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radiantfracture

July 2017

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This was a busy month at work, without much time for pleasure reading. The rest of the summer is less officially busy, but contains plenty of requirement for self-motivation in the direction of reading things and also understanding them.

I've got two academic reviews to write. Both books tie directly into my courses for the fall, so this also counts as prep. And there is much prep. My reading may of necessity become less haphazard in July and August, or at least that is the plan, so I've enjoyed letting it take hazard for June.


Re-Reading

Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (1972), because it is a sure pleasure. I had remembered the simplicity of the prose and a few of the incidents — the water tank, the rich man’s house — but I had forgotten its complexity, or else not registered its intricacy fully in that first reading.

What strikes me this time is the celebration of the grandmother's perspective — her intuition about how to be with and of the land. There's an obvious connection to the North American ecological and Indigenous writing that I've read.


Books of the Moment

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). I liked this, though not the ending, which seemed interminable and unnecessary. However, my reading was rushed because I was about to get on a helicopter, so I can't say I gave it the ideal level of contemplative attention.


Quietly Uncanny British Novels

This is the genre closest to my slowly thumping heart: ordinary events told with such clarity and intensity that they seem irreal. Two more Barbara Comyns — The Skin Chairs (1985) and Our Spoons Came from Woolworth's (1982). I think Comyns has joined Penelope Fitzgerald and the Other Elizabeth Taylor among my favorite novelists. I liked both of these novels better than The Vet's Daughter, and maybe Woolworth's best because it is about Bohemian Life in the 1930s.


Nonfiction

Ben Blatt's Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve (2016). This is data-driven literary criticism/journalism. I believe it is a collection of pieces from Slate.com. It reads like that: a series of short statistical studies of various literary works and genres.

Blatt's conclusions are generally thoughtful and generous. I wanted a bit more critical complexity on both the literary and the data side -- for example, he analyzes the use of -ly adverbs and finds that, indeed, prose broadly considered as having higher quality does use fewer such adverbs. However, I don't recall his drilling down on the precise use that is most often objected to — describing how people say things. It seems to me there's a distinct literary difference between over-description of speech attitudes and modifying action in general — but maybe I speak inaccurately.

Blatt uses a lot of fanfiction for his analysis, which I liked — as a paraliterary genre, it often doesn't get that kind of attention, and yet it's an enormous galactic body of collective imaginings. He also scrupulously points out interesting exceptions to the rules, even the -ly one, which leaves room for hope.

Some of the pieces I found illuminating, and some dull. I'd recommend reading the bits of this that look interesting to you and skipping out the ones that don't.

I think of myself as a reader of Serious Nonfiction, or maybe a Serious Reader of nonfiction, but GoodReads tells me otherwise: this was my first nonfiction book of the year.

The Enchanted Places (1974). This is Christopher Milne's account of his childhood and youth as A.A. Milne's son and as the inspiration for the Winnie-the-Pooh books. I'm just finishing it. It's very English. Quiet, melancholy, celebratory of the countryside.

I like it. I knew some of it contents as literary rumour before reading it. And once I saw a Fringe play in which Christopher Robin goes off to the War and betrays Pooh to the Germans. "Das ist Ihr Schwein?" they keep shouting at him.


Speculations

Anansi Boys. (2006) I think that ends my Neil Gaiman revisit. I liked the mythworld in the novel very much. I found the main storyline rather flat. It also has some problems with the narrative's portrayal of consent, which I suppose can be explained by a) its having been written before the latest iteration of that conversation, and b) its being about gods, who aren't very good on that sort of thing where mortals are concerned.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates -- Black Panther #1

I thought this was really well-written: morally intricate and self-critical about its own backstory, without collapsing into postmodern cliche. I enjoyed it. I hadn't really followed the character previously, so I can't compare him to previous incarnations.

Barbara Comyns -- Sisters by a River, The Vet's Daughter

I'd like to read more Comyns. She turns over a deep weirdness you want to dig further into, but she's also a little forbidding -- to keep with the gardening metaphor, there's something stony about her writing. I don't see loving her books, but I definitely appreciate them.

Sisters by a River does a clever thing with the voice which I won't spoil here, except to say that it's quiet and tragic. I don't think I've seen an author do something so specifically narratively interesting with the character's diction. River is Comyns' first novel, and the structure has problems -- the story just sort of wanders off until it's out of sight -- but you can see an original mind at work. I'd quite like to read Our Spoons Came from Woolworth's next.

Jane Gardham -- The Hollow Land, Bilgewater, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat

(A Long Way from Verona was technically April.) Gardham is very good on Being at School in various incarnations. Old Filth might be the best of these books in being about old age rather than youth, and thereby being both wryer and more sobering, but I found that novel less warm than the other books. Filth is the only masculine protagonist -- I don't know whether that's a factor or not, as my sample size is too small.

The Man in the Wooden Hat is the same story as Old Filth, told from the wife's perspective. The warmth was there, but not quite the same depth, and for whatever reason the device of repeating the same scenes (I think verbatim) from Old Filth didn't work for me. They did not feel newly illuminated: just repeated.

Gardham was a pleasure to discover -- not quite the revelation I had with Penelope Fitzgerald or Elizabeth Taylor, but good company.

Gardham has some distinctive structural habits -- the story proper is often contained in a brief framing device. Old Filth, for example, is bracketed with brief faux playscripts of characters discussing the dozing Filth within his earshot.

Oh, I liked what Gardham did with time in The Hollow Land -- it was unexpected, and, though the details are not quite right, plausible.

(I'm not being mysterious to be annoying -- I'm just too tired to write a proper spoilery review.)

G. Willow Wilson -- Ms. Marvel #1 & 2

As comics, these were less my thing than Black Panther, being goofier in tone and especially in visual style, but I liked the stuff about millennials responding to being unvalued.

Other bits

The Prose Edda had to go back -- who, I would like to know, had an urgent need to consult Snorri Sturluson? I wish they told you where your books were going when they got recalled.

Better news: Lincoln in the Bardo came in. I've heard some people say the novel's structure is brilliant and experimental, and some that it's "like a party trick" (Lissa Evans) -- a form put on for show, without being integral to the story.

It's early to say, but I think I may come out somewhere in the middle on the question. Which is to say -- so far I like it.

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On Sushi

Another day of heavy rain. I made it out to pick up meds and some probably unnecessary groceries. I did a little marking, for which future me will thank me, though he'll wish I did more. I did some doodling and watched art videos on YouTube. I worked on the cover of my next journal until I didn't like it and then I worked on it some more until I liked it a lot.

Tonight we the default triumvirate are meeting at S's house to celebrate his job interview. It's for the job he's already doing provisionally, but to do it like for real this time. He says he feels good about the interview, so we're celebrating, despite having no formal news of the outcome. Toby Ziegler would yell at us, but we live out on the wild edge of magical thinking, taunting the void.

LB has been sick with the spiralling virus that has been hacking such deep grooves through this winter. Now S. thinks he may be sick, though it doesn't seem to take the same way with him. I think I'm over my second round, but my energy is still low and it's left me in a classic old-fashioned depressive state, which is, you know, inconvenient. Also it's aggravated my asthma and dairy sensitivities.

Then, it is grotty old March, and we are in the wrong timeline, so how should one feel?

Yet -- shortly there will be spider roll!

On Steinbeck

I'm about 1/3 of the way through East of Eden. The prose is like a river of the purest water. The Salinas Valley is imprinted on my mind like a place I've known since birth.

However, a number of people I know and trust have told me that the book is one of the most humane books they've ever read -- and so far I have not seen that; I am still waiting for that to kick in.

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Tags:
This isn't so much a post as an excuse to show you a paper owl.

I went to Russell Books today and -- inspired by Backlisted, my new podcast boyfriend -- hunted up Alan Garner's Red Shift.1

The Owl Service was also on the shelf, which let to this fruitful use of my afternoon:



I like very much that Garner makes his books into puzzles, without its being coy or forced. I am trying to hold off on decoding the ciphered message at the end of Red Shift until I've actually read the book. No spoilers please.

So far I like The Owl Service -- the only thing that makes it a young adult book is the way it leaps immediately into its weirdness, rather than easing you through a process of deduction the way a book with aspirations to a certain kind of maturity -- to creating a realistic unreality -- might.

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0. I looked for, but did not find, the edition of Woolf's The Waves with the absurdly patriarchal back cover copy mentioned elsewhere.

1. I am still compiling the list of essential books recommendations from friends (old, new) and helpful strangers, so right now my reading looks like this: Owl ( Red ( Recommended ( Party (Howards End) Going) Mystery Book ) Shift ) Service, with books for teaching in their own noble stack at my left hand.
What books are you most glad to have read?

What books are you most glad to have in your mind as objects, if that's how you have books-- to revolve and contemplate --

or as nodes in your web of thought, if that's how you have them -- for their connections to other books or for their illumination of you know Life or science or art --

or as blotches of blurry colour, if that's how you have them -- for the pleasure or surprise or wonder they gave you?

What books would you most wish never to forget? Which have lodged in your spine and made it stronger? The really key keys to your mythologies. The non-negotiables.

I wish to plan my reading better this year, but while I have perhaps two hundred unread books lying about desperate to be taken up, I have limited time and there's a snowy blank where the urge towards the next book might usually be found. (And a snowy blank all 'round.)

So -- off the top of your head -- through old habits of mind or new revelations or sheer perversity -- what would you most not want not to have read?

Sans advice, I will finish Howards End and Party Going and probably go on to Red Shift, since that's what Backlisted recently covered (in n extraoooordinary [DING DING DING] episode, found here.

Cheers for any thoughts at all you care to share.

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This eternal virus1 and the world virus of authoritarianism have made me irritable. In this state (and next door to that one) it's difficult to focus and it's difficult to like things and people.

What better time to review some books?

During my illness, I made very few ventures out, but one was to Sorenson's Books, recently and beautifully rehoused with fellow bookseller Chronicles of Crime in a wonderfully arcane warren more like a dream of seeking than a retail space.

I went to hunt up a copy of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia because they were reading it on Backlisted. I ought to have been looking for Howards End, because that is the next book for book club, but in my fog I could hold only one book in mind at a time. They did not have Venetia. I eventually found it as an abridged audiobook through my local library’s Hoopla subscription, which met my needs perfectly well.

The book I walked out of Sorenson’s with was Loving * Living * Party Going, a Picador omnibus of three of Henry Green’s novels. I was somehow under the impression that they were a series, but Green it seems just loved a gerund.

I’ve been hearing about Green as an under-rated novelist for a good long time, maybe most recently in The New Yorker. He was in my headfiles under to be read (sometime), and this seemed to be bookstore serendipity's signal that it was time.

Henry Green’s Loving )

Mad Shepherds and Other Studies by L.P. Jacks )

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Footnotes

1. Which is to say, this cold I’ve had since Dec 22
2. The wealthy family are named the Tennants. Get it?
3. L.P. stands for "Lawrence Pearsall".
Thanks for the follow-backs, journalfolk. I have no plan for how to make it worth your while.

I am finished Barchester Towers, and glad to be quit of it.

I liked The Warden very much, and there are many things to like about Barchester Towers, but, having read this novel of his, I cannot say with conviction that I like Anthony Trollope. I wonder if the reason I gave up on the Chronicles of Barsetshire all those years ago was my annoyance with this book and specifically its constant lumbering jocularity about the Nature of Woman.

Some of the good qualities of The Warden are still in evidence; Trollope is very good on the pettier, more self-concerned, but not actually evil side of human behavior -- the way that resentment and pride override charity and compassion, for example. Mr. Arabin, ruefully trying to remake his life at 40, moves me, and the signora, though not precisely adequate as a portrait of a woman with a disability, comes close to being a fascinating character study. I wouldn’t say she tips over, quite, into actually being fascinating, though the ambiguity around her injury and its cause, and the constant speculation about What's Under the Blanket, would provide excellent material for, say, Lacan.

The major characters of The Warden seem to have foregone any further personal growth in the sequel and are content to run the little grooves of their personae over and over, like table hockey characters. That was my feeling; the book group liked them better, and thought that the relentless babbling about the hilarious weakness of women was meant more ironically than I did.

(Some poking at the mass conversation (Look! The Victorian Web is still there!) produces various interesting possible positions on this question.) (When I was a youth nothing pleased me more than nested parentheses, especially if I could wrap them all up together at the end: ((())).)

In The Warden there are really no villains – just short-sighted selfish people, and I like that about it. Barchester Towers is painted in broader, almost Dickensian strokes. Mr Slope is stuck in the begged question of bad guys: why is he the villain? Because he's bad. How do you know he's bad? Because he's the villain. Also, red hair. Watch out.

Next up: Howard's End, last read about the same time as BT, which is to say, a very long time ago indeed.

I got violently winded walking to book group yesterday, though the sticky toffee pudding was worth it. Today a little errand walking similarly exhausted me. It was ten days ago the walk-in clinic doctor gave me the puffer and said this thing would play itself out.

So tired. I think tomorrow will be an ugly shirt day (a day when you're too tired to iron the good shirts).

An invitation, of course, to think about illness and wellness, access and ability. Something to discuss with the senora.

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I am in a classics reading group, which during 2016 I mostly failed to show up for, excepting January's David Copperfield (1850) and December's The Warden (1855).

You might therefore assume I give special precedence to British books written during the 1850s, though I do not know that to be the case.

The only Trollope I had ever read before was Barchester Towers (1857), in second or third year uni. It is, of course, the sequel to The Warden, but I'd never read that. I don't know why.

Reading choices in early university seem in retrospect both more random and more joyful. I read a book on Provencal poetry, for example, and acquired a permanent affection for Langue d'oc, though I followed up on that in no way. Maybe my reading the book had something to do with Pound? I don't think so, though. I hadn't heard of a lot of big names at seventeen through nineteen, though I wanted to think I was literary.

All I remembered about Barchester Towers until this re-read, so many years later, was Eleanor's shrinking widow's cap and her stomping her "little foot" at one point, which had startled me at the time, as until then I had been assuming she was a fully developed female character.

Further Thoughts on Barchester Towers )

Enough of Trollope for now, I think. I've a drawing date with a friend down the road. This three-week cold has left me short of puff, but I should just about be able to make it a block and a half.

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