acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Month: June, 2013

Review: The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I put this novel on my “to-read” list after I read the story about Messud attacking a reporting for saying that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, the main character of The Woman Upstairs. I was excited about Messud being angry about being asked a question that she didn’t think anyone would ever ask a male novelist, and figured that even if the book was bad, she deserved the extra purchases that her public frustration got her.

I stand behind the decision and Messud’s justified anger, but unfortunately, I didn’t love The Woman Upstairs as much as I had hoped. Though it has absolutely nothing to do with Nora’s anger, or my unwillingness to be her friend. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I am already her friend, or that I am her. After all, Messud begins with promise and enticement by having Nora suggest that, in fact, ALL women are angry and fed up at being, basically, servants to others. Unfortunately, Nora never really shows her anger, only talks about it. And since the entire novel is about everything that leads up to the episode that unleashes this fury, she doesn’t even do a lot in the way of being a sarcastic or scathing narrator, because in order for us to understand her anger, we must walk alongside Nora while she is in the height of her infatuation with her friend Sirena and her family, thereby spending most of the time with a character who is fueled by obsession and self-doubt, not anger.

All in all, the novel felt (like so many contemporary novels, it seems to me) slight. There was a lot of promise and only a little delivery. For me, it felt like a great idea for a short story that was stretched out too long, or a great beginning to a novel that got cut off too soon. Although there is some payoff near the end, the actual ending felt incredibly abrupt, like it should have just been the start of the rest of the novel. All this said, I did like it for Messud’s interesting commentary on the artist’s life, and whether or not one has to be ruthless to be one. Perhaps, in that sense, the ending is appropriate, since it leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not Nora is actually angry enough now to be able to explore her art to its fullest.

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To Read, or to Re-Read

I would venture to guess that I am not the only person who is often torn between reading something new and re-reading something loved.

And yet, I rarely re-read books unless it’s a professional obligation to do so. When I was in graduate school and teaching, I re-read a number of my favorite novels — Jane Eyre, Bleak House, Dracula, The Moonstone, Never Let Me Go, Atonement, Beloved — because I took multiple classes using those books, or I was writing a dissertation chapter about them, or I was teaching them. Although this has its hazards — for instance, sometimes I think I’ve memorized Dracula and will never be able to look at its pages again from sheer overexposure (even though, deep down, I know I would read it again) — the nice thing is that you become very intimate with that novel, and you get to see it from multiple perspectives. Most importantly, you have an “excuse” to re-read it.

Why would you need an excuse to re-read a novel? Why, because there are SO MANY MORE NOVELS TO READ, of course! If you take time to re-read a novel, you are missing out on time you could use reading a new one.

I’m thinking about this right now partly because I am working on an article about bibliomaniacs, those who obsessively collect books. I would never truly refer to myself as a bibliomaniac — if I’m being honest, I can’t say I’m really that obsessive — but I do greatly enjoy accumulating books, both in the sense of collecting the physical book and in the less literal sense of reading as many books as I can. Currently my bookshelves are completely filled and I just pile my new acquisitions on the floor. This is not a big problem, but it would be nice to have a better location for my as-yet-unread books. In any case, I can’t seem to stop buying books, and I certainly can’t read them fast enough to keep up with my buying habit. I know many people buy more books than I do, but I feel I have a moderate book-buying habit.

A few months ago, I told my husband that I was going to stop buying new books until I caught up on reading the pile of unread books I have. I broke that promise yesterday when I went to the bookstore to pick up a new release that was on sale. But until that, I had been pretty good with my resolution and had been making progress with my pile. (So now I have two piles, unread and read, because I still don’t have any room on my bookshelves.)

So my book-buying compulsion is one problem. The other is the knowledge that I’ll never read all the books I want to read. If I were sane, that would make me just feel comfortable re-reading whatever was pleasurable. But instead it makes me want to get as close as I can to reading everything. My Goodreads account feeds into this. Until I joined Goodreads, I had never heard of a book challenge. But now that I’m aware that people sometimes challenge themselves to read, like, 100 books in a year, the pressure is even greater. Even though I know they must be reading short, easy reads, like mysteries and YA novels and chick lit, and they probably don’t remember anything they’ve read, I’m baffled and awestruck by these goals. How do you read 100 books in a year? How is it even physically possible? You would only be able to take 3-4 days on average to read every book, and never take a break!

Despite my desire to read many books, my own Goodreads stats reveal that I am actually a very slow reader and I don’t read as many books as I think I do. Since finishing my PhD (so this doesn’t include the years I spent reading a book a week, as it was essentially my “job” to do that), the most books I’ve ever read in a year was 14. (The largest number of pages was 5690 over the course of 13 books. Though I just looked closer and realized one of those books was The Forsyte Saga, which is really three novels, so technically I could say the most books I’ve read in a year was 16. LIKE IT MATTERS.)

Anyway, all this completely imaginary pressure, compulsion, and competition makes it hard for me to justify re-reading anything, even though I know I would probably enjoy doing so. Isn’t that silly? 

For the record, here, in no particular order, are 5 books I have never re-read but would like to if I can manage to justify it to myself:

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark (This book took me the whole summer to read the first time! But my husband and I were both asking ourselves recently why we bother reading new books instead of just reading this one again.)
  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt (Possession is also amazing, of course, but there’s something about The Children’s Book — I think about this book all the time)
  • Oscar and Lucinda (my friends are so tired of hearing about how much I love this book)
  • Alias Grace (Recently I saw a film that featured a quotation from this book, and I was struck with a longing to revisit the intense world Atwood creates in it. What a great writer she is! And yet, it’s been so long since I’ve read one of her books, other than The Handmaid’s Tale, which — you guessed it — I used to teach. A lot.)
  • The Scarlet Letter (Is this one weird? It’s just that I read it back in high school–or maybe even middle school?–when I couldn’t have possibly understood it completely, and before I became interested in19th century writing.)

What about you? Do you ever re-read a novel of your own volition (not out of professional obligation)? If not, why not? If so, what novel, and why?

Review: Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am surprised by the many positive goodreads reviews of this novel. I thought it was awful, really awful. I read a sentence aloud to my husband at one point and he said, “Was this written by a 16 year-old girl?” And I have to admit, I might have been able to write this when I was 16, if I had applied myself to the task.

It’s not even that the plot is “over the top,” because believe me, I’ve read over the top. If someone reading this review is interested in a gothic novel that’s poorly written, began most of the cliches that are included here, and is truly over the top, you should try Matthew Lewis’s The Monk or the totally insane Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre. Honestly, Jamaica Inn is not even really as over the top as Wuthering Heights, which it seems to be riffing on. The prose here reads like a romance novel, at least as far as I can tell, since I don’t usually read romance novels. And everyone calls each other by both their first and last names, *every time* they address each other. What’s up with that.

Jamaica Inn has a pretty conventional and very predictable gothic plot, with obvious characterizations. Plus it’s just logically flawed from the start: it’s nice that Mary is a fairly independent heroine, but it doesn’t make any sense at all why she would stay so long at Jamaica Inn. Because of her aunt, who she met *one time* before? Maybe I’m just hard-hearted, but I’m pretty sure someone so smart and independent would have taken one look at the place and been out of there.

So why two stars instead of one? Well, I did enjoy the beginning, when Mary is arriving in a coach on a rainy night, because it reminded me of Dracula (yet another superior gothic novel). I had high hopes, given the opening. I enjoyed the description of the moors, and the one time she went into town, things seemed like they *could* get a little interesting (but they didn’t). For these moments, I generously granted an extra star.

The only reason I finished this one is because I want to see the Hitchcock movie and see what changes he made.

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The Efforts of Writing

Before this post begins in earnest, I have two random observations:

  • I knew I wanted to write a blog post today, so this morning I was mulling over possible topics. I have a memory of being in the shower and composing in my head a blog post involving a crucial digression about the French feminists and l’ecriture feminine. Now, twelve hours later, I have no idea why I felt the need at 8am to defend the French feminists (though I have for years thought they are generally misunderstood).
  • My cat had to go to the vet yesterday and has seemed exhausted and a little defeated ever since, so I’ve been trying to be extra nice to her. So even though I really wanted to write tonight, when she climbed on my lap I felt like I couldn’t refuse her. Now I’m writing this with the laptop balanced on the edge of the couch at about a 45 degree angle–with me leaning over to the left in order to type–because I can’t put the computer on my lap while my cat is there. The things  we do for love.

Although I thought the above would be random observations, now that I have written them, I realize they are both telling reflections on the efforts of writing, some of which involve the tragicomic frustration of a lost idea, some of which involve the sheer physical effort (which is really a mental effort of course) of sitting down at the keyboard and writing something other than a facebook status update.

It is not news that writing takes a great deal of effort, but it’s something that bears repeating, I think.

Today I was developing a workshop for advanced students who have taken on summer-long, self-directed research projects, all of which will require some kind of written product. The takeaway of my workshop, though I am not saying this explicitly of course, is: you need to write more. And sooner, And more often. I mean really, what other advice is there? I am reminded of a student I had a few years ago; I was trying to give him some feedback on additional research he needed to do and more he needed to add to the paper he was writing. He was with me for a while, but at a certain point, he turned to me in disbelief and said, “Writing a research paper is so time-consuming!” Truer words were never spoken. This was a revelation to him, and not a welcome one.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a real writing project. This summer, I have a goal for a work-related article, but while this is a good goal, I also want to have a personal writing project as well. I have a funny hang-up about starting a writing project, which is this: at any given moment, I have several half-baked ideas for writing projects, but I often do not follow through on them because choosing one to develop means not choosing the others. (The loss of an idea.) But also, they are all ideas for long projects, and I am fearful of the time and energy I need to put into them to make them successful. (The sheer physical effort, which is really a mental effort.)

One of the benefits of not having a tenure-track job is that I don’t have the pressure to publish anything, so I can write anything I want at any time I want. And this lack of restriction has allowed me to write some really fun things, like my article for Bitch magazine or the series for the academic blog about the history of drugs. But it also means, of course, that I need to motivate myself, because no one and nothing else is pushing me, and self-motivation is difficult for almost everyone. As much as I genuinely do enjoy writing, almost anything else is easier, so I might as well do those other things. It also turns out–this is no surprise to anyone who knows me personally–I find too much choice to be debilitating. So not having a defined project means inertia.

What I know I need to do is follow the advice of the great Anne Lamott and take it “bird by bird.” Easier said than done. But maybe writing about my reluctance will help.

Review: The True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly GangTrue History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautiful book. Peter Carey’s incredible style and imagery comes across even as he takes on the voice of Ned Kelly. In fact, the novel slowly becomes more and more about Kelly’s voice, his determination to have it heard despite suppression from the media and government, and eventually even his tender devotion to the writing of his own story. Once again, Carey blows me away with the ending of his novel — perhaps not the very final image, which is to be expected, but the conflict late in the novel between Ned Kelly and the schoolteacher that makes Kelly’s simultaneous hatred for educational authority and his desire to be recognized as intelligent rise to the surface. Just a powerful, beautiful book from start to finish.

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