Archive for April, 2007

Proust and Cervantes

I can hardly wait for next week. Not just because my semester will have dragged itself to an inglorious end, but because I finally get to dive into Proust and Cervantes. Moreover, a new collection of essays by Anne Fadiman is coming out in May, as is Michael Chabon’s new work, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I’m very excited about the latter book, in part because in my former life (and who knows, perhaps in the future) I was interested in researching the attempts to create a “Jewish homeland” in Birobidzhan under Stalin’s regime. So a Jewish settlement project based in Alaska, a mystery, and Yiddish jargon….what’s not to love?

Because of my aforementioned funk, I also decided to treat myself to a pick-me-up that involved ordering two biographies. This pick-me-up really kills many metaphorical birds with one stone! Not only do I get more bios on writers, but I feel like I’m one step closer to starting the books. Moreover, these two bios will give me some background to the works I’ll be reading this summer, AND I get a much-needed boost for my increasingly flagging spirits.

Where Proust is concerned, I’ve decided to order the biography Proust: A Life by Jean-Yves Tadie. It’s been described as the “definitive biography” and was a bestseller in France, where it was originally published. Although it vies with War and Peace in length (it checks in at 1016 pages), it nevertheless looks promising. I have not yet determined how many pages a week I’ll have to get through in order to accomplish my goal of reading all of Proust, but I’m sort of approaching this with the attitude that I would rather take my time, fail at the challenge, donate my money to a good cause, and enjoy Proust rather than rushing through and only giving him half of my attention.

Cervantes is a bit more difficult. There are not that many biographies in English and the fact that he lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries probably does not help matters. However, I have found a book to try. It’s called No Ordinary Man: The Life and Times of Miguel de Cervantes by Donald McCrory. While this book hasn’t been given the same rave reviews that Tadie’s bio of Proust has, it will nevertheless give me much more information than I have now. I sorely wish that I remembered the Spanish I learned so many years ago, for I would love to read Cervantes in the original, and there are more biographies available in Spanish than in English. But at the moment, although I can get the gist of what I read, I wouldn’t want to lose out on anything. The same goes for Proust. I have somehow managed to retain a 3rd year level of French (this, despite the fact that I never use it), but it would be a shame to inflict my lack of understanding on Proust’s masterpiece. But perhaps in the future I can try my hand at reading French at a much more basic level in order to get my fluency up and running. I’m attempting the same with Tolstoy (who is actually quite “easy” to read in Russian–this in comparison to Dostoevsky). My Russian babyshka has lent me Resurrection in Russian, so I’ll be reporting to her about my progress, or lack thereof, as I wade through the fascinating world of complex (and often deliciously long) Russian sentence constructions.

Now, the procrastination break is over and it’s time to get back to 19th-century American literature! Dred: A Tale of the Dismal Swamp beckons, albeit rather weakly, as does Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (which I read as a sophomore in high school, so we’ll see how it feels a second time ’round).

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in a funk

I know I say that Hell has frozen over quite often, but in this case, I seriously think it has. For the first time in a REALLY long time, I just don’t feel like talking, which means I don’t have too much to say on the blog lately either. Queen Mother has often remarked that ever since I was a child I had the special gift of “making people’s ears tired,” so for me, being quiet is something of a novelty.

I’ve also been in a reading funk lately, so I think I might have to remain silent on the book challenge front for a while as well. Once the semester ends next week I’ll probably whip out my “Once Upon a Time” challenge books, but I’m really looking forward to settling in with some loose baggy monsters: namely Proust and Cervantes. I also have to draw up a reading list for this summer, because if this initial foray into the world of graduate literature courses has taught me anything, it’s that I have a lot more to read up on. English is not History–and although the difference isn’t insurmountable by any means, there is a difference. Different rhetoric, different standards of evidence, different arguments… I feel like I’ve dropped into the deep end of the pool on this one, so I either learn to swim fast, or I’ll have to get the hell out of the water.

So for now, bear with me, I’m sure I’ll be back to exhaust your ears (or eyes in this case) in no time.

Experimentation

Because spring has finally arrived and because I have an irresistible desire to procrastinate, I’m playing around with the appearance of the blog. So bear with me as I try and work out what feels right!

And I know I mentioned a longer post last Wednesday, but now I’m hoping for tomorrow. What can I say? I’m really good at putting things off…

Still alive and kickin’

I just wanted to post a quick update. It’s been a week since my last post, but I’ve been so swamped that I haven’t been able to write anything substantial–at least, anything substantial that is NOT related to mid-nineteenth century prefaces and/or Hannah Webster Foster’s 18th-century sentimental novel, The Coquette. So bear with me, I’ll be back soon (I’m hoping for a longer post tonight)! Besides, have pity on me: I’m in the middle of reading Melville’s Moby-Dick, which I am surprised to find myself enjoying, although I suspect not for the reasons Melville would have me enjoy his book. Nevertheless, I’m finding it strangely gripping: I mean, who can resist a novel that spends an entire chapter discussing “the whiteness of the whale”? It’s no surprise to me that nineteenth-century readers were not interested in this novel because it’s quite unlike anything I’ve read in the period before. Quite frankly, it’s a mess of a book but I think that’s the reason I’m enjoying it (although, from what I hear, Melville’s Pierre is even worse–and I have that waiting patiently on my desk for the first free moment I have) . I think Moby-Dick was a bit ahead of its time… But once I finish it, I’m sure I’ll have more to say.

Living Vicariously (through others’ biographies)

Well, Hell may not have frozen over, but central New York certainly has. Winter has apparently returned for a couple of weeks, which is a bummer on one hand, but on the other, it’s an excuse to drink some hot chocolate or tea (I’m trying to cut back on coffee–stop laughing at me, I am!) and curl up with some good books. Which I have quite a few of (as my husband daily reminds me while looking forlornly at the disaster-zones that used to be our table, our living room floor, our office, and the floor beside my bed). Although, I’m hoping that the piles will soon be removed as friends of ours are giving us a beautiful glass-fronted bookcase! Very exciting! Now I just have to decide which books will be deemed “worthy” enough to sit in the special case….

I’ve also been daydreaming about the work I plan on doing this summer. Since I’d rather focus on future work instead of the stuff patiently waiting for me on my desk right now, I’ve come up with an ambitious plan.

  1. Try and turn at least one paper into a publication (I’ve joined a writing group, so this should help).
  2. Review the Norton Anthologies of English and American literature in preparation for the upcoming application season in the fall (talk about the mother of all fat books!).
  3. Study for subject GREs. Dammit, I thought I was done with this stupid test, but it looks like I’m heading back for another round of torture.
  4. Read 7 volumes of Proust.
  5. Read the books that have been gathering dust for my NYT notable book challenge
  6. Read five books from my Non-Fiction Five challenge list
  7. Read more biographies, particularly of women writers

I have become increasingly interested in women like Caroline Healey Dall (a feminist and abolitionist who wrote one of the longest running diaries in which she chronicled the changes in America through much of the nineteenth century). A full-fledged book on Dall’s life has yet to be written, but from the various essays (mainly written by Helen Deese) I have discovered that she was a fascinating woman. I love to read biographies if they are well-written, and today I picked up two new specimens: Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (one of my favorite authors) and Walter Isaacson’s Einstein. Both are lovely to look at and hold: fat, rough-cut pages–they look promising. I also have The Peabody Sisters which has been sitting untouched for a while (Elizabeth Peabody was once a mentor of Caroline Dall although their friendship later fell apart). There is also Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf and Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen (I’m currently reading her Thomas Hardy right now). I also think I should look for a good book on Proust, as I’ll be reading him throughout the summer.

Any other suggestions for good biographies? I’m always looking for more!

baby steps

Because every girl should have a mantra, I’ve decided that my new one is: “baby steps.” As in the “classic” Bill Murray film What About Bob?. (Note: in my family, a “classic” does not denote something old and/or venerable, but merely a film that should be watched many, many, many times because it is either incredibly stupid, incredibly funny, or both–most of Bill Murray’s films fall into this category for me). In the midst of the whirl of research and reading and writing–or at least, in the midst of thinking of this list of activities, as I’m not sure I’ve actually done any of them yet– it’s all too easy to get lost in the moment. Every once in a while I have to forcibly pull myself back and repeatedly inform myself (have you noticed yet that I tend to talk to myself too much?) that what I accomplish this semester is not the be-all and end-all of my career. Indeed, my graduate career is important inasmuch as it is the foundation for what follows, but it should not be confused for being a career (although I’m still aiming for the professional student job title). It’s a problem that I see in academia today: graduate students are increasingly expected to be professionalized, leaving less time for actual learning. Invariably I leave my classes–or meetings with my professors–humbled by my lack of knowledge and slightly anxious about how much I have to learn, which is how it should be. Because unlike Athena, I did not just spring out of Zeus’ head fully formed. (Not that I haven’t tried to be Athena–I once dressed as the goddess for Halloween, but my husband insisted that I more closely resembled the “Little Caesar” pizza man–to this day the words “pizza pizza” remind me of my failed attempt to enter the Olympian pantheon. But I digress, yet again). As I was saying, I need time to develop my skills. In other words, baby steps.

With that in mind I’ve started putting my obsessive compulsive skillz to good use: every week I calculate how many pages I have to read and I set myself a daily limit. It’s been fantastic so far–it’s far easier to deal with 50 pages a day than the overwhelming idea of 2 novels (plus research reading and non-academic reading) a week and I get through things in record time, leaving me much more time for writing–or at least that’s the idea. I haven’t managed that last bit yet, as I somehow end up wasting the “extra” hours by watching “Murder She Wrote” waaaaay too much, but hey, Baby Steps. (By the way, I’m working on a theory that “Murder She Wrote” contains the secret to all life, but so far the only response I have received is my husband trying hard not to laugh at me).

So in the spirit of optimism I’m declaring my goal for the week in the semi-public space of this blog (note: because of the fact that my classes land on Wednesday, my mental week runs from Thursday to the following Wednesday). I will do my darndest to write 10 total pages by next Wednesday. Ideally this would be equally distributed among the papers I have to write, but as I have a 6-8 page conference paper due next week, one class will get the lion’s share of my output. Nevertheless, if I succeed in this micro-project, it would leave me in the rather unfamiliar position of having written something ahead of time. I’m a little worried that Hell will freeze over just because I typed that, and as it is currently snowing outside (a sign?) I won’t push things too far. Repeat after me: baby steps.

Book gains (for the past 2 weeks)

I am late getting to my book gains (and I have two weeks to account for), but here’s the damage.

  1. Stardust by Neil Gaiman (for the fantasy challenge)
  2. His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik (fantasy challenge)
  3. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (fantasy challenge)
  4. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
  5. Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin by (you guessed it) John Hope Franklin
  6. A Day of Small Beginnings by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum
  7. The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom
  8. The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Suanna Clarke (fantasy challenge)
  9. Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin
  10. The Snake Agent by Liz Williams (fantasy challenge)
  11. Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions by Lisa Randall (I have a penchant for theoretical physics–which you wouldn’t know given my viscerally unpleasant reaction to my college physics course [or perhaps just my professor] and this book has been highly recommended by some of the people in Apparent Dip’s department, so I thought I would give it a go–so far it’s a great read).
  12. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 by Nina Baym (research)
  13. Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America by Anne E. Boyd (research)
  14. Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America by Mary Kelley (research)
  15. A Thick and Darksome Veil: The Rhetoric of Hawthorne’s Sketches, Prefaces, and Essays by Thomas Moore (research)
  16. Making the “America of Art”: Cultural Nationalism and Nineteenth-Century Women Writers by Naomi Z. Sofer (research)
  17. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays edited by Millicent Bell (research)
  18. Citizens of Somewhere Else: Nathaniel Hawthorn and Henry James by Dan McCall (research)
  19. Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America, 1850-1900 by Susan S. Williams (research)
  20. Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition edited by John Idol, Jr. and Melinda M. Ponder (research)
  21. “The Only Efficient Instrument”: American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916 edited by Aleta Feinsod Cane and Susan Alves (research)

It looks bad, but part of my reasoning in including the books I’ve picked up for research is to assure myself that I’m actually accumulating books for academic purposes as well. It’s no wonder, however, that my husband has reason to mourn the loss of our dining room table! I like to argue that he can make use of a couple of labs as well as his office at work for research space, so it’s only fair if I take over the living room and dining room as my “lab” space. I don’t think he buys it, but he’ll come round to my way of “logical thinking” eventually….