Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Kennedy Connection

I just finished reading The Secret History. Or re-reading I should say since I have the vaguest memories of having read it years ago. And though I know we're already turning towards Kristen, I just had to jump in and write up a few impressions.

One thing that struck me was the Corcorans "mysterious affinity with the Kennedys". Perhaps especially with Ted Kennedy's death being all over the news this week, it jumped out at me that Bunny was described as being "built on the Ted Kennedy model, much heavier, with little round features being bunched in the middle of their faces."

I was thinking along those lines when I came back and read Otepoti's protest: "Also, these kids are supposed to be Catholic. Where's the guilt? Where is the acknowledgement that the Church has a mission to harness and control SPECIFICALLY the forces and passions which run amok here?"

It didn't quite strike me the same way perhaps precisely because here I am in Massachusetts, land of the Kennedys, where about 50% of the population claims a Catholic identity and yet for a majority of them their Catholicism is in name only and does not really form their moral compass. Here was Ted Kennedy known primarily as a Catholic statesman and yet a champion of the pro-abortion cause.

So I thought that perhaps Tartt had merely drawn the Kennedy connection with the wrong set of characters. It isn't the Protestant Corcorans who are most like the Kennedys to me but the Catholic members of the club who seem detached from the guidance that the Church should be providing in their lives in precisely the way I see so many Catholics here in New England.

On the other hand, I'm not entirely convinced that that is deliberate on Tartt's part. Because she kind of seems to bring up the Catholicism as a bit of color and then drops it again. It feels like it should play a larger part in the novel somehow.

Skipping Forward

I received my copy of Kristin Lavransdatter yesterday (I clicked through and bought the copy Otepoti suggested) and started to raise an eyebrow at the thought of reading the whole thing this month while getting anything else done, when I realized that it was a three-in-one volume. Ah, of course!

I opened up the book and there was the intro, and the forward. Now, I'm a sucker for an intro and a forward, and I nearly always read them when provided. But this time I'm going to force myself to start reading the actual text. I don't know nothin' about Kristin Lavransdatter, and I want to preserve my tabula rasa so that I'm chewing on the author's words. Anyone ever read a forward or a summary and developed the wrong impression of a book and read the whole thing looking for some event or theme that didn't turn out to be there? Or had a book turn out to be completely different from the impression you'd formed of it -- while reading the introductory essay?

I read Silence under the impression that somewhere in the book I was going to be subjected to a gory episode of torture because of some passing reference I'd read years ago. And so my reading of the whole was colored because I was constantly on the lookout, and shying away from, this imaginary torture scene. I've heard Kristin Lavransdatter (I've had to go through my post and correct the three different spellings of the last name -- tough stuff!) praised to the skies, so I'm prepared for excellence, and I don't think that the book will let me down. Is it better to go into a book with no preconceived notions? Is that even possible?

Anyone want to share their best (or worse) book misconceptions? Does anyone else impulsively read the forwards of books?

Anna Petersdatter und Eleanor Iainsdatter

Why, yes, of course I have some pictures. Why, I'd be delighted to show them to you. (I just knew you were going to ask...)

Eleanor May Begg, 22 August, 8lb 11oz, born at her home in Christchurch. This was taken on her first day.

Her mother is my daughter Anna, 23 (even though she looks about 16.)

Everybody blow them a kiss, now -


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Beginning Kristin

Ok, folks, I just took the book out of the library, and I assume it's the trilogy, because it runs to 800 pp. So I think, what with


and all,

(pauses and waits for cries of "No! Really? You look MUCH too young to be a grandmother!" - but not a sausage)

that reading the first volume only might be a realistic target for one month.

I've started reading it, and apart from the strange new nomenclature, it reads pleasantly and easily, which is a relief, because I am such a lazy reader, and rarely move out of my comfort zone. Would anyone be up for a rereading of the Moomin books after this? Cause they're the only other works of Northern literature I've read...

Best to you all

Thursday, August 20, 2009



I'm the next book chooser, and I'm thinking about this one:

Dean Hudson at Inside Catholic says:
"I'm not sure if there is a greater Catholic novel than Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter. If there is, it's probably her other medieval epic, The Master of Hestviken, but I still prefer the more accessible Kristin."

Sounds interesting.

If you've read it before, would you like to read it again, or have you squeezed all the juice out already?


Saturday, August 15, 2009


And on the Corcorans in our current read, this account of a bereaved mother rings more true than the account of Bunny's mother:

"A long time ago, I attended the funeral of a teenage boy who died the way Wade Edwards [John and Elizabeth's son -- RD] did, in a car that flipped badly and killed him quickly. I remember standing at the burial site, under a hot Los Angeles sun, a large crowd of us waiting for the parents to arrive. The cortege turned in through the gates, snaked up the winding road, and pulled up to where we were gathered. For a long time nothing happened, the car doors all stayed closed, and you realized--in a misery of embarrassed voyeurism that occluded even the sadness--that a drama was going on inside the car containing the mother, that getting her to stand out in the sunshine with us was going to involve someone persuading her to allow her son to be dead.

At last the car doors opened, and you felt you should look away, but that wasn't right either, and so you watched, and it was a bad thing. At first, the procession faltered forward. The family made it down to the graveside, and a rabbi spoke. The pine box was lowered into the ground and the time came for the boy's brother to spade the first shovel of dirt onto the coffin, and that's when things fell apart. I'd known the boy well--he had been a student at the school where I taught English--but I hadn't loved him. In fact, I had never loved anyone yet, because I was years away from having a child of my own, and until you've done that you're just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it's the right name for a feeling you've had.

Things fell apart when they tried to spade in the earth, and there was screaming and titanic grief, and you were in the position of watching someone being forced--physically forced--to bear the unbearable. At last it was done, and the family stumbled back up the hill to the air-conditioned cars with the liveried drivers, and the mother collapsed into one car, and the door was shut solidly behind her, sealing her into her shadowed madness. "

"Shadowed madness" - yup. This is the real reaction to death, rather than that offered as the Corcorans'. It's the difference between badly-imagined fiction (possibly because the author at this stage in her life had no experience of bereavement) and the bottomlessly awful real thing.

(This account is drawn from an article by Caitlin Flanagan, via Rod Dreher's blog.)


On the subject of films, I thought "Bella" was even better than "Juno". It lacks the wry wit of "Juno" but has real warmth. It is adamant that good things can come from shaky beginnings, and that in no way is the conception of a baby a disaster.

BTW, as a non-American, I'd be interested to know if Sarah Palin's "Bristol situation" affected your opinions of her.

Why do Classicists insist on wire rim glasses?

I have never met a Classicist who did not dress in the tweeds and glasses. And I wonder, why is it not a toga? They seem more interested in emulating the characters of Brideshead Revisted than Homer.

My book arrived...I'm reading with anticipation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

Betty suggested I introduce myself to the group, so here goes...

I was born and raised in Austin, Texas, the oldest of four children. I received my BA in English at the University of Dallas. In 2000 I moved to Massachusetts to get my MA in Literature (focus in Irish Studies) at Boston College.

For complicated reasons I settled in Salem, MA, where I met my husband, Dom, at Mass one Sunday. We married in 2005 and now have three children: Isabella, 3; Sophia, 17 months; and Benedict, 1 month. We also have a baby, Francis, who miscarried at about 10 weeks. In November we took the plunge into home ownership and moved to the other side of Boston in the process.

After I got my MA, I taught composition and literature for a while at local colleges. I gave that up after I got pregnant and have been enjoying the unemployed life ever since. (I won't say I don't work, though I do try to avoid it whenever possible.)

As a former teacher, I'm very opinionated about education, which is why I plan to homeschool our brood. If they hadn't invented homeschooling, my life as a mother would be one long fight with educational professionals who just don't get it and aren't as qualified to teach my kids as I am.

As you might suspect with two degrees in literature, I'm a bookworm. Nuff said.

I stumbled into blogging more or less by chance, never intending to have an audience beyond family and friends. (Which is why I don't use pseudonyms for myself or the kids; that ship sailed long before I really thought about all the possible ramifications.) I've been wonderfully surprised that my blog has been the vehicle for meeting all sorts of new friends. Some of whom, like the Darwins, I've even had the pleasure of meeting in person.

Thanks for letting me be a part of your group, I look forward to meeting everyone and engaging in good conversation about good books.

And now the baby is awake and needs his diaper changed, so I'l just have to leave it at that.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Finally, a SH post

I'm glad you've jumped in and started posting. Even though I stayed up late reading, I just couldn't get enough computer time to write anything until now..

Anyway, I have to state upfront that I have a fondness for The Secret History because it's one of the very first books my husband and I read together, freshman year of college. To me it's one of those college nostalgia novels, along with Brideshead Revisited (another early read with my husband), so perhaps my view of it is wrapped up in those memories. I'm glad to hear fresh takes on it.

Something that rang true for me at the very beginning of the book was Richard's desire for beauty in the midst of ugliness. He's very drawn to superficial beauty, it's true, but there's also a deeper longing for something true and permanent. I think he mistakes the elegance and erudition of his little coterie up at Hampden for something truer and more beautiful than it turns out to be. Both my husband and I come from rather lower middle class economic backgrounds (though our parents were immensely more cultured and educated and loving than Richard's parents were) and so we connected with his upward longings and his class insecurity. I don't know whether you could really pass yourself off as being from a rich family if you had never lived in that world, but all the characters were such liars that they seemed to accept other people's lies. A lot of the tension in the section before the murder comes from Bunny's tendency to pick apart people's lies in a particularly malicious and public fashion.

Julian seemed like a kind of Dr. Frankenstein character to me. He loves molding these minds and pontificating on "the sublime", but he's completely out of touch with reality, or with the implications of anything he's teaching. He's happy to encourage the students to recreate the Dionysian rituals, but once there are actually serious consequences to those actions, it's clear that he doesn't really believe in what he's saying. He's a very cold manipulative character who doesn't really care about anything but himself, and the students don't realize it until it's too late. In a sense he's like the character in The Brothers Karamazov who talks about how anarchy and murder is all fun and games, and then is horrified when someone takes him seriously and acts in a way that has real and ugly consequences.

Gotta run now because my girls are spraying whipped cream in the kitchen...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Send Me Back to Bed

Mmm. Well. I had some problems with the book. I feel it would be twice the book were it half the length. Maybe this is because I've been feeling my mortality this week (I've had the 'flu), but to me it was like War and Peace with only one battle scene. Just not enough plot to carry the weight of pages. And since the major plot point was given in the first page, there was no narrative tension.

And I have so much stuff left to read in what's left of my life!

I do find, when I flick back through the book (which admittedly I read through a haze of Amoxycillin, Ventolin, Flixotide, Paracetemol and Premonition of Death) that I find something to enjoy on every page.

But I'm past the age when to travel happily is better than to arrive!

Another problem I had was with the basic premise. It seems to me that classicists of all people, or anyone with a passing knowledge of the Bacchae of Euripides, or indeed anyone who's read the novels of Mary Renault, might suspect that the divine frenzy could turn to custard.

Also, these kids are supposed to be Catholic. Where's the guilt? Where is the acknowledgement that the Church has a mission to harness and control SPECIFICALLY the forces and passions which run amok here?

Also, the character of Julian. What is he there for? When I read he was running an Exclusive Class for Top Brains, I thought we'd stumbled into a Svengali/Trilby set-up. Or Pygmalion with Richard a Galatea being brought to life. Or a sinister recruiter for the Illuminati or Freemasons. But no - he's there simply to receive Bunny's post-mortem accusation and then, apparently, do nothing about it. Not even swear the kids to being better people for the rest of their born days.

And I was a bit embarrassed by the Epilogue, which told me lovingly what happened to all the minor characters, because I hadn't realized I was supposed to care about them. I feel like you do when you arrive at a party and you find it's someone's birthday and you haven't brought a present.

One part that I thought could happily be cut was the take-down of the Corcorans. It may well be that death is a time when the most painfully conventional and banal instincts take over. However, I simply don't believe that any parents behave like this in the loss of a child.

I was gripped by Richard's winter sufferings in an unlined room. I stayed one winter in an unlined room in a Dunedin student hovel, and contracted the chest troubles which plague me to this day, and which no doubt account for my jaundiced view of "Secret History."

So, as I say, lots of good things, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

Now, challenge me or shoot me down or tell me that I'm obviously still sick and send me back to bed...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

And another thing

So last night my husband and I watched Juno. I'd heard mixed reviews, but found myself loving it. Yes, it's crude, and the potential adoptive father was smarmy, but I loved June's parents and her comments on pregnancy. I thought it was a great pro-life witness, but would you encourage your teenagers to watch this? Any thoughts?

Late night reading - Spoiler alert!

So I should probably wait to post this until someone else opens the conversation, but I'm going to forget my thoughts if I put it off - even though just like Mrs. Darwin mentioned in her email, The Secret History keeps your eyelids peeled. When I started the book last week, I wasn't immediately drawn in. Richard is kind of an offputting narrator. But then I hit the exciting part, and stayed up until 3 am reading the middle 300 pages – just one more section, just one more page, just one more… I was standing in the bathroom because my husband had just come home from a 10 day trip right in the middle of phase 2, and I really meant to go to bed after he fell asleep. The last time I stood to read for so long was either Alice MacDermott’s After This, another bittersweet tale of people bent on self-destruction, or Harry Potter 7. Reading that late at night made me feel almost like I was in a drunken stupor mixed with some kind of after midnight high – a part of the drug and alcohol paranoia infused mood of the book.
Even though I couldn’t put The Secret History down, I’m still not sure I’d list it as a favorite, or even vigorously recommend it, even though I liked it. The characters were interesting, if a little inconsistent, the plot was gripping, the descriptions vivid. But such a downer. I keep asking myself if there is a redemptive moment. I loved the descriptions of the classes with Julian, and wish my Program of Liberal Studies seminars had measured up to something so intimate. But I couldn’t buy that these were undergraduates. Maybe I don’t know enough ennui-filled rich people. For awhile I thought there might be a Twilight twist: These 5 students are actually centenarian vampires and Julian is their leader! So the actual secret seemed a little mundane: oh, just a gruesome bacchanalian murder, nothing paranormal, except the bacchanal itself, I guess. But once I gave up the vampire theory, I enjoyed the book more.
Some quibbles: My suspension of disbelief was tested if this is not supposed to be fantasy: Would Dr. Roland and Julian really have been so clueless? Would Richard really have been able to pass as a rich Californian if his background was as bluecollar as he claimed? I didn’t buy that he was able to fit in so quickly. And I felt like I had to revise my mental image of Charles, Henry, and Francis a couple of times.
I wanted more about the bacchanal. Fascinating idea. And I liked the idea that they had to actually believe for it to work. But I thought at one point Henry said something about telling Julian all about it, but at the end Julian apparently didn’t know anything.
Did it seem like it was better for Bunny to be alive than dead? Did Henry really want to kill Charles? At one point I suspected Henry of having a deeper strain of evil, when he is hiding Camilla and sending Richard and Francis on his errands. But is he actually good at heart, just ensnared by his lies? And does Richard sometimes seem the least noble of them all? A dissembler, a hanger-on, a loyalty-shifter?
What I liked was the depiction of the escalation of the wages of sin. They keep falling deeper into darkness. Sin begets sin. Was there a point where they could’ve stopped the descent and turned away? Maybe the scene at the very end where Francis and Camilla and Richard go to the Ash Wednesday service? Are they all lost souls at the end of the novel? Sunk in perpetual alienation after sharing an intimacy most people don’t experience? Could love save any of them?
For some reason Henry’s statement about how the bacchanal freed him from his intellectual impotence, how he was able to discover a life of action w/o thought, struck me: I think sometimes I share that tendency to overanalyze, to fret something to death so that I can’t act on an impulse, or even act on a conviction. But Henry's final act seems almost a condemnation of action. Both extremes come off as dangerous.
I'm sure I've missed some things. Really enjoyed reading this. Didn't do any digging on the author, other than to notice she went to school in Mississippi before moving north, and what Mrs. Darwin said about her being Catholic. I wonder if when she wrote this book, she saw something appealing in the idea of being a part of a mystery, even though it has a destructive side. Do you think she idealizes the classical mindset, with its ideals of beauty, honor, loyalty and nobility in the person of Julian, whom all the students love like a father, but then realizes his shortcomings? His inability to love the actual person, only the ideal? He doesn't have the kind of personal love that Christianity could inspire? I wish there were a little more at the beginning to show that relationship. The students say they love him, but I didn't really see it.