The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: Current reads

Posted on: January 13, 2008

5:01 PM: Frumiousb asked a good question since a sudden mood swing has made me momentarily lose interest in finishing up the Levy novel today.

I’m curious whether anyone else out there in the very bookish Sunday Salon has their own obsessive habits around reading or rereading? How do you process or take notes about a book? How do you fix it in your head, or do you simply not bother?

Frumiousb’s tactic of re-recording all of her notes is what I do for my classes but not my leisure reading. I don’t have a single system because I adjust to however I happen to be responding to a book. For some I feel no desire to take any notes, which includes bracketing notable lines, adding asterisks to words I should look up, or to mark off an entire paragraph as worthwhile. That’s my usual response to genre reads whether good or bad.

For official reviews for my own little projects I first research the author’s life and the literary movements that preceded, were concurrent and even proceeded his writing lifetime if its relevant.

Then I read the book twice, making brief notes in the novel and longer ones in my moleskin. In my second reread I’ll try to answer any questions I noted at the end of the first. I read criticism of his works which I would not make notes for (unless something jumps out at me) but bookmark in case there’s an opinion I’d like to either answer or assimilate into my own ideas. Finally, it’s time to write that review. 😛

In-between those two extremes my notation scheme can fall along several spots. For some books that I want to make a lot of notes on, usually short stories collections if they’re good enough, those will end up in the moleskin. I don’t do any background research unless there’s something I really want to know, or the book pushes me to have any definite or vague concern answered, which happened with Mercé Rodoreda.

Others can get similar attention but if I’m less sure about how my note writing will go — will my thoughts change within seconds, forcing me to cross out, hang missing pieces above sentences with little arrows showing where they should go, or do I simply the need expansive space to scrawl heedless on? — I choose one of three spiral bounded mead notebooks I have lying around. Each is chosen depending on which cover appeals to me on that day. Paulina 1880 by Pierre Jean Jouve asked for the one with zebras sipping from a river on the cover, as did Rilke, James Hogg, and the bad books that made me grumpy over Christmas.

Some only ask me to bracket a few lines here and there and make brief commentary to flesh out any thoughts in my Paper Blanks. The Romance of a Shop would fall into that group, although I’m doing things a bit differently. In the past there would be a few lines that I would bracket and not add any notes beside the passage or in my book because I thought it was not substantial enough and that I’d find it floating in my mind afterwards if I needed it. I even thought romantically of rereading it one sweet day, coming across the passage, taking pleasure in figuring out why I had underlined these words oh so long ago.

Sweet idea but not very practical so Amy Levy has the pleasure of being the first book for which I’m adding at least a few words in my Paper Blank to accompany every mark I make, including page number so that the corresponding lines are easily found.

The last set of books defy my note taking skills either because my grasp on the story is nebulous enough that I prefer my brain to be less busy and more singly focused on taking the words in, or its sheer, particular kind of awesomeness makes me forget (or deliberately ignore) the fact that I should be noting that foreshadowing in chapter 10. I would put Shriek by VanderMeer, all Murakami Haruki and Alan Garner novels in the first group, The Translation of Dr. Appelles by David Treuer and Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino. It doesn’t mean that I’m not observing things but reaching for pen and pencil interferes with how I’m reading the books.

To cement a book in my mind after I’ve turned the last page I turn it over on my mind during solitary walks, whether it’s to school or to the public library, or to more idle destinations like the park. Night is the best time since I can talk it out loud to myself without disturbing any one else’s tranquillity. Sometimes this process is taken further in a book review on my blog.

1:33 PM: Amy Levy appears to fit the description as one of those little known female writers that only Victorian literature enthusiasts would know about.

I didn’t consider myself to be an enthusiast for any particular literary period or even genre, as far as non-contemporary works go. The way I came to authors was because of their big name and their distinctive attributes. In class if they were placed in the perspective of their genre or period it was more done to emphasize how different they were from the rest, rather than what than what they shared.

At least, that’s what I thought until I checked a list of famous Victorian writers on Wikipedia and saw my beloved Charlotte Brontë on the list. Oooh, yeah, I guess she does do Victorian lit but I always thought of Jane Eyre as more of a goth lit deal and goth and Victorian never went together in my mind. Hmmm…Oscar Wilde!? Oh. But his books aren’t in the least stuffy and fuddy duddy at all (which, I now shamefully admit, is my automatic description of that period, even though I’ve been reading The Little Professor for years). Tennyson! Oh yes, I guess though…I kinda figured him to be more Romantic but I guess not…Kipling?! All…right…it’s now clear that I don’t know anything about anything. Let me return to Levy before my ignorance overwhelms me.

The Romance of a Shop (1888) does not remind me so much of any of the Victorian writers but rather reads as a spicier, more daring Little Women. The Lorimer sisters — Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis — are poorer when their father dies after his financial interests fall through. Instead of defaulting to the more typical fates — jobs as governesses or become parcelled out among relatives in England and abroad — they decide to turn their photography skills into a business.

Gertrude reminds me of Jo. She is often described as the cleverest of the girls, the one with the most imagination, and she is the one with literary aspirations. It is she and Lucy who are the primary workers in the photography business, while Phyllis does the odd errand. She is the youngest at 17 and the prettiest who sticks out oddly as an arch, vivacious, insightful Oscar Wilde sort of character. (She reminds me of Amy, to some extent.) Fanny is their half-sister, a daughter from their father’s first marriage, and the oldest at about 30. In her Levy depicts the typically dainty, silly, blissfully incurious woman not good for much except sewing doilies, cooking and chaperoning. Gertrude, in a bewildered tone, describes her as that “mysterious creature, a man’s woman”. Lucy reminds me of the eldest March girl, pretty enough, sensible and closest to Gertrude.

It’s a pleasurable read because it’s something of an adventure story. The girls were very brave to start a new business in London to live on their own, so one is intrigued by how they will do, what mistakes they’ll make, what will be their triumphs, if it will turn out to be a great success. Since they are living on their own, moving among the middle-class art world, their romances are also matters which they are steering through on their own, as there no balls with mamas and duennas to supervise and careful rituals to participate in. (They could not afford to attend those even if the were invited anyway, which they were not, for they had fallen out of that class when they decided to become entrepreneurs.)

Stylistically there’s nothing distinctive here. Levy’s approach to character depictions remind me of Austen but the similarities end there. The Romance of a Shop is properly a “New Woman” novel so the author interweaves throughout the narrative observations and portrayals of how men (and other women) expect the Lorimer sisters to behave and how the girls disrupt that. Lord Watergate, someone who I think is supposed to be Gertrude’s potential beau but Levy’s holding back on me, tells her she’s a democrat because of her belief that society should be built on individual merit rather than inherited status. It’s clear that Levy created Gertrude as her ideal woman, one who is intelligent, bold and with intiative (but not invincible), so it is interesting that Gertrude, because of how she is, expects to die an old maid. There’s a touching scene in which Conny, a daughter in a rich middle-class family, confides her frustrations about finding a man sincerely interested in her rather than her dowry.

“There are other things which make happiness besides — pleasant things happening to one.”

“What sort of things?”

Gertrude paused a minute, then said bravely: “Our own self-respect, and the integrity of the people we care for.”

“That sounds very nice,” replied Conny, without enthusiasm, “but I should like a little of the more obvious sorts of happiness as well.”

Gertrude gave a laugh, which was also a sob.

“So should I, Conny, so should I.”


6 Responses to "Sunday Salon: Current reads"

I don’t know this writer at all, but will definitely go out now and look for her. I’m a massive Alcott fan and there are also a number of young adult books written much more recently but about that same period which take up the idea of the way in which a woman might support herself in a ‘non-traditional’ manner, but I’ve never come across anything from the nineteenth century before, so thank you.

Good to hear you’ve come around. Victorian is a time period, not a genre. Poor old stuffy fuddy duddys.

Ann yes, going through the Broadview fiction catalogue one can come across a lot of intriguing “little” authors that one has never heard about before.

Amateur Reader I know, I know, or at least I thought I knew, but still I carry around all these misconceptions that never get routed until I dig into the matter myself. Still, some people somewhere must be using it to the one would use the word “Romantic” to describe the certain sort of books they like and that’s how I became misinformed and it’s all their fault…? No?

Sigh. Well, one thing about my blog is that I’d promise to be honest about my ignorant moments, so that other people out there could go, “Hey, that’s a pretty dumb idea to have but she’s still hitting the [insert favourite difficult author here] so maybe I can too.”

The nice thing about our misconceptions is that they provide a continual source of pleasant surprises.


That was a heck of a quote to finish up that post… I think I am going to copy that, print it and put it on my desk to look at every day!

Best wishes,

I’ve had frustrating instructors on both sides from the fight. dumb liberal do equally crappy a career as bad Liberals.

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