Here’s a little moment in time. Right after I read The Little Fur Family to Huck (for the first time!) the other day, he wanted to read it himself. This is one of my favorite picture books to read with very young kids, and I can’t imagine how it slipped past Huck until now—I found this copy of the book at the bottom of a box of toys earlier in the week. Of course the very best edition is the tiny one with the faux-fur cover. It’s around here somewhere, but I don’t recall seeing it in ages. It’s probably under a bed.
Anyway, when I grabbed my boy for the read-aloud, he was reluctant to listen, as he very often is right at the beginning. And then, as nearly always happens, before I finish the first page, he’s hooked. It went double this time around. He fell hard for the little fur child in the wild, wild wood, like so many before him.
I caught a good chunk of his reading on video. There’s background noise from his big sisters and brother, but you can hear him pretty well. I love watching the leaps kids make at this age—the substitutions where they think they see where the word is going and plug in one they know, like his “fun children” for “fur child” and “mom” for “mother.”
I don’t know if I caught this stage on video with any of the other kids. I have a pretty young Rilla reading an Ariel speech from The Tempest—you can’t hear much in the recording but it melts me to see the confidence with which she attacks some quite challenging text—but nothing, as far as I can recall, of the others at Huck’s stage. I’m glad I captured this much. Those sneezes!
Golly, more than a week since I posted. I think that’s only happened three or four times in the nine years I’ve been writing this blog. And no big reason; I got sick midweek, a virus that had already made the rounds of the rest of the family, and it walloped me a bit; but not so much I couldn’t have gotten a post or two up, if I’d been inclined. I suppose I was just thrown off rhythm.
Wasn’t reading a whole lot, either, so I had very little to report in my daily reading notes! When I’m sick I always crave Agatha Christie, and I spent the week revisiting a comfortable volume of Miss Marple stories. I first fell under Jane Marple’s gentle spell at age eleven, in a collection found on my aunt shelves. Every year or two when we stayed at her apartment, I hunted that book back out—along with a Lewis Carroll collected works and a volume of Poe stories. I still remember lying in one of the two twin beds in my Aunt Genia’s guest room, flat on my back, the heavy hardbound Poe tome propped on my chest, trying to make sense of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I found it baffling yet captivating, and I remember being haunted by its terrible choice, falling asleep with the images so sharp in my mind that they carried over into my dreams. I remember rolling into the Pit and awakening with a start.
There’s nothing at all baffling about Miss Marple, and I’m sure that’s why I seek her out when my head is fuzzy.
Beyond that, all last week’s reading was things with the kids. Lots of poetry with the girls—more Donne, a bit of Herbert, and our continuing journey through the Poetry 180 selections, which offer much food for thought. The King’s Fifth, which I read with Jane ages ago but none of the rest remember. The Secret Garden with Rilla. Stellaluna with the three littles. Other picture books I’m forgetting.
A Huck funny I want to remember (I feel a little embarrassed to share it, but I have to remind myself I keep this blog for me, for my own record, and this is most certainly a moment I want to hold on to): he was only three when Fox and Crow Are Not Friends came out, and if it registered with him then that I had written it, the knowledge left no impression. (Like many writers’ children, my younger set are decidedly unimpressed by my profession. Obviously parents shut themselves away for a while every day and write books. That’s ordinary and boring. What’s really interesting are people who drive big trucks.) But Huck is reading quite well now, and when he asked me to read Fox and Crow to him yesterday, he recognized the name on the title page. “That’s your name!” he said.
“Yes,” I explained, “this is one of my books.”
He slowly craned his neck and peered up at me. “That you wrote?” he asked. “You made this story?”
“Yep. And Sebastien Braun drew the pictures.”
And suddenly he threw his arms around my neck and squeezed me tight. “I love this story,” he said. “Thank you, Mommy!”
And that, my friends, just may be the best review I have ever gotten.
“Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star” by John Donne. Their introduction to the metaphysical poets. We’ll spend the next week or so on Donne, with a little Herbert and Marvell. Read some biographical info on Donne. I always enjoy him so much and it’s been quite a long time since I’ve read him. This meant I put a bit of time in this week reading up, refreshing my memory on these poets. Consequently I haven’t begun a new book yet—but I’ve got the Muriel Spark autobiography burning a hole on my desk.
When we go to Balboa Park I always park in the lot that lets me walk past this tree. This Ent, is more like it.
Jane’s been home all week for Spring Break, and a springy springy spring it is. Got the tomatoes in on Sunday, and the flowers are going crazy. I discovered an amaryllis stalk in the patio flowerbed! I had a bulb indoors some years back, and afterward I guess I planted it? And forgot about it. And now here it is. I hope it blooms.
When Rilla and I planted the sweet alyssum and nasturtium seeds that are now bedecking the front yard with abundant bloom, we planted cosmos as well. Only one came up. I have the weirdest luck with cosmos. Usually I plant them and they’re never heard from again. One year I didn’t plant them, and a pink-and-white army arose along the side fence, in a place where nothing ever grows but pepper tree seedlings. But once, and once only. This one is in a new spot, near a cinderblock wall. Maybe it’ll like the location and decide to raise a family.
The week’s reading:
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. Finished it early in the week and it ruined me for reading. Needed some time to sit quietly with it and let the ache subside. (The good kind of ache.) Still haven’t quite committed to anything new.
The usual history things with my girls, and delicious delicious chapters of Secret Garden with Rilla. Mary found the door, she’s just gone inside. Rilla’s reactions make me feel like I’m living it for the first time myself. This spring is one I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
How quickly the days pass, and the reading lists pile up!
Read with the older girls:
• Landmark History of the American People, the chapter on wagon trains
• Story of Science Vol. 2, the chapter on Rene Descartes
• Poem: “The Cord” by Leanne O’Sullivan (Poetry 180)
• The Faerie Queene Book 1, Spenser, continued
We enjoyed this lovely video of screenshots from the 1894 George Allen edition with illustrations by Walter Crane.
Read to the littles:
• Caps for Sale
• Captain Invincible and the Space Shapes
• The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald (because Susan Hill piqued my interest, and Selvi’s enthusiasm tipped me over the edge). I’m fairly stunned by the lush economy of the prose—a paradox, I know, which is what is so stunning. That she can convey so rich and vivid a picture—and of so unfamiliar a time and place!—with so few words.
• “The Injustice Collector,” The New Yorker, June 19 2006. Long and fascinating article on the tight grip of the James Joyce estate (namely his heir Stephen Joyce). This was of course before 2012 when Joyce’s works came into the public domain. Wandered here via some reading about literary theory sparked by the Quiller-Couch lectures.
• The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro, which I’ve never yet read. Did I put this, too, on hold because of the Susan Hill book? I’ve already forgotten. (Part of why I’m keeping these notes: to chronicle what nudges me toward a particular book.)
“She still lives in Clermont County at this writing, October 5th, 1884, and is over ninety ears of age. Until her memory failed her, a few years ago, she thought the country ruined beyond recovery when the Democratic party lost control in 1860.”
Until her memory failed her a few years ago. Meaning up through and including her son’s two terms as President. Gee, Ma, thanks for the support.
This morning, during Rilla’s piano lesson, I returned to and finished Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s first lecture from On the Art of Writing, which I began on the heels of last month’s Helene Hanff kick. This is the book Helene took eleven years to rabbit-trail her way through, stopping to read up on the many books and thinkers “Q” references, and after Wikipediaing my own way through this one lecture, I can see (a month later) why it took her over a decade. I’m also enthralled by the snapshot of a pregnant moment in time: there’s Q in 1912, recently appointed to the brand-new Professorship of English Literature at Cambridge—let that sink in for a moment; there wasn’t one before 1911—addressing his students to explain his purpose and point of view in the position. He begins with a somewhat lofty exploration (in company with Plato) of the question of “What to do with the poets?” and then lays out his aims and principles. He won’t go so far as to say you can teach literature; he approves of the wording of his job description, which specifies “to promote the study of Literature.”
But that the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged—this, I take it, no man of experience will deny.
And then, in a move that fills me with gratitude, he spells out exactly where he stands as a reader and a critic:
For the first principle of all I put to you that in studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely; that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author’s mind intended…
Authorial intent. Got it. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated (and maybe somewhat quixotic), that school of thought, especially for someone like me whose undergraduate experience in the late 80s was a muddle of competing theories, most of which I didn’t know were theories, nor in competition. There was the Freudian professor, but we were too green to know he was a Freudian; I only figured it out (and that it was a thing at all, an approach to literary analysis and not just a unit in Psych 101) after I got a work-study in the English department and was assigned the mind-numbing task of entering his copious footnotes into the MS-DOS file of his very, very, very lengthy Freudian interpretation of Ulysses. Suddenly I had context for his insistence that every single story written by every single student in his Creative Writing class contained hidden Oedipal longings, no matter how earnestly we proclaimed that no, that wasn’t what we’d meant at all. The context didn’t really help; he went on doing Freudian readings of our work no matter how much we protested—actually, the protests made him all the more gleeful—but at least I knew on what grounds to ignore him. I felt conned, actually, resenting that the course description had not been more forthright about professorial hobby-horses. I mean, if you took Linguistics at that college, you knew you were getting a fervently feminist take on the subject, and I really appreciated that transparency (and enjoyed the course). Only later did I begin to wonder what critical theory informed my other professors’ pedagogy. The more I learned about theory, the greater my retrospective indignation. If we’re looking through a particular lens, I’d like to know I’m what glasses I’m wearing. If I’m signing up for your cooking class, I’d like to know up front whether you’re a vegan or a molecular gastronomist.
And so I find Q’s transparency terribly endearing. And it’s fascinating, too, to see him poised there in 1912, at the advent of Modernism, just before all these new ideas about interpreting literature (and writing it) were to sweep across the field. This article by a Cambridge professor captures it quite poignantly:
“He was also acutely aware that he was teaching at a moment when the direction of Literature was taking a radical turn, the turn to modernism. He believed profoundly that the literature of the present day should be taught and that students should be taught (as I believe, too) how to read modern literature. Yet he knew that, temperamentally, his own love of literature and his own ear for language were steeped in the literature of the past, and that he had great difficulty in appreciating the TS Eliots and the Ezra Pounds who were beginning to steal his thunder…”
Before long would come the New Criticism that focused on close readings of the text alone, rather than authorial intent and biographical background—which would, in turn, be swept past by Structuralism, and Post-Structuralism, and all sorts of other schools of literary theory about which I’m much fuzzier than I should be. I really don’t know where things stand at present. The lit profs whose blogs I read (and the ModPo crew I’m so fond of) seem to take the kind of historical, biographical approach that I myself most enjoy, looking closely at the cultural/historical context of a work of literature and the author’s life circumstances in addition to unpacking the text —and then I’d say, as well, there’s a lot of looking at various works through specific, clearly defined lenses. Of course it’s possible I read the blogs I do because they take an approach that appeals to me. For all I know, my old professor is out there happily blogging away about the Freudian underpinnings of Mad Men.
On an entirely different note, today is the day Rilla met Mary Lennox. She wasn’t ready, last year when I suggested reading the book. Today, after a sunny (in all respects) hour in the garden, the time felt right. It was. Very very happy sigh from this lifelong Secret Garden devotee. And—we saw our first wild lupines of the year on the roadside today! Which means, of course, it’s time for Miss Rumphius.
1 Mar—Between rains, a sky gray and bright. Things I missed yesterday: African daisies and ice plant, quite thick with flowers. Blue plumbago and salvia just beginning. Two stars of jasmine among the pink buds. Bees busy at the tree mallow and the lavender.
28 Feb—Second day of steady rain, the first good soaking we've had in months. Already things are greening up. In bloom: nasturtiums, sweet alyssum, freesia (yellow and red), cape honeysuckle, the citrus trees, pink geraniums, lavender. Tulips and hyacinths just coming up. Daffodils and paperwhites fading. Winter lettuce has bolted.