Sunday, November 13, 2011

In Memoriam Dr. Donald Busarow

Today I had the great honor of sharing some words at the memorial service for a beloved mentor, teacher, friend, and musician, Dr. Busarow of Wittenberg University--or, as we knew him, Dr. B.  I have already received requests for a copy of my talk, so in the interest of sharing it with those of you who were a part of these choir experiences--and, of just as much importance, with those who weren't--I am posting here to my blog.  

First, though, I would like to thank Pastor Rachel Tune, Bob White, and the Busarow family for giving me the opportunity to participate in this way.  And I would also like to take a moment to thank Dr. B, who even in death is providing me a sense of guidance.  During the memorial service, I was struck with the impression that, in his life, Dr. B did what he was made to do.  He didn't shy from the task of passing his light on to others, but did it with dedication and energy for years and years.  This past Tuesday, I received word from my agent of two  more publishing houses that had rejected my first novel manuscript.  That same day, my phone rang, and it was Pastor Rachel asking me to prepare something for the memorial because, in her words, I am a writer.  What a great and timely reminder that when you feel you have something to offer--in my case, my writing--you must pursue it, no matter how difficult and demanding the journey might be.

So without further ado, I hope you will click on "Read More" to see my thoughts about the Wittenberg Choir experience under Dr. B as I lived it from 2002 to 2006.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Domestic Novel? Reflections on Arlington Park

This past week, I read Arlington Park, a novel by Rachel Cusk.  Cusk is obviously a talented writer, and her resume shows it: a Whitbread award and a shortlisting for Whitbread, the shortlist for the Orange Prize, and a citation from Granta as one of Britain's 20 best young writers.  While blurbs on book covers rarely reflect what's on the pages therein, in Arlington Park's case, the promised "incisive" quality that book reviewers heralded turned out to be true.  Unfortunately, despite all this, I just couldn't agree with the ends to which Cusk put her talent.

Arlington Park follows six women trapped in privileged suburban life.  The question of how to find fulfillment in suburban life crops up frequently in fiction, not the least in my own first novel.  But the difference between the perspectives of Cusk's women and of women in, say, Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls, is vast.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

And We're Back!

Well, that was certainly a longer hiatus than I anticipated, but while this blog was languishing, yours truly was relocating from Fairfax, Virginia, back to my native Ohio.  Husband Nat and I found a charming apartment in an old house, and we are at last happily settled in.  Or I should say, settled in enough that I can resume my daily habits of reading and writing.

But not all that space from July to now was void of literary pleasures.  In September, I had the great privilege of escorting Allegra Goodman around Fairfax.  Not only did she give a wonderful reading with Alan Cheuse, but she also proved to be as generous and kind in person as you might deduce from her books.  In preparation for her visit, I read Kaaterskill Falls, a finalist for the 1998 National Book Award, and found that I appreciated it more than her recent Cookbook Collector.  She read, however, from The Cookbook Collector, and the passage she delivered made me think again about the good amount of wit and observation behind that book.  (For more of my thoughts on Cookbook Collector and Goodman’s fiction, see my post of  April 5.)

Another highlight for me was reading Alan Bennett’s novella The Uncommon Reader in the midst of my moving mayhem, a perfect break from boxes and bubble wrap.  Talk about witty: the premise is that the queen of England discovers a love of reading, and Bennett doesn’t miss an opportunity to satirize society’s attitude towards books, nor to reveal the transformative power of reading.  Never have I seen the reasons for reading so clearly and so un-sentimentally presented.  The novella itself is just the right length: it tells its story economically, uncluttered by side characters or subplots—in short, it is a true novella, well-executed and deliciously fun to read for those who love to read anyway.  It’s a little like the recent movie Midnight in Paris in that catching allusions and references is more than half the fun of the book.  But for those who don’t love to read (how mysterious you wound up at my blog!), this novella is imperative—it just might inspire you to visit a local library.

Finally, I have been at work on drafting my second novel, albeit with interruptions.  Since I’ve been writing this one by hand (a topic for another post—stay tuned!), I decided my first real day of writing here in my new place—yesterday—should be a survey of what I have so far.  I typed up the pages I hadn’t yet typed and found to my happy surprise that I have 77 pages.  True, they’re not all brilliant; true, writing is ultimately about quality, not quantity; but my approach to writing is to first cough up the stone and worry about sculpting it later.  Yesterday was a blue-eyed, sun-kissed day, so I took my little manuscript to Schiller Park, and there, in the presence of the great German poet himself (okay, okay, just his statue), I read it.  The verdict?  Hey, it’s a first draft.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Cult of Perfection: Reflections on Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte
I am certainly not the first to observe that writing workshops can sterilize one’s writing.  People like to point to Kafka or Woolf or any number of unconventional writers and laugh at the thought of them showing up to a workshop with their manuscripts.  The poor workshop comes out, in these portrayals, as never able to appreciate the genius before them.

I couldn’t help but indulge in that same thought as I re-read Wuthering Heights (my last reading was my freshman year of college, roughly eight years ago).  What if Emily Bronte had brought this to a writing workshop?  Immediately, people would comment on how the bulky narratorial structure leads to some contrived conversations.  The first-person narrator, Mr. Lockwood, hears the tale of Wuthering Heights from long-time servant, Nelly Dean, whose own first-person narrative fills most of the book. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summer Reading

Sheldon Marsh, Huron, Ohio
Summer vacation, at my family’s cottage on Lake Erie, used to be the time when I would get the most reading done.  Out on the porch glider or down on the beach I’d sit with a book for hours, or any smaller stretch I got.  Things change.  Now, though still at Lake Erie, I have a husband and in-laws in town, and my own family includes two toddler nephews.  And, since most of the year I’m 400 miles away, visiting takes precedence and—maybe for the first time—I didn’t read a single page during this year’s vacation.

I sound nostalgic, no doubt.  But that’s a perfect segue into this week’s featured reading.  Through editing work that I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been reminded of two poems that I am always surprised I like so much.  But like them I do.  They are simple and straightforward—not the types of work I usually like best—but there is a quality in each of having named something exactly.  In an MFA world, you often hear teachers and writers talk about telling the truth in their work, and while that can quickly sound abstract and even a bit cliché, these poems are indeed reminders of the power of truth-telling in literature.

The first is Matsuo Basho’s 17th century haiku that goes

Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry
I long for Kyoto

I mentioned it to my husband recently, and he said, “Oh yeah, I know that feeling,” which seems to me a perfect explication.  Any more would muddy the point.

And the other poem is Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” which you can read here

I hope your summer reading is well and full, and next week I’ll be back on track with a post about Wuthering Heights.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Featured Passage

Henry James
This week's featured passage relates to Tuesday's discussion of Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind, but, unlike featured passages of other weeks, this one does not come directly from Tuesday's book.  Instead, this is a passage I couldn't stop thinking of when I was reading Absence of Mind.  It comes from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (a great book, by the way), from a chapter that details Henry James's reaction to World War I:

"[The quote] was from a letter [Henry James] wrote to Clare Sheridan, a friend whose husband--they were newly married--had gone to war and been killed.  'I am incapable of telling you not to repine and rebel,' he wrote, 'because I have so, to my cost, the imagination of all things, and because I am incapable of telling you not to feel.  Feel, feel, I say--feel for all you're worth, even if it half kills you, for that is the only way to live, especially to live at this terrible pressure, and the only way to honour and celebrate these admirable beings who are our pride and our inspiration.'  In letters to friends, again and again he urges them to feel.  Feeling would stir up empathy and would remind them that life was worth living."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Heady Discussion: Reflections on Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind

During the semester I taught English composition at the community college, I assigned my students a paper in which they wrote about how they did or did not fit an identity label of their choice.  One of my students wrote about his life as an atheist, and one of his points was that unlike religious people, he could view the world in a “clear, objective way.”  I can’t remember whether or not I succumbed to the temptation to pen “Oh really?” in the margin.

Brilliant novelist, intellectual, and woman of faith Marilynne Robinson dares, in Absence of Mind, to do the equivalent of penning “Oh really?” in the margin of Freud, Comte, Dawkins, and a host of other thinkers who have shaped modern conceptions of who we are and why we’re here.  Robinson calls attention to “parascience”—writings that claim to be objective and scientific yet are based on nonscientific and agenda-driven assumptions.  Even the widespread assumption that we have crossed a threshold point into “modern thought” and can therefore discount previous thinking as unenlightened and naïve is itself faulty and flies in the face of what human history has shown.  However, thought that claims to be modern is given (dangerously) special credence because of its claim to objectivity and its immediate dismissal of religious thought as primitive and conformist (when, in fact, Robinson points out these dismissers never attempt to represent or describe the intensely personal and individual experience of faith).

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Featured Passage from Cranford

Today's passage is a little longer than I usually choose, but I think you'll find it goes quickly.  Since Cranford is in the public domain, you can find the entire text online if you wish.  When Lady Glenmire comes to visit Mrs. Jamieson of Cranford, her presence causes quite a stir: the Cranford women are not used to keeping company with someone of such high rank.  Lady Glenmire turns out to be down to earth and unassuming--very much the opposite of what they expect.  The following passage comes from the first visit the Cranford women pay to Lady Glenmire.  Enjoy!

(To read the passage, click on "

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Refreshing Read: Reflections on Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell
After the first three chapters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which was first published serially from 1851-1853, I was having difficulty establishing a sense of plot, even though recurring references to certain characters and conflicts made me believe one was coming; I couldn’t discern who the first-person narrator was or the nature of her relationship to the town; and the principal actors of the first two chapters had died by the time I reached page 30. 

I am hesitant to call the form of the book flawed, even though this rough and scattered start, followed by an increasingly coalescing sense of focus on one character, Miss Matty, and finished with a last-ditch effort at a traditional sense of climax and resolution—all of this suggests a novel that can’t make up its mind as to what it is about.  And yet, when I had finished reading, I found Cranford completely refreshing, and when one can say so about a book, the urge towards analysis seems sadly academic.

Cranford paints a portrait of a small English town whose residents are predominantly female. Gaskell’s rendering of everyday life in the town is pure pleasure to read and provides the chief interest of the book, for while we see the outmoded fashions, the arbitrary conventions the women have developed and wouldn’t dare break, and the quaint understanding these same women share of society’s structure and workings, we see equally their good intentions, their past troubles and heartbreak, and the sacrifices they make to support one another.  In short, Gaskell manages to achieve satire with a heart; her first-person narrator, who frequently visits Cranford, speaks in terms of “we,” implicating herself as both a participant and representative of the community.  At the same time, this narrator lives in the more modernized town of Drumble, which gives her an eye for seeing how quaintly endearing and even laughably backwards some of the Cranfordians’ behavior and ideas are.

While the fabric of everyday life in this outmoded and unconventional town is the chief interest of the book, our focal point in the community is Miss Matty, an elderly woman of Cranford whose good intentions and real kindness makes us forgive her shortcomings and her ineptness.  As I mentioned, the book becomes increasingly like a novel with its introduction of a major conflict: Miss Matty loses her entire income and livelihood when the bank that houses her assets fails.  Forgive me for not having qualms over giving you such a “plot spoiler,” but I truly believe that if you read the book you will see I have spoiled nothing; I repeat, it is the sense of life with all its follies and foibles that makes the book worth reading.

What compels me, above all, to name this book as refreshing to read is its unabashed sentimentality.  Today, unless you’re a screenwriter for Lifetime or the author of books like A Walk to Remember, writers avoid sentimentality at all costs.  And for good reason: I’m the first to gag at such saccharine simplification of intellect and emotion.  But what Gaskell pulls off is a sort of honest sentimentality, an upholding of what is good and simple and pure while simultaneously tempering it with ever-so-subtle realism of encroaching modernity, of the impracticality of living such a sheltered life as the Cranfordians live, and of the selfishness (far removed as it is from the novel itself) that makes a supportive community like Cranford an unreal anomaly.

Most relevant to me as a writer embarking on my second novel is a reminder that a novel doesn’t have to conform to expectations (okay, well, maybe to sell it does, but we can be as idealistic as Cranford for just a moment).  As I read, I found myself thinking of how quick we are to exalt Virginia Woolf for creating the feminine sentence and approaching an arguably feminine form of novel with Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, yet Cranford seems to me to have a prior claim.  True, Gaskell is not the stylist that Woolf is, nor is Cranford the masterpiece that Woolf’s novels are.  But what Gaskell does with her content, with her masterful yet gentle satire, and with a form that privileges small concerns and domestic anecdote over traditional plot structures seems every bit as deserving of our admiration and attention when it comes to naming authors who push convention.

Stay tuned for Thursday’s post when I’ll feature a passage from Cranford—you won’t want to miss it, and perhaps more than any of my previous featured passages, this one will capture in brief the spirit of the entire book whence it comes.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Featured Passage, The Season of Second Chances

The following passage comes late in Diane Meier's The Season of Second Chances and is spoken by a colleague of Joy, the narrator.  Given Meier's opinions in her Huffington Post article, I think this passage from her book is about as near a relative of the 19th century authorial aside as contemporary fiction will allow.  Enjoy!

"Men say that style is frivolous--clothes are frivolous, that homes are frivolous, hair styles and gossip and entertaining are frivolous--but most men tend to live one-dimensional lives unless they have wives who take care of the homes and the clothes and the entertaining for them.  Their wives bring a level of humanity to them.  They bring drama and detail and style into their lives.  Haven't you ever noticed that when a wife dies, a man either remarries--right away--or he dies himself; while women go on as widows for decades.  That's how frivolous these things are, Joy.  This thing we call style--this is the texture of the world."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Women Against Chick Lit: Diane Meier and The Season of Second Chances

“Chick Lit,” writes Diane Meier in a Huffington Post article, “has been used to denigrate a large swath of novels about contemporary life that happen to be written by women.”  As you might guess from the article’s title, “Chick Lit?  Women’s Literature?  Why Not Just...Literature?”, Meier is frustrated—and more than frustrated, she raises the valid question of what it means for our society if books about contemporary domestic life must contain violence or other trauma in order to be taken seriously.

You know Chick Lit when you see it.  The cover is pastel or pink and more often than not contains a martini glass and/or cartoon sketch of a chic woman.  The problem arises when books not intended as “beach reading” end up being marketed in this way.  In other words, you think you’re seeing Chick Lit when you pick up the book, but those who honestly wanted the beach reading will be disappointed, and those who are after substance won’t want to be seen with it.  Such is the scenario Meier describes—and rightly so, as far as I know.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Featured Passage, Sven Birkerts on Contemplation

If you read Tuesday's post on aborted books, you might remember I mentioned Sven Birkerts's ideas on contemplation.  Here is a very smart, and very true, paragraph from his article "Reading in a Digital Age," which appeared in the American Scholar.  Enjoy, especially his concluding sentence!

  "Reading the Atlantic cover story by NicholasCarr on the effect of Google (and online behavior in general), I find myself especially fixated on the idea that contemplative thought is endangered. This starts me wondering about the difference between contemplative and analytic thought. The former is intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself; the latter is transitive, is goal directed. According to the logic of transitive thought, information is a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation. In that thought-world it’s clearly desirable to have a powerful machine that can gather and sort material in order to isolate the needed facts. But in the other, the contemplative thought-world—where reflection is itself the end, a means of testing and refining the relation to the world, a way of pursuing connection toward more affectively satisfying kinds of illumination, or insight—information is nothing without its contexts. I come to think that contemplation and analysis are not merely two kinds of thinking: they are opposed kinds of thinking. Then I realize that the Internet and the novel are opposites as well."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Aborted Books

This past week, I stopped reading two books.  Since identity is often determined as much by dislikes as by likes, it seems worthwhile to consider these aborted books.

You’ll remember that a couple weeks back I read Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge.  I thought I would complete the set and read Mr. Bridge, published 10 years later.  Like Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge is composed of short chapters with witty titles, and, like Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge is plotless as far as I could tell.  I read 170 pages of an edition with 367 pages total, 46% of the book.  This was enough to tell me that in its overall aim, Mr. Bridge seems very much like Mrs. Bridge, except for the difference that Mr. Bridge’s life is a little more public and exterior than Mrs. Bridge’s—after all, he’s the one who makes money and makes decisions.  Perhaps this explains the increased amount of dialogue in Mr. Bridge, which is not as strong a suit for Connell as his ability to narrate slightly odd yet wholly lifelike scenarios, the technique that dominates Mrs. Bridge.  Still, because he is more in the public arena and yet like his wife in many ways, Mr. Bridge comes across as bigoted when he takes those limitations into the public sphere rather than burying them in the private sphere, as Mrs. Bridge does.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Featured Passage, Light in August

In this scene, Joe Christmas, an 18 year-old, has returned to a restaurant to see again a waitress he saw once before.  Enjoy!

He believed that he could not leave now; that if he tried to go out, the blonde woman would stop him.  He believed that the men at the back knew this and were laughing at him.  So he sat quite still on the stool, looking down, the dime clutched in his palm.  He did not see the waitress until the two overlarge hands appeared upon the counter opposite him and into sight.  He could see the figured pattern of her dress and the bib of an apron and the two bigknuckled hands lying on the edge of the counter as completely immobile as if they were something she had fetched in from the kitchen.  "Coffee and pie," he said.

Her voice sounded downcast, quite empty.  "Lemon cocoanut chocolate."

In proportion to the height from which her voice came, the hands could not be her hands at all.  "Yes," Joe said.

The hands did not move.  The voice did not move. "Lemon cocoanut chocolate.  Which kind."  To the others they must have looked quite strange.  Facing one another across the dark, stained, greasecrusted and frictionsmooth counter, they must have looked a little like they were praying: the youth countryfaced, in clean and spartan clothing, with an awkwardness which invested him with a quality unworldly and innocent; and the woman opposite him, downcast, still, waiting, who because of her smallness partook likewise of that quality of his, of something beyond flesh. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Faulkner the Acrobat: Reflections on Light in August

One of the most useful graduate courses I took was called “Structure of the Novel.”  So often, studying writing has to do not with learning something new but with heightening a conscious awareness of something you have previously registered only naturally and vaguely.  “Structure of the Novel” was one such awareness-heightening course, and it comes to mind today because I have just finished reading a book with nearly unparalleled structural acrobatics: Faulkner’s Light in August.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Featured Passage, Mrs. Bridge

This may not be Connell's most powerful passage, but I couldn't resist.  From Chapter 61 "Parking":

 "The elegant Lincoln her husband had given her for her birthday was altogether too long, and she drove it as prudently as she might have driven a locomotive.  People were always sounding their horns at her, or turning their heads to stare when she coasted by.  Because the Lincoln had been set to idle too slowly, the engine frequently died when she pulled up at an intersection, but as her husband never used the Lincoln and she herself assumed it was just one of those things about automobiles, the idling speed was never adjusted.  Often she would delay a line of cars while she pressed the starter button either too long or not long enough.  Knowing she was not expert she was always quite apologetic when something unfortunate happened, and did her best to keep out of everyone's way.  She shifted into second gear at the beginning of every hill and let herself down the far side much more slowly than necessary.
The Lincoln's cushions were so soft and Mrs. Bridge so short that she was obliged to sit erect in order to see whatever was going on ahead of her.  She drove with arms thrust forward and gloved hands firmly on the wheel, her feet just able to depress the pedals.  She never had serious accidents, but was often seen here and there being talked to by patrolmen.  These patrolmen never did anything, partly because they saw immediately that it would not do to arrest her, and partly because they could tell she was trying to do everything the way it should be done."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Perplexing Mrs. Bridge

My graduate writing professors Alan Cheuse and Susan Shreve first made me aware of Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell.  In fact, they recommended it so highly, I bought a copy that loitered on my bookshelf from 2008 until two weeks ago when I finally decided it was time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Featured Text, A Poem by George Matheson

It is not news that our society likes to erase death.  Erasures are everywhere, down to our very wedding vows that shy from saying “til death do us part.”

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me that she’d learned a mechanism for coping with death: every morning upon awaking, she was supposed to remind herself that she would die and that that was okay.  I nodded thoughtfully at her, but it almost immediately occurred to me that this was not a revolutionary technique and that, in fact, I had been doing this week in and week out since I was old enough to profess Christian faith.

One of the great benefits of church-going is that we regularly think about death—famous Biblical deaths (foremost among them Christ’s own), the deaths of those who have gone before, and, valuably, our own.  We proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again; we equally proclaim our own.  And it is more than just okay—it is with the promise of ultimate fulfillment that we die.

I certainly don’t claim to speak for all Christian churches, but in my experience of mainstream denominational worship, I can say that this proclaiming of our own deaths occurs most frequently in the hymns we sing.  To be sure, scripture provides the fundamental understanding of death, but it is the hymns that allow us to actively affirm it week in and week out.

Today is Maundy Thursday.  Technically, we are celebrating the last supper and Christ’s commandment (maundatum=command) that we love one another as he has loved us.  But beautiful as this commandment is, our celebration has a somber tone, for we know what lies ahead on Good Friday.  Our hymns in the next couple of days turn specifically to Christ’s death: “O sacred head now wounded”; “Alas and did my savior bleed”; “Ah, Holy Jesus.” 

But lately I’ve been haunted by a specific erasure that, to my mind, is absolutely pertinent to Holy Week.  The hymn “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” no longer appears in the most recent edition of the Lutheran hymnal, though it was there as recently as the previous edition (the green hymnal, for those of you Lutherans).  As you’ll see, it not only offers a profound vision of our own deaths, but it is, in fact, a poem with its own literary integrity.  Watch for the penultimate line of the hymn where the choice of “red” comes as an absolutely perfect—and breathtaking—image.  Enjoy!

O Love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
That in thine ocean’s depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way
I yield me flick’ring torch to thee
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain
I cannot close my heart to thee
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head
I dare not ask to fly from thee
I lay in dust life’s glory dead
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Men with Mirrors: The Problem of Emphasis

When I mentioned to an acquaintance of mine that I was reading Madame Bovary, he immediately raised eyebrows, accusing it of being a racy book.  Come to find out, he hadn’t read the book; neither was he basing his impression on the famous obscenity trial of 1857, but instead on a movie version he had seen years ago.  If you’ve read Madame Bovary, you’ll see (as many of Flaubert’s contemporaries failed to see) that sex is beside the point; instead, it’s a tool—among others more outstanding—that Flaubert uses to make a thematic point.  Many point to ennui as a great theme in Madame Bovary.  You might also take away thematic ideas on the danger of allowing disillusion to take over when life fails to live up to a person’s ideal vision of it.  You can see how these themes are far richer and far more needing illumination than mere sex.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Featured Passage, Madame Bovary

Flaubert's writing is beautiful, to say the least, but this week's featured passage was an easy choice.

"Emma was like all his mistresses; and the charm of novelty gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, that has always the same forms and the same language.  He did not distinguish, this man of so much experience, the difference of sentiment beneath the sameness of expression.  Because lips libertine and venal had murmured such words to him, he believed but little in the candor of hers; exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fulness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Crafty Flaubert: Reflections on Madame Bovary

“Generally,” writes Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction, “a novelist retains his liberty to draw upon any of his resources as he chooses, now this one and now that, using drama where drama gives him all he needs, using pictorial description where the turn of the story demands it.”  Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, from a craft perspective, is a study in how to expertly use these two methods and expertly shift between them.

It is more than that, of course.  For one, it is a quiet, wry satire in which Flaubert pulls off commenting on characters who nonetheless have a certain dignity.  He strikes this balance by making the blame for foolishness lie not on the character herself, but on her circumstances and surroundings.  Emma doesn’t choose to build the lofty, sentimental, and romantic thoughts that will ultimately be her downfall, but the books she reads during her convent education are placed in her hands without any guidance as to how to balance the real and the ideal.  The book is also a vividly painted portrait of provincial life—a picture so life-like that descriptions never feel laborious.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Featured Passage, The Cookbook Collector

As I said in Tueday's post, Goodman's The Cookbook Collector is primarily character driven.  So today, I thought I might feature a passage that describes my favorite character from the book, George.  Enjoy!

"He was attractive and he knew it, but he pretended he had no idea.  Therefore he was both vain and disingenuous.  Tall, or so he seemed to Jess, he looked Italian with his dark skin and dark eyes.  Very old--again, from Jess's point of view--where anyone past thirty harked back to another era altogether.  Despite his years, George had a powerful body, a broad chest, a face of light and shade, a glint of humor even in his frown.  When he wasn't lobbing his sarcastic comments, he seemed scholarly and peaceful, like a Renaissance St. Jerome at work in his cave of books.  All he needed was a skull on his desk and a lion at his sandaled feet.  He wore T-shirts, jeans, rimless reading glasses, sometimes tweed jackets.  He had the deep didactic voice of a man who had smoked for years and then suddenly quit and now hated smokers everywhere.  He never watched television, and he never tired of telling people so.  But the most pretentious thing about him was his long hair.  With his chestnut locks threaded gray, he was a fly caught in amber, the product and exemplar of a lost world."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Contemporary Contemplations: Reflections on The Cookbook Collector

You know those “I’d rather be ___” bumper stickers, like I’d rather be fishing, or I’d rather be driving a golf ball?  Mine would say, “I’d rather be reading a 19th century work.” 

This is not to say that I wish I’d lived then or that I ever plan to write historical fiction (actually, I agree with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh that I do distrust an author who cannot see the nobleness in his own time and therefore must turn to other eras for material).  But insofar as reading goes, I have to make myself take a break from the 19th century to keep abreast of contemporary literature.  For me, reading contemporary lit. is like having lunch with a friendly acquaintance but an acquaintance with whom I know I will never quite share the perfect naturalness of a best friend.

Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector proved one such reading experience.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Featured Passage, Eugenie Grandet

I have been debating between two passages out of Eugenie Grandet to feature today, and I decided that since many of my readers may not have had any Balzac in their lives to this point, I would give both passages.  Together, they reflect in miniature the book as a whole.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Among the Grandest of Them All: Reflections on Balzac's Eugenie Grandet

I have never forced myself to write a top 10 list of all-time favorite books.  But if I had one, it would look different today: something would have to give way for Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Featured Passage, Far From the Madding Crowd

Thanks to all who are following this blog!  In the future, I plan to post new reflections on Tuesdays and a featured passage from that book on Thursday.  But before we get too far from Hardy, here's a passage I loved from Far From the Madding Crowd.  There is a plot spoiler, but it occurs 30 pages into the book, so I don't think you lose too much suspense by reading this.

Farmer Oak makes his living as a shepherd and has a good flock going when his inexperienced and over-zealous sheep dog drives the flock off a cliff, leaving Oak a destitute man.  Now the passage; enjoy!

"[The dog] had done his work so thoroughly that he was considered too good a workman to live, and was in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o'clock that same day--another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Mantle of Hardy: Reflections on Far From the Madding Crowd

“The material world is so uninteresting, human life is so miserably bounded, circumscribed, cabin’d, cribb’d, confined.  I want another domain for the imagination to expatiate in.” –Thomas Hardy

On best-selling Allegra Goodman’s recent novel The Cookbook Collector, the following blurb appears: “If any contemporary author deserves to wear the mantle of Jane Austen, it’s Goodman.”  Though I love Austen, I find myself wishing that someday I might be blurbed as deserving to wear the mantle of Thomas Hardy.  I formed this wish after recently finishing Far From the Madding Crowd and then reading what literary critic John Paterson had to say about Hardy’s philosophy of the novel in Paterson’s book The Novel as Faith: The Gospel According to James, Hardy, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf.
I was 14 when I first read Far From the Madding Crowd, and although it would be some years before I had the critical language to articulate what I loved about Hardy, I would have told you that a Hardy novel has a completely different—and entirely pleasing—sensibility from any other novel.  You know when you are reading Hardy.

Now I can name that sensibility—it is the sensibility of substance and truth over style and subjective psychology, of poetry and philosophy over representation and science.  Of course, his novels are also composed of the elements he is famous for: bringing classical tragedy into novel form, and with it, a strong sense of fatalism; also his rendering of a rural, agrarian England on the cusp of industrial revolution.

I am a product of George Mason University’s MFA program—a program which I loved and which exceeded my very high expectations.  But I felt a strong emphasis on psychological representation in the vein of Faulkner and Joyce and on ridding the text of exposition, favoring scene (more on this later).  Contemporary literati tend to distrust any author with abstractionist tendencies; in other words, an author had better not have a prevailing philosophy, and if he/she does, she must be very careful not to let it interfere or impose itself in any way on her characters. 

No wonder Hardy is so refreshing.  Though his characters have enough integrity to stand on their own and hold interest, the examination of a particular character’s thoughts is never allowed to overwhelm the forward, fated movement of the plot.  Leading lady Bathsheba Everdene—a character who certainly holds individual interest in her unconventional and courageous ownership of her own farm—becomes entangled in Hardy’s ingenious imbroglio of three suitors, each of which, though somewhat a type, has, too, his individual qualities.  We understand the characters’ motivations, and yet individual motivation is not the emphasis as it has been in so much literature since Hardy.  Instead, Hardy’s philosophy of a beautiful and natural universe fixed beyond the whims of individual agency prevails. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour

John Milton set out to write an epic. And, based on the unapologetic way he went about pursuing his goal, he probably suspected that he was going to write the epic to end all epics, which he did with “Paradise Lost.”

Wait!, the literarily inclined of you readers are yelling, Milton isn’t Elizabethan; he was born five years after Queen E died! True. But as far as this blog is concerned, Elizabethan refers only to me, Elizabeth Eshelman, and my opinions, not the fecund time of Shakespeare and Jonson.

So here was Milton, a young man determined to write a great epic. How should he begin? By devoting six years to intensive reading, of course. According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature (if you don’t own it, start your Christmas list), his reading included “ancient and modern theology, philosophy, history, science, politics, and literature.”

So, what do I—and more specifically, this blog—have to do with ambitious Milton? Well, I’m not setting out to write an epic, but I am setting out to be a novelist. My first novel manuscript is currently out with agents (cross your fingers!), and I’m ready to start in on novel #2. I have the premise; I have the characters; I have a structure in mind. But in these early stages, I found myself thinking of Milton’s reading program, and thinking, too, that I have enough faith in my intellect to assume if I put good things in, good things will come out.

To that end, I decided on five books I had to read before beginning my novel. Already the schedule has changed: I was recently seized with the need for a Hardy fix and picked up Far from the Madding Crowd (not one of the five planned); I polished off Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction and knew I had to read Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet ASAP; and to top it all off, I couldn’t keep myself from writing the first pages of novel #2.

Still, I’m off and running, and I hope you’ll join me as I post reflections on the books I have selected specifically as fuel for novel 2. At the least, you may find a title or two you want to try; better yet, you’ll get a glimpse of how to “read like a writer,” which seems to be a popular thing these days. Just ask Francine Prose.

And one last, very important note about Milton. Milton could undertake his six year reading plan because his father supported him financially. Similarly, I could not be doing this without the munificence of my husband, Nat, who buys with his 9-6 desk job my intellectual freedom.