6.29.2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark


At the university where I am happily employed (and hopefully will remain so), we have an ongoing activity that must involve such words as fatuous and annoying.  It is designed to engage faculty and staff and to encourage overall wellness, and it does so through not terribly enticing prizes and a Jeopardy-style challenge board.  The categories are such gems as "social wellness" and "environmental wellness," and the activities are things such as "Walk to a nearby restaurant for lunch and tell us how walking contributes to your physical wellness" or "Complete the computer-based training on Workplace Diversity and tell us how it contributes to your environmental wellness."  I have not yet mustered the gumption to complete any of these tasks even though I dutifully check on them when they send reminder emails.  The latest enticement was something I could get behind, though, as it fell under the category of "intellectual wellness."  It required you to follow this link to the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list.  Then, you were to go to our library, check out and read one of the titles, and report back on how it contributed to your intellectual wellness.  This task is, of course, ridiculous.  But I did it.  And now, I can report on both the list (also ridiculous, see below) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. 

The list was created by the Modern Library Board, which actually included some pretty thoughtful people, and it limited itself to the best 100 novels of the 20th century, originally written in English.  So, yes, there will naturally be some huge omissions: Tolstoy, Camus, Austen, etc. . . However, the list is dominated by white male authors, many who appear multiple times for similar works, and the notable absences of qualified works is disturbing.  How do you seriously omit Toni Morrison? 

Despite the list's shortcomings, I could not resist the siren call.  I've got several similar lists in my possession.  I think most serious readers use lists such as these to feel accomplished - we glean a stilted sense of self-worth from our achievements in this oddly-constructed, fully false world of 100 Bests.  I can easily get overwhelmed by all the amazing literature floating around out there (not to mention the stuff not yet written or published) that I haven't yet read.  Just going into a library makes me equal parts exhilarated and exhausted by all the possibilities in front of me.  But marking something off a list at least feels like you're moving in the right direction.  So, the lists remain.  And I occasionally return to them to measure my growth and to see if I'm still worth anything after all.

This list proves me not worth much.  I've only read about 40 of the 100 best.  How terrible is that?  A good handful of the authors/titles I'd never even heard of.  Pathetic.  I'm now wallowing in a pool of goo that used to be my "intellectual wellness."  But I will soldier on.  And my battle back to wellness began with the small step toward Muriel Spark.  Spark is an author I had heard of.  But I hadn't yet read any of her work, so she became the first victim in my onslaught on the Modern Library list. 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an often hilarious, effortlessly witty, subtly serious look at adolescence and the influence an individual can have upon youth.  Miss Jean Brodie is at times a figure to be admired (her Progressive education style did produce remarkably curious learners) and pitied (her constant reference to her "prime" being merely the foremost absurdity).  But Spark should be only admired.  Her writing is a perfectly chilled soup in summer.  Her crisp observations and quiet condemnations are thorough in their ability to captivate.  An example from page 1, paragraph 1:

"The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away."

One of the reasons this book has received critical praise must have to do with her skillful movement across and through time in the narrative.  This movement creates layers that quite effectively transmit the importance of Miss Brodie upon these girls throughout their lives.  And it is most successful because you never lose the thread of the narrative or the girls (and their respective reasons for fame).  You understand fully how these girls were drawn together and drifted apart as people will do as they age.  You remember the feeling of wanting to please a favorite adult.  You can't help but laugh at the tragic Mary Macgregor and admire the self-contained Rose Stanley and triumphant Sandy Stranger.  The Brodie Set is at once familiar and foreign, and I feel a definite improvement in my intellectual wellness for having met them.

6.27.2010

Giving Birth

I've done it twice.  Ditto for my sister.  Once for my dear friend.  One of my friends just had her first experience with it.  Another friend is anticipating doing it sometime in early fall.  Yet another friend is hoping to do it differently this time around.  Most women fear it.  Some women find it empowering.  All women have some brush with it, for it is a uniquely womanly experience.  No man can do it.  No man can appropriately write about it.  The burden of truth is upon us.

Childbirth (and the politics, pain, and pleasures surrounding it) understandably wasn't on my radar until I was pregnant with my first.  Like many women, I started doing a little research.  I got the ubiquitous What to Expect When You're Expecting.  I started reading discussion boards on the subject.  I began tossing around words and phrases like "birth plan," "doula," and "episiotomy" as though I had just learned a new language.  And indeed I had.  The experience of being pregnant and giving birth is a rite of passage, a secret club that few people ever talk about in public. 

Through a series of events (and being who I am), I became more involved in that secret club than many women.  Many women just consider it something to endure until they are holding their child.  Then it is something to forget until the next time.  I chose a different route and have spent the last 5 years moving closer to a goal of becoming a childbirth educator and doula myself.  So, I've read such titles as Birth as an American Rite of Passage by Robbie Davis-Floyd and The Doula Book by Marshall Klause, John H. Kennell, and Phyllis H. Klaus.  I have a separate library of TBRs on the subject and a huge training manual binder to finish for certification.  I recently watched The Business of Being Born, the excellent documentary produced by Rikki Lake a few years ago, and I have DVDs on Gentle Birth Choices and other hippie-ish concepts.  And of course, I have my own birth stories.  I recorded them in the days following the births of my children in a journal that we've been adding to at least once a year since then.  The journals are for our children.  We want them to know how it happened.  We don't think it should be a secret. 

Recently, my academic self came running up alongside my hippie self and said, "Hey, we should hang out some time.  Surely, we've got something in common!"  And off I went to discover what was being written and researched about birth and literature these days.  The answer: not a lot.  Women's Studies has a bit of material, but not a ton, and my cursory exploration into birth stories in novels came up surprisingly empty.  I was struck.

How can so many women in all parts of the world be having these experiences and not be including them in their writing?  Why is bringing a child into the world still treated as sex used to be treated by the Victorians: a groan, a page break, and an infant upon our return to the narrative?  We can write and read (or even watch on screen) the most graphic of rape scenes or the grisliest of crimes, but we will not accept the accurate and vivid depiction of labor and delivery. 

So, I am on a quest, and I need your help.  I need you to let me know anytime you read something that includes a birth - even if the birth act is not actually recorded.  If someone has a child in the novel you are reading, send me an email or comment below and let me know what it is.  My first find was Margaret Atwood's amazing short story "Giving Birth" found in her 1977 Dancing Girls and Other Stories collection.  I am a great fan of Atwood's tremendous abilities.  She has yet to disappoint, and this story (and the others I've read in the collection) is no exception.  In "Giving Birth," Atwood introduces us to Jeanie, a woman the narrator insists is not herself ("This story about giving birth is not about me" (226).)  Jeanie's wants a "natural" birth, and we track her progress through her pre-natal classes and on to the hospital.  The whole time, though, Jeanie is haunted by another pregnant woman who is not embracing the process with Jeanie's same fervor. 

"She, like Jeanie, is going to the hospital.  She too is pregnant.  She is not going to the hospital to give birth, however, because the words, the words, are too alien to her experience, the experience she is about to have, to be used about it at all.  . . . The word in English for unwanted intercourse is rape.  But there is no word in the language for what is about to happen to this woman."  (230)

The dream-like quality of this other woman is apparent.  In fact, despite the narrator's insistence, Jeanie herself seems merely a version of truth.  Atwood is definitely working with the separation of self from experience in this compelling story, and I love the way she acknowledges the words themselves as barriers to a full exploration of the truth of birth.

"Maybe the phrase was made by someone viewing the result only: in this case, the rows of babies to whom birth has occurred, lying like neat packages in their expertly wrapped blankets, pink or blue, with their labels Scotch Taped to their clear plastic cots, behind the plate-glass window."  (225)

Who is this "someone" who has written our stories?  Is he labeling us with Scotch tape and trying to keep us behind plate-glass?    Perhaps this is the new glass that needs to be shattered. 

Giving birth changes a woman.  It leaves indelible marks on her person and leaves her a new creature.  Atwood knows this as any woman who experiences it knows it.

". . .in the days that follow Jeanie herself becomes drifted over with new words, her hair slowly darkens, she ceases to be what she was and is replaced, gradually, by someone else."  (240)

Let me know what you find.  I'll be continuing my work on the subject for quite awhile.

6.22.2010

Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson

Bodice rippers.  Beach reads.  Housewife escapism.  All with Fabio on the cover.  That's right: I'm talking about romance novels.  I am pretty sure that I have made it this far in life without ever reading a romance novel.  I am a considerable literary snob, (to the point where I have trouble reading anything Oprah espouses even when it is a classic), and romances seem the epitome of low-brow.  They are formulaic, sexist, and unrealistic.  In fact, they should be recognized as fantasy and unhealthy fantasy at that.  As a matter of curiosity, I meandered over to the Wikipedia entry on the subject and was disturbed to find the genre extends into such areas as Paranormal Romance, Time-Travel Romance, and Multicultural Romance (which, disturbingly, just means the hero or heroine is usually black.  That this genre is even a necessity speaks volume on the state of race in our society).  I'm sure that Twilight and its sequels would fall into some separate category of Vampire Romance.  Click here to see how I felt about that gem of a series.  Besides Twilight, though, I've remained safely detached from the romance novel world.  So, why would I willingly pick up a book called Love's Shadow (with a bubblegum pink cover, no less)?

Insert pause to build breathtaking suspense here . . . .

Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson is no mass-marketed romance, thankfully.  It is one of The Bloomsbury Group published by Bloomsbury Press, and it is delightful.  Called the first in the "Little Ottley" trilogy, Love's Shadow (originally published in 1908) is purportedly the story of Bruce and Edith Ottley, who live in a "very new, very small, very white flat in Knightsbridge" (3).  Their fast-paced dialogue had me laughing out loud from the very first page.  Of course, it is easy for me to laugh because Edith so thoroughly has the upper hand over the utterly imbecilic Bruce.  My husband did not find the passage I read aloud funny at all.  Bruce really is an unbelievable cad, and together, he and Edith show the reader a most insufferable picture of marriage.  Amidst Bruce's imagined maladies and play rehearsals, Edith is sustained as a rather remarkable hero, her cheerful endurance somehow becoming something to celebrate.  Though the Ottleys are interspersed almost as comic vignettes, the story is not really about them but about Edith's friend Hyacinth.  Hyacinth is a great beauty and actually occupies more of the reader's time and attention in the novel as she navigates her own trials and joys of love.  It is Hyacinth's story (and her relationship and subsequent marriage to Cecil Reeve) that make up the backbone of the narrative and provide the most food for thought.

Throughout the novel, Leverson provides examples of people falling in love with unsuitable persons and having to deal with the falling out caused by such a situation. Sir Charles Cannon loves his ward, Hyacinth; Hyacinth loves the fashionable Cecil Reeve; Cecil loves the older, fascinating Mrs. Raymond, who secretly loves Sir Charles Cannon but chooses to marry Cecil's uncle, Lord Selsey.  Perhaps the most serious examination of this phenomenon comes in the handling of Anne Yeo, Hyacinth's friend and live-in companion until the time of her marriage to Cecil.  Yeo is a most amazing character in her eternal mackinaw and golf-cap.  She is so believable and sympathetic, and she provides a most impressive reflection on a society that would not allow her to do anything about her feelings except emigrate (as she chooses to do at the close of the story).  I suppose it would be possible to read Yeo as an asexual being who has merely a sisterly love and protection of Hyacinth, but I believe such a reading would be seriously flawed.  Yeo recognizes the strength of her feelings and the untenable position she is in.  She cannot have Hyacinth, she cannot even properly love Hyacinth, so she must simply go away.  Her absence is noticeable in the last chapter, which is decidedly the least satisfactory of the book.  In fact, it is in this last chapter that Love's Shadow most closely approximates a traditional romance novel: it provides a happy reconciliation at the end.  But even in the reconciling, Leverson leaves open the door for future reflections on the complication of love as Hyacinth asks Cecil,
     'And, oh, Cecil, if I'm never so horrid and bad-tempered again, will you forgive me?'
     'Well, I'll try,' said Cecil.
What more can we hope for, really, but this willingness to try?

I do take issue with one element of this book, and again it comes from the back cover.  There we are told that the Ottleys "are like every other respectable couple in Edwardian London, and that is precisely why Edith is beginning to feel a little bored."  I disagree so thoroughly as to be almost angry about it.  I don't want to believe Edith and Bruce are like every other couple, and I do not believe Edith when she says she is bored.  Bruce is anything but a bore.  I believe Edith spends a great deal of her day laughing at her husband (albeit internally), and though I don't recommend this scenario as a foundation for a solid marriage, it does not usually equal boredom.  She might be infuriated, confused, or depressed about the state of her household, but I do not think she is bored by it.  If you spend too much time thinking about their marriage (rather than just laughing at it), you might be faced with another difficult question: why would Edith marry Bruce to begin with?  No matter the reason, I would love to read more of them, so I will now have to look into the rest of the "Little Ottleys" trilogy.

6.17.2010

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Does anyone else find it ridiculous that I took Virginia Woolf and How to Read a Book to the beach and started this one upon my return?  Perhaps it is actually sensible:  I get more focused reading time on vacation than at home, so I can get through some difficult works more quickly there.  Seems to make sense to me.

Anyhow, I finished Water for Elephants last night to considerable internal grumbling.  This bestseller has been ubiquitous among book groups and casual readers, so a full plot summary seems unnecessary.  For those few who haven't read it, though, the basic idea is that Jacob Jankowski is in his nineties and living in an assisted living facility.  When the circus comes to town, he reflects on his experiences with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  Through his flashbacks, we meet the evil August (the polished and charming equestrian director, who also happens to be a violent paranoid schizophrenic) and his wife, Marlena, who is the beautiful and gifted animal performer that Jacob falls in love with.  It is a typical love triangle romance set in a unique environment with some interesting historical cues thrown in.

The concept is a good one, and the elder Jacob is an interesting and fairly well-drawn character.  For the most part, his struggles with aging seem realistic.  My only trouble comes from the recurring reference to him not knowing how old he is ("I am ninety.  Or ninety-three.  One or the other.")  My limited experience with someone who has aged past the point of keeping track of time has shown this struggle to be terribly problematic and often resulting in anger, not a flippant mention.  The younger Jacob is less appealing, but I was interested in the story at the beginning.  By the time I reached the end, I was frustrated.  The book is not great.  It is rather thinly written, and the reviewers who have commented on her cliches are spot on.  But as an entertaining and unchallenging read, it hits its market successfully.  My major problems come from the externals of this book.

The back cover quotes The New York Times Book Review when it says Gruen "saves a terrific revelation for the final pages."  Having read that comment before starting, I was poised for something huge at the end.  I couldn't understand how it would be possible since Gruen chooses the classic in medias res technique and shows us the climax (albeit a veiled version) in the prologue.  Unfortunately, the ultimate "twist" was anti-climactic.  The other issue is with all these books coming with a Book Group Study Guide in the back.  This one has an interview with the author, which I often appreciate, and a set of discussion questions.  These questions make me crazy!  If you are a reader who is planning to discuss a book, you come to your group with passages marked, things you liked, things that made you angry, and things that you were curious about.  You don't need a set of ridiculously stilted questions to "get you started."  In fact, these questions could end up functioning like endnotes can: they make you feel you can't trust your own reading of the book.

Case in point:  both the Book Group questions and the interview include Gruen's claim that the "backbone" of her story is the biblical story of Jacob found in Genesis.  After reading these comments (especially Gruen's statement, "I thought it would be a fun thing to play up for people who recognized it."), I felt inadequate.  As a careful reader and someone who is fairly familiar with the Old Testament, I condemned myself for missing something big.  So, I reread Jacob's story in Genesis and considered again Jacob Jankowski's story.  Ultimately, I must conclude the parallels are not strong enough to call this biblical text the backbone of the story.  There simply are not enough points of similarity.  Sure, Jacob slept with his head on a rock too, but he ended up speaking to (and later wrestling with!) God before the night was over.  Jacob J. just joins the circus.  Jacob J. had five children, so he was considered fairly fertile, but the original Jacob was the father of the Jewish people.  Finally, it makes no sense at all that the most evil character in the book was Jewish if you are supposedly making your hero parallel with a great Jewish forefather.  She didn't "play up" anything.  In fact, it makes me wonder if someone pointed out the connection between the names and rock sleeping after the fact.  I just cannot believe it was a driving force in the writing of the original narrative.

These unfortunate endpieces made for an overall unsatisfying experience.  Without them, I could have enjoyed the book for what it was and left it alone.  Instead, I'm left questioning the motives of the author and the publisher and feeling like the book got cheated in the process.

6.15.2010

Blog Updates and Paris in July

After lamenting the lack of design options built in to Blogger's platform a few weeks ago, I was pleased to find they have recently updated and upgraded their templates and design tool.  While still not offering the completely unique, they have substantially increased their design customization options.  Thus, you are seeing today a newly-redesigned site.  What do you think?  Suggestions would be appreciated for things to continue, change, or delete.

Also, a big thank you to Frances at Nonsuch Book for alerting me to the Paris in July activity hosted by BookBath and ThymeforTea.  I will be embracing (unearthing?) my languishing French during the month of July and attempting to record all things Parisian.  In a few days, I'll post a timeline and/or set of expectations for the month.  And of course, I'll be looking forward to your comments - in French or otherwise. 

Finally, I have added an image to my profile in an effort to show some consistency in commenting and otherwise.  It's okay, but I have a friend who does pretty amazing line drawings (among other artistic endeavors), so I'm going to contact him about getting something custom.  I'm merely content with the idea of a girl reading a book; it seems so done.  I would gladly accept any suggestions for some words or concepts to inspire my friend - preferably something that ties to the blog title.  What do you think?

6.11.2010

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

In the beach house we are renting resides a small sampling of books:  Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, Lillian Jackson Braun, Danielle Steel.  I, of course, don't go anywhere without a sizable stack of my own, so I didn't have to resort to these authors this week.  Instead, I finished Jacob's Room (which I don't plan to comment fully on after all - suffice it to say that I remained intrigued with the concept if not enamored of the whole experience) and began Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's How to Read a Book.  My in-laws all found this title extraordinarily ironic. 

My connection with Adler began when I was in the 5th grade and enrolled in a new magnet school based on Adler's Paideia philosophy of education.  I did some college projects on the Paideia philosophy, so I have read most of the books he wrote on that subject.  But I just stumbled across this classic text at a used bookstore some weeks ago and figured I should give it a read.  Written originally in 1940, and revised and updated in 1967, this text has offered a mixed bag of thought-provokation.

The idea here is that of a practical exposition on reading: like an appliance manual or a cookbook, it wants to teach you how to properly (note the importance of this modifier!) accomplish this thing called reading.  The book is divided into four parts and attempts to cover a broad range of questions surrounding the art and craft of reading.  The first section focuses on the first two levels of reading which Adler and Van Doren call "elementary reading" and "inspectional reading."  These levels confront the basic notion of translating symbol into meaning and how to first approach a book - skimming or prereading, if you will.  Part two devotes itself to the third level of reading: analytical reading, and it gives you specific and demanding rules for how to properly engage with a book.  Part three provides more detail about how to approach different kinds of books, with chapters entitled "How to Read Philosophy" and "How to Read Social Science."  Part four takes on "The Ultimate Goals of Reading" - what they call syntopical reading and the general idea of growing one's mind through reading.  If all this summation doesn't make you laugh or turn you off entirely, knowing that the whole text is over 400 pages long will probably do it.

So, why have I persisted with this work?  Well, it is actually interesting. . . to a degree.  They have managed to break down and examine the intimately familiar act of reading and have transformed it into something almost foreign.  I have learned a few things, agreed with a few points (in particular, the claim that "the dictionary also invites a playful reading.  It challenges anyone to sit down with it in an idle moment.  There are worse ways to kill time" (178), and found their ideas lacking in some areas.  It is a bit pedantic, but the overall effect has been positive. 

In part one, Adler and Van Doren argue against the trend of speed-reading (which was apparently quite popular in the 60s) by insisting that speed is not the ultimate goal of all reading.  Increasing your speed might help you enjoy or comprehend what you read more, but you should not always view faster reading as better reading.  "Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension" (39).  I agree with their point and actually take it further to assert that within any given book, there might be sections that demand more or less time and attention depending on their subject matter.  For example, in this book, I have annotated and perused the first two sections (as possible teaching tools) fairly seriously, but I mostly skimmed the third section. 

Perhaps the most interesting assertion they make, though, could be applied outside the particular realm of reading.  In discussing the proper ways to disagree with an author, they offer three ideal conditions which they call "the sine qua non of intelligent and profitable conversation" (155).  They follow those assertions with this jewel: "But the ideal here, as elsewhere, can only be approximated.  The ideal should never be expected from human beings" (155).  As a part-time perfectionist, I had to pause at this moment.  How could you lay out rules and insist that they cannot be expected to be followed?  It is in this statement that Adler and Van Doren show their hand:  this book is not just an auto-repair manual or simple "how-to".  It is a philosophical treatise on a dying art, an attempt to conjure and protect some worthy craft that has been too-long neglected.  Only after pausing in this moment was I able to get to the bottom of my unsettled feeling about this text.  It claims to be a hands-on practical application book, but I could not imagine anyone wanting to read it who was not already an avid reader.  It is preaching to the choir, or to the teachers anyway, but it claims to be an evangelist. 

Perhaps it is this underlying conflict that made my non-bibliophilish in-laws laugh at the title.  Perhaps the non-readers knew automatically what it took me reading most of this book to figure out.

6.07.2010

Beach Reading

Every year, when we head to the beach, we bring with us a few new things for the children.  Mostly, it is stuff to interest them during the long car ride, and usually it involves new books.  This year, we didn't get very many new items (although Curious George Goes to the Beach is a new one); instead, the library provided most of our "new to us" experiences.  Our kids love audiobooks, so we usually get several before a long trip.  Thursday, before we left, I found that our library now "loans" audiobooks as mp3 or wma downloads.  Of course, wma is not automatically ipod supported, so compatibility is a bit of an issue, but I did manage to download several good ones for the trip.  Less to carry/pack is always a good thing.  Happy car-riding children is one of the best things out there.

One caveat: Arthur's Audio Adventures covers several of the original Arthur the Aardvark tales; however, each short book is separated by the same obnoxious (and LONG) Arthur song.  Perhaps it is part of the animated TV series?  I don't know, but I do know that two days later, it is still ringing in my ears. 

The Arthur fiasco aside, audiobooks have really been a beautiful thing for our family.  Especially as our kids get older, the books become more interesting for all involved.  This time, we are working through J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.  Is there anyone on the planet not familiar with this great story?  I've known the tale for years, but realized as we began listening to the book that I've never read it.  What an unwitting loss I've suffered all these years!  The Disney movie version is surprisingly faithful to the original book, but it does not capture Barrie's unbelievably blithe wit and subtle winks at the parents who undoubtedly would be reading his book.  It is fantastic!  And though the e-edition I have is cumbersome (it is downloaded as a single track, so to return to your spot, you have to fast-forward through hours of material.), the story is so good as to keep us enthralled. 

The other bit of childlike pleasure I've been enjoying lately is The Borrowers by Mary Norton.  Homily, Pod, and Arrietty are charmingly real characters, and I especially love the frame story technique.  It was interesting to watch as our daughter worked out the concept of someone in a story telling a story.  At first, she would ask why we weren't hearing more about Kate and Mrs. May, but she soon settled into the story, focused on the little ones, and seemed to forget about those big humans.  Now, we're almost finished, and Mrs. May and Kate have resurfaced.  Though their reintroduction is interesting, we are in total suspense as to what has happened to Homily, Pod, and Arrietty, which is, I imagine, exactly what Norton desired for that rhetorical technique to achieve. 

What about you?  What's your favorite children's book?  Any suggestions for next time?

6.01.2010

Reading While Moving or Why I Hate Endnotes

I am a woman on the brink.  Just barely back from the dark side of a move.  There are still 4 boxes upstairs that may not be unpacked for some time (YA literature my kids aren't ready for, and we don't have shelf space for), and I'm still not convinced I like where the dining room table is sitting.  But I am beginning to return to life, which means work and reading.  Right after the TBRs went into my closet/sanctuary/office, I perused as though they were all new again and chose the next read.  The problem is that I chose a book that was a poor fit for my easily-distracted mind: Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room.

I've always been a quiet fan of Woolf's, as many women who read are.  I had the great fortune of taking a class on Conrad, Woolf, and Joyce during a summer term at Cambridge.  I have read many of the most popular works and have her collected essays and diaries on my TBR shelf.  The Indigo Girls song "Virginia Woolf" is one of my favorites.  But Jacob's Room is not captivating me.  I am impressed by it.  I am intrigued by the concept.  I even have passages - beautiful, intelligent, otherwordly passages - underlined in it.  But I do not want to keep reading it.  It is not compelling me.

Jacob's Room is a complex narrative that centers around a mostly absent or invisible main character, Jacob.  Woolf is playing with perspective, relationship, and personhood through the varied and variable depictions of Jacob from boyhood (seen mostly through the eyes of his mother) through adulthood (seen from many angles).  I am only about halfway through, so Jacob still remains shadowy - as he perhaps might for the duration.  And while the concept is challenging, thought-provoking, and alive, the narrative is dragging horribly for me.

I blame the endnotes.

I hate endnotes.  I don't know why exactly although I have some suspicions.  One reason could be that much like my inability to discard a book I haven't read yet or am not enjoying reading, I have an extremely difficult time ignoring the notes.  Footnotes aren't so bad because I can easily glance down to see if the notation is merely a citation or a reference to some compelling bit of information that will ease and inform my reading.  But endnotes require me to keep the page handy and flip to the end of the book and back again just to see how relevant the note is.  And most of the time, the note is completely unhelpful and thoroughly disruptive to my reading.

For instance, during a predictably confusing passage of fragmented conversation and description, we get a note.  I flip to it, hoping I might get some explanation for what is going on or some greater meaning to all the noise and confusion.  Instead, I get a note that explains Woolf observed (and recorded in a letter to her sister), a similar scene in a noisy restaurant in London.  Really?  You needed to tell me that the author pulled an example of something she observed in real life into her fiction?  That's astonishing!

Of course, I understand the academic scholarship reasons for such a note.  It is interesting to find correlatives between the fiction and personal writing of an acclaimed author.  However, it contributes nothing to my reading of the novel.  In fact, it interrupts my reading and causes me to continually question my ability to interpret the work appropriately.  The notes make me feel there is some right answer out there, and I need to constantly be checking my answer against the key. 

I will finish Jacob's Room, and I hope those shining examples of Woolf's great skill can overcome my frustration with the act of reading this text.  Perhaps, I could binder-clip the notes pages together.  If I make it harder to get to them, maybe I could finally ignore them and just read.