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Learning to Walk Wednesday

What I've Finished Reading

Earlier that year, when "an Indian Woman with gay Baskets and a dazzling Baby" appeared at the kitchen door, instead of locking it Emily engaged the stranger in talk, asking what the infant liked. 'To step' was the answer, whereupon the poet led the unsteady toddler on a short walk: "she leaned on Clover Walls and they fell, and dropped her -- With jargon sweeter than a Bell, she grappled Buttercups -- and they sank together."

I've mentioned finishing My Wars are Laid Away in Books already, but wanted to mention it again, for this anecdote about Emily Dickinson meeting a baby, and to say that if you like biographies with a lot of density and texture, this is a good one. There's apparently some controversy about the identity of various people important to Dickinson and their relative importance, which I'm not familiar with. I think Habegger's readings of some of the poems should probably be taken with salt -- he is an enthusiastic admirer, which is always a good thing in a literary biography, but sometimes his admiration and his interpretive preoccupations go for a long run together.

Well, I don't really know. How do you read poems? I've been reading poems all my life, but I haven't tried to "interpret" one since high school, and it was rough going even then. Habegger leans a lot on interpretation because he doesn't have a lot else to go on -- though he's careful to note that he has quite a lot more than is commonly supposed. He uses external evidence (letters, mostly) and internal clues to date the poems and put them in order, partly to track Dickinson's development as a poet, and partly to create a ghostly map of her life.

Dickinson's milieu is beautifully detailed and the sense you get of her work ethic is very strong. She reminds me of Eileen Myles, who is still alive and much more "public" than Dickinson, but who also creates an overwhelming impression of having lived wide awake, worked faithfully, & made the most of her time.

The English Breakfast Affair by Jennifer Montgomery

I lucked out and bought this book just in the gap between one busy period and another, so I had time to read it straight through, unlike the previous Jennifer Montgomery book I bought (Holiday Blend, which I grabbed during a promotion and read ten pages of before a tidal wave of deadlines carried me out to sea). The English Breakfast Affair . Jillian is a serious, thoughtful, religious college student on an exchange semester to England. She meets a likable bus driver who appreciates her strong principles and her honesty about not actually having read Jane Eyre, and they have earnest, funny discussions about their favorite and ex-favorite books, plus everything important and real in their lives. Then Jillian's semester abroad comes to an end, but maybe their relationship doesn't have to?

Jillian is a great character, sharply and sympathetically drawn, the conversations are terrific; Jillian's bold plan for keeping them going, and Jem's response, are magnificent.

It's great to see a fictional depiction of young adults that is unmistakably contemporary without being marred by curmudgeonly sensationalism (a temptation that actual college students are as prone to as anyone). Jillian and her cohort are believably and individually young without any of the expected literary stereotypes of youth, unburdened by any social commentary beyond their own opinions. This shouldn't be as refreshing as it is, but there you go.

This is one of a series of hot-beverage-themed romances by Montgomery, all of which I bought immediately on finishing The English Breakfast Affair.

What I'm Reading Now

Titus Groan will never end, but that's all right; it never has to. Reading it is like living in Gormenghast: the corridors bend on one another and are full of fascinating rubbish, and the movement of the sun is curiously understated through the tiny vine-covered windows, and you'd barely know time was passing if it weren't for some rotting pears and the occasional baby.

But the droplets of plot are beginning to run together all the same: Steerpike has made himself an ally of the petty, stunted, and haplessly resentful sisters of the Earl of Groan, jabbing at their envy with a poker and encouraging them to grand gestures of destruction. Will this shake things up permanently? Maybe, maybe not.

I began A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 immediately after finishing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I think Simon Winchester's writing is suffering a little by comparison. It's kind of sloppily lyrical, lyrical along overly-familiar lines and by way of being vague, and there's a lot of stuffing in the sentences that is probably meant to be colloquial and inviting, but overshoots its mark and sounds too often like wheezing. I'm not sure how much that would bother me if I weren't fresh off the TNC train, because Coates is an unusually musical writer and his lyricism is unusually clear and strong.

I'd probably be less annoyed by some of SW's sentences if not for the unfair comparison, thought I might still be tempted to pluck out half to two-thirds of his intensifiers. Winchester's enthusiasm is admirable, but his reluctance to get to the point -- any point, on a clause-by-clause level -- is baffling. I don't mind that it's taken over a hundred pages to get to San Francisco, but I do mind that Winchester can't be bothered to hire an editor to scrape off the adjectives and by-the-ways and "quite literally"s that keep clogging up his sentences like zebra mussels.

Anyway, it's interesting! There are brief great moments! The contemporary accounts of earthquakes are especially good so far, and there's plenty more to come.

What I'm Going to Read Next

WHO KNOWS. I need to get my Yuletide act together last week, so maybe nothing!


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 10th, 2015 08:38 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed Simon Winchester's Krakatoa book, quite enjoyed the OED one, and was disappointed by that earthquake one and the Yangtze one - I then seem to have given up, which is kind of a shame because in theory he writes the kind of books I like.
Dec. 10th, 2015 09:22 pm (UTC)
I read the OED one a dozen or so years ago, and I remember liking it! That's the only other Winchester I've read. The earthquake one is definitely the kind of book I like in theory, but it's so sloppy.

The dust jacket is gorgeous, though! Maybe too gorgeous? Maybe not. It's got seams in it, like the faults in the earth's crust. I like tactile covers. But if HarperCollins was going to go to all that effort, they could have thrown in another round of editing while they were at it.

Oh, well. I'm just being grumpy. What were you disappointed by?
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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