December 29, 2009

"Books You Can Live Without"

Here is a fun article from the New York Times that I identify with a lot these days. Because I'm kind of in between homes at the moment (my home home and the apartment I'm staying for who knows how long), and probably will be for the next few years, my book collection is constantly divided. Inevitably, whenever I'm in one place I miss the books in the other. So, I find myself identifying most with the comments of author Joshua Ferris, especially what he says here:
Books are notes from the field, bound and domesticated, life brought into narrow focus. Get rid of a book? No way. Every one is a brick keeping the building standing. Books are my life. I leave and come back, and the books I find there tell me I’m home.

Get rid of my books? Me? Never.

December 28, 2009


As I imagine most dog owners do, I constantly stare at my dog and wonder what she is thinking. There are times I can tell by her facial expressions and gestures: when she wants some food, when she wants me to move over on the couch, when she is about to pee on the floor because she is angry at me. But, sadly, most of the time I don’t know what she thinks, because she is a dog and cannot talk. But in the lovely The Art of Racing in the Rain, we are privy to the thoughts of Enzo, the dog and narrator of the story, as he looks back and recounts the story of his life with his family. And with Enzo (as I often suspect with my own Remy), there is a lot going on in the mind of a dog.

We meet Enzo as an old and sickly dog as he and his owner try to accept his coming death. For me, this meant the waterworks began at the start of the book and continued to the end (at which point they came in at full force). As he prepares for his hoped-for reincarnation as a human, Enzo reflects on what it is to be a dog and part of a human family. Enzo, as so many dogs are, is a vital part of his family and has been there for so many of the defining points of their lives. Enzo’s journey with Denny, an aspiring race car driver and his master, began with just the two of them. Over the years their family number increases, and is marked by much happiness followed by even more tragedy. Enzo’s loyalty to Denny is often what keeps him going, and Enzo knows this. It is his duty, as he sees it, to love and protect his family inasmuch as he can, and he fulfills this responsibility up to the very end. He proves that all that stuff about dogs and unconditional love and loyalty is true. But now, through Enzo’s thoughts, we see where it comes from and why dogs are such wonderful creatures.

Dogs have a lot of time to think. Enzo has used this time for the better, using his own observances and his wide-ranging knowledge (thanks to lots of television) to shape his philosophies on life. For such a quick and enjoyable read, the book tackles lots of big ideas – namely because Enzo is a smart dog and has some deep thoughts. What stuck with me most were his ideas on death and what comes next. Of course everyone has their own ideas on the Afterlife, whether it is shaped by culture or religion or just convenience. Enzo’s hope and faith in his coming reincarnation as a human with opposable thumbs (thanks to a National Geographic special on the Mongolians) is comforting in light of the life he has led and the tragedies Denny and the family have endured.

It goes without saying, but should still be said, that having a dog as a narrator makes for a unique read. If at first the idea seems at all strange, however, it quickly becomes natural and Enzo proves a reliable narrator. It never falls into gimmick or becomes trite; Enzo is a consistent narrative voice, with a personality and opinions and convictions. We get to know him well, and his family through his eyes. We feel his frustrations at not being able to express himself, and hope along with him that some Stephen Hawking-like machine existed for him to speak all that he knows. I learned a lot about car racing thanks to Enzo (I know its really thanks to Garth Stein, but I like to think it is directly from Enzo), and identified with his picks for favorite actors (number one on his list is Steve McQueen, naturally). Just as dogs themselves are, Enzo’s voice was honest and heartwarming, and gave me a renewed appreciation (and curiosity) for my own dog.

Because it is so many things – funny, heartbreaking, life affirming – The Art of Racing in the Rain is the type of book that travels quickly by word of mouth. (It doesn’t hurt that there are so many dog people out there). My own experience with it is an example of that; my boss lent it to me, only for me sister to read it first. After she read it, she not only made sure I read it, she bought three copies as Christmas gifts – and now I fully intend to recommend it to many. It is nice to think that in this day of the e-book and precarious position of the publishing industry, the reading public and word of mouth still holds so much power. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go spend some quality time with my dog.

December 21, 2009


"To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering"

Recently I watched the film Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (good movie, and the book is in my to be read pile), in which Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a significant plot point. I made a mental note to search for it at the library, and then went downstairs only to find it staring at me from my Dad’s bookcase. If that is not a sign to read the book, especially a book about the meaning of life, I don’t know what is.

Frankl’s book is many things in one: it is a historical account, philosophy book, theory of psychology, and memoir. He writes about his time in various concentration camps over three years during WWII, and how his experiences shaped and solidified his work as a psychologist and the theories he developed both before and after his imprisonment. As all works concerning the Holocaust do, Man’s Search for Meaning brings up many difficult questions. How can man be responsible for such horrible actions? How can what happened be explained or justified? How does one go through so much suffering and still survive? What is the purpose of all that suffering? Frankl provides a philosophical answer to these questions (at least, as much as they can be answered) by exploring how his and others’ experiences in concentration camps are proof that the human spirit can overcome anything.

Frankl’s existentialist philosophies unfold in the two parts of his book. In Part One, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” he reflects on his own imprisonment and the development of the psychologies of his fellow prisoners. As with any kind of life, humans adapt to their surroundings, no matter how horrible they might be. Thus, there is a psychology and set of stages that accompany camp life, which he identifies through stories of his friends and fellow prisoners. Though they are often told as case studies and in an academic light, these stories are, of course, heartbreaking, – but also life affirming. It is the conclusion he comes to regarding the human spirit and its ability to endure and survive that shapes his philosophy, and subsequently his school of psychological thought. In looking at his own survival and that of those around him, he theorizes that the ability to endure and surpass great suffering is in the mind of the man, as long as he has decided that he has something to survive for. As a sort of summation of his theory, Frankl often quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

In the second part of his book, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” Frankl takes the theories he has put forth in Part One and uses them to shape an introduction to logotherapy, the school of psychological thought he founded. I’m no student of psychology and knew little of logotherapy before I read the book, but Frankl clearly and accessibly outlines his theories in his short introduction. Logotherapy exists on this premise that the most powerful and motivational force in human beings is the desire to find meaning to their lives. In terms of theories of psychology (especially Viennese ones), logotherapy differs from, say, psychoanalysis in that it looks towards the future rather than towards the past. In logotherapy, there is no examining of the effects of childhood traumas on the unconscious while lying on a couch; rather, neuroses are cured by putting the patient’s desires in context and righting them on the path towards finding their own meaning of life. It is clear why this sort of psychological theory developed in Frankl’s surroundings of great suffering. When horrifically stripped of literally everything – belongings, loved ones, basic human rights, often even hope – Frankl and many of his contemporaries still endured. All they had to live for was the idea of their future, and their desire to ascribe meaning to all their suffering; and yet, it was this that kept them alive.

I’m sure you’re thinking through all this (as I was), What is the meaning of life? Well, Frankl contends that this question in its abstract and general terms cannot be answered. Rather, the meaning of life is constantly changing for each unique person in every unique situation he is in. It is life that asks us for meaning, not the other way around. We must rise to what life brings us, and justify our existence by succeeding with what we are given. (I suspect whoever first said the phrase ‘when life gives you lemons…’ was a logotherapist.) I absolutely understand why Frankl’s book is not only one of the most important works of psychiatric literature, but why it is still consistently read and loved by so many people. Man’s Search for Meaning is the sort of book that you always want to have nearby as a reminder of why and how to keep going, particularly when going through hard times. I am very grateful to Brief Interviews..., and my Dad's library, for bringing it to me.

December 20, 2009


'In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms' - Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

-W.B. Yeats

December 09, 2009


I’ve been terribly neglectful lately in writing about the books I’ve read right after I finish them, so sadly this discussion of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History may suffer a bit. I finished the book weeks ago and, while I loved it, it is no longer fresh in my mind and so I may be a bit lacking in my remembering of it. Alas, I will do my best.

I came upon The Secret History when a friend and I were talking about The Likeness. She said that as she was reading Tana French’s book, she was reminded of Donna Tartt’s novel. As I read reviews of The Likeness, I noticed many of them mentioned The Secret History, almost always in a favorable way (for both books). And then, when said friend gave me a copy of the book, I figured it was about time to read it. It is true that there are many (many) similarities between The Likeness and The Secret History; both are set at secluded academic locations, both feature a bizarrely close circle of friends, both involve a the murder of a student, et cetera et cetera. And yet, I did not find The Likeness to be a rehashing or copy of The Secret History (which came first – it was published, and apparently was very popular, in 1992).

The book opens with Richard Papen, our trusty protagonist, reflecting on his tumultuous time at Hampden College. As a sophomore transfer student, Richard was quickly accepted into an exclusive group of five friends. His need to belong, particularly to this elite group by which he is fascinated, moves him to make sure to fit in at any cost. Though he must work hard and often to put himself through school, he pretends to be of the same wealthy class of his new friends (though in some of these friends’ cases, it is more like used-to-be-wealthy class). Their collective wealth, with the leisure and freedom (especially academic) it brings, makes their self-inflicted seclusion all the more influential on the developments of their philosophies. Hampden, the small liberal arts school at the foot of a mountain in Vermont, keeps its students isolated in a bubble of academics, drugs, and general college-revelry. These six students, however, are in their own tiny bubble within Hampden. They take only Classics course with each other, with only one professor. Entrenched in the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, mythologies, epic poems, and dead languages, their worldview and mindset is entirely disconnected from modern reality. This disconnect – with its accompanying amorality and intellectual and social isolation – inevitably leads them towards irrevocable evil.

As these students are consumed by the Ancients in their mountainous Vermont isolation, their imagined world clashes with the real one. The bizarre recreation of an Ancient tradition leads them to an accidental (but no less horrific) murder. And yet, this is only the beginning; Richard’s story is really the story of he and his friends’ murder of Bunny, one of their own (worry not, no spoiler here – this murder is revealed on the first page). The horror of it is that as the book progresses, their actions begin to make sense. Bunny (who acts like a character from out of a Fitzgerald short story, both intentionally and not) has become a threat, not to mention a nuisance to his friends, and so he must be gotten rid of. In the warped minds of these students, this makes sense. As we become part of this mindset and their world – a world that is set more in Ancient Greece than in reality – the thought of murder seems less inhumane and more as an ordinary part of life. Bizarre events and elements of the book somehow seem reasonable, as Tartt has slowly eased us into this strange world where the natural and philosophical reign over the logical and corporeal. And yet, the students find that their otherworldly actions and beliefs have very real consequences.

As a sort of intellectual murder mystery that unfolds backwards, The Secret History kept me reading like crazy (into very late hours) to finish it. I loved so much about it: the quiet college setting, the complex and slowly unfolding relationships between characters, the structure of the story, the juxtaposition of the high intellectualism of Latin poetry and Greek philosophy with the basic animalistic act of murder. It is certainly one of those consuming books, one that you cannot put down and that appears in your dreams. At least, it was for me.

November 29, 2009


Recently, my boss and I were talking about our mutual and undying love for Persuasion when she mentioned Jane Austen Ruined My Life. Because I was intrigued by the title, she was kind enough to lend me her copy. I know that Austen-inspired fiction is a strangely huge genre; every time I enter a bookstore I seem to come across a new book with some play on ‘Mr. Darcy’ in the title. As an Austen fan myself, I certainly understand the appeal of such a genre and respect that it reaches so many readers, but I’ve never had much interest in any of these types of books. While I did mostly enjoy reading the breezy Jane Austen Ruined My Life, it certainly didn’t change my mind on its genre.

The book follows Emma (what else?) Grant, an Austen scholar from an unnamed prestigious American university who has been betrayed and abandoned by her cad of celebrity-scholar husband and subsequently fired from her teaching position. Falsely accused of plagiarism and shamed in the academic community, she escapes to England to meet with a bizarre hermit who sets her on a trail throughout the country that will, she says, lead to hundreds of Austen’s lost letters. As Emma attempts to complete the tasks she is set, she visits Austen’s own England, runs into an old near-flame (of course), and reflects on how Austen indirectly contributed to the failure of her marriage.

Though far-fetched, Pattillo’s imagined fate of the letters is interesting and entertaining, especially in light of my recent visit to the Morgan Library. Though many of Austen’s letters survive (and are currently on display at the Morgan), far many more do not. She was a prolific letter writer, and apparently upon her death had her sister Cassandra destroy or edit the majority of her correspondence. The book proposes that she did not actually do such a thing, and that these lost letters have been protected by a secret society of ‘Formidables” since her death. Patillo nicely arranges the reasons for the secrecy of these letters around actual and unexplained facts about Austen. This is what I enjoyed most about the book; the biographical information on Jane Austen that provided the basis for the plot. And even though I was rolling my eyes almost every other page (there are only so many fluttering hearts and Austen metaphors I can take), I did sometimes find myself identifying with Emma. I’ve had many conversations with friends about how things we love – whether they are Jane Austen novels or Disney cartoons or romantic movies I watched on TV when I was probably too young to be doing so – have ruined us by raising our expectations so high that we are only set up to be disappointed. Case in point: I will settle for nothing less than Captain Wentworth. It is nice to know that there are others out there with the same problem, but I think that in the future if I am in the mood for some Jane Austen, I’ll be reading one of her own novels rather than one inspired by her. In fact, I think it is about time for a rereading of Persuasion.

While we’re on the topic of Jane Austen, here are a few recent articles on her:

What Would Jane Do?”, a great article on the morality, and wonderfulness, of Jane in the WSJ

No Plain Jane”, a review of a new book of essays on Austen, in The Economist

A review of the Morgan Library exhibit in the NYT

November 24, 2009

Poetic & Artistic Inspiration

The Lady of Shalott
John William Waterhouse, 1888

"On either side the river lie 

Long fields of barley and of rye, 

That clothe the wold and meet the sky; 

And thro' the field the road runs by

To many-tower'd Camelot;

And up and down the people go,

Gazing where the lilies blow 

Round an island there below, 

The island of Shalott."

from "The Lady of Shalott"by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1842

November 21, 2009

THE PENELOPIAD by Margaret Atwood

There is nothing like a good retelling of a canonical work. As arguably one of the most canonical works, Homer’s Odyssey has been adapted and retold many times in many ways, from the film O Brother Where Art Thou? to James Joyce’s amazing (and canonical itself) Ulysses. Margaret Atwood contributes to this tradition with The Penelopiad, a look at the events of The Iliad and The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope. As she wanders through the many levels of Hades and (often amusingly) encounters old acquaintances, Penelope gives us her take on the epic. She recounts how she felt about Odysseus, from the start of their arranged relationship through his long absence. She offers her own account of what happened at home in Ithaca over those twenty years without her husband, paying particular attention to the years the suitors descended and how, with the help of her servants and maids, she was able to keep them from overwhelming her. In telling Penelope’s side of the story, Atwood offers a completely new way of looking at Homer’s epic, making me question what I know and how I feel about this story that is so much a part of our culture.

The image of Penelope as put forth in The Odyssey and its countless subsequent retellings is almost invariably the same: she is the loyal, steadfast wife who patiently awaits her husband for twenty years while he wages war, makes a name for himself as the wisest king, battles monsters of land and sea, and beds nymphs and sorceresses galore. I always imagined (with the help of a TV movie or two) that the only thing that kept Odysseus going and Penelope from succumbing to her dangerous suitors was their undying love for one another. But, as most feminist retellings do, The Penelopiad completely changes the outlook of the original source material. Gone is the romance between Odysseus and Penelope, the image of Odysseus as the ultimate hero of wisdom and morality, the loving mother-son relationship between Penelope and Telemachus. Odysseus, though wise and brave to a degree, owes his heroic reputation more to his cunning and shrewdness than to deep wisdom. He uses these powers of persuasion and craftiness in their own marriage, which is certainly not based on the love and trust of Homer’s telling and the idealistic retellings. It is an arranged marriage of convenience in which Penelope will always only be the second place prize to her cousin Helen. Penelope does what she does not because of an undying love for Odysseus or a reverential obligation to her new kingdom, but because it is what is forced upon her as a woman.

Penelope’s is not the only voice we hear in The Penelopiad, however. Also narrating is the set of twelve maids who were loyal servants to Penelope throughout her husband’s absence, only to be murdered upon Odysseus’s return for liaising with (aka being raped by) the suitors. The hangings of these women are seldom discussed; with all the violent deaths and adventures of The Odyssey, how much do the deaths of these servant girls matter? Atwood, it seems, took issue with this absence of discussion and fittingly included it with her story of Penelope. These maids, in the tradition of the Greek Tragedy, act as the chorus collectively offering their thus far silent account of events through ballads, poetry, and plays. As Penelope is continually haunted by their violent hangings, the maids serve as a constant reminder of the place of women in their time – and, even more so, the place of women servants.

I often have a hard time reading revisionist works, especially when it comes to stories or books I love. Whether it is a reworking of a fairy tale or Jean Rhys’ reimagining of Jane Eyre, I don’t always want see my idealistic perception of the story or its characters changed (even if it becomes more truthful). And yet, I do read these reworkings and almost invariably enjoy them. Usually, despite my initial misgivings or natural aversion to changing my opinion, I end up better appreciating the original text and developing a much more well-rounded understanding of it. I think that is the importance of these kinds of works; to widen the conversation on classic texts by bringing certain aspects of them to the forefront and making us take a closer look. The fact that The Penelopiad does so much to change how I see these characters and the myth itself speaks to the power of Atwood’s writing – and her talent for shining light on the cracks in the epic that were hidden, but not invisible.

November 13, 2009

Interview with Cormac McCarthy

It seems that every weekend the WSJ features great articles on books and authors. I live for the Weekend Journal. Today's paper has a wonderfully extensive interview with the notoriously private Cormac McCarthy, in which he comes off as decidedly more personable than I imagined him to be. The interview comes in time for the upcoming theatrical release of "The Road" (which promises to be horrifically depressing), and it is interesting to hear McCarthy's views on his books' translations to film. Among the many other topics he discusses are religion, his son as inspiration for The Road, his relationships with filmmakers, his future book, and the status of the modern novel. Some excerpts:

On the unamed disaster in The Road:

I don't have an opinion. At the Santa Fe Institute I'm with scientists of all disciplines, and some of them in geology said it looked like a meteor to them. But it could be anything—volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do? The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who've gone diving in Yellowstone Lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it go on Thursday. No one knows.
[I knew it!]

On lengthy books:
People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Moby-Dick," go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

On what he writes:
I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

I highly suggest reading the rest of the article and interview, "
Hollywood's Favorite Cowboy."

Also in today's Journal is an article, "
When Brevity is a Virtue," about a number of short story collections by established authors being published this season. I've been reading more short stories than usual lately, so I was especially interested to read the article's discussion of the place and purpose of the short story today. And it definitely got me interested in reading some of these upcoming collections, namely Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness. Hopefully there will be more great literary articles in tomorrow's Journal as well.


A few weeks ago, I went to the Strand Bookstore to see A.S. Byatt read from and speak about her newest novel, The Children’s Book, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I have yet to crack open the book (personalized and signed by Byatt herself!), but my anticipation for it continues to build. I had been meaning to read her books for a long time now, so when I saw that she would be at the Strand I decided to build at least a working familiarity with her work by reading some short stories. The Matisse Stories, as the title implies, is a collection of three stories loosely inspired by and centered around paintings by Henri Matisse. Each story is a glimpse (as short stories are) into the life of a middle-aged woman and her relationship, however varied, with art.

The woman of the opening story is drawn into her hair salon by the Matisse copy hanging inside. As she develops a play on the standard relationship with her hairdresser, her deeply rooted insecurities about growing older begin to manifest with the painting of the rosy nude (and its incongruous salon setting) as a strangely fitting background. This discomfort with aging is certainly a running theme throughout the stories, continuing with the woman of the second story as she attempts to reconcile the artistic dreams of her youth with her abandonment of this passion to support her family (particularly her failed and spoiled painter husband). As this self-proclaimed ‘creative’ family is forced to reassess what they accept as art through a surprise of their housekeeper, Byatt brings up questions on the limits and purpose of art and how different people in different situations view it. This discussion is expanded in the final story, which follows the dean of women at a London university and her struggle in dealing with the accusations of an unstable Fine Arts graduate student against an elder, distinguished visiting professor. Should the principles of art, beauty, and the devotion to artistic scholarship be upheld? Or should this woman and the university do what it can to help this unwell, but also untalented, student? What is more important – art or human compassion?

The stories are artistic in themselves; Byatt evokes paintings – Matisse ones especially – with her colorful and descriptive language. Her depiction of objects – their colors, light and presence – is striking. In fact, this is something Byatt discussed at the signing, in relation to The Children’s Book. She said that she often writes towards objects; that she develops ideas, and then has specific ideas of what objects she wants to write about and how she wants to represent them. Specifically, she spoke of a candlestick in The Children’s Book (I suppose that will mean something to those that have read the book). She had a very specific idea of what kind of candlestick she wanted and, with the help of the curator of The Victoria & Albert Museum, found precisely what she was looking for and made it an important part of the novel.

Both The Matisse Stories and seeing A.S. Byatt read have certainly whet my appetite for more of her stuff (The Children’s Book and Possession are eagerly waiting for me in my to-be-read pile). And she was very nice, which is always a plus. As I nervously approached her to get my book signed, I mumbled something about loving The Matisse Stories, and she told me how earlier that day she had tried to go to the MOMA to see their Matisse collection but was unable to get in because of the long line. MOMA, you should have been rolling out the red carpet for her!

November 10, 2009

The Morgan Library

Because Tuesdays are my free afternoon days, today I decided to venture to the Morgan Library to see the Jane Austen exhibit I had heard about. Amazingly, I’ve never been to the Library before – it is certainly an overlooked gem. It began as J.P. Morgan’s personal collection of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, and artwork, and was given to the public by his son in the 1920s. The reading rooms that make up Morgan’s personal wing of the museum – with their massive collections of old books, dark wood shelves, plush couches, and beautifully frescoed ceilings – are a literary dream. The permanent collection boasts a Gutenberg Bible and a number of great pieces of art (I spotted a few Hans Memlings), in addition to all the rare books and illuminated manuscripts it contains. It was the special exhibit I came to see, however, and was excited to find that not only was there and exhibit on Jane Austen, but one on William Blake as well.

The Jane Austen exhibit was wonderful, featuring lots of Jane’s original letters, manuscripts, and first editions. It is always so exciting to me to see something originally from a writer or artist I admire up close, so I loved seeing her own handwriting in her copious and exhaustive letters. There was also a short documentary featuring well-known writers and artists discussing Jane and her effects on them – I especially enjoyed Colm Toibin’s (a writer I love) wish to invite Jane, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung to dinner, feed them lots of alcohol, and see what they made of each other. All the while, of course, I thought of my favorite Austen novel (Persuasion), and my favorite part of the novel (Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne). To avoid the risk of ruining the experience of the book for any unacquainted readers, I will refrain from saying more – just know that you must read Persuasion and savor your
first reading of said letter. Gosh, I love Persuasion.

The William Blake exhibit featured his many etchings and engravings – I often forget he was as much an artist as he was a poet. Engravings fascinate me. The great ones are so intricate and detailed, and to me evoke a certain kind of beauty I automatically associate with literature and poetry. I suppose it is people like Blake that are the causes of such associations – his etchings are beautiful, and of course literary. Here are the first few lines of “The Echoing Green,” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence (and his frontispiece):

The sun does arise,

And make happy the skies;

The merry bells ring

To welcome the spring;

The skylark and thrush,

The birds of the bush,

Sing louder around

To the bell's cheerful sound,

While our sports shall be seen

On the Echoing Green.

I was also happy to learn of Blake’s love for John Milton, and Blake’s poems and engravings inspired by Milton. This illustration, “The Wandering Moon,” was done by Blake to accompany Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, and features Milton in his Cambridge robes observing the moon, personified as a young woman. I just love his artwork (and poetry).

The Blake exhibit runs to January, while the Austen exhibit is until March. Go!

November 09, 2009

Two for One: IN THE WOODS and THE LIKENESS by Tana French

I’ve never been much for mysteries or thrillers. Aside from the odd Alexander McCall-Smith or Agatha Christie novel (and a brief obsession with Helter Skelter – though I suppose that would be categorized more as True Crime), I have had very little experience with the genre. What drew me to French’s novels (In the Woods first, followed by The Likeness) was their Dublin setting. I’m a sucker for anything Irish, a pseudo-weakness that really worked out in my favor here. Both novels, which are related without quite being a series, center around the attempts to solve mysterious murders. The books, however, are not so much about the crimes themselves as they are psychological explorations of the detectives and their unexpected personal connections to these murders. With both books, French effortlessly weaves through literary genres and creates, with her unique characters and stories, works that are engrossing and difficult to classify.

In the Woods follows a case assigned to Detective Rob Ryan that unexpectedly leads him and his partner towards two decade-spanning murders. As a young boy, Ryan and his two best friends disappeared into the woods of a small town outside of Dublin. Hours later he alone was found – catatonic and uninjured, yet with a torn shirt and blood-filled shoes. Twenty years later, he still has no memory of those hours and his friends have never been found. As he attempts to solve the murder of a young girl in the very same woods, Ryan is forced to revisit his past and face what he fears most – his untapped memories. Though the mysteries of both murders are gripping (I was up until ungodly hours while reading this book), what is most powerful is seeing how the case personally and psychologically impacts all involved. French explores – with Ryan especially – the impact of memory on the psyche, the transient nature of human relationships, and the ability of the subconscious to determine our actions. As first person narrator, we see everything through Ryan’s eyes. Over the course of the case it becomes apparent what an unreliable observer he has become – he veers all over the place, from likable to unlikable, trustworthy to deceitful. French’s characterization of him, however, skillfully makes this unreliability part of his nature. These paradoxes, instead of being problematic, reinforce the latent effects of his past and directly lead to the troubles of his present.

I especially loved (of course) the Irish setting of the book. It wasn’t just, however, that the story itself took place in and around Dublin (or the fact that she often mentioned places and pubs I used to frequent when I studied abroad); French draws in so many ways from her Irish literary and cultural background. Throughout the book, and in The Likeness as well, hints of mysticism and the supernatural are always quietly present – rarely spoken of, but always there. These folkloric traditions that are so intrinsic to the Irish mindset – from the titular importance of the woods to the mystical undercurrents that are often invoked to explain unspeakable crimes – meet the characters at every twist and turn. And to think, this was French’s first novel.

Her second novel certainly didn’t disappoint – I liked The Likeness just as much as In the Woods, if not more. It picks up after the events of the first novel and follows Detective Cassie Maddox, Ryan’s partner. Several other incidental characters make appearances, but this is essentially Cassie’s book. Following her switch from Murder to Domestic Violence, she finds herself thrust into a bizarre undercover murder investigation with the discovery of the body of a young woman in the outskirts of Dublin. The circumstances that bring Cassie into the investigation are even more bizarre: besides looking nearly identical to her, this dead woman shares the name of Cassie’s former undercover persona, Lexie Madison. How often does one get to use the term ‘doppelganger’ in such a perfect context? As Cassie inhabits Lexie’s life (rules and ethics be damned), she is pulled into a strange world. She studies Literature as a postgraduate student at Trinity while inhabiting the eccentric Victorian-like lifestyle Lexie shared with her four very closely-knit (often strikingly so) housemates in their manor home in the country. As she tries to solve the puzzle of Lexie’s life (who was she really, and how did she get the name Lexie Madison?) and death while continuing to convince the housemates that she is indeed Lexie, Cassie gets increasingly drawn into this new strangely enticing world.

As we saw (though to a lesser extent) in In the Woods, Cassie is a strong character: smart and tough – perfect as a hard-ass detective – yet with personal vulnerabilities that, though they help her with the finer points of profiling and catching a killer, also slowly erode her mental stability in a case as complex as this. As with In the Woods, French explores the psychological effects of this case on Cassie. The more she settles into Lexie’s life, the more she becomes her – at the expense of her own life. Though we know better, we as readers fall into the same trap. I could see the mistakes Cassie was making in failing to distance herself from the case and suspects, yet I understood why she made these mistakes. Lexie and her housemates’ lives – with their deep camaraderie, endless poetry, philosophical discussions, constantly flowing whiskey, and magical country environs – is near irresistible. I was pulled into this strange world right along with Cassie, even as her inability to distance herself puts the case, the knowledge of what happened to Lexie, and Cassie herself in danger. As Cassie attempts to balance this lifestyle with solving the murder while undercover, the suspense of The Likeness kicks in and keeps you reading until you get answers.

By the time I finished both books, I felt as drained as the detectives solving these crimes. I got so wrapped up in them that I began to see everything as potentially dangerous or as a mystery that needed to be solved (I know now why I don’t read books like this more often). Aside from the skilled storytelling and accomplished writing of both books, I respect that French didn’t always feel the need to tie things up neatly at the end of the book. Some mysteries – small and large – are left unsolved, details are left vague, and questions are left unanswered (though, for the most part, not frustratingly so). This is an extension of something she manages to do throughout her books: to ground her stories in reality, somehow making the bizarre and sometimes unbelievable aspects of the stories plausible. I’m excited for the release of her next book (whenever that will be), whether it features Detectives Ryan and Maddox or not.

November 06, 2009

Writers on Writing

Here is an excerpt from a wonderful article that appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. It chronicles the actual writing techniques of a number of contemporary authors - where they write, the many steps they take, how long it takes them to write a novel. I find it fascinating to learn the actual day-to-day of so many contemporary writers (Margaret Atwood, Junot Diaz, and Hilary Mantel, to name a few), and to see how different each writer's technique is from the others. Because of my love for Kazuo Ishiguro, I included the article's look at his writing:

From the time he was a teenager until his mid-20s, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro tried, unsuccessfully, to make it as a songwriter. His early career helped him to develop his style of spare, first-person narration where the narrator seems to know more than he or she lets on at first.

Mr. Ishiguro, author of six novels, including the Booker-prize winning "Remains of the Day,"typically spends two years researching a novel and a year writing it. Since his novels are written in the first person, the voice is crucial, so he "auditions" narrators by writing a few chapters from different characters' points of view. Before he begins a draft, he compiles folders of notes and flow charts that lay out not just the plot but also more subtle aspects of the narrative, such as a character's emotions or memories.

Obsessive preparation "gives me the opportunity to have my narrators suppress meaning and evade meaning when they say one thing and mean something else," says Mr. Ishiguro.

He collects his notes in binders and writes a first draft by hand. He edits with a pencil, then types the revised version into a computer, where he further refines it, sometimes deleting chunks as large as 100 pages.

In spite of all the groundwork, some novels fail to come together, including one that took place in medieval Britain. "I showed my wife a segment that I had honed down and she said, "This is awful. You have to figure out how they speak to each other. They're speaking in a moron language," he says.

You can read the rest of the article here.

October 27, 2009

LOST GIRLS by Alan Moore

Thanks to a good friend of mine who graciously/ wickedly lent me her mammoth copy, I just read Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls. For those not in the know (wink, wink), this graphic novel - very graphic graphic novel - places Wendy (of Neverland), Alice (of Wonderland), and Dorothy (of Kansas) together in a European hotel around the time of the outbreak of WWI. While there, they form relationships that lead them to explore their pasts and towards all kinds of sexual awakenings. To be honest, I really don't know what to write about it at the moment, as I'm still trying to take it all in. All I know is that these stories that I have loved so well have been completely changed for me. We'll see how that develops.

For a much better look at Lost Girls, and - even better - the source material, I direct you to said friend's examination of it. She does far better than I could hope to (especially as my mind is still reeling from the shock of the book).

October 25, 2009

In Honor of St. Crispin's Day...

...I bring you the St. Crispin's Day speech at the Battle of Agincourt from William Shakespeare's Henry V. Enjoy!

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.