Archive for October, 2007

New Books

Due to the Royal Mail postage strike, my books have been dribbling in in intervals. That’s okay – it prolongs the pleasure! When I arrived back from Norway, waiting for me were:

  • Kristin Lavransdatter parts two and three, by Sigrid Undset
  • Medievalism by Michael Alexander

And although I’m only sixty pages from the end of Kate Grenville’s extraordinary Secret River, I’m scared something horrifying is about to happen, and late at night I take refuge in Kristin’s medieval Norway. Over the course of the week, I’ve also received:

  • Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth Century Poetry, by Chris Jones
  • Getting Medieval, by Carolyn Dinshaw (got tired of taking this out of the library)
  • Postmodernism: A Beginner’s Guide, by Kevin Hart
  • The Student’s Guide to Writing, by John Peck and Martin Coyle (this is for a series of essay writing workshops I’m leading this term)
  • Writers’ Workshop in a Book, ed. by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez (I stumbled across this in Borders and couldn’t resist – it’s musings on the craft of writing from a variety of well-known authors including Amy Tan and Michael Chabon. It’s to feed my pipe dream of starting a second novel.)

Oh and some books have arrived for the lovie as well:

  • The Penguin Book of Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland (I dipped into this and it looks amazing, and much more fun than ploughing through the poetic Edda)
  • The Book of Illusions and The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

I also have a new backpack load of books from the library, on top of the library books I brought back from Norway. It’s like living in a library in here…


October 27, 2007 at 7:53 pm 2 comments

Other Reading

My lighter reading while I was in Norway comprised of Alexander McCall Smith’s Irregular Portuguese Verbs, and the ultimate escapism of The Absolute Sandman, Volume One. Neil Gaiman, if you didn’t know already. Irregular Portugese Verbs is a light-hearted take on an eccentric German linguistics professor. A few scenes were scarily familiar (bringing back some of the dryer or ridiculous moments at medieval studies conferences I have attended), and it was quite funny in places. It was recommended by the Deutchophile Dr Boring (he’s not, it’s just his name). I have to admit I didn’t quite love it as much as he does, but perhaps coming at it directly after being emotionally flattened by The Solid Mandala wasn’t the best move.

Burying myself in Sandman again was fun. I first read it in the strange years after my undergraduate degree. Three of my friends had collected the whole series between them, and I read them in random order – whatever I could get my hands on first. I adored them. Their scope, their depth, their myths, their quirkiness. (And I’m sure I’m not the only girl to have a slight crush on the title character…) Sometimes they were too scary for me, and I think I actually skipped an episode set in Egypt because it looked too gruesome to handle. It was my first exposure to ‘graphic novels’, and I found it fascinating how easy it was to become immersed in them. It is a very different reading experience, and an enjoyable one.

Reading them again, in order, was both a gain and a loss. The big fat book is gorgeous, a luxurious object, but there was something lovely about the paperback comics too, how I had to wait for them, and cobble the story together. And I think some of the later stories (not included in this volume) are actually my favourites. That said, the ‘human vortex’ and all the stories surrounding that are completely amazing. I love Death. And Fiddler’s Green. I guess I’ll never be able to repeat the sheer wonder of discovering these stories for the first time, but I am glad the world is mine to visit whenever I want.

October 22, 2007 at 4:58 pm 3 comments

The Solid Mandala

It is not outside, it is inside: wholly within.
Meister Eckhart

It was an old and rather poor church, many of the ikons were without settings, but such churches are the best for praying in.


The Solid Mandala, Patrick White, 1966. I’d been meaning to read this for quite a while, partly because of the intiguing title, and partly because of its epigraph from Meister Eckhart (always on the look-out for all things medieval). But I have to admit it was a sense of duty more than anything else that kept me plugging away through the first two hundred pages. I don’t find Patrick White’s novels easy to like. It portrays the everyday life of twin brothers, Waldo and Arthur, in grimy detail. Mucus, excrement, furtive orgasms, tedious suburbia, two old men and their two old dogs. Their codependent relationship of love and hate borders on homosexuality. The first two hundred pages are told in Waldo’s voice: the ‘clever’ twin, awkward and unlucky in love, narcissistic and burdened by his half-wit of a brother, he dwells endlessly on his thwarted literary ambitions. But, just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, the narrative shifts into Arthur’s voice. And lightens, and comes together, and starts making sense. Becomes beautiful.

Arthur is a holy fool. He is a lot cleverer than Waldo admits, because Waldo’s identity is predicated on being the smart one beside Arthur’s stupidity. In the first two thirds of the novel we see Waldo constantly taking care of Arthur, but in the last third it is revealed that Arthur is just as preoccupied with taking care of Waldo, perceiving his weaknesses so accurately that he knows to conceal what he knows, what he reads, and the success of his own relationships. He discovers that the concept of the mandala expresses perfectly what he intuitively knows:

“The Mandala is a symbol of totality. It is believed to be the ‘dwelling of the god’. Its protective circle is a pattern of order superimposed on – psychic – chaos. Sometimes its geometric form is seen as a vision (either waking or in a dream) or -”
His voice had fallen to the most elaborate hush.
“Or danced.” Arthur read.

Arthur is obsessed with marbles, which become the ‘solid mandalas’ of the title. Over the years, his collection condenses to four special marbles, which represent himself, and the three people he most loves. He considers throwing one away because it has a knot in it, before realizing the the knot, in fact, is the point: ‘…till from looking at his own hands, soothing, rather than soothed by, the revolving marble, he realized that the knot at the heart of the mandala, at most times so tortuously inwoven, would dissolve, if only temporally, in light’ (p. 273). He offers this marble to Waldo, ‘half sensing that Waldo would never untie the knot.’

There are repeated references to Tiresius, as well as to The Brothers Karamazov, which acts as an echo of the brothers’ fraught relationship, and their searches for transcendence. Their weatherboard house is fronted by a tragic parody of a Classical facade. Finishing the novel, I understood why White deserved the Nobel Prize. It is a heavy novel, but the weight of it is essential. Arthur’s voice would not come as such a relief if it had not been proceeded by Waldo’s. His revelations would not seem so dearly won. The two are connected, bound together. The epiphanies are expertly enfolded into the structure of the whole, much more convincingly than in my hazy memory of The Tree of Man. I was quite astonished how White managed to make this heavy material blaze with light – like the knot in Arthur’s marble. There are also some echoes of The Idiot, and in my opinion, The Solid Mandala is a worthy successor to Dostoevsky, much more so than Coetzee’s Master of St Petersburg, which I didn’t care for. This novel is quite remarkable. Consider me a convert.

Image: ‘The One’, Kiolero, flikr.

October 14, 2007 at 3:37 pm Leave a comment

Seasons and Windows

In the book after which this blog is named, there is the story of a girl in a beautiful white room. Her bed is white, the table is white, there is a soft white rug on the floor. Her silky, pale curtains shimmer like moonlight. She is happy. But in the garden outside her window, the winter slowly gives way to spring. Bluebells swarm beneath the oak tree, and the sky blazes above them. Oh, she sighs. If only I could have a blue room. Then I would have all I desire. A sprite, overhearing her, decides to grant her wish. The walls and the cushions and the embroidered couch in her room blush suddenly into myriad shades of blue: sky blue and cobalt and saphire, and her curtains are edged with the deep blue of the evening just before it gives way to black. Oh, she sighs, I am happy, I have all I desire. But outside, the sun shines, and the leaves ripen, and the world changes…

Months later, she sits in a bronze and copper room, gilded with gold. Its warmth and glow had once seemed all she would ever need. But – outside, the snow begins to fall, silently covering the garden. Oh, she sighs, if only I could have a room as white as snow, only then would I be content. The sprite, by now, is fed up. Now, you ungrateful wench, I will grant your wish, she snaps. And the room disappears. The girl shivers in the snow.

If you check this story against the original, I have probably misremembered the details. The beauty of this story was in the details: the descriptions of luxurious fabrics, the colours, the light. So, in honour of this story, I now have all the seasons. I have collected them in Northern Hemisphere trees. They remain a novelty to me, as does the sharpness of the air here, and the tone of the light.

October 11, 2007 at 4:33 pm 4 comments

Speaking of Yevtushenko

As I was. Over here.


No people are uninteresting.

Their fate is like the chronicles
of the planets.

Nothing in them is not particular,

And planet is dissimilar to planet.

And if a man lived in obscurity

making his friends in that obscurity

obscurity is not uninteresting.

To each his world is private,

and in that world one excellent minute.

And in that world one tragic minute.

These are private.

If any man who dies there dies with him

his first snow and kiss and fight.

It goes with him.

They are left books and bridges

and painted canvas and machinery.

Whose fate is to survive.

But what has gone is also not nothing:

by the rule of the game something has gone.

Not people die but worlds die in them.

Whom we knew as faulty, the earth’s creatures.

Of whom, essentially,what did we know?

Brorther of a brother? Friend of friends?

Lover of lover?

We who knew our fathers

in everything, in nothing.

They perish. They cannot be brought back.

The secret worlds are not regenerated.

And every time again and again

I make my lament against destruction.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

One of my dad’s favourites.

October 10, 2007 at 7:52 am 2 comments

Book meme

A book meme that I filched from Pea Soup and Superfast Reader. These are apparently the top 106 books that Library Thing users mark as unread.

The books I’ve read are in bold,
the ones I started but couldn’t/didn’t finish are in italics,
what I couldn’t stand is red,
those I’ve read more than once have an asterisk*,
and those that are green are on my To Be Read list.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and punishment
One hundred years of solitudethis one is red and green – I hated it at the time, but I think I might like it now, so I aim to try again.
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion – yep, every page. Ten years ago. Wouldn’t happen these days.
Life of Pi
The name of the rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice *
Jane Eyre *
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov *
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveller’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs Dalloway
Great Expectations *
American Gods *
A heartbreaking work of staggering genius
Atlas shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury tales *
The Historian : a novel
A portrait of the artist as a young man
Love in the time of cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A clockwork orange
Anansi boys
The once and future king
The grapes of wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
Angels & demons
The Inferno *
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest
To the lighthouseI think I’m ready for Woolf now, must try again…
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s travels – I listened to a children’s version of this on audio tape over and over. Does this count?
Les misérables (I got to page 600 (or thereabouts, wasn’t even half way through, and realised I couldn’t stand any more…)
The corrections
The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The curious incident of the dog in the night-time
The prince
The sound and the fury
Angela’s ashes
The god of small things
A people’s history of the United States : 1492-present
A confederacy of dunces
A short history of nearly everything
The unbearable lightness of being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – are you kidding?
Freakonomics : a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The Aeneid *
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit *
In cold blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White teeth
Treasure Island – see Gulliver’s Travels
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

My favourite from this list are: The Brothers Karamazov, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Middlemarch, Mrs Dallaway, War and Peace, Slaughterhouse Five, American Gods, Anansi Boys, Dubliners, The Name of the Rose, The Satanic Verses, 1984. Brilliant, one and all.

October 7, 2007 at 11:14 am 2 comments

Book Soup

I read all day until the words blur and refuse to stay in place, like lines of crawling ants. This is what I’m reading:

  • Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (a bit at a time)
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Preface to Of Grammatology (also a bit of at a time)
  • Paul Kane, Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity
  • Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory
  • Kevin Hart, The Lines of the Hand; Your Shadow; Peniel (Poems. This is more fun.)

And pretty soon, I aim to start on The Cloud of Unknowing, some more books about Derrida and some stuff by Maurice Blanchot. I stupidly left in Leeds a couple of very important titles: The Trespass of the Sign and Flame Tree, both by Kevin Hart. My housemate posted them to me on Monday, we’ll see when they arrive.

My bed-time reading is The Solid Mandala, by Patrick White. I don’t like White much, on the whole, but I feel obliged to get to know his work better (he’s Australia’s only Nobel laureate). I forced myself through Tree of Man aged sixteen, and have never recovered. That said, I read Riders in the Chariot around the same time, over a breathless Easter weekend (appropriately), and just adored it. More recently I read Voss and enjoyed that in a way. So. There’s hope yet. Last night I gave up on everything and buried myself in The Absolute Sandman, which I had rather extravagantly bought for the lovie’s birthday a few months back. You can’t beat fantasy, in the end… And pictures. Pictures are nice.

October 5, 2007 at 1:40 pm 2 comments

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