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Turning the Page

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.37.10 AM‘Tis the season for list-making! I recently shared a fantasy smorgasbord of Christmas cookies (one down, four to go), and today I feel compelled to share a few books on my shortlist, an homage to that other, all-consuming winter pastime: curling up on the couch with a good read. From literary criticism to historical fiction to memoir to spy novel to a book lover’s self-help manual, Forrest Gump might liken my selection to a box of chocolates, as in, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” I’m cool with that — it aptly describes the pleasure I derive from bookstore browsing. Here are some of my far-flung finds:

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.38.41 AMAt least once before on this blog, I have tried to put my finger on what is so doggone compelling about Henry James, going so far as to cite Zadie Smith’s insights and dignifying the ridiculously overwrought The Golden Bowl with a detailed book review. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my desire to understand James — how he crafts such highly sympathetic, surprisingly tragic characters — is still burning. It’s a nerdy fixation, but one that evidently plagues other members of his fan club, including Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel, which I discovered in a September 2012 issue ofThe New Yorker. In essence, Gorra’s book distills James’s literary genius into an analysis of his most famous and critically acclaimed novel. Reviewer Anthony Lane is another ebullient fan, and points out the dramatic potential of a “book about a book” by emphasizing how James’s poised, understated prose somehow left “the equilibrium of [its] readers shaken,” all starting with this innocuous opening line: “‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’” For obvious reasons, Lane reserves his recommendation of Portrait of a Novel — part biography, part textual analysis, part literary criticism — for those with an established attachment to Portrait of a Lady. However, he ends his review with a message for less ardent fans, saying we “need him [Henry James] more than ever,” referencing Gorra’s assertion that Portrait of a Lady’s greatest accomplishment is exposing the “limits of self-sufficiency.” Yes, I’m wholeheartedly onboard — Isabel’s misplaced trust in her own bright and promising future, with such an all-American commitment to her own destiny, is what makes the failure of her choices “shake our equilibrium” as cock-eyed, optimistic Americans. If the current state of our economy has made many people more open to the fallacy of the American dream, if TV shows like “Girls” garner accolades for depicting modern-day Isabel Archers on their hapless journeys toward self-actualization, then perhaps there’s never been a better moment to explore the coming-of-age story of the twenty-something author who called us out on our false pretenses circa 1880.

The Paris Wife

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.29 AMA few months ago, I spent some time perusing this 2011 historical fiction novel in a bookstore. It seemed like a light diversion, telling the story of a 28-year-old midwestern woman, Hadley Richardson, and her whirlwind relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Rich with references, it contains a glamorous cast of real-life legends — Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, in addition to Hemingway — a fabled setting — Chicago and Paris circa the roaring twenties — and the intensity of a love affair in which wife equals literary muse. According to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, The Paris Wife is addled with clichés and clumsy pastiches of the characters that populate its pages, but who really cares? I have a feeling that much like Woody Allen’s disjointed film, Midnight in Paris, this book earned its popularity for more sentimental reasons, serving as a wistful ride back in time and across the atlantic.

A Story Lately Told

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.53 AMI enjoy the fact that memoirs are a kind of inclusive, “bottomline” writing endeavor, concerned with honestly sharing the writer’s experience rather than word-smithing. More than other genres, the art of writing a memoir (and the pleasure of reading one) seems to be purely about the transfer of information, about illuminating the myriad layers contained in a single life. I’m drawn to Angelica Houston’s recently published memoir as a way to glimpse into pop culture history. She touches on the marital dynamics between her flamboyant, self-absorbed film director father and her young, beautiful, ballet dancer mother, her pastoral upbringing in Galway, Ireland, her power couple status vis-a-vis Jack Nicholson, even her unapologetic embracement of fashion as a source of aesthetic pleasure and self-expression. It cracks the surface of a life mostly known through images, whatever your generation.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.40.56 AMI’ve never read anything by acclaimed crime writer John Le Carré, but he’s been on my radar via book reviews and recommended reading lists since the publication of his 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man. His name seems to pop up with increasing frequency, from film adaptations (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011) to new works (A Delicate Truth in 2013) to the increasing relevance of espionage in our culture (the NSA, Edward Snowden, the popular TV show, Homeland, to name a few examples). Touted in Anthony Boucher’s 1964 New York Times review as “a novel of significance, while losing none of the excitement of the tale of sheer adventure,” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seems like a good place to start within Le Carré’s formidable oeuvre. The protaganist, Alec Leamas is disillusioned with espionage work, undertaking one last assignment before quitting the field. The story doubles as a suspenseful account of his assignment and a deeper, psychological portrait of a man “permanently isolated in his deceit.” Having just finished season two of Homeland, this description sounds eerily like Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, and their mutual experience of being “isolated in deceit.”

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.41.39 AMI read de Botton’s The Art of Travel last summer, which I have written about at length on this site. After confiscating the book from my husband during our road trip down Highway 1, I quickly became smitten with de Botton’s ability to expound upon broad, timeless topics in a manner both original and unexpectedly practical. De Botton has a singular focus on essay writing, and rather impressively sticks to large, universal subjects, such as Art as Therapy, Status Anxiety, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. If the measure of a good cook is their most basic dish, the same test applies to writers — the best ones can take on well-worn topics head-on, infusing them with flavor. The Art of Travel mustered a lot of flavor, and from what I’ve read, How Proust Can Change Your Life contains the same mixture of insight and practicality. According to de Botton’s website, the book developed out of the notion that literature is a transformational thing, a belief widely proselityzed by English teachers but rarely examined in-depth. So de Botton examines Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, characterized as “a byword for obscurity and irrelevance,” to demonstrate some of the ways in which literature can literally be a guide to real life. I have never read any of Proust’s books, which may speak to the unsubstantiated claims of English teachers, but why not start easy, with “a self-help book like few others”?

[Photos: “Turn the Pages,” Krissy.Venosdale’s photo stream via Creative Commons, and photos of the books’ front covers]

Words To Drive By Part 5

On Possessing Beauty

IMG_1728There was much beauty to document on our recent trip. From San Francisco’s salmon-colored, hillside homes, to the produce stalls of Saturday morning markets, from ocean vistas to smaller nooks and crannies.

You get my drift. A snapshot or two or 50 becomes inevitable; there is an urge to possess beauty when it is fleeting. We began our slow-twisting descent into Yosemite Valley as I reached the chapter on “The Art of Possessing Beauty” in “The Art of Travel.” I felt a renewed appreciation for the examined life vacation, the notion of author-as-companion tapping me on the shoulder with some timely advice.

This time, the life of John Ruskin is the author’s point of inspiration. An Englishman living in the 19th century, he wrote The Elements of Drawing and The Elements of Perspective. He championed the art of drawing to the English public, believing that drawing was the only way to truly see the world’s beauty.

He was interested in what it meant to see: he valued writing and photography and other methods of “possessing beauty” in so much as they allowed a person to understand and articulate the various factors that made something seem beautiful.

He was acutely observant of visual and sensory details:

“Ruskin was throughout his life frustrated by the refusal of polite, educated English people to talk in sufficient depth about the weather — and in particular by their tendency to refer to it as wet and windy…” (De Botton 227).

He also believed in traveling slowly, in a state of deep concentration, covering small distances at a time. De Botton summarizes the rarity of this approach among modern travelers:

“It is a measure of how accustomed we are to inattention that we would be thought unusual and perhaps dangerous if we stopped and stared at a place for as long as a sketcher would require to draw it” (218).

I am sure John Ruskin would have delicately rolled over in his grave had he witnessed the herd of cars and RVs eagerly stopping at one particular, heavily labeled overhang for the same photo op (like me, below). I am sure our hour-long drive to the campsite, winding through one sun-drenched patch of trees after another, punctuated by the occasional, sparkling stream or stark cliff, could have easily been its own trip, its own portfolio of drawings.

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But for all the dramatic views, highs and lows we witnessed at Yosemite, we did spend one afternoon that felt distinctly aligned with his principles of slow-moving receptivity, lying along the rocks of a very clear, cold river on a thick, hot day. It was the psychological equivalent of being eight years old again, in the dog days of summer — the faded voices of families calling to each other, multiple generations in multiple languages, the crunch of gravel, the mixed smell of charcoal and barbecue, the running of water over rocks, slight breezes cutting through dry heat, sending an occasional shiver through low-hanging leaves.

That is my attempt at a “word-painting,” for which Ruskin eventually became famous. Ruskin believed that describing the natural beauty of a place meant to capture its unique, emotional effect, using emotionally evocative words to enhance the objective, sensory details.

Seems like a familiar idea, even a cliché, that the beauty of a place is tied to the feeling it creates. But when you take that idea to its logical conclusion — all places are beautiful because all places evoke feelings (of varying depth and complexity) — you become aware of how much beauty is available in any given moment, and how much conscious effort (and slowing down) is necessary to see that beauty.

For Ruskin, the conscious effort involved in “word painting” is what allows the writer to see more clearly. Ruskin had a less elevated opinion of photography, but I stand by my mindless snapshots. Capturing views is important in wine country — it allows the good stuff to sit tight, eventually be reopened, shared, and enjoyed anew.

Words To Drive By Part 4

Landscape: On The Country and The City

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The corruption of cities versus the moral superiority of the countryside seems like an outdated, turn of the nineteenth century idea, but it’s one that is convincingly explored in The Art of Travel. The beauty of Yosemite National Park proved the author’s point that “there are concerns that seem indecent when one is in the company of a cliff” (148).

In this chapter, De Botton describes a three-day trip to England’s Lake District, following the footsteps of “a broader historical movement… in which city dwellers… travel in great numbers through the countryside in an attempt to restore health to their bodies and, more important, harmony to their souls” (130).

The Lake District is where William Wordsworth wrote his poems, and by extension, why he wrote his poems, since his poetry mostly praised his natural surroundings. I always thought that poets like Wordsworth got a pass for unbridled, emotional praise of butterflies and sheep and gooseberries; I assumed such flowery adulation didn’t seem “soft” in a more romantic era, but according to de Botton, Wordsworth was mocked pretty harshly for his overflowing love notes “To a Butterfly,” “To a Skylark,” “To The Daisy.”

Wordsworth was equal parts philosopher and poet, meaning that his poetry stemmed from a deep-seated, arguably non-Western belief in the importance of nature to human happiness. He thought cities made people self-centered and isolated, too focused on the social hierarchy and so eager for novelty that their broader, truer sense of interconnectedness was dwarfed. In addition, he viewed plants and animals as “paragons of stoicism,” and thus morally instructive to human beings.

1. Exhausted in the city
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2. Enamored in nature
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3. Morally instructive elephant seals
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As this guy flapped his flanks with sand and let out deep, gutteral groans, these headlines, among many others, made news back home:

  • As Bay Area Strike Idles Trains, Commuters Scramble
  • The Fall of Paula Deen
  • Zimmerman Is Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing

The contrast makes this idea, quoted from a nineteenth century book about Wordsworth,  rather charming:

“‘I am sure it would give much pleasure to many of the public if the local, daily, and weekly press throughout the country would always record, not only the arrivals and departures of Lords, Ladies, M.P’s and the great people of this land, but also the arrivals and departures of birds.’”

See De Botton’s thoughts on possessing beauty

Words To Drive By Part 2

On Departure: Anticipation

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“A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent: I had inadvertently brought myself with me…” (19).

In this first chapter of The Art of Travel, De Botton writes self-deprecatingly about a trip he took to Barbados. He laments a classic dilemma: sometimes it’s hard to appreciate something when it’s right there for you to enjoy, as if you can’t physically reach your destination until you clear your mind of cares.

De Botton compares his ennuie in a beautiful place to the novel A Rebours by J.K. Huysman, in which a French hermit/misanthrope suddenly yearns to visit London. He ventures to his local English tavern and reads Guide to London for a day, during which his enthusiasm quickly diminishes. He returns home, never to leave his villa again.

On my first day in California, I also experienced the hazards of…myself. A few tranquil hours that looked like this
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led me to discover, upon standing up, that I now looked like something I had recently considered eating:
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which led to further crabbiness the following morning, due to pinprick reminders that my legs had been with me during that tranquil afternoon, now blistered and on fire. The skin behind my knees wouldn’t stretch, so I navigated our rented room sporting bent legs, raised heels, and a grimace, looking remarkably like the faun character from “L’après-midi d’un faun”:
Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 6.05.38 PM

For more musings about The Art of Travel, see the chapter on motives and curiosity.

[Photos: “Flying Solo” from bored now’s flickr photo stream, “Nijinsky dans L’Après-midi d’un Faune,” Jean-Pierre Dalbéra flickr photostream]

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