June 2009 Archives

2666: The Part About Amalfitano (Book 2)


Claire and Steph's 2666 readalong continues! To be completely honest, I read the last page of this amazing novel a couple of weeks ago, but I scrupulously wrote up notes after finishing each section, and I'm publishing them just as I wrote them, at the end of each month. It's more fun this way!

The Part About Amalfitano is by far the shortest book of the five that make up 2666, so I feel a bit disconcerted to be writing up reading notes again so soon after the first batch (I'm writing this on May 19). Amalfitano does, though, provide some new food for thought: it goes in new directions with the themes established in The Part About the Critics, and piqued my interest even more for what is to come.

Primarily, I think, The Part About Amalfitano transforms that feeling of vague unease introduced in The Part About the Critics into something interior rather than exterior. In Book 1, the critics have the feeling that "something is wrong" - something more or less out there, whether "out there" means "in Santa Teresa," or "in Mexico," or "on the streets of the world." Only Norton has some sense that the "something wrong" could dwell within her, too. But for Amalfitano (the Chilean professor, incidentally, of whom the three Europeans were so dismissive in Part 1), that same something is decidedly wrong in here, rather than out there. In here: in the town where he works, in the house where he lives, inside his own brain.

The Part About Amalfitano is obsessed with madness and forgetting, from Amalfitano's memories of his wife Lola (disappeared on a wild quest after a poet, now institutionalized, with whom she may or may not have had sex years before), to his own evolving relationships with a mysterious geometry treatise and a disembodied voice. Whereas the Critics of the first book fight their battles in cafés, conferences and capitals, Amalfitano and Lola fight theirs within their own heads. Lola's story raises all the old questions of how to define madness, and how we deal with an institutionalized person who seems saner than his visitors, but Amalfitano's own story is, to me, even more compelling. Bolaño's stellar sense of the bizarre and hilarious is showcased to perfection, as in this passage, which finds Amalfitano obsessing, Beckett-like, on a mysterious, privately-published geometry book that he (totally uninterested in geometry) has discovered in one of his boxes.

I probably picked it up at Laie, he thought, or maybe at La Central, the time I stopped in to buy some philosophy book and the clerk was excited because Pere Gimferrer, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, and Juan Villoro were all there, arguing about whether it was a good idea to fly, and plane accidents, and which was more dangerous, taking off or landing, and she mistakenly put this book in my bag. La Central, that makes sense. But if that was the way it heppened I'd have discovered the book when i got home and opened the bag or package or whatever it was, unless, of course, something terrible or upsetting happened to me on the walk home that eliminated any desire or curiosity I had to examine my new book or books. It's even possible that I might have opened the package like a zombie and left the new book on the night table and Dieste's book on the bookshelf, shaken by something I'd just seen on the street, maybe a car accident, maybe a mugging, maybe a suicide in the subway, although if I had seen something like that, thought Amalfitano, I would surely remember it now or at least retain a vague memory of it. I wouldn't remember the Testamento geométrico, but I would remember whatever made me forget the Testamento geométrico. And as if this wasn't enough, the biggest problem wasn't really where the book had come from but how it had ended up in Santa Teresa in one of Amalfitano's boxes of books, books he had chosen in Barcelona before he left. At what point of utter obliviousness had he put it in there? How could he have packed a book without noticing what he was doing? Had he planned to read it when he got to the north of Mexico? Had he planned to use it as the starting point for a desultory study of geometry? And if that was his plan, why had he forgotten the moment he arrived in this city rising up in the middle of nowhere? Had the book disappeared from his memory while he and his daughter were flying east to west? Or had it disappeared from his memory as he was waiting for his boxes of books to arrive, once he was in Santa Teresa? Had Dieste's book vanished as a side effect of jet lag?

What I love about this passage is its double-edged nature: is Amalfitano needlessly belaboring an unimportant detail, as his daughter Rosa seems to think? Or is this ostensibly small incident part of, perhaps even a key to, that intangible "something wrong" which all Bolaño's characters are chasing? And what does it mean that the inquiry into the origins of this innocuous geometry book is spiked with so many catastrophic allusions: plane crashes, car accidents, muggings, suicides? Is Amalfitano onto something in this passage, or are we witnessing his first slide toward madness? In the end, these two options may be just two paths to the same outcome: if Amalfitano is fixating on an unimportant detail, it may indicate that he is going mad. On the other hand, he may be correct in his insistence on the book's significance, and what he thinks it signifies is...that he's going mad. The book catches him in a logical trap, and his delightfully odd solution (or is it an exacerbation?) of transforming the volume into a Duchamp-inspired readymade doesn't dispel his nameless fear.

And speaking of fear. The second book of 2666 includes further allusions to "the crimes": those hundreds of female bodies being discovered all over Santa Teresa, with no end in sight. Interestingly, though, it generally chooses to talk around the murders, rather than addressing them head-on. In one scene, just after Amalfitano has discovered the disquieting geometry book, he calls a professor friend of his and confides that he's a nervous wreck. She assumes that this is because he is worried about the murders:

Professor Pérez soothed him, told him not to worry so much, all you had to do was be careful, there was no point giving in to paranoia. She reminded him that the victims were usually kidnapped in other parts of the city. Amalfitano listened to her talk and all of a sudden he laughed. He told her his nerves were in tatters. Professor Pérez didn't get the joke. Nobody gets anything here, thought Amalfitano angrily.

Even in this relatively explicit passage, there is so much that is ambiguous. Bolaño gives the impression that, despite Pérez's assumptions, the murders are not the actual cause of Amalfitano's frayed nerves. It's plain that Pérez's talk about them, for whatever reason, is either irrelevant or offensive to him: he interrupts her, and then feels angry that she does not understand his "joke" about tattered nerves. We never see Amalfitano, here or elsewhere, thinking explicitly about the crimes, which seems bizarre in itself given that, in the first place, he lives with his teenage daughter, and in the second place, he has long internal monologues about everything from his colleagues, to a volume of crackpot pseudo-history once sent to him by a friend. On the other hand, the reader could certainly interpret the murders as an unacknowledged influence on his mood, a partial explanation for why he is so on edge, why the appearance of a strange book so unsettles him, why he is sleeping poorly and hearing voices. One could see, in his dearth of thoughts about the murders, a pointed avoidance of the subject rather than a lack of interest. But if Amalfitano's encroaching madness is related to the murders, what is the connection?

Time, perhaps, will tell. Or perhaps not: an outcome I might even prefer. In any case, I'm still heartily enjoying 2666, and I'm eager to move on to the third book, The Part About Fate.

(My thoughts on Part 1, The Part About the Critics, are over here.)



One of the Booking Through Thursday prompts this week linked to a super-cool project by Nina Katchadourian, wherein she arranges piles of books so that their titles make some kind of sense when read from top down or left to right. Check out the link; my favorite is the "Primitive Art / just imagine / Picasso / Raised by Wolves" piece.

Booking Through Thursday invited readers to make a few sorted stacks of their own, so I made three. You should try it, too!


The civilizing process:
all about love.

I think this one is my favorite. Reading The Civilizing Process drove home to me in revolting detail just how much of "progress" is predicated on shame and methods of housekeeping. You know, really advanced stuff like "you will be embarrassed if you blow your nose on the tablecloth" and "we discourage you from pissing on the tapestries."


Beyond good and evil:
independent people
at play in the fields of the lord

I like the idea of independent people at play in the fields of the lord, but I also think it's interesting to what extent at least two of these titles are dripping with irony.


great expectations,

sense and sensibility,
fear and loathing in las vegas,
madness and civilization,

a fine balance.

This one might be a bit much, but it's still kind of cool. I think it would be even better if I could have kept to books with single-word emotive titles in the main stack, along the lines of Fury and Love. They were harder to come by than I would have thought!

I'm looking forward to perusing the list of other peoples' contributions.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

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I love spending time in Wessex. The textured cadences of Thomas Hardy's style, the lush English valleys with their hedgerows and cattle, the harvesters and weekend revelers at their provincial celebrations, the farmhands awaking "at the marginal minute of the dark when the grove is still mute," the earthy banter of village bit-players, opinions exchanged tipsily at unofficial pubs and road-stands in country dialect: all of this I find oddly comforting. The quality of the prose is lovingly well-matched to the landscape and people it describes, and the textural background of the whole makes up a chewy, hearty literary feast, like fresh bread and slow-cooked stew, for which I get the occasional undeniable craving.

Which can be something of a conundrum, because sad freakin' things happen in Wessex. And a reader can't really hang out there just to gossip in the pub with Joan Durbyfield and Joseph Poorgrass, getting contentedly tipsy in the knowledge that nothing too catastrophic happened today, and nothing overly noteworthy is likely to happen tomorrow. No, in order to get one's fix of the general atmosphere, it's necessary to follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Hardy's star-crossed protagonists and their equally ill-fated lovers, to observe the "anxieties, disappointments, shocks, catastrophes, and passing strange destinies" that afflict his Bathshebas, Judes, and Tesses. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the protagonists of Wessex too - but making the choice to grapple with their tragedies is an emotional commitment. With Tess, in particular, I spent most of the time when I wasn't drinking in Hardy's prose or basking in the English pastoral, thinking about the odd, transitional sexual attitudes embodied in this tale of young Tess Durbyfield's youthful seduction (or rape?) and subsequent catastrophic ruin.

In his sexual politics, Hardy occupies an interesting place between the Victorian and modern periods. He himself is a bit like Tess's suitor and eventual husband Angel Clare: forward-thinking, yet thrown back on his assumptions. Hardy bemoans the backwardness and artificiality of the social conventions that decree Tess is "ruined" after a single, ignorant sexual encounter in her extreme youth. He deliberately accentuates the sexual double-standard between men and women, by giving Angel the exact same secret as Tess has (a short-lived sexual relationship, much-regretted later in life), disclosed in exactly the same way, which is nonetheless easily forgiven whereas her own transgression is unpardonable. Hardy rues the circumstance that Angel,

with all his attempted independence of judgement...a sample product of the last five-and-twenty years, was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised into his early teachings. No prophet had told him, and he was not prophet enough to tell himself, that essentially this young wife of his was as deserving of the praise of King Lemuel as any other woman...

Irving Howe argued that Hardy was unusual among nineteenth-century English novelists in that he "liked women," and I think one does get the sense that he likes and sympathizes with Tess. But at the same time, many of the qualities he seems to prize in her are ones that contribute to the same Victorian sexual double-standard that he seems to despise. Hardy blames "civilization" for the unreasonable standard to which Tess is held, yet he seems to approve her own refusal to stand up for herself, to be "prophet enough" to defend her self-worth before the man she loves (although she will do it before the man she hates). Possessed of a strong enough character to take responsibility for the family finances as a half-grown girl, to repulse the advances of a rich young man she doesn't love, and to start her life over in another village after she is raped/seduced, all her self-possession deserts her upon being castigated by Angel Clare. She professes herself his "wretched slave," who will abide by whatever fate he decides for her. In fact, Tess values her own life so little that she volunteers to kill herself for Angel's convenience. What's more, the novel, as I read it, seems to validate this kind of "love" as an element of what makes women womanly: the other dairy maids, all of whom loved Angel Clare, descend to similar levels of self-harm when he departs with Tess (one attempts suicide, one takes to drink, and one descends into depression). This is quite a double-edged sword: Hardy is able to "like women," but only if an intrinsic part of womanhood is a deep self-hatred, or willingness to immolate one's selfhood for the convenience of a lover. One is reminded of white folks who loudly proclaim that they "love black people! They're so musical!"

Tess is a classic example of a woman who is victimized by the patriarchal structure of her society, yet continues to buy into and perpetuate that system. Even within the structure of the novel, the more reasonable characters can hardly blame Tess for her rape or seduction by Alec D'Urberville. Yet she blames herself, and thinks herself damned and dirtied, forever cut off from future happiness or wifehood. What's more, Hardy seems to validate Tess's own attitude as the "serious" or praiseworthy one. He certainly gives more weight to her outlook than to that of her mother: even though Joan's words to Tess (reassuring her that what happened to her is not her fault, and that Angel has no claim to hear it until Tess decides to tell him) are some of the warmest and most nurturing in the entire novel, Mrs. Durbyfield is presented as an uncultured opportunist, encouraging her daughter to manipulate men.

I can imagine a rubric under which these seeming conflicts could be seen as consistent: Hardy rues the sexual double-standard, not because it's morally wrong, but because it's "not in Nature," as he repeatedly remarks throughout the book. By contrast, the qualities that underly his admiration of Tess - her self-sacrificing impulses, her all-consuming love, her passionate nature (which can nonetheless be repressed for the benefit of her lover), her affinity for emotions over logic, her capacity for performing crushing labor for hours on end with no complaint - are ones that Hardy views as "in Nature" with regards to womankind. I think Hardy sees himself as prizing the state of nature over the artificial social convention; Tess's tragedy comes from the disjunction between the naturalness of her character, and the entrenched nature of society's artificial expectations. Many of Hardy's assumptions about what makes a "natural" woman, of course, are ones with which I, as a modern woman, heartily disagree, and which expose his own Victorian socialization. The dissonance between Hardy's sexual politics and my own were fore-grounded by the plot, and made for frustrating, if thought-provoking, reading at times.

After all that, I don't mean to sound like I wasn't sucked in and buffeted along by the story itself, invested in Tess and Angel (and, to a surprising extent, Joan) and emotionally affected by the fatalistic tragedy that is Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I certainly was, and I'll be returning to this countryside again and again. Tess, more than certain others of Hardy's novels, made me think as well as feel. And despite the frustrations, that might make it my favorite Wessex tale yet.

(Tess of the D'Urbervilles was my first book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1890's.)

Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design


I first encountered Deborah Nadoolman Landis's Dressed in a cozy bookstore in Paddington, New South Wales. I was waiting for David to be done looking at something, and I casually picked it up, thinking it would be a pleasant way to while away a few minutes. Two hours later, David had forcibly to interrupt my delighted retelling of costume-related old Hollywood anecdotes, and remind me that three o'clock was getting on past lunchtime and we still hadn't eaten. Reluctantly, as I didn't have the cash in my pocket or room in my suitcase to bring the book home with me, I left it on the shelf, adding it to my mental list of books to be checked out of the library. Imagine my surprise when, six months later, it appeared in my pile of birthday presents, waiting to be perused at my leisure! David is a very canny gift-giver, people. Very canny indeed.

I think Dressed is so captivating to me because it moves beyond the standard conceptions of Hollywood "glamor" to examine clothes as an integral element of storytelling. As someone who has always been fascinated by stories explicitly involving clothes, and by the more subtle narratives evoked by what we wear, I can't resist poring over the accumulated experience of a century of American costume designers who get paid to think about these issues in an intense and systematic way. Despite its low text-to-image ratio (this is an art book par excellence - not something to tote to the bus stop or the doctor's office), I found some of the ideas in Dressed to be quite thought-provoking. Here, for example, is Edith Head talking about designing for Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress:

Olivia's character, Catherine Sloper, was slightly clumsy and awkward. You had the feeling that she wasn't quite put together...I had to get across how uncomfortable she was with herself in whatever image she projected. I could not do it by giving her inexpensive or ugly clothes, because her father was a wealthy man and everything she wore was of the finest quality. No matter how much money she had, she never looked soignée because she was insecure. Rather than give Olivia a perfect fit, I made things purposely gap or wrinkle in the wrong place. I would put a collar too high or a sleeve a bit too short. If her dress had ruffles, it had a few too many ruffles combined with too much robbon and a bit too much lace, reflecting her unsophisticated taste.

As Landis points out, so much of the effect that costumes produce in films are perceived by audiences only unconsciously, as part of the larger effect. I think a lot of what Head is describing here - Catherine's maladroitness, despite her father's wealth - would be perceived as de Havilland's acting job, but it's interesting to realize how subtleties in the costumes contribute to the whole.

Numerous actors talk about how the costumes helped them to "find" the characters in the first place. In one of the most extreme examples, costume designer Anthony Powell recalls Glenn Close's instructions to him about her outfit for Cruella de Vil: "When I asked her for her thoughts on the character, she said, 'You just design it, and at the end I shall look at myself in the mirror and then I shall decide how to play the part.'" Kim Novak describes a subtler moment of transformation regarding the costumes for Vertigo (designed by Head, but minutely supervised by Hitchcock):

When I played Judy, I never wore a bra. It killed me having to wear a bra as Madeleine but you had to because they had built the suit so that you had to stand very erect or you suddenly were not 'in position.' They made that suit very stiff. You constantly had to hold your shoulders back and stand erect. But, oh that was perfect. That suit helped me find the tools for playing the role. It was wonderful for Judy because then I got to be without a bra and felt so good again, I just felt natural.

As someone trying, in my own modest way, to tell stories about character through clothes, detailed revelations like this are so interesting. I could have predicted that a bra (or lack thereof) would affect someone's silhouette, but I would never have thought that it could have such an affect on the final interpretation of a character.

Plus, whoa Nellie, the book is BEAUTIFUL. The layout and presentation are truly stunning. It's full of fascinating sketch-to-garment layouts like this one, of Faye Dunaway's pink Bonnie and Clyde suit:


I loved getting a glimpse of the original costume sketches for Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis's outfits in one of my all-time favorite films, Some Like It Hot:


I think it's worth remarking that this original version of Jack Lemmon's costume was even more outrageous than the one actually used in the film.

Many costume designers talk about adapting their original ideas, or adapting period costume, so that it not only fits the actor but expresses the truth of the character or creates a desired response in the audience. Rita Ryack, costume designer on Casino, was lucky enough to have access to the entire closet of the real person on whom Robert De Niro's character is based, and used his clothes as points of creative departure. But she altered the styles and color schemes to be more in keeping with story they were trying to tell: "Lefty's own clothes, which were, in fact, mint and lavender and all these crazy colors, were a little too conservative for De Niro's Ace Rothstein." Similarly, Edith Head talks about costuming Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting:

Both Newman and Redford look extremely sophisticated in suits. To keep Bob from looking too worldly, I gave him a newsboy's cap and a garish wide-patterned tie. Coupled with his impish grin, they made him look rather naive. When I wanted Paul to come across as a tough guy, I made sure his undershirt was showing.


Dressed is full of luscious little tidbits like this, but there are also, of course, the times when it's just plain eye candy. And I have no problem with those times, no problem at all. Occasionally the preparatory sketches are as beautiful as the finished stills; check out this gorgeous spread from Gigi, designed by Cecil Beaton:


I could go on and on about this book, but I won't. I do highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Hollywood, or in the narrative potential of clothes. I'm now off to the video store, to rent a few of the films alluded to within its pages!

(Dressed was my ninth and final book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge. Even though I just got it for my birthday, it's been on my virtual to-be-read shelf since long before the challenge began; I just never suspected I would own a copy myself!)

Death and the Penguin


Interacting with art is always subjective, and sometimes a particular reading experience will bring that home to me with a vengeance. I started Andrey Kurkov's Death and the Penguin during a time of personal uncertainty, when I was exhausted and unsure if my employers would be going out of business. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found the first half of Kurkov's novel unengaging. The narration style seemed flat, numb: I couldn't "hear" the voice of the author, and the plot (concerning a journalist-cum-obituary-writer who, along with his de facto ward and his pet penguin, becomes embroiled in a mafia war) struck me as half-baked. Then, when I was halfway through the book, the uncertainty in my own life came to an end. And even though the news was bad - today my job ends and my company, like so many others in this economy, shuts its doors - I was so relieved to be out of the state of limbo that my primary immediate emotion was one of release. Funnily enough, Death and the Penguin was transformed, for me, along with my mood: suddenly the novel became dryly hilarious, a clever satire on the scattered, surreal atmosphere of post-Soviet Ukraine. The narrative voice was suddenly accessible. The plot, although odd, became intriguing.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Kurkov's novel is not actually terrible for its first hundred pages and delightful for its second. Much more likely, it has a consistent texture and flavor throughout; had I been reading it during a more restful time, I probably would have enjoyed it in its entirety. It's amazing to me, though, just how stark the difference in my perception was between the first and second halves of this novel. I have to wonder: how many other books that have struck me as limp or offensive over the years have been casualties of my own state of mind? And likewise, how many of my favorite pieces of art only achieved that status because I happened to pick them up at exactly the right moment in my life?

Once my situation allowed me to appreciate Death and the Penguin, I noticed a lot to love. One of the things that struck me was the way in which reality and surreality exist easily side-by-side. I've seen Kurkov's work compared to the Soviet-banned classic The Master and Margarita, but from its opening pages Bulgakov's novel is unapologetic, fantastic allegory. In Death and the Penguin, on the other hand, the surreal elements are all grounded in some version of reality. It may seem bizarre, for example, that Viktor has a penguin for a pet. But in the wake of the Soviet collapse, zoos and other state-supported institutions lost their funding:

Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving away hungry animals to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a king penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely. But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.

I don't know whether zoos actually did give away animals at the time, but this detail is richly evocative of the real yet surreal atmosphere of post-Soviet chaos. Formerly reliable institutions are either gutted or transformed; nothing is what it used to be; nothing is what it seems. Normally I prefer my surreality to be sinister and unexplained, but in the case of Death and the Penguin, the reality of post-Soviet Ukraine needs little embellishment: it's surreal enough on its own.

Something was wrong with this life, he thought, walking with downcast eyes. Or life itself had changed, and was as it used to be - simple, comprehensible - only on the outside. Inside, it was as if the mechanism was broken, and now there was no knowing what to expect of a familiar object - be it a loaf of Ukrainian bread or a street pay telephone. Beneath every surface, inside every tree, every person, lurked an invisible alien something. The seeming reality of everything was only a relic of childhood.

I don't know whether the wordplay exists in the original Russian, but the phrase "familiar objects" is apt. The traditional nuclear family is one of the primary targets of the transforming chaos that pervades Kurkov's work. Viktor stumbles into a domestic situation superficially resembling the traditional one: a youngish couple living with their little daughter and family pet (albeit a penguin rather than a dog). But, as Viktor points out, nothing is as it seems. Sonya, his seeming daughter, is actually the child of a mafioso who drops her on Viktor's doorstep unceremoniously and then disappears for good. Nina, his ostensible wife or girlfriend, is a nanny Viktor has hired for Sonya. And, despite his growing practical involvement with woman and girl, and his contemplation of purchasing a summer home with Nina, his emotions never become invested in these relationships. In one scene, he surprises himself by thinking that "perhaps he should try to grow fond of Nina and Sonya." In Viktor's world, emotional attachment seems not to grow organically out of everyday life - or rather, attachments do form, but not with the people one would normally expect.

And yet, this comfortable if dispassionate life is enough to pacify Viktor, to convince him to accept the growing danger in which his shady employment - writing damning obituaries on notable people just before they die - is placing him. Whereas the traditional hero of a mystery novel feels compelled to get to the bottom of whatever's going on, Viktor is often overcome by lassitude in the face of unfathomable dangers:

Was it worth trying to discover what was going on? Worth risking comfort - curious though it might be - and peace of mind? He would still have to write obelisks, and still have to be needed in order to stay alive.

As un-glamorous as this attitude is, I have to admit I can really relate to it. In such a chaotic, nonsensical world, it seems outlandish to suppose that Viktor should risk his temporary shelter (under the wing of who-knows-what questionable characters) and bring on his own death sooner than anticipated, just to ascertain the exact workings of the crimes in which he has unwittingly become involved. A kind of provisional, superficial comfort is the best these characters can reasonably expect. Despite everything, though, Viktor still struggles with his basic human instincts of curiosity and self-preservation. He can't dismiss them entirely, and in that small way, I found the novel to be a hopeful one, in addition to its dark hilarity and dystopian charm.

(Death and the Penguin was my fourth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge.)

For my amusement...


Because I found myself inserting my own answers to these questions when I read Lu's responses over at Regular Rumination. I left off the final section, as I've already answered those.

Which author do you own the most books by?
Virginia Woolf is the clear winner here, with 21 books.


Which book do you own the most copies of?
I have a French and an English copy of Proust's A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (translated as Within a Budding Grove) - hopeful thinking that I'll ever be fluent enough to read it in the original! I also have two copies of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: one's a fancy illustrated edition and the other's a Norton Critical Edition. Oh, and I have an extra copy of Conrad's Victory, but the second copy is an old paperback with cover art by Edward Gorey, which I keep meaning to send to a former professor of mine who collects vintage paperback editions of modernist novels.

Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
Yeah, a bit. I know it can be technically correct to end a sentence with a preposition, but to my ear, most sentences sound stronger if they don't end in prepositions. I think it's because the reader is left thinking about the content of the sentence, rather than its structure. For example, I'd prefer "Which author has the largest presence in your library?" The reader is left with "library," which is a much more satisfying concept than "by." Or, farther down, "With which literary character are you secretly in love?" leaves me with "love" instead of "with": so much more powerful. But I recognize that it's just my personal preference.

What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
I'm not too strong on either end of the chronological spectrum - I've never read The Aeneid, and until about three months ago I had never heard of Neil Gaiman.

Which fictional character are you secretly in love with?
David and I are listening to Sarah Waters's The Night Watch right now, and I have a crush on her character Julia Standing. I think it's that upper-class British androgyny.

Which book have you read more than any other?
Probably either Mrs. Dalloway or Jane Eyre. Although if we're counting audiobooks, then the Jim Dale-performed Harry Potter series would utterly eclipse anything else, as David and I listen to them compulsively and have for years.


What was your favorite book when you were 10 years old?
I'm so bad at remembering the chronology of my childhood...at seven, the Anne of Green Gables books were my favorites, but I think by ten I was probably in my sci-fi phase, reading a lot of Orson Scott Card. Ender's Game? Maybe something like that.

What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
If I genuinely don't like a book, I don't finish it. But in December I read Matthew Gregory Lewis's classic Gothic pot-boiler The Monk, which was TERRIBLE in a thoroughly enjoyable, hilarious, page-turning kind of way. I highly recommend it, actually, but only if you have a sense of humor and an appreciation for the grotesquely clichéd.

What is the best book you've read in the past year?
True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey. Astounding.

What is the worst book you've ever read?
The book I hated the most of any in recent memory was Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook.

If you could tell everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons.



Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
I love both literatures, but if pressed I'd go with the French, primarily for Céline, Camus, and Colette. And Beckett, who was Irish but wrote in French.

Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
What, are you kidding me? Shakespeare!

Austen or Eliot?
I love them both utterly. But if I had to choose, it would probably be Austen.

Roth or Updike?

David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
A warm bath.


What is your favorite novel?
Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, although of course it's impossible to choose.

What is your favorite play?
Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. An obvious choice, but it's so delightful. "I am greatly distressed, Aunt Augusta, about there being no cucumbers, not even for ready money."

What is your favorite short story?
Eudora Welty's "The Winds." It's not very well-known, I don't think. It's stunning.

What is your favorite poem?
It's so hard to pick. I think it's between Theodore Roethke's "The Lost Son" and H.D.'s "Other Sea Cities."


What is your favorite epic poem?
I think Pope's The Rape of the Lock is endearing and hilarious.

What is your favorite non-fiction?
My favorite non-fiction? Of any sort? It's like comparing apples to existentialism.

What is your favorite essay?
By far, without question or rival, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

What is your favorite graphic novel?
I haven't read enough of them to say.

What is your favorite science fiction?
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I adored it.

What is your favorite fantasy?
The one where I time-travel back to 1924, and I go shopping in London and buy a cream-colored, lace-trimmed flapper dress and a big matching sun-hat, and then wander around Bloomsbury and E.M. Forster sticks his head out an upper-story window and invites me in to tea. (Just kidding! It's Harry Potter.)

What is your favorite memoir?
I don't read much memoir, but my favorite non-fiction with elements of memoir would be William Vollman's Rising Up and Rising Down, which is a series of essays about the role of violence in global society, with case studies from around the world, gleaned from his time as a war correspondent.

What is your favorite history?
Maybe Judith Ulrich's The Age of Homespun, which examines early American history through the lens of specific, everyday artifacts like spinning wheels and unfinished stockings. Extremely thought-provoking!


What is your favorite mystery or noir?
I love surreal mysteries where little is cleared up at the end, like Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

Who is your favorite writer?
This may come as a shock, but...Virginia Woolf.

Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
Well, I haven't read ALL the writers alive today. But I can still say, without a doubt, that the answer to this question is indisputably Harold Bloom. I even made up a limerick about him once. It begins "There once was a privileged white male / Who discoursed on Hamlet at Yale."

What are you reading right now?
Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (obsessively, hungrily); Andrey Kurkov's Death and the Penguin (amusedly, in fits and starts), J.M.G. Le Clézio's Ourania (slowly).

All About Love


Casually leafing through bell hooks's All About Love: New Visions a few years ago in a bookstore, I was drawn by her idea that love should be regarded as a verb, not a noun. Traditionally, our culture thinks of love as a thing, a passive feeling of tenderness or affection that comes over us, into which we fall involuntarily, something instinctual over which we have little control. hooks argues, on the contrary, that love is a chosen action, something we must constantly affirm and on which we must continually act. Drawing on the work of M. Scott Peck and Erich Fromm, she defines love as an act of will: "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth." Love, under this rubric, is an active process, a daily practice of "care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, and respect," transmitted through honest communication. Love is work, hooks argues, but work which can be learned: a crucial point for the masses of people in our society who feel a lack of love in their lives, but also feel powerless to change that. The art of loving, she argues, is not taught in our society (despite the many how-to courses on every aspect of sexuality), but it ought to be. We are all taught that we should instinctively know how to love well, and that, lacking that knowledge, or having developed it imperfectly, we are stuck in a monstrous state. hooks argues, I believe truthfully, that this is nonsense. Like all crafts, the art of loving is something we must learn and work at in order to do well.

I connected deeply with hooks's definition of love as a verb, as generous action. It mirrored my own experience of relationships in which people truly nurture one another, how much work that is and also how rewarding. I also liked the way in which her definition of love explicitly excludes abusive relationships - there can be no nurturing of anyone's spiritual growth in a situation where abuse is happening. hooks astutely points out that while abusive or neglectful relationships can, at times, involve care, they can never be truly loving in the larger sense. This considerably narrows the field of relationships which can be called "loving," but I think such a narrowing is useful. So often we're exposed to the idea that abuse or neglect can coexist with love, and I like hooks's distinction between care - a precious aspect of human relationships in its own right, and one she clearly values - and the larger, mutually nourishing set of actions and feelings that make up genuine love. Although I don't read many social theory or self-help books, the first few pages of her opening chapter were enough to convince me to buy All About Love that very day.

I had no idea, though, how much the book as a whole would challenge my thinking. When I picked it up again, I started with hooks's preface, in which she talks about our society's simultaneous obsession with and discomfort around love. She references many books in the self-help tradition, as well as other authors writing about love. I was feeling an intangible discomfort as I read, and I hadn't thought to examine it until I ran smack up against this passage:

Yet whenever a single woman over forty brings up the topic of love, again and again the assumption, rooted in sexist thinking, is that she is "desperate" for a man. No one thinks she is simply passionately intellectually interested in the subject matter. No one thinks she is rigorously engaged in a philosophical undertaking wherein she is endeavoring to understand the metaphysical meaning of love in everyday life. No, she is just seen as on the road to "fatal attraction."

I was thunderstruck to realize that, despite my professed feminism and attempts to reject sexism, the discomfort hooks describes here is exactly what I was feeling as I read. I was made uncomfortable by references to self-help books and admissions of lovelessness, because I associate them with a traditionally feminine lack of intellectual rigor, the stuff of "chick lit" and daytime television. Do I believe, intellectually, that the philosophical examination of love is less worthwhile than an exploration of, for example, violence? Of course not. Do I believe that the traditionally feminine should be shunned? No. But so pervasive is internalized sexism, that I do apparently carry around these beliefs on a subconscious, emotional level. Throughout my reading of the rest of hooks's book, I had to keep reminding myself of this realization, and thinking carefully about what underlay my reactions. It was a very valuable, if uncomfortable, exercise.

All About Love's chapter on honesty also forced me to think about the practice of lying in new ways. I've become pretty inured to the idea of telling a plethora of "little white lies" throughout the day; I think introverts in our society are especially encouraged to do this. I construct a falsely outgoing self, which I present in most casual interactions. Instead of declining invitations on the grounds that I need more alone time (the truth), I sometimes invent "other plans" that keep me from accepting, out of a fear of hurting my friends' feelings. As hooks points out, we expect all people to do this to some extent:

Lies are told about the most insignificant aspects of daily life. When many of us are asked basic questions, like How are you today? a lie is substituted for the truth. Much of the lying people do in everyday life is done either to avoid conflict or to spare someone's feelings. Hence, if you are asked to come to dinner with someone whom you do not particularly like, you do not tell the truth or simply decline, you make up a story. You tell a lie. In such a situation it should be appropriate to simply decline if stating one's reasons for declining might unnecessarily hurt someone.

I was initially hostile to the idea that this kind of everyday lying is harmful to our ability to love. I do believe, despite the general truth that "honesty is the best policy," that there are times when lying is the most appropriate and generous - yes, loving - course of action. But when I press myself, I realize that these times are in the tiny minority, and mostly involve death-bed scenarios. And when I think about the most satisfying, validating interactions I've had, even with strangers, they've often involved the choice to be honest rather than invent an excuse. I'm specifically remembering a time when I was traveling alone in England, and was asked out on a date by a stranger. I knew I didn't want to go, and a series of excuses immediately presented themselves: I had a ticket to a sold-out show, I was really tired, I was going to meet friends, my boyfriend was the jealous type, and so on. But instead, I responded simply, just as hooks suggests: I smiled and said "Oh, no thank you. But thanks for asking." I think my smile and directness sent a clear message while still seeming kind. He wasn't compelled to ask "Well, what about tomorrow night?" or any other follow-up question, and he seemed disarmed by my directness. We parted on friendly terms, and I could enjoy my solitary wanderings with a sense of empowerment, rather than guilt. Memories like this make me wonder how lying has come to seem like the only option to so many people, myself included.

And, as hooks points out, the detrimental effects of widespread duplicity are much more serious than this. Messages in the mass media and popular culture (particularly TV, movies, and "romance guildes" like The Rules) teach us that women are expected to be manipulative and deceitful in order to "snare Mr. Right," whereas men are expected to be untruthful in their denial of a need for love and affection. Such behavior becomes normalized: just part of the mass of small, "natural" lies we're expected to tell in the course of a day. Of course such socialization impedes peoples' ability to connect honestly with one another. Seen in this larger context, and despite the fact that my primary relationships are already very open, honest and loving, hooks has convinced me to take a long, hard look at my impulses toward dishonesty for the sake of ease or social comfort.

Not every chapter in All About Love was as mind-blowing for me as the first few. There were places I disagreed with her, and a few distracting generalizations that made me wonder about the research backing her up. She claims, for example, that "most" American adults did not have genuine love modeled for them in their families of origin, but instead received a dysfunctional combination of care and abuse or neglect (which was apparently the case in her own family). Having grown up one of the lucky ones, raised by parents who modeled constructive, truly loving practices for me and taught me self-love, boundary-setting, and the need to take responsibility for my actions, I wonder what the statistics are on how many people get what I had as a kid. I'm ready to believe hooks's claim that a majority go without, but since I would have guessed differently, I'd like to see some figures confirming it.

Nevertheless, All About Love was thoughtful, well-written, and provocative. It gave me a solid framework in which to think about the act of loving, and even changed my behavior, which I can't say about many books, even fantastic ones. I'm sure I'll be returning to hooks's thoughts on love frequently in the future.

(All About Love was my eighth book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge.)


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You know what I realized the other day? On my to-be-read shelf are books representing every decade from the 1890's to the 2000's (as well as a few earlier). "Wow," I said to myself, "this seems ripe for a challenge. There's got to be some kind of chronological, by-the-decade reading challenge geared to just this situation." And lo and behold, there is.

The Decades '09 Challenge began in January, so I'm a bit behind the ball, but I figure I'll join anyway. I've got all the books already, after all, and even if I don't finish by the "deadline," it'll still be a fun exercise. Here's what I'm thinking about for a list:

  • 1890s: Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles
  • 1900s: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie
  • 1910s: W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage
  • 1920s: William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury
  • 1930s: Edith Wharton's Roman Fever (and other stories) OR John Dos Passos's The Big Money
  • 1940s: Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding
  • 1950s: Truman Capote's The Grass Harp/A Tree of Night
  • 1960s: Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward
  • 1970s: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
  • 1980s: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping
  • 1990s: Peter Matthiesen's Lost Man's River OR Giles Milton's Nathaniel's Nutmeg

Fun! I don't know how far I'll get, but it's somehow satisfying to find that I have a pre-made, unconsciously-selected reading list that spans a century so evenly.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography