Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking

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Overview

Critically acclaimed by reviewers across the country, Aoibheann Sweeney's beautifully written debut novel is a story of the profound human need for intimacy. For Miranda, the adolescence spent in her fog-shrouded Maine home has been stark and isolated? alone with her troubled father, a man consumed with his work translating Ovid's Metamorphoses, her mother mysteriously gone from their lives. Now, having graduated from high school, Miranda's father arranges for her to stay with old friends in Manhattan, and she ...

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Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking

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Overview

Critically acclaimed by reviewers across the country, Aoibheann Sweeney's beautifully written debut novel is a story of the profound human need for intimacy. For Miranda, the adolescence spent in her fog-shrouded Maine home has been stark and isolated? alone with her troubled father, a man consumed with his work translating Ovid's Metamorphoses, her mother mysteriously gone from their lives. Now, having graduated from high school, Miranda's father arranges for her to stay with old friends in Manhattan, and she embarks on a journey that will open up her father's past-and her own world-in ways she cannot begin to imagine.

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Editorial Reviews

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Sweeney's beguiling first novel begins when her protagonist is a mere three years old. Miranda's mother places a bowl of oatmeal on the table in front of her, leaves the house, and disappears into the thick Down East fog of Crab Island, Maine. Days later, the Coast Guard returns her body -- drowned in a boating accident.

Growing up an only child in a desolate landscape, Miranda cares for her father, a peculiar man who labors over his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The nymphs and gods of her father's manuscript become Miranda's companions; her only friend is a local fisherman named Mr. Blackwell, who tries to fill the space left by the death of her mother and the inattention of her father. But his presence, like most everything in her father's life, is complicated and unsettling.

Miranda's father makes arrangements for her to travel to New York for the summer following her high school graduation. Fearful of disappointing him, she embarks on an odyssey that will test old assumptions and open new doors. With delicacy and grace, Sweeney captures both the island and the city as Miranda finds her way, tentatively at first, but soon with growing confidence. A haunting story of loneliness and discovery, Sweeney's deft portrayal of Miranda's own metamorphosis results in a novel of lasting effect. (Fall 2007 Selection)
Ron Charles
The pleasure of this novel stems from Sweeney's gentle balance of comedy and sorrow, the predicaments of an odd girl hurtling through adolescence with little guidance. At times, she writes, "loneliness descended on me like a cold fog," but now and then she manages to go through the motions of "normal" teenage life, gossiping about boys and listening to cosmetics secrets, but it's always like trying to sing along with a melody she can't hear. Her only real friend is Mr. Blackwell, a kindly fisherman who helps maintain their house, often cooks their meals and seems to be her father's lover. The nature of his role, however, remains entirely unmentioned by anyone. At first blush, this reticence would seem to harken back to the pre-Stonewall days of a love that dare not speak its name, but in fact Sweeney is doing something far more modern. The gay relationships in this novel never become the subject of scandal, are never a source of pride, are never "accepted" in the face of an oppressive straight culture. Among Other Things isn't interested in looking at homosexuality as a socially constructed lifestyle or a biological orientation; in fact, although almost all the characters are gay, the novel doesn't seem interested in looking at homosexuality as a distinct and defining characteristic at all. Instead, Sweeney completely subsumes sexual orientation in a larger process of self-discovery, and with that subtle shift, she has moved from "gay fiction" to "post-gay fiction."
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Sweeney's debut novel centers around Miranda Donnal, who grows up on Maine's lonely Crab Island, where her father decides to hunker down and work on his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Shortly after their arrival from New York, Miranda's mother dies in a boating mishap, leaving Miranda in the care of her withdrawn father, who is content to keep his nose in his books. A half-Indian local fisherman, Mr. Blackwell, becomes something of a father figure to Miranda, taking on an unusually devoted caretaker role-cooking for the Donnals, taking Miranda to school and serving as her confidante. Yet secrecy also shrouds Mr. Donnal and Mr. Blackwell's evolving relationship. When Miranda graduates from high school, her father dispatches her to New York City and a job at the classical studies institute he was molded by. There she begins to peel away myth after myth of the father she thought she knew as she falls in love and has her own revelations about intimacy and connections. Sweeney's prose effortlessly conveys her characters' isolation and evolution, and her portrayal of the aftermath of life's slights-big and small-make this coming-of-age better than most. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Miranda Donnal, wise beyond her years, lives on remote Crab Island with her brilliant but troubled scholar father, who is translating Ovid's Metamorphoses. She has almost no friends except Mr. Blackwell, who shows her how to fish and pilot his boat. Although authorities from the mainland believe that her father is endangering her education, by typing her father's handwritten translations Miranda in fact makes all the magical stories and myths part of her life. Miranda imagines her passage in their boat from the mainland to the island to be Phaëthon's ride in his father's chariot. In time, her father arranges for her to work at the Institute for Classical Studies in New York, where she is inevitably drawn deeper into her father's mysterious past. At the same time, she finds a whole new world in the glamour of Manhattan, and she pictures herself as Galatea, the statue who turns to flesh in her creator's hands, undergoing her own change after leaving the island. First-time novelist Sweeney has written an amazingly rich and complex coming-of-age novel. Highly recommended for all public libraries.
—Donna Bettencourt

Kirkus Reviews
A young woman moves from a small island off the coast of Maine to a larger island-Manhattan-where she learns both to adjust to a new life and to negotiate the shoals of her past. At the age of three, Miranda Donnal moves to Crab Island with her brilliant but preoccupied father. Shortly after, her mother disappears in the enveloping fog, a shadow among shadows. For the next 15 years, Miranda's father Peter works on a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, a book of changes that provides ironic counterpoint to the monotony of his own life. He lives in both the fog of coastal Maine and a fog of his own devising, for his drinking and the sea turtle pace of his translation distance him from his daughter, whose life is vividly connected to the gods, goddesses and nymphs of Ovid. When Miranda graduates from high school, her father arranges for her to work at the Institute of Classical Studies, a private learning center he had helped found in New York City before Miranda was born. In the weeks Miranda spends in the city, she has a brief fling with Nate, a Latin teacher at the Institute, and a deeper relationship with Ana, who runs a coffee concession. Along the way, Miranda begins to piece together the melancholic story of her father's past and ultimately realizes the depth of her love for this difficult and uncommunicative man. In her final epiphany, she tells Ana how "for a while I had lived in a world in which trees spoke and gods flew, and how I thought that if I waited long enough things would get marvelous like they did in the stories Ovid told, and become something else." In this novel, we watch Miranda "become something else" as she begins to move out of her loneliness and toward connectionboth with Ana and with her father. A lyrical debut novel of isolation and communion.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143113416
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/24/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,148,699
  • Product dimensions: 4.80 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Aoibheann Sweeney earned her B.A. at Harvard University, where she won the John Harvard Scholarship and Elizabeth Carey Agassiz Award, and her MFA at the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. She has been a resident fellow at the MacDowell Colony and at Yaddo. She has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and The Village Voice Literary Supplement. She is currently director of the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
Growing up on remote Crab Island in Maine, Miranda Donnal lives in the realm of her own imagination, finding comfort both in the natural world and the world of myth. Independent and practical yet aching for human connection, Miranda is left largely unsupervised by her father Peter, who toils away at his never-ending translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; more often than not, it is up to Mr. Blackwell, a local fisherman and close companion of Peter’s, to provide Miranda with the practical direction and parental affection she needs. Miranda strives to bridge the gap between the ethereal ideals of her father and the earthly concerns of Mr. Blackwell, but struggles to build her own identity separate from these influences. When her father sends her to New York City to visit the people and places of his past, Miranda is initially unsure how to function beyond the safety of her secluded island life. But even in the urban wilds of New York City, Miranda’s private mythology sustains her as she slowly unravels secrets about her beloved father and, in the process, about herself.

Utilizing many of the themes and images found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Aoibheann Sweeney’s Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking gives these classical myths a modern context. The book follows Miranda from the rugged isolation of Maine to the metropolis of New York City, charting her voyage of psychological development. Told in spare, poetic prose, the novel is built of only the most essential and intimate moments in Miranda’s rapidly changing life, and yet the novel never feels lean or detached. Sweeney’s unerring sense of voice and character development makes the intimacy of Miranda’s confessional first-person narration shine, creating the illusion that the character is whispering her secrets directly to each individual reader. Like many of the mythological journeys Miranda relates, Sweeney throws a variety of compelling characters in her heroine’s path to challenge and encourage her, and each supporting character—from Ana, a Latina coffee vendor, to Nate, the son of a well-to-do Connecticut family—is a fully-realized and authentic personality. Through them, Miranda learns to navigate the ebb and flow of human relationships, and she begins to understand that sometimes the distance between two people can feel greater than the distance between man and the gods.

Speaking of the changeling characters of Metamorphoses, Miranda says, “The process of transformation . . . was sometimes a punishment, and sometimes a reprieve. But mostly it was a compromise of some sort, a way to negotiate the chasm between desire and mortality, between human nature and human need.” In plumbing the depths of these chasms and compromises, Sweeney has created a compelling examination of Miranda’s own emotional and sexual metamorphosis. As she struggles toward intimacy, Miranda carefully peels away her own layers of innocence and assumptions to reveal her true self and the reality of those she loves.

ABOUT AOIBHEANN SWEENEY

Aoibheann Sweeney earned her BA at Harvard University and her MFA at the University of Virginia. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and The Village Voice Literary Supplement, and is currently the director of the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She lives in Brooklyn.

A CONVERSATION WITH AOIBHEANN SWEENEY

Q. When did you first become interested in classical mythology? What do you believe accounts for its lasting appeal? How does mythology serve to connect people, both in the novel and in real life?

Math and science used to make me cry; it has always made more sense to me to explain the world through stories about people in love. I think myths and fairy tales endure because being in love is important to everyone; it is the best explanation for everything we do.

Q. There are many parallels between Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Why were you drawn to this particular play? For those who aren’t familiar with this work, could you identify what you see as the most significant connections between the play and your novel?

The Tempest is about Prospero, the Duke of Milan, a bookish man who is sent into exile with Miranda, his daughter, and lands on a remote island inhabited by a witch and her son, Caliban. From the witch he quickly learns sorcery, which he uses to do away with the witch and control the island’s inhabitants: Caliban, the witch’s son, whom he enslaves; Ariel, a magical fairy who does his bidding; and his own daughter, Miranda. Over the course of the play he manages to shipwreck the men who exiled him from his kingdom and to marry Miranda off to a young prince who is among them. Miranda has very few lines, but she was always the character who interested me the most. I have seen the play countless times, and every time I see it she is played differently — studious, rebellious, petulant, playful, or princess-y—but she is always married off to the prince before we really find out what she’s like. I wanted to write her story, to get her off the island before she had to marry the prince and to see what she was like in the real world. Initially I think I saw her story as a universal one, of a girl growing up under the spell of a patriarchal education, but later as I got to know my own characters and to study the play as well, her relationship with her father and even her self began to seem more and more particular: it became the story of a girl who grew up believing in the power of poetry and storytelling and how that changes when she has her own story to tell. It was my own story, of course—the story of a writer.

Q. Certainly most writers are avid readers, but you’re a professional reader in the sense that you’ve written numerous book reviews for publications such as The New York Times. How does your work as a literary critic affect your work as a fiction writer?

I am very critical of my own work. I edit myself all the time, and have a very hard time letting things go. I think it is easier to be hard on others when you are being hard on yourself, but the result is not necessarily more rigorous or more honest—it’s just hard.

Q. Because of many of the characters’ implied or explicit sexuality, your novel could be considered gay fiction. What is your response to that? Do you see any benefits or drawbacks to categorizing writing in this way?

My own reading has been shaped by a tradition of passionately closeted gay American writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Bishop. (For a while I considered titling the book “One Art” after Elizabeth Bishop’s poem of the same title). Their work was never characterized as gay. I’m really proud to be bringing that tradition into a new, more sexually explicit light, because I love their writing and because I can take it to a place that they could not. But neither will anyone ever again write something quite like The Country of Pointed Firs.

Q. Are there any writers, living or dead, who inspire you? Do you find yourself drawn to writers who tackle the same themes or issues that you do, or do you turn to writers whose work is in complete contrast to yours? Are there any particular books that you feel would be interesting companion pieces to Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking?

Graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s Fun House is beautiful and literary and funny and smart and sad, and a lot of people mentioned it to me after they read my book.

Q. From Peter and Mr. Blackwell to Robert and Walter, Miranda is surrounded by male authority figures (whether they choose to wield that authority or not). What did you hope to convey with the creation of these nearly all-male environments for Miranda?

Most of us, whether we like it or not, are ruled by male authority. I wanted Miranda’s experience to be emblematic, and at the same time, particular to the kind of men she is around: feminine and masculine, nurturing and bitchy, egotistical and caring, lonely and self-confident.

Q. Following Ovid’s example in Metamorphoses, you’ve organized Miranda’s growth around the three ages of man: the Age of Silver, the Age of Bronze, and the Age of Iron. What is the significance of this structure? How do you see Miranda’s development reflecting these ages?

Miranda has no golden age; her mother is taken away from her very early on, and her sense is that she was never there. But she has a long stretch as an innocent, living on the island in the Age of Silver, subject more to the rules of nature than to that of mankind. In the Age of Bronze she arrives in New York: her world is newly ordered and she makes discoveries, forges new tools for living. In the Age of Iron she discovers her own flaws, practices deceit, abandons responsibilities.

Q. The details that can be included in any story depend greatly on the perspective from which the story is told. Your novel is written in the first person, from Miranda’s point of view. How did this affect your writing? Especially in light of how much Miranda is unaware of or discovers through the course of the book, do you think it would be fair to label Miranda an unreliable narrator?

I got a little lonely writing this book because Miranda is so isolated and it was impossible to get out of her head and move into another character’s point of view. I think the book reflects that. I think Miranda is always honest though; she learns a lot over the course of the book, and she tells us her feelings as she experiences them.

Q. For many of us, location has immense emotional power, whether it’s a place we know and love, or a place that we are drawn to. What do New York and Maine represent for Miranda?

Civilization and nature; love and loneliness, all of those in both places.

Q. For your next book, do you plan to write another novel or will you turn to nonfiction? What are you working on currently?

I would like to write about siblings—I grew up with siblings. But ideas tend to just kind of perch on your shoulder. I am still waiting for another one to sing in my ear.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How would you describe Miranda’s metamorphosis? What are the key events of her emotional and sexual transformation?
  • Of the many myths that Miranda relates through the course of the novel, which do you believe best represents her own situation?
  • Why did Peter move his family to the island? What is his purpose in sending Miranda to the Classical Institute?
  • There is a sharp division between Miranda’s life in Maine and her life in New York. In what ways is location meaningful in your own life? Does your personality change depending on where you are?
  • Miranda says, “I stood for a long time looking at the bay. I often wondered if my mother had done this before the day she left the safety of the island and got lost. It was easy, even in the dark, to see the shape of the bay and each jut of land; heading straight out of our cove in almost every direction but one would have brought the boat to shore.” What does this statement suggest about the circumstances of her mother’s death? Are there any other clues in the novel about her mother’s life? Are there any ways in which Miranda’s life is similar to her mother’s?
  • Why doesn’t Peter finish his translation? Why, when there are so many other versions, does he bother with it at all? He and his daughter both have trouble translating their emotions to one another: how does the work serve his emotional needs?
  • What is the nature of Peter’s relationship with Mr. Blackwell? What about Miranda’s relationship with him? In what ways do you see Mr. Blackwell as a mother replacement? How do you believe Miranda’s development—and future relationships with Nate and Ana—reflect her identification with her father and his relationships? Would they have changed if her mother had lived?
  • How do the cross-class, cross-race relationships that Miranda and her father are drawn to reflect their loneliness and their attitudes toward their own prescribed social worlds?
  • “I was convinced,” Miranda says, “that all around the island there were women inside the trees. . . . Sometimes I could almost feel my skin thickening into bark, my toes rooting into the ground, my arms raising stiffly to the sky.” How does this comment explain Miranda’s interest in the natural world? How is this expressed in her drawings? What does art mean to her?
  • Miranda’s relationships provide her with a step toward better understanding herself and, as she ventures beyond her island, the world around her. Choose three characters from the novel and identify what it is that Miranda learns from her interaction with that person.
  • How does Miranda use mythology as a way to connect with her father? How does she use it as a refuge from the world around her?
  • Are you familiar with Greek mythology? If you are, are there any myths that Sweeney didn’t mention that you find particular moving? If this is your first time reading about Greek mythology, are you inspired to read more—or perhaps even tackle Ovid’s Metamorphoses?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 22, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Surprise, Surprise, we found out who we were

    While the father completes a new translation of Metamorphosis, the daughter accomplishes one of her own. A little predictable, with characters that were extremely one dimensional, the book still held my attention through wonderfully descriptive and lyrically written moments. I'm sure the title of the book is and example of projecting the transitions of the characters and the most enjoyable parts were found in this type of descriptive format. Don't read this expecting a page-turner or a plot line that doesn't require some thinking. The strength of this novel is in its ability to maintain your interest while sometimes blundering through a morass of symbolism.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2008

    Once started, couldn't stop reading!

    The first part of this book takes you so deeply into the life of the character and her remote life with her father in Maine, it is hard to shake. In fact, I live in Florida and it was hard to remember where I was. Sweeney writes the thoughts of this character in a wholly original way, helping us see inside her loneliness, her connection to story, to nature, and to art. I read this book in less than 24 hours...simply did not want to stop until it was over. This character will stay with me for a long time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2008

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    Posted November 1, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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