December 2010 Archives

2010 in retrospect (with charts!)



Well, 2010 has been an excellent reading year for me. It started out with a revisitation of one of my favorite authors with Woolf in Winter; reading the posts and comments of so many other people on some of my favorite novels was an amazing experience, and made me feel like the college semester I spent writing about Woolf had an actual, real-life application.

In February I had an intense but contradictory experience reading Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch, which provoked me to write three separate posts (one adulatory, one angry, and one interested), each as long as my regular, already-lengthy entries. I'm still not sure how I feel about Hopscotch overall, but any book that gets me that engaged must have something going for it.

In March, my perusal of Volume IV of the Paris Review Interviews got me interested in several authors I hadn't read before, including John Ashbery, whose Notes from the Air later became a surprise hit with me.

April was a red-letter month. It brought a shared read of Georges Perec's Life a User's Manual, which delighted pretty much all the Wolves involved; the discovery of Lydia Davis's micro-stories in Almost No Memory; and a French-language read of Émile Zola's Germinal, which convinced me that I actually do enjoy naturalism if it's done right. I also got to rip a new one for my old friend Henry David Thoreau; at the time I was worried that I'd offend people with this post, but in actuality it apparently made me some new friends. Who knew?

With May came the conclusion of my Essay Mondays project, in which writing about a different essay every week gave me a nice grounding in the genre and introduced me to some new favorites, including Joan Didion. In June I went on honeymoon to Hawaii, lay on the beach with such fluffy love stories as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, and bought a copy of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses containing a note which reads "Reminds me of Garrison Keillor"—still a favorite book-related joke for the year. This summer, too, I finally got around to sampling Shirley Jackson's short stories, and became a firm convert to her gothic, darkly humorous style.

In September I discovered one of my top reads of the year, Simone de Beauvoir's Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, whose combination of existential feminism and keen philosophical insight into the author's early development had me practically swooning. October brought Frances's three-part Madame Bovary readalong, which left me impressed with Flaubert's keen powers of prosody and observation, but irked at his smug world-view. Flaubert did teach both Richard and me the vocab word redingote, which will come in very useful the next time we want to buy frock coats in Paris.

Meanwhile, the clear highlights of my reading in November and December were both Anne Carson projects: Nox, a beautifully-packaged, thoughtful and heart-wrenching elegy for the author's dead brother, and An Oresteia, her breathtaking translations of Aiskhylos, Sophokles and Euripides. I'd say An Oresteia ties with Simone de Beauvoir (and Woolf, of course) as my Best Book of 2010.

Speaking of Beauvoir, I read five books in French this year, which is four more than last year, and included the somewhat difficult Flaubert. I feel very good about this! I can feel my French getting better all the time as I garner a better sense of the language's flow and build my vocab. I'll be reviewing Irène Némirovsky's gorgeous Suite Française shortly, and in 2011 I hope to read at least one novel in French every month. We'll see how I do with that goal.

And now, onto the flashy stuff! (Click any pie-chart to enlarge. Also, if total percentages don't add to 100, blame rounding.)


Firstly, a breakdown by author's gender: obviously, there's about a two-thirds to one-third predominance by male authors in my 2010 reading, and one of my goals for 2011 is a more gender-balanced reading list. (FYI, the "Mixed" category in all these charts refers to anthologies with contributions from different genders/nationalities/regions.) I think it's telling that, although I read twice the number of books by men this year as books by women, my year-end highlights above feature an almost exact gender split, which I take as a sign that it's time to seek out more books like the Carson, Beauvoir, Woolf, Didion, Némirovsky and Jackson that so impressed me in 2010.


A breakdown of 2010 reads by author's nation of origin (or main country of residence, in some cases) shows a clear domination by American, British, and French titles (67% collectively), but with a decent spread throughout the remaining 33%. Every continent except Antarctica is represented, although in some cases only by one or two countries/books. In 2011 I'll definitely be expanding the French section as I prepare for, and then recover from, David and my trip to France in May and June, and I also hope to pick up some books on that trip by francophone authors from Africa and the Caribbean, regions where my reading was almost nonexistent this year. Marianna Ba and Véronique Tadjo are at the top of that list, but I would also welcome suggestions! (Keep in mind that I'm not a huge fan of magical realism.)

Because the US (my own country of origin) is so gigantic and diverse, I thought it might be interesting to split that big blue wedge further, into regions. I often think the various regions of the US are more different from one another than many contiguous countries.


There is something surprising about this breakdown. Regular readers, have you spotted it? That's right: NEW YORK CITY. In case you're new here, I don't care about New York City. I have have never found myself susceptible to the interest or romance of it the way I have with London or Paris—or hell, even San Francisco. When I visited, the highlight of my trip was spending quality time with my mom, and going to the amazing medieval art museum at The Cloisters—whose defining characteristic? Is that it's outside the city. People, one of my best friends moved to Manhattan over a year ago and I have not visited her. Yet somehow, 27% of the American lit I've read this year has been New York-centric. This must change. My resolution for American lit read in 2011 is to focus on Southern Regionalist and Western authors, and take a break from the New Yorkers for a while. (Ironically, The Wolves' first 2011 selection is set in New York, but that's okay! I'll just stick to that one book and not read (m)any others.)

So, to recap, goals for 2011:

  • At least one book in French every month;
  • More female authors;
  • More francophone authors from African and/or Caribbean countries;
  • Fewer authors from/books set in New York City, to be replaced with those from the Deep South and the West.

I think I can handle that!

Palace Walk


Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk was, for me, a slow burn. While I ended up drawn into the domestic turmoil of the al Jawad family, its relation to the Egyptian revolution of 1919, and the author's comments on power dynamics in early twentieth-century Egyptian society, both the subject matter and the writing style (or possibly the style of translation from the Arabic by Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny) made the first 200 pages in particular into an awkward and sometimes suffocating reading experience.

The first installment in Mahfouz's 1956 Cairo Trilogy, Palace Walk introduces the reader to the middle-class, conservative Muslim al-Jawad family, whose patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad terrorizes his submissive wife and five children into absolute obedience through his cutting sarcasm and frequent temper tantrums, even while spending his time apart from his family indulging in wine and women. While Sarah provocatively compares Palace Walk to Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, the comparison that primarily leapt to my mind during the first half of this novel was of an Arabic-inflected, Proust-influenced Jane Austen. As in Austen, this half of the novel is profoundly domestic (most of the action takes place within the family's house on Palace Walk), and concerned with the highly ritualized interactions among family members and between members of the family and outsiders. This comparison struck home for me particularly during one scene in which the women of the household are thrown into frantic excitement at the announcement that two ladies unknown to them have arrived for a visit. Like Mrs. Bennet watching out the window for a carriage rolling up the drive, the al Jawad ladies know that visitors mean marriage prospects, and fly into a frenzy of beautification to greet these "marriage scouts," who are made necessary by the fact that no men outside the family are allowed to lay eyes on either of the daughters or the wife. As in Austen, then, the women sit together having what appears to be a pleasant conversation about trivialities, when in actuality they are cold-bloodedly sizing each other up as potential relatives by marriage—in other words, subservient house-mates, help-meets, and heir-producers.

In this scene as in others the extreme subtleties of conversation, and the ways in which a person seeming to say one thing is often expressing another, are key to the unfolding drama—another similarity with the barbed repartee of Austen characters. Late in the novel, one of al-Sayyid Ahmad's children has finally summoned up the courage to disobey him openly, earning his scorching wrath. When the son braves his father's rooms to apologize for his behavior, he is met at first with unremitting silence, after which they have the following exchange (this passage, by the way, is a good example of the slightly awkward, jerky quality of the writing, an aspect of Palace Walk which did not remind me of Jane Austen.)

       "I'm really sorry. I haven't had a moment's peace of mind since..." He found his words were leading him up to a reference to something he wanted with all his heart to skip over. So he stopped.
       Before he knew what was happening, his father asked him harshly and impatiently, "What do you want?"
       Fahmy was overjoyed that the man had abandoned his silence and sighed with relief as though he had not noticed the harsh tone. He entreated his father, "I want your approval."
       "Get out of my sight."
       Feeling the grip of despair loosening a little around his neck, Fahmy said, "When I have your approval."
       Becoming sarcastic suddenly, al-Sayyid Ahmad asked, "My approval! ... Why not? ... Have you, God forbid, done anything to make me angry?"
       Fahmy welcomed his father's sarcasm twice as much as his renunciation of silence. Sarcasm with his father was the first step toward forgiveness.

There are at least three levels to what is actually going on between father and son here: on one level, in other scenes, we see al-Sayyid Ahmad admit to himself that his son's disobedience is a mark of his approaching manhood. Despite being angry, he is also to some degree proud, but he believes that showing his pride in his son will "spoil" his son and undermine al-Sayyid Ahmad's own authority. So he exaggerates his real anger, allowing his harshness to reduce gradually over the course of the conversation so that his son will know they are back on good terms, while still stopping short of showing him actual kindness or respect. Fahmy is therefore kept in an oppressed, downtrodden state, while somehow still feeling grateful and loving toward his father for al-Sayyid Ahmad's supposed clemency in forgiving him.

Indeed, like such novels as Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, Palace Walk shows a strong preoccupation with the power dynamics of oppression, both in terms of gender and age, and in terms of the occupation of Egypt by the English. More than anything, though, it was the infantilization and disempowerment of women in the al-Jawad family that really got to me throughout Palace Walk. While Mahfouz makes it clear that the larger Egyptian society provides women with few safeguards against male tyranny, Al-Sayyid Ahmad is considered conservative even by his male peers: for example, he forbids his wife and daughters from ever setting foot outside the family home, the only extremely rare exceptions to this rule being the occasional veiled and chaperoned trip to visit his mother-in-law. (Just thinking about this, by the way, makes me start panicking. I love staying home, but to live in a city for one's whole life and never be able to wander its streets, seeing them change over time? Never to wander freely and gaze into the shop windows and the restaurant windows and the windows of the weird art installations and pie shops? Throughout my reading of Palace Walk I viewed my daily two-mile walk to work and back with a new joy and appreciation, and a new horror that anyone would be willing to deny that experience to half the population based on their own petty sexual jealousies.)

The atmosphere of the al-Jawad household is extremely repressive around all emotions, but particularly around sex and sexuality. One of the more heart-wrenching series of events takes place around the wedding of one of the family's daughters, at which al-Sayyid Ahmad segregates himself away from the rest of the family because he "did not care to observe at close hand their relaxed response to a festive occasion." While he doesn't discipline them for being happy at a wedding, neither can he bear to watch it. Meanwhile, the family's youngest son has so thoroughly imbibed the message that women are pure beings polluted by any contact with males, that he is deeply disturbed when he looks through a keyhole and sees his sister kissing her new husband. He interprets the sight as an assault on his sister's honor, and runs to tell his mother. Tragically, she herself is so uncomfortable and repressed around sex that she is incapable of explaining to her son that this behavior is ever acceptable, even in the context of marriage:

       She hit him hard on his shoulder to make him stop. She whispered in his ear, "Don't say shameful things. If your father heard you, he'd kill you."
       He persisted and told her, as though revealing something to her she could not possibly have imagined, "He was holding her chin in his hand and kissing her."
       She hit him again, harder than she ever had before. He realized that he had certainly done something wrong without knowing it. He fell silent and was afraid. When they were crossing the courtyard of their house, straggling behind the others except for Umm Hanafi, who had waited behind to bolt the door, lock it, and latch it, Kamal's anxiety and curiosity overcame his silence and fear. He asked pleadingly, "Why was he kissing her, Mother?"
       She told him firmly, "If you start that again, I'll tell your father."

What breaks my heart about this and other scenes, is the key role that women play in reinforcing each others' oppression: Amina accepts her husband's judgments and behavior without question, and similarly accepts that it would be improper for her to talk about kissing, or take a walk outside her house, or express an opinion different from that of her husband; in turn, she believes these behaviors to be improper for all women. Later in the novel, she becomes one of the harshest critics of a new female addition to their household who is accustomed to more lenient rules. Her own experience, far from allowing her to sympathize with her daughter-in-law, means that her whole world-view is wrapped up in reinforcing the strict rules that she herself has followed:

In Amina's opinion, Zaynab was arrogating to herself masculine prerogatives. She took exception to this conduct, precisely because she was a woman who had spent her life shut up inside her house [. . .] Her silent criticism was mixed with a feeling of bitterness and rage which she seemed to be rationalizing when she observed to herself, "Either that woman is punished or life has no meaning."

The power dynamics in the al-Jawad family are such that all its members tend to confound oppression with love and meaning in this way, unable to imagine one without the other. At the same time as this cycle is continued into the next generation, however, Palace Walk depicts a society in flux, experiencing changes that would have been unimaginable to the characters' parents and grandparents. Despite the sometimes-awkward prose and challenging politics, I look forward to following Mahfouz's trajectory with the next two books in this trilogy.


Thanks to Richard for hosting the Cairo Trilogy Readalong. Discussion of the next book, Palace of Desire, will take place around January 30-31.

2010 Challenge Wrap-up Post


Well, I haven't finished all three challenges I signed up for in 2010, but given that I'm doing by best to finish Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française (in French) and Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk (in English) before Christmas, I doubt I'll have time to sneak in one more book of poetry before year's end. So it seemed like a good time for a wrap-up post. Given that I was sorely lacking in challenge-related motivation this year, I'm surprised I did this well! I've included links and brief descriptions in case you missed any of these along the way. There is some overlap among the three challenges.

Women Unbound Challenge
(Fiction and non-fiction related to women's studies; finished 8 out of 8 books)

  1. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, by Elliott Gorn: A biography of the famous labor organizer and self-described "hell-raiser" Mary Harris Jones.
  2. L'amant de la Chine du nord, by Marguerite Duras: Included here for its thought-provoking treatment of young female sexuality.
  3. Ladies and Not-so-Gentle-Women: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times, by Alfred Allen Lewis: A gossipy yet interesting history of the rich Republicans' feminism of turn-of-the-century New York City.
  4. Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt: The famous metafictional triumph of Victoriana, which deals with societal expectations of women around marriage, sex, and the desire to make art.
  5. Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, by Simone de Beauvoir: The first volume of the famous feminist and existentialist's memoirs were probably my favorite read from 2010.
  6. Adeline Mowbray, by Amelia Opie: An eighteenth-century treatment of experimentation with alternatives to the marriage institution within the Romantic movement.
  7. Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues, by Paul and Beth Garon: A biography-cum-critical-study of the seminal blues performer, written through a feminist/surrealist lens.
  8. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen, by Nella Larsen: Larsen's novella Passing deals with the interplay of race and gender in 1920s Harlem.

Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name
(Fiction and non-fiction related to queer studies; finished 8 out of 8 books)

  1. The Night of the Iguana, by Tennessee Williams: Williams's famous play about the inconvenience of sexual attraction and the onset of age and madness.
  2. The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith: Therese and Carol's love affair and cross-country flight was perhaps the first lesbian novel not to end in abject disaster.
  3. Ladies and Not-so-Gentle-Women: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times, by Alfred Allen Lewis: Among the group of progressive socialites Lewis chronicles, there are several same-sex love affairs.
  4. Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, by Simone de Beauvoir: Again, this book was just fantastic, and chronicles (among many other things) de Beauvoir's early thoughts and feelings around sexuality.
  5. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen, by Nella Larsen: A key element of Passing is the ill-fated attraction of Irene for her old friend Clare.
  6. Wish Her Safe at Home, by Stephen Benatar: My somewhat quirky reading of Benatar's novel interpreted protagonist Rachel Waring as a coded gay man.
  7. Notes from the Air, by John Ashbery: Ashbery is less a "gay poet" than a poet who happens to be gay, but this volume was nonetheless a high point of the challenge.
  8. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides: A Modern Family Epic about a Greek-American hermaphrodite growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s.

Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge
(Poetry: finished 4 out of 5 books)

  1. The Poetry of Petrarch, by Petrarch: Either the original Romantic, or the inventor of stalker poetry, depending on your perspective.
  2. Notes from the Air, by John Ashbery: Surrealism of the everyday. I enjoyed this volume very much.
  3. Nox, by Anne Carson: A haunting elegy for the author's lost brother, and a meditation on the act of translation as a metaphor for human grief.
  4. An Oresteia: Agamemnon, Elektra, Orestes, by Aiskhylos, Sophokles, and Euripedes, translated by Anne Carson: Stunning translations of these three classic Greek verse plays, arranged to form an alternate telling of the story of the House of Atreus.

I doubt I'll be joining any challenges in 2011, (that whole motivation issue again), but I look forward to some great readalongs, including Richard's Cairo Trilogy Readalong, the Wolves 2011 selections, and a number of the Year of Feminist Classics choices. Onward and upward, reading friends!

Also, a more comprehensive 2010 retrospective post to follow. If I can get my act together, there may even be charts and/or graphs.



I really wanted to adore Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex. My reasoning went, "The narrator is an intersex person! It concerns race and gender relations in mid-century Detroit! What's not to love?" And I don't want to paint things too bleakly: I did really enjoy it in parts, and even stayed up far past my bedtime one night reading it. But, disappointingly due to my high hopes, there were other aspects of the book that left me incredibly frustrated, and overall I ended up thinking it was just okay. I feel especially down about this because in a way my frustrations with the book weren't anything it did wrong per se: it's your standard meaty, well-plotted family epic treading the boundary between superstition, coincidence and fate; old world and new world. I've loved many books that operate on the same basic set of standards, from John Irving's Cider House Rules and Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, to Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Peter Carey's Illywhacker. The things that bothered me about Middlesex were also present in all four of those, and it makes me sad to think that if I went back to re-read them, the love would be gone. Perhaps my frustration with Eugenides's novel was just the product of poor timing on my part, or maybe I really am getting tired of certain formulaic traits of The Modern Family Epic.

But before we get to all that, let's talk about what worked for me. Eugenides is a brisk, readable storyteller, and our narrator Cal(lie) Stephanides takes us on a multi-textured journey that begins in a working-class neighborhood in 1960s Detroit, loops back to a tiny village on the border of Greece and Turkey where an incestuous young brother and sister are caught in the crossfire of a border dispute; follows them to Smyrna, onto the boat to America, and through the lean rum-running years of the Great Depression. Flashing back and flashing forward, we get to know Cal(lie)'s parents during the years of World War II, and follow the birth and development of their second child, whom they mistakenly believe to be a girl until her fourteenth year. We get, of course, Callie's own journey of discovery as well, knowing from the first page that "she" is now living as a man in Berlin, but waiting to find out how and why.

An interesting plot, featuring strong evocations of place and time, and occasional passages of insight that impressed me. For example, I love that Cal, balancing the 1970s nurture-heavy theories on sexual development against the 1990s fad for evolutionary biology, writes of himself near the end of the novel,

[I]t's not as simple as that. I don't fit into any of these theories. Not the evolutionary biologists' and not Luce's either. My psychological makeup doesn't accord with the essentialism popular in the intersex movement, either. Unlike other so-called male pseudohermaphrodites who have been written about in the press, I never felt out of place being a girl. I still don't feel entirely at home among men. Desire made me cross over to the other side, desire and the facticity of my body. [...] free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.

I like Cal's refusal of dualities here: he doesn't identify as a man who was mistakenly raised as a girl, but as a person who was first a girl and then a man, and at the same time as someone whose gender was never as simple as one or the other. I like the reminder of human complexity, and that the divisions we create (man/woman; black/white; straight/gay) are not as cut-and-dried as we often like to believe.

But while the "what" of the novel was engaging to me, the "how" of it often left me unimpressed and even annoyed with its cookie-cutter adherence to generic conventions. Let's talk about the Modern Family Epic, and how Middlesex is pretty much a carbon copy of any other example of this genre one might pick up:

To begin with the small stuff, the Modern Family Epic gravitates toward quirky names and nicknames. Whereas Hotel New Hampshire gives us Susie the Bear, and The Moor's Last Sigh features Aires-pronounced-Irish, Middlesex has both Chapter Eleven Stephanides (Cal's brother's actual name) and the Obscure Object of Desire (Callie's nickname for her adolescent crush, which struck me as way overly cute, even if it is taken from a Luis Buñuel film).

So too, the Modern Family Epic can't resist allegorical coincidences. John Irving makes the valid point that real life is full of coincidences, and that people only look askance at them when they crop up in novels. I accept that this is true. Nonetheless, I couldn't help groaning at the level of cutesy coincidence present in Middlesex. "OF COURSE," I would groan: "OF COURSE the family moves into a house on Middlesex Street - because Callie is in the middle of two sexes." "OF COURSE Callie is cast as Tiriesias in the school play - he was first one gender, then the other." And so on. This kind of touch seems designed as an invitation to the reader to chuckle with self-satisfied irony at what we know and the characters don't, which I found vaguely annoying.

In a related point, The Modern Family Epic loves multiple big events to happen at the same exact moment, which often allows the narrator to tell of the simultaneously-unfolding developments through a kind of split-screen, back-and-forth cutting technique. Oftentimes, there ends up being a dire significance to events which happen at the same time in these books; so, for example, Rushdie's Midnight's Children bestows all the children born at the stroke of midnight on the day of India's independence with the ability to communicate telepathically. In Middlesex this happens A LOT. Callie's parents are not only related to each other through multiple blood ties, but are conceived on the same exact night. One of them is born on the same exact night, at the same exact time, that both their fathers are engaged in a dangerous car crash on the ice around the US-Canada border. Callie's own birth magically coincides with her grandfather's loss of speech due to his first major stroke. Callie is saved from having to go on a dreaded Greek vacation by the convenient Turkish invasion of Cyprus on the very eve of her departure. Et cetera. Maybe this technique is supposed to endow the narrative with a greater narrative tension and sort of epic quality, but in this particular case it didn't work for me.

Similarly, the Modern Family Epic almost always brings the plot around full-circle by the ending. I usually don't mind this device, which in any case is so pervasive that I would have been shocked had Middlesex not employed it. What did bother me, though, was the excessive use of flash-forwarding in the first two-thirds of the novel, and how, in the last third, the flash-forwarding is replaced by Cal's frequent explicit reminders of past plot-points and how they relate to what's currently going on. To take the first point: I think flash-forwarding (basically heavy-handed foreshadowing, such as "In a few more years I would come to regret the decision to enroll in the Army, but at the time it seemed the easiest path to a college education") can be effective in moderation, but damn, the Modern Family Epic loves this technique. I actually had to stop reading Midnight's Children because it was so pervasive that I felt I knew the whole story with 200 pages remaining of the novel. Middlesex isn't quite that bad, but it does play free and easy with the flash-forwarding. But THEN, when Eugenides is wrapping up all his plot-based loose ends and bringing the characters back around to confront the mistakes and foibles of their forebears (like you do), he has Cal write stuff like this:

Eight years earlier, policemen had raided a blind pig on Twelfth Street in Detroit. Now, at the start of 1975, they raided Sixty-Niners.

Because we wouldn't remember the previous, rather pivotal police raid without being reminded? Just a few pages later it happens again:

Back in 1933, a disembodied voice had spoken to my grandmother through the heating grate. Now, forty-two years later, a disguised voice spoke to my father over the phone.

and AGAIN, on the very next page:

At this same train station my grandparents had arrived a half century earlier. Lefty and Desdemona, one time only, had revealed their secret here to Sourmelina; and now their son, who had never learned it, was pulling in behind the station, also secretly.

As the end of the book nears, this happens with increasing frequency. "Yes, Mr. Eugenides," I wanted to shout, "I actually HAVE read a novel before." I mean, really—does the author have so little confidence in his reader that he feels he must pound us over the head with every little parallel presented in the text? Has he no faith that we would be sufficiently perceptive to pick up on the "secrecy," "history repeats itself," and "misguided authority" themes on our own, without having Cal put up big flashing arrows all around them? I guess that's what really irked me about Middlesex: I'm a better reader than I felt it gave me credit for, and I believe many others are, too.

Like I said, it's not that I harbor any intrinsic dislike for the Modern Family Epic genre. But Middlesex seems to conform to all the generic stereotypes without adding anything unexpected—except Cal(lie)'s gender, which we know about from page one. Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh follows these conventions, but adds to them a series of brain-bending plot twists that keep the reader on her toes. Zadie Smith's White Teeth conforms to them, but contributes in addition an edgy, uncomfortable humor that would make people from just about any cultural background laugh with guilty recognition. Peter Carey's Illywhacker features some of them, but also has a first-person narrator who admits to being a compulsive liar, which allows Carey to play with the conventions even while making use of them. I'm just not sure what Middlesex brings to the table in addition to this set of conventions I've seen so many times before.

Which begs the question, I'm sure, of the value of novelty versus that of tradition. Why should a book offer anything new, necessarily? Am I just looking for a gimmick? If it ain't broke, and so on. I like to think I'm not looking for anything as simple as a gimmick, but I do value freshness, subtlety, and a certain rebelliousness around genre in my reading—particularly my contemporary reading—and personally, I found Middlesex a bit lacking in all three. Possibly, though, it was unfair of me to expect something outside Eugenides's intentions, and possibly my reaction to the book was a product of reading it at the same time as Anne Carson's Oresteia translations and Nox and John Ashbery's Notes from the Air, all of which blew my mind rather than leaving it only lukewarm.


Middlesex was my eighth and final book for the Challenge that Dare not Speak its Name. It's too bad that the challenge ended on a negative note, because I really enjoyed it as a whole!

An Oresteia: Agamemnon, Elektra, Orestes


I intended to write about each of these plays individually, but the power of the famous stories and the language as rendered by Anne Carson's stunning translation job, meant that I devoured the whole volume in three sittings and never got the chance to sit down at my computer before the book was over. I've gushed about Carson's own work and her beautiful Sappho translation, and this alternate Oresteia lives up to all my high expectations of her offerings.

But first, a little background: the original Oresteia is a tri-play cycle—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides—by ancient Greek playwright Aiskhylos (often transliterated Aeschylus), which chronicles the murderous fall of the house of Atreus after the Trojan War. Carson's alternate play cycle tells the same basic story and begins with the same play, Aiskhylos's Agamemnon (c. 458 BCE), but then diverges, offering a progression through time: the second installment of the cycle is Sophokles's Electra (c. 401-9 BCE), and the third is Euripides's Orestes (c. 408 BCE). Thus the reader can sense the shifting attitudes toward the same myths over the course of fifty-odd to a hundred years, as Athenian society became less optimistic, darker, more corrupt. Carson writes that the idea for the alternative cycle was originally brought to her by Brian Kulick, artistic director of the Classic Stage Company in New York City, who wrote:

In Aiskhylos' hands the story of the house of Atreus is designed to end in a valedictory celebration of Athenian democracy and its newborn sense of justice; when Sophokles takes over the tale it becomes more complex and contradictory; with Euripides the design is completely turned on its head. We follow a trajectory from myth to mockery. What happened to effect this? History happened. Aiskhylos composed his Oresteia shortly after Athens' victory at the battle of Marathon, which marked the height of Athenian military and cultural supremacy; Euripides finished his Orestes almost a hundred years later as Athens headed for ruin, due to her protracted involvement in the Peloponnesian War...The house of Atreus, for these tragedians, was a way of talking about the fate of Athens.

Kulick makes a fascinating case, but I was concerned that, as a relative novice in ancient Greek literature, I wouldn't be able to pick up on the progression he outlines here. I needn't have worried. The stylistic differences among the three plays are so pronounced that, despite Agamemnon's messy end and Orestes's ostensible resolution, the reader is left feeling much surer of herself and the universe after finishing Aiskhylos's inferno of a play, than after making one's way through Euripides's altogether more ironic, darker offering.

For those not familiar with the famous story being told, it goes thusly: after Paris abducts Helen, her husband Menelaos and his brother Agamemnon, king of Argos, gather their forces to sail to Troy and get her back, beginning the Trojan War. But the goddess Artemis refuses to send the desired wind until Agamemnon sacrifices his own child, continuing a long history of child murder in his family. Agamemnon kills his daughter Iphigenia, earning the hatred of his wife (her mother) Klytaimestra, and the ships set sail. Fast forward ten years, and Klytaimestra receives word that Troy has fallen; she and her lover Aigisthos, both intent on revenge for their own reasons, murder the returned Agamemnon and his prophetess sex-slave Kassandra, planning to rule Argos themselves in Agamemnon's stead. These are the events of Aiskhylos's Agamemnon.

As I mentioned, despite the bloody murder that makes up the body of this play, Aiskylos's language as rendered into English by Carson is such a bonfire blast of virtuosity that I finished it feeling almost giddy. The sense of gut-clenching foreboding and inevitability is pitch-perfect. The malignant patrimony lurking in the House of Atreus is a force of nature, and all the stories anyone tries to tell—be they about the war, or an allegorical tale, or a supposedly happy homecoming—are infected by it. The Greek invaders at Troy "beached in blood"; the chorus claims of one man's pet lion "That thing was a priest of ruin Bred in the / house. Sent by god." When the Chorus tells the story of Paris and Helen, the image of a house cursed by a phantom resonates between Klytaimestra and Agamemnon:

Alas for the house! Alas for the house and the
men of the house!
Alas for the marriage bed and the way she loved
her husband once!

There is silence there: he sits alone,
dishonored, baffled, mute.
In his longing for what is gone across the
a phantom seems to rule his house.

The idea of infection, of seepage from one evil to another, is everywhere in Agamemnon. Klytaimestra, after she convinces Agamemnon to enter the house on a red carpet, against his wishes, gives this masterful speech suffused with rage and grief for the "roots and leaves" of her own family that will never return, a vision of a happy homecoming that is irrevocably perverted by Iphigenia's murder and the consequent murder Klytaimestra herself is planning; a vision of perfection that only infuriates by its distance from the truth.

There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye
        we use to color our garments,
costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks
        be to gods, no poverty here.
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of
        many cloths
if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this
        man's life.
For when the root is alive the leaves come
and shade the house against white dogstar
Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
Or when Zeus makes wine from bitter
and coolness fills the house
as the master walks his halls,
righteous, perfect.
Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect,
accomplish my prayers.
Concern yourself here.
Perfect this.

There are so many amazing and exhilarating passages in Agamemnon that I could continue quoting them all day, but in brief: the predominant feelings are of white-hot fury and dread, and of conflicting, equally strong concepts of justice. Everyone in Agamemnon believes with absolute certainty that he or she knows what justice is, and the tragedy comes out of the clashes between these mutually exclusive justice concepts.

In Sophokles and especially Euripides, on the other hand, people struggle to decide what is just, or sometimes knowingly act in opposition to what is just. In a few cases, they even seem to stop caring about justice, or about the tragedy unfolding all around them. (In the second two plays of the cycle, Agamemnon and Klytaimestra's son Orestes returns from exile, and he and his sister Elektra murder their mother and her lover. The citizens of Argos then must decide what to do with the two siblings.) Elektra, for example, finds the title character arrested, unable to either marry out of her mother's household or avenge her father on her own, crippled by her never-ending grief, which she admits is excessive by any social definition. "There is no pity / but mine, / oh Father, / for the pity of your butchering rawblood death," she cries, and "Lament is a pattern cut and fitted around / my mind" Unlike her mother before her, she witnesses herself becoming the next tool of the curse of the house of Atreus, but cannot avert the coming disaster:

By dread things I am compelled. I know
I see the trap closing.
I know what I am.
But while life is in me
I will not stop this violence.

"Evil is a pressure that shapes us to itself," Elektra says. At the end of Agamemnon Klytaimestra believes she has ended the cycle of violence; she attempts to call a truce with the lineage's curse. But Elektra has no such illusions; part of her grief trap is that she recognizes she has been shaped to evil by the evil around her. The fact that Klytaimestra may deserve to die for the deeds she has committed, doesn't absolve Elektra and Orestes from their own guilt; there seems no escape from the cycle. But because the house's cycle of violence has become part of Elektra herself, to break it would be to go against her own selfhood; "I need one food," she says: "I must not violate Elektra." And to Klytaimestra:

Shame I do feel.
And I know there is something all wrong
        about me—
believe me. Sometimes I shock myself.
But there is a reason: you.
You never let up
this one same pressure of hatred on my life:
I am the shape you made me.

Elektra's tragedy is that of someone who has been made into the wrong shape, but who cannot now act against her nature.

From Aiskhylos's cleansing fire and Sophokles's self-regenerating corruption, Euripedes's vision seems almost farcical in its irony. Instead of an Elektra wracked by grief, her opening monologue in Orestes seems almost bored:

It's a known fact,
when the gods asked him to dinner he shot
        off his mouth.
So Tantalos begot Pelops, Pelops begot
you know all this don't you? the strife, the

We've heard it all before, she seems to say, and here we go again. Whereas Sophokles's Elektra is often sickened or horrified by the ways in which her evil situation has shaped her to itself, Euripides's Elektra is either too broken or too cynical to continue surprised at her family's bloodbath. Elektra and Orestes's tragedy in this last play seems, not so much that they have been sentenced to death for their mother's murder, but that the world in which they live is devoid of any overarching meaning or justice. Even the deus ex machina that saves them in the end seems ridiculous and almost random, much like the further murders they're attempting when Apollo arrives to sort them out, or the messenger's report on the democratic meeting called by the citizens of Argos to decide the siblings' fate. It's a far cry from the savage yet conflicting visions of justice held by the cast of Aiskhylos's Agamemnon.

There's far more in these three plays than I can do justice in a single blog entry, but suffice to say I fell utterly in love with the entire cycle, and can't wait to look into Carson's other Euripides translations, published in Grief Lessons. A note on her translation: as you can tell from the many excerpts above, it has a very modern feel, yet (I think) also gives the impression of agelessness. I've heard a few criticisms of places where people feel the language gets too modern, but I found it absolutely galvanizing; I could read Anne Carson's Aiskhylos all month and never wish myself elsewhere. That said, I believe in the usefulness of having multiple translations, especially of works as influential as these plays. If you love the excerpts above, you will love the whole book. If you prefer a different, more Victorian or Modernist feel, you have many translations to choose from. Personally, I only regret that Carson has not yet translated the rest of Aiskhylos's original Oresteia, as I would love to compare and contrast with this alternate version.


An Oresteia was my fourth book for the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.

Notes from the Air


My interest in John Ashbery was first piqued when I read his interview in the recently-released Paris Review compilations. In particular, I was intrigued by his attitude toward ambiguity and "difficulty," which the interviewer asks about because Ashbery has a reputation as a famously "difficult" poet. In response, Ashbery emphasizes that he hates the idea of being intentionally obscure or antagonistic toward the reader; that's never been his goal, and he objects to that kind of confrontational attitude in poetry as well as in clothing. Rather, he says, "I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress." Genius.

My intention is to present the reader with a pleasant surprise, not an unpleasant one, not a nonsurprise. I think this is the way pleasure happens when you are reading poetry. [...] Ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness or pleasant surprise. I am assuming that from the moment life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible, and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions. The idea of relief from pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes eventual resolution of itself whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that is why so much 'depressing' modern art makes me feel cheerful.

I might disagree with Ashbery's definition of "real happiness" here, but I deeply relate to what he says about ambiguity implying eventual resolution whereas certitude implies further ambiguity, and to the way in which supposedly "depressing" modern art makes him feel cheerful. This was one of those moments of shocking recognition for me, in which someone else articulates my exact feelings, not fully realized until I read them on the page. Combine that with his clothing analogy, and I knew I had to seek out some of Ashbery's poetry.

Notes from the Air is a sampling of his later work, selected by the poet himself, from 1987's April Galleons to 2005's Where Shall I Wander (published when Ashbery was 78 years old). The resulting volume did consistently surprise me—in large part, because the sampled collections were all so different from one another. I have read some criticisms of "unevenness" in Notes from the Air, and I would tend to agree that some sections are a lot "better"—more pleasing, more surprising, more memorable—than others, either subjectively or objectively. With such a huge variety of approaches and concerns, this is almost inevitable. Far from being a negative in my mind, though, this wide range is one of the most impressive things about my introduction to Ashbery: even in his late 70s, he never ceases to experiment, to approach poetics from different angles and with different attitudes. What's more, with a few exceptions the vision within each excerpted collection seemed unified, as if each one were a self-contained project.

In general, I found the earlier collections (April Galleons, Flow Chart, Hotel Lautréamont, Can You Hear, Bird) stronger than the later ones. The Paris Review interviewer remarks that in Ashbery's poetry "the details of a poem will be so clear, but the context, the surrounding situation, unclear," and indeed this dichotomy provided many of the pleasant surprises I found in my favorite pieces. Ashbery borrows cadences and figures from informal, colloquial speech and writing, which lends his verses a certain ease—sometimes humorous, sometimes melancholic, but always possessed of an "everyday" quality. At the same time, though, he invokes so many surprising juxtapositions that the reader often finds herself disoriented, despite the familiarity of the language. From the beginning of "April Galleons," the titular poem in the first excerpted collection:

Something was burning. And besides,
At the far end of the room a discredited waltz
Was alive and reciting tales of the conquerors
And their lilies—is all of life thus
A tepid housewarming? And where do the scraps
Of meaning come from? Obviously,
It was time to be off, in another
Direction, toward marshlands and cold, scrolled
Names of cities that sounded as though they existed,
But never had.

The juxtaposition of transitions normally characterizing informal spoken language ("And besides," "Obviously, it was time to be off") and more heightened figurative language (a living "discredited waltz"; "the conquerors and their lilies") is enormously appealing to me, as is the almost fiction-esque tone created by the narrative voice behind the colloquialisms. Combined with the very Eliot-esque line "Is all of life thus / A tepid housewarming?" and this, like several of Ashbery's other poems, had me flashing back to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Even the overall conceit of the poem—finding the speaker on the verge of setting out on a metaphysical journey he imagines will change his life—is reminiscent.

Some of my favorite examples of Ashbery's hybrid colloquial/figurative approach were to be found in the book-length poem Flow Chart, of which only section 5 of 6 is included in this collection. Of all the collections on offer, Flow Chart is probably the one I'm most tempted to read in its entirety, not only because I'm curious to get a sense of the larger picture vis-a-vis this long poem, but because some of the sections therein were the most emotionally resonant for me as well. A short sample:

                                                               A few anomalies
are a help sometimes, confetti that gets lost in the cracks
of some conversation and then you have to take it back again to the beginning
and start all over again, but that's normal, it's no cause for alarm, there are
more people out there than before. If you can think constructively, cogently,
on a spring morning like this and really want to know the result in advance, and can
accept the inroads colorful difficulties can sometimes make as well as all the
fortunate happening, the unexpected pleasures and all that, then there's no reason not to
rejoice in the exterior outcome, sudden
mountain-face, the abrupt slide
into somewhere or other. It will all twist us
closer together, under heaven, and I guess that's what you came about. See these
polished stones? I want them and I want you to have them. It's time, now.

Perhaps it's my Scotch-Norwegian roots showing, but to me all the gruffness and "aw shucks" language here ("the unexpected pleasures and all that"; "I guess that's what you came about") heighten the poignancy of this passage—it's all about communicating with oneself and other people, about negotiating and re-negotiating conversations, and yet the speaker himself is awkward at that very task. I also love the idea that unraveling and starting over from the beginning—whether we are referring to a conversation or a piece of artwork—is a natural part of any process, only to be expected, "normal, no cause for alarm."

The selections from Hotel Lautréamont struck me as slightly more formal, and include two amazing examples of pantoums, a form in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third (respectively) of the one following. The long-ish titular poem "Hotel Lautréamont" is a particularly amazing example of the form; it's striking how the repeated lines often change meaning completely due only to recontextualization.

Can You Hear, Bird surprised me in turn by being laugh-out-loud funny. This is probably the second volume I would investigate in its entirety, just because I found Ashbery's wry humor so delightful (and often effective in bringing out his melancholia by contrast), and it's shown off to particular advantage in these poems. In "...By An Earthquake," each line gives us a hypothetical plot point in a loosely connected and sometimes petty melodrama. An excerpt:

A and A-2 meet with a tragic adventure, and A-2 is killed.
Elvira, seeking to unravel the mystery of a strange house in the hills, is caught in an
        electrical storm. During the storm the house vanishes and the site on which is stood
        becomes a lake.
Alphonse has a wound, a terrible psychic wound, an invisible psychic would, which
        causes pain in flesh and tissue which, otherwise, are perfectly healthy and normal.
A has a dream which he conceives to be an actual experience.
Jenny, homeward bound, drives and drives, and is still driving, no nearer to her home
        than she was when she first started.
Petronius B. Furlong's friend, Morgan Windhover, receives a wound from which he dies.
Thirteen guests, unknown to one another, gather in a spooky house to hear Toe reading
        Buster's will.

And so on. The line about Petronius B. Furlong tickles me in particular. The poem as a whole is oddly compelling in addition to being funny, playing with stereotypes of plot and character. The poem "Sleepers Awake" has similarly literary/meta concerns, as does "Chapter II, Book 35, which was one of my favorite pieces in this whole book. Can You Hear, Bird has touches of the sinister and melancholy as well, as in "The Problem of Anxiety," which begins "Fifty years have passed / since I started living in those dark towns / I was telling you about." These more troubling touches coexist with the humor in a surprisingly compelling way, and the tension between them made Can You Hear, Bird stand out (although there were flashes of humor throughout the other collections, as well).

There were so many poems I loved in this collection, and it's so difficult to decide what to include in a blog post. The later pieces tended, I thought, to be less pressurized, more prone to rambling, and didn't transport me as consistently as the earlier ones did, but there were still some very memorable points in the latter pages. Overall Notes on the Air was a great introduction to Ashbery, since it gave me a good idea of the different characters of his later collections, which in turn allows me to decide which ones I'd like to investigate more fully. His output is so diverse that I would highly recommend someone new to his poetry starting out with a similarly bird's-eye view; it seems to me that given a panorama of Ashbery's work, most readers could find something to love.


Notes from the Air was my seventh book for the Challenge that Dare Not Speak its Name (although it's not a major theme in his poetry, Ashbery does happen to be gay), and my third book for the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography