May 18, 2009

Catching Up

Somehow I always forget how busy May is! There's a lull after winter term grading is finished and then administrative tasks need doing--year-end committee reports and so on--and then the current crop of MA students heads into their thesis-writing phase, meaning draft chapters start coming in for comments. Last week we also had two Ph.D. students doing their comprehensive exams; I was involved in one as the student's supervisor, so there was the exam itself to write and then the written portions to read, followed by the three hour oral exam; as Graduate Coordinator, I also chaired the second exam. Graduate admissions is an ongoing process, too, still involving an assortment of calls and emails and paperwork. In between these tasks I've been working on my paper for ACCUTE. Then there's family life, too: a highlight last week was going to the Neptune Theatre's production of High School Musical with my daughter--that was a lot of fun (Maddie was especially excited that the cast hung around in the lobby after the show to sign autographs). Last but not least, we've been watching the third season of Deadwood, which of course is "just for fun," but I defy anyone to make it to Episode 6 or 7 without feeling a pretty strong compulsion to see how it all turns out. (It's an extraordinary show, though I think I still rate The Wire higher.)

Anyway, no wonder I haven't felt I could afford time for blogging, though I have been keeping an eye on my blogroll and in particular on this discussion at The Valve because one of my ACCUTE events is a lunch-hour session on academic blogging. (It strikes me that hopes or expectations for the potential of this form to shake things up in academic publishing have declined since The Valve was launched with this post--the premises and arguments of which I still find important and convincing.)

I've done a little reading, too (you always need something on the go to read with your morning tea, waiting for appointments, and so on!). One regrettable choice was Kate Jacobs's The Friday Night Knitting Club. I wanted to like this one--just as I want to like the Elm Creek quilting series, and just as I do like leafing through quilting magazines, especially the kind featuring profiles of shops and the women who gather there. It's some kind of fantasy of community and creativity, I think, of working all day with friends and having something beautiful to show for it. I do a little inexpert quilting, and have tried my hands at knitting too, and there is a simple satisfaction for me in the tangibility of the work; perhaps that's part of the appeal too, as a contrast to the vagaries of academic and intellectual work. In any case, The Friday Night Knitting Club will teach me never again to buy a book with an endorsement from Glamour ("The book's great--worth reading now!"). The best word I can think of for the writing is "cheap." The plot pulls every predictable ploy: someone gets cancer, someone gets pregnant (guess which two major events are poignantly juxtaposed...), someone visits a wise old Scottish grandmother--who doesn't talk anything like a wise old Scottish grandmother, unless unbelievably platitudinous advice is somehow authentic Scots wisdom:
'You'll have lots of questions to answer as you get older. Who you are. Who you want to be. What you think about things. Like politics. And romances. And whether you'll speak out or keep your mouth shut. It's always a challenge to work out the best way to live your life, and as much as everyone tells you what to do, ultimately how you do things is up to you.'
Offset short sentences bearing nuggets of painfully obvious insight or laboriously heavy-handed emotion are the author's trademark:
It was only when the job was almost done that it hit her: a person didn't return home to the Upper East Side from a building site in Park Slope, Brooklyn, via the West Side.

James must have made a special trip.

Just to see her.
Phew. That stinks.* I actually find this kind of book obliquely insulting to women (to whom, of course, it is exclusively marketed, I'm sure). And yet, apparently it was a New York Times bestseller, so I suppose I can only lament the laziness of taste and discrimination that makes something like this a success.

Now I'm reading Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter. I wasn't wild about Slammerkin, but the premise of this novel is a good one and the reviews (including this one in the Globe and Mail) made it sound both intelligent and entertaining. So far, it's just OK. One problem for a Victorianist is that much of what is provided as context in the novel (a bit woodenly, at times) is pretty familiar stuff, from the members and activities of the Langham Place group to the peculiarities and injustices of Victorian divorce law. Donoghue also does not seem to be using her historical materials to any strong thematic purpose: the novel is about the Codrington case, but what else is it about? As a chronicle of a broken marriage, The Sealed Letter is a pale shadow of Trollope's He Knew He Was Right (see, for instance, here, here, or here), in which the breakdown of the Trevelyans' marriage becomes part of a complex commentary on Victorian gender relations and marriage in the context of larger problems of distribution of power and authority. Also, who needs Crocker when they have Bozzle? As for neo-Victorian predecessors, well, (so far, again) Donoghue does not seem to have the gift of either Michel Faber or Sarah Waters for evoking the period in a profoundly contemporary but yet deeply convincing way. The greatest specific weakness I feel in the book is the friendship between Emily "Fido" Faithfull and Helen Codrington: they seem wholly dissimilar, and their interactions have a forced intensity that I find unmotivated by what we know about them (so far). Still, it is an interesting and fairly well-written book.

Next on my TBR pile: Emma Darwin's The Mathematics of Love. But in the meantime, I'll be grappling with the details of In the Eye of the Sun as I put the last parts of my argument into (I hope) coherent form for the conference. Note to me: there's no shame in writing about short books...



*Does this count as the kind of "evaluative criticism" Nigel would like us to do more of? :-)

2 comments:

Jeanne said...

It should count double as evaluative criticism for the entertaining snide remarks about the quilting book!

An Anonymous Child said...

I've often wondered how certain books make it to the "best seller" lists, when they're truly bad. The problem is that it's often hard to tell the difference between a popular book that's good and a popular book that's horrible. Hopefully the next reads will be better.