Saturday, December 31, 2016

Virginia Woolf, reader

We are reading Hermione Lee's biography, Virginia Woolf. I loved the idea of a chapter on reading (chapter 23, called "Reading") , enjoyed and in many ways agreed with Ellen about it, and yet found myself ultimately disappointed, despite some of the small gems that emerged. This is a chapter as much about writing as reading, about reading as the prelude to or part of the dance with writing. Of course, reading is inevitably always that (except for the rare reader who never writes) but I suppose I had hoped for a chapter that dealt wholly with Woolf as reader and what she read. After all, the book as whole is about the writer.

I say this because you can learn (or end up against a wall of mystery which is informative in its own way) about a person from the books they return to: the touchstone books. I was aware of this in the two figures I've done some intense biographical research on, Dorothy Day and Bonhoeffer. I'll stick to Day in this instance. In reading her journals, which span 50 years, I learned that Day was a great, avid reader. She loved and learned from books and like Woolf and other readers she had a strong emotional response to books: they were real to her. Over and over she returned to certain books: Queechy by Susan Warner (unreadable to us but she loved it), The Brother's Karamazov (she had quotes by memory and leaned into them deeply), even Austen, especially, perhaps, Mansfield Park. These books wove themselves into her soul, along with others. They may not all be to our taste but that only works to reinforce the alterity of other people from other times: they are not us. They receive books differently. We simply can't view them (narcissistically?) as mirrors of ourselves. 

But Lee, frustratingly, never tells us what were Woolf's touchstone books. What books did she return to again and again over the course of her life? She must have had such books or, if not, isn't that striking, notable, worth a mention? But we get no such inventory. ... I am simply bemused that Lee doesn't cover this.

In any case, Lee makes the point that for Woolf books influenced her as much as relationships (of course, that cries out for her to tell us which books were lifelong friends, which fell away, which were passing infatuations etc...). We learn that reading is Woolf's life's pleasure and her life's work ... except when, on the last page of the chapter, it's not. But mostly, it's a "despotic" desire. Woolf reacts to books emotionally--they shock her, they arouse her emotions, make her feel. I know well the emotions a great book can elicit, but also wonder how this connects with Woolf's mental illness, if there is some sort of extra-acuteness in Woolf, but Lee doesn't comment. 

I agreed strongly with Woolf's perception that in a book "we have to possess ... the whole" before we can grasp a single detail. Yes. Not that we can't grasp details as we go along on a first reading, but to really grasp a book, you do have to grasp the whole of it. 

Woolf read widely and diversely, as many of us do, and liked to mix second rate with first rate literature, as it helped her understand the best literature and its context better. The second rate helped "fertilize" her mind for the "great." I also appreciated that she hated that coteries with power in the publishing and literary worlds pushed second rate books, the middlebrow, as better than they are: we see that often in our times, needless to say, and we hear people rave about truly mediocre books that are the "thing." 

Reading can even be sexual for Woolf, and I agree with that. I also understood wanting a day perfectly fit together, like a cabinet with beautiful compartments, and her distress when her best writing time in the morning was interrupted--'wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone" or she had to use her best time to write books reviews to earn money. She could be describing my life: how to hang on to that prime writing time, when the brain is at its best, how to guard it? But this, of course, is about writing, not reading. 

We learn that as a writer, she wants a fiction that moves faster than the Victorian novel, that is more fluid, impressionistic, a shower of atoms. We learn that when she writes, she wants "a wall for the book from oneself." Lee takes this to mean Woolf wanted to write not too autobiographically. 

At the end of the chapter Lee talks about Woolf's belief that women read and write in a particular way about other women's lives. And Lee writes the cryptic last paragraph about Woolf having a moment of frustration with writing and by implication reading, what Lee calls a "moment of despair." I call the last paragraph a way to evade having to draw any conclusions or summation from a diffuse chapter that dances and weaves all too amorphously around Woolf's reading life.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Ten best rereads 2016

I spent much of the first half of the year revisiting books, poems, plays and essays I had read before, often delving back far into the past to revisit books I hadn't thought about much in decades. Because the reading was so far flung, I allowed all genres onto this list, which is assembled in no particular order. But I found myself particularly appreciating the following works:

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: The more I read it, the better it gets. Fitzgerald packed a tremendous amount of satire and social commentary, not to mention Gothic elements, into this grand, romantic tragic story: it's amazing what can be pulled from a mere 55,000 words. The novel is reminding me more and more of Mary Poppins's black bag, out of which you might retrieve a table and chairs.  Lately--or earlier in the fall perhaps--I listened to the popular songs of circa 1920 that made it into the novel through snatches of lyrics, and they too add a layer of complexity ... And speaking of lyricism, Fitzgerald's language is extraordinary. The novel was also particularly prescient this year: almost a century later, Trump fits Tom Buchanan to a tee: a privileged racist sexist brutal bullying brainless baboon who gets away with anything due to his wealth.

2. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World: I first read this book when I was 11 or 12 and very sophisticated it seemed indeed. Now I read it as the simple satire it is, but still enjoy the vivid imagination Huxley invested in both his new world and the world of the Indian reservation. The questions it raises about what it mean to be human and how to constitute the good life remain relevant to us, and that buena vita must fall somewhere between the mindless, soulless ruthlessly conditioned consumer-hedonism of the new world and the tortured self-flagellation, sin and guilt of John the (Shakespeare-reading) Savage's world: maybe we would find that equilibrium on the island to which Bernard Marx is banished?

3.  William Wordsworth, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:" This very (deceptively) simple poem gave me great joy and solace last spring: Wordsworth fully communicated to me the joy he felt watching the thousands of daffodils, like a crowd of people, in front of a lake swaying in the breeze. The poem simply made me happy to read and reread.  More distant contenders that I enjoyed would include Byron's "She walks in Beauty like the Night" (what can be more simple than  she's-so-beautiful-with-her-long-black-hair-like-the-night-sky-and-eyes-like-stars, followed by a stanza in which the poet insists he knows by looking at her she ain't-no-ho, and finally Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," which captures solitude so well, and brought to mind all the nineteenth-century prints showing a single person in a solitary scene that my grandparents used to hang on their walls.

4. William Shakespeare, Macbeth: I never much liked this play before rereading it this past spring, but now have fallen under its spell. It used to seem to me only a very dark tragedy about the horrors of ambition, but suddenly it cracked open to me in all its multiple ironies: Lady Macbeth's conscience (not so different from a description I recently read of Hitler's night terrors) rears up as a timid but relentless being after all her bold words of smashing baby's brains out, and then the initially terrifying weird sisters are shown up as rank, fumbling amateurs in the witching biz by the truly terrifying Hecate, who is responsible for the final undoing of Macbeth: against her, Lady Macbeth is nada ... and on it goes. It was also a pleasure revisiting if not entirely rereading Othello, A Midsummer's Night Dream and dipping into sections of Julius Caesar ... not to mention Romeo and Juliet --  comic in its depictions of the histrionic impatience of lovelorn adolescence--and yet understanding of its seriousness too.

5. Audre Lorde, "The Uses of the Erotic:" I loved this essay that defined the erotic as the opposite of the pornographic and suggested we gain power for social movements as we build relationships with others based on a deep intimacy that can be sexual, but also and primarily, emotional/intellectual, and always authentic.

6. Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play:" I include this at the risk of sounding pretentious, but I did reread it this year for the first time in 30 years--and did have to read it twice to "get it"--but it held up and is really a stunning seminal piece. As with Uncle Tom's Cabin (see below), if people would just read this primary source, half the nonsense and hype about "deconstruction" would go away. We'd use terms like "kluge" instead of "bricolage"--and of course, none of this is as interesting as it was in times past as more of it has seeped (sort of) into the culture. But it was still exciting enough on revisit that I introduced it to my students last semester via Powerpoint: and some of them took cell phone shots of the slides.

7.  Virginia Woolf, "The Moth:" I read or reread several Woolf essays last year, but this minutely observed meditation on the life of 24-hour moth on her windowpane stuck with me. Beautifully described, and what seems to be my favorite word this year: astringent.

8.  Jane Austen, Persuasion: I reread all of Austen's major novels (I almost always catch most of them every year), except Sense and Sensibility in 2016. I found things to delight in all five I reread, but am choosing Persuasion because I hadn't reread it in several years and because I was so taken by the little vignette in which Anne comes across Admiral Croft staring at the painting of a ship in a shop window and critiquing it in a very literalist way for being painted out of proportion. It's these details that keep me returning to Austen.

9. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin: It's so underrated a novel and so often read through the false lens of post-Civil-War reconstructions that strip it of its savage irony, satire, dissection of human weaknesses, intelligent discussion of race and oppression, as well as the stunning moral courage of Uncle Tom, that one could scream. On top of all else, the "real" Uncle Tom is anything but an "Uncle Tom." It's far more than merely a novel of sentiment, though it's that too. Its reception since the Civil War is a case study in how to defang a threatening and subversive novel by distorting it out of all recognition. People need to read it, imho, if only to push back against how utterly it's been misrepresented by all those who "know" what it's about (except they don't). I also had a chance to dip into David Reynolds's (no relation of mine) Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, which discusses the novel's impact around the globe. Maybe in 2017, I'll actually read the entire Mightier than the Sword.

10. Anton Chekhov, "Gooseberries:" I was so taken with this story, though I can't say that I "like" it as a pleasure read, that I used it in class this fall. Much complexity and food for thought resides in this Chaucer-like story-within-a-story on the road.

I would have definitely included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on the list, but had to drop my reread halfway through. But I was stunned with what I read. It's extraordinary.  Runners-up also include George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm: I reread both, and they retain, more than ever, relevance to our times. Shaw's Pygmalion, a wicked satire and send-up of the class system with a satisfyingly unromantic ending, continues to satisfy, as does an old favorite, Thoreau's Walden chapter 2. Emerson's, "Self-reliance," which I reread for the first time perhaps since high school and is an eloquent argument for being true to yourself, impressed me with its enormous string of quotable statements. Naturally, I would add my own book, The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to the reread list.

On the other hand, as I revisited other books, I found they left me, some for reasons I can't pinpoint, with a feeling of distaste: To Kill A Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, Of Mice and Men. Whatever feeling of delight  "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" raised in me, these raised the opposite. And I am not denying that these are good books: perhaps their messages are too heavy handed.

I found myself feeling so-so about A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved as a middle schooler, Goodbye Mr. Chips, which moved me to tears in late elementary school, and Into the Wild and Nickel and Dimed.

Ten Best Books 2016

When I first began to try to untangle my reading for the year, with the idea of compiling my own first-ever "Ten Best" list, I despaired: it seemed impossible to unknot the huge pile I'd read that seemed like too many clothes sent tumbling through the dryer, especially as, more than ever this year, I revisited books going very far into my past and read more essays, poems, short stories and plays than I have for years. I also dropped reading more books than usual (though not many). And I recognize a year as an arbitrary unit: The ten best books of this particular twelve months may not be particularly great in the grand scheme of things, though many, I believe are.

(In my next post, I tackle the "ten best rereads" of 2016.) 

This list includes many books newly published but also older books that were new to me.

My "Ten Best Books of 2016:"

1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace: Remarkably, I had never read or seen a movie or mini-series version of this novel. I tried twice in high school to read it, drawn by the allure of "the greatest novel ever," but soon became so confused by who was who that I dropped it. This August, I began again, primarily because the Trollope list reading group was doing it, and with the idea in mind I would listen to most of it on CD in my car as I travelled back and forth from work. I read the first quarter of the novel at the beach and then did listen to the rest on tape--and watched the Andrew Davies miniseries, which I thought was quite good. I found the novel excellent: this time the names didn't throw me at all, and I had become, over many decades, a much different reader. I recognized almost immediately that  it's not a book you plow through for plot, as I was trying to do at 16 and 17, but a book you read slowly and savor for its many detours, vignettes and details: for example, Sophia and Natasha gathering where the nurse slept on a pallet thrown on a clothes chest in a hallway alcove of the Rostov's mansion or the detailed description of a hunt, complete with the fevered competitive psychology driving the characters. I also enjoyed very much Tolstoy's ironic take-down of warfare and the "great man" theory of history. Some of his theory of history did drag and his idealized Victorian praise of Natasha for turning into a fat, adoring breeding cow at the end gave me a new appreciation for the so-called evil Helene.

2. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping: People, including my friend Elaine Pigeon, kept recommending it to me. I put it off, fearful that a book published circa 1980 would read as dated without yet having the compensatory charm of a period piece. Finally, early this year, I took it on, and was delighted: it is a marvelous book that challenges in a whimsical way all our notions of what good homemaking is--and the writing was superb. I still feel cold, but enchanted, thinking of the some of icy--or icicly--scenes that sparkle so sharply, with such piercing splinters, an apt metaphor for the book itself in its merging of beauty and pain. On a lighter note, I now have trouble arguing that it's not a good idea to buy your nieces sparkly school shoes even in they do fall apart halfway through the school year. This book, in so many ways a fairytale, was a joy, even if it does promulgate the myth that people can go their own way alone without the torture of searing loneliness.

3. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice: I don't read much science fiction but after a failed attempt to read a somewhat cloying (anything cloying is almost always fatal for me) Octavia Butler 1980s sci-fi novel, I decided to see what else might be out there by women, especially of a more recent vintage. I found 2013's Ancillary Justice, advertised as the only novel ever to win the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. I took the bait, and while I am not much of a science fiction reader (though I greatly enjoyed the genre as a young teen), I found this an excellent book, both humane and, mercifully, astringent. The main character, Esk One, is what is left--the splinter left--of a spaceship, who is seeking justice against the person who destroyed the rest of her (or it). Esk doesn't fully understand gender, so tends to refer to all characters she meets and herself as she, and a big part of the delight of this book is that gender doesn't matter to Esk and hence not to us. The book starts in media res, so it takes awhile to grasp what is going on or the full extent of desolation, loss, oppression and ultimately deep humanity (ironically) of this android-like remnant of a vast machine. It's a book that has stuck with me, gotten under my skin.

4. Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: I read more biographies than usual this year, including, to name a few off the top of my head, of Kierkegaard, Martin Luther, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty MacDonald (author of The Egg and I) and found them widely varying in quality from terrible to too dry to too self indulgent to too pedestrian, but the Carter bio was a marvel, "just right" in every way. I hadn't known much of anything about Carter (despite her MSS being the subject of a special exhibit at the British Library when I was there in 2015) and somewhat dreaded reading this book when it fell across my lap. But the writing was superb and intelligent and provided the context of Carter's times while never bogging down in too much detail or talking down to the reader, and with ample focus on Carter's work. Gordon mercifully kept himself out of the story and painted a sympathetic but honest portrait of a woman whose opportunities came from the social democracy of post-war Britain, chiefly including the chance at a free university education. Carter's heart always stayed with the working classes. I fell in love with Carter, flaws and all, not the least because she developed, mellowed and grew as her life went on--and because she cared deeply about writing, people without privilege, and feminism. (Gordon likens her to Woolf in that sense.) I have since read two of Carter's stories in her anthology The Bloody Chamber, both of which exuberantly optimistic, woman-centered retellings of classic fairy tales, and I just have purchased two of her novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children: I hope I like them! 

5. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf: An essay on Woolf's activism during the Spanish Civil War and the influence on her of her Quaker aunt, found in an anthology, Quakers in Literature, in which I also have an essay, piqued my long-dormant interest in Woolf. I started on Lee as part of on-line group read--actually, it turned out in the end to be just my friend Ellen Moody and me-- and found it a superb biography that has me thirsting to read or reread all of Woolf--I am more impressed than ever with Woolf as a feminist, pacifist and a writer grappling with the problem of what standard narrative leaves out, especially of woman's experience, be it in biography, memoir or novel. Woolf approached novels less with a story to tell (though she had that) than a problem to solve: how to write of the many moments of silence or "non-being" in a woman's life, how to write like a painter, how to capture the many selves that comprise one person. Like Gordon's, this bio is intelligent and places Woolf in the context of her times. Really a superior read.

6. Tim Parks, A Literary Tour of Italy: Coincidentally, I read this collection of essays about the same time I had to teach a class on Dante's inferno: Parks on Dante is excellent. I didn't know much about Italian literature before this book but now know, if not a great deal, far more. Parks covers a wide range of figures from Boccaccio to Mussolini, including some visual artists, and offered me the first definition of fascist art that actually made sense. Parks is insightful, intelligent and has read widely in Italian literature: he does focus, however, almost exclusively on men.

7. Adam Zagajewski, Slight Exaggeration: Zagajewski is a Polish poet, and at first I had a hard time entering into these essays, which are in fact one long essay/memoir, fluid rather than divided into units, more like a Chinese than an American meal. All the ingredients are tossed together and flavor each other, and gradually create a whole. Zagajewski deals with art, loss, history, the profound sense of displacement he experienced as part of a Polish family sent shortly before his birth to colonize a section of Germany annexed for Poland by the Soviets. I found this book growing on me more and more as I read it, and found myself underlining statement after statement. Zagajewski is an unashamed intellectual, and if he name drops a bit much, that's OK: this book is filled with acute, intelligent and felt observations. I have read so many books this year largely filled with cliches or mostly (in reality) empty of ideas, that this rare, dense, rich work made a deeply satisfying dinner.

8. Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy: I am not Roman Catholic, and as a reviewer, I read many religion books. This one, which I didn't review, stood out from the year's (at best) mediocre collection. Francis is the antidote to Trump and a shining light in this world, a pure beacon of love, humility and mercy. His goodness shines out in this book, filled with selections from Francis's homilies and gentle, never judgmental dialogues with atheists and persons of other faiths. My heart was deeply moved by Francis's sincerity, love, and lack of ego. If more Christians behaved like this pope, the world would be transformed--and a Trump would never be elected president.

9. Charlotte Smith, The Old Manor House: I read this precursor to Jane Austen out loud to Roger this spring and summer during car trips. What a delightful book, filled with edge-of-the-seat plot turns and condemnations of war (when will war satires ever begin to end wars) as well as satire of the social cruelties built into hierarchies. The gentle Monimia, oppressed by her evil aunt, and even kept locked at night in a tower, is a prototype for Fanny Price in Austen's Mansfield Park. She and Orlando fall in love, he gets sent to fight in the American Revolution and following that many adventures, both comic, tragic and, most of all, surprising, occur before matters sort themselves out. The  nature writing is lovely, the plot very lively and unlike Austen, Smith's scope is broad, sweeping in warfare in America, servants and criminals into the fold. 

10. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: This mid-twentieth book is Bachelard's extended meditation on spaces in houses, how they function as archetypes, and the effects they have on us. It's an odd book to read 50-some years after its publication, written at the very end of life by a man born the same year (1882) as Virginia Woolf and filled with the obsessive mid-century fixation with Freud and phenomenology. It reads as a bit quaint, as we are no longer so Freud-fixated, and is quaint as well because Bachelard's world--such as going down into the basement with a candle as a child--is no longer our own. All the same, many of the archetypes resonate, it's a compelling book (is there a reason Mr. Woodhouse is so fascinated with curio cases of objects?) and I began to understand why I fell in love with the Little House series as a child. The house archetype is powerful, and I am surprised is not more written about.

Runners up: Gilles Deleuzes' Desert Islands and other Essays may have displaced The Poetics of Space, except that I jumped into the Deleuze here and there, reading what interested me rather than the whole set of essays. But what I read I enjoyed and thought about. I read Elena Ferrante's Days of Abandonment, about a woman with two school age children whose husband leaves her for a younger lover. It's a powerful book that stuck with me, unflinching, with the all-important astringency, never cloying, but somehow, I felt an emptiness at the center of it I couldn't shake. I think maybe it was the wrong book for me to start with, and I would better enjoy her more overtly "political" novels that deal with working class life. I am encouraged to read more of her. On a completely different note, because it's a completely different kind of book in temperament, I enjoyed Rebecca Smith's The Jane Austen Writer's Club, a book that derives writing advice and inspiration from Jane Austen's novels and letters. It was a sheer pleasure simply to read the many passages from Austen she quotes and to discover how much solid advice on good writing you can glean from Austen, supporting the idea that she carefully studied her craft. Finally, an anthology of short stories came out this year edited by Ross E. Lockhart, called The Eternal Frankenstein, all riffing one way or another off of the original novel. The quality of the writing (often by academics) is high and many of the stories quite interesting.