The Book Life

There was another world below – this was the problem.

November 16, 2010
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Upon finishing the first “real” novel I’ve read since the summer, I am delighted.

Here’s why.

“As the ship sliced open the black sea east of Nova Scotia, the horizontal faintly pitched, bow to stern, as if despite its great steel competence the ship were uneasy and could solve the problem of a liquid hill only by cutting through it quickly; as if its stability depended on such a glossing over of flotation’s terrors. There was another world below – this was the problem. Another world below that had volume but no form. By day the sea was blue surface and whitecaps, a realistic navigational challenge, and the problem could be overlooked. By night, though, the mind went forth and dove down through the yielding – the violently lovely – nothingness on which the heavy steel ship traveled, and in every moving well you saw a travesty of grids, you saw how truly and forever lost a man would be six fathoms under. Dry land lacked this z-axis. Dry land was like being awake. Even in chartless desert you could drop to your knees and pound land with your fist and land didn’t give. Of course the ocean, too, had a skin of wakefulness. But every point on this skin was a point where you could sink and by sinking disappear.

I read this page of The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen) on the same day that I read more about water and what it can stand for, while working a paper for one of my classes, a seminar on law and emotion. I’m writing about narrative theory in the law, and the title of the second book was Lying Down Together: Law, Metaphor, and Theology (Milner S. Ball). There, the author takes the following phrase as a metaphor for the law: “The work here is watching water, containing it some.”

That sentence is why I want to be a lawyer. Water being a stand in for the chaos of living. The metaphor offered as an alternative or a supplement to the image of law as a bulwark, protecting us from the anarchic dangers of chaos. It’s one that sticks with me, one that, when I read it (on a couch on the patio of a Starbucks in the sunshine of a seventy-degree November day in Indiana) made my eyes well up in gratitude for finding something true, something to resonate within me. Something to bounce around inside of my emotional being and not hurt, but create joy. A rare occasion, so far this school year.

Coincidence always makes me feel oddly whole. Like while I wasn’t paying attention, or while I was busy citechecking or reading cases or writing a moot court brief (in a phrase: being a 2L), life was off to the side, kindly arranging itself for me into a warm cocoon of welcome for my anticipated return.

Thus welcomed, I become gracious. Filled with gratitude. Often, these past two weeks, the eyes have welled. (Of course, I’ve always been a crier.) At the end of a yoga practice. At a good working Saturday ending before 8 p.m., followed by good food and good friends. At the small joy of lighting candles. At the marvel of life’s tiny coincidences laying themselves out, seemingly all for me.

Finishing a novel is part of the return, and even though I found The Corrections to be desperately sad and at times quite irritating, it’s a relief to find that I can still read a 568 page novel just because I want to, and that I can still be moved to tears by its last pages.

Hello, world.

It’s good to be (mostly) back.


Everyone’s your friend in New York City

May 29, 2010
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Summer in the city. At last. I’m already writing more, feeling more, doing more. Only good can come of this.

I hope to have a hilarious reading summer. I’m almost caught up on The New Yorker (they tend to pile up toward the end of the semester), and once I am, it’s up and onward! I have my New York Public Library card, and yesterday I discovered the science section, and came away with The Canon by Natalie Angier and Sky in a Bottle, by Peter Pessic, which is about why the sky is blue. It’s a new genre for me, but I’m excited.

Also queued: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, poetry by Louis Gluck, the complete letters between Rilke and Andreas-Salome, some other random poetry, the continual New Yorkers, and some trashy young adult post-Twilight vampire novels.

Oh, and, the Pensions entry in New York Jurisprudence 2d, to prepare for my summer internship.

Should be a good summer.

Wormholes and other experiments

July 13, 2009

This might sound crazy, considering that I write this blog, and have written others in the past, but here it is: The blogosphere is totally baffling and overwhelming, and also completely new to me. I’ve always considered my blogs personal endeavors, online versions of journal entries. I’m coming to realize that definition is far too narrow; there’s so much out there.

I sort of spontaneously and without much forethought jumped into Infinite Summer, as I wrote in my previous post, and I dove in with a healthy dose of chagrin. And then I floated in the shallow end with that decision for a week or so, waiting for the online-reading-group shedule to catch up to the bookmark at page 198 in my hardback copy of David Foster Wallace’s epic novel. (I don’t remember the circumstances of my purchase, though it’s definitely a used copy, and I bought it for all the usual reasons: sheer size, word-of-mouth, pretty cover.) I told myself it didn’t matter that I’d read those 198 pages almost a year ago: There are so many disparate threads in the novel anyway, I wouldn’t notice if I was missing a few, and also, it’s already 1,000 pages long! I just didn’t want to start over at 1. I began again slowly, reading from 198 up to the 210 mark, and over the weekend I made it to 242. At work last week, I found myself reading the IS blog posts religiously, and following links to other readers’ adventures (almost every link, in fact). I’m currently listening to an Infinite Summer playlist. I even went back and reread certain sections from pages 1-198 that were touted as excellent by one blogger or another – not quite the same as starting over at page 1, but I spent hours Friday night buried in this book.

And I liked it. The section I read over the weekend was incredible. I wanted to keep going. This is not what I expected. I was ready to be holding on with sweaty fingertips, forcing myself to open the book twice a week, the day before the deadlines (not that anyone is grading me, but I’ve only been out of school for a year and am about to go back, so if you give me a schedule, I’m going to stick to it). I’m fully shocked.

And here’s why it’s working: the community. I majored in English, so for years I took for granted that people around me cared about books. I took for granted that people around me were as addicted to and moved by the written word as I am. Then suddenly: a 9-5, law school applications, living with my parents. I kept reading books, of course. I even started Infinite Jest. But when I tried to tell anyone about it, they looked at me like I was nuts, laughed, suggested I quit, that I was crazy for trying.

Now, with IS, it’s like walking into a house and realizing it has the same floor plan as the house I grew up in. The people who’ve read it five times and counting, first-timers like me, people who are irritated by DFW, people who love him, people reserving judgment, everyone reading IJ for the summer, and talking about it. I sometimes feel like I’ve been sucked into a wonderful wormhole – you know what I mean. You read one entry, click on a link, and suddenly an hour has gone by and you’re somewhere else entirely. But it’s so nice to not be alone in this that I have a hard time minding. I had no idea that this was what I was missing, blogging only for myself. But being here, finding this now? It’s perfect, and makes me feel all fuzzy inside.

And now I find I have to be more involved. I’m still reading other things this summer (bring on the vampire novels – I love beach reading), and will be posting about them, but I’ll also be posting about my progess with IJ. To keep from being repetitive (and because I’m not going to grad school for English lit for a reason), I’ll keep the analysis to an almost non-existent minimum. What I will do, I think, is post particularly excellent excerpts as I go, and perhaps expound on why they move me. I always read with a pencil so I can underline bits that catch me. I’m all about literature as an emotional experience. It’s an incredibly subjective way to read/respond, but I think at the core, the emotional response to a text is what keeps us all reading, and makes us talk about what we’re reading, however we decide to talk about it. It’s what makes us care.

“Jim, a toast to our knowledge of bodies.” Having tried to write monologues (albeit in poetic form), I toast to DFW, because the monologue covering pages 157-169 is really just incredible, both technically (as monologues go), and emotionally. And despite how awful the father is to the son, I find the father so beautifully, painfully tragic that I almost forgive him for it (though I’d feel differently if he was my father, I’m sure). I’m not sure I can go much deeper into why this one sentence struck me, but a “knowledge of bodies” seems like a really excellent thing to toast to.

So, ISers: a toast?

Infinite Summer? You bet.

June 29, 2009
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Damn it!

I just finished an entry about surrender, did I not? About not forcing yourself to finish books you’re not enjoying? Well, here I am, thanks to my overambitious friend Andrea, deciding to give David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest another go ’round.

I quit at page 198 last fall. And I even used my prettiest, favorite bookmark, to help entice me to read it. I carried all 1,00o pages of it around with me on various summer trips. To no avail. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for months, untouched:IMGP4314

Right there, next to my many impulse purchases from McSweeney’s.

After an hour of deliberation this evening, I’ve decided that perhaps this is what I need. A little community, some friends (albeit virtual) to make me feel less alone amongst Wallace’s intricacies and admittedly gorgeous sentences.

So I followed Andrea’s link to Infinite Summer. And it looks sort of fun! And pretty motivating! (Can you tell I’m still talking myself into this? I was planning to read trashy vampire novels all summer, remember?)

But I want to try. The reading period extends into my first month of law school, which is a shame, and might defeat me, but at the least I’ll get farther than I am now. Plus, I’ve never been in a book group of any kind, real or virtual.

Here goes…

IMGP4316 I took the book off the shelf.

That’s as good a start at any.

Let’s Dispense With Genre Altogether

June 29, 2009
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I’ve already rhapsodized about Maggie Nelson here, haven’t I?

In the interest of not wanting to navigate away from the new post page, I’ll just refresh us all by saying this: I saw her read at the Ohio University Spring Literary Festival (aka LitFest) and immediately bought nearly all of her books. Her poetry is incredible, and her presence onstage is simple, unapologetic, and quietly powerful.

I just finished reading Jane, Nelson’s memoir-of-sorts about the murder of her aunt, Jane, at age 23, 4 years before Nelson herself was born.

I’ll admit my reluctance from the start: In some circles Jane is considered a kind of true crime book, and Nelson herself admitted to reading true crime while working on this book. I do not like true crime books – the reasons why, I’ll save for another day. So I dove in skeptically and would have stayed away entirely, except that Nelson’s other work is so good.

And what a good idea. This book is a memoir. It is true crime. It is poetry. It’s a journal. This is an annoying thing to say, but it transcends genre in an of itself, not as a gimmick, but because there’s no other way to tell the story. It’s entirely fascinating, and not because it’s about the death of a beautiful women (Nelson quotes Poe’s Theory of Composition in the opening, though she later lets us know that Jane was not beautiful).

Nelson uses everything available to her: excerpts from Jane’s own journals, quotations about the murder from newspapers, Nelson’s own poetic inquiries. Here are some excellent lines:

“Skin is soft; it takes what you do to it.”

“Can anyone like blood the way one likes the mountains or the sea?”

And Jane’s own words: “Am I to live this life / with a blameless ferocity?

I really think this book is the perfect example of the wonderful things that can happen when you focus on what you need to say before you worry about how to say it. The HOW comes later, will come on its own. There are a lot of poems in this book, and a lot of white space, a lot of stanza breaks. And I found myself considering the bravery of white space, and wrote this in the margins.

the control




the danger

in leaving

so much space

for breathing





Sometimes books just have the perfect last lines.

June 20, 2009

“Each time we did it I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. ou had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow but he did tell me that.” -Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

“This is where the story starts, in this threadbare room. The walls are exploding. The windows have turned into telescopes. Moon and stars are magnified in this room. The sun hangs over the mantelpiece. I stretch out my hand and reach the corners of the world. The world is bundled up in this room. Beyond the door, where the river is, where the roads are, we shall be. We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm. Hurry now, it’s getting late. I don’t know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields.” -Jeannette Winterson, Written on the Body


June 20, 2009
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I do my very obssessive-compulsive best to finish books, once I’ve started them. Even when I don’t like them, I push through to the end. Sometimes there’s something worthwhile at the end, and I hate leaving things unfinished.


I cannot get through Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris. I cannot come to the end, much as I’d like to. This book was recommended by Nick Hornby, in one of his Believer columns, and I have to say, I disagree.

The entire novel is told in the collective first person; i.e. “we.” This is fun for one chapter, and less so from there on out, and is too close to the gimmick line for me. And I think, because of this collective voice, I cannot distinguish, remember, or care about any of the characters, which is sort of essential to enjoying a book. It’s set in an office, and is meant to be humorous, sort of in the style of Office Space or The Office – and it’s occassionally funny. But the thing is, offices are actually really boring. And I work in one. So reading about it in a novel was the opposite of interesting. If this was a “classic” or required, I would put more effort forth.

But it’s not, so I can’t finish it.

And I’m weirdly proud of myself, as I take the bookmark out, and place the book in the to-be-returned pile.

I’m not good at not finishing things, which is usually a good trait. But not all things must be finished. In general, if you don’t like a book that you’re reading on you own time, you can stop reading it. Put it down and find something better.

This is applicable to life outside of reading. Things in your life you don’t like? Put them down, and find something better. How’s that for profundity? Profundity is probably the least profound-sounding of all words.

She Decides to Tell the Truth

June 11, 2009
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I might just read trashy fantasy novels and books about vampires all summer long.

Making Friends with Dead Poets

June 1, 2009
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I did it!

…finished the collected letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Words in Air, that is.

It took me four months (800 is a lot of pages, and I am easily and often distracted), so now that I’ve finished, I feel sort of adrift, and abandoned. This large, hardback book from the Worthington Public Library has been a constant feature on my desk since before Christmas.

I read these letters with only the barest exposure to the poetry of either writer, and in total ignorance of their biographies – which turned out to be a fascinating way to dive into people’s lives. There’s so much that you miss, but it’s such an interesting way in. Plus, these two in particular were so in love with each other! And reading each of their letters, I couldn’t help but fall in love with them both, as well.

So encountering, at the end, “North Haven,” by Elizabeth Bishop, in memory of Robert Lowell, after a perfectly cheerful letter from Elizabeth to Cal (as she called him), was somewhat shocking. And then to jump to the footnote and see that Lowell died, in a cab, on the way back to Elizabeth Hardwick, his estranged wife…

well, I read the poem, and tears welled.

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,

afloat in mystic blue . . . And now–you’ve left

for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,

your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)

The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

The words won’t change again. All of the sadness is right there, in the word won’t, and in the finality of the simple sentence, the ceasura in the middle of the line.

So sad to see them go.

Suckers! (?)

May 20, 2009
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I’ve been reading a lot of vampire books lately.

(Your mind just jumped straight to Twilight, didn’t it? Silly pop culture. Just wait. I’ll get there.)

I’ve been reading a lot of vampire books lately – some intentional, some not so. I wonder if that’s some sort of sign. Regardless, I started intentionally, at the top, with Dracula. It’s been one of the books on my I-should-read-this-as-a-responsible-English-major-and-professed-book-lover list for a while now. I finally read Frankenstein last summer, and it was really fantastic, and I’ve always professed a love of gothic lit.

The real reason I read it? I wanted to read Twilight and not feel like a complete twit. I’m 23, after all, theorectically an adult, and not only is Stephenie Meyers’s series meant for teenagers, but from everything I heard, it was pretty bad teen writing, too.

But you know how some people have soft spots for romance or mystery novels, or sci-fi? Well, I have a weakness for fantasy-infused adolescent drama. Specifically the adolescent drama part. Seriously. Ask me about Dawson’s Creek sometime, and how old I was when I enjoyed it most.

But I am an adult, of some sort, so I read Dracula first. It moved significantly faster than I expected for a 19th-century novel, and it was great! And then I picked up Twilight, and the other three books in the saga, from the library.

Everything they say about these books is true. Good and bad, it’s all true. The writing is truly appalling, the heroine is truly annoying, and the story is truly engrossing, once Meyers finally gets around to telling it, 100 pages of boring background into the the first book. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have it on reserve at the library.

I remain an unreformed and unrepentant teen fiction fan.

Next up, a book I came across in a scathing review of Twilight, recommended as a much better teen vampire novel: Thirsty by M.T. Anderson. While the writing was definitely better, I found the story irritating, either because it’s written by a man and in the voice of a teenage boy, and teenage boys are inherently annoying, or because it’s written at a 4th-grade reading level, which is farther than I’m willing to go in my pursuit of adolescent drama.

And then, an accident: Sunshine by Robin McKinley. I’ve loved McKinley’s writing for years – she does a lot of teen fantasy fiction and re-tellings of fairy tales. So when I saw this at the library I picked it up without even reading the back. I started it yesterday, and, lo and behold, it’s another vampire novel! Like Thirsty, this book is set in a world like ours, but slightly different, in that the existence of vampires (and other creatures, e.g. werewolves) is an acknowledged part of life. Add some transmutations, and magic powers enhanced by sunlight, and I’m sold, if only 5o pages in.

But seriously, people – this is a lot of vampire fiction for someone who only just read Dracula a few months ago. I’m not really sure how it happened, but I hope it ends soon.

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