May 2009 Archives

A Reliable Wife


When the weather starts to warm and the sundresses emerge from the back closet, I, out of some perverse instinct, turn to cold-weather novels. I think I enjoy a contrast between my physical world and my literary one. The fjords of Norway, the dark winters of Siberia, polar expeditions and misty English moors all feature prominently in my summer reading picks. So when I received a special edition of Robert Goolrick's neo-gothic novel A Reliable Wife through Powell's Indiespensable program, I knew it would be an excellent way to kick off the summer months. Set in a rural Wisconsin town (with forays to Chicago and St. Louis) in 1904, the characters spend most of the novel socked in by snowdrifts, paralyzed and menaced by the extreme cold, which in turn reflects a certain inner frozenness they all share. You can get a sense of just how chilly Goolrick's novel is from the opening passage:

It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet. The world stood stock still, four o'clock dead on. Nothing moved anywhere, not a body, not a bird; for a split second there was only silence, there was only stillness. Figures stood frozen in the frozen land, men, women, and children....

It was not snowing yet, but it would be soon, a blizzard, by the smell of it. The land lay covered already in trampled snow.

The coldness of the landscape and the claustrophobia it induces are always present in A Reliable Wife, from the opening of the first chapter until Spring finally peeks over the edge of the horizon in the novel's closing pages. The small Wisconsin town that is home to Ralph Truitt, town tycoon and employer of almost everyone, and Catherine Land, his sinister new bride, who he first meets in the opening pages of the novel, is also host to regular eruptions of violent madness, brought on by the seemingly never-ending winter. Wives cut their husbands' throats and burn down their homes; men cut off their own limbs in fits of deranged fury. Goolrick effectively conjures a sense of danger, even malevolence, out of the frozen Wisconsin landscape, and to me this wrought atmosphere is one of the chief joys of the novel.

And it was one of several. A Reliable Wife is a definite page-turner, a quick and juicy read despite its themes of moral paralysis and slow murder. It's a novel on the old Dickensian mold - very plot and character-driven, which means I'm working hard to avoid spoilers. Even when I found the characters and events a bit over-the-top, and their secrets somewhat predictable (both of which are, I think, to be expected in the gothic genre), I was still riveted, wanting to know what would happen next. It's a good, old-fashioned (in most regards) story, which doesn't try too hard to be arty or ground-breaking, but delivers a satisfying tale in a well-crafted place and time.

One of my only reservations about the novel had to do with the characters. As with most Gothic fiction, A Reliable Wife is preoccupied with sexuality. In their different ways, the three main characters are all pathologically obsessed with sex - one out of a religious repression, one from a mercenary standpoint, and one as a mode of nihilistic escapism. There is a lot of sex in the book, which is great - I'm certainly no prude about sex in literature, and I love a well-written, well-integrated sex scene or five. I'm even a fan of the inclusion of a character whose sexual obsession plays off the more normally-socialized people around him or her. But to have all three main characters in the grips of different sexual obsessions simultaneously struck me as a little much. It dilutes the skewed-ness of any one of three warped world-views; since everyone in the novel is severely maladjusted around sex, skewed almost becomes the new normal. The reader is apt to forget the possibility of a sane, balanced attitude toward sex, as the actions and desires of the three characters veer wildly according to their respective neuroses. To me, the interactions between the characters would have been more compelling if just one of the three had been sexually well-adjusted, as it would have provided a foil for for the other two. On the other hand, it's possible that Goolrick is making a statement here about American sexual socialization at the turn of the twentieth century, and implying that the majority of the population ended up sexually dysfunctional because of it. Or, the moral ambiguity of the characters' sexual relationships could be an intentional rabbit-hole down which the reader must descend. For me, it was less than totally effective, but another reader may disagree.

(A somewhat dorky sex-related aside: I was impressed by Goolrick's research into Victorian beliefs about human reproduction, which is a subject of interest to me. At one point, when a woman is trying to convince herself that one man, and not another, is the father of her growing fetus, she asks herself "Hadn't he, when she first came home, made love to her while she was showing blood? She believed so." This is the opposite of what we now know, that women are most likely to conceive at the mid-point between menses. But Goolrick has got it right: up until the 1920's, doctors were telling women that they were most fertile during their periods. As Andrea Tone puts it, in her excellent book Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America:

Doctors assumed that the reproductive cycles of lower mammals and humans were the same. Knowing from observation that animals ovulated during estrus, they reasoned that women must ovulate during menstruation and be least fertile midway through the menstrual cycle. As one Michigan doctor instructed in 1881, a woman trying to prevent pregnancy should avoid 'having connection with her husband just before her menses,' for 'that is the time that nature evidently intended that conception should take place.'

Needless to say, such advice was frustrating for Victorian women who were trying to avoid pregnancy via the rhythm method. But in the context of A Reliable Wife, this small detail increased my ability to believe in the world Goolrick created.)

Despite a surfeit of sexual obsession, A Reliable Wife is thoroughly enjoyable, and ultimately more optimistic than many stories in the gothic genre, which I think is refreshing. I don't want to ruin any plot points, but I'd enjoy a conversation about the parallels between Catherine Land and another sinister literary Catherine, Steinbeck's Cathy (later Kate) Ames, from East of Eden. They share certain histories and certain specific behaviors, as well as a name, and I'm almost sure that Catherine is consciously intended as a descendant or re-telling of Cathy. But the trajectories of the two women do diverge at a significant point, which I think has repercussions not just for Catherine and Cathy, but for the grander capacity for human redemption in these two novels.

(A Reliable Wife was my fifth book for the What's in a Name? Challenge.)

Inventing English


I am no linguist, and not particularly skilled at finessing the subtleties of sounds we humans speak into meaning: monopthongs versus dipthongs, vowels held long in the front versus short in the back. But I am a person endlessly fascinated by the English language, and the way its history reflects the greater history of the people who have spoken it and shaped it over the years. As a passionate non-specialist, then, I found Seth Lerer's Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language highly satisfying: Lerer's essays on English lingual history are clear and juicy, with just enough patient explanation of technical linguistic terms to enable the casual reader to follow along easily. More than that, he analyzes the unexpected ways in which social and political movements have influenced the course of the language's evolution.

The theme that struck me most, through all of Lerer's chapters, was how fundamentally political language is, and how double-edged. From the very beginning of our history as English speakers, we've been engaged in a complicated relationship with how (or whether) our language should expand to include outside influences, and what lingual "purity" would even look like. This may sound familiar: it's still being played out in the fight to establish English as the official language of the United States, a move motivated by fear of the growing Spanish-speaking populations here. But it's nothing new. In one early section I found particularly fascinating, Lerer discusses the first known rhymed poem written in English. Some background for those who don't know: Anglo-Saxon or Old English poetry didn't generally rhyme; instead, it was organized around principles such as alliteration, kennings (novel compound words that expressed a single concept, like the coinage "whaleroad" for the ocean), and numbers of stressed syllables per line. Rhymed poetry was typical of Latinate literature, and began to filter into English after the Norman (French) invasion of 1066. But what I found so striking was that this poem, which incorporated a brand-new verse technology learned directly from the French, was in content a protest poem against those very same invaders, a lyric composed on the death of William the Conqueror, which catalogued his atrocities:

Castelas he let wyrcean,
7 earme men swi∂e swencean,
Se cyng waes swa swi∂e stearc,
7 benam of his underþeoddan manig marc
goldes 7 ma hundred punda seolfres.
Det he name be wihte
7 mid mycelan unrihte
of his landloede
for littelre neode.
He waes on gitsunge befeallan,
7 graedinaesse he lufode mid ealle.
He saette mycel deorfri∂,
7 he laegde laga þaerwi∂
þet swa hwa swa sloge heort o∂∂e hinde,
þet hine man sceolde blendian.

[He had castles built
and poor men terribly oppressed.
The king was very severe,
and he took from his underlings many marks
of gold and hundreds of pounds of silver.
All this he took from the people,
and with great injustice
from his subjects,
to gratify his trivial desire.
He had fallen into avarice,
and he loved greediness above everything else.
He established many deer preserves,
and he set up laws concerning them,
such that whoever killed a hart or a hind
should be blinded.]

This poem strikes me as so poignant. The author (a monk at the outlying Peterborough monastery) must have consciously chosen to write it in rhyming form, as the vast majority of the English poetry of the period wasn't rhymed. I can't resist speculating on why, therefore, he didn't take the more obvious route of a defiantly Anglo-Saxon verse form to protest the Norman tyranny. Was it a melancholy gesture away from the poetic forms he felt were his own, looking toward a period of colonization? Or did the mixed messages of the poem reflect his own conflicted feelings, his resentment of Norman oppression battling with admiration of the new French styles in verse and culture? Lerer points out that the very first word in the poem, "castelas" or castles, was an importation from Norman French: Anglo-Saxons didn't build in stone, but in wood, and readers of Beowulf will remember their vast-timbered halls. The Normans, on the other hand, peppered English soil with stone castles as part of their program of commandeering the land for royal use. In this poem, then, we can see the simultaneous transformation of language, landscape, and ways of thinking. Fascinating stuff.

And this tension between the old and new, between expansive cosmopolitanism and protective nativism, continues through nearly every essay in Lerer's book. There are intriguing debates, in the centuries after his life, about whether Chaucer's popularization of so many French-derived words was a boon or a curse: Edmund Spenser wrote that Chaucer had tapped "the well of English undefiled," whereas early philologist Alexander Gil said that he "rendered his poetry notorious by the use of Latin and French words," going on to call the resulting English an "illegitimate progeny" and a "monster." Interestingly, in both these cases the "undefiled" English is perceived as of a higher class: to Spenser, the addition of the colonizer's French-derived words raises the language to new poetic heights, whereas by Gil's time it's possible to complain that "everyone [e.g., even the commoner] wishes to appear as a smatterer of tongues and to vaunt his proficiency in Latin, French (or any other language)." Gil, therefore, as a mark of educated difference, advocates a return to the "purity" of Anglo-Saxon-derived words. (The irony? His anti-Latinate treatise is written in...Latin.)

But Lerer makes the point, again and again, that attempts to restrict the growth of the language are both misguided and doomed to failure. From the huge influx of foreign-derived words during the commerce and exploration boom of the sixteenth century, to the formation of Atlantic creoles as a product of the slave trade, to the jargon introduced into our speech by the soldiers of successive wars, Lerer insists that our language reflects the way we live, and that to expect anything else is foolhardy. I strongly agree with this idea: modern English is not debased, any more than Anglo-Saxon English encapsulated some mythical "purity." We should revel in the richness and diversity of our language, not fight it.

One of the most touching chapters of Inventing English deals with Samuel Johnson's personal transformation over the course of writing his Dictionary. Beginning the task with the goal of "fixing" the language in place, of ascertaining proper usage and recording it for all time, he gradually came to appreciate the untameable flow of the English tongue:

[A]fter years of false starts, failures, and impediments - he was unable to complete the task in the three years he set himself; his wife died in the process; his amanuenses found his work almost impossible to follow; he abandoned Chesterfield's patronage - after all this he realized that it is impossible to fix a language. In the preface to the Dictionary that finally appeared in 1755, he saw a language not imperial but "sublunary," mutable and transitory. Like Caxton, who saw English living under the "domynacioun of the moon," Johnson found himself incapable of fixing usage. His purpose, now, had become "not to form, but register the language; not to teach men how they should think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts."

I was cheering Johnson on here. His journey was not an easy one - he spent eight years basically despondent - but to me, the outcome was so worthwhile: an appreciation of the strength, richness, and changeability of his mother tongue.

Inventing English was full of fascinating little tidbits; I was constantly reading this or that juicy anecdote out loud to David as I perused it. "Did you know," I would say, "that 'hubbub' was originally an onomatopoetic term based on what English people heard in the speech of the Irish and Welsh?" Or "Wow, did you know 'dude' originated as a term for a citified dandy? I always thought it originally described cowboys!' These little insights are fascinating and thought-provoking, but Lerer also does a good job of taking his history beyond the anecdotal, and tying these small examples into a larger context of social and political change. I ardently enjoyed it, and might even follow up a few of the chapters with some more in-depth reading.

(Inventing English was my fifth and 400-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)

2666: The Part About the Critics (Book 1)


A big thanks to Claire and Steph for suggesting read-along of Roberto Bolaño's epic 2666! They've described what they're hosting as a "do-as-you-please read-along," and suggest spreading the five books (or parts) of the novel over five months, interspersing them with other books so as to avoid burnout. They're also asking for monthly check-ins and reading notes. Taking my cue from the "do-as-you-please" aspect of this project, and from Bolaño's own desire that each part of 2666 be published as its own free-standing novel, I think I'll just read this at whatever pace seems right to me, and write up a review of each of the five sections as I get to them. I'll wait to publish each of them, though, until the month allotted by Claire and Steph for that particular book. Sound good? Good.

And now that we've got the logistics out of the way...

I thoroughly enjoyed The Part About the Critics, which is the first book of the five that make up 2666. With all the talk of sex and violence surrounding this novel, I was pleasantly surprised by the humor in these first pages, by Bolaño's light, satiric touch and keen sense of the absurd. (We all know I'm a sucker for absurdism.) More than anything, his style and subject matter reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov: the ridiculousness and insularity of academia, the minute dissections of the reading life, the way that the four protagonists are more than a little silly, yet still sympathetic - Bolaño and Nabokov both handle all these elements masterfully. Bolaño has a firm grasp of the "don't belabor every little joke" principle of humor: his anecdotes are peppered with light, unexplained touches that I found hilarious. In this passage, for example, he writes a brilliant send-up of the self-importance among two opposing camps of scholars studying the enigmatic German author Archimboldi:

The Bremen German literature conference was highly eventful. Pelletier, backed by Morini and Espinoza, went on the attack like Napoleon at Jena, assaulting the unsuspecting German Archimboldi scholars, and the downed flags of Pohl, Schwartz, and Borchmeyer were soon routed to the cafés and taverns of Bremen. The young German professors participating in the event were bewildered at first and then took the side of Pelletier and his friends, albeit cautiously. The audience, consisting mostly of university students who had traveled from Göttingen by train or in vans, was also won over by Pelletier's fiery and uncompromising interpretations, throwing caution to the winds and enthusiastically yielding to the festive, Dionysian vision of ultimate carnival (or penultimate carnival) exegesis upheld by Pelletier and Espinoza. Two days later, Schwartz and his minions counterattacked. They compared Archimboldi to Heinrich Böll. They spoke of suffering. They compared Archimboldi to Günter Grass. They spoke of civic duty. Borchmeyer even compared Archimboldi to Friedrich Dürrenmatt and spoke of humor, which seemed to Morini the height of gall. Then Liz Norton appeared, heaven-sent, and demolished the counterattack like a Desaix, like a Lannes, a blond Amazon who spoke excellent German, if anything too rapidly, and who expounded on Grimmelshausen and Gryphius and many others, including Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus.

Although the overarching joke here is a good one (only academics themselves would be so absurdly self-involved as to liken their conferences to Napoleonic battles; it's like something out of a Christopher Guest film), there are so many tiny, near-irrelevant touches that heighten the humor. It's somehow hilarious that the students have come "by train or in vans." The caution or incaution of the conference audience is equally hilarious, given that all most of them are doing is nodding or shaking their heads, as is the fact that Morini finds the suggestion of humor somehow more offensive than suffering or civic duty.

But more than being funny, the pan-European, colonializing self-importance of the critics (representing the big four European centers of France, Spain, Italy, and England) holds a darker note. In this scene, they've come to a German city to attack and triumph over German scholars, in a discussion of a German author, and they are outraged when their interpretations are challenged. The German scholars, who attempt to locate the work of Archimboldi within a greater context of German literature as a whole, are ridiculed. Instead, the protagonists favor of a glamorous, individualistic interpretation that allows Archimboldi to belong to everyone and no one (but mostly, to the four European critics).

Later, when three of the four friends descend on a small Mexican border town to search for Archimboldi himself, their cultural arrogance becomes even more obvious. When a Mexican Archimboldi scholar addresses a note "Dear Colleagues," for example, two of them burst into laughter while the third finds the note depressingly pathetic. None of them seriously consider that a professor from Latin America could possibly be worthy of their regard, yet they fully expect local cooperation in their obsessive quest to track down a writer who obviously wishes to remain hidden. When their motivation is questioned, indeed, their interrogator is met with blank incomprehension: "Because we're studying his works, said the critics."

But the darkness in this first book is not limited to the cultural imperialism of the four protagonists. Indeed, the Mexican section of The Part About the Critics begins to introduce a more sinister note all around. There is a feeling that something is wrong in Santa Teresa, and Bolaño does a fantastic job of creating, via certain bizarre incidents, that atmosphere of vague but profound unease. The critics learn, for example, of an unexplained war between cabbies and hotel doormen, in which the doormen will beat the cabbies senseless unless the latter pay them off. A group of drunk Americans in the bar seem to be observing something of great interest in the street, but when the critics try to share the view, there is nothing to see. Even the critics' hotel rooms and the landscape outside are vaguely unnerving to them. And then there are the rumors of the hundreds of murdered women that have been turning up in the area, about which none of the Europeans can get much information. Something is definitely rotten, and the critics are tempted to put it all down to the lack of civilization in this backwater Mexican burg. At least one of them, though, has the nagging feeling that this vague "something" has been wrong all along:

These people are crazy, said Espinoza and Pelletier. Bu Norton thought something strange was going on, on the street, on the terrace, in the hotel rooms, even in Mexico City with those unreal taxi drivers and doormen, unreal or at least logically ungraspable, and even in Europe something strange had been happening, something she didn't understand, at the Paris airport where the three of them had met, and maybe before, with Morini and his refusal to accompany them, with that slightly repulsive young man they had met in Toulouse, with Dieter Hellfeld and his sudden news about Archimboldi. And something strange was going on even with Archimboldi and everything Archimboldi had written about, and with Norton, unrecognizable to herself, if only intermittently, who read and made notes on an interpreted Archimboldi's books.

And looking back, the reader does remember examples of the same kind of skewed-ness taking place in Europe. There's the recurrent theme of the painter Edwin Johns, who cut off his painting hand, and a certain academic conference "of which Morini had reason to believe the whole thing was a hoax." And then, of course, there is the deliciously bizarre scene about the mugs. I won't say any more. You'll just have to read it for yourself.

I love this kind of unknowable, semi-surreal wrongness in literature, and have ever since I was a child. So Bolaño's mix of Lynchian unease with absurdist humor is pretty much guaranteed to please. I'll be eager to see what the second book of 2666 holds in store.



I usually don't write here about audiobooks; I consider listening a much different act than reading, and it occupies a different slot in my life. But hearing James Joyce's Ulysses performed aloud has been so crucial, for me, in developing a love of it, that I decided to make an exception for Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan's excellent audio rendition.

I first experienced Joyce's monumental day-in-the-life tome in the traditional ink-and-paper way, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I found it just okay. Parts were utterly transcendent, but other parts were downright obnoxious. I liked the first few chapters, and a number of bright flashes of wit or beauty got through to me during the vast middle section, but mostly I just kept plugging along until the famous Molly Bloom monologue, when I finally felt I was in the presence of masterful, fully-realized and revolutionary writing. That soul-soaring, ecstatic feeling didn't kick in until the last seventy-five pages of an eight hundred page novel, which seemed to me to spell "uneven." (And I am not one to shy away from experimental modernism: Beckett, Camus, and Woolf are among my favorite writers.) It was frankly disappointing. I didn't find it scary or too difficult or any of that nonsense; I just thought it was a single astoundingly brilliant novella tacked onto seven hundred pages of self-important mediocrity.

And then I discovered, during a period when I was listening to more podcasts than was good for me, the recordings of the 2007 Bloomsday on Broadway celebration, a twelve-hour marathon of readings and performances from Ulysses and other Joycean ephemera. I started listening, and promptly fell in love with one of the parts that, a few years before, had struck me as completely tiresome: the "Nausicaa" episode, featuring Gertie MacDowell's (possibly imaginary) romanticizing of the world around her, including Bloom, and Bloom's orgasmic admiration of Gertie MacDowell. I don't remember who read the section, but the cadence of the spoken word added immeasurably to the experience for me. I started to cotton onto the sadness and humor of the episode, and to the complicated subjectivity at play: are we privy to Gertie's thoughts, or merely to what Bloom imagines those thoughts might be? Who is naive, and who knowing? Another little hilarity I discovered while listening to the Bloomsday recordings is the snippet of a scene when Bloom, unwillingly waylaid by an old acquaintance M'Coy, is listening to M'Coy talk (shout, really) about the recent death of a mutual friend of theirs, while Bloom attempts to ogle the legs of a young woman across the street:

--WHY? I said. WHAT'S WRONG WITH HIM? I said.
Proud: rich: silk stockings.
--Yes, Mr Bloom said.
He moved a little to the side of M'Coy's talking head. Getting up in a minute.
--WHAT'S WRONG WITH HIM? He said. HE'S DEAD, he said. And, faith, he filled up. IS IT PADDY DIGNAM? I said. I couldn't believe it when I heard it. I was with him no later than Friday last or Thursday was it in the Arch. YES, he said. HE'S GONE. HE DIED ON MONDAY, POOR FELLOW. Watch! Watch! Silk flash rich stockings white. Watch!
A heavy tramcar honking its gong slewed between.
Lost it. Curse your noisy pugnose. Feels locked out of it. Paradise and the peri. Always happening like that. The very moment. Girl in Eustace street hallway Monday was it settling her garter. Her friend covering the display of. ESPRIT DE CORPS. Well, what are you gaping at?
--Yes, yes, Mr Bloom said after a dull sigh. Another gone.
--One of the best, M'Coy said.

Ha! One of the best. As I listened, little gems of humor or profundity started to emerge, glimmering, from the stream of words, and transform the landscape of my relationship with Ulysses.

I gained so much, in fact, from the Bloomsday readings that David and I decided to experience the entire novel in audio form, and I'm so glad we did. Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan do an amazing job with the many, many moods and styles of Ulysses (Riordan taking Molly's voice, Norton taking everything else). There were numberless sections I hadn't liked or even particularly noticed before, which I heartily enjoyed this time around. Most notably, I think, the Cyclops episode benefits ENORMOUSLY and hilariously from being spoken aloud. The richness and texture of the colloquial language come through in a truly beautiful way, which, I think, is such a central part of the tension in this chapter: the hearty flow and cadence of the working-class Irish tongue, as contrasted (by Joyce) with the ignorance and xenophobia of the working-class Irish mind.

--What are you doing round those parts? says Joe.
--Devil a much, says I. There's a bloody big foxy thief beyond by the garrison church at the corner of Chicken lane--old Troy was just giving me a wrinkle about him--lifted any God's quantity of tea and sugar to pay three bob a week said he had a farm in the county Down off a hop-of-my-thumb by the name of Moses Herzog over there near Heytesbury street.
--Circumcised? says Joe.
--Ay, says I. A bit off the top. An old plumber named Geraghty. I'm hanging on to his taw now for the past fortnight and I can't get a penny out of him.
--That the lay you're on now? says Joe.
--Ay, says I. How are the mighty fallen! Collector of bad and doubtful debts. But that's the most notorious bloody robber you'd meet in a day's walk and the face on him all pockmarks would hold a shower of rain.

The Cyclops episode is an emphatic condemnation of the hypocrisy, prejudice and lack of self-awareness that Joyce perceieved in Dublin life of the period (epitomized by the citizen's statement "By Jesus, ...I'll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name"), yet it still manages to be funny, rich, and enjoyable to listen to or read. I just can't resist phrases like "Gob, he's not as green as he's cabbagelooking" and "God blimey if she ain't a clinker, that there bleeding tart," especially when, as here, they're juxtaposed with riotous parodies of high-minded society narratives. I'm not sure why "Cyclops" never stood out to me before, but I'm very glad to have acquired it this time around.

There are still sections of Joyce's novel that I don't like (yet), and sections I like better on the page than through the ears. I found the Proteus chapter, in which Stephen angsts poetically along the seashore, difficult to absorb at spoken speed. When reading, I tend to linger longer over passages like this one:

In long lassoes from the Cock lake the water flowed full, covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand, rising, flowing. My ashplant will float away. I shall wait. No, they will pass on, passing, chafing against the low rocks, swirling, passing. Better get this job over quick. Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling.

This language is so gorgeous, and works at so many levels: Stephen's literary preoccupations are emphasized by all the Anglo-Saxon-esque alliteration ("long lassoes," "flowed full"), and kenning-like compound words (I think "greengoldenly" is exquisite). The onomatopoeia of the sea is beautiful, and the prose rhythms reflect sometimes-unexpected movements of slapping waves: "In cups of rocks it slops." This was one of the passages that just blew me away on my first reading, but got a bit lost in the audio version.

The Ithaca section, on the other hand (the penultimate section, structured in a question-answer catechism), still strikes me, except for its final few pages, as a tiresome slog no matter which version I'm experiencing. This was reputedly Joyce's favorite chapter, but I find it totally abrasive. I must admit, though, that it provides an excellent foil for the last and always-stunning Molly Bloom monologue, with which Marcella Riordan does a GREAT job. The lovely, flowing, sleepy, sexy language is set off beautifully by her rich purr, but the performance is not overdone. She lets the lyricism and mounting rhythms do their work, and oh, they do it magnificently. As much as I adored this monologue from the first moment of contact, my love of it only grows with each successive hearing or reading.

My experience with Ulysses has been cumulative: hearing the language spoken is not better than reading it on the page, but having done both is, I think, better than either one in isolation. Ulysses is such a multifaceted piece of work that I find it very helpful to approach it from multiple directions, getting different perspectives on its contents with each new sally. Every time I enter the novel again in a slightly different way (Joycean orifice-related pun fully intended), I learn to appreciate new parts of it, and to enjoy in new ways the parts I already liked. I think really, I'm engaged in a lifelong relationship with Ulysses, and this latest installment has been a joy.

Shall we?
What can I say but yes?

God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

(Ulysses was my third book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge.)

Show Boat

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You know that seminal story from your childhood? The one you watched/read/listened to so often that your parents were ready to bribe you out of doing so again in order to save their own sanity? For me, that story was Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat. Specifically, a tape-recording of Show Boat that my dad dubbed for me off a library CD. I still have that tape; I listened to it so often as a kid that any articulation the bass may have had is completely worn away to a muddy "wahmmm" sound that threatens, during emotional passages, to swamp everything else. My huge early Walkman and that Show Boat cassette went with me everywhere at the age of seven or eight. I remember listening to it lying in the grass of our backyard; cleaning my room; riding in my grandparents' RV. Show Boat introduced me to such diverse concepts as the power of a reprised melody, the localized economies of post-Civil-War America, the pernicious "one drop of black blood" doctrine, and the deep cultural nostalgia, even on the part of Northerners, for a lost Old South. Whenever "Old Man River" came on, I would make a point of stopping whatever I was doing, closing my eyes, and letting the music envelop me as I "contemplated the evils of slavery." That was how I put it to myself: contemplating the evils of slavery. I'm not sure where I got this idea, and I kind of wish I'd confided the practice to an adult, who could perhaps have suggested a more concrete way to fight present-day racism, but there you go. That's how I rolled.

I've toyed with reading Edna Ferber's 1926 Show Boat, upon which my childhood favorite is based, ever since I found out about its existence around the age of seven. I even checked it out of the library, but the word "miscegenation" was slightly advanced for my second-grade vocabulary. I recently decided to give it another go and I'm glad I did, even if Ferber's writing isn't something to which I would normally be drawn.

Ferber is at her best when describing generalities, ways of life, as in this passage about the tawdry, hackneyed, yet beloved show boat performances:

The curtain rose. The music ceased jerkily, in mid-bar. They became little children listening to a fairy tale. A glorious world of unreality opened before their eyes. Things happened. They knew that in life things did not happen thus. But here they saw, believed, and were happy. Innocence wore golden curls. Wickedness wore black. Love triumphed, right conquered, virtue was rewarded, evil punished.

They forgot the cotton fields, the wheatfields, the cornfields. They forgot the coal mines, the potato patch, the stable, the barn, the shed. They forgot the labour under the pitiless blaze of the noonday sun; the bitter marrow-numbing chill of winter; the blistered skin; the frozen road; wind, snow, rain, flood. The women forgot for an hour their washtubs, their kitchen stoves, childbirth pains, drudgery, worry, disappointment. Here were blood, lust, love, passion. Here were warmth, enchantment, laughter, music. It was Anodyne. It was Lethe. It was Escape. It was the Theatre.

The swelling emotion here, the wry yet heartfelt romanticism directed toward the lives of certain kinds of white folks on the Mississippi of yesteryear, make it easy to understand what attracted Kern and Hammerstein to this material. The reader can practically hear the string section already. I get the impression that most of Ferber's strong feeling, most of her motivation for writing the novel, came from a desire to evoke a lost, rowdy, rough yet lovely lifestyle. She does this effectively, but at the cost of developing most of the characters beyond stock "types" (the impetuous young girl, the dashing Southern riverboat gambler) or polishing the dialogue to a believable level. The plot moves a bit jerkily, with an awkward piling of disconnected anecdotes on top of each other. And Ferber seemed reluctant to let her characters actually speak, instead of merely describing how they spoke and the kinds of things they said.

There was one character I did find vibrant and believable, about whom I really cared, and she was a surprising exception: Parthenia Ann Hawks, shrewish mother of the main character, Magnolia. Edna Ferber's entry on Wikipedia has one of the shortest "Personal Life" sections I've ever read, and it begins "Ferber had no children, never married, and is not known to have engaged in a romance or sexual relationship with anyone of either gender." Given her own preference for the single life, I was at first surprised at the harshness of her portrayal of Parthy, who remains a kind of spinster even after her marriage to Magnolia's father, Captain Andy Hawks. Parthy is described in viciously satirical terms: a fun-hating tyrant, obsessed with cleanliness and order, who nags and scolds her father, and then her husband and daughter, whenever they suggest something remotely enjoyable. Yet, as the novel progresses, one realizes that there is a certain affectionate humor in Ferber's portrayal, lurking under the antipathy: Parthy does enjoy herself on the show boat, as loathe as she may be to admit it, and as she gradually adapts to river life, she becomes the most incongruous and by far the most dynamic character in the novel.

Despite its shortcomings, I did quite enjoy Show Boat. If nothing else, it was interesting to analyze the ways in which Kern and Hammerstein chose to adapt the plot to the musical stage. Julie, for example, the character who is discovered to have mixed blood, was originally part of the "character team" rather than, as in the Kern/Hammerstein version, the beautiful leading lady - a less Romantic but slightly more interesting setup. In both versions, Magnolia encounters Julie again years later in compromising circumstances, but Kern/Hammerstein alter her from a competent, well-dressed bookkeeper in Chicago's leading brothel, to a pathetic, tattered drunk. Both of these outcomes are equally shocking from Magnolia's perspective, but I thought Ferber's version was substantially more optimistic (and again, less Romantic) in terms of Julie's life after she leaves the show boat. Similarly, Kern/Hammerstein have Magnolia reunited, in the end, with her estranged gambler husband, whereas in Ferber the break is final. I preferred the Ferber version of all of these plot elements: she shows a refreshing respect for un-beautiful women making their own way.

Also notable, of course, is Ferber's treatment of race. Both novel and musical suffer from the casual racism of their time; "Negroes" are treated as picturesque bits of scenery rather than humans, and even when individual black folks emerge, they are portrayed as eye-rolling and childlike. This, despite the best efforts of both productions to be anti-racist: including a miscegenation plot with a sympathetic mixed-blood character in 1926-27 was a daring statement, and the spirituals of Jo and Queenie (the show boat cooks) are an important source of solace and revenue for Magnolia in both versions. Ferber's novel, though, has no equivalent to the most famous Show Boat song, "Old Man River": it does not attempt to foreground, in the same way, the hard, demoralizing labor of African-American people, or the systemic oppression of black folks under white rule ("you gets a little drunk, and you lands in jail"). There are even moments in Ferber when the reader is meant to cheer Magnolia for exercising her white privilege, as when she aggressively insists that a black doorman let her into a house we want her to enter. It's debatable how anti-racist even the Kern/Hammerstein version manages to be - it does, after all, use the words and melodies of a white Jewish duo from New York rather than incorporating actual slave or southern songs. But I'd say it gives it a better shot than the source material.

In any case, I'm glad finally to have read the novel behind the drama, and I'll be interested to see, next time I break out the old cassette, whether having read Ferber's novel affects my perception of its musical offspring.

(Show Boat was my seventh book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge.)

Best birthday ever


I've been living on a reduced budget lately, and the hardest thing about my more frugal lifestyle has been the lack of book-buying. I hadn't even been to Powell's in months. So as my birthday approached, I did some shuffling of funds, sold some fancy yarn, and asked the people I knew if they had any books they no longer wanted, that they might donate to me to sell for trade. The result was the most leisurely, delightful, therapeutic, exactly-what-I-wanted birthday I think I've ever had.


A delicious dinner with David and my folks, followed by two blissful hours at Powell's and a sojourn at a stellar dessert joint was just what the doctor ordered. I left feeling refreshed, reinvigorated, and, of course, laden with months of mouth-watering reading material. Looking at these stacks this morning, it struck me how much my contact with the rest of the book-blogging community influenced my selections. Starting at the upper left, we have:

  • Inventing English, by Seth Lerer. I'm always fascinated by the history of the English language, and I've heard good things about Lerer's book. It's slated to be my 400-century selection for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.
  • Seeing, by José Saramago. I wrote a review of Saramago's Blindness a while ago, and Hedgie recommended its sequel. I found a used copy of this in near-mint condition for a very reasonable price, so I was psyched.
  • The Crow Road, by Iain Banks. I've been reading about this novel on the Powell's site and elsewhere, and I'm excited to give it a shot. I have a good dollop of Scottish ancestry, and I'm always curious to read Scottish authors. Plus, the opening paragraph of this book is quite intriguing.
  • The Ark Sakura, by Kobo Abe. Abe has been recommended to me (I forget by whom), and this novel sounds right up my absurdist/surreal alley.
  • Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar. When Sarah reviewed this a few weeks ago, it reminded me that I've been meaning to read it ever since I first heard about its unconventional narrative structure back in high school. I'm always excited by experimental, modernist prose, so I think this will be a real treat.
  • Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Am I the last person on Earth to read this novel? Probably. Still, I'm looking forward to it.
  • A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. This is a super-exciting addition to the mix, because it means my amazing partner and awesome in-laws signed me up for Powell's Indiespensable program! I've been coveting these shipments forEVER, and am so excited to be receiving another two in the mail over the next three months. Basically, they're deluxe, hand-numbered and signed limited editions of new fiction, sent to your doorstep and packaged with a selection of cool treats. Included with A Reliable Wife were these tempting goodies:


    That's a beautiful little zine excerpt from Jill McCorkle's upcoming book Going Away Shoes, and a Garden-in-a-bag that will grow basil for us! I mean, come on, how cool is that? Very cool. As far as Goolrick's book itself, I've heard it's lovely and gothic, so we'll see.

  • Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, by Deborah Nadoolman Landis. I'm almost ready to do a full review on this freaking amazing book. David gave it to me, and it's just incredible.
  • Ravage, by René Barjavel, French language edition. This was recommended by my French friend Marie Christine when she read in my Blindness review that I like stories of quarantine and small groups of people reorganizing themselves in the face of catastrophe. I'm enjoying reading a novel in French right now, so I thought I'd supply myself for the future as well. I haven't exactly committed to the bilingual section of the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, but let's just say, I'm aware that it's out there.
  • Death and the Penguin, by Andrey Kurkov. I forget who reviewed this, but it's another one I heard about via my newfound connection with the world of book-blogging. Whoever you are, thank you! I bet I will really enjoy this.
  • Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton. I first heard of Winton through Michael Silverblatt's Bookworm podcast, and I've been on a casual lookout for his work ever since. This was another affordable, near-mint-condition used find.
  • Roman Fever and other stories, by Edith Wharton. Hermione Lee's biography of Wharton made me curious to read more of her work, and this was too good a deal to pass up: a new, sale copy for only $2.50! Score.
  • Delta Wedding, by Eudora Welty. Welty is one of my favorite authors of all time, and one I think is sorely underrated. I've read her complete short stories and one or two novels, but it's exciting to think that there are several more novels awaiting me. This was another good find, money-wise, as well.
  • Cancer Ward, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Again, my fascination with quarantine asserts itself. I've been looking for a nice (unmarked, attractive, easy to read) edition of Cancer Ward for years, and finally lucked out.
  • 2666, by Roberto Bolaño. Claire over at kiss a cloud is co-hosting a read-along of this epic tome, and I'm really looking forward to joining in - especially after I was accosted by the waitress at the dessert cafe, who asked, in breathless tones, "Did you just get that book?" and, upon my answering yes, said " will make you feel...things." She had that particular look of a person who has had a life-changing experience and envies another person's ability to have the same experience for the first time. (I usually dispense this look upon recommending Mrs. Dalloway.) Needless to say, this is quite intriguing, and makes me want to take the novel to public places more often! Onward and Bolaño-ward!
  • And, finally, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums, by Stephen T. Asma. This will be my 500-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge, and another one I've heard good things about through the blogging community. I'm casually fascinated by the idea of museums and how we interact with them, so I think this will be a good match for me.

Whew! What a birthday. It was truly glorious, and I'm now luxuriating in the possession of so many tempting volumes, all ready for me to dive in and experience new worlds and engaging journeys. I'm off to read!


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I surprise myself by connecting so readily with the works of Mary Oliver: I, who spent an entire college course on the Romantics digging myself out from under ruined cottages and Aeolian harps. Yet, by and large, I do connect. Oliver is a "nature poet" in the sense that she places great value on details of the physical world, on taking the time to notice and prize elements of existence often considered small or insignificant. She argues with great passion that these details are actually of great importance, that in them dwell the complex raw material of life, in all its messy joy. I think it's the combination of nuance and deceptively simple language that really gets me about Oliver, and saves her from coming off as saccharine. She is capable of holding within herself two seemingly opposed facts, and presenting them calmly and beautifully, united in a single image. One of my favorite examples of this in Evidence is "Prince Buzzard":

Prince Buzzard,
  I took you, so high in the air,
    for a narrow boat and two black sails.
      You were drifting

in the depths of the air
  wherever you wanted to go,
    and when you came down
      with your spoony mouth

and your red head
  and your creaking wings
    to the lamb
     dead, dead, dead

in the field of spring
  I knew it was hunger
    that brought you --
     yet you went about it

so slowly,
  settling with hunched wings
    and silent
      as the grass itself

over the lamb's white body --
  it seemed
    a ceremony,
      a pause

as though something
  in the quick of your own body
    had come out
      to give thanks

for the dark work
  that was yours,
    which wasn't to be done easily or quickly,
      but thoroughly --

and indeed by the time summer
  opened its green harbors
    the field was nothing but flowers, flowers, flowers,
      from shore to shore

Here Oliver observes, not just the relatively facile truth that life leads into death leads into life, but that the work of death is worthy of care, thoroughness, and thanks. Or maybe the issue is not so much one of worth, but simply of being: the work of death is done with a slow, careful completeness, and the speaker is a witness to that. Oliver is alive to the spirit of the natural world, yet she walks that Romantic line between perceiving and half-creating the world around her: the buzzard pauses, she writes, "as though something / in the quick of your own body / had come out..." Does the buzzard's seeming thankfulness dwell within the buzzard, or within the speaker? Or perhaps a little of each, or in the nexus of the two? Oliver's poems insist on a genuine, bone-deep connection with nature, but they also describe a necessary distance between the human speaker and the world observed. A lyric depicting time the speaker spent with a river otter is titled "Almost a Conversation"; another poem describes a mockingbird's indifference to any human listeners who might overhear his song. In "Moon and Water," Oliver portrays a deep, quiet connection with a natural entity, but also the limits of that connection:

I wake and spend
the last hours
of darkness
with no one

but the moon.
She listens
to my complaints
like the good

companion she is
and comforts me surely
with her light.
But she, like everyone,

has her own life.
So finally I understand
that she has turned away,
is no longer listening.

She wants me
to refold myself
into my own life.
And, bending close,

as we all dream of doing,
she rows with her white arms
through the dark water
which she adores

I love the image, here, of "refolding" oneself into one's own life after a period apart, and I love Oliver's perception of the moon as an entity helpful but aloof, with her own need, in the end, to return to the things which nourish her, "which she adores."

Oliver's language is hard to resist: it's accessible and even conversational, but distilled into a gorgeous precision. Occasionally there is a phrase reminiscent, to me, of a Sappho fragment:

"year after honey-rich year"
"summer / opened its harbors"
"one of those sweet, abrasive blades."

I can almost taste such lines; they fall onto the tongue like, as the poets themselves might say, drops of nectar. Savoring them, I find myself slowing down and lingering over their cadences, luxuriating in the stillness they leave in their wake. Oliver's habit of ending her poems without periods, letting them settle gradually and quietly in the reader's mind, like ripples on water, adds to this effect.

Occasionally Oliver does get a bit dances-with-the-daffodils for my taste. Evidence's "Violets," in particular, crosses some kind of a hippie-Romantic line for me, eulogizing about the lost flowers of childhood, long since bulldozed to make way for development. I also have trouble connecting with the poems in Evidence which use overtly religious language: "More Honey Locust," for example, perceives in the blossom "a prayer for us all"; there are poems called "Hallelujah" and "Prayer," and one that plays with the existence of angels. It's not that I think this kind of language is inappropriate or in any way irrelevant, but being a very secular person myself, I find it distracting. I can deduce from context, intellectually, what sort of a God concept Oliver herself might have, and I must say that it seems thoughtful and hard-won. But as I have none myself, I find that I am jerked out of the visceral experience of the poem whenever religious language makes an appearance.

But these are personal quibbles. Evidence is a masterful collection of poems, and one that only gets more lovely and thought-provoking the more I pore through it.

Edith Wharton


Although I have almost zero interest in military strategy, I do believe I would read a biography of Vice Admiral Nelson if Hermione Lee wrote one. Her prose is an absolute pleasure, she's insightful and nuanced, and I'm very lucky that she happens to specialize in authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, rather than in tire manufacturers or bank directors. Her most recent book, Edith Wharton, only heightens my esteem: she paints a complex, multi-dimensional portrait of Wharton, never glossing over her less attractive features, but never sensationalizing or over-simplifying them either.

Diving into a biography is sometimes daunting, because there are usually many pages before one even reaches the object of one's interest. A biographer will often begin far back on the paternal side of the subject's ancestry, working gradually up to her father's meeting with her mother. Then, when the birth of the subject is almost in view, the reader must backtrack into the mists of ancestry on the maternal side, and spend another chunk of time waiting for the subject's mother to meet her father. We then hear all about their courtship, still waiting patiently for the subject to be born. All of this is important information, of course, but the strictly chronological accounts in many biographies don't do much to elucidate why it's important: the ways in which the subject herself interacted with her parents; how her ancestry shaped her; conflicts in her adult life that may have had their seeds in her parents' relationships. Lee takes a more organic approach, incorporating into the accounts of Wharton's upbringing and ancestry glimpses of the woman she would become, and the complicated relationship she would develop with her upper-class "Old New York" parentage. I found that, in addition to being infinitely more enjoyable to read, this method allowed me to get more out of the sections on Wharton's parents than I usually do. Thanks to Lee's early sign-posting of relevant aspects of the parent-child relationship in the Jones household, I was able to absorb, remember, and apply my reading in the early chapters to events much later in the book.

This organic, nuanced approach extends to Lee's treatment of the relationship between art and biography. While the events of a writer's life obviously affect her art, many biographers take an overly simplistic view of the way in which that manifests. Some critics, for example, will reduce the work of a writer who suffered from mental illness into a list of symptoms, completely erasing the writer's own agency in creating her art. Or they will hone in on an artist's political liberalism or conservatism, but fail to examine the nuances of those politics, the tensions and harmonies between the artist and any movements in which he may have taken part. Lee's analysis, by contrast, is patient and complex. This is lucky, because Edith Wharton mined material from her own life in varied and unexpected ways. Characters who display surface details culled from her past in Old New York may share very little with their creator on a deeper level, and in her most autobiographical pieces her "self" is often split between multiple characters in a novel or story. She repeatedly re-worked specific themes - forbidden sexuality, or a person still haunted by obsolete social strictures - which were suggested by her experience and deeply important to her in her own life, but in ways that bear little resemblance to her specific circumstances.

A particularly subtle, and touching, elucidation of the life/art relationship has to do with The Age of Innocence, which Wharton wrote just after the death of her dear friend and fellow-writer, Henry James. The two were close in a deep yet complicated way that allowed for certain resentments on either side. James tended to caricature Wharton to other members of their peer group, and Wharton spent her entire career fighting against a critical reputation as "a female Henry James." Yet the two supported each other more-or-less successfully through dark times. (As a gossipy aside, James was instrumental in introducing Wharton to the one physical passion of her life, Morton Fullerton, and proceeded to form an awkward third to many of their rendezvous and quarrels, much like a character out of one of his own novels). Lee points out that The Age of Innocence was the first book Wharton had written since her very early career that James would not read, and delicately examines the many nods to different James plots and characters that are scattered throughout the novel. Considering Wharton's life-long struggle to divorce her work from James in the public imagination, it's even more poignant that she would engage in this kind of public elegy for her lost friend, in the medium they shared - and, at the same time, as always, she is re-working and commenting on his writing as she honors it.

One of the things I appreciate most about Lee is that she respects the passions of her subjects, even if they may be unexpected from a reader's point of view. As she begins a long section on Wharton's gardens, she reminds us that

This expensive, pleasurable, and profound obsession should not be thought of by non-gardeners as a form of quietism or a mere hobby. ... Apart from traveling, writing, reading, and seeing her friends, this, for the rest of her life, was what she did. ... She was a writer and gardener, and her gardens became, for those who saw them and heard about them, as admired as her books.

As a reader and a human, I find this kind of reminder extremely useful. There exists in every life more than we expect, more than we care about when we begin our examination. Just because we enter into the life of Wharton wanting to read about her books, doesn't mean that we should pass over other passions that sustained her just as much. Lee does a beautiful job of portraying how crucial and soul-sustaining gardening was for Wharton, how she strove toward her gardening vision, exulted in her successes, and mourned deeply when her entire garden was killed by a freak storm and cold snap as she approached old age. Gardens may not be that important to me, but through Lee's eloquence I grasped their deep and lasting importance for Wharton, and connected that importance to similarly life-giving elements of my own life.

But as lovely as the gardening section is, my favorite pages deal with Wharton's 4,000-volume library, beautifully bound, much read and marked up. Only a careful and passionate reader like Lee could communicate the excitement and joy of connecting with Wharton through the record she left of a life of reading:

These marginal marks make up a form of autobiography. There are love gifts from Fullerton and copies of his work; affectionate dedications from James; copies of Berry's books; books she could not discuss with Teddy, or that were left over from his own minimal collection; books that once belonged to her father, her mother or her brothers; early gifts from a great variety of French writers, presentation copies from Theodore Roosevelt. There are old book-plates from Land's End, and the ownership signatures of "Edith Jones." There are corrections she made in her copies of her own works. Her books do not just provide evidence for her life story, they were also protagonists in it, and the equivalent of old friends.

I love this idea of books, marked-up and idiosyncratically organized, as somewhere between a record of one's life and a room of one's friends. It's how I feel about my own library, and a source of joy to me every day. Occurring, as it does, toward the end of the biography, this section on Wharton's library is a chance for the reader to look back over the course of her long life from a different perspective, and to access her feelings in a different, and possibly more intimate, way.

There's no avoiding it, Edith Wharton is long: 762 pages in paperback, discounting the copious notes section. It's a commitment, and there are quirks that strike the modern reader as odd: Lee's decision, for example, not to translate most of her French quotations. (I personally quite liked this, since I read French middling-well and prefer not to read the same passage twice, but I can understand how it might get frustrating for the majority of English readers.) But to me, every page of this tome was worthwhile. I now feel I know someone new: a driven, passionate, flawed individual, one I appreciate and disagree with, one who would probably not like or humor me if we had dinner together, but one who seems tangibly present thanks to this biography. My own copy of Edith Wharton is just as marked-up as Wharton's volumes of Keats or Proust, and will be a good friend to me from now on.

(Edith Wharton was my sixth book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge.)

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography