Posted by: zhiv | April 24, 2008

Reading notes

I’m home sick with a cold that turned into a significant ear infection, so I figure it’s not a bad time to do a little blog housekeeping.  Just some thoughts, what I’m reading, make a few connections, general stuff.

What I’m reading #1:  A Country Doctor, by Sarah Orne Jewett.  Last spring, over a year ago, I read “Country of the Pointed Firs” when I took a New England college tour with the GD, and I found it surprisingly engaging and satisfying.  It’s a bit odd, tough guy that I am (not), but I’ve had a great time over the past 18 months reading Cather, Jewett, and Olive Schreiner for the first time.  I have a vague memory of them being mentioned and discussed back when I was in grad school in 80s and they were all in the midst of a recovery of sorts; it seems like there were plenty of people reading these authors and working on them. 

This reminds me:  I glanced at the entry under “domestic fiction” in the Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the US (a nice title to have in the Tough Guy Library, don’t you think?), and saw that it said:  “While such early works as Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, The Coquette by Hannah Foster, and even Anne Brandstreet’s poetry can be seen to contain elements of the genre, the novel that best marks the first full articulation of the form was A New England Tale (1822), by Catharine Sedgwick…”  Who knew?  I have to go back and read over my post on ANET.

But back to Jewett, which doesn’t seem so far from domestic fiction by any means, and it’s probably a later version of the pure stuff.  So I guess what I was starting to get at, a moment ago, is that I was vaguely aware of Pointed Firs and African Farm in graduate school when I was studying the novel, but I never made it that far, and I was reading a lot more BritLit than American.  I like all of these writers quite a lot, and I remember being freaked out at the power and importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I first read it over 10 years ago.  I thought that Pointed Firs was really quite good, and Jewett’s story and her Maine homeland are all good stuff.  I’ve had my eye out for Jewett stuff, not really searching too hard, but I saw a nice paperback of A Country Doctor about a month ago.  I was a little surprised to see it, but I grabbed it.  I would say that it was up next on my vacation reading list at the end of last month, but I shoved Mary McCarthy’s TCSK in there.  After I finish this long rambling post I plan to go up and head towards the finish of Country Doctor, so I’ll be writing about it soon.

What I’m reading #2:  I read the first few stories in Richard Yates’ 11 Kinds of Loneliness, reading from my copy of the Collected Stories, actually.  I’m probably going to take them slowly, and my guess is that my next Yates book will be Easter Parade.  I need to get my copy of the Yates biography too–that should be pretty exciting.  The stories are excellent, as expected, but I’ve just taken my first sip.  After all of the talk about Yates and Fitzgerald and Flaubert, I saw a copy of Madame Bovary on the shelf and I took it upstairs to put on the stack.  This morning I read the first chapter, and I found it quite accessible, very much something I would be happy to dive back into and read.  It’s one of the many books that I powered through 25-30 years ago, and I believe I read The Sentimental Education as well.  I did my time with EuroLit, especially the novel, and felt like I had a handle on Flaubert and Balzac and Stendhal, not so much Hugo and Maupassant, but what I actually remember at this point is probably about 3 drops out of a big bucket. 

So in that first chapter of Madame Bovary, I was surprised to discover that the very beginning, the introduction of Charles Bovary to the schoolroom, was deeply similar to the very first, very simple Richard Yates story, Doctor Jack-o-Lantern.  Nothing too specific, but it was fun to see such a quick connection.

Two other things about Madame Bovary, which I’m not going to say that I’m “reading” just yet.  One, as I looked at it I was surprised to see that it was published in 1857.  I would have guessed late 60s-early 70s, based on those few tiny drops of memory.  Two, thinking about it, and reading in that first chapter about Charles Bovary’s medical training and his move to a small town, throws an interesting light on “The Country Doctor.”  Dontcha think?

What I’m Not Reading #1:  African Fiction.  I need to get back to the African reading challenge, which hasn’t gotten much attention as Yates, MM and others have taken up my time.  I was going to say that Country Doctor was next on my vacation read list before I ran out of time, but the truth is that Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter was ahead of it.  So that’s on my list.  I should also note that a colleague/friend gave me what looks to be a good piece of newer South African fiction (1995), The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr.  They’re making a movie out of it.  Gave it to the GD; she’s on page 54.  Also need to finish the Olive Schreiner biography, and wrap up my Virginia Woolf-Olive Schreiner essay.  So I vow to finish the Schreiner biography before I start the Yates biography, how about that.

And while I’m rambling, I’ll mention that in the Schreiner biography I first learned about Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, who was Schreiner’s buddy, a fascinating character and activist, writer, intellectual, a big time literary daughter, who apparently had a nasty end with a horrible second husband–I read about it on Wikipedia but don’t remember the details.  At any rate, I bring it up, because the 1965 Norton Critical Editon of Madame Bovary I was reading this morning was a translation by Paul de Man (infamous? not sure what’s up with his reputation at this point), a revision of Eleanor Marx’ version.  Wouldn’t have known anything about EMarx if not for Schreiner interest and studies.

What I’m reading #3:  Without mentioning much more active screenplay reading and editing work, grinding away (new job stress and issues are clearly what got me sick), I’ve read a couple of books for work, mostly kid or YA stuff.  I’ll mention Kiki Strike, by Kirsten Miller, and its recently published 2nd installment.  I thought these books were fantastic and really fun, for anybody interested in girl power and contemporary kidlit.  They’re almost at the Harry Potter level, but not quite–and what is?  My “Some Literary Blockbusters” post was meant to be a preface to writing about Kiki Strike, but I’m holding off.  There may be later developments in the Kiki Strike world.  But in “Some Literary Blockbusters” I mentioned the gang at the children’s bookstore around the corner from my house.  When I got the new job I went in there, where I had been pretty scarce since my kids have gotten older, and I asked about what they were selling and what they liked.  It was like a gang cheer, virtually as if they all cried “Kiki Strike!” in unison.  They were selling out stacks of copies and telling everybody about it; it was rather exciting.  The first book is in paperback and the second book came out in hardback in the fall, which is a good combination, and it was only a new employee/kidlit groupie who told them all about it and got them all fired up, so it’s a bit of an in-crowd.  But the books are great.

Last week I read a YA book called “Surefire” by bestseller Jack Higgins and another writer, on the lookout for a teen Bourne Identity-movie, a step up from Spy Kids and kind of like War Games, sort of.  The book was simple and straightforward and might provide a good blueprint.  Then today I finished a book called “Audrey Wait!” which was also a fun read, a novel that’s a cross between YA and chicklit about a teenager who breaks up with her obscure rocker boyfriend, who writes a huge hit about their breakup that makes her a reluctant contemporary tabloid/MTV celebutante.  It was deeply immersed in music and teens–the GD read that one in about 5 minutes over the weekend.  She inhales the stuff, and she downed the Kiki Strike books in similar quick sittings.  Continuing on the literary parenting tip, my son and I watched Richard Linklater’s Scanner Darkly over the weekend, and he’s going to read the Philip K. Dick book.  He read The Shining on vacation, and so I also got him a copy of Carrie.  He was trying to read “Red Scarf Girl,” but he got bored and started faking it, but now he’s started Seven Years in Tibet and is liking it.  He’s studying China, by the way.  He’s super smart and has read a lot of great books this year, but it’s so much harder to find books for boys, and I didn’t read at all when I was his age.  Back before the beginning of my literary tough guy days.     


  1. Picked up Revolutionary Road at the library yesterday and will save your posts for when I’ve finished. Am really looking forward to it.

    I like your thoughts here on how much your books are “talking to each other”. One of my favorite parts of reading several books at one time.

    I’m about a third through Madame Bovary at the moment. It’s a reread for me as well and I have much stronger memories of The Sentimental Education but Flaubert always gets me with his details. He’s an author I would accuse of disliking his characters if it wasn’t so clear that he spent so much time getting them just perfect, that has to be a kind of love.

  2. Verb — I’m kind of worried that my excitement about Rev Road might not quite work for other people, so I hope your expectations are reasonable. Just recommendation and enthusiasm anxiety, I guess. But I love the fact that you’re into Madame Bovary at the moment, and that inspires me to move up my timetable a bit–although I can’t use you as a reason to put off Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, I don’t suppose. When does that show up on your ND schedule? Hope you enjoy the Yates, and thanks for the comment.

  3. Burger’s Daughter was her 7th novel and I’m currently on her 5th – but A Guest of Honour is a long one and I’m not moving very quickly at the moment.

    I get the same recommendation anxiety. I realize that books speak to me in a way they won’t speak to anyone else. Things can be shared but each reading experience is unique…which is one of the more amazing things about fiction.

  4. I’m curious about the “domestic fiction” article — they may be talking about what I refer to as sentimental fiction — about women, emotions, family, the kitchen, mothers/daughters. it’s interesting stuff, particularly when you think about how 19C domestic writing morphed into 20C and 21C variations. Has that domestic fiction form ever really ended?

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