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Truth and Fiction

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I guest taught a class earlier this week, one that the prof had titled “knowing the world through narrative.” I had mentioned in a conversation about my admin job that one of the things I miss about teaching is the opportunity to talk about books and the craft of writing and reading them on a regular basis. So there I was on Thursday, parachuted into a class of 100 students, with a plan to march them through literary analysis. I chose a few pages from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Are you my mother?, which is a memoir (though she terms it a comic drama) weaving psychoanalysis, Virginia Woolf, and Bechdel’s relationship with her mom into a pretty interesting text.

What I initially found so compelling about Bechdel’s book was her response to her mom at a point when her mom is asserting that there is no room for the individual, the personal, the specific in good literature. Bechdel says: but don’t you think that if you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life that you can transcend your individual self? I thought that was spot on and beautifully put. Here, Bechdel shows you how hard it is to write about yourself and what you can hope to gain by it. It makes her project sound like self-ethnography, which fit in with what this class I was working with has been up to this semester.

The other notion I wanted to cover with the students, who had just been working with data collection and other quantifiable source material, was the notion of Truth vs. Facts. We can, if we choose, collect facts about a work of writing and these facts can bring us to a certain understanding of the work and influence our relationship to it. But good fiction is greater than the sum of its parts and, as Stephen King, Tennessee Williams and a hundred other writers have said–good fiction is the truth inside the lies they write. I wanted these students, most of whom would have had high school English classes that left them more or less cold and uninspired, to take the notion of reading literature seriously. So we talked a bit a about metaphor and symbolism (the apple I’m eating at lunchtime = the apple in Eden, for example) and get back to Bechdel and her notion of writing minutely and rigorously about her life as something that could become transcendent.

I thought it was awesome. And so good to talk about again. Ad as I write about it two days later, I may come to the conclusion that I am a better lecturer than I am a writer. My riff on my apple and Eve’s apple was pretty nice, I thought, and impossible to recapture now.

The other great thing about working with a graphic novel for this was the ability of that medium to visually display the layers of a text. Word bubbles, blocked off text that provides context/narration, and images of passages from other books (Woolf, Winnicot) that show the intertextual material Bechdel is working with. And then the images of the characters themselves. Are they happy, sad, regretful, confused? No adjectives needed–just those pictures. How challenging that work must be–to convey all of that with so little, really.

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Written by Jennifer

October 20, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Thirsty!

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I’ve been listening to Tom Standage’s A History of he World in 6 Glasses on my way to and from work. Standage, who looks a bit like Morissey in his press pics and has written for The Guardian and The Economist, charts the development of human civilization and community life through the histories of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. I like all of those things (except Coke. I find all soft drinks vaguely icky.) and thought I might take a break from my full-on fiction immersion and listen to a bit of history instead.

Educated and Oxford and groomed at major British news outlets, it doesn’t surprise that the history of human civilization as presented by Standage reads a bit like the history of civilization until England and America come on the scene. Then it reads like a history of British Empire and American Globalization. I, for one, would have been interested to learn about tea and coffee culture in Germany and the Netherlands–not only because that displays MY biases, but because epic tons of coffee (and maybe tea?) come into North Sea and Baltic ports every day. Coffee is Germany’s drink, but tea is huge in the areas closest to the Netherlands. Ostfriesland has its own tea blend, for example, and tea and coastal communities seem to go hand in hand.

Others have pointed out the repetition in the first half of the book, which were also noticable in the audio version. No need to beat a dead horse there buddy. But what I didn’t see, reading through reviews of the book, were any comments mirroring my own reaction: good grief did I get thirsty!! Driving home and listening to the history of beer brewing from Mesopotamia to Britian made me want a tall one more than I could even say. His descriptions of ancient Greek and Roman wine-making were slightly less tantalizing, if only because he kept talking about all the . . . interesting things that got blended into wine for palatability. We visited one of the wineries he mentions in the epilogue as making historical Roman wines. They were surprisingly good.

I think it was the tea chapters that got me. He lingered over the tea ceremonies in Asia and the tea parties in England and tea tea tea long enough that I had to re-stock my office drawer with the good stuff. And then I added a bit of milk, just like the Brits.

And though colas leave me completely cold, the chapter on the evolution of soft drinks began with an exhaustive explanation of how soda water came to be. We have a Soda Stream at home, with which we make “fizzy water” and my mouth and throat felt so parched in the car, listening to the discussion of fizzy drinks, that I had a liter of it when I got home.

The power of suggestion is alive and well.

Written by Jennifer

August 22, 2012 at 10:01 am

Posted in books

Armchair Reviewer

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Sometime this past week on Twitter, I read someone’s advice to authors regarding their presence on Goodreads, the social network book site. The advice went something like this: authors, make sure the details on your page are correct and in order and then RUN AWAY. I didn’t give this sort of “don’t read the critics” advice much thought until I logged onto Goodreads last night to change my progress on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay from “currently reading” to “read.” I didn’t have the energy to type up a review of the book, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2001, but perused what others had to say about it.

And Holy.Cow.People. Why the bitterness? Chabon writes an epic, expansive novel, integrating the immigrant Jewish experience, the Holocaust and survivors’ guilt, the development of the comic book genre, and the transition of American society into the empty Ward-and-June façade of the post-war years, and the pain this emptiness causes a closeted gay man. So many of the reviews on the site fault him for trying too hard, being too fond of his prodigious vocabulary; some of them mock him for writing about Jews in Brooklyn in the 1940s and the Holocaust, as if doing so was an unforgivable re-tread of old, worn-out themes.

I have a hard time with this type of criticism. I threw a book (theoretically) out the window last month, because, although the plot idea was intriguing, the writing bored me to absolute tears (The Time Traveler’s Wife) and am currently listening to another novel, A Discovery of Witches, which is equally tedious in its prose. Does Chabon love a good, long, encapsulated sentence? Yes he does. In my opinion his care toward his style gives the reader more room, more time, to delve a bit, to think along with the text. In more formulaic fiction (and my apologies to Niffenegger and Harkness for consigning them to these ranks) the writing is just there to speed the plot along. It doesn’t invite you to stop and think, but rather whisks you away before you have any time to get a closer look and see, perhaps, how thin and transparent the world of their tale is. These sorts of books have their place. My love affair with the Sookie Stackhouse books is enough evidence there, as far as my own tastes are concerned. But why gripe with Chabon because he doesn’t want to do that?

Chabon writes really, really well. His Yiddish Policemen’s Union cracked me up and made me stay up late. The Final Solution was clever and sneaky. He is in command of his pen, as it were, and crafts the story, instead of letting it take him over. Perhaps that is what some readers are responding to when they see him as trying to hard. The research that propels Kavalier and Clay also gives it a bit of a scholarly air, which some other armchair reviewers might find off-putting. I was intrigued by the research, though not by the factoids pertaining to the development of comic books (about which I, alas, do not really *care*) but by the magic and the Golem.

While I was reading Kavalier and Clay, I repeatedly came across other references to the Golem in other things I read or listened to. The Golem is a great story–a saviour who is also a monster, the first Frankenstein’s Monster. He can be the repository of our wishes and fears and, because of his elemental nature, appears uncorrupted–with the word TRUTH emblazoned on his forehead. The Golem as a superhero, a Jewish, apocalyptical superhero, is a very good idea.

I like it. Good on you, Chabon. Stay away from those Goodreads pages.

Written by Jennifer

July 26, 2012 at 9:01 am

Posted in books

Hey baby, your library or mine?

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Last night the girls and I had a lovely dinner with friends in their back yard. (The friends in question were providing me with week-night sustenance and adult conversation while my husband is off yukking it up in DC at the Frye Institute, lucky man.) And when the kids had pushed around their rice and Butter Chicken long enough, they all left the table to go amuse themselves. Greta read a graphic novel over Simon’s shoulder; Ingrid helping Phillip super-soak the van–thus revealing a great deal about their characters, I am sure.

As the adults were talking about the kids and their reading habits–two of them have gone through phases where they read the Harry Potter novels over and over again–we revealed that one of the three of us re-read things as a kid, the other two did not. I did not, and generally do not, re-read books. Even books I really, really like. Why is that?

Part of it is, I think, related to Dale’s recognition that there are only so many days in a lifetime and you can’t get to everything you want to read. That being the case, re-reading takes away time you could spend with another NEW and EXCITING book. Or maybe it also has something to do with why I dislike revising so much–I’m done with it; moving along now.

As a pre-teen, in my truly voracious reading years, I read for volume with a side-order of sensation. Gothic horror novels, Daphne DuMaurier, fantasy novels, under the covers with a flashlight until 2:00am. I remember reading David Eddings Belgariad series when I was in 6th grade. I loved those books to the point where I would ignore food and sleep to get back to them. I’ve never gone back and re-read them, though. Not then and not since.

A book from which you derive great pleasure is a special treat.  If you have invested enough of yourself in a book to let it reveal a bit about your own hopes and dreams to you, the book itself can function like a time capsule. A bit of my 12-year-old self is in those David Edding books. I am certain that the Harry Potter books contain a bit of Greta’s self-understanding, as well. I was–and am, I think–wary of revisiting that time and place in my life for fear of disappointment, disillusionment, what-have-you.  While the Belgariad owns a place of esteem in fantasy literature, would I like it if I read it at age 41? Would I have liked it at 16? I loved it at 12 and knowing that I loved it then is enough for me. Don’t push your luck; you may find out that book you loved in 8th grade is really poorly-written genre fiction. (Which reminds me, I read Christina Crawford’s tell-all memoir about her mother Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest, in that same phase. Ugh. I can’t imagine revisiting THAT one!)  Maybe your 12-year-old or 16-year-old self is not somebody you want to keep company with right now. Puberty is awkward and the desperate reading of early puberty sort of has that awkward tinge about it, too, for me.

All that aside, however, I have re-read some books. As a literature professor, I generally have to re-read (or at least skim and consult my copious notes) each book I teach each time I teach it. The same is true for things that I am writing about for publication. My professional reading does not often resemble the voracious reading of my younger years. I read slowly, underlining and making notes, and try to understand the system that structures the book. This reading is fun, too, but it isn’t the reading with abandon that I did as a kid.

There is, however, one non-professional book, or collection, rather, to which I return annually to re-read for pleasure. The Art of Eating contains MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets, How to Eat a Wolf and other texts. As a writer she benefited from a treasure trove of experience from which to draw: a young ladies’ finishing school, marriage and move to France, unhappy married life, love affairs, moving to Switzerland, and what seem to be millions of fabulous meals–there should really be a biopic! Her writing is lovely, whether she is on about food or love of the interstices of the two. The Gastronomical Me makes me feel at home. I think there is a bit of my grown-up self in that book and, happily, it is one to which I do not remind turning again and again.

Written by Jennifer

June 6, 2012 at 9:50 am

On the Dangers of Commuting

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My commute is pretty tame by most standards. I have about 30 minutes on the road, plus another 5-10 for parking and getting to my office. I wish I lived within walking distance of my garret in an ivory tower but THAT is where I live in my fantasy world.

In my real-world life, where I cruise along the 403 against traffic to my office in a rehabbed brownfields site, I pass farm fields, a tractor or two, signs for orchards and, now that spring is upon us, a consistent flock of redwing blackbirds pecking in the greenery on the verge of the highway. Bucolic southern Ontario.

My current audiobook, The Nr. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, takes place in Botswana, worlds away from southern Ontario. As I listen, I try to imagine what a thorn tree looks like, and how the bush looks as it stretches away toward the desert. I know what redbush tea tastes like, so I can at least drink together with the characters in my mind. I think to myself: when you get to the office, you should look up a map of Botswana, so that you can picture all of this accurately. But I’m not sure that an accurate geographical or political map of Botswana in my brain would mean I enjoyed the story more. My imagination suffices.

Unfortunately. And I say unfortunately because my imagination was all I needed this morning on my drive in to picture, quite vividly, a scene in the novel where Mma Ramotswe sees a snake slither in front of her car, hears a noise, but does not see the snake in the road when she looks in her rear-view mirror. She pulls over after pondering all the stories she has heard about snakes getting up inside the chassis of a car and loitering about, waiting to bit unsuspecting car drivers. I pictured this snake–a cobra, she thought, long and green. I have seen pictures of Indian cobras, and I think of them as black or brown but my imagination is powerful enough to envision a very long, green African cobra. I pictured this cobra underneath her seat, writhing its way into the space behind the dashboard, and I squirmed and I gagged and I averted my inner gaze from my mind’s eye and generally made an ass of myself behind the wheel.

While Mma Ramotswe has to worry about the cobra wrapped around her engine block, my fellow commuters were likely wondering what sort of at-home pap smear device the driver of the blue Subaru was trying out this morning on the road!

Written by Jennifer

March 22, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Posted in books, Canada

This Clown is Not Funny

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I no longer believe that I have to finish every book I pick up and start reading. As I’ve matured as a reader I have given myself permission to say “this sucks. I shall let it crowd my brainspace no more.” On the other hand, I do have a certain faith in “medicinal reading,” that text or reading activity that might not bring instantaneous pleasure, but is good for you in the long run. Maybe “reading exercise” is the better metaphor: if I build up my reading muscles during the encounter with difficult texts that, nonetheless, offer interesting construction, forms and ideas for me to contend with, then I will be better equipped to handle all manner of literature that comes my way.

Even though I wanted to headslap Mordechai Richler and his obnoxious Duddy Kravitz, I continued to read. It’s a classic, a foundational Canadian and Jewish literary text that has preoccupied a lot of authors since it was first written. So I didn’t put it down, though a good portion of me wanted to. Now I find myself listening to The Quiet Girl by Peter Hoeg and, 6 discs into the audiobook, wonder if I haven’t gone too far to give up. The reviewers over at Bookslut found this book “impenetrable,” which I don’t think it is. And I understand (from Wikipedia) that Danish literary critic Poul Behrendt just thinks contemporary reviewers (and readers) are too dimwitted to understand it. I don’t think that is quite the picture, either. The non-linear plot, the protagonist who is not only unreliable but also unlovable and undefinable, and–fundamentally–the author’s indecision as to whether this is a book about music or a book about clowns and the carnival–make this a pretty unrewarding slog. The plot, such as it is, appears rather interesting: flawed hero rescues kids in danger. But the superstructure around the protagonist and his struggles completely overwhelms the book. And if the book is, in fact, supposed to be about that superstructure–music, clown-i-ness–then both of those are . . . well. . . .not convincing me. One or the other, developed consistently throughout the book, cleverly interwoven into the plot, as he attempts to do with both (inconsistently) would work, I think.

I don’t thin The Quiet Girl is unsatisfying because it is post-modern, or because I’m a bad reader. I think it is unsatisfying because, with its complex structure and intertextuality, it promises me more than it can deliver. Unfortunately, I DO want to know if he rescues the kids, so I’ll continue to listen on my ride home.

Written by Jennifer

February 7, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Posted in books

Listening to the Library

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I commute to work now. I’m not in the car for very long, about 30 minutes or so. But for an hour a day I sit in my car and listen to things. Although it is hard to imagine, I do get my fill of knitting podcasts after a while and I wanted to do something useful with my time, other than add up a list of yarn and patterns I should go out and buy. So I re-started my subscription to Audible.com and have been downloading a book per month there. My parking lot is next to the public library, so when my Audible book comes to an end, I have been perusing the shelves in the library for inspiration.

In this fashion I have listened to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a lovely, sweeping, magical book by Susanna Clarke that filled my days with happiness for over a week. That sucker was loooong. A rather throwaway novel, The Railroad Detective by Edward Marston, followed that one. It provided a pleasant audible backdrop to my commute, without requiring too much active thinking. Whereas Clarke’s book had language and scope and cleverness, The Railroad Detective was pretty straightforward. Staying in Britain, I also listened to The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a non-fiction work about a nineteenth-century child murder and the early years of Scotland Yard. It was so well written, I forgot it was non-fiction for long stretches!

The next listen jerked me violently out of the British Isles and into Panem. After putting The Hunger Games aside when I was supposed to read it and pleading squeamishness, I finally listened to it during my commute. It made me cry on the way to a meeting. Damn tears.

Written by Jennifer

February 2, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Posted in books