Yes, we are going to Italy. Call it a honeymoon of sorts. T has a conference there, so we are traveling a week early to explore Rome and the Amalfi Coast. This will be my first time visiting the country. And this will be our first time renting a car abroad. And it will be stick shift.
Neither of us drives a manual transmission, although I learned on one when I was getting my license. After scaring myself with a near death experience merging onto the beltway from a dead stop into the height of DC rush-hour 80 mph traffic (couldn't be helped, every car before and after me had to do this same thing), I was certain I was going to kill myself or someone else from a poorly-timed stall. So I gave up the stick shift and never looked back (i.e. I started driving my mother's car). T never even learned in the first place.
But we read that most of the rental cars available in Europe are manual transmissions, so we sucked it up and learned again. Italian countryside: you will be ours.
I'm bringing a kindle and one book of short stories (also not a single pair of jeans). This is my version of vacation reading:
1) Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian
2) Bundori by Laura Joh Rohland
3) Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
4) The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake by Breece D'J Pancake, if you can believe it.
I've already explained my recent discovery of Patrick O'Brian, and I'm enjoying this second book in the series even more than the first. I expect I'll finish this one on the plane ride over.
I read the first Sano Ichiro book, Shinju, a few months ago, maybe around Christmas. It's a solid murder mystery set in feudal Japan. I'm a bit of a Japanophile, so I'm not surprised I enjoyed it. (One of these days I'll have to discuss my manga collection.) What it lacked in any attempt at prose style, it made up in the foreignness of its setting and the thrill of the chase. I don't read a lot of mysteries, so when I do, I usually enjoy them (see Tony Hillerman). Probably because I'm not burnt out on the same old tropes. Even though I really liked Shinju, I wouldn't let myself buy the second book in the series after I finished the first. Too low a quality to price ratio to justify two of the same kind of book. But all bets are off come vacation.
Honestly, I chose Fever Pitch because I recently started listening to the BBC World Book Club Podcast and one of the first episodes I listened to was an interview with Nick Hornby about this memoir. Nick Hornby is one of my favorite modern authors. I especially love About a Boy, his collected columns from The Believer, Ten Years in the Tub, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that he also wrote the adapted screenplay for one of my favorite movies, An Education. I don't know why I love his stories, and I don't know why I also feel like I have to justify how much I enjoy his work. I just find that he often gets closer to the truth about the horribly mundane quality of what it means to be human than any of the more literati type authors, while also being entertaining to boot. What he explains in one paragraph about a character's experiences sums up more and means more to me than anything Haruki Murakami could blather on about for 800 pages. So anyway, long story short, hearing that interview piqued my interest for Fever Pitch, which I had never picked up before.
And the D'J Pancake stories. This is the only physical book I'm bringing. Trust me, I'd bring more if I hadn't learned from prior European experience to pack lighter this time around. Many years ago I abandoned a copy of A Farewell to Arms en route to Geneva because I couldn't stand the weight of a read book. Now I wish I had that copy back...
D'J Pancake, the name made me think this was a modern author. A brunch eating hipster, I guessed. I was wrong. It's a posthumous collection, I guess written some time in the seventies, before the author committed suicide in 1979 after entering UVA's creative writing program. I've read the first story already and thought the writing was heads above what I usually read. Certainly better than a lot of the garbage that comes out of the New Yorker these days. I'm looking forward to finishing this one. I put it down because I sensed it needed greater attention than what I could give it at the time. It's the sort of writing that's so deceptively simple, so much white space, but when you focus on a sentence, you're hit with the intention of each word.
Hopefully that's enough. We're really going to try to not make this a monuments vacation. I mostly want to relax and enjoy the atmosphere of a different place. So if we don't go to the Vatican, I'm not going to die from FOMO. I'm going to walk, drink, eat, and read in the company of my loved, and be content.
Finished Master and Commander yesterday. I recently wrote about struggling to push-through that one, but as I suspected, I’m glad I did. The deeper I got into it, the more I loved it. So what changed?
I think it was just a matter of getting comfortable with the writing and that took longer than usual for me. The same thing happened when I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. There was something very odd about the narration style, an obscure syntax that I found hard to understand at first. I can’t even really explain my problem with it, just that the narration had this strange third-person quality, which I eventually got used to after ~fifty pages or so. And once I got used to it, man, I devoured Wolf Hall and then Bring Up the Bodies, back-to-back, then tried to download the third book right away – only to learn it hadn’t been written yet.
Patrick O’Brian’s writing had a similar obscure quality that’s easier to explain. I’m not an expert in the Napoleonic Wars, but clearly the book is exhaustively researched and reads as authentically as anyone could ask for. The flip-side of that achievement means that the vocabulary, prose and dialogue were often a struggle to understand. I mentioned before that I was especially having problems with the esoteric sailing vocabulary. Well I discovered a little late that there was a very handy diagram of the parts of the ship on the first page of the book, including the mizzen sails… (which are the sails directly behind the main, if anyone cares.) Regardless, I had to get used to the pointedly old-fashioned writing to enjoy the story. And I did, it just took about 200 pages instead of fifty.
I was talking about this book with a family friend, who like my father, had read the entire series and loved them. But he said that it took him a few books into the series to realize that O’Brian is also a very funny writer. It’s a dry British humor that I noticed occasionally, but was still so confused by much of what was going on that I assumed I didn’t really understand Stephen Maturin’s little asides. Poor Jack, always the good-natured butt of Maturin’s jokes and criticisms. I empathized with one example in particular, which made me laugh aloud:
Context: A major naval battle between the English and the French is about to take place off of Gibraltar. The French have already taken Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin prisoner, but they’re on the honor system and so are allowed to walk around town and go watch the battle when it begins.
“Has she got out of the mole?” cried Stephen, at a considerable distance. “Has the battle begun?”….
“There’s no hurry – no one will touch a gun for hours,” said Jack. “But I am sorry you did not see the Caesar warping out: it was a glorious sight. Come up the hill with me, and you will have a perfect view of both squadrons. Do come. I will call in at the house and pick up a couple of telescopes; and a cloak – it grows cold at night.”
“Very well,” said Stephen, after a moment’s thought. “I can leave a note. And we will fill our pockets with ham: then we will have none of your wry looks and short answers.”
Basically: Yeah, we better bring some food too, Jack, so you don’t get hangry.
As someone who also gets hangry, I lost it right there. What a great character detail. Certainly makes me love Jack even more, and love Stephen for being both aware of his friend’s tendencies and willing to attend to them. My husband does the same thing for me: always making sure I’ve got some nuts in my purse before we go out anywhere.
Of course, I don’t have to love the characters to love a good story. Far from it. But in this case, I would say that is part of the appeal of Master and Commander. You struggle through thick writing to more or less watch Jack and Stephen become friends. That's not the whole point of the book, I think. In hindsight I can see how Master and Commander serves as an expository novel to introduce these two characters and their friendship in great detail for the stories to come. And that characterization is some of the best I've read in a while. I find it lacking in so many contemporary books. It often seems to me that no one bothers writing characters with any more detail than the color of their hair and eyes. Or if the author has a literary bent, then what serves for character is a nasty existential attitude, or a clownish naiveté.
Jack is a cheerful, intelligent, capable, and something of a manly buffoon on land. Stephen, who is plainly good-hearted, but so analytical that he is prone to dissecting and criticizing everyone around him to the point that he doesn’t appear to have a lot of friends. I guess he just needed an affable bear of man, like Jack, who can deal with his bullshit. I don’t know, I think it’s sad that I’m so impressed with the characters of these two. It’s so simple – so why is it so hard to do?
I couldn't put down the last chapters of Master and Commander. Between the the French capturing the Sophie, the naval battle off the coast of Gibraltar, and Jack's court-martial, I was finally invested. And even though I'll see my parents this Thursday, and could borrow the book from my father then, I couldn't actually bear to wait that long. I had to be a book-brat and download O'Brian's Post Captain directly onto my trusty old kindle. (We can talk about being a book-brat another day.)
I don't know how far I'll read this series. I've always resisted getting too far into any of them, mostly because they displace other books I've been wanting to read. Poor Anthony Doerr, I'm always pushing him back another book. I thought when All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer that I would finally push it to the top of my list. But here we are again.
I didn't work on my fiction this morning. I was just too tired to dive into world-building. For the last three days I've been editing a dissertation chapter for a client. I have a real, full time job (scientist by day and all that), so I have to do my editing early in the morning or in the evening. The pay is pretty decent, but I admit I get frustrated with myself for accepting jobs that edge out my own writing time.
I started my editing side-business as a way to prove to myself that I could earn money outside academia (ironically, I mostly edit academic dissertations). At the time, I wasn't super happy with the direction my work was taking and I briefly considered the possibility of freelancing. I learned almost immediately that freelancing wouldn't be the answer to all my problems, and like all jobs has its own downsides, intermittent work probably being the biggest issue. So it was a good thing I didn't quit my day job! Especially since I managed to fix the problem I was having and have been pretty happy of late with the direction my research has been taking.
In any case, I continue editing on the side for the extra cash flow...but really, I don't need the extra cash. I'm starting to question whether its worth my time. The cash lets me buy a new dress for summer without feeling guilty that I'm cutting into our family's budget. But one job = one dress, and how many dresses do I really need? Or shoes? I'm getting old enough to realize I don't want more material processions, I just want the right object for the right time (i.e. two dresses to rotate for the season, and one pair of sandals to replace the ones that I have wore out from two summers ago). I have that now. So do I really need to take more on more editing jobs?
I've started turning new clients down, since they almost invariably fail to follow through with their initial requests anyway. This is probably for the best.
Because I was too tired to think creatively this morning, I worked on a blog post instead. The thing is, good content takes time to write, and that post is going to take at least three mornings to complete (which again - cuts into my fiction time!). I follow a few blogs that I'm too ashamed to even list here, because they are just garbage. They post every day, but the topics are shallow and consist of maybe two paragraphs of writing. I learn nothing.
So I'm figuring out what I want this blog to be, and I think that means fewer posts with better content. We'll see. What do you think? Do you have blogs you follow because there's always something to read? Even if its froth? Or do you like blogs that post less, but post better? I still follow many blogs that update maybe just a few times a year - but I love it when they do. If anyone ever reads here, I hope this space will provide that too.
Brief post only to say that today is my second wedding anniversary. We had a backyard wedding, with all the family, friends, and oysters. It was 100 degrees, sunny, and humid, typical weather for Maryland in the late spring, but there was a tent for shade and air-conditioning inside. And even though I've always been "against" favors, I caved and bought some fans for guests to cool themselves with while they drank Pimm's cups and got tipsy on the lawn.
This still makes me laugh:
The morning of the wedding, one of my mother's friends and I drove out to the highway to tie up balloons on signs to lead guests to our neighborhood (there was road construction that had snarled up the original directions). Even though white balloons clearly = wedding, I decided in my usual neurotic way that the balloons should also be labeled with our initials (A and T) in black sharpie ink, so there would be no confusion.
After we had hung several of these balloons up, my mother's friend said to me, "Just make sure you don't write T and A."
"Why, what does that mean?" I asked her.
She seemed to consider how well she knew me, a twenty-seven-year-old woman, before explaining.
"Tits and Ass," she said, while carefully penning "A + T" on the balloon she had wedged between her knees.
I, of course, had just written "T + A" in block letters surrounded by a large heart on series of giant white balloons that led directly to my parents house. Right this way for your tits and ass, folks.
The first year after that wedding was admittedly hard. We moved, started new jobs, had to make new friends. T and I couldn't commute to work together anymore, and I missed having that time together. This second year has been a huge improvement. We're settled into North Carolina. We have several groups of friends. We have a puppy. We live in on a farm. I still miss commuting with T, but I've mostly gotten over it.
Love you T. Here's to a promising third.
T+ A 4ever
Writing, editing, and doing science when I feel like it. Just a book without a genre.