Archive for February, 2007

Just Say No…..to Caffeine (ok, but not really)

I have a problem–I drink WAY too much coffee. I came to this brilliant realization (which, by the way, I have come to a bajillion times in the past without much effect) while getting ready for a class presentation today. Actually, “presentation” is probably too formal a word. The description of what these presentations ARE should read something like this:

give a brief (aka 5 minute) synopsis of the history of literary criticism concerning Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (particularly in the last 10 years) while your fellow students fall asleep, eat their lunch, or otherwise pay no attention to the fact that you freaked out about a presentation that was, in reality, completely useless and/or redundant as the professor already had in mind the direction SHE wanted to go in regards to the text, so you might as well have enjoyed the coffee you drank this morning rather than gulping it down in desperation, hoping that it would provide you with some outstanding insight, as it really only gave you a caffeine buzz of gigantic proportions without the benefit of enjoying the coffee on the way down.

I was nervous about this presentation in large part because I haven’t done much work with literary criticism for the past 9 years or so. In reality, my sense of “outsiderness” is completely overblown (I enjoy making mountains out of molehills, it’s actually a hobby of mine). “For goodness sake,” I say to myself, “you already have a masters in history, which you earned despite the fact that you only ever took one history class in college–and the only thing you remembered from that undergraduate course was that you had decided to take notes using block print writing! You can do this! You’ve done it a million times before!” To this I responded, “Whatever!” (note, I’m not exactly the world’s best argue-er–in the first place, I make up words like ‘argue-er’ and in the second, I tend to resort to empty one-word retorts like “whatever!” which only indicates that I have lost the argument, but am the most stubborn person alive, and will thus never give in, despite the fact that I’m having this discussion in my head with myself). I have decided, however, that I have managed to make progress in the last few years when it comes to my self-doubts as I now only start arguing with myself in my head vs. out loud. Infinitely better (although I still can get weird looks from other people while this is happening, as my face tends to display my emotions all too clearly. The outcome of this is generally that I may be silent, but I look like I ate something rancid). Therapy is always an option, but I think I’ll just go get myself another cup of coffee, this time to quiet my nerves….

"lubby dubby all the time"

If you’re wondering where the title of this post came from, you can thank the street musician I passed on the way to the post office today. He made me smile (and not just because he sang “lubby dubby, lubby dubby, lubby dubby all the time”) because he seemed to be having such a good time–he was really belting it out, and not in any way that resembled a tune. His guitar skillz were woefully lacking as well, but hey, it’s cold outside, and playing the guitar with mittens on would defeat the purpose (although the skill level may not have changed all that much if he had–but who am I to talk? I’m a piano girl). It was great.

So I didn’t make the all-time record of three posts in one day (that’s a record for myself, that is). But I think two was more than adequate. Today I give you my updated list o’books for the NYT Notable Books of 2006 challenge. I have both fiction and non-fiction selections, but because I really want to use this challenge to read books I normally would pass by (or read only the reviews of) I’m trying to stick with more fiction than non. I have 20 fiction books on my list and 5 or 6 non-fiction–the idea is that if I feel the need, I can substitute a non-fiction book at any time. Also, I’m going to be easy on myself–I recognize that I am the world’s greatest procrastinator, so I’m not saying I have to read ALL of the books–this is just what I have culled from the list based on what appealed to me most at the time. So….drum roll please…..Here they are!

FICTION:

  • Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart (he’s coming to speak at my U so I get to go to the reading!)
  • Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
  • Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
  • Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
  • Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala
  • Brookland by Emily Barton
  • The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin
  • The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
  • Forgetfulness by Ward Just
  • Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Keep by Jennifer Egan
  • The Inhabited World by David Long
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
  • Old Filth by Jane Gardam
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • Skinner’s Drift by Lisa Fugard
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
  • Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
  • A Woman in Jerusalem by A.B. Yehoshua

NON-FICTION:

  • The Courtier and the Heretic: Liebniz, Spinoza, and the Fat of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart
  • Flaubert: A Biography by Frederick Brown
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
  • Lee Miller: A Life by Carolyn Burke
  • The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn
  • Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen

Note: I have already broken my “no more books on hold at the library” rule (I only kept that rule for one day! That is a new record of pathetic-ness). But I’ve heard such amazing things about the book Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiongo that I HAD to! Really, I did protest…weakly. I mean, it’s a Big Fat Book! You can’t expect me to take a stand against that, can you?

For your amusement….

My husband, Mr. Loose Baggy Monster-with-a-different-last-name-and-no-hair (aka Apparent Dip) has inspired me with his recent post on the Onion‘s humorous “insights” into the world of science. I decided to spend my Sunday afternoon in the selfless pursuit of finding headlines that pertained to literature/books and grammar and found a few gems that I thought I should share with you. (ok, so this wasn’t selfless at all, as it sure beats the heck out of working, and I can count this toward my weekly goal of hours spent procrastinating…)

For those of you who regularly find yourself grimacing as you grade undergraduate papers (or for those of you grimacing as you write said papers), I offer you this: Freshman Term Paper Discovers Something Totally New about Silas Marner. One of my personal favorites is the article entitled Heroic Computer Dies to Save World from Master’s Thesis. I know I sometimes wish my computer had been so selfless when it came to my undergraduate honors thesis, but it was not to be (instead I’ve buried the paper in a file somewhere, hoping it will get lost in the general clutter that is my office). Also on the academic front, for those of you who feel that too many college undergraduates don’t give their all in their classes, here’s a touching story about a Girl Moved to Tears By Of Mice and Men Cliffs Notes. You see! They do care…

On another note, perhaps you are worried that you have so many books that you’ve started using your piles as furniture. In this case, you might be inspired by this: Great Books of Western Civilization Used To Accent Den. I personally felt reassured at my own inability to finish books by this lovely article: Area Man Well-Versed in First Thirds of Great Literature. And for those of you who have ever felt that a book did not fulfill its initial promise of transporting you to another place and/or time, take heart, as this article provides conclusive evidence that Books Don’t Take You Anywhere.

I had such a good time looking for these articles, that I think I might make this a regular feature of the blog (say once a month or so). I hope you enjoy them as much as I did…

And the book fort grows…

It’s time to report on my book gains for the week (sigh). Here goes:

I only have two more books on my hold list at the library, so I’m hoping that I will finally finish something before I get any more books. My copy of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is due soon, so I’m hoping to finish that this week and FINALLY review something. I’m not a slow reader, but my coursework has limited my reading time (well, that and my amazing ability to get distracted by every other book under the sun). I will probably achieve most of my challenge reading during the summer months, once my courses are finished. Until then, I will continue to plug away at the alarmingly huge piles decorating the floor of my bedroom, living, and dining rooms. My husband has even taken to building a book fort around his desk as well, although those are the books that I have decided to part with (sadly, I assure you) as we just don’t have room for them all. (Ah the joys of apartment living–although, I expect that space is something like money: you never have enough of it, especially when one is a bibliophile).

Blogwise, stay tuned in breathless anticipation: there will be an additional post today with funny articles pertaining to books and grammar, and there might even be a third with my updated NYT challenge book list (whew! three posts in one day, I must really be hurting for some procrastination excuses!). And now, I’m off to make some coffee, to fortify myself for the massive amount of reading I have taken on….

Stop the madness!

The line has to be drawn somewhere (although, given my perfectionist tendencies, it would be nice if the line could be drawn with a ruler). I must put my foot down, and that’s all there is to it. I need to start making lists (see? another reason to buy a neat journal) instead of just checking books out from the library on the fly. Otherwise they sit around until I have to return them and I have the guilt of not even touching them in the meantime (well, that’s not completely true, as I often have to shift the pile of books off the table so we have someplace to eat). I will allow myself to pick up the books I already have on hold, but then that’s it! (At least, that’s it until I find a way to rationalize myself out of this corner). But it would be nice to actually finish something. My new “regimented” reading schedule demands the following:

  • Have to read AT LEAST 1-2 chapters a night of NYT challenge book of choice
  • During the day while I’m “working,” I can read books for my coursework/research (furthermore, I should not waste this precious time by reading fun things or blogs–crap, blew that one already)
  • Can read other books, but only if I am at least attempting to accomplish the first two points on this list

Not much of a regimen, but it’s either that, or I end up crushed beneath a book-pile o’doom.

Re-readings

On the way into work today, my amazingly erudite husband (he made me say that) and I talked about the phenomenon of rereading. I find it fascinating to chart the different stages I have gone through (and continue to go through) as a reader. An earlier stage was one in which my relationship to literature was defined solely by plot, and I often had a hard time rereading stories (I actually couldn’t bring myself to do it) because I already knew what happened, and thus could not be interested in taking a second look. But after going to an author event where Wendy Lesser described her changing relationships with certain novels (especially Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina), I began to rethink this problem of mine. For example, I would love to reread Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The first time I approached this novel I was a freshman in college, sitting in a classroom of juniors and seniors discussing Russian literature. I couldn’t wait for the novel to end (in fact, I’m pretty sure I skipped the last few chapters because I was fed up pretty early on). Now I think I would have a greater appreciation for the psychological torments Raskolnikov was going through (although, my ability to relate to Raskolnikov is, perhaps, qualified by the fact that I cannot understand the torment specifically brought on by killing a person with an ax). I would also like to reread War and Peace–I first approached it because I had to: I wrote about it for my senior honor’s thesis (which will hopefully remain buried in my memory and filing cabinet, nevermore to see the light of day). How would I relate to it now, after my reading abilities have improved (at least I hope) over time? Which characters would I empathize with? Would I still be angry with the way Tolstoy handled Natasha’s character at the end?

I also find it interesting that I don’t seem to have the same problem reviewing movies. Even when I know the outcome of a mystery, I can (and frequently do to my husband’s chagrin) endlessly watch Poirot and Miss Marple (or Murder She Wrote). Once I know who the killer is, I love to look at the films with fresh eyes, to pick up those clues I missed at first viewing. Why shouldn’t reading be the same? Perhaps I should start a reading journal–noting down the context within which I first approached the book(s), so that at a future date I can go back and see how I felt, what I thought, laugh heartily at my naivete and then see what another time around does for me. (Note: this could also just be another petty attempt to find an excuse for buying another pretty journal–I have a love relationship with paper that is only matched by my husband’s love for pens–we make a good team, although going on a date to an office supply store may be a new low in pathetic-ness).

Of course, the real problem is: if I haven’t read half of the books on my shelves, how in the world can I justify going back to those I’ve already read? Perhaps I should just skirt the issue altogether by buying Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays Rereadings, in which different authors describe their second/third/nth experiences with various books they loved (I thoroughly enjoyed Fadiman’s book Ex Libris as well). That way I can live vicariously through others by reading a “new” book about people reading “old” ones, while managing to completely disregard the bookfort that is growing in my office (I’ve managed to surround my desk with piles of books–if anyone attacks, I’m well fortified–at least, I am until the cats knock the piles down in their efforts to wrestle with one another). Perhaps it’s time for an intervention?

Here’s a very preliminary list o’books that I would like to reread:

  1. War and Peace (loved it)
  2. Anna Karenina (loved it)
  3. The Master and Margarita (one of my all-time favorites)
  4. Doctor Zhivago (loved it)
  5. Crime and Punishment (didn’t finish the last chapter)
  6. Madame Bovary (I think I liked it, I can’t remember)
  7. A Tale of Two Cities (loved it)
  8. All of Agatha Christie (I am particularly interested in her descriptions of foreigners in Europe on the brink of WWII)
  9. Great Expectations (I remember disliking it intensely as a high school student)
  10. The Scarlet Letter (liked it–I’ll get to it this semester)

Any books you would particularly like to revisit?

On Trollope

Caution: methinks I feel a diatribe coming on. I do get to Trollope (eventually) after a long digression containing a mini intellectual autobiography as I attempt to sort out my interests (oh, what a tangled web I weave!), particularly regarding literature.

Those of you who know me can attest to the fact that I have a rather random intellectual background (which is not that unusual, I suspect, although it is getting increasingly difficult to make people in the admissions process appreciate such a varied set of interests in this age of specialization). I have a B.A. in Russian literature, a M.A. in American history, and an aborted first year of a Ph.D. program in American history (in which I tried to switch to Russian/Soviet Jewish history but didn’t continue for a variety of reasons). My M.A. is something of an anomaly–and it continues to surprise me–as it wasn’t what I intended to pursue when I decided to return to school. Timing, I discovered, is everything, and so I found myself as an accidental Americanist specializing in the 19th century (at the time I enrolled in the M.A. degree, the European program was in transition). Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time as an Americanist and I appreciate the importance of American history, but it’s not where my heart seems to want to lead me.

I now find myself taking grad classes on a nonmatriculated basis as I try to determine what the hell it is that I do want to study. And I am finding that, once again, the American side of the pond is leaving me rather cold. I am currently enrolled in two courses on 19th century American lit and I’m enjoying myself thoroughly (reading novels for class often beats reading history books), but I’m just not feeling the love for it overall. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I am reading Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a second time in my life and not really enjoying it any more than I did the first time; but I find my mind drifting too readily when dealing with the period, whether from an historical or literary point of view (and as my parents can attest, my mind is too ready to drift into lala land to begin with, so added impetus to veer off into daydreams can be something of a problem). I do enjoy American literature, but I find myself getting stir-crazy at times.

Although, as I continue to think about this, I think my real problem involves geographical constraints. I do like some 19th century American literature to be sure, but my interests are much broader (gee, really? would never have guessed at that). And while a comparativist sentiment is most definitely there in academia, the fact remains that when looking at most English graduate programs, I am discouraged by the fact that most “fields” continue to be defined by geographical boundaries. Now, I understand the importance of looking at literature within a nationalist context, but I also long to break free from boundaries that, when looking at intellectual history in particular, feel too confining. For example, U.S. writers did not just read and influence each other, they read French, German, Russian, and English works (and so on) as well. They may have been rooted in their own nationality, but they also participated in broader intellectual discussions. I know that a degree in comparative literature is an option, but at the same time, given how long it’s been since I used my Russian, German, French, and Spanish I’m not sure that this is a viable option at the moment (all I can say with authority in each of these languages is that I don’t speak them very well anymore–although, as a quirk of memory, I still know a few choice curse words to throw in for good measure). Moreover, perhaps I’ve been overly influenced by Milan Kundera’s argument about Die Weltliteratur (although he, himself, seems limited to a European context rather than one that is truly global in scope), but how should one position oneself as a student who would like to cross boundaries, and yet remain in an English (v. comparative lit) program? I tried to do this with my history ph.d. and it really got me nowhere (can anyone tell me why programs make you write a statement of purpose if they actually disregard that purpose altogether?). Perhaps this is just evidence of my inexperience as to the state of literary studies in this country, in which case, I am more than happy to be proven wrong!

So, to make a long diatribe short (too late!), I think I need to go read some Trollope. I’ll be getting the first disc of “The Way We Live Now” in the mail tomorrow (hooray!), but I think I need to go home tonight, curl up with some hot cocoa (especially since my Keurig coffee order should arrive today with some Ghirardelli hot chocolate in the box) and read one of Trollope’s “loose baggy monsters.” For some reason, I turn to Dickens, Trollope, or Tolstoy when I need some soul soothing–I think it’s easier to relax when I can get lost in the characters and sub-plots. And to anyone who might be in an English grad program, who would like to share advice, I’m willing to listen! And then, perhaps, I should challenge myself to choose a novel (or several) from countries all over the world and truly expand my reading base. Argh! So much knowledge to discover, and so little time!