Tag Archives: 2013 reading resolutions

Reading Resolutions Revisited

Happy New Year! The time when so many of us resolve anew to Do Better in whatever ways we feel we need to! While I’m always hesitant to set goals like “lose 10 pounds!” (losing weight is really, really hard!), I do try to make the New Year mark a return to reformed eating. The holiday season (which I define as the week of Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve) is a time of guiltless indulgence on my part, in which I eat sugar and other things that are not necessarily good for me with some degree of abandon and almost zero feelings of guilt.

So today at work I brought one of my typical “reformed eating” lunches: Greek yogurt, grapes, and a portion of crackers. I am a very picky eater: the only brand of Greek yogurt I can stomach is Liberté, and if I’m eating yogurt for lunch I prefer Greek because it’s more filling than other types of yogurt. As it happened, when I was at the grocery store, the only Liberté yogurt they had was labeled “Méditerranée”. “How different could it be,” I thought to myself, and put two in my cart without further review.

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Look at my grown up lunch!

Today, I walked back from the fridge to my desk feeling so proud of my responsible and adult-y ways, with my baggy of grapes and container of yogurt. Running high on not having to do the Dance of the Microwaves with all the other people crowded into the tiny kitchen on our floor, I admittedly thought things like “Maybe I will lose five pounds without even trying!”

I popped out to the Liberté web site as I stirred my yogurt to find out the difference between Méditerranée and Greek yogurt. Whereupon I discovered that my “healthy” yogurt lunch was actually made with whole milk (gag) and contained 37% (probably more) of my daily allotment of saturated fat. So, in other words, pretty different from their fat-free Greek yogurt (which also has about half as many calories as this Méditerranée stuff).

As my mother and her mother would remind me, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

On the other hand, the Liberté Méditerranée lime yogurt was absolutely delicious.

The same optimism which inspired me to try the Mediterranean yogurt leads me to make my 2014 reading resolutions, in spite of the fact that I only achieved approximately half of 2013’s resolutions. Which half, you wonder?

I read some nonfiction last year, but nothing that jumped out to me as something my brother-in-law might enjoy. (In the spirit of New Year’s optimism, I award myself partial credit for this one.) I finished Middlemarch in literally the final moments before my thirtieth birthday. (Double points, because it’s Middlemarch.) I read one book originally written in a language other than English (Danish), translated into English (it wasn’t quite blog-worthy; still, full credit awarded). And if my grand plans for a long-distance book club never got off the ground, well, I think maybe that’s on Life, and not on me, so I awarded myself partial credit for this one too (I came up with a list of books we ought to read).

Starting fresh for 2014…should I bite off another classic to try my patience (and yours)? Should I resolve to finally commit to reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell?

According to my Goodreads profile, I read approximately 30 books in 2013, which frankly seems low. I feel as though I must have read more than 30 and simply failed to log them, but in reality, that’s probably true. I certainly started more than 30 books in 2013. So, in 2014, I’m going to try to finish more than 30 books. I’ve certainly got enough material: my electronic stack of books to be read (these are books I’ve already purchased) is nearly forty titles long, and that doesn’t even touch on the list of books I want to read (100+) or the physical books at my bedside, which stare in judgy disappointment at me whenever I choose to re-read Mary Stewart or Georgette Heyer on a quiet evening rather than try something new. Like Nick Hornby once said in the delightful column he wrote for The Believer about the books he bought and the books he actually read in a month, my book-buying policy is almost always “ludicrously optimistic”. So let’s shoot for 40 books read in 2014: at least two originally written in a language other than English and one straight up nonfiction non-memoir book.

I’m also planning to train for (and run in) a half marathon in 2014. And generally to Do Better, which is really more of a daily resolution for me, but it bears repeating.

Here’s to ludicrous optimism! Happy 2014!

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Final Thoughts on Middlemarch

I promise I’ll be done talking about Middlemarch soon, guys. But, now that I’ve finished it and I have a month’s worth of perspective on the novel (which is to say I’ve been unabashedly reading Middlemarch‘s weight in books the New Yorker would sneer at), it’s time to revisit the reason I read it in the first place: Rebecca Mead’s article in the New Yorker circa February 2011, in which she compared George Eliot to Jane Austen and, after calling Jane Austen “cruel”, ultimately said that George Eliot’s work was superior.

I had bangs when I started reading Middlemarch.

I had bangs when I started reading Middlemarch.

Approximately two and a half years later, I finally feel like I can answer the questions that Ms. Mead’s article posed for me, which hinge around the following quote from her article:

Eliot admired Austen…but George Eliot…went on to surpass her precursor. She is as adept as Austen at the ironic depiction of high and middle-class society…But Eliot’s satire, unlike Austen’s, stops short of cruelty. She is inveterately magnanimous, even when it comes to her most flawed characters; her default authorial position is one of pity…A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence.

The short version of my answer is: yes and no.

On the question of Eliot’s having surpassed Austen: I suppose this is an obvious yes, if you judge “surpassing” to be established by the number of pages published, or the number of words used, or even the volume of their respective bodies of work. Eliot published 7 novels, various poems, and a number of other works; Austen published only 6 novels, 1 novella, and died with two novels unfinished. However, Austen’s works have an enduring charm and popularity that I wouldn’t judge Eliot’s works to be close to reaching.

On the question of Eliot’s inveterate magnanimity: On this point, Ms. Mead and I actually agree. Nearly all of even the most odious characters in Middlemarch are afforded authorial asides which sympathetically outline the defects of their personalities and their weaknesses, in a voice that resonates with pity. Even Casaubon’s insecurities she is able to describe sympathetically:

…a perpetual suspicious conjecture that the views entertained of him were not to his advantage…The tenacity with which he strove to hide this inward drama made it the more vivid for him; as we hear with the more keenness what we wish others not to hear…there was strong reason to be added, which he had not himself taken explicitly into account — namely, that he was not unmixedly adorable. He suspected this, however, as he suspected other things, without confessing it, and like the rest of us, felt how soothing it would have been to have a companion who would never find it out.

Or consider her depictions of Rosamund’s disappointments in married life:

The Lydgate with whom she had been in love had been a group of airy conditions for her, most of which had disappeared, while their place had been taken by every-day details which must be lived through slowly from hour to hour, not floated through with a rapid selection of favorable aspects.

That she made Rosamund’s shallowness simultaneously sympathetic and even relatable is certainly notable. And in all honesty, I did enjoy parts of Middlemarch very much: I learned many new words (sciolism, batrachian, energumen, to name a few); I sometimes laughed aloud; and occasionally I even stopped in my tracks to savor something she’d written:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

But on the question of Austen appearing cruel by contrast to Eliot: I would still never describe my Jane Austen as being cruel.

“A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence.” Why does it seem like there is a value judgment attached to those words — clever versus intelligent? I would argue that both authors were both clever and intelligent, and that the crux of the argument is not which is better, but rather, can — even should — the two be compared?

To my way of thinking, George Eliot and Jane Austen wrote entirely different types of books. If you took one of Jane Austen’s novels, and loaded it down with social issues and a host of major and minor characters à la any Charles Dickens novel, and layered over the top of it a heavy authorial voice which occasionally verged on preachy regarding those social issues, you might get something like George Eliot.

Jane Austen was a storyteller. The point of her books is not to study social issues of the day, like the education of women, or the ills of poverty. In her books, she introduces us to characters, people we identify with and recognize in ourselves and around us even today, and tells us a story about those characters. I fear I will never understand the voices in this world which discount the good telling of a good story as being beneath, as being somehow less than, somehow inferior. Story is powerful. Stories teach.

I think A. L. Kennedy says it better than I ever could in one of her blogs on writing for the Guardian newspaper:

…because I have an interest, of course, in story — in pure story and how powerful it can be…they aim to transport, to suspend reality, and they do. They penetrate and delight and return us to ourselves, slightly altered, slightly more than we thought we could be… The story is both an unlooked-for beauty and a lovely misdirection and…it means that, for a while, we can believe in miracles and people who’ve never existed and a range of exhilarating and puzzling and moving possibilities… I like to stare at the undeniable power behind it all — the huge amoral force of story. We are the ones who chose to be dark or light, chose the stories we tell ourselves and others: in work, in play, in love…in all our lives.

Which seems like the best words, really, to end this on.

Thirty

So today is kind of a big deal day. Milestones and all. Yesterday, I finished Middlemarch. And then today, I turned thirty. I’m not actually sure which of these was a bigger deal.

I’ll be honest: I had some ups and downs approaching this birthday. One thing I can say with certainty that I learned in my twenties is that sometimes, you just need to have the meltdown so you can move on. Maybe that means you just need to watch the movie that never fails to make you cry, so you can cry about all the other things you really need to cry about too. (I can’t be the only one who does this.) So that happened this month.

But I did a lot of other things, too, in addition to finishing Middlemarch; good things, happy things (dare I say, happier than reading Middlemarch).

I went hiking with friends, and oh! the wildflowers! Tiger lilies, columbine, shooting stars, and glacier lilies!

columbine, glacier lily

columbine, glacier lily

There was ice cream and conversation.

Six flavors of rainbow sherbet, one cup.

Six flavors of rainbow sherbet, one cup.

I made Momofuku Milk Bar birthday cake with my mom. It was delicious.

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And then this weekend, I’m headed down to Ashland, Oregon, for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be awesome. Like this brand new decade.

It's high time for big wishes.

It’s high time for big wishes.

A Middlemarch Milestone

051Y’all, something major happened on Sunday night: I hit the midpoint of Middlemarch. If you’ve been paying attention to the epic saga of my reading of Middlemarch, you realize what a big deal this is. You’re also, probably, really bored of hearing about it, I know. But I’m almost there, folks. Bear with me. I’m determined to finish it before the end of July!

It’s fitting that the midpoint, according to my Kindle, anyway, happened on a page that involves a conversation between a character who had been first introduced maybe fifty pages previously, and a brand-new character introduced in that very chapter, because that, my friends, that pretty much sums up Middlemarch.

So many words! So many tangents! So many subplots and minor characters which will receive a whole chapter’s treatment! And so many people making such terrible choices!

But this is it, y’all. Let’s finish this thing.

One Pair of Hands

I decided to ease my way into nonfiction this year with Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Hands. Reading it was only partially in keeping my with 2013 reading resolutions, but it was something to start me on the nonfiction path (where I would hopefully continue until I found myself reading some piece of narrative nonfiction that my brother-in-law might enjoy).

But before I can even talk to you about the book, I must address the truly terrible cover gracing the US version of this memoir, which is unlikely to entice you to read the book. My sister is a graphic designer and I like to think of myself as having imbibed from her a sense of what is “good design” and so feel that, despite my lack of design embellishment on my own blog, I am qualified to say that this is an unequivocally ugly book cover:

image via Amazon

image via Amazon

So ugly, in fact, that I actually checked the book out over at Amazon UK, and considered getting the UK version instead, because the cover over there is considerably less offensive to my taste and design sensibility. I suppose since the publisher here in the US (Academy Chicago Publishers) has, mystifyingly, classified this book on their website as “Fiction & Poetry” rather than “memoir” or “nonfiction” (or even, given the subject matter, “Food & Cooking” — that’s an available category, too!), the cover only seems to exhibit the same shocking lack of judgment. (Um, #librarianproblems … right?)

screenshot of ACP "Our Books" page

screenshot of ACP “Our Books” page

Upon further investigation, I discovered that Academy Chicago was simply reusing the illustration by Dione Tegner used on the cover of the 1961 Penguin edition. Still, one asks oneself, why that illustration, and why with the orange border? It’s somehow less offensive on the 1961 Penguin.

Well, if ever there were a time not to judge a book by its cover, that time is now. One Pair of Hands tells the story of how, after being expelled from drama school, Monica (a great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens) eschewed the debutante’s life of parties and chose instead, on the sole experience of a few cooking courses, to try her hand at being a cook-general.

The ensuing stories of life in service, Monica’s various failures and successes and the unreasonable demands of many of her employers, are a hilarious glimpse of life below stairs, and rather more Gosford Park than Downton Abbey: you won’t meet a benevolent butler like Carson in these pages.

You will meet one or two fallen soufflés, the rare considerate employer and the more common inconsiderate one, tremendously amusing anecdotes, and one failed actress with considerably more self-confidence than I’ve ever had, who created a role for herself and brazened out the performance to its conclusion, which, all told, makes for highly entertaining reading.