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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

Duddy, oh Duddy

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As part of my pledge to myself to blog my leisure reading for you, dear Readers, I am going to write about The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordechai Richler. This book has been on my “to-read” list for ages, largely because of the volume of German-Jewish literature I was reading for research and teaching and my need to expand my knowledge of diaspora Jewish literature beyond the German. Business + pleasure = Richler.

A year or two ago, I read Barney’s Version by Richler and it took me a while to get into it. I thought perhaps this was because I didn’t have the necessary Richler/Montreal/Jewish/Canadian literary or cultural background to “get it.” And eventually Barney and his tale grew on me: he was a sheister, a shady businessman, a wealthy man who came by his wealth honestly sometimes and dishonestly, too. Duddy is the original Barney. Or, as a friend here put it: The rub on Richler is that he writes the same novel over and over again every four or five years or so. To this verdict I can only amend: the protagonists age as Richler himself does. Duddy the grubby St. Urbain urchin who schemes to buy land up north morphs into Barney, the middle-aged Montreal Jew with a cabin in the Quebec north woods. And I’ll grant Richler a pretty compelling plot line, if one that is rather well-worn in the pages of twentieth-century literature.

The bummer of reading Duddy for me, though, was that I enjoyed Richler’s craft more than I enjoyed his story. He is a good writer; he draws his characters well; I felt I knew a couple of them and saw what the others represented in the social fabric of the narrative. But the story itself, the plot, just tired me out. The title is a surefire giveaway that this story is entirely Duddy’s own and follows his development (or aging, as Duddy doesn’t really develop at all–he remains a selfish teenager at heart) from the selfish vantage point of his own wants and needs. Duddy is unconcerned with the Yvette, with Vergil, with his peers as he forges ahead with his plans to impress the men in his family. Mom, of course, is dead. Aunt Ida is, maybe, crazy. Women . . . they are so inessential to the drama of the male psyche. I grow weary of such narratives.

Marie Kaschnitz, Ruth Klüger, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein–there are women writing “Jewish” fiction in Germany, Austria, and the US that doesn’t focus on the feminine experience of being the marginalized Jew. (Of course, Klüger and Goldstein and others do remark on the marginality of the female Jew within the observant Jewish community itself.) I see the characters in Kaschnitz’s prose, or in Goldsteins, as being more fully rounded, more accessible (to me?) than the penile-focussed, artist-as-a-young-man characters offered by Richler, Biller, Roth, et al. I tend to reject out of hand the contention that women write for women, or are better understood by women, and men for men. I think my benchmark of good writing is prose that allows any reader to see into the characters, to see the universal in the specific example the author has crafted. As a woman reading, I resent being excluded and marginalized by the text as it comes into being.

So, up on my feminist soap box, I saunter off to read some Margaret Atwood. G’night, Ladies.

Written by Jennifer

August 31, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Canadiana Reading List

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What I do not know about the country in which I currently reside could fill bookshelves. And it does. So, thanks to a generous friend  and a used bookstore, I have the following reading list to catch me up on Canadiana:

Margaret Atwood, Before the Flood

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

Mordechai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Margaret Laurence, The Diviners

Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

W. O. Mitchell, Who has Seen the Wind

Hugh MacLennan, Two Solitudes

Rudy Wiebe, The Temptations of Big Bear

Criag Brown, Ed. The Illustrated History of Canada

Peter C. Newman, Company of Adventurers

To be fair to me, I am not a complete dolt and have read a great deal of Atwood, and taught her first novel, The Edible Woman, in Women’s Studies courses. But I haven’t read her newest stuff, which focusses more on the damage to the environment caused by the patriarchy than the damage to individual people. I’ve also read some Richler, but not his seminal Duddy, so that needed to happen.

I hesitate to ask you, gentle reader, if you have anything to add to the list, for I also have other reading that needs to happen and, well, kids and a husband and knitting that all need tending to. But, comments on your favorites are most welcome, as are things that might have been neglected in the creating of this list! (Oh, and my French is abysmal, so we’re sticking to Anglophone literature and history. A true loss, I am sure.)

Written by Jennifer

August 14, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Oscar, who?

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When I was purging our home in Kansas of extra books and carting them to the Dusty Bookshelf to find new owners, I traded them in for both cash and credit. Cash is always good. Credit meant that I had to bring home new books! (Sort of defeats the purpose of purging, but new books are so fun!!) In addition to a nice paperback set of Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy for the girls when they’re a bit older, I got a few titles for The Librarian and me. I didn’t exactly pore over the shelves at the store; I just grabbed several books that were highly visible on displays and caught my fancy. I like used book stores for that kind of perusal. A new book store has displays that are dictated by the publishing market and its categories and by standard sales models for trade books. “Historical fiction” here and “Biographies” here and “Best Sellers” here. A used book store, even when it’s arranged by genre, is an ever-changing, eclectic hodgepodge of books old and new and, while I might not find titles piling up in my IndieBound “to-read” list, there is always something interesting right there in front of you.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao leapt into my hands. I gave it first to Dale, since I still have a pile of books from the MLA waiting to get read. He was flying back and forth between Canada and Kansas and had plenty of reading time. His verdict: took him a while to get into it and then “wow!” Since I find him to be a rather demanding fiction reader, this was high praise. After reading it myself, I feel completely under-equipped to write a review of it. Reading it was like reading a Bildungsroman, a family tragedy, and a history text all rolled into one. The layering of Oscar’s family story over the history of the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century was heartbreaking and fascinating and totally new to me. I learned that what I know about the Dominican can be put in a mental thimble, and it really cast a light on the general ignorance of this average American regarding the politics of our regional neighbors and how this affects American communities, too.

Oscar’s story is an immigrant story; his life is intimately connected to both the Dominican and the New York/New Jersey communities to which his family immigrated. His life between these two worlds is a difficult one–he doesn’t fit in either place. He lives in the Dominican communities in New Jersey, without being one of the (sex-crazed, cool, vaguely criminal) Dominican guys. In some ways he is more at home in the DR but that, too, is an odd fit for him. He’s a chubby kid, obsessed with comic books and fantasy novels, and lives in a world of his own making inside his head. He writes stories, fantastical stories with hero-save-the-day plot lines, and imagines himself inside them. We, the reader, don’t know what’s in those stories, only the vaguest notions of how obsessive he is about them, and the fact that they are decidedly genre fiction of a particular sort.

As Oscar grows up, he loses some of the weight, loses some of his connection to genre fiction, and tries to find himself in the DR. His family saga, a curse (supposedly) that follows his family, whether they are in the Dominican or in New Jersey, fascinates him and he travels to his family’s home in the DR to try and discover what it is–to discover himself. I’m not sure if this search is ultimately successful. As a reader, I’m left with the feeling that the curse Oscar is researching is the particular Latin American violence that formed each generation of his family, regardless of where they lived. The violence that forced them to flee the DR and the consequences that call them back.

But the plot is almost secondary to the reading experience of the novel. Diaz’s prose is so forceful, it sweeps you along in a torrent of anger and frustration and this compulsion to tell his story to an ignorant reading audience. The footnotes, where our author–or is it our narrator, Yunior?–gives us the background information on the politics and violence of the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century, and the USA’s role in abetting that, are just as important as Oscar’s story. Indeed, they form the context for understanding Oscar’s own search for a narrative that houses him.

It’s a humbling book, both because of the ignorance it exposes and because of its powerful prose. Totally worth a trip to the library or used book store of your choice.

Written by Jennifer

July 11, 2011 at 8:34 am

Possibilities

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Let the summer book reviews begin! It’s a bit surprising to me that I’ve read as much as I have this month, since June has been dominated by moving from Kansas to Canada and the emotional and physical tumult associated therewith. However, I took advantage of our host house’s library and the feeling I had of being a bit unmoored and read Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander’s The Art of Possibility. Transforming Professional and Personal Life. It sounded like a good read for someone in a transitional sort of mood.

I’m not entirely sure that I am the intended reader for the Zanders’ book. They do coaching for executives on how to transform stale business environments, in addition to inspirational speaking that addresses individuals. They position the reader of this book as–potentially–a manager who needs to make some sort of change, get out of a rut and also–potentially–an individual (parent, teacher, coworker) who is vaguely dissatisfied with the course they’ve plotted for themselves emotionally and professionally and are looking for avenues to change. And although I wasn’t entirely sure they were talking to me and my concerns right now (the gall!), I think one of the fundamental strengths of the book is its realization that our professional lives and our “private” lives cannot be easily compartmentalized. Many of the strategies they packaged as useful tools for “personal” conundrums could work equally well in the office environment and vice-versa. One of the central themes of the book is a focus on abundance rather than on scarcity, trying to get people to see where the possibilities lie instead of allowing them to focus on the lack they experience around them.

As an example: Ben puts forth, in the early pages of the book, the response “how fascinating!” when one is faced with a major snafu. Things do not turn out as planned, your goals are not met, reality does not mesh with the idea. Your first response (or, let’s be honest here, MY first response) is “dammit! Why did this all go so WRONG?” (or, in keeping with honesty: Dammit! Why won’t the house sell? Why am I going to lose money on it? I don’t want to live in this teeny space with one bathroom for four people! Argh!) Ben suggests that, instead of allowing the internal tape reel to play “dammit” over and over again, we take in our surroundings and say: “How fascinating!” This positive response demands of us that we see the possibilities–unexpected, unplanned for, not ideal–inherent in the situation we have, not in the situation we imagined we wanted.

We cannot always determine the paths our lives take, or what happens to us along those paths. I have made a decision to, at least temporarily, walk away from a tenured job in the humanities. This is a dream job. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there on the job market who desire more than anything in the whole world the life I’ve just walked away from. Those people imagine “If I just had a tenure-track job/tenure, then everything would fall into place and I would experience fulfillment on the professional and personal level.” But it isn’t so. I was fulfilled in my job and in my life, but my partner wasn’t and I like him more than any ole job, so we picked up and moved to Canada. My original plan: “We’ll try this out for a year or two and then I can pick up my career where I left it off” is likely a totally delusional one and, with a wee bit of hindsight, I have no clue what we were thinking when we imagined that there would be some sort of smooth, navigable path for me to take once I moved up here. And so part of me is frustrated–what was I thinking!!! But, I’m not unhappy. My family is together, for pete’s sake, and that is worth a very great deal, and I have projects to work on. I’m a bit concerned about money in general (will we have enough?) and in specific (I want to earn my own) but I am really embracing the “how fascinating!” plan.

This is Neuland for me, Terra Neuva, and there is no point in wishing and pining for the professional life I know. Instead, I am looking around, figuratively and literally, for the possibilities inherent in the life I have now. I will look for academic jobs in my field, rare as rubies, but will also cast a wider net and learn about who I can be and what I can do in a new environment. I want to write, and read, and be with people, and do meaningful work, and have time for fun. There have to be possibilities.

Written by Jennifer

July 6, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Surrender

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Over at npr.org, Linda Holmes has written an essay calling for all of us NPR listeners (and New Yorker readers, and so on) to recognize the fact that we will never be able to read everything we want to. Nor will we be able to listen to or watch everything on our cultural bucket lists. It is just plain numbers, she says. (How many books can you read in a month, how many months will you live if you live to be 85, what number does that give you? It’s not enough)

Holmes differentiates reactions to this realization into two categories: culling and surrendering. In the former, people take a determined stance to reduce what they consider worthy of attention: I will not watch TV, it is all trash. And while “The Real Wives of Orange County” is likely no great loss to them, they may have really enjoyed “Mad Men” or old Poirot mysteries on A&E or the Superbowl. They won’t know, though, because they have culled TV from their cultural consumption. Dale’s previous post on all the books he won’t read falls (somewhat shakily) into this category: Jane Austen is not worth his time. (Don’t throw things at him. I know she’s a good writer but I am also pretty convinced he can live a happy existence without reading Pride and Prejudice.)

Surrender is the strategy Holmes herself appears to advocate. In this frame of mind, we are completely aware that WE ARE GOING TO MISS SOME GREAT SHIT and we just have to be ok with that. So, for example, if Dale dies without having read Die Blechtrommel or Doktor Faustus (both of which he will not, he tells me, ever read), that does not make him a less-well-read individual. He just knows that there is a finite amount of literature he is going to ingest and he wants to enjoy what he does read and not beat himself about the head and shoulders for not reading Thomas Mann’s greatest novel.

Holmes reminds us that being “well read” is not a destination at which you arrive. It is a process. Are you interested in the cultural production of the world in which you live? How big is that world? I feel compelled to know a bit about what is going on in contemporary German literature, as well as on the US literary market. My desire for an expanded world reduces, in pure page volume, the percentage of what I can know of each. If your cultural wold is the American Midwest in poetry in the twentieth century, you can probably hope to read most of its literary output before you die.

As a professor of literature, I have a bit of difficulty with the surrender notion. We in black, with our Foucault oder Bhaba tucked under our arms, are generally more inclined to talk like the cullers: who me, watch sports? ick. Not worth it when I could be reading Kant. Surrender implies that we know that we cannot know everything and that someone out there will have read more of x, y, or z than we and then we aren’t experts after all and aaaaaaaahhhhhhh. . . . . . .

But deep down inside I have surrendered to the knowledge that I’m just not going to get to it all, nor should I try. I want to always be reading something and am very pleased that the past year or so has meant a return to pleasure reading for me. I’m working through the books that I bought at the MLA, as well as some genre fiction, and have started writing a story of my own. (shhhh) And, in solidarity with Dale, I will now list the Books I Will Not Read (with a healthy side dish of Books I Have Given Up On):

Tolstoy, War and Peace (I brought this with me to Hamburg when I spent my junior year of college abroad. My logic was: I will miss reading English but don’t want to pay a premium for buying British paperbacks. I’ll bring THIS GINORMOUS book and it will tide me over for months and months.) Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know squat about Russia in the nineteenth century and was totally confused about why they were all speaking French and how in the hell in Napoleon get there, anyway? I gave up about 1/4 way through it and know that I just can’t bear to trudge through all of those pages again.

And if I’m really honest here, I’m going to just clump all sorts of Russian literature together and say: won’t get to it. Someone told me to read The Master and Margarita a couple summers ago (blog post here) and I enjoyed it. But it didn’t make me yearn for more.

I’ll also agree with Dale on Faulkner. If any of you read my post on The Sound and the Fury, you’ll know why. Ick.

Autobiographies of any political figure, ever. Clinton, Bush, Bush, Obama, Rumsfeld, whoeverthehellyouare: I don’t care. Reading what you would have to say about the world would spike my blood pressure. I also don’t need to read Master & Commander-style narratives that talk about the political or military exploits of those who never got around to writing their autobiographies.

Any book with the words “chicken soup” in the title, unless it actually involves a dead chicken and a pot of water with veggies.

I am sure there are more. Oh yes, I am sure. But right now I’ve got to run and read more Sookie Stackhouse 🙂

Written by Jennifer

April 20, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Where all the kids are above average . . .

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I’ve been reading Swedish crime fiction. Along with the rest of the Western World, I’ve read two of the three books in the Stieg Larsson “Girl” series. As I mentioned earlier, these are good page turners and, unrelatedly (maybe) very violent. I’ll read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest just for the hat trick, but I’m rather over Larsson. The reasons why have been explained in so many other venues, it really isn’t my place to repeat them. I believe it was Joan Acocella in the Jan 10th issue of The New Yorker who laid it out the best: his stories are good but his writing is atrocious. I can only imagine what these looked like before the unsuccessful editing job.

So, to keep in the vein but aim for tighter prose, I read The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell. Mankell’s cop and his police narratives obviously served as a source of inspiration for Larsson and I can see why. They’re well written and seedy all at the same time. What strikes me though, especially as I being listening to an audiobook of The Pyramid by Mankell, is their joint interest in the decline–or decay–of the liberal Swedish welfare state and an abiding concern with what kind of Sweden will take the place of that mythical Nordic land where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average. (props to Keillor)

Since you can all go read Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell for yourselves, I won’t go into the details of their concerns with the welfare state’s demise in Sweden. They are concerned about crime, about fascists, and about how Sweden is changing. At one point in The Fifth Woman, Kurt Wallander opines that Sweden is changing for the worse. Sweden used to be a country where people darned socks and now it is not. People throw away worn out socks and this disposable society also means that people are more likely to get tossed aside, as well. The care for fragile things, the investment of one’s time in simple things (like repairing a sock that was likely hand-knitted) have no place in the current, fast-paced, materialistic world, in which the individual is concerned with him or herself alone and not with the welfare of the entire tribe.
When I read this, I immediately thought that Sweden is becoming more American. The USA invented the disposable, one-size-fits-all culture of commerce and slowly but surely have been importing it all over the world since the end of WWII. Poor Sweden, one is inclined to think. Of course, Sweden makes its own decisions and their immigration policies, tax policies and the like have just as much influence on the changing face of their nation as any sort of Americanization creep I might posit.
This past summer, when we were driving across Germany and France with the kids, I got to thinking about how Germany today is not the same country I lived in for the first time 20+ years ago. There are the little things–like the fact women shave their armpits and legs and deodorant is stocked in drugstores–and then there are larger things, too, that are harder to name that just make it feel “different,” or, really, more American. I pondered this for a while and came to a rather different conclusion than “the US, through its media and military, are infiltrating the rest of the world in the attempt to turn everyone into us.” The source lies elsewhere, methinks and it is arrogant of me to assume that my country has anything to do with changes in western European democracies. We are a superpower and stuff, but let’s not assume tooooo much importance, shall we?
Germany and its politicians are full of laments about the  “state of things today.” Angela Merkel has famously declared that the multicultural experiment in Germany has failed. Several years ago there was a political kerfuffle about the CDU’s demand that immigrants commit to the principles of Germany’s “Leitkultur,” (or dominant culture). These things sound horrible and call up images of Germany’s repulsive xenophobic, racist past. But perhaps these people are merely responding to that same feeling that I have when I think about the Germany of 25 years ago. The country has changed. The relatively homogenous culture of the past, where all shops were closed on Sunday (the Lord’s day), people swept their sidewalks, hung lace curtains in their kitchen windows, and used plastic gloves to handle fruit and veggies in the supermarket before putting them into their cart is impossible to maintain in the face of growing immigration and, let’s not forget, more porous borders with other European countries.
It isn’t Americanization that I see in Germany, it is globalization–or, perhaps more accurately–the growing pains of a country that is become an very unwilling melting pot. Demographic changes related to immigration and urbanization, coupled with the deregulation of large sectors of the economy have changed the face of America radically since the end of WWII–and this change has been more aggressive and more pronounced since the Reagan era. These changes are now confronting Europe, as their economies begin to look more like the US economy and less like the social welfare states of the previous century. Since these changes go hand in with increased immigration in Germany, it is easy to lump them together causally, but I just don’t think that is justified. Germans don’t darn socks anymore, either.

Written by Jennifer

April 2, 2011 at 11:09 am