Listening to birds

The sparrow
Photo of an older painting by the fabulous painter Matt Kleberg. Source: Moi.

At lunch today, I sat on the back deck and read My Brilliant Friend. The dogs happily accompanied me outside; Pyrrha positioned herself at my feet, as she is the inveterate family beggar, and Eden amused herself by chasing dancing pairs of carpenter bees. (That dog. She is exhausting, but she wears a face of perpetual joy all day long. The only time her face falls is when you tell her to come inside.)

I found myself easily distracted from the novel, as much as I’m enjoying it, and watched and listened to the birds instead. We have a gigantic white spruce tree in the yard, and it seems to function as a high-rise complex for birds. Today, it sounded like an avian domestic dispute happened midway up the trunk, and two robins emerged separately, chasing each other with what I can only presume was marital fury.

When I tried to focus merely on sound, I could hear at least six different bird calls happening simultaneously. I wanted to know what kinds of birds they were and what they were trying to communicate.

I am halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s controversial piece about conservation/birds/the Audubon Society, and so I have been thinking about birds a bit more than usual. Also, our good friends Maddy and Sam are devoted birders, so I always think about them when I notice birds.

Simply: I wish that I knew more than I do, which is one of my most frequent desires.

Corollary thought: Have you inherited your family’s prejudice against certain animals/forms of nature? Odd question, I know. My parents separately taught me quite a bit about plants (my mother) and animals (my father), and I realized today that I bear a lot of their likes and dislikes, for purely emotional or aesthetic reasons, regarding certain species. For example, my mother loathes Bradford pear trees, and I realized this week that I do too (the stench, the shape, the mendacity). We both love cherry trees and dogwoods, however. My father dislikes blue jays, cats, and hyenas, but loves falcons, dogs, and bears, and so I do too, accepting these preferences blindly, as I have since I was a child.

Top 10 books I’d want on a desert island

Screenshot from "LOST."

The ol’ desert island conundrum! Ten books is pretty lavish. If my husband and a dog were a given, here are the top 10 books I’d request that Charles Widmore send me on the island:

  1. The Bible. Naturally.
  2. In Search of Lost Time–all of it! You could read it for the rest of your life. (Marcel Proust)
  3. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy).
  4. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf). It will always be new to me.
  5. Complete short stories of Anton Chekhov. Meditations on the human spirit when I am isolated from humans?
  6. Complete works of Shakespeare. We could perform on the beach!
  7. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace). I haven’t read it yet, but I know it’s a magnificent tome, so it suits the other members of this list.
  8. Middlemarch (George Eliot).
  9. The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen).
  10. East of Eden (John Steinbeck).

You?

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Freedom (#4)

Freedom.

#4: FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen.

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. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I’m perpetually astonished when people say they don’t like Jonathan Franzen. Or say that he’s overrated. Or that they find his books boring. It floors me every time. Because I am so in love with Jonathan Franzen. I think he is doing for the modern American novel what Tolstoy did for the modern Western novel. Freedom is a good example of why I think that.

This much-anticipated and much-hyped book came out in summer of 2010, but I wasn’t able to get it at the library until early 2011. Everyone was reading it. And for good reason. As the New York Times called it in a judicious review, it’s simply “a masterpiece of American fiction.” That’s a fair assessment. Not many American novels published since Freedom can match its scope, insight, and ambition.

Franzen writes primarily about families and about the terrible, domestic things they can do to each other, often in subtle and unintentional ways. Freedom tells the story of the failing marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund. The arrival of Walter’s long-time best friend, jaded, old rockstar Richard Katz, and the introduction of Walter’s pretty, idealistic assistant, Lalitha, further complicate the Berglund’s already complicated relationship. In their estrangement from one another, Patty seeks therapy and a deeper relationship with Richard Katz, while Walter becomes even more extreme about his environmental activism and edges closer to an affair with Lalitha. But, amid all of this unraveling, Franzen permits us to care deeply about Patty and Walter and hope for some form of reconciliation.

As part of Patty’s therapy, her counselor asks her to write her autobiography. We are privileged to read chapters of Patty’s autobiography in the novel, and I would claim that her parts are some of the best in the entire book. Patty Berglund is an incredible character and she is the main reason why anyone should read Freedom. I don’t think I’ve met a character this past year who was so living and tangible. Her voice is sympathetic, honest, and believable, and in the hands of a gifted, precise Franzen, she becomes the simultaneously compassionate and pitiful protagonist. We are cheering for Patty throughout the novel; we desperately want her to get her happy ending, a slice of the American Dream.

On the whole, I think The Corrections (which was ranked my no. 1 novel I read last year) may be his better work. But this is wholeheartedly worth every second of your time. It was the Great Novel of 2010 and it stands to be reckoned with for many years after that.

Jonathan Franzen has his finger solidly on the pulse of American life and Freedom is proof of his accuracy and attention to our modernized and isolated existences. The grace and mercy he extends his characters is breathtaking. His novels, in a strange and perhaps unintentional way, make us ache for Someone to extend the same kind of grace and mercy over our own isolated lives.

(P.S. The only thing I didn’t like about Freedom was its cover. What is that dumb blue bird doing there? Why is he way out of proportion? What does he want??)

My favorite morally bankrupt characters

I don’t like overly sunny novels. I can’t stand to read about ridiculously virtuous characters. As a child, I hated Nancy Drew (“Nancy tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and called, ‘Ned! Wait for me,’ as she jumped into his shiny red convertible…”) and flatly rejected those utterly dreadful books for Christian girls, like Elsie Dinsmore and The Basket of Flowers. Barf. Even when I was little, I formed the strong opinion that saints and angels make for really tedious and boring literature.

I like reading books with complex characters, with fictional people who have both virtue AND vice, people whose stories don’t always get that shiny, happy ending. I like to read about real life. This is why I shun most of Dickens, most of the Victorians, and most fantasy literature. I don’t think it’s wrong or terrible; it’s just not my thing.

That being said, I tend to enjoy a lot of books with unhappy endings and messy characters. Here are some of my favorite morally bankrupt characters.

SCARLETT O’HARA
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is the pretty poster child for morally bankrupt characters. I had seen the movie many years before I got around to reading Mitchell’s novel, and when I did, the full force of Scarlett’s personality hit me even stronger than it did on film. Mitchell managed to make someone wicked and admirable at the same time. Scarlett is selfish, manipulative, and conniving — and yet we are pulling for her the whole time. Regardless of the unpleasant racial controversies of this book, I think it is hard to deny the genius of a writer who can create a character as complex and multifaceted as this one.

BAZAROV
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Bazarov is a snob. He’s like those kids who go off to grad school and become unbearably pretentious about… everything. Turgenev uses Bazarov as a standard for the young Nihilists of his Russia, the men of reason and science, rejecting all tradition and forms of authority. Bazarov fits his archetype neatly — he’s absurdly arrogant and vain — and yet, we feel for him. He gets his heart broken, even though he won’t admit it. He has a magnetic effect on people, even though no one wants to admit to actually liking him. Bazarov reminds me that people that I am quick to write off with a certain label are never that simple — and always deserving of more time and mercy.

PATTY BERGLUND
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund isn’t exactly “morally bankrupt;” rather, she doesn’t seem to know where her morals stand exactly. This might be the hallmark of Franzen’s characters (from what I can glean from the cast of people in The Corrections and Freedom, both of which I unashamedly love). Patty represents, to me, the best of what Franzen can do. She is made so real in the pages of this novel that you finish it feeling that she is your best friend, that well-loved person  In my opinion, she makes the entire novel. She is downcast and confused, but she is painfully honest and reflective about her life and its variegated failures. If we could all be as truthful with ourselves as Patty Berglund, we could learn a tremendous amount about life.

MR. HENRY WILCOX
Howards End, E.M. Forster

Mr. Wilcox is a crueler version of Jack Donaghy: He’s rich, controlling silver fox who lives by conservative business morals and generally gets whatever he wants. Including the novel’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is not so easily bought, however, and her goodness eventually softens Mr. Wilcox — but not before he has been brutal, demanding, and insensitive toward practically every character. Still. You like him. He doesn’t back down. And even this crusty old miser has a soft spot.

RASKOLNIKOV
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

He murdered his old landlady with an axe for no good reason! Pinnacle of morally bankrupt. But the novel is about his SOUL. And it’s a great one. So, this book is always worth reading. (My father, by the way, still has not fulfilled his end of our challenge. He sent me a text that said: “I used to love naps. Now I hate them. Because I have to read Crime and Punishment.”)

MRS. RAMSAY
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

OK, so “morally bankrupt” is also far too strong a description for Mrs. Ramsay, but she’s no angel. The central character of my all-time favorite novel, Mrs. Ramsay is usually an overbearing, controlling matriarch. She sets up people who don’t necessarily want to be set up. She insists on domestic tranquility, even when emotions may need to be forcibly expressed. But I will always love Mrs. Ramsay, mainly because she is one of the deepest and most intricately drawn characters I have ever met. She chooses to live by the way of grace–and she lives well, in spite of herself.

How about you? Any quasi-villains or just ignoble characters you love reading about?

Are women artists inferior to men artists?

Virginia Woolf Smiling? Surely not…
Woolf has a thing or two to say about this. Just look at that smirk.

Today I read a long and interesting piece by my favorite book critic, Francine Prose. The essay, entitled “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” was published in Harper’s back in June 1998. You’d think it was written today, because the problem Prose addresses–the lack of skilled women writers getting critical attention–is no better today than it was in 1998. (For purely graphical proof, take a look at the pie charts published by VIDA on the dispersion of male-to-female writers in top literary magazines.)

Of course, this topic interests me. Heck, I once wrote 120 pages about Woolf’s thoughts on women artists and the struggles they face. Francine Prose, in 1998, is merely writing shades of what Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929. Is there such a thing as writing “like a woman” or writing “like a man”? Why do people take men’s fiction more seriously than women’s fiction? Is it because women actually aren’t as skilled as men are?

As Prose points out, serious readers and serious consumers of art would never say that women artists are inferior to men artists. We should judge art by time-honored standards of value, skill, and beauty–not by the sex of its creator. But what if there is an unconscious and disguised sex bias against women artists? Prose gives plenty of examples of this (and some of them are not so unconscious and disguised. You’re appalling, Norman Mailer), but I’ll give some personal anecdotes to support this hypothesis.

Take, for example, my ex-boyfriend. He was a very serious reader and very intelligent; I respected his opinion on art. He was a classics and philosophy major; he read “real” books–and he did appreciate books by great female writers. (Flannery O’Connor, whom Prose uses as an example of stereotypically “masculine” prose in her essay, was one of his favorites.) But I noticed a distinct gender preference in his music taste. I realized early on that he didn’t listen to any female musicians. He never said anything against women musicians or bands fronted by women; he just stayed away from them entirely. This bothered me, but I never had any grounds to mention it to him. When I started hanging out with my husband, I was instantly interested by the fact that he talked about a lot of women musicians–Joanna Newsom, Bjork, Tori Amos, St. Vincent, Ani diFranco–and he didn’t just talk about them; he actually respected them as lyricists and musicians.

It’s not impossible for men to like women artists; many men do. But why does this bias persist? Prose quotes novelist Diane Johnson’s hypothesis on the issue:

Diane Johnson — herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy — observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.”

It’s an interesting suggestion–that men aren’t cultured to appreciate or decipher language that’s traditionally relegated to women. I feel like I can resonate with this depiction. I read your typical fare of princess books, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew, but I also read Johnny Tremain, The Bronze Bow, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Narnia books (interestingly, those first two “boy” books were written by women). It was somehow improper or undignified for a boy to read Little House on the Prairie or other “girls'” books. And yet girls were encouraged and even expected to read books across the gender categories.

This point was impressed upon me a few months ago. I served as a judge for a city-wide short story contest for middle-school girls. As I read through the dozens of submissions, I was surprised by how many girls wrote stories from the perspective of boys. Of the 70 submissions I read, there were at least 30 of them that were written from the vantage point of boys. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find any middle school boys who were writing stories from a girl’s point of view of girls; the very idea seems ridiculous.

Why is this? This implicit understanding that boys should read boy books, but girls can read both? If anything, it’s far more of an injustice to boys. Because then they grow up to be men who blanch at the thought of reading anything that wasn’t written by Clive Cussler.

I don’t know any men who like Woolf, for example. (With the exception of my freshman-year English professor, Marc Cohen, who introduced me to the beauty and power of Woolf in the first place.) Woolf is intensely introspective, women-focused, and grounded primarily in the domestic realm. She writes about “feminine” things like wives, flowers, families, and mental illness. But does that mean she’s not as valuable a writer as Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about bulls and battlefields? Hardly. It’s worth noting that men write just as many superficial, cheap novels as women supposedly do. Let’s talk a little bit about Dashiell Hammett and his ilk, shall we?

And what should we say of Marcel Proust, who is just as intensely introspective, women-focused, and domestically centered as Woolf is? He seems to write “like a woman,” but no one dares question his merit or his additions to the Canon. People question Woolf’s contribution to literature all the time. That said, I am gratified by the rise of male artists writing about the mind and the domestic scene, like Jonathan Franzen, but maybe that’s still part of the problem. Franzen gets a lot more attention than his contemporary women writers who are doing the exact same thing. Prose is a huge fan of Deborah Eisenberg, one of Guion’s celebrated professors at UVA. Prose frequently references Eisenberg as an example of a woman writer who writes strong, “stereotypically ‘masculine'” stories and yet still fails to garner much critical attention.

So, what’s the deal? Prose ends her essay with the expected platitude that we cannot judge writers by their sexes; rather, there is good writing and there is bad writing. That is all. I felt a little disappointed. I wanted her to provide a solution to this appalling trajectory of the descent of critically acclaimed female novelists. But she was writing this in 1998. I can’t help but wonder if she feels dejected that, in 2011, we still seem to think that women artists aren’t as deserving of attention, merit, or praise as men artists. (Update: It seems that she is dejected, per her response to V.S. Naipaul’s statement that “no woman is my equal.”)

Clearly, an “affirmative action”-type program is not what we need. Women artists ought not to be unfairly elevated just because they are women. But how do we move ourselves beyond gender stereotypes in art? I guess that’s the unanswerable question. And so I am still frustrated. But at least I’m writing about it.

Franzen also finds the “Grounds” silly

It was stupid that a “Vigil of Concern” was held for no conceivable practical reason, it was stupid that people kept watching the same disaster footage over and over, it was stupid that the Chi Phi boys hung a banner of “support” from their house, it was stupid that the football game against Penn State was canceled, it was stupid that so many kids left Grounds to be with their families (and it was stupid that everybody at Virginia said “Grounds” instead of “campus”).

— From the perspective of Joey Berglund, freshman–yeah, I said it! Freshman!–at UVA, in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. At least we can agree on that, Joey. At least we have that.

That’s all I have for you today. As a disclaimer, I do actually like Charlottesville a lot. But I also like Jonathan Franzen and I’m taking his side on this one.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #1

The Corrections

#1: THE CORRECTIONS, Jonathan Franzen

For the past few weeks, I went wandering back through the 10 best books I read in 2010. I conclude the year’s review with these fragmented thoughts on my favorite book of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

It’s been a year of dysfunctional family epics: Ada, The Man Who Loved Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now this: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I guess I have a thing for this genre.

I know this is not the Franzen novel that everyone’s been talking about this year, but I hadn’t previously read any of his work and so I wanted to get started before Freedom came out. My reservations about “modern” literature have already been briefly expressed, but I felt like they all dissolved after I had read The Corrections.

Franzen’s ability to inhabit the dreary, seemingly hopeless Lambert family is astonishing to me. At first glance, this sounds like a supremely boring book: This middle-class family is falling apart and the mild-mannered matriarch is obsessed with getting her whole disjointed family together for Christmas one last time. Why would anyone want to read a nearly 600-page tome about that?

Well, for one thing, because Franzen is a bit of a genius. I don’t know how he does it; I really don’t. Some critics called him a “prophet.”  The Corrections came out a few weeks before 9/11. After we recovered from the shock, we began to realize that this novel was already proclaiming the domestic malaise that we would face in the post-9/11 world; it was a quiet and almost eerie warning.

To my mind, Franzen’s most impressive ability is his skill in replicating voices. Many authors do not write convincing characters of their opposite sex (Dickens and Per Petterson come to mind). Franzen does not seem troubled by this at all. In fact, I think the most believable character is the mother, Enid Lambert. Her gestures and fears are so perfectly expressed that you feel like you might have spent a lot of time with her at a long, fluorescent family reunion.

One of the most moving exchanges for me was a passage I have already written about here. Franzen most likely did not intend for this to be read religiously at all, but I read the exchange between the Lambert siblings, Denise and Chip, as the perfect description of the Gospel. We cannot stand to be forgiven. And yet over and over again, a beneficent Franzen offers his characters forgiveness. They are unwilling to extend or accept forgiveness, but they crave it, just like we do. The Corrections is a beautiful novel about the complex web of emotions that families create, but it is also a map through the labyrinth of familial tension; it’s letting you into the secret of the way out.

In short, it is one of the most full novels I have ever read. At the conclusion of David Gates’s review of The Corrections, he writes:

No one book, of course, can provide everything we want in a novel. But a book as strong as ”The Corrections” seems ruled only by its own self-generated aesthetic: it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.

The Corrections is lovely and sad and true. What more can you ask from a genuine work of art?

With that, I’ve spoken my peace about the 10 best books I read in 2010. Thanks for reading along. Now, onward to 2011! There is much to be conquered.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #8

The Man Who Loved Children

#8: THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN, Christina Stead

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, meet number 8: Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.

OK, so I realize that the other two books I’ve ranked so far (Ada and One Hundred Years of Solitude) have also been about big, totally crazy families. What can I say? I have a niche.

I picked up The Man Who Loved Children because I’m reading through Francine Prose’s book list, Books to Be Read Immediately. The list appears in her fabulous book, Reading Like a Writer. I’ve been reading through this list for two years now and I think I’m maybe halfway through. I don’t always love the books Prose picks (see William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth and stuff by Philip Roth, for example), but this one really got to me.

The Man Who Loved Children is a large, complicated novel that eludes simple categorization. It was the first novel I’ve ever read by an Australian and one of the first I’ve read from 1940. I don’t think a great deal of quality literature was produced in the 1940s, for good reason, and so my knowledge of the period is quite slim. The Man Who Loved Children was also one of the first novels I’d read all year that was completely riveting and yet thoroughly baffling. Even now, looking back on the novel, I can’t say exactly what it is about Stead’s style that is so strange and yet so perfect. Something about the mood she creates in The Man Who Loved Children is eerily enchanting. Her characters are not fantastical, but they are mysterious, even when they appear to be revealing their deepest desires and ambitions.

The novel doesn’t tell the story of a pedophile—which you might unfortunately expect, given my great admiration for Nabokov. Rather, it’s the winding tale of a savagely dysfunctional family, the Pollits. Samuel Pollit is an idealistic, scheming bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. He lives in a squalid home in the Georgetown suburb with his wife and nemesis, Henny. They have six children. Sam and Henny hate each other with such fervor that they haven’t exchanged words in over two years, and instead use their children as messengers to deliver handwritten notes to the other parent. Sam and Henny are so deep in their own worries and domestic agendas that they are consistently unaware of the damage they inflict on their children. The undercurrent of emotional violence is deeply disturbing, made doubly so by the fact that this novel is often hilarious. Sam has crafted a family language through which he communicates with his children, using his own invented jargon to both awe and control them. The children are believably sweet and funny and yet seem precociously capable of seeing through their father’s ruses.

Louisa, or Louie, the eldest child in the Pollit household, is particularly able at calling her father’s bluff. She was Sam’s daughter from his first marriage and Henny despises her with the passion of the archetypal evil stepmother. Sam seems to favor Louie at first, but as Louie grows up and approaches adolescence, it becomes clear that she will not turn out pretty or graceful or sweetly domestic, as her father wishes. Heartbreakingly, Louie recognizes her father’s gradual dissipation of love. But it is Louie’s story that becomes the triumph of this comically ruthless novel.

Reflecting on the central conflict between Louie and her father, Jonathan Franzen writes in his wonderful review of the novel:

In a lesser work, this might all read like a grim, abstract feminist parable, but Stead has already devoted most of the book to making the Pollits specific and real and funny, and to establishing them as capable of saying and doing just about anything, and she has particularly established what a problem love is for Louie (how much, in spite of everything, she yearns for her father’s adoration), and so the abstraction becomes inescapably concrete, the warring archetypes are given sympathetic flesh: you can’t help being dragged along through Louisa’s bloody soul-struggle to become her own person, and you can’t help cheering for her triumph. As the narrator remarks, matter-of-factly, “That was family life.” And telling the story of this inner life is what novels, and only novels, are for.

Toward the end of his review, Franzen remarks on how Stead’s masterpiece is largely unknown in the Western canon. (I had never even heard of it until I saw the title in Prose’s list.) He relates a brief anecdote in which his wife found the book at the library and declared to him that it was the best book she had ever read. I don’t know if I would call it that, but it is definitely a book that will stick in my side for many years. Writing out of her own family sorrows—Stead apparently based Sam Pollit directly on her own father, and Louie on herself—the author has plumbed the darkest recesses of the nuclear family and yet emerged with a victory; a victory in the shape of a daughter’s escape and the tragicomedy that accompanies it.

Can you stand to be forgiven?

The Corrections

The gospel, as perhaps unintentionally portrayed in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

(Back story: Chip owes his sister, Denise, $25,000, which he has borrowed over the course of a few years.)

His sister turned and raised her face to him. Her eyes were bloodshot, her forehead as red as a newborn’s. “I said I forgive the debt. You owe me nothing.”
“Appreciate it,” he said quickly, looking away. “But I’m going to pay you anyway.”
“No,” she said. “I’m not going to take your money. I forgive the debt. Do you know what ‘forgive’ means?”
In her peculiar mood, with her unexpected words, she was making Chip anxious. He pulled on the rivet and said, “Denise, come on. Please. At least show me the respect of letting me pay you back. I realize I’ve been a shit. But I don’t want to be a shit all my life.”
“I want to forgive that debt,” she said.
“Really. Come on.” Chip smiled desperately. “You’ve got to let me pay you.”
“Can you stand to be forgiven?”
“No,” he said. “Basically, no. I can’t.”