September 9, 2008

Recent Reading

As the new term gets underway, I feel my opportunities for "leisure" (a.k.a. "not required") reading slipping away--not that I'm sorry, of course, to have an excuse to read Bleak House again, or The Remains of the Day (too late now to worry that the latter is way too subtle a pleasure for my first-year students!). In the interstices of the past two hectic weeks, though, I have enjoyed reading a few things just for the sake of it.

A wise friend lent me both David Lodge's Thinks..., which provided much amusement, and Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody?, which provoked much reflection. I've fallen quite behind with Lodge's books, maybe because academic satires aren't quite as funny when you are struggling with shaping your own academic life to your liking. Maybe now I'll do some catching up, or at least reread Nice Work. Thinks... reminded me of another of my old favourites, Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs, though Lurie's novel allows for a bit more sentimentality. I was rereading O'Faolain's novel My Dream of You this summer and, again, enjoying especially the contemporary story (which, as in Byatt's Possession--an inevitable comparison, I suppose--alternates with the 19thC story being investigated, or, in this case, largely imagined, by the 20thC characters), and I found O'Faolain's memoir had very much the same wry yet elegaic tone, particularly in its descriptions of Irish landscapes, but also in its treatment of getting older. "How do people arrange to love their ageing selves?" O'Faolain asks. How indeed. I was particularly interested in her frustration with the cultural pressures towards romance--"reaching for me, trying to ruin me." Her description of her Christmas alone moved me, with its carefully planned pleasures, its undertone of melancholy and its moments of being surprised by joy. And then it's writing, she goes on to say, that fills "the emptiness."

There are links between O'Faolain's grasping after a storyline for herself that is not a romance plot and some of the main lines in Maureen Corrigan's Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading (which, appropriately, I tried to read most of while on airplanes with two children who seemed to have an unending list of needs and wants that only I could satisfy!). I'd like to write at more length about Corrigan's book than I have time for tonight, as it is an interesting variation on the "books about books" I've written up before. For now, I'm struck by Corrigan's observations about the absence of stories about working, or "intelligent or bookish" women in the classic novels she studied. (Of course, social and historical constraints--and the literary constraint of realism--makes such plots unlikely until the 20th century, but there were certainly intelligent, bookish women throughout the centuries. As many feminist critics have pointed out, George Eliot lived a life her own fiction can seem to imply is either impossible or undesirable.) I was thinking Gaudy Night during this part of Corrigan's discussion, and sure enough, Sayers's novel is a key example in the next chapter. Corrigan is another critic who likes to take shots at her academic experience ("I had to pay a price for the self-knowledge I gained in graduate school: the price was being in graduate school"). There's a lot of interesting bookish discussion in the book, though it is primarily a memoir; I found her comments on mystery and detective fiction of particular interest.

Now I'm reading Peter Robinson's Friend of the Devil; next up is Penelope Lively's Perfect Happines, which I "borrowed" from my mother's wonderful book collection in Vancouver to compensate for not, after all, having been able to do any book shopping there. (Next time, it's Duthie's or bust!) Lively's Moon Tiger is another of my long-time favourites.

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