Archive for July, 2009


I just finished Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.  It is a somewhat slight book, but the writing is at times beautiful and profound.  The plot seems more a contrivance on which to hang her meditations on the self, loneliness, estrangement.  I didn’t quite believe in the two girls, but the family, with the history of loss, the town of Fingerbone itself, so lost and outside of society with its murders and death by the elements and the train coming through just increasing the sense of loneliness and isolation.  Fingerbone, I did believe in. The character of Sylvie is the most compelling, besides that of the Grandmother, whose efforts at housekeeping were eventually lost to time and the elements.  In other words, things fall apart, especially families, houses, civilization, without constant vigilance; i.e., housekeeping. 

Once Lucille defects, the writing becomes more meditative and beautiful.  For instance:

Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house.  Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them.  You simply say, ”Here are the perimeters of our attention.  If you prowl around under the windows till the crickets go silent, we will pull the shades.  If you wish us to suffer your envious curiousity, you must permit us not to notice it.”  Anyone with one solid human bond is that smug, and it is the smugness as much as the comfort and safety that lonely people covet and admire.

Another extended metaphor occurs when she talks about how transients, and all those who live by different rules than those of society, are inherently threatening to that society.  Sylvie is one of these and Ruthie becomes one.

So a diaspora threatened always.  And there is no living creature, though the whims of eons had put its eyes on boggling stalks and clamped it in a carapace, diminished it to a  pinpoint and given it a taste for mud and stuck it down a well or hid it under a stone, but that creature will live on if it can.  So certainly Fingerbone, which despite all its difficulties sometimes seemed pleasant and ordinary, would value itself, too, and live on if and as it could.  So every wanderer whose presence suggested it might be as well to drift, or it could not matter much, was met with something that seemed at first sight a moral reaction, since morality is a check upon the strongest temptations.

If a somewhat thin plot and contrived characters are needed to allow this type of writing to bloom, then so be it. 



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I just finished Classical Mythology taught by Elizabeth Vandiver. You really can’t go wrong with Greek and Roman myths and it was fun to revisit old familiar stories and learn  new interpretations of some of them.  Her discussion of Ovid was particularly interesting to me after reading Jane Alison’s fictionalized account of the exiled poet.  I also liked how she talked about modern placement of the urge to mythologize into the future with Science Fiction.  But her chapter on the “Terrible House of Atreus” and her reading of the Oresteia by Aeschylus really resonated for a few reasons.  Through Rufus Fears’ course Books that Have Made History, Books that can Change your Life (still my favorite), I read the Iliad, so had already had an introduction to the House of Atreus and the bloody deeds of Agamemnon.  Professor Fears also devotes some time to the Greek tragedies, but to me they were his weakest chapters.  I couldn’t really figure out why one would want to read or watch the bloody drama of intergenerational slaying.  Professor Vandiver gave a broader context to the House of Atreus, going back to the first evil deed committed by Tantalos and showing how the curses on the family just multiplied through the generations with parents slaying children and vice versa.  The playwright’s intention, as explained by Vandiver, was to show how the personal vengeance method of dispensing justice breaks down when the parties are of the same family.  Each person had an absolute duty to commit an action (Orestes had to avenge the death of his father) as well as an absolute duty not to commit that action (he also was not allowed to harm his mother).  Fears also brought up the irreconcilable nature of these forces but Vandiver takes it a step further when she shows how the trial of Orestes introduces a new, sustainable form of justice – a court of law with judgment by peers.  She is also great when discussing the story of Oedipus.

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