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Capstone Moment

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I should probably receive 3 hours of undergraduate credit for my summer reading list. I read a bunch of books and wrote papers on them, right? All that is missing from the perfect summer school course is the final paper. I suppose I’ve requested and been granted an extension.

What I learned (reading) on my summer vacation:

I like books. A lot. I missed reading for pleasure. Reading for pleasure is this state where you get to sit up in bed at night, propped on pillows and read until it’s way past your bedtime and you don’t have to take notes or flag passages or draft analytical arguments. I enjoy the picaresque (a category into which Lamb falls, I would argue)–the picaresque is the precursor of the road movie and it makes for a great read. The unreliable narrator remains my favorite. If I could, I’d make everyone I know read Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum and revel in the beauty of a narrative told by a guy in prison. My reading list didn’t include any examples of the genre, although Glass Soup did give the pleasant readerly sensation of not quite knowing where to find your footing that I like so much. I like a literary puzzle when I can get my hands on one.

I was surprised at myself for not enjoying Salinger’s Franny and Zooey more. Nice enough but just too dated for me to enjoy. Which makes no sense, of course, since I specialize in nineteenth-century historical fiction. And the Vonnegut book, which also explores a very specific moment in time, remains timeless and awesome and rocked my world. And we shall not speak of William Faulkner again, sorry. I am sure there are countless blogs run by English majors and their ilk where you can read and talk about Bill all you want.
Not here.

Thematically–I loves me some crazy. I may never have found Mariette in Ecstasy or The Master and Margarita on my own and I’m very glad I read them both. The Master is a heady book, and I haven’t read nearly enough Russian literature, I’m sure. Mariette is that book I might have bought on the remainder table and read secretly, because stories of young women and religious ecstasy are so. . . interesting, weird, romantic,  . . . something.

I think the most important result of my long summer reading list is that I don’t want to stop. I have work reading to do–always–including a big ole pile of articles on my desk right now and the prospect of a 4-volume cultural history of Germany in my near future. But on my nightstand? The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Yummmmmmy. I read this when I was 17 and I read it in German (it didn’t make much sense then, either).  Beauty and the soul and Wilde’s vicious wit. And, as a bonus: I think a German writer in whom I have some interest used Dorian Gray in her portrait of a young lady going insane.

What are you reading?

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Written by Jennifer

August 24, 2007 at 1:35 pm

Posted in summer reading

Stigmatized

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Did you ever see the movie Agnes of God, starring Jane Fonda? I saw it in the theater when it came out. Imdb swears it was released in 1985 but I’m sure I was worldly enough by then to not completely freak out. And freak out I did. Nun, baby, death, stigmata, voices, spirits. The mother of girls I was friends with through our church took us to see the movie, figuring it was a spiritual flick and, hey, what could be bad about that? Although I saw that film over 20 years ago, it still formed the core of what I knew or imagined went on inside convents. And it was crreeeepppy.

I just finished reading Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, which shares a locale with Agnes–a French convent in upstate New York–but, thankfully, not a protagonist. Whereas Agnes, one is led to believe, is a wee bit touched in the head, Mariette is perfectly sane. She comes to the convent against her father’s wishes (her older sister is already there and Dad, one presumes, wonders where on earth he’s supposed to get grandchildren) and feels perfectly at home in the austere environment of the convent, where every daily action, whether prayer and contemplation, mass, or chores in the garden, is done as service to the Lord. Everyone at the convent loves her and she loves Jesus.

When Mariette becomes a stigmatic, however, things begin to change. The wounds of Christ in her hands, feet, and side set her apart from  her sisters, make her appear special in the eyes of the Lord. Some of the sisters think she is a saint. Others think she is an attention-grabbing schemer. Either way, however, Mariette’s status as special, or chosen of God, disturbs the order of the convent. How can the sisters be equal and equally humble before God if they have a budding saint in their midst? Eventually, Mariette is asked to go. She was prepared for this. Jesus speaks to her and he had told her she would suffer for his sake, and so she handles her expulsion with grace and kindness. She returns to her father’s house and keeps her vows privately. Many years later she writes in a letter to the current prioress of the convent, “Christ still sends me roses,” indicating that she remains a stigmatic and shares a special relationship with Christ.

Mariette also experiences periods of ecstasy at the convent. Specifically, she experiences this altered state of awareness when contemplating Christ’s wounds and his suffering, as in, for example, looking closely at a crucifix. Mariette, then, experiences a periodic and temporary erasure of her own body and its awareness (ecstasy), as well as temporary and periodic manifestations of Christ’s body on her own (stigmata). The prioress points out in a conversation with Mariette that the history of stigmatics (both in and out of the Church) shows a disproportionate number of women. This is always the fact that sticks in my head when I read of spiritual ecstasy or stigmata. There is something about the juxtaposition of women’s bodies as the fount of sin and temptation, as the vessel of childbirth (through which they gain holiness), and as potential vehicles for an earthly enactment of Christ’s passion that is so very compelling in its complexity.

And, on the heels of Mariette, I pick up my most recent issue of Bust (click on image of current issue to see the articles) and find an article about young women joining convents in larger numbers. These college-educated young women are discovering convents to be women-centered places where they can do good in the world (through charity, teaching, etc.), while at the same time committing themselves to their spiritual development in the company of like-minded women. Not a mention of spiritual ecstasy or rapture anywhere to be found. Kind of a bummer, really.

Written by Jennifer

August 14, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Posted in summer reading

Dear Bill

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Once upon a time, I think I was about 13, I picked up a copy of your Great American Classic, The Sound and the Fury. It is probably pertinent to note that I found this particular copy of your Great American Classic in an abandoned house that my mother and her then-husband had decided to buy and renovate. The previous owners had left the house one evening after dinner two years earlier and never returned. They left their clothes, their furniture, the crap in their kitchen, their cut crystal glasses, and their odd, odd library. Trees had grown up through the roof of this house, allowing rain to fall from the ceiling, turning the shag carpet on the steps into a kind of moldy, green waterfall and making all the books smell musty and look gross. But I LOVE books, and I knew that you, Bill, were a Great American Author. So I picked up The Sound and the Fury. I imagine I put it back down after about 4 pages. I generally like to finish what I start, but my 13-year-old self was not up to Faulkner.

Fast forward twenty-some years and again, I have an aging, though not moldy, copy of The Sound and the Fury in my hands. My friend swears she LOVES this book and I will, too. Evidently, her 16-year-old self grooved to the stream-of-consciousness narration and was thrilled by the sultry, honeysuckle-laden atmosphere of the decaying Old South. Evidently, I picked up the book three years too soon. Dammit. I’ve mentioned that I have a difficult time caring about these people and their decaying, decrepit, isolated little Southern world. But I try, really I do, to keep an open mind.

On vacation, where I did not, dear Bill, make your book available for bear toilet paper, I spent some time with a friend. I mentioned to her that I was struggling through The Sound and the Fury. She exclaims (and that is the only appropriate verb here): I LOVE that book!

Oh no! What on earth is wrong with me, Bill? How come I do not LOVE your book? Am I deficient in some glandular substance that would make it all seem terribly relevant and interesting? Come on! I read 19th-century German fiction and I CARE about it. I identify with the struggles of the characters whose lives I immerse myself in. Why not with you, Bill? Why not???

Then the friend goes on: I read it in high school. I thought it was the most extraordinary thing I’d ever read. The stream-of-consciousness, the sister, who we never really get to see, etc. etc.

Ah HAH! Again with the high school thing. Perhaps I am vindicated. Perhaps I am merely Too Old to appreciate you, Bill. Perhaps you are, like Mommie Dearest, a specific moment in adolescent time that I glossed over when I went to Germany. (I didn’t read Moby Dick, either. Shoot me.)

But, to your novel. I have to admit that I truly enjoyed (!) the puzzle aspect of the story. Starting with Ben’s perspective, which is not only non-linear, but totally garbled and out-of-sequence and, well, told by a simpleton, one gets pieces of what’s going on. The reader gets introduced to the characters and quickly figures out who the black ones are and who is a member of the family. By the time you get the story from Quentin’s perspective, some things are cleared up–the reader gets confirmation of what s/he has supposed but not known for sure. Reader participation in the narration is always fun.

But, here’s the deal. I appreciate the fact that Ben is a stand-in, of sorts, for the end of both the mother and father’s family lines, representing the degeneracy of the Compsons and their inability to succeed in the world. He’s an idiot. He is at the mercy of the black servants, he is loved, but is unable to make his own voice heard. He’s a great symbol but not an especially great literary character. Quentin, on the other hand, is vile. He kills himself because he is so wedded to an outdated notion of family honor that he can’t bear his sister’s sluttiness. Give. Me. A. Break. I realize I’m conflating my real world, Bill, and your literary one, but I have so little patience for people who lose their shit. Unless they can make it funny. Quentin is not funny. And what he wants from Caddy isn’t very funny, either. I mean, come on–banish them both to hell so that she can’t sleep around anymore. Very Old Testament of you, Quentin, and hard to justify in any world.

I was expecting–and I don’t know why–that after Ben, Quentin, and Jason, we’d finally get to hear the horrible family tragedy from Caddy’s perspective. She gets knocked up. Her father sells the Last Bit of Land to finance her shotgun wedding and Quentin’s stint at Harvard. Quentin drowns himself over the lack of honor of it all. Her husband throws her and her bastard daughter, whom she names Quentin, out of the house. But no. We get to see what happens of Quentin II (like mother like daughter, the little slut) but we don’t see Caddy again. Rumor has it she’s off in Europe, married and divorced again and living the life of a courtesan in Paris, carousing with the Germans.

Caddy was the smart one. She saw that it was time to get out when the getting was good. The Compsons were never going to make another go of it. They were soooo Old South that they still had slaves. And, she knew that the idea of community and belonging that characterized the Old South she grew up in were too confining for her and going out of style in a big way. So, she split. Good for her. Go, Caddy, Go!

I wonder whether Jason gets it, too. He, like his mother and like Quentin in his time, is wedded to certain notions of family name and honor that he simply cannot let go of. But he does see that the family structure as it existed in their childhood–family manor, sponging uncle, cabins on the property full of black folks at the beck and call of the Compsons (sort of)–is no longer tenable. He is a modern man in the financial sense of the word, at any rate, though a thief and a liar and a hypocrite.

So, Caddy and Quentin II, the girls, flee Jefferson, Mississippi for the great beyond. I wish them well. I’d pick a place with less humidity, myself. Dilsey, whom you, Bill, said was one of your favorite characters, never gets farther away than Memphis and chooses not to see the changes in society that happen around her. I can see how this is as much her story as it is the Compsons, since she was the glue that held the manor together. When she’s gone, the Compsons, as a concept, are gone, too.

Written by Jennifer

August 6, 2007 at 5:37 pm

Posted in summer reading

A wee break from the grind

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The Big Question for this vacation?? Will I make it through The Sound and the Fury without throwing it out of the tent for the bears to use as toilet paper? Stream of consciousness is not my favorite narrative position but even given that. . . I’m finding it so difficult to care about these people. So very difficult. I’m sure it has something to do with the whole Southern thing. I lived in the South. I sort of understand the South from an anthropological perspective, i.e. what makes the (old) South a distinct culture within the American mainstream. Problem is: I didn’t care then and I don’t care now and expressions, however artistic, of that distinct culture tend to leave me a bit cold. However, I shall soldier on, as Faulkner is an undisputed literary genius and I must bear witness. Wish me luck.

Written by Jennifer

July 24, 2007 at 11:40 am

Posted in life, summer reading

More reading. This time in German.

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Lest you all think that my summer vacation consisted of merely reading books for pleasure, under the terms of a wager that gets me free babysitting if I read them all and blog about them like a good girl, I present to you my “other” reading list. My real job requires reading of a different stripe and I’ve been reading or re-reading some 19th-century German classics over the summer in preparation for teaching an Intro to German Lit class in the fall. I’ll attest that I do not love all these books, even though they are universally recognized as significant or great in some way, but I think they’re all worth reading and discussing in the context of modernization, industrialization, and nationalization in the German-speaking lands of the nineteenth century. And, since you have very likely not read any of these, I will share a bit about them with you. Think of it as a mini-German seminar, I’ll give you all “A”s.

Brigitte by Adalbert Stifter. Like so many 19th-century novellas, this one has protagonists alongside an “embedded” narrator–an outsider who enters the community where the events take place and reveals the story to you. In this case, we’re in the Hungarian lands of the Austrian empire, guests of a wealthy landowner, whose past we get to investigate. He’s a stand-up guy–attractive, wealthy, moral, etc. Then we find out that he was once married to a young woman full of good qualities but So Ugly that even her family couldn’t find much love in their hearts for her. He left her, eventually, but then came to regret it deeply. The story explores how he tries to make up for that crime. How can he ever make it good?

Maria Magdalena by Friedrich Hebbel. A story to make your feminist blood boil. Good nineteenth-century daughter. Loves a young man above her station. He leaves to study and she thinks he forgets her. She succumbs to the seductive wiles of the local charmer (her family approves of him). Turns out the local charmer is a skunk, who only wants her daddy’s money. When he discovers that daddy has given the money to his old master, he renounces the good girl. After, of course, knocking her up. Why is the good girl having Illicit Sex with the local charmer? Her old flame is back in town and the charmer sees them eying each other and gets jealous and wants Proof of Her Love and Loyalty. Love and loyalty are good qualities, ones she’s been raised to believe in and support. So she ruins herself. Anyhooooooo, by the end of the sordid tale, her father (not knowing any of this, of course, because it’s all a secret) mentions in another context that, should she bring shame on him, he would cut his own throat and do himself in.

In order to save her father from the sin of suicide . . . she Throws Herself Down a Well.

And what do you know. . . no one is happy about it. Sheesh. They discover, too late, that their rigid morals and their notions of honor do not, in fact, guarantee any kind of civic peace–they just exacerbate bad situations.

Die Judenbuche (The Jews’ Beech Tree) by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. I’m sure you can’t get past the tenth grade in Germany without having read it. And for good reason. This is one of those marvelous novellas that takes as its starting point an actual event, in this case something her uncle experienced in his district when she was a child. A ne’er-do-well runs away from his village, suspected of having killed a Jewish money-lender. He also has some residual guilt about having aided and abetted the murderer of the local forest supervisor (who, funny, wasn’t too happy about village people cutting down trees in the night). Twenty-five years later, he returns, but pretends to be someone else. He tries to make amends, or at least live out his days in peace. He can’t escape his inner demons, though, and hangs himself on the same tree under which he had (most likely? probably? at this point in the story it might not even matter because it is all about Guilt in the Big sense of the word and not so much an individual act of knavery?) killed the Jew decades earlier. Happy Ending.

German literature is full of Humor and Happy Endings. Trust me. Really. I mean it.

Written by Jennifer

July 18, 2007 at 1:13 pm

Posted in German, summer reading

I still read more than he does

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. . . but I’m on a 9-month contract and it’s summertime.

I might try and get him to read Jonathan Carroll’s Glass Soup next. Although not nearly as laugh-your-pants-off funny as Lamb, it is a clever little novel that deals with life and death, God, the mysteries of the universe, the nature of evil–you know, all the good stuff.

I’ll get my few niggling complaints about the book out of the way at the beginning. Carroll sets the story in Vienna, Austria. All I can say is he must like the place a whole lot better than me. There appears to be no compelling reason for the action to happen in Europe in general, or Austria in particular. The characters are an international mix and none of them appear to need to earn a livelihood in Vienna and can live in a ridiculously expensive town on their charm and good looks. Carroll peppers the narrative with references to the Wienerwald/Vienna Wood (and can’t decide whether to refer to it in German or English, or, if in German, whether or not to italicize it as a foreign word) and various places, such as the Naschmarkt, in Vienna proper. Occasional bits of dialog also include German words and this is where the pedant/German teacher/editor in me must rear its ugly head. If you are going to use foreign words and phrases, please make sure they are spelled correctly. If you know German well enough to know that all nouns are capitalized, why occasionally insert a lower-case one? If you know how to type diacritics–use them! Sheesh. Failing your own knowledge and abilities–have someone who knows German read the freaking words and prevent you from looking like some sort of Euro-loving poser.

Back to das Buch.  Much of the plot twists and turns are things that, as a reader, you must read to discover. Your process of discovery as a reader parallels the discovery process of many of the characters in the book and, as those characters are forever being told: it will be so much better if you figure it out for yourself than if I tell you what’s going on. The characters are, as in all good novels, trying to save the world. But saving the world is also intimately tied up with the connection between life and death, between God and Chaos.

Carroll sets up his tale expertly. For example:

“Because it is all gone now, Isabelle. In all of the countries their magic has disappeared and will never return. The stories of the magic are still there, yes, but the truth of them is gone forever. If you go out into the country now anywhere, the people have no new stories like these because all of the magic has been stopped. Taken away forever. There is nothing mythical or magical on the earth anymore. Only the old stories have survived but without their beating hearts.”

Our eyes are opened to the magical narrative in the book. We are invited to see truth in the magic. Which, in the terms of the novel,  invites us to see truth in the notions of heaven and even hell–both as places we create for ourselves but real nevertheless.  We are also invited to see the truth in our dreams; to see dreams as the place we build for ourselves, where we will go to live when we die.

But it’s not all serious. Honestly. Read this:

“Not much embarrassed Haden anymore; especially now that he was dead. But when he looked down at the front of his pants and saw what was there, he was not only embarrassed but amazed. His penis, or someone’s penis (because it sure as hell wasn’t his–the thing was longer than any dick he had ever seen before), stuck straight out of his fly like a wooden stick. It must have been thirteen inches long. It looked like Pinocchio’s nose. Pinocchio porn. And sitting on this thing, this dick-stick, was a large parrot.”

And along with funny, we get a nice dose of evil. You know how I likes me some evil. Evil here does the bidding of Chaos, who is at odds–as luck would have it–with God (who in this tale takes on the aspect of a large polar bear). Whereas God, when not looking like a large white bear, is glass soup–the mosaic of life–, Chaos is bent on destroying the ever-changing mosaic by permanently deleting elements of it, never allowing it to become complete. The trick is in stopping him.

Glass Soup has some beautiful mental images to hold on to and ponder.  The nature of God, the importance of each human life, what kind of world we would create for ourselves if we could. Go read it. It gives you wickedly odd dreams.

Written by Jennifer

July 17, 2007 at 3:28 pm

Posted in summer reading

Lamb redux

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Despite comments to the contrary from my wife and others, and despite my advanced age and decrepitude, I am capable of finishing a book, and, after being handed Lamb, I destroyed its text like a hot dog in the hands of Takeru Kobayashi. Great read, perfect for a sinner and atheignostic such as myself.

I’m not sure if it says more about me, Christopher Moore’s talent, the fact that the Bible is a book by committee and, as with all things created by committee, sucks as a read, or something about my need to believe that everyone, everywhere, in every language, eventually says ‘fuck’ or one of its beautifully flexible declined forms, but this book spoke to me in ways that the ‘real’ deal never has or will. If I crossed paths with a guy like Joshua, I’d put on my sackcloth, grow out my hair, and proclaim the word on a street corner in a heartbeat. When Joshua beholds the carnage of the Kali sacrifices and banishes blood atonement once and for all with the simple utterance “no more sacrifices,” I had to put the book down and take a deep breath. That’s some heavy shit, not least when one considers how many people have died at the hands of those proclaiming the word of Jesus et al. over the last two millenia. Were the Christian God truly a vengeful god, s/he’d smite those hypocritical fuckers (see, it’s compulsive) with something worse than the seven plagues for mucking up what could have been a beautiful story. But the mere fact that we are ruled by Bush/Cheney–more Christians killing in the name of their God, if somewhat tangentially–is proof enough for me that God, if s/he exists, got utterly bored with us long ago and has left us to our own foibles.

Written by Dale

July 13, 2007 at 4:29 pm

Posted in summer reading