May Reading

This morning I felt a bit of Weltschmerz. Memento mori and all that … what’s the point of reading or anything really when it all ends in death? I think I was feeling gloomy because Partner isn’t here, but sometimes I just have these sad feelings. However, they went away when I got up, showered and had breakfast and especially during my lovely walk with Curious Dog. CD is the best and the sun was shining, the birds twittering, the flowers in the fields, the crisp morning air… It made me feel thankful and glad to be alive. The point of life is loving-kindness (I think).

Anyway, here’s the list of books I read in May. Most of them I’ve already posted about (a rather astonishing feat of efficiency that I hope to be able to keep up – sometimes I wait so long to post my reviews that I start forgetting the details).

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Ongoing project:

Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji.
I’ve managed to catch up. It’s very good, although also very strange. Eventually, I’ll write about the reading experience. I’m glad my friend and I chose this classic to read.

Poetry:

  • Mary Oliver, Dog Songs.
    A lovely little illustrated volume of poetry celebrating the author’s dogs. This one I haven’t managed to post about yet, but it’s on my to-do list. If you like poetry and dogs, it’s for you!
  • Tim Kendall (ed.), Poetry of the First World War.
    A very good selection, with some biographical information about each poet and a good introduction. Due to the subject matter, the poems can be very brutal. They really show up the horrors of war, but also the fleeting joy that is sometimes found in unlikely places. I’m glad I read it.
  • Heinrich Detering (ed.), Reclams Buch der deutschen Gedichte.
    A big two-volume anthology of German poetry from the Middle ages to modern times. I’ve only read a bit of the first volume and find it very interesting.

Short Stories:

Robert L. Mack, Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.
Not really short stories, more like folk or fairy tales, but they are good. I’m a little more than half-way through.

Non-Fiction:

  • Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography.
    See my review.
  • C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.
    See my review.
  • John Bayley, Elegy for Iris.
    See my review.

These three books were all very good in their own way.

Novels:

  • Sally Wright:
    • Watches of the Night.
    • Code of Silence.
    • Breeding Ground.
      See my review. I liked these crime novels. They were a good read and I went on a small binge.
  • Laurie King, The Game.
    See my review. I’ve now reread the first seven novels of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Soon I’ll get to ones that I haven’t read yet (but the next couple or so will still be rereads). Also a very good series.
  • Ellery Queen, The Glass Village.
    See my review – an unexpected good read.
  • Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen.
    Read last weekend, the review is still pending. I enjoyed it a lot.

May was a great reading month. I read a lot, probably due to the couple of long weekends we had, with the public holiday before Whitsun and then Whitsun (or Pentecost) itself. Lots of time for reading and the weather was pretty bad, too. It was nice to hunker down cozily with a hot cup of tea or cocoa laced with rum and read crime and other books. Probably won’t get round to so many books in June, but it’s early yet.

Keep safe, world.

About Reading and Literary Criticism

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As I reported in my last post, I read C. S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism last weekend. In the book, he comes up with an interesting thought experiment. He starts out saying that literary criticism is traditionally all about judging books: what is a good book, what is a bad book. The judgement has a lot to do with the individual taste of the critic. One critic denounces a certain work as in some way deficient, while another may highly praise it. Often, the judgements about certain literary works go through phases of popularity followed by phases when they are out of favour with critics for spurious reasons. Lewis therefore proposes to turn the question on its head, looking not at the work itself but at the kind of reading it inspires:

Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, HarperCollins, 2012 (originally 1961), p. 1.

Lewis goes on to divide readers into literary readers and unliterary readers. He takes pains to point out that this is not a value judgement about readers’ characters. All readers, whether literary or unliterary can have all the faults common to humankind. Also, unliterary readers can become literary ones, and vice versa, or readers use a mixture of the two reading styles (that’s me, I think). Professional literature critics can be unliterary readers if they view their reading as a job. Readers who read for self-improvement are not literary readers because they focus on the self instead of on the work. To be a literary reader, one needs to be receptive to the work, without primarily using it for something. The difference between the literary reader and the unliterary one is the difference between using or receiving the work. Lewis includes the interaction with other works of art in this way of “reading”:

The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.17.

Lewis devotes a chapter to describing unliterary readers. He maintains that they read only narrative works (which can be non-fiction or fiction). They want the narrative to be full of action. They are not interested in style. They like being excited and they like stories which allow them to experience positive feeling through the characters in the books, a kind of escapism, I guess. But he also says that the unliterary readers are only unliterary because they never progress beyond this type of reading which “cuts them off from the fulness of literary experience” (p. 37). Literary readers also read in these ways, but not solely.

Lewis goes on to give a lot of examples of what distinguishes the literary reader from the unliterary one. He talks about myths, fantasy, and realism and how the different kinds of readers typically engage or understand those types of literature. I like his criticism of readers who disdain certain fiction as “childish” or “infantile”:

The process of growing up is to be valued for what we gain, not for what we lose. Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventures is no more a matter for congratulation than loosing our teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes. Why do we hear so much about the defects of immaturity and so little about those of senility?

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.70.

Lewis also talks a lot about how literary readers also misread, by ignoring that works of literary are both vehicles of meaning and things that exist as themselves:

To value them chiefly for reflections which they may suggest to us or morals we may draw from them, is a flagrant instance of ‘using’ instead of ‘receiving’.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.82.

About poetry Lewis says that only literary readers (who appreciate style and form as well as content) read it, therefore he doesn’t talk much about poetry in his exploration of literary and unliterary ways of reading. He says about reading modern poetry:

To read the old poetry involved learning a slightly different language; to read the new involves the unmaking of your mind, the abandonment of all the logical and narrative connections which you use in reading prose or in conversation. You must achieve a trance-like condition in which images, associations, and sounds operate without these. Thus the common ground between poetry and any other use of words is reduced almost to zero. In that way, poetry is now more quintessentially poetical than ever before; ‘purer’ in the negative sense. It not only does (like all good poetry) what prose can’t do: it deliberately refrains from doing anything that prose can do.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.96.

He goes on to remark that this makes poetry reading so difficult that not many readers stick with it. I find this explanation about how to read modern poetry strange but also kind of helpful. Now I have an inkling why I find some modern poetry so hard to understand and can stop worrying about it. I shouldn’t strive to understand it, I should achieve a “trance-like condition”. Let’s see how that works out 😊

On the other hand, I’m sure there are modern poets who write poetry that doesn’t need you to “unmake your mind”.

Judging literature not by some arbitrary taste of literary critics, but by the way it is read makes it hard to critically condemn any given work, which Lewis thinks is generally too easy for critics. Any book that gets even one reader to read it in a literary way, could not be judged as being junk. How do we judge if a reader has read a work in a literary way? Well, by the way they talk or write about the experience. And anyway, Lewis asks:

Can I say with certainty that any evaluative criticism has ever actually helped me to understand and appreciate any great work of literature or any part of one?

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.119.

And concludes that:

The truth is not that we need the critics in order to enjoy the authors, but that we need the authors to enjoy the critics.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p. 123.

I agree with that, but only somewhat. I sometimes enjoy reading literary criticism and it’s true that it’s most fun and illuminating (or not) when I’ve already read the work in question. But it also sometimes leads me to read works I might otherwise not have read. Same goes for book reviews. I’ve often read books because their review sounded inviting. I’ve even sometimes read books that some reviewers hated, just to judge by myself.

Lewis ends with some thoughts about the nature of reading and how it may affect the reader:

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.140.

This work spoke to me. It has interesting ideas expressed in clear language (no literary theory jargon) where the premises are clearly explained. It’s not elitist or snobbish in its description of literary versus the non-literary readers: in fact, it shows up what non-literary readers may be missing in their reading experience and where literary readers may go astray. It values both the original work and criticism, but it positions them in a different relationship. If you are interested in such topics, I can only recommend this book. I loved it and found it thought-provoking.

Keep safe, world.

Tuesday Tidbits

We’re back at my place after having stayed at the family home in Bavaria last week. We drove back on Sunday, and it was a bit of a pain. First we had to drive the long diversion that has been in place for a few weeks on the country roads, and then, when we were on the Autobahn, we couldn’t cross from one to the other Autobahn, because the junction was closed for roadworks. We had to continue on the original Autobahn, till the next exit, then drive back in the other direction and then get on the motorway we needed to be on. If the junction remains closed, I will really have to take the longer route alternative route that doesn’t involve changing motorways. It can’t take longer than all these other diversions. At least it was Sunday, and not much traffic.

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The week in Bavaria was very wet and windy. Usually, it stayed dry in the mornings, so that Curious Dog and I could finish our long morning walk without getting wet. In the afternoons one shower followed another, but we usually managed to time a shorter walk in between the downpours. We also had thunderstorms and one extended hailstorm although the hailstones were smallish (between pea and chickpea size). I used the snow shovel to clear a doorway where the wind had piled them up.

I took Wednesday afternoon off work because I wanted to get some plants for our garden and worked on Friday morning instead (it worked out perfectly, as I had a task that needed to be done then). Mom stayed at home with Curious Dog, as we were worried about thunderstorms. We didn’t want him to be alone during one, because he hates them. It would have been a nice outing for Mum, the first for ages, but we’ll check out a garden centre here in Baden-Württemberg one of these days. I only meant to buy the plant we usually put on our family’s grave, but I got (slightly) carried away. I got the flowering plant for the graveyard, a red Mandevilla (also known as rocktrumpet according to Wikipedia). It’s only lasts for one summer since it doesn’t tolerate cold, but it survives without regular watering, has nice flowers, and it doesn’t get eaten by slugs (a big problem – lots of lovely plants are apparently the favourite food for slugs). I also got a couple of sweet potato plants for our garden, in the hope that they will survive without much supervision. A few years ago, we had a very respectable harvest from just two plants (but Mum was still living in Bavaria at the time and looking after the garden). I also bought a couple of lavender plants, one of which we also planted on the grave, in the hopes that it will keep the ants away. They keep building small ant heaps in one corner of the grave plot although they have the adjacent woods to colonize. It’s very annoying that they seem to prefer the grave plot. Then I got a small rosemary plant to replace the big bush that didn’t survive the winter. Removing the old rosemary bush was quite the chore. It had deep roots and was hard to pull and dig out. Lastly, I picked up a small hazelnut bush (only about 50 cm high) and a small Greek tea plant (it intrigued me and was described to need little water). Quite a few new plants and lots of clean-up to do in our garden, but it rained almost all the time and we didn’t get round to it during the week.

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We ended up planting the grave and new plants in the garden on Saturday morning, when it luckily didn’t rain. So, we spent until noon doing gardening, then had a longish lunch break and then I vacuumed the house and cleaned the bathroom while Mum baked a cake to take with us and did the kitchen. We were quite exhausted by the end of the day. When we return to Bavaria in June, I’m planning to take most of the week off, so that I can do some work helping Mum in the garden (before it gets completely out of hand). I’m too lazy to do it after work (and after two walks with Curious Dog) and it’s too much to do all of it on the weekends (certainly for me – I need my weekends at least partly for reading).

I had to pull myself together last Saturday. Spending all day gardening and cleaning the house wasn’t very appealing, but I didn’t want to spend all day in a bad mood. So, whenever I felt myself getting annoyed, I mentally talked myself out of it. It was quite effective, being mindful in that way. I actually had fun and felt accomplished at the end of the day. Also, I managed to do some reading during our lunch break and at night, aided by the fact that I hadn’t procrastinated on cleaning the bathroom until I had to do it in the evening. I hope I manage to keep this mindset about chores going now that we are back at my place. It’s weird how small things can derail my mood if I let them, but it’s also strange how I can stop myself from spiraling into a bad mood if I work at it. Mindfulness and meditation help me to control my mood, but they don’t do so automatically, unfortunately. I have to work at it. I don’t hate gardening or cleaning per se, but I dislike it when they take up most of the day. I often think that when I am retired, these tasks will no longer be a problem, I’ll just allocate a certain time each day to them and spend the rest of my time with whatever interests me, because I will have so much more time… But who knows what the future will bring? I have to live in the present. The present needs gardening and cleaning as well as more pleasurable things. I might as well like those chores and do them well and quickly, without procrastination and grumbling. Sooner said than done, though.

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Monday was a day off, Pentecost Monday (or Whitsun). It was lovely and relaxed. The weather was nice (for once). It started out sunny and soon became overcast but didn’t rain. It was very warm for our cold May, 20°C. Today it’s raining again, very windy (a level two storm warning), and cold for May, only about 12°C. I wore a thick long-sleeved T-shirt and my woolen shawl while working at my desk to keep me from shivering. At least we didn’t get wet during the walks with Curious Dog. I think I’ve worn a short-sleeved T-shirt only once this spring. Still, no doubt it will get warmer soon, and then I’ll be complaining about the heat. All that rain is beneficial for the soil (it was well wet when we were planting our new plants, not just a couple of centimeters at the top).

Yesterday we started watching The Underground Railroad on Amazon Prime. It’s based on Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name about slaves escaping from their inhuman slaveholders in the American south using a real underground railroad. An escape from slavery narrative with fantasy elements. The series is very powerful (so far) and makes me want to read the novel. So far, I’ve only read The Intuitionist by Whitehead which I once proposed for my book club. It was good, but I think that I’d like The Underground Railroad even better.

On a lighter note, we continued watching The Bad Batch on Disney+ and The Clone Wars. Very entertaining in the usual Star Wars way. In the evening, we watched a Tatort (on Monday, instead of Sunday, because Monday was a public holiday). On Sunday they showed a rerun, which we didn’t watch. Anyway, the Tatort, episode “Neugeboren” (“Newborn”) was set in Bremen and introduced a new cast for that city, three police detectives: Mads Andersen (played by Dar Salim), Linda Selb (Luise Wolfram) and Liv Moormann (Jasna Fritzi Bauer). It was about a murder and a missing baby and how it all tied together. Not bad. The character of Linda Selb reminds me of a slightly down-toned version of Sherlock Holmes as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Not as zany and anti-social, but similar.

I did manage some reading on the long weekend. Not as much as I could have but for gardening and cleaning and driving places: C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism and John Bayley, Elegy for Iris. The latter describes the marriage of Bayley with Murdoch, the famous writer, and how he dealt with her decline into Alzheimer’s. Both books were excellent. I hope to write a review of them in a future post.

Keep safe, world.

Monday Miscellanea

So, last Thursday Mum, Curious Dog, and I headed once again to our home in Bavaria (with all our copious luggage: one bag for Mum, one bag for me plus my office backpack, CD’s bag of toys, and a box full of dog food and groceries, as well as a few odds and ends). It was raining quite heavily when we left, but it was only a localized downpour, so I didn’t have to drive all the way in the rain. The two usual diversions because of roadworks were still in place (sigh) but at one of them I saw that the road workers were painting the road markings, so surely, they must have been almost done and hopefully at least that diversion might be history on our return.

That downpour when we left marked the end of the heatwave or at least an interlude. We’d traveled in the morning, not in the afternoon, as I was concerned about thunderstorms in the afternoon and hey, it did rain in the afternoon after we’d arrived. It was great, actually. As we’d shut all the shutters on the windows when last we left, and since the day was not as hot as it had been all week, the house was cooler than expected and the afternoon rain cooled things down even more. It was great. The relief of summer rain after the week-long heat…

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I did some work on Thursday afternoon, and also worked Friday morning to make up for the travel time on Thursday. Last week was very busy, finishing off the update of four documents, but by Friday I was mostly done, with only one chapter to update and a few quality checks. I’m sure there will be additions and corrections coming in until the final deadline in October, but at least the draft versions were done on time. It was a very productive week. I had more to do than planned, because recent weeks had a lot of stuff that kept me from working on these documents. Usually I prefer being ready earlier than on the day of the deadline, but as everything worked out fine, I’m pleased enough. Still, I’ll try to be ready earlier for the final deadline (although quite often I get request for additions or corrections a week or so after the updated document was published which always annoys the heck out of me). Anyway, this work week will be more relaxed. It’s holiday season. Lots of colleagues are on vacation and I’m getting fewer emails than usual. Also, some tedious meetings have been canceled, because so many people are out of office.

Saturday and Sunday turned out quite hot and humid. Pleasant in the morning, but muggy in the afternoon, so that any exertion made me hot, sweaty and sticky. Very unpleasant. We also had a few thunderstorms in the afternoons or evenings, which luckily were mild ones. Curious Dog, however, didn’t like them at all. Saturday evening I we were walking in the woods when he suddenly sat down, wouldn’t go any further and only wanted to go home. He was either hot (it was still very hot and humid although already 7:00 p.m.) or he felt that the humidity presaged the next thunderstorm. Or maybe he mistook the noise of an aeroplane for distant thunder. No idea. Anyway, since it was hot and sticky, even in the woods, I didn’t try to change his mind and we went home. At least the ticks are not as bad as earlier in the summer. He’s only had a few latched on so far and I don’t find ten or more crawling on his fur after our walks. That’s always good.

Because it was too hot to do anything that involved movement, I did nothing but read all weekend. Urban fantasy, pure escapism – I’ll do a separate post on those books. This morning, for my daily poetry-reading before getting out of bed, I read the poem “The Voyage of Maeldune” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, in the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse. I was absolutely struck by how much the poem reminded me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. The poem had a subtitle that said it was founded on an Irish legend from A.D. 700. I tried to find out if Lewis had known this poem but couldn’t find anything. I did find (on Wikipedia) that there’s an Irish genre called immram, where voyagers sail to the Otherworld, and on the way have adventures on fantastic isles. So maybe, both Tennyson and Lewis were influenced by or found inspiration by these immram tales. Learnt something new today. I must say, I really like what I’ve read of Tennyson in the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse. I think I shall read some more of his works when I’m done with the collection.

After work, Curious Dog and I will be off to his dog school. I hope there’s not another thunderstorm, but since it already rained this morning (a nice calm summer’s rain, no thunder) maybe that will be it for today. I am hoping we’ll have fun.

Keep safe, world.