Lately, I feel like God is very far away from me. Or that I am far away from God. I can’t quite tell which it is. I don’t like feeling this way, but I am not sure how to find a way out of it. Instead, I keep telling myself, “God does not want to let go of you.” This is actually something that Jonathan once told me.
Since finishing Infinite Jest, I’ve felt a little “broken,” reading-wise, and suddenly, I only have an appetite for nonfiction. I am reading photo-filled, potentially frivolous books about fashion, personal style, and a history of the (demise of the) luxury goods industry; another dog book; and a how-to guide on copperplate calligraphy (a birthday gift from my excellent in-laws). I have never felt this way before — utterly uninterested in fiction. It makes me nervous. But I am planning on re-reading Anna Karenina* soon, so I am hoping that will reinvigorate me.
*Side note: Grace, Guion, Sam, and I watched Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina on Saturday night. Tom Stoppard’s hand in the screenplay and in the overall creative direction (filmed almost entirely within a theater or on a stage) was appreciated, but I finished the film feeling that a.) my dislike of Keira Knightley will never die, and b.) this is not a novel that should ever, ever be made into a movie. I know it’s been done before (like five or six times, all terribly), but really. Leave Anna alone. Read the novel.
I continue to be terrible at ballet. I am now taking a second ballet class, the follow-up intermediate level, and I am taking it with Celeste. Yes, the I-took-ballet-for-18-years Celeste. She is beautiful to watch in class, and I had hopes that she would distract everyone else on how plainly terrible I am. This class is about 10 times harder than the prior one, and I do not seem to have improved at all. When we all filed out after our first session, our instructor was congratulating everyone, telling them how impressed she was, etc. And then she looked at me, and said, with a sweet and sympathetic smile, “Don’t give up! You’re so close. I just hope you don’t quit the class.”
And here I was naïvely thinking that no one noticed how terrible I am.
No matter. It’s fun, and I like it. It’s been a nice exercise in subtle humiliation, to stick with something that I have so little natural aptitude for.
Hurricane Sandy was a non-event in Charlottesville, but the whole city shut down anyway, so we had the whole day yesterday to read, lounge about, drink tea, and watch inordinate amounts of TV. I’m not complaining. I started writing our Christmas cards and painted my nails and finished two books. A productive hibernation.
Thinking about my fellow East Coasters who were not so lucky. Hope that power is restored soon and that you all remain warm and safe!
Saturday night, we attended the latter half of a Halloween progressive party. (A party that progresses from house to house, not a party that supports liberal politicians in costume.)
We went as Emily Dickinson and Mitt-ROM-knee:
We also saw “American Gothic” (faithfully recreated by Hannah and Ethan):
50 Shades of Grey and Rosie the Riveter (Celeste and Emily):
Watching dogs play is one of my favorite things to do. On Saturday, Celeste and I let golden twins Bo and Levi loose in Liz’s backyard and hilarious romping ensued. I kept saying “boy fights!” as their behavior just made me think of this. Observing Bo and Levi was very much like watching four-year-old boy children wrestle and play, get irritated with each other, cease all motion, and then start up again five seconds later. For those who share my love of boy fights/dogs playing, a more complete slideshow is on the ol’ dog blog.
In a related note, seeing Uggie on stage was the most exciting part of the Oscars for me.
I am finally reading Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, and I’ve started the chapter where he describes the genesis of his deep obsession with butterflies. His fascination with and desire for lepidoptera began when he was very young. As a little boy, he was chided for “spoiling walks” by disappearing into the brush with his net, chasing after a fleeting colorful wing. When he was six or seven, he wept pitifully when his hefty governess sat down on a tray of his recent captures, crushing them to indistinguishable, ashy bits. Nabokov did not grow out of this mania for pretty winged insects. His research and scientific contributions to the field are still being discussed today.
I’m not sure why all of this surprised me, that Nabokov’s love of butterflies began when he was a boy and marked the duration of his life. It makes sense that our most passionate obsessions are formed and solidified when we are children. I think of Grace, who was fervently attuned to fashion even when she was a tiny thing. (She once wore a 101 Dalmatians bathing suit, a tutu, and crocodile-skin cowboy boots to church. My mother was tired of doing battle with her over what she wore and so the miniature fashionista had her day.) Today, Grace is still very much involved with the art of wearing clothes. Or there’s Kelsey, whose favorite game as a child was playing office or playing with her “work ‘tuff.” Kelsey still loves organizing, planning, and achieving in that wonderfully efficient and self-created work environment. (Good for her.) Sam, to my father’s great relief and joy, was fixated with sports, particularly any sports involving a ball, since he was a baby.
Me? Well, of course it has always been animals, mainly dogs, and reading. (I didn’t have invisible friends, like some children; I had invisible animals, which I somewhat creepily called “spirit pets.” I named them all and tore their photos out of National Geographics and encyclopedias and plastered them on the wall next to my bed.) There are some things we don’t ever grow out of and lately, I like remembering that.
Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels, and this one, which was my favorite from the year. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.
Oh, THIS book. This, the most beautiful thing I read all year.
Housekeeping, published in 1980 and distinguished as a Pulitzer finalist, was assigned to me by our church book club. I didn’t know what to expect, but having read Gileada few months before, I figured I would like it. I had no idea how much I was going to love it, though. I read the book feverishly, swiftly, tearing through 100 pages in a little less than an hour, and yet, somehow, I took everything in; every word was absorbed. You have to understand how unusual this is for me. I have an unfortunate tendency to read too quickly, to skim over sentences like a fly over water. But Marilynne Robinson has this unparalleled ability to make me slow down. Not even my favorite poets can make me slow down as much as she can. This gradual consumption of the book, slower than I have read anything all year, contributed greatly to my deep appreciation of it.
When I arrived at the book club discussion, my brain swimming with delight over this novel, my eyes almost fell out of my head when I heard that the majority of the group hated the book. “I didn’t GET it; I don’t like any of these people; they’re so creepy and lonely; they need to get some mental help; I hated it so much, etc., etc.” I think I just gaped at them. Celeste, whose person and taste I admire, despised it and when she said she did, it actually hurt my feelings; I felt physically injured. She was totally rational in her expression of dislike, but my attachment to this book was so strong that to me, it sounded like she’d just insulted my grandmother, the salt of the earth. I flushed and said something rash and stupid in defense of the book, in defense of Robinson, and in defense of Ruth.
Ruth is our lonely and mysterious narrator. We learn that she comes from a long line of solitary, ruminating women, women who don’t say much, women who don’t spend time with men. (In fact, there is scarcely a man in the entire novel; they are either dead or peripheral.) Ruth has moved to Fingerbone, Wisconsin, with her sister, Lucille, to live with their maternal grandmother in the aftermath of their mother’s suicide. They are shuffled between their grandmother and two unhelpful, worrisome great aunts until their mother’s sister Sylvie shows up.
Sylvie is a drifter. She is unaccustomed to household living, to cooking, to wearing appropriate clothes. When we meet her, we understand the irony of the title, for none of these women are any good at housekeeping. Sylvie cares for the girls in a detached, dreamy way, which maddens Lucille but enchants Ruth. In time, we start to see Sylvie and Ruth as mirrors of each other.
Robinson writes like a poet, like a person who has spent much time in thought. Her sentences are careful and beautiful. Housekeeping, she has said, was based on a series of metaphors she wrote while studying for her English Ph.D., as she was largely inspired by American transcendentalists. Her thoughtfulness is evident in every line. In that interview with the Paris Review, she speaks to the mysteriousness that is so infused in her characters:
In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.
How could they not be mysterious? They live in passages like this:
We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and the nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others, and we had lost our sight.
Long after we knew we were too old for dolls, we played out intricate, urgent dramas of entrapment and miraculous escape. When the evenings came they were chill because the mountains cast such long shadows over the land and over the lake. There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hairs on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.
Essentially, it is a novel for readers. It is for people who love language and love the mystery of a good character. I loved every minute spent with this book. I finished reading it in the living room and declared to Sam and Guion, “When I grow up, I just want to BE Marilynne Robinson.” Housekeeping is all I’ve ever wanted in a novel. I wanted to live there, as frightening and dark as it could sometimes be.
A novel that relies on memory and lyricism as its foundation is one that will not, naturally, appeal to everyone. But for me? It’s the perfect book. During Ruth’s strange and supernatural visit to the lake, Robinson includes a meditation on the person of Jesus Christ, on his life and presence, and on the ways that people remembered him, people then and now.
There is so little to remember of anyone–an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.
What do we have that allows us remember of anyone? Just words. And the hope of resurrection.