Novel Binges

I appear to have slowed down on these entries. I’ll take a moment here for meta-logging (a log entry about my log) to note that the reason I’m writing less is that I’m reading more.

For the last several years I’ve been going on reading binges, reading a bunch of a particular writer’s novels in a row. At present, I seem to be bingeing on George Eliot. In fact it is the English writers, and particularly the English writers of the 19th and early 20th, that most often get me this way.

It started a few years ago. When I was in school, of course I had to read what they told me, and that was almost always an academic variety of works. But in graduate school there were seminars, of course, offering complete immersion into an author’s canon. I remember reading everything Jane Austen ever wrote inside of three months. I guess that approach stuck with me.

Let’s see – it began a few years ago with Nabokov. I finally read Lolita and decided it was the greatest novel I’d ever read (a frequent occurrence). Then I picked up Glory, then Ada (an amazing novel, really unlike any other), and then King, Queen, Knave. After all that, it was natural to move on to Speak, Memory, his great autobiography. Then when I finally got hold of it (a nicely bound copy, a present from my wife) I read Pale Fire, which is truly astounding literature.

Vladimir Nabokov is a literary genius. That’s all there is to it. Those Russians are incredible thinkers.

Next, I think, was Graham Greene. I had read Brighton Rock in college and loved it. So in quick succession I read The Quiet American, The Heart of the Matter, Our Man in Havana, The Comedians, and recently The 10th Man. Six books about jealousy and infidelity. Are they all about that? Doesn’t matter.

Thomas Hardy, anyone? I had loved Tess of the D’urbevilles, so followed with Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge. All fine novels, but too much Hardy is dangerous, so I stopped there for now. (If you’ve read much of him, I’ll trust you to know what I mean.)

Last summer I read The Hobbit followed by the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy without stopping. That was great fun. I felt like a fugitive from Middle Earth by the time I was done.

Then came my Canadian period. I loved Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, so followed it with Larry’s Party. Then Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin – a real melancholy treat – followed immediately by her take on The Robber Bride (good but not great). It was a rare excursion into modernity.

And lately it’s been George Eliot. I’ve grown pretty much obsessed with her. I re-read Middlemarch first, really savoring it after rushing through it in college. Then Silas Marner, and now I’m heavily into The Mill on the Floss.

I’ve read other stuff in between these binges, but the binges have kind of characterized the reading pattern. I sometimes wonder if I’m being methodical or just lazy. But I don’t wonder too much. It’s all great, and I need to read as much of it as I can. It is an addiction I recommend.

Happy Birthday

The most interesting thing to me about getting older is the fact that my inner self does not age. I remember when I was younger, I always imagined getting older as becoming someone else. What will I be like when I’m 40? How will I be different? I’d look around at all the “old” people and try to imagine being one of them. It was always a sense of dread that accompanied the thought, that background fear of youth that we will lose our youthful desires, humor, outlook, passions, and become bogged down in a static 9-to-5 grind punctuated by weekend lawn mowing.

After all, we change so rapidly in youth, from child to adolescent to young adult. And with each age comes dramatic change in appearance, knowledge, experience, and world view. We “mature,” and with each of these early phases we seem to become a new person.

But then comes the time when we seem not to change much anymore. Physical appearance seems to stabilize, excepting the visible signs of aging – a few wrinkles, a little extra weight, a little less hair. But more amazingly, the person inside ceases dramatic change. We do not discover life as we did. We reach milestones and pass them, never to experience the “firsts” of youth again. We learn the basics of just about everything – politics, nature, geography, history, philosophy, art – and all subsequent learning is just so much augmentation or revision of what we already know.

Most odd, though, is this sense I have of being the same person, with the same hopes, dreams, fears, likes and dislikes, as the person who was me twenty years ago. Although young people seem to keep getting younger, I don’t feel any older. I know I am perceived differently by youth, and perhaps my wardrobe is a little less interesting than it used to be. But the me of my youth lives on inside this aging body, still hungry for experience, interested in new things, passionate for art and music, devoured by love, occasionally bored, puzzled about the future.

It’s as though I rode this rollercoaster of life change in youth, got off at age 21, and I’ve been walking around in the parking lot looking for my car ever since. But as soon as I find it, I’ll get going again.

So this weekend – June 7 – was my birthday. We had a fun barbecue with friends, I got some cool gifts and had a good time. Just like we always do. And I was a year older. Does it matter? Not as much as it used to.

Another key fact about aging is that although I feel like the same person I have always been since reaching adulthood, I thankfully have more to anchor my life and define my existence. I have the great gift of my family to remind me that the searching and yearning of youth can be answered at least for the most part by finding someone to build the rest of life with, and together to continually build life. To find someone to share life with can be, and is, more fruitful than to endlessly search for that someone. I repeat this truism because I believe our culture actively promulgates the opposite notion.

And I like what we’ve built so far. It is good. I’m ready for the next phase. I just won’t anticipate getting “older” anymore, because apparently, except for my skin and bones, it’s not going to happen.

Hoo Hoo the Ha Ha

The dog, as anyone reading this log may have guessed, is important. She is my spotted muse.

But she’s learning too many words. She figured out “walk the dog” quite early on. The phrase sends her into a frenzy of toe-tapping and double-takes, complemented by several trips to the front door and back, that no one wants to endure without ending it with an actual walk. Otherwise, she’s crestfallen, dejected, the original Sophia Loren of pouters, until we chase her down and strap on the harness.Dog

(We have to use a harness because she’s a wild thing and would have no neck bones to speak of if we simply latched the leash onto her collar. Any living organism encountered on the walk must be attacked and mauled, which is not allowed, thus the eternal struggle between dog and dog walker. But she doesn’t like the harness much. When you put it on her, usually after much coaxing and cajoling, she stands still as a statue in the exact spot, her head down and eyes looking plaintively up at the author of her humiliation, until she hears the snap of the leash hooking onto it. Then she perks up and allows herself to be led out the front door.)

So we took to saying, after the dinner dishes are cleared and the pots scrubbed, something like, “Should we take you-know-who for a you-know-what?” But that only lasted a while, after which the phrase and its aftermath instigated the toe-tapping and wild looks.

They say it’s all about timing and observation–on the dog’s part–of various body motions, facial expressions and speech intonations that lets them “learn” what we’re up to.  Apparently a dog (much unlike a cat) spends a great deal of its time studying its people for cues and motions that indicate future actions. Dogs are essentially behaviorists, with humans as their subjects (take that, Pavlov). Note the intensity of their gaze when you are engaged in behavior that may result in a benefit (cookie, walk, playtime) for them. They are drinking in your facial expressions, words, intonations, noting the time of day, analyzing the series of events to establish a plausibly predictable consequence.

My dog is especially good at this. There are no secrets remaining. I can’t even put my shoes on in the middle of the day without inciting a riot. (Morning shoes are fine – he’s going to work – but afternoon shoes indicate a possible “walkies.”) But we do try to stay one step ahead of her in the lexicon — we have the superior IQs, after all — so now we ask not if anyone wants to walk the dog or take the you-know-who- for a you-know-what.

No, instead we ask that, since it’s such a nice day, why don’t we “hoo hoo the ha ha.” Because we’re smarter than she is.

Ah, we’re not kidding anyone but ourselves. She’ll have it figured out inside a week.