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 na├»ve 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.