; instead it becomes a book about suffering, endurance, injustice, innocence. The plot shrinks smaller and smaller as Yakov's world shrinks to the cell where he is held in unending solitary confinement, but somehow the miniscule incidents of the prison cell are vastly more compelling than the big events of the first half of the book. After a while, I realized that the book it most reminded me of was Cormac McCarthy's The Road. There was the same awe at how much a person can survive, the same sense of an unending bleak existence broken only by minor fluctuations in fortune, the same awareness of death as a constantly hovering presence. I read the second half of The Fixer in the same way that I read The Road--with my heart in my throat, waiting for anything good to happen to Yakov, no matter how small, so that I might put the book down and feel that he had a chance of surviving until I picked it up again.

I don't want to say too much about the ending. Not knowing how the book would turn out, or how Malamud could possibly bring this story to a conclusion was, I think, an important part of why I got so wrapped up in the book. So I don't want to ruin it for anyone else.

I'm so glad I kept on with this book. When I was 150 pages in, I was utterly convinced that it was a book I would decide had been worth reading even if it never really meant that much to me. And then it caught fire.
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I've always sided with the Trojans in the Trojan War. That's an absurd thing to say, of course, but it's true. Maybe I have a thing for underdogs. Or, more likely, it's because I read Virgil before I read Homer. By the time I got to The Iliad, the Greeks were already the enemy. So I was surprised, when I read David Malouf's novel Ransom, to find myself more strongly drawn to Achilles, the hardened hero of the Greeks, than to Priam, the elderly king of Troy.

Ransom is a contemporary retelling of one small episode from the vast and teeming Iliad. Malouf picks up the story after Priam's son Hector, the greatest warrior among the Trojans, has been slain and his body defiled by Achilles; the main action of the book is Priam's journey into the Greek camp to ransom his son's body so he may be brought home for a proper burial. As with all Greek and Roman stories, there is interference from the gods--Iris appears to Priam and spurs him into action, and Hermes protects him as he moves among the Greeks--but Malouf minimizes the divine presence to concentrate on the human elements of the story. He gives us Priam's desperation as king of a besieged city, a lovely image of the intimacy between Priam and his wife Hecuba, and a convincing portrayal of the difficulty of change in a society bound by tradition.

Malouf's depiction of Priam is skillful, but I found his portrait of Achilles even more powerful. Ransom opens with beautifully written 40-page section devoted to Achilles in which we see him hollowed by grief for Patroclus, compulsively dragging Hector's body behind his chariot day after day, simulating the rage he believes he should feel in order to hide the blank, dead feeling he actually carries inside. Malouf writes this section as a series of short scenes full of language so beautiful I felt compelled to read it out loud. It is pitch perfect, moving, and gorgeous. Although the remainder of the book is certainly worth reading, none of it is quite as wonderful as those first 40 pages.

It would be helpful to have some knowledge of the story of the Trojan War, it's not necessary to be an expert in order to appreciate this book. Malouf does a good job of blending in back story without allowing it to feel clunky, and he's excellent at balancing the abstractions of epic with the specificity and detail that are necessary to the novel. His descriptive writing is a delight, especially when he's writing about nature.

Way back in 1999, I read Malouf's An Imaginery Life, a novel based on Ovid's last years. I think it may be worth revisiting.
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The Waves by Virginia Woolf


Virginia Woolf's The Waves is a strange, lyrical, difficult, beautiful, and complicated book. Is it a novel? Woolf called it a "play-poem," and it seems to me that it is perhaps a mixture of all three forms: a novel that is built like a play, written in the form of a long prose poem. Or perhaps it's something else entirely. It is a book about consciousness, and like its subject, its true nature is slippery.

The Waves is made up of the entwined inner monologues of six characters, broken occasionally by short, italicized sections describing in careful detail a scene on the coast of England at various points from sunrise to sunset. These descriptive sections mark the passage of time in the lives of the six characters, but Woolf shows very little interest in the events of their lives. Some of them marry, some have children, some become lovers or poets or businessmen--where other authors would construct major scenes or whole plots out of any one of these events, Woolf gives them only glancing mention. Instead, Woolf focuses on the struggle of each of her characters to know themselves, to know others, to understand themselves in relationship to others, to understand the changing world and their own changing place in it. It is a book about the pain of identity: the first half (my favorite half, when the characters are young) is about the pain of forming an identity; the second is about the pain of one's inevitable isolation within that identity.

This was the most challenging book that I've read in quite a while, and although I wanted to love it in the way I loved To the Lighthouse last summer, I couldn't quite. I was blown away by Woolf's ambition and by her determination to write about those elusive elements of thought and experience that resist being set down in words. Her sentences are unfailingly gorgeous, she brings an equal, startling precision to her observation of both the natural world and the human psyche, and there are deep insights and moving moments in The Waves. But those insights and moments of emotional connection are often surrounded on all sides by abstraction, and I frequently found my attention drifting as Woolf's lovely sentences flowed past my eyes. Some days I had no trouble staying focused and connected to the narrative, but on others I continually found myself at the bottom of the page with no awareness of how I had gotten there. So although there is much to admire (more even than I have enumerated here! I have barely scratched the surface!), I remained stuck in admiration and never made the leap to love.

But this is not a book that reveals itself fully on a first reading. I know that I should return to it someday, and that I will experience it differently when I do.
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Adrienne Rich, poet who changed me when I heard her work at sixteen years old, poet whose words I turned to when I first fell in love, poet of grief, poet of anger, poet of ardor--Adrienne Rich died today.

XVII
(from "Twenty-One Love Poems")

No one's fated or doomed to love anyone.
The accidents happen, we're not heroines,
they happen in our lives like car crashes,
books that change us, neighborhoods
we move into and come to love.
Tristan und Isolde is scarcely the story,
women at least should know the difference
between love and death. No poison cup,
no penance. Merely a notion that the tape-recorder
should have caught some ghost of us: that tape-recorder
not merely played but should have listened to us,
and could instruct those after us:
this we were, this is how we tried to love,
and these are the forces they had ranged against us,
and these are the forces we had ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us and within us.
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I have been reading Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a collection of three short novels written by Katherine Anne Porter in the 1930s. I picked up the book on a whim in a used bookstore while Ms. E and I were in Vermont last summer--Porter's name was familiar to me, and I've been interested in fiction of intermediate lengths ever since taking a novella class in grad school. Now I know that Porter herself would reject the term novella; she wrote in the introduction to her Collected Stories, "Please call my works by their right names: we have four that cover every division: short stories, long stories, short novels, novels." So these are short novels, then, or perhaps long stories--as far as I know, Porter didn't specify the precise length of each of her four forms.

I originally intended to wait and write about the book as a whole once I was done with it, but yesterday I finished "Old Mortality," the first piece in the collection, and it filled me with so many thoughts that I wanted to write about it alone. So:

"Old Mortality" fascinated me first with its structure and the glancing way that Porter approaches her themes. It is a story of family history that begins with two little girls who have only a dim grasp and dimmer interest in that history. They hear the stories of their genteel Texas ranching family and the history is palpably important to the adults around them, but to the girls it is just stiff figures in photographs and old letters that their grandmother cries over from time to time. Porter skips lightly across a period of many years, alighting whenever the girls' lives are brushed by the story of their glamorous, scandalous, long-dead Aunt Amy. In this way we--along with the girls--learn about Amy: the known facts, the disputed facts, the aftermath of her life that continues to have consequences after her death. We catch glimpses of the girls as well, at ten, at fourteen, at twenty; we can sense their development throughout the story, but Porter is much more concerned with their relationship to the history of their family than with the events of their own lives.

Porter handles all of this material with tremendous subtlety. I don't even know how she does it, but very indirectly she makes us feel how vital these past events are to the adults in the story. The girls' father, their grandmother, their aunts and uncles and older cousins--they all return to the story of Aunt Amy because it involved them all, it was the central drama of their youth, the sort of protean moment in which their lives were formed. Yet to the girls it is not that, and its meaning is fogged and strange. And the dead woman at the center of it, always talked about but always out of reach... And Porter makes us feel so keenly the passage of time, the way each generation supplants the ones that have come before, the slow march of those preceding generations toward the grave, the march of the old family stories further and further into the mist. And all of this exists in the heart of the story, obviously present yet never touched, like negative space in a painting. Remarkable.

There is more I could write, but it is slipping away from me now. This is a story that I will certainly need to return to, and try to tease out the threads of Porter's story-telling.

Here is a very striking picture of Katherine Anne Porter:
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Cool and damp today, the weather feels like true spring after the run of early summer days with which we began the week. I have had a type of quiet morning that I really enjoy: puttering around the house by myself, straightening and setting things right as I go, doing some light chores, folding a basket of laundry, refilling the bird feeder... And now I am about to go have a type of afternoon that I don't enjoy: working my way through the pile of grading that must get done before spring break. But before I consign myself to that fate, a couple of photos:

Camellia in bloom
An incredibly mild winter and an early spring mean that my camellia is in bloom about three weeks earlier than it was last year.

Camellia on the windowsill--first cut flower of the year.
Of course I could not resist bringing a blossom inside. I love having flowers in the house and this is the first one this year.
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When I made my annual reading list at the end of 2010, I was terribly disappointed to realize that I had only read 22 books that year. So in 2011, for the first time ever, I set a numerical goal for my reading: 30 books. I made it, though not by much; I read a grand total of 32 books in 2011. It was interesting to read with a goal in mind. I don't think it made much difference in my overall reading patterns. I still chose books by whim and according to mood, and I still went through phases when I got on a roll and read a ton, and other phases when I got bogged down in particular books and read much more slowly. But I stayed aware of the fact that I was counting books this year, and there were occasions when I knew I was falling behind and so deliberately chose short books or books I thought would be quick reads. I would never want to let a goal like that keep me from reading long or difficult books, but overall I thought it worked well enough that I decided to set a new goal for next year: 33 books since I'm 33 years old.

Enough prefacing! Here is the list! Books marked with an (R) are books that I re-read this year, and links lead back to whatever post most closely resembles a review of each book:

1. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
2. Mothers and Sons by Colm Tóibín
3. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
4. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
5. The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell
6. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
8. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
9. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
10. East Wind Melts the Ice by Liza Dalby
11. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
12. At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill
13. The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
14. Here We Are in Paradise by Tony Earley
15. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
16. Tinkers by Paul Harding
17. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
18. Regeneration by Pat Barker (R)
19. The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker (R)
20. The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (R)
21. Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie
22. Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
23. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
24. Maurice by E.M. Forster (R)
25. Close Range by Annie Proulx (R)
26. The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
27. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
28. Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
29. The Snapper by Roddy Doyle
30. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
31. Micro Fiction ed. by Jerome Stern
32. Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers (a post about this book is forthcoming!) (R)

Not a bad list, all in all. As usual, there is very little nonfiction (Dillard, Dalby), a few short story collections (Tóibín, Earley, Proulx, Stern), and a huge preponderance of novels (everything else). I re-read far more books than usual this year, and also read more work in translation than I often do (Schlink, Kawabata, Mahfouz, Hrabal).

These were my favorites:

The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell: a lovely and often overlooked little gem of a novel about a friendship between two boys in Chicago in the 1920s. Maxwell tells a fairly simple story with great tenderness and subtlety.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf: Woolf's prose is always gorgeous but none of her books have moved me until this one. This book performs a wonderful act of alchemy by which the ordinary matter of every day is somehow transformed into the loftiest mysteries of life. A haunting book.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster: Oh, how I love Forster. This books is a clever comedy of manners under which lurks a deeper story about the need for authenticity, the difficulty of breaking with convention, and the transforming power of love.

Happy 2012 to all of you!
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Originally published in Czechoslovakia in 1976, Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal tells the story of Hanta, a man who has spent thirty-five years compacting wastepaper with a hydraulic press. He spends his days in a cellar full of every kind of paper product: blood-soaked butcher's paper, newspapers, encyclopedias, rare editions of the classics of philosophy and literature. Although Hanta seems to have no (or very little) formal education, he has an infinite capacity to be moved by the written word. He saves the books that pass through his cellar, taking them home and filling his little apartment with them until his apartment comes to resemble his mind--filled to bursting with works by Kafka and Camus, Sophocles and Lao-tzu.

Too Loud a Solitude is a short book--only a hundred pages--and there is very little plot. Instead, it takes the form of Hanta's lament: a lament for the books and paper he's forced to destroy, for the mice who build homes inside his piles of wastepaper and end up crushed by his press, for the two lost loves of his youth whom we see in dream-like snatches of memory, and eventually, once Hanta and his press have been replaced by the Brigade of Socialist Labor and their high-tech crushing machine, for his own lost way of life.

It's a strange little book, and it didn't rouse any particular passion in me, but there is a sort of beauty in it. Hrabal's descriptive writing can be very effective; it's only after he has shown us the clean, uniformed workers of the Brigade of Socialist Labor and the sterile efficiency of their workplace that we realize the true beauty of Hanta's dark cellar with its mounds of decaying paper, and of Hanta's strange and intense relationship with the books that come into it. It reminds me a bit of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. In both books, the images carry all the power while the details of plot and character fade into the background.

Although I haven't really loved either of the books by Hrabal that I've read, I think I liked this one better than I Served the King of England. In many ways they two books are opposites. I Served the King of England is full of plot--one madcap event after another, piled up on top of each other until the story becomes impossible to believe. Hrabal's writing style seems better suited to the dreamy, imagistic world of Too Loud a Solitude.

Sometimes I think that the best part of finishing a book is getting to decide what to read next. I took a long, rainy walk to the library this morning and came home with three books that I'm excited about: The Snapper by Roddy Doyle (sequel of sorts to The Commitments), A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, and Life Times, a big volume of collected stories by Nadine Gordimer. I think I'll start with the Roddy Doyle because I feel like I haven't quite pulled out of my Palace Walk-induced reading funk, so I could do with something quick and funny.
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I. Birds

My interest in birds began with water birds. I think this is true for many people; after all, if you start your bird-watching career by trying to sort out all the different species of sparrow, you will spend your time staring at tiny brown birds that flit through the underbrush without ever seeming to sit still, and you will most likely quit in frustration before you even begin. Water birds, on the other hand, tend to be larger and slower, and they float or wade through ponds or lakes where they're easy to spot. They provide good practice for the skills of observation and identification that you will need before attempting to tackle the sparrows.

Because they were my first birds, there's some nostalgia tied up in my appreciation of water birds. But that's not all it is--there is also something serene, something perfectly autumnal about watching a lake full of ducks and geese. So I was very pleased on Sunday when I took a hike at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and found that all the migrating water birds were in town. There were hundreds of Canada geese, of course, and plenty of run-of-the-mill mallards, but I saw some more special ducks as well: a pair of Northern pintails, some Coots, a few little Pied-billed grebes, several Northern shovelers, and, from afar, a little group of ruddy ducks with their unmistakable stiff tails waggling behind them. Lovely!

II. Books

After Palace Walk drained away so much of my reading energy, I've had to work to get back in the habit of reading. I started Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude mainly because it was such a slim and sleek little book--seemingly the opposite of the giant brick of Palace Walk. Even so, it didn't grab me right away, and it took me a week to work my way through the first fifty pages. But just when I thought I had signed myself up for another slog (though a shorter one, this time), I finally felt the book click. Ah. It may never become my new favorite book, but last night I finally found the beauty in it and, although I was tired when I started reading, I stayed up and read for longer than I meant to. It's been ages since that's happened, and I missed it so!
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So. It seems there has been a lack of beauty lately. I spent all day yesterday working with agonizing slowness to claw my way out from under a mountain of end-of-quarter grading. In the larger world, the events unfolding at Penn State this week are spewing so much ugliness that I want to tear up my resume and burn my diploma.

Clearly the solution to this is to spread beauty instead. So here are some beautiful things for you, my friends:

Poetry

Here is a beautiful blog, called pizzicati of hosanna, and composed entirely of recordings of poems read by Nic Sebastian. I don't know who Nic Sebastian is other than a person with a gorgeous voice, but I could listen to these readings for hours. My favorite may be the reading of "Orchard" by H.D., but they are all wonderful: soothing and lovely.

Painting

I recently came across the work of Japanese painter Matazo Kayama, who was born in Kyoto in 1927 and died in 2004. I have only seen reproductions of his work, but I would love to see these paintings in person.



Beautiful, no? Here are two more. )

Singing

Perhaps this video has already gone viral and everyone has seen it before, but I had never seen or heard it before my mother shared it on facebook this morning. If something has already made its way to my mother, there's a good chance the rest of the internet is already aware of it. But I wasn't aware of it, and the sound of these three voices was just the sort of loveliness I needed this morning.



Enjoy! And please feel encouraged to share any beauty that you've come across lately.
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Oh, love. Oh, Forster. Oh, is there anything more perfect than Forster on the beauty, the necessity, the transforming force of love? It's enough to make me fall in love with Forster himself. Last night I finished A Room with a View; I wanted to love it and love it I did.

I think my appreciation of this book is due in part to my previous reading of Forster--call it the Maurice effect. When I read Howards End I found it a bit cold; it was clear that Forster had a point to prove, and the novel seemed more like an intellectual exercise than a truly compelling story. It took Maurice (about which I was over the moon a year ago) to show me that Forster's intellectualism is inextricably linked to emotion, and that if he has a point to prove it's only because the point is so deeply felt. So when I opened A Room with a View and in the first chapter found Lucy Honeychurch saying, "About old Mr. Emerson--I hardly know. No, he is not tactful; yet, have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time--beautiful?" my heart rose, and I knew what sort of book I was in for and that I would love it.

A Room with a View begins in Florence, where Lucy is traveling with her cousin. Lucy is a young woman who has led a conventional life, but, because this is Forster, she must wake up out of conventionality and into an authentic life. This is easier to do in Italy, where Lucy meets and falls in love with a strange young man named George Emerson, and harder once she's back in England--Forster does an excellent job of showing us just how hard it is for Lucy to leave the safety of propriety.

It is possible, I suppose, to read A Room with a View primarily as a comedy of manners. It certainly contains enough humor, and Forster is clever enough at satirizing his cast of oh-so-English tourists in Italy. But since I suffer from a life-long case of terminal sincerity, the comedic aspects mattered less to me than the soul-stirring aspects. I believed completely in Lucy's struggles, and in their importance. I loved the delicate touch with which Forster set his most important scenes, and the life he breathed into his best characters. I liked that fact that even Cecil Vyse, representative of all that is repressive about society, turned noble in defeat--his final scene in the novel is really quite touching. I liked the ending too--I should have been able to predict it, but each time I thought I knew what was going to happen some uncertainty crept into me and I questioned.

Really a lovely book. It won't displace Maurice as my favorite Forster, but I'm so glad I read it. I've been having a run of very good reading luck lately: first To the Lighthouse, then Tinkers, and now this!
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Marilynne Robinson wrote, "The best privilege fiction can afford [is] the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls." She wasn't writing about To the Lighthouse, but she could have been; I can think of no better phrase to describe what Virginia Woolf achieves in this novel.

It took me almost half the book to appreciate To the Lighthouse. I could see from the start that the prose is very beautiful, but I needed to let myself sink into the book a bit, to slow my expectations to its pace, before I could really be moved by it. There is no plot to speak of, just a series of moments observed with precision and expanded until they contain whole worlds. The characters are ordinary people (a family and their guests at a summer home in the Hebrides) and they do ordinary things: knit, read to children, walk on the beach, paint. The things they think and the feelings they have towards one another--annoyance, love, protectiveness, jealousy, gratitude, sympathy--are ordinary too, but Woolf captures all of these ordinary thoughts and feelings with such perfect subtlety that somehow they become keys to unlocking all of the great mysteries of life. I'm not sure when I've ever read a book that managed to be about such small and such large things at the same time.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the strange, short, middle section, which describes the passing of ten years during which the summer house stands empty between visits. The section borders on the abstract, but the compression of such a long time into just a few pages makes for an intensity that's hard to describe. The images from that section may be what stays with me longest from this book.

But Woolf is also brilliant at evoking that feeling of suspension, of isolation, of strangeness that accompanies intense emotion. Nothing makes us more aware of being alone inside our own heads than feeling something powerful and unshared, but in To the Lighthouse it's an exquisite sort of isolation, a strangeness you can luxuriate in.

So at long last I have finally loved Woolf. She can go alongside of E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood and all the others on the list of writers of whom I need to read more.
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Our eighth week: a head of cabbage, a bunch of fennel fronds, a bunch of lacinato kale, a bunch of red beets with greens, two heads of fresh garlic, one quart of red potatoes, three fresh onions, and a big handful of green beans. I sense that a green bean and potato salad is in my future, perhaps with some chopped fennel fronds and a mustardy vinaigrette.
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