Friday, July 10, 2009

A Reading Medley -- mystery, Canadiana, knitting et al

It's a long while since I last posted -- three weeks? I know that part of the reason is that my last post mentioned wanting to follow up on my discussion of Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies by thinking about some metaphors he uses and how my students might respond to them. But try as I might, I can't find the brilliant examples I thought I'd seen in the text. Oh, there are many lovely and effective and startling metaphors -- one character's "length and leanness" of limbs "suggest[] the sinuosity of a shade-seeking plant; a young woman's hair, tied back "in a severe little knot" is likened to "a corset for her skull"; and another character has cheeks that "hung down as if weighted with gloom" and "dark shapeless ears that stuck out from his huge head like outgrowths of fungus on a mossy rock." But none of these seems quite as striking an example as I remembered, and I've spent many, many minutes skimming the book repeatedly trying to recover what I had in mind. Meanwhile, I was reluctant to write about anything else. Time to move on, though, it seems to me, and so I'll point these out and ask my question: How well-trained or prepared are today's students to perform the mental gymnastics required by such metaphors?

Because there are gymnastics required. For young people so much exposed to visual images, these kind of verbal descriptions demand that they create their own image, building on a complex series of comparing possibilities. To assemble a sense of someone's appearance by having to detour through a mental exploration of a plant that sinuously moves toward the shade takes some experience, not only with the verbal-mental process of imagination, but also with the world -- one has to have a repertoire of mental images, in this case, of shade-loving plants, in the other examples of a corset and of fungus, moss, and rocks. As well, the entire process of deciphering these descriptions requires not only patience but also an ability to enjoy the puzzle. Young people have often learned their patience at the video game console where they also certainly learn to couple persistence with puzzle-solving, but the subsequent rewards, perhaps, come more quickly there and are more dramatic.

I thought of this as well when I was reading David Copperfield where every page offered some passage or other that I wanted to grab someone nearby to listen to and appreciate -- the intricate descriptions relied on layer after layer of metaphors, taking the reader through all kinds of twists and turns and wit galore to finally arrive at a composite image. So much work for the reader to do -- well-rewarded work, in my opinion, but a lot of work for too little return to many of my students. Would they, with more experience, and perhaps by practising in smaller doses, begin to acquire both the skill and the taste to enjoy such complexity? And when I say "they," I reluctantly have to admit that it's not just my students, but rather the general population who find it more and more difficult to find the time for complex and challenging pleasures. Oh dear, I'm wandering into the territory of trite generalizations and I should probably stop. But really, where do you stand on this crusade?

As you know, I also love a good mystery and Peter Robinson always provides. I just finished his very satisfying All the Colours of Darkness, and came away with another list of music to seek out. Inspector Alan Banks impresses me very much with his eclectic taste in music -- if it's good, he seems to know and love it, whether it's classic rock, blues, opera, avant-garde classical, or punk. I'm pleased to note that Banks and Cabot's relationship (still a Platonic one throughout the novel) continues to build and to hold the reader's interest.

Now I'm reading Michael Redhill's Consolation and very much enjoying the Toronto he builds images of, across a century and a half. Also interested in seeing some gender issues sketched -- masculinity within families is something that we have to tread so carefully in discussing outside of fiction that I'm grateful to novelists who are willing to explore the territory. Here, at least as far as I've read, there's some masculine solidarity across the generations in the face of some expectations by the women in the family. To a certain extent, these expectations as limned here make my feminist hackles rise a bit, but I can't completely deny them. And, as I say, I think it's very much worth laying them out and discussing them.

I'm also reading Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's (aka The Yarn Harlot) Knitting Rules. Somehow, I've never read her books although I read every single one of her posts. This book has so much helpful information in such an entertaining package that it will have a prominent spot in my knitting book collection, after I've finished chuckling my way through it.


  1. I just finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog, so I'm now about to embark (excuse semi-pun) on Sea of Poppies. I'll keep an eye out for the metaphors! So many books, so little time ...

  2. Did you enjoy Hedgehog?
    And I'll enjoy, rather than excuse, that pun. There are so many, many books, aren't there! -- sometimes I wish they'd declare a moratorium so I could get caught up . . .

  3. Yes, I certainly did enjoy Hedgehog. I'm not sure I found Paloma's character completely convincing, but Renee was beautifully drawn, as was Kakuro. Some of the observations were wonderful too. It's one I may well go back and read again ...

    Ha! A moratorium - what a brilliant idea! Every time I go into a bookshop I get a little overwhelmed by choice.

    I'm really interested in reading some Canadian literature, so if you ever have time, could you post a list of recommendations on this blog?

  4. If the little girl wasn't entirely convincing, she was still compelling to me -- I wanted to imagine a young woman with a mix of naiveté and intelligence, I guess, and there were really echoes, for me, of a character I very much liked in Kate Atkinson's latest mystery.
    As for a list of Canlit recommendations, it could happen . . . but I have a little list I need to cross many things off first . . .;-)

  5. You mean Reggie? I loved her character! I wish Kate Atkinson wrote as fast as Joyce Carol Oates ... I'm always waiting for the next one from her!