Middlemarch & other updates

I’m still trying to put into words everything that I want to talk about with respect to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. All sorts of things are being brought up to the surface in the process, and I don’t yet know if/when I’ll be done writing it!

In the meanwhile, I’m in the middle of Middlemarch, as I shall continue to be, till about mid-July! This book is the perfect mixture of plot, and ideas, and characters whom I love and characters whom I want to smack some sense into, and a place that feels as if it’s straight out of real life. Basically, I WAS RIGHT TO BUY THE BEAUTIFUL PENGUIN EDITION OF THIS BOOK WHEN I CAME ACROSS IT! Thank you Valancy & Laila, for reading along with me!! I hope you guys are enjoying Book 3! Oh, and anyone who’s on the fence about joining us—please do! There’s still time for you to catch up—as  you can see, we are a very leisurely sort of a readalong!

I’m also half-way through The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and I think part of the reason that I am enjoying it so much is because the story that this book is telling ties in very well with some of the things that I’ve been thinking about in relation to The Argonauts. I love what Becky Chambers is doing here.

Additionally, I started Ismat Chughtai’s The Crooked Line. She’s an Indian-Pakistani author who’s supposed to be the doyenne of Urdu literature. To be honest, I’m not sure if/when I’m going to finish this because I began this one to get a feel for her, and to tide me over, till her collection of short stories arrives at my doorstep.

These are all the books currently in the house. (Hubs had a fit of spring cleaning.)

I’ve read only a few pages so far but Reader, SHE IS CRAZY. No, SERIOUSLY. There’s this INSANE current of energy underlaying her words that is like nothing I’ve read before. The best approximation I can think of is Diana Wynne Jones. Her stories crackle with a similar energy, but Chughtai’s do so even more! She’s just weird. I can’t help feeling that she was cackling the entire time she was writing! Here, see for yourself:

No sooner did she appear all dressed up and clean than everything around her seemed poised to attack her spotless clothes. The red mud in the fields and the whispering sand on the edge of the pond tantalized her, the moist, fragrant grass in the stables pursued her with open arms, the dirty, foul-smelling chicken coop drew her to itself as if it were a bride’s flowery bed.

And another one:

The two girls went behind the cow’s stall and strolled with their arms wrapped around each other. Sometimes they tossed about in the sand like rolling pins. Then they pitched fistfuls of sand as if it was water they were scooping up in their hands, until finally the two of them began to resemble grotesque mud statues. Sand penetrated their very beings, but still they had not had enough of sand and mud. Making spoons out of dried leaves, they scooped up sand and swallowed mouthfuls; they devoured it as if it were delicious caudle. Like pregnant women, they relished the aroma of mud.

What do you think? (That second quote makes me think of magical realism for some reason.)

Sarah Morgan’s Some Kind Of Wonderful is what I picked up for my romance fix. I’d lapped up her O’Neill brothers’ trilogy and Some Kind Of Wonderful has a trope that’s one of my favorites—second chances! I don’t dig much of the contemporary romance out there but Morgan is always an exception. I REALLY like how Zach, the hero, has some heft to him. Yes, he walks out on his marriage of ten days, but Morgan is in the process of showing why he did that (I’m still reading it!). I can’t wait to see how the two leads work their way through to their happy-ever-after. (And speaking of romance, I have Dixie Browning’s Cinderella’s Midnight Kiss on hold—I HAD to read it after Valancy’s epic post).

Then there’s Alok Jha’s The Water Book that I simply MUST get around to given that that too is an ILL that I’ve already got extended once. Plus, I don’t know if it’s really come from there but on the front page it says it’s FROM THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEALAND! ZOMG!!! NEW ZEALAND! A BOOK CAME TO ME ALL THE WAY FROM NEW ZEALAND?!! :O

If you think I’m being too ambitious WITH SO MANY IN-BETWEENIES, YOU ARE RIGHT. Because, this is just the TIP of the ice-berg!! There are eleventy-one other books checked out as well with very little hope of any of them being completed before they need to be returned! My in-laws’ visit begins tomorrow and continues for the next few weeks and I have no idea how much reading and reviewing I’ll be able to manage while they’re around. So expect a slowdown here on the blog. The only thing I’m certain to follow-through on is Middlemarch. (I do feel a sense of obligation on that one given that I was the one to put the whole readalong into motion!) I’m also hoping to make inroads into my omnibus edition of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days for Deepika’s readalong in the first two weeks of May but we’ll see how it goes!

So that’s me! What’s up with you guys? What’s on your reader radar for the next couple of weeks?

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

I feel subsumed by The Argonauts. It has been a long, long while since I have felt this dizzying sense of expansion at the reading of a piece of text.

Nelson’s discourse is everything that resonates with me—unifying instead of divisive, inclusive rather than exclusive, nuanced, and willing to go beyond the widely-held rhetoric. It’s so, so thoughtful.

I’m so glad that I listened to the voice inside me that insisted that I put The Argonauts on hold despite leaving Bluets at the 20% mark twice.

I feel about The Argonauts the way I feel about poetry—not yet ready to write about it but filled with this desire to simply share the pieces that speak to me.

And so that’s what I’m going to do here. Simply share some of the pieces of The Argonauts that have stood out for me so far (I’m halfway through).

Many feminists have argued for the decline of the domestic as a separate, inherently female sphere and the vindication of domesticity as an ethic, an affect, an aesthetic, and a public. I’m not sure what this vindication would mean, exactly, though I think in my book I was angling for something of the same.

~ Bolded part courtesy Susan Fraiman

What if where I am is what I need? Before you, I had always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situation. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too.

~ Bolded part courtesy Deborah Hay

In other words, she wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.

As someone who’s been thinking more and more of motherhood—that is to say I’m becoming more and more sure that I WANT to be one, I loved reading the part below, especially as I have wondered about this as well:

Winnicott acknowledges that the demands of ordinary devotion can be frightening for some mothers, who worry that giving themselves over to it will “turn them into a vegetable.” Poet Alice Notley raises the stakes: “he is born and I am undone—feel as if I will / never be, was never born. // Two years later I obliterate myself again / having another child . . . for two years, there’s no me here.”

I have never felt that way, but I’m an old mom. I had nearly four decades to become myself before experimenting with my obliteration.

Then there’s this which is by William James:

We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold.

YES! YES! YES!

It’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unstable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.

And then this, tucked in, amidst everything else:

We bantered good-naturedly, yet somehow allowed ourselves to get polarized into a needless binary. That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin — DNF (for now)

Sigh! I tried. This tor.com review perhaps captures best the ambiguity that I feel regarding this book. It has also made me decide to give Winter’s Tale, if not another go, then to at least to pick up from where I left after a couple of years:

Here is how the Beverly/Penn romance actually progresses:

Peter breaks into their house and watches Beverly take a bath.
Peter gets a quick approval from the Penn patriarch.
Beverly and Peter go to a dance.
Beverly dies offscreen.
You put the book down and go do something constructive.

There’s still 3/4ths of Winter’s Tale to go after this and author Mark Helprin isn’t done throwing page-long descriptions of snow drifts at you, so he starts over and suddenly we are following a single mother, an industrial heir, and a couple other people who I kept forgetting the purpose of, about a century later as the year 2000 approaches.

. . .

To honor the 500th straight description of winter, Winter’s Tale begins assembling the idea that every thread that has been precipitously dropped so far will come back into play, kicking off a chain reaction that will result in this near-magical NYC being transmuted into a literal heaven on Earth.

Helprin is a charismatic enough writer to pull this kind of metaphysical twist off. I joke that there are about 500 descriptions of winter in this book, and there are, but those descriptions are rich, varied, evocative descriptions nonetheless. Helprin’s visuals glimmer boundlessly and he’s possibly one of the few writers living whom you could trust to describe Heaven arriving on Earth.

(In case you’re wondering I finished about 2/3rd of the book. The problem is this—I can read this book only in spurts. And when I am in the middle of taking a break, I’m not that eager to return to it.)

Click for my earlier reactions.

Adam Gopnik’s Winter

via Wired Science

via Wired Science

For the longest time I could not imagine how or why any poet would choose to write a paean to summer (or really any season for that matter). Indian summers are bristling, oppressive, and inconvenient and I’ve never found anything even vaguely poetic about them. Add to this the fact that for the last ten years I’ve experienced the four seasons as gradations of heat—hot, hotter and hottest is how I would describe the triumvirate of winter, monsoon and summer.

So you can perhaps understand my awe at living in a place that has seasons with not only clear-cut boundaries but also seasons that span the scale from 100 to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. This past year I’ve seen the trees around me bloom to life and then slowly wither away to stark bareness. It’s fascinating how life in all its forms adapts itself, or rather has to adapt itself to nature’s rhythm.

As winter slowly started poking its head out I found myself wanting to read more winter themed books. Adam Gopnik’s Winter appealed to me particularly. The subtitle is “Five Windows on The Season” and that’s exactly what it is—five essays on the season of Winter. I’ve finished just the first one so far and find myself enchanted with both Gopnik’s musings as well as his writing.

The first essay called “Romantic Winter” traces the very evolution of winter in our collective imagination for as Gopnik says:

We see and hear and sense in winter emotional tones and overtones that our great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers did not.

He posits that

The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as to live through.

I love how Gopnik takes something as routine as a season and gives it layers that provoke thoughts. For instance, winter in the early 19th century became “a form of national self-assertion” by the Germans (and also the Russians) in the face of a little French aggression called Napoleon Bonaparte. He gives examples of how winter is “potently labile,” and has the capacity to allow both the “sublime” and the “picturesque” to bloom from its folds.

He goes on to talk about the subtle influence of the “Japanese aesthetic” with its sophisticated sensibility of a “stylish winter and stylish snow” on the musicians and artists from Europe in the late 19th century and that immediately put in mind the New Yorks and the Londons of today’s world with their Christmas décor and grand window displays. And that in turn made me think of history’s influence through time—of how subtle influences 150 years ago trickle down through time to become a cultural mainstay.

I thoroughly enjoyed his final analysis on how the progress in science and its demystification of “the vast, scary iceberg [that became] a sort of image of the über-soul, in the same period the tiny, sweet snowflake [came] to represent distinctiveness of the human personality” has not in any way taken away from the wonder and refuge that we humans continue to find in nature:

The nine-tenths of the iceberg sunk beneath the water simply follows a natural rule of physics and is not a peculiarity of glaciology. . . . Snowflakes, it seems, are not only alike, they usually start out more or less the same. It turns out that, while it’s true that snowflakes often start out alike, it is their descent from the clouds into the world that makes them alter. (“As a snowflake falls, it tumbles through many different environments. So the snowflake that you see on the ground is deeply affected by the different temperatures, humidities, velocities, turbulences, etc., that it has experienced on the way,” Australian science writer Karl Kruszelnicki writes.) Their different shapes are all owed to their different paths downwards. So snowflakes actually start off all alike; it is experience that makes each one just different enough to be noticed.

In a way, the passage from “Snowflake” Bentley to the new snowflake is typical of the way our vision of nature has changed over the past century . . . Romantics generally, believed in the one fixed and telling image. We later moderns believe in truths revealed over time—not what animals or snowflakes or icebergs really are, mystically fixed, but how they have altered to become what they are. . . . The sign at Starbucks should read “Friends Are Like Snowflakes: More Different and Beautiful Each Time You Cross Their Path in Our Common Descent.” [rather than saying, “Friends Are Like Snowflakes: Beautiful and Different] For the final truth about snowflakes is that they become more individual as they fall; that buffeted by wind and time, they are translated, as if by magic, into ever stranger and more complex patterns, until at last they touch the earth. Then, like us, they melt.

Winter Reading–A Winter’s Tale, Tigana and some more

A Winter’s Tale

And so I would like to begin this new year with where I left off last—A Winter’s Tale. (Here’s my thoughts on part 1 by the way). Halfway through I’m still not entirely sure about the overarching theme of the novel. From the bits and pieces that Helprin drops here and there I get the feeling that he’s talking about the necessity of the existence of both good and evil for there to be any sort of equilibrium in this world. Then there’s the fact that the two lovers, Peter Lake and Beverly Penn whose lives we were following earlier have completely disappeared to be replaced by Hardesty Marratta and Virginia Gamely. In the middle there was a 50-60-page sequence between Hardesty and a giant dwarf called Jess that was hilarious. Of course Jess died and doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the rest of the story. Then again, the mysterious way in which almost all the previous characters have disappeared has made me pretty sure that they’re all going to turn up somewhere or the other. I’m impatient to know how and of course Helprin is in no hurry while he continues to frolic around in a lush prose that’s teeming with words that I frequently have to look up.

This far in the novel I also realize that Winter (yes, the season) and the Lake of Coheeries are central to the story. Both Hardesty and Virginia make their way to New York City on the heels of a winter that is unforgiving. And the Lake of Coheeries is a “place” that’s “not on the map, and [where] mail never gets through . . . It’s hard to explain.” It’s as if Lake of Coheeries is a living, breathing presence, one that condescends to allow only certain people into its folds.

I was also a bit bemused by the scenes of madness Hardesty encounters—

Bakery trucks raced on the main avenues at 125 miles per hour, assassinating bicyclists and pedestrians. Balkan pretzel vendors in two-foot-thick-padded clothing and fleecy aviator caps charged each other with their flame-holding wagons, bumping like buffalos, to lay claim to a corner.

They have me wondering whether Hardesty actually saw these. What if they were merely a product of an imagination that had taken a violent dislike to a city that we’re told “wanted fuel for its fires, and it reached out with leaping tongues of gravity and flame to pull people in, size them up dance with them a little, sell them a suit—and then devour them.”

Helprin captures the beingness of New York City in all its beauty… and also its cruelty. I’m hooked and impatient to know how it all comes together.

Tigana

This last month I also read my second Guy Gavirel Kay novel. He writes gripping stories that for some reason I just don’t find as satisfying as the rest of the world does. In Tigana the issue is a question of identity and how much of it stems from a shared past. What does it mean when nobody other than the people of your own country can recall the nation-state you’re from? What does it do to your sense of self to have that culture and history that you perhaps took for granted obliterated from the minds of the rest of the world? As I said Mr. Kay writes about interesting themes and packages it  in fast-moving action but for some reason both Tigana and A Song for Arbonne failed to capture my imagination. I’m thinking of reading one more of his books—Under the Stars—before making up my mind.

Other stuff

Some other books I’ve been occupied with included the second Earthsea book Tombs of Atuan, Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London and Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot. Aaronovitch’s book is very much like what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the London police force.

I’ll leave you with this poem that I found while reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter:

The Winter Evening by William Cowper written in 1785

O winter, ruler of the inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d, . . .
A leafless branch thy scepter, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slippery way,
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded as thou art! . . .
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, homeborn happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.

Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale Part I

There is nothing simple about A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It sprawls over 768 pages. It demands that you keel over and give yourself up completely to the story. It resists a breezy acquaintance and insists that you focus on each and every single word that adds up to its 768 pages. And as far as I am concerned, it’s a story that I just cannot complete in a single sitting—the sort of absolute attention that it requires is exhausting. And yet the deeper I move into it, the stronger becomes its allure.

The setting is turn of the century (the dawn of the 20th century that is) Manhattan. The main characters (from what I can ascertain by reading the first section of the book) are a thief, another thief, a horse that can virtually fly, an amorphous white wall composed chiefly of clouds that extends for miles both vertically and horizontally and that lurks off the shore of the island of Manhattan, perhaps a boy who was presumably dead, a girl who is definitely dead and the city of New York itself.

Here’s what Helprin has to say about Manhattan:

Manhattan, a high narrow kingdom as hopeful as any that ever was, burst upon him full force, a great and imperfect steel-tressed palace . . . [B]uilt upon an island from which bridges stretched to other islands and to the mainland . . . it took in nearly all who wished to enter . . . [I]t was, for sure, one simple structure, busily divided, lovely and pleasing, an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built.

Its forms and geometry entranced him . . . shoe-black horses trotting airily at the head of varnished carriages . . . the ballet of the crowds as they took stairs, turned corners, and forged across streets; the guttural noises of machinery . . . and acres of beautiful upright women.

I love how generous Helprin is with his words, piling them one on top of the other till I feel intoxicated. I think that I initially persevered with this book purely because of the sentences that make up its girth. Helprin is a master describer. My favourite chapter in this first section is an episode called, “Lake of the Coheeries.” Its setting is a winter landscape that is probably brutal and yet one that Helprin succeeds in making you yearn for with the utter beauty that he renders it.

Beyond the words there are the characters themselves. They’re quite unique and also not quite normal. Not normal not because this is a book filled with magical realism (1. I hope I used that term correctly 2. There is an incident where a pair of adolescent boys are very nervous because they’re afraid that magazine with the pictures of the almost naked women they’d been drooling over would burn a hole through the floor of the room right above them and drop down onto the table where everyone was having the family dinner. That the scene a sentence later alludes to there now being a hole in the floor above was quite funny). The characters are not normal because each of the characters has something going on that makes them appear slightly touched.

I’m pretty sure I haven’t ever come across a thief who steals because he’s held in thrall by colors. The greatest heist that he plans—to seize a cargo of gold so that he can build a room made entirely of gold—has nothing to do with greed or pride:

My plan . . . is to build a golden room in a high place, and post watchmen to watch the clouds. When they turn gold, and the light sprays upon the city, the room will open. The light will stuff the chamber. Then the doors will seal shut. And the goldenness will be trapped forever. . . . In the center, I will put a simple bed, and there I will repose in warmth and gold. . .  for eternity.

The book is divided into four sections and I finished the first one today. I’d become confused enough within the first few pages to want a sense of where all this led to and to see if it was worth investing my time into this story. I was careful though to not read anything spoilery about the ending, as it’s supposedly controversial. So I have a 30,000 feet overview of what probably happens. And yet I find myself bemused at this unusual tale. I don’t know what motifs, if any, form the backbone of this book. Given that I’ve finished just a quarter of this compendium that might not be surprising. I’ll be back as I find out more!

Edit: And here’s part 2

Nooks & Crannies: The Fall Version

Autumn ReadsIt’s been a while since I finished Guy Gavirel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne but for some reason I haven’t particularly felt like writing about it. And then I started feeling that till I reviewed that book I couldn’t read or write anything else—which is just stupid.

I have been reading of course.

Let me start with Patricia Wrede’s Cecilia and Sorcery book 3—a fun and fluffy read that while I enjoyed was also slightly contrived in its plotting in my opinion. I will probably read Miss Wrede’s other books when I’m in the mood for some light historical fantasy.

Then there is Jess Walter’s The Financial Live of the Poets that is quite simply howlarious. I’m about 40% of my way through and have been reading it on the Oyster app that has a lovely interface but that I haven’t found myself using a lot. The app has an instant gratification component to it in that I can start reading any book that I want the very moment I want but I would much prefer a Kindle to Oyster for that. At least the Kindle will let me highlight the text. Plus, Kindle has a bigger screen and feels easier on the eyes. So what exactly is Oyster’s place in it all? What niche, if any, does it cater to amongst the public libraries, Kindles and Overdrives of the world? Perhaps it’s of particular use while commuting? But a Kindle or an e-book reader would do as well as Oyster for that. Not something I am particularly keen to think through right now but I definitely don’t see a defining need for Oyster. I also seem to have discovered a new love for paper books with the New York Public Library. (Perhaps, Oyster would be good for markets that do not have comprehensive library systems? Oyster should certainly look at international markets for that!)

I also finally found my way to Ursula K. Le Guin, starting with A Wizard of Earthsea. Oh what a lovely person she is! I loved that Ged’s quest is more about finding himself (something that I suspected early on) than about a fight between good vs. evil. I would love to recommend this book to my youngster friends and have already put a hold on book 2!

The past month has also seen me letting go of books while half-way through. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had to be returned to the library since someone else had it on hold. I found it a difficult book to start with but once I got in the flow I found it to be a strangely liberating read—there is something compelling and freeing about a life lived only in contemplation of nature. I could read only a few pages at a time—my preferred reading time was right before I fell asleep—and yet it was an immensely relaxing and peaceful experience.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is another book that I found myself enjoying and yet one more book that I could not hurry through. It’s a text that demands a slowing down and falling in rhythm with its cadence to get its full flavor. And then I left it at a friend’s place while visiting and by the time I receive it, it has to be returned. Gilead has so many lovely bits:

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it.

and

There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. . . . Not that you have to be a minister to confer the blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you.

Parnassus on Wheels is one more book that I’m reading on Oyster—I love the Professor and find myself grinning through his impassioned speeches about ‘the Good’ that books can do! To use a cliché: It’s a delightful romp!

October is such a beautiful month for reading. I’m loving the mantle of chilly weather that’s slowly settling over the northern hemisphere and find myself in a contemplative mood. I was reading about Miss K. Le Guin and also Margaret Atwood (whose Oryx trilogy is now on my TBR pile after seeing her live in a discussion with Carl Hiassen—she is so graceful and wise and erudite) and one thing that struck me about both Miss Atwood and Miss K. Le Guin is their reflective nature.

It’s as if in the allowing of your thoughts and your encounters and your musings to sort of seep through and settle in your experiences become a fertile ground for your writing. I find this fascinating because I’ve always felt that the only stories I would ever write are the ones I dream about (yep, I’ve dreamt stories and while dreaming also thought that hey, this would make a jolly good tale).

On another note, I’ve been contemplating issues of identity. There was an article in NY Times a while back about the “opt-out” generation, a generation of highly successful women in high-powered jobs who left it all to take care of their kids and who for various reasons found themselves returning to the workforce and subsequently found that they had to start at levels that were sadly nowhere near where they had left. There’s a lot to unpack there but the thing that struck me the most was how much each woman’s identity stemmed from what she had done i.e. her work persona. I think this is true for either of the sexes and I have this at the back of my mind as I embark upon Rosalind Miles’s The Women’s History of the World. I’m looking forward to seeing the identities that women have forged for themselves over the course of the last few centuries.

photo credit: dbtelford via photopin cc