Etcetera Etc. (Sibella Court, 2009)

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I have spent the last several weeks helping my daughter settle into her new school, while finding my own way through the changed structure of the days, and I am tired of words. What better time to browse lazily through Sibella Court’s Etcetera etc., with its pages upon pages of images? Even as a physical object the book is a treat; despite being a recent volume it has that delicious smell of library stacks, and the paper is thick and heavy, with occasional translucent sheets used to good effect. Inside it is mostly pictures, of rooms Court has styled, filled with objects she finds beautiful, fabrics and tarnished silver and wooden pencils and straw hats — the gathering of a self-confessed “bowerbird” who loves to collect things which catch her gaze and create new ways to use them as decor. I do not share Court’s aesthetic, which is very textural, objects piled in layers upon layers, and to my eye unpleasantly cluttered, but some of the individual objects she features are quite beautiful, and I like several of her colour palettes.

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As for the words — well, it is like reading a document from an alien world. I cannot imagine bestowing so much time and attention upon objects. Finding them, arranging them, changing them — when would I read, or cook, or garden? Court loves her objects, she loves display, believing that “a home is like a museum without the signs saying ‘Please Don’t Touch’” and so she styles rooms with a multitude of things for visitors to investigate and examine. After all, she asks, “what’s the point of possessing beautiful and meaningful things if you can’t show them off for the world to see?” This theatrical approach extends through the book; she suggests that readers should imagine their “interiors as sets where objects, art and furniture can be moved or interchanged, and old objects easily moved to make way for new pieces of a different mood.” It is, I think, the precise opposite of what I wish; I want my home to be stable ground from which I may launch myself out to explore, rather than a place “forever changing and evolving” to enhance my “mood, lifestyle, and current obsessions.” My moods and obsessions satisfy me as they are; I cannot imagine trying to make the rooms I live in reflect them.

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I find it curious and fascinating, this living focused upon the external gaze, this sense of the home as a place which is on display. Home as stage set, the opposite of home as sanctuary. I would find it deeply uncomfortable to live in, but as an author I am captivated by trying to imagine the people who would choose such a way of living, what stories I might tell about them, how they would move, speak, think, feel — and what, also, these spaces would be like, to move through, to live in. How would I wake up, if my bed was on the floor and my shelving provided by a ladder? What kind of work would I settle to do, if the walls were covered with stamped linen and my shelves overflowing with boxes and fabric and old playing cards? A book like this is a feast for my imagination, and the perfect antidote to hours spent tracking down school uniforms and filling out volunteer paperwork.

Properties, E. G. Burrows (QRL 1978)

The third poet I have discovered through volume 21 of the Quarterly Review of Literature is E. G. Burrows. He was much published as a poet, as well as having had a long career in public broadcasting, and his work in the QRL brings together the two strands of his career. Titled Properties, A Play For Voices, it is a radio play about Fanny Kemble’s marriage and divorce. Kemble was a fascinating woman, a British actress who, during an 1834 tour in the United States, met and married Pierce Butler, an extremely wealthy plantation owner. At first they lived in Philadelphia, but when they moved to his Georgia plantation she came up against the reality of slavery and began keeping a diary of her growing outrage and disgust — a diary which her husband forbade her to publish, threatening to separate her from her children if she continued writing. She left him in 1845, an extremely bold move for a woman at that time, and returned to the stage, giving dramatic readings of Shakespeare; in 1849 Butler divorced her, claiming she had deserted him without cause. She continued on the stage, as well as writing and speaking as an abolitionist and feminist, and published her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1863, during the Civil War.

Inspired by this journal, Properties interweaves Burrows’ poetic rewriting of Kemble’s thoughts and feelings with direct quotes from an apologia Butler published in 1850 to explain why he had taken the drastic step of divorcing his wife. It makes for a powerful piece, poetry flowing into prose and back again, the voices passionately at odds with each other, and although I am firmly upon Kemble’s side in all these matters, the way it is done allows Butler’s confusion and misery to come through as well. Burrows never forgets how these personal conflicts were embedded in the cultural moment; he points out that the “title of this play has a triple reference, to stage “properties,” to slavery, and to the Victorian concept of marriage.” Kemble’s growing awareness of her predicament is very well done, the way she is caught between all the different things, love for her husband and disgust at where their wealth comes from and fury that he does not share her disgust. It is beautifully written, and very rewarding to read out loud — unsurprising, given that it was written for performance. The piece works so much as a whole that it was difficult to find a passage that stood alone enough to quote. This one is from the beginning; Kemble is framing what is to come, standing outside of her own story and surveying all the roles she will find herself playing during her long life:

One minute, Miss Kemble.
One minute is always the time left
to decide which of me shall go out alone
to that island where we are all finally
down to our bones.
I am scattered like words.
In a panic we take the least and know
it is never enough, it is not what we are.

So easy to say
I am Goneril, Juliet, Beatrice, Hamlet, Lear,
housewife, verse-maker, mother, flirt,
toast of kings, rabble-rouser, scurrilous
pamphleteer, actress, feminist, lover
and lonely woman picking at grey hairs.
Are you Frances Anne Kemble or Butler?
Is there one woman you are, and no other?
What were you once and nothing else?

Burrows died in 2011. I wish he was still alive so I could tell him how glad I am to have discovered his work, and how much I would love to hear it performed.

Vicarious Herb Gardening

I am lucky enough to have a large garden — not the one in the picture above, alas — which, mostly, I shamefully neglect in favour of reading and writing. Still, it is there and I am very fond of it, and despite the terrible drought that we are in the midst of, it more or less flourishes. I took the two books pictured below from the library with the intention of growing more herbs in my garden, especially some of the obscure ones I find in Elizabethan recipes, such as lovage and borage — but as the drought worsened I thought better of it, and decided to read aspirationally instead, planning for a future when there is once again rain.

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Charles W. G. Smith’s The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs is a slender paperback featuring 26 different herbs; this is a conveniently sized book I can imagine actually carrying outside with me for reference while planning a garden. The herbs are listed in alphabetical order, with a small photograph of each one — I would not have minded more, as it is good to see the plants in different stages, some change a great deal when they flower or go to seed. Smith gives a brief history of every herb, advice on planting, harvesting, and preservation, and some suggested culinary and medicinal uses. Between each of the individual entries are recipes, grouped by method, ranging from standards such as baking and sauces to more unusual ideas such as making herbal salts and sugars. I was a little frustrated that these in-between sections are not listed in the Table of Contents, but the individual recipes are all included in the index, so it is possible to find a specific item without too much difficulty — and given the slimness of the book, flipping through looking for a particular section is not overly onerous.

Growing & Using Herbs & Spices by Don Burke is a much weightier book, quite literally; it is in the heavy coffee-table style, with full page photographs carefully styled and shot. Like Smith’s book, the entries are alphabetised, with information on how to grow, harvest, and use the various herbs and spices — although Burke is very clear when there is not scientific support for medicinal claims. Many of the entries include a recipe as well, although not all; a pity, as while I do not need more uses for common herbs such as basil, I would have loved to see recipes for nettle or marigold. Unlike Smith, Burke includes spices, while acknowledging that most of his readers will be unable to grow such tropical plants as clove trees and vanilla orchids. I liked the playfulness of including these; it is interesting reading how vanilla pods are harvested even if I will never do it myself. All in all this is a marvellous book to daydream over; the beautifully styled photographs were quite evocative, and the recipes sample from Thai, Indian, and Indonesian cuisines as well as the usual French and Italian. If I were going to buy just one of these books it is this one I would buy — but the glory of the library is that I may enjoy them both.

Industrial Stuff (M. Slotznick, QRL 1978)

Here is the second of the poets from volume 21 of the Quarterly Review of Literature, the first in its poetry series, published in 1978. As far as I can tell, M. Slotznick had published one poem (in the Partisan Review) when he put together this collection, and I cannot find anything about him on the web to indicate that he published anything afterwards. Again, this is a poet whose work largely leaves me cold, but a few of his poems stay with me, such as this one:
 

January. Passion.

Enterprise is a learned musician, enterprise
stoops, shaken, groping to repeat its chords.
When the blizzard lifts, the white metronome stops,
I’ll still see a bass-violinist and his instrument,

ungainly and rich. He bends over the thing
like a lover; he pries exquisite algebra
from his history; his wrist trembles
all out of proportion, and my heart sounds hollowly.
 

I do wish he had kept writing and publishing; I would like to see what he has done in the three decades since.

Lazy Sunday Reading Collection #2

Having navigated my way through my daughter’s first week of kindergarten, complete with uniforms, packed lunches, and a new Frozen-themed backpack, I am looking forward to my lazy Sunday reading in bed more than ever. Here are the links I’ve been saving for this morning:

I just discovered Electric Lit’s new series, The Writing Life Around the World and I am intrigued. There are two essays so far, on Guatemala and Ukraine, and I am looking forward to both.

I have been thinking more about this question of difficult reading, so I am curious about Sam Allingham’s essay on different kinds of difficulty — especially since he seems fond of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, a book high on my TBR list.

Another book high on my TBR list, Helen Vendler’s H is For Hawk gets reviewed by Dinah Lenney in the LARB.

I love to make food, eat food, and read about food, so I am eager to read Matthew Kang’s review of To Live and Dine in LA.

This Oliver Sacks piece leaves me without words.

July’s Silent Pleasures

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The act of reading is, of course, usually itself a silent pleasure. But most of the time my enjoyment is increased by the discussion afterwards, which is one reason these posts, this blog.

Some books, however, leave me with almost nothing to say. Often these are not very good books. They may be engaging, enjoyable, pleasurable… but not well-crafted, not works of artistic merit. There is pleasure in the moment of reading, but not so much looking back; they do not take up residence inside my mind. Sometimes they have compelling plots, stories that push me along so I stay up late to find out what happens next. At other times they are indulgences, books set in idealised pasts that I enjoy visiting while knowing full well that the reality would be incredibly unpleasant. I could approach these books as I did in university, reading closely, teasing out unspoken assumptions, being the cultural scholar — and I do enjoy that very much, it is why I did my degree so. But sometimes I wish enjoyment without analysis — a silent pleasure.

Six of my silent pleasures in July were:

Life Among the English (Rose Macaulay, 1942) — I read her first two novels earlier this year and enjoyed them. Based on the title, I expected this to be a sharp-tongued commentary on life in England in the 30s and 40s with lots of photographs. It is instead a quick skimming of England’s social history, fairly wry, mostly whole good-natured. I enjoyed it while reading it, and now do not really remember it.

The Shadow on the Wall (H. C. Bailey, 1934) — I am in love with Bailey’s detective fiction despite his flaws as an author, so much so that I am eventually going to do a proper post about his two very odd detectives. This particular volume is the first novel featuring Reginald Fortune, a physician-turned-detective who began appearing in short stories in 1920. It is a fairly well-made story, with Bailey’s usual tics, but I enjoy the company of Mr. Fortune so much that I can easily put up with repetitive dialogue tags and other such authorial shortcomings.

Tooth and Claw (Jo Walton, 2003) — Walton’s fourth novel, a re-imagining of Trollope’s Frameley Parsonage… if everyone were dragons. It sounds a gimmick, but it works nicely; yes, these landed gentry really do devour the poor, and the women really are visibly tainted for life if a man gets too close. I enjoyed it, but it does not go beyond its concept; the literalising of metaphors is clever, the story tidy and well-made, but it did not shed any light for me on the human (or dragon) condition.

What Makes This Book So Great (Jo Walton, 2014) — A collection of essays Walton originally wrote for Tor.com about books she was rereading. These are energetic descriptions of what she finds memorable and exciting about particular books, very enthusiastic but without much depth. I found them charming, but they are so clearly ephemera, made to spark discussion, that I ended up frustrated that I could not join in on the years-old conversation.

The Sullen Sky Mystery (H. C. Bailey, 1935) — This novel features Bailey’s other detective, a lawyer for the underworld, Joshua Clunk. I enjoy Fortune’s company more than Clunk’s, but they are both interesting and have that 1930s flavour that I am so fond of. It was quite good, the best novel by him I have read so far — which is something of a pity, since Wikipedia claims it is his strongest, so there is less to look forward to.

The Holiday Round (A. A. Milne, 1912) — Milne is, of course, best known for having created Winnie the Pooh, although some mystery fans remember his single detective novel, The Red House Mystery. But he was also a playwright, a poet, and a writer for the humour magazine Punch, and this volume from 1912 contains a collection of his light pieces. Some are still very funny today, others are obscure or confusing, but all in all I liked having this to dip into now and again.

Who Was Paul Tobenkin?

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I love to read about reading, so Gordon Hutner’s What America Read: Taste, Class and the Novel 1920-1960 was irresistible. I brought it home from the library hoping for something like Amy Cruse’s books about Victorian reading habits, but Hutner’s work is more academic; he is curious about the creeping cultural amnesia which erases so many successful authors from literary memory. Hutner blames this on the critical and academic establishments; he feels they ignore successful middle-class work in favour of either elitist experimental novels and working class fiction. I think Hutner has something of a point — middle-class fiction (also called middlebrow) is exactly what I want to study if I ever pursue a doctorate in English Literature — but his book is incredibly frustrating; he ignores the work in this area that women such as Nicola Beauman and Nicola Humble have been doing over the past decades. After eighty pages of irritation I quit reading, wrote down some of his forgotten authors, and then sent the book back to the library with a feeling of relief.

My usual way would be to let this new list sit with many similar companions for a few years before investigating it, but where is the adventure in that? I decided to try one of the authors immediately, settling on Elias Tobenkin, whose 1925 novel God of Might Hutner suggests “may well be the fulfillment of his literary career.” In fact, Hutner spends three pages arguing the merits of this novel of “middle-class realism” which “dramatizes the consequences of making it” for Jewish immigrants. I am not at all familiar with Jewish immigrant literature, despite having a set of Jewish great-grandparents who came to the United States from Russia in the early 20th century, so it seemed a fine place to start.

Alas and alack, God of Might is a terrible, terrible book. It is, yes, the story of a Russian Jewish immigrant, Samuel, who comes to the United States and finds work in a small town in Illinois.  He assimilates to the society there, gives up religious observances, succeeds in business, marries, and then eventually realises that other people still see him as Jewish even if he does not see himself so.  At the end he has a moment of crisis in which he begins to reconnect to his Jewish roots. That is the novel; you will not learn anything more if you read it yourself because there is nothing more, despite 272 pages of text. The characters are there as representative types, and while Tobenkin tells us that Samuel is “abstruse and dreamy, like his father, and then again he was sharp and clear, sedulous and self-assertive, as his mother had been,” we never see Samuel doing anything, dreamy or self-assertive. There is no texture, no concrete detail, no personality, absolutely nothing except the author’s voice telling us what happens. It is a lost book because it is a terribly written book, and I am rather astonished that Gordon Hutner could not figure this out for himself.

However, reading this terrible book did lead me on an interesting adventure, as I kept putting it down to Google the author, trying to figure out why on earth he had produced this particular book. What I found, via a biographical sketch at the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin where Tobenkin’s papers are kept, was fascinating. Although he wrote at least six (some sources say eight) novels, Tobenkin was primarily a journalist, which may explain why his novel reads the way it does — it is reminiscent of a sort of factual reporting in which there is no need to show anything because the journalistic voice is the authority telling the story. I do not know if God of Might was in any way autobiographical, but Tobenkin was, in fact, a Russian Jewish immigrant; he was born in Slutsk in 1882, and came to the United States with his parents in 1899. After graduating with an MA from the University of Wisconsin in 1906 he found work as a journalist, first in Milwaukee, then in Chicago. By the 1920s he was a successful foreign correspondent for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune, as well as writing for various magazines, and he published several books of non-fiction; the last was The Peoples Want Peace, in 1938, after which his career began to be eclipsed by that of his son, the renowned labour and anti-bigotry reporter Paul Tobenkin.

Paul who? If you, my dear reader, go Google right now on Paul Tobenkin, you will find only a few thousand hits — and almost all of them will refer back to this:

The Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award was established at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1959—during the heart of the civil rights movement—to honor Paul Tobenkin, The New York Herald Tribune reporter’s work and to recognize outstanding achievements in reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the United States.

It is, apparently, quite a prestigious journalism award — or so most references to it indicate. Yet in spite of this, I can find almost no other information about Paul Tobenkin himself. Exhaustive Googling combined with the biographical sketch of his father at the archive in Texas tells me that Paul was born in 1913, his career flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, and then he died of illness in 1959. He was a charter member of what is now the News Guild of New York, “the union for news professionals in America’s media capital” — although there’s no information about him on their site that I can find. Eventually I turned up a speech reported in the 1961 Congressional Reporter that praises him for carrying on a “dedicated crusade for civil and human rights” — but the actual words he wrote as part of that crusade seem to have vanished entirely. There’s no collection of his work I can find, nothing has been reprinted, there isn’t even a biography of him up at Columbia. Cultural amnesia indeed.

Why has Paul Tobenkin’s work been forgetten? It seems strange that a crusading reporter who wrote about racial bigotry and labour struggles would have vanished so utterly.  Were his politics too far to the left to survive the beginning of the Cold War?  Was his work pioneering for its time, but then overshadowed by the Civil Rights movement? Or was he simply an ordinary, hard-working reporter who didn’t really break new ground? The Columbia award was established by Elias after Paul’s death; perhaps the laudatory language is that of grief rather than a real reflection of the son’s accomplishment. I do not know, and with the resources online it is impossible for me to tell. I hope that eventually the Ransom Center will expand Project Reveal to include forgotten American writers, and then I can study Paul’s work online — or perhaps I will win the lottery and can indulge my curiosity enough to fly to Texas.  However it might come about, I would love the chance to read Paul’s journalism and see if any of it is worth resurrecting. That would be a fascinating adventure.

Living Time (Brian Swann, QRL 1978)

I own so many books I have never read that my reading adventures really should begin at home — and yet the library always calls, and all too often, I answer.  In a recent exploration I discovered the Quarterly Review of Literature, a literary magazine which ran from 1943 into the late 1990s, publishing poetry and prose of emerging or neglected writers, in some cases providing the first English translations of foreign authors. I love literary magazines, and I love poetry, and so — why not? I picked up volume 21 from 1978, which is the first of the ‘Poetry Series’ — an attempt, the editors Theodore and Renée Weiss explain, to provide a venue for poets to publish coherent collections of their work rather than just scattering poems across various magazines. This volume contains five collections; I plan to sample from each of them in turn over the next five Mondays. The first is Living Time by Brian Swann, a poet still working today. Most of his work in this collection did not speak to me, but these two poems I liked very much.

The Owl in the Borghese Gardens

An owl sat somewhere near the wall
hooting, turning the air a strange light.
Now and then a car passed
or wind shuffled a bough,
or something inside the gardens would shriek
or scuttle.
I went to the window looking for the voice,
but it shifted with my eyes.
It seemed everywhere. The cold of marble
numbed my feet, so back I went to bed.
In the silence, a bough falling, then the call
again, taking night
on its own terms, turning it
to the owl’s advantage, collecting
each sliver.
And I gathered each call,
trying not to listen,
listening.

The Portiere’s Wife

With twelve singing canaries in a cage
hung from her window,

the portiere’s wife moves about
in the dark of her room.

the portiere’s cat moves along
the top of the dark of the wall,

brushing ivy-tods and ten white blossoms
that cling to thin branches of a young

cherry-tree in her garden, till
rain stops the cat in his tracks,

hauls in the birds, makes each ivy-leaf
jump like a nerve, and drips

into the courtyard, while the portiere’s wife
from the dark of her bird-filled room

watches how it greens each flagstone,
listens to it drown out the birds,

hears the Angelus start up to
end day and drown the hard rain

till the thunder climbs over the bells.

I am not certain why it is I liked those two but not the rest; my aesthetics of poetry is almost entirely wordless still. But as I continue to read poetry, and write my own, and think about it all, perhaps I will find the words to explain what it is I am looking for.

Links for my Lazy Morning

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With two small children and a cat and a housemate and a partner who lives with me and another one who lives on the other side of the continent, I am very, very busy, and yet I write every spare moment that I can. So when do I read? Usually at odd times: when the children are home but very occupied in their own worlds; lying in bed at night before sleep; waiting to pick people up at train stations or from school. The usual lot of the working mother, I think.

Reading in this way means I start many articles I do not finish, getting a paragraph or two into something and then having to put my ipad down to go attend to the latest crisis. Fortunately for me there are Sunday mornings, on which my partner takes the children out on an expedition — and I may sleep late and then lie in bed reading and drinking coffee.

Here are five articles I’ve been saving for this morning:

The cultural conversation about reading continues with Joanna Scott’s thoughts on The Virtues of Difficult Fiction.

Shirley Jackson wrote deeply disturbing novels in the cracks between “wondering what to have for dinner tonight that we didn’t have last night, and letting the dogs in and letting the dogs out, and trying to get the living room looking decent without actually cleaning it, and driving children to dance class and French lessons…” and also found time to give lectures on writing.

I have been fascinated with the Bloomsbury Group ever since I saw the movie Carrington in 1996 — so I am looking forward to seeing what Susanne Berne writes in the LA Review of Books about Viviane Forrester’s Virginia Woolf: A Portrait. I really do not need another book about Woolf, and yet…

Also in the LA Review of Books, Ben Parker argues that literary “realism” is that it is not a descriptive term at all, but a period: roughly 1830–1895. Really? I must read it and see.

Finally, will Meredith Turit’s article in Vanity Fair talk about the entrenched sexism which relegates women’s history to footnotes? Will she mention any of the work that Second Wave feminists did to recover this history? Or is the wheel to be re-invented again? I am, of course, hoping for the former.

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading (Maureen Corrigan, 2006)

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It is very uncomfortable to write about disliking the book of a living, working author and critic, who might, just conceivably, come across my review and feel bad about it. And yet, truth and bravery: I read Maureen Corrigan’s bibliomemoir Leave me Alone, I’m Reading and disliked it intensely. There is some lovely writing about books, but most of it I found dreary, and I only finished it out of pure stubbornness — I really wanted to know why every time I picked it up I began to feel like the colour was being drained from the world.

To begin with the lovely part, Corrigan is both a book reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air and a professor at Georgetown University, and when she speaks professionally, suggesting unusual ways to read certain novels, she is fascinating. Yes, one certainly can approach the hardboiled detective novel as a “utopian vision of the kind of work everyone would like to have” — the idea could be a book of its own. Even better is her view of Jane Eyre and Villette as “Shackletonian slogs across the ice and snow of polar emptiness toward the elusive fires of human companionship” — truly brilliant, I will take this with me in my future readings of the Victorians, to remind me how high the stakes really were for women in the marriage market. I disagree with some of her angles of approach, in particular I think her reading of Sayers’ Gaudy Night is mostly about Corrigan’s own class experience mixed with a certain unconscious heterosexism, but it is honest disagreement, which is in itself enjoyable. I would have loved an entire book filled with such readings.

Unfortunately, that is not this book. The bulk of it is memoir, and after some reflection I realised that I was stumbling over the largest challenge of reading personal narratives — what if one dislikes the voice of the memoirist? Let me be quite clear: there is an actual person out there in the world named Maureen Corrigan, and I cannot and would not judge her as a human being. But there is another woman, the self she created in this memoir, whom I must refer to by the same name or else this review will be unwriteable, and that self comes across as both judgemental and misanthropic. Corrigan-the-memoirist is a person who loves books because they do not make the demands upon her sympathy and attention — unlike, say, a stranger at an adoption information session, the one Corrigan complains about, who “makes you listen to his songs or imparts to you her Philosophy of Life, or gives you a detailed travelogue of his trip to Vladivostock.” It never seems to occur to her that these strangers she grouses about may be reaching out for connection; what she takes away from her experiences is that “most people don’t know how to talk in front of other people” — these strangers sharing their adoption stories don’t “keep it short and entertaining.” Yet even as she delivers these judgements, she seems uncomfortable with them and herself, insisting defensively that anyone else “sitting, hungry and tired, for hours on a folding chair” would feel just the same. Moments such as this permeate the book, and as I read I could not shake the feeling that Corrigan is unaware that the human beings around her are the centres of their own stories, not merely characters in her own.

Having read this directly after Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf, I cannot help comparing how each work presents the act of reading. Rose reads outwards, letting the books make bridges to new parts of the world, while Corrigan aims inwards, reading to make up for what she sees as deficiencies in herself and her own life. Corrigan loves “feminist mystery fiction” because “in tense conversations I tend to get quiet or stammer.” Explaining that she is “raring to become one of their cheeky heroines and get a taste of a way I’ll never be,” she never considers that she could, for instance, take some assertiveness training, or otherwise challenge herself to change. But why should she bother? Books are always tidier than life, and Corrigan seems to prefer the former. Her choice is clearest when, after reminiscing for over a dozen pages about her childhood reading of the memoirs of the Killilea family, she explains that she has no desire to know what happened to them after the beloved books ended. Comparing it to her own memories of childhood classmates, Corrigan says that she doesn’t “want their stories updated” because it is “better for me to remember” them as they were. I find it both distasteful and problematic, this flattening out of reality so that lived memory and stories from books are identical, and the more so because Corrigan so clearly prefers her static internal world over the messy external one in which life continues after the memoir is over. It is her choice, but I find the atmosphere stale; no light, no air, and thus the world in monochrome. I am glad that I now understand it; perhaps if I feel it again from another book I will have the good sense to stop reading right away.

Next week: embarking on a poetry adventure, the mystery of Paul Tobenkin, and (if the beginning of kindergarten for my daughter allows) perhaps a post about some books I enjoyed.