Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Overheard, City Bus Edition

There should be a word for “overseen” or “over-read” for this one, a heartbreaking one, came from my reading the paper in my seatmate’s lap on the bus last week in Seattle.

A handsome, skinny black teenage boy sat down next to me. On his lap, he had little plastic folder with a clear cover, the kind you use to protect a high school report. In the folder, visible through the plastic, was a page of lined notebook paper with elaborate written directions.

The directions were complicated, confusing, and written in the handwriting of a semi-literate person. Each line was indented a bit from the prior one, so that the margins sloped off to the right. They were also reassuring (“Don’t worry about price.” “Find a pay phone and call me if you get lost.”) and heartbreaking. In short, they described how to take the #11 bus to Safeway, buy a large container of Mongolian beef with rice and then walk down the hill to the AIDs hospice for a visit. Was the Mongolian beef for the boy or for the person he was going to visit? Was he visiting a mother? An uncle? And, somehow, I found myself wondering, why Mongolian beef? The specificity of it was maybe the most moving thing: was this the only dish the patient could stomach? The one she or he knew to be most reliable? Or this week's craving?

He looked like a “good boy,” nervously craning his neck as the bus mounted the hills and descended the valleys that separate downtown from Madison Park and the note, so trusting and touching and thorough seemed to confer virtue on him.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Sing it, Sappho

There's a new poem by Sappho--101 lines! That makes four. I used to be skeptical about her: I did not want to read the fragmentary work of anyone. But then I remembered: hey! I love modernism! I'm a feminist! Maybe I should check her out. OMG: the fragments are terrific. (And yes, I know that I'm receiving them in their modernist translations. The Victorian translations are far less to my taste.) Still, how thrilling to read "Equal to the gods"--so direct in its observation that he who sits next to the beloved is so blessed as to be "equal to the gods."

I haven't read Erica Jong's Sappho book, but I can recommend Yopie Prins' Victorian Sappho for a great, learned, scholarly history on what the Victorians did (and did not do) with this unruly, sublime, erotic woman poet.

You can read about the new poem on the Guardian website. (Link via Randa, Moorish Girl's gal Friday.)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Heading Back East

The beloved toddler and I head back East tomorrow and, as with every journey, I feel a little rip in my heart. Years ago, I made a fast friend on a summer course at Oxford (she was my teacher and I fell in love with her mind, her sense of humor, her energy). On leaving, she consoled me with the notion that instead of leaving her behind, I now had a loved one in a new place, one that, before then, I had never visited before.

With every journey, I think about this conversation and the metaphor from Mrs. Dalloway of one’s friends being attached to one by a thin thread. I imagine my heart as a globe. Every departure makes a little tear but the tear heals into a strengthening scar, so that each place where I have loved ones becomes a raised bump on the map of my heart, the thickest places being the ones endowed not with the biggest population but the most love and connection. Then, each journey, too, is like a thread, binding the globe of my heart more tightly, protecting it in a new way against future tears (and tears). That Seattle to Jersey City thread is getting thicker by the moment.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


I am a huge fan of pirates and adventure stories. I remember reading Swiss Family Robinson and Kidnapped as a child and loving them. I also remember begging my dad for a pirate story with girls in it. He grinned and handed me more Robert Louis Stevenson. (Now, heaven be praised, we have Dora. Bless her.)

With my parents in Seattle after the Woolf Conference, I raved about having seen Ponting’s footage from Scott’s fatal journey to the South Pole (he died on the return, having arrived shortly after the Norwegians): we have to get these DVDs!

“Have you seen Shackleton?” my father asked. “It’s with Kenneth Branagh.”

Well, I have now. All six hours of it. Amazing. It’s great movie every way—beautiful with moving music; terrific acting; Branagh particularly good and moving and heroic. (I think it was a miniseries on A&E.) And I’m a convert to adventuring and exploring. (Although don’t expect me to embark on any myself.)

For sure there is more to be said about the long-suffering wife at home but, on the balance, I would send a child or spouse off to do some dangerous exploring before sending him or her off to war. Woolf speculates on the Freudian idea that perhaps violence is innate. If we do away with war, where do we put the impulse to violence? Adventure! Ship ahoy!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Overheard, Madison Park Edition

Here in Seattle my local—one of them, anyway—is a Starbucks in a tony neighborhood. It’s one of those upper middle class enclaves where all the women are fit and on their way to tennis while all the men are distinguished and coming back from golf. Although we are near downtown and well within city limits, it looks like a Connecticut suburb here. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Needless to say, what I overhear here is different than in Jersey City or Columbus Circle.

This morning, a man in his forties slumped down into a chair, setting a roll of blueprints on the table. Two others joined him, then, a woman in her fifties in a tennis skirt. Tennis’ husband started explaining to architect and contractor why his blood pressure was boiling. Slumpy guy began his rebuttal with, “In my defense, and I’m not being defensive”: never a good sign. In short, it was a riveting, distracting trainwreck.

I was relieved when they left and tan man in golf shirt offered a friendly greeting to young puppy in a polo shirt. Imagine my alarm, then, when tan man says, “So, where are the electrical plans?”

“They are being drawn up at this very minute, let me assure you…”

On the East Coast, Dave is weighing in on the whole issue of overseeing and working in public, too.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Woolf Conference, 4: The Journey (Kelp)

Amtrak was ninety minutes late pulling out of Seattle, so I went to Uwajimaya and got myself a little sushi box and some wasabi peas. The train ride down made up for the delay: the tracks run right along the water from Tacoma down to the southernmost bit of Puget Sound.

Every time I come home, there is a moment when I experience the sublime. I feel a little involuntary gasp of intense pleasure and then think, automatically, why did I ever leave this beautiful, blessed spot of earth? It used to come when the plane landed: I would arrive home from college teary-eyed. Recently, I got it on I-5, headed South, just before the Roanoke Exit (magical words for me), with the Olympics to my right behind Queen Anne (a beloved hill for embarrassingly vain reasons, alas), the Cascades to my left behind Montlake, the lovely Capitol Hill rising before me, a glimpse of Puget Sound and the Space Needle and a peekaboo view of Mount Rainier: the best sight in the world, I think.

This time, however, it was kelp. Humble kelp. An enormous tangle of the monstrous brown stuff lay in the shallow water just outside my train window. How I love the sight.

We pulled into Portland at 4:00. It was sunny and 70 degrees. The baby-faced conductor welcomed us to “The City of Roses” and my seat companion, an elderly gentleman who had graduated from Broadway High School, a rival of my own, cracked “Sweet talk won’t help you,” as we were now two hours late. Still, sure enough, just outside the train station, the air was redolent with the scent of roses, blooming everywhere, welcoming us in.

That’s enough about the journey. Suffice it to say that the three-hour delay on the return cannot be tamed into romance. There was no intelligent elderly companion, no kelp, no roses, just a weary, bleary slog into the industrial heart of Seattle late, late at night.

Friday, June 17, 2005

I love Dorothea

[cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

Don Quixote continues to be a revelation but this most recent discovery is one of my favorites so far: Dorothea. Why have we not been talking about her all these years? When people make lists of favorite heroines in fiction, why is she not high among them? She is fantastic.

We come upon her, dressed as a page, bathing in the wilds where both Don Quixote and Cardenio have chosen to do their penance in the name of love. (And that idea, in itself, of a wild place just teaming with nobles in shepherd garb flagellating themselves and mourning broken hearts is hilarious: I can see it, Monty Python-style, now…) Her beauty is peerless. She unpins her hair and it is long, blonde, and flowing. She washes her foot and it is whiter than marble. So far so good, but a little dull.

Then she tells her tragic story: she has been seduced and abandoned by the very man who was to wed Luscinda. I’m trying to keep this straight myself, so I’ll go slowly. Cardenio is in this desolate place because his girlfriend, Luscinda, was married off to another. That other man is a reckless seducer. Dorothea is a trusting girl whom he has seduced. Ruined and ashamed, she flees to the wilds. Merrily, tragically, the men all see that they can set this all right: Luscinda’s wedding never did take place and Cardenio is free to return to his beloved (looking a little foolish and untrusting but assured of a virtuous virgin bride nonetheless) and, hoorah! now Dorothea can marry the man who raped her. No one within the story seems to see the ickiness of this. And that might be the end of the story: again, sorry, dated, conventional, and predictable.

But then, Dorothea emerges to play a starring role in the “main” plot (it does not feel very central at this point), convincing Don Quixote to put his clothes back on and return to civilization. Pretending to be the Princess Micomicon (and, hilariously, forgetting her own fake name and turning to her companions for a prompt), she gets him to promise to slay a dragon (a sea monster?) on her behalf as a ruse to get him back home. That’s good and full of the dramatic spirit and sense of adventure that allowed her to run away in disguise in the first place. But then, returning to the infamous inn, the center of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s humiliations, she listens to the innkeeper’s defense of romance novels. He turns out to be nearly as credulous as Don Quixote and it is Dorothea who turns to Cardenio and says that, should we want another knight errant, we wouldn’t need to look far: the innkeeper is just as cracked.

It might seem small, giving Dorothea that line, but, combined with all her other qualities—her nobility, her tragic situation, her beauty, her intelligence, her resourcefulness, her willingness to play along with a practical joke, her acting ability—her sense of humor, her ability to see irony, elevate her above dozens of other, more celebrated fictional heroines. Why, I’m falling in love with her myself. What a great woman! Let’s talk about her more…

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Woolf Conference, 3: The Schedule (Saturday and Sunday edition)

(Happy Bloomsday, by the way!)
Saturday, June 11, 2005
9:00 Woolf and the United States Three interesting, smart, and very funny papers on what is, frankly, an unpromising topic.

11:00 Gender and Feminism I chaired this panel of four interesting and diverse new entries to feminist theory and practices from young scholars:
  • a paper on a minor character in The Voyage Out
  • a brilliant close reading of “In the Orchard” as exemplar of a feminist gift economy
  • ”a performative re-evaluation of…the genre(s) of feminist criticism” which brought the double-columned technique of deconstruction (think Derrida’s Glas) to PowerPoint
  • a discussion of anti-Semitism in The Years

1:00 I got to introduce my friend Doug Mao’s talk, “Strange Necessities” which demonstrated the deep and unacknowledged debt A Room of One’s Own owes to Rebecca West’s 100-page essay, “The Strange Necessity.” He was great.

3:00 Woolf and Publishing Two wonderful, very historical papers on Bloomsbury juvenilia (the little newspapers the children published for their parents) followed by my friend Alice Staveley’s revelatory talk on how feminist criticism can be made to intersect with this archival work on the history of the book and publishing. Over drinks, later, Alice and I reminisced about our meeting at an Oxford summer course on women writers all the way back in 1991!

4:45 Maria DiBattista, “Virginia Woolf’s Sense of Adventure” The third plenary I got to see and another great one. It linked nicely with Leslie’s talk the day before and explored in a rich, generous way, the idea of a sense of adventure. I feel that sense strongly in Woolf’s work but she traveled so little and so conventionally (no exotic locales, donkeys and pack horses only rarely) that it has been hard for me to make the case for it before now. But Maria thinks about adventure is both essential (citing Alfred North Whitehead’s 1933 book, Adventures in Ideas which names adventure as a necessity of civilization, right up with beauty, truth, art, and peace!) and broad: it need not involve a reckless journey into death at the South Pole.

6:30 banquet dinner The food was good, but it was dry! Decaf and herbal tea do not a banquet make and so, as Woolf’s narrator has to do in A Room of One’s Own it became necessary to repair elsewhere to soften the hard edges of a meal that was a bit less festive than it ought to have been. A few Manhattans in the Westin bar with a garrulous group of eight did the trick.

Sunday, June 12, 2005
10:30 Ethnography, Anthropology, and the Idea of England This was my least favorite of the panels I saw, sad to say, in spite of some good moments and strong papers. But, then, even Homer nods and even I, toward the end of a glorious orgy of talk, can get a bit testy. The blame rests on my ears, not the speakers’ talk.

After lunch, 1:00, the closing plenary session, Christine Froula, “On French and British Freedoms: Early Bloomsbury Many folks had already headed home and this was their loss. Christine’s new book is, I think now the book of Woolf criticism to read if you’re going to read only one. This work comes after the book and began, she told me afterwards, when she was asked to speak in Portugal (…oh! I long for the day when I can utter such a phrase…) in honor of the 100th anniversary of the first Bloomsbury gathering.

Woolf scholars often quote her “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” and a smaller cadre of Woolfians has worked on the impact of sexual abuse (at the hand of her half-brother, the infamous George Duckworth) on Woolf’s life and art. This talk pushed the date of Bloomsbury and the change back to 1904-06 and linked Woolf’s emergence into artistry with her escape from her half-brother’s gropings. It was moving, persuasive, hard to listen to, and riveting. It offered an amazing link and a devastating critique of those who claim (as some apparently do) that, because women had no experience in brothels they cannot be real modernists because the real change of modernism (exemplified by the Circe/Nighttown section of Ulysses or Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon comes from contact with prostitutes.

This was a great talk and a dazzling finish to an overwhelmingly stimulating four days.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Woolf Conference, 2: The Schedule (Thursday and Friday edition)

Thursday, June 9, 2005
4:00 Arrived in Portland two hours late, missing the first plenary talk (by Diane Gillespie, emerita of Washington State University) but in time for…

6:00 The Wine and cheese reception. The conference was at Lewis and Clark College, in South Portland. The campus is truly glorious, a former estate, and the reception was at what must have been the stables, now converted and restored into an empty hall, U-shaped, with a cobblestone courtyard. It looked like Sissinghurst, Vita Sackville-West’s home, to me. The creamy stucco was new and the cobbles were old, the beer was a great PNW microbrew, and the cheese cubes were, well, campus catering cheese cubes. I ran into old friends who introduced me to new folks and we chatted and drank until around 9, when I retired to the dormitory.

Friday, June10, 2005
9:00 “A Bloom of One’s Own: Exploring Bloomsbury Through Altered Books” I love altered books (although I don’t know if, before now, I could have told you that that was the name for them. Discovering Tom Philips’ A Humument was a great day for me. Besides, I didn’t want to go to an intellectual panel right before my own. (This panel, like most of the others, was just one of six or seven simultaneous ones. I would guess there are about 200 people at the conference.) Elisa Kay Sparks of Clemson described Philips as the father and scrapbooking as the mother of this new movement (provocative and funny and worthy of its own further consideration as feminist literary history) and then explained how she had assigned her grad students the task of creating an altered book (as an alternative to a journal). She showed off her own altered book and two students walked us through theirs.

11:00 Woolf and ‘Influence’ I gave my paper in between lovely papers on connections between Woolf’s pacifism and Tolstoy’s and the significance and preponderance of sewing metaphors in Woolf.

After lunch, 2:00 Virginia Woolf and Expeditions in Art and Film Leslie Hankins connected Mr. Ramsay’s fantasy of leading a polar expedition in To the Lighthouse with Ponting’s films of Scott’s fatal journey to the South Pole: very moving. Suzanne Bellamy showed slides of her nine years of printmaking and painting related to Woolf: moving and amazing to remember seeing her, nervous and unsure, nine years ago, presenting her work for the first time. I’ve seen her many times since and love watching her come into her own, talking about Woolf and printmaking and her lesbian feminist activism and life in the Australian bush.

4:00 Jed Esty’s Plenary Talk: “Unseasonable Youth, or Woolf’s Alternative Modernity” This was a dazzler, an amazing terrific talk (by a beloved friend, which is all the better), trying to answer the local questions on The Voyage Out, Woolf’s odd first novel: Why initiate possibilities only to have them end in death (as happens to the heroine)? Why stage this in South America (where Woolf never went)? And then, he put them in the larger context of the modernist bildungsroman, listing all the modernist character who seem like they should grow up but never do (Dorian Gray, Stephen Dedalus, Lord Jim, etc.).

5:30 a yummy Mediterranean buffet dinner with tapenade! Hooray for Lewis and Clark and the PNW, where campus catering is healthy and fun and not so cookie cutter safe.

6:30 Kathleen Worley’s one-woman show, “Virginia Woolf: A Spark of Fire. I’m an easy sell on these things—I’ve liked some pretty unpopular and loony performance pieces—but this was beyond great. Better than Eileen Atkins. Like being at a séance (in a good way). She stitched together texts from novels, stories, essays, and letters to create a rich celebration of Woolf’s life and art and, bless her, it did not end with a suicide but with a celebration of her achievement. I cannot really emphasize enough how terrific everyone thought this was. One sign of her excellence is that each of the next three plenary speakers stopped themselves in the middle of their talks to compliment her performance (I wish I could read this quote as well as Kathleen had, those of you lucky enough to hear Kathleen’s performance of this passage recall… etc.).

Then, a little bar-hopping with friends in the Pearl District.

I’m sure you’ve had your fill, but we’re only half way there. Stayed tuned for tomorrow’s edition…

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Book Meme

My mom, one of my best readers, doesn’t like memes so I have a weird feeling of rebellion in doing this. She likes the complete thought kind of blogging better. Still, I agree with Bud: some memes, like this do the thing that blogging’s meant to do—encourage a lively social life. Sorry, mom.

Thanks to Genevieve (at you cried for night) for passing this through:

Total number of books I've owned: I grew up in a house with a library so collecting seems as normal as, well, having a little wine and cheese before dinner on Fridays. I’m blogging from Seattle, so I can’t count. But there are:
  • about fifteen boxes in storage in upstate New York (books for the beloved toddler to inherit when she comes to read),
  • two more boxes of precious children’s books in my mother-in-law’s house (my father’s Wyeth-illustrated Robert Louis Stevenson, etc.),
  • two tall groaning shelves, often double-stacked, in my closet-cum-office at school,
  • and at least six full-size shelves of books in our home.
Those six shelves are ours not mine, but I’m the collector and packrat of our partnership for sure.

Last book I bought: I was bold (extravagant?) and ordered Ekow Eshun’s Black Gold of the Sun from British Amazon after reading reviews on the web.

Last book I read: Lan Samantha Chang’s novella Hunger in the book by that name.

Last book I finished: Technically, Nina Laden’s terrific Ready, Set, Go but, like Bud, I’m assuming board books for toddlers don’t count. Hermione Lee’s essay’s on biography, Virginia Woolf’s Nose: I’m reviewing it for biography.

Five (welll, six) books that mean a lot to me:
  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own for the sheer amazing beauty of the prose. I study and study and marvel and marvel. The sentences are gorgeous, passionate, allusive, funny, and, best of all, generously intelligent.
  2. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway for the incredible experience of loving a book whose main character you neither love nor identify with. I have come to love Clarissa Dalloway—I may have loved her from the start—but what moves me most about the book is not her but the writing and the idea of a novel that moves because of the sheer artfulness of the writing was—and continues to be--a revelation to me.
  3. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice for turning my head with the idea of romance as a place of wit and charm, for letting me live as Elizabeth Bennett for a few crucial years (age 17 to 20 or so) until, as I’ve written before, Emma (and James’ Portrait of a Lady) helped me move on.
  4. James Baldwin, Another Country for helping me understand the possibilities and dangers of the world I wanted to live in: a world in which each creates a family out of friendships and friendships cross lines of sex, race, sexuality, and class. I read this book in high school and it described the grown-up version of the life I was living. It made me feel the little tense utopia we had was possible to maintain into adulthood. That, in fact, it had been done before. It changed my life.
  5. William Butler Yeats, Complete Poems for being the first poet I chose on my own to learn from A to Z.
  6. Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions for helping me change the lives of my students, for reminding me of the hunger to become educated and the privilege of being so.

I’m late to this meme so I won’t pass it further but thanks, Genevieve. I love these desert-island-disk questions.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Woolf Conference, 1: The Chronicle

I’ve just returned from the greatest four days of my working year: the Virginia Woolf Conference and I’ll be unpacking my thoughts all week. Why is this conference so important to me? How could an orgy of talk with other admirers of my favorite writer be anything else? Realizing that I have attended all or part of ten of the fifteen years, made me want to start off with a simple chronicle of some of the most vivid moments.

  1. 1991: Pace University, New York: eating cheese cubes in the lobby, straining to overhear the words of famous folks
  2. 1992: Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven: gamboling with my fellow panelists in a sunny field near the book barn
  3. 1993: Lincoln College, Jefferson City, MO: driving a borrowed black station wagon from the East coast singing to Liza Minelli with my dear friend (who has something I don't--a great voice!)
  4. 1994: Bard College, Avondale-on-Hudson, NY: touring Val-Kill and enjoying the strain of connecting Woolf with Eleanor Roosevelt
  5. 1995: Otterbein College
  6. 1996: Clemson University, Clemson South Carolina: listening to a friend discourse on the necessities and challenges of vegetarianism while trying to find a quick lunch in town
  7. 1997: Plymouth State College, Plymouth New Hampshire: smuggling supplies into the dorm for a great impromptu party
  8. 1998: St. Louis University, Saint Louis
  9. 1999: University of Delaware, Newark, DE: sitting on the steps, overlooking the grand campus boulevard, talking with my dear friend and her eminent, generous advisor
  10. 2000: University of Maryland, Baltimore County: having to go home early with flu and missing Michael Cunningham’s talk
  11. 2001: University of Wales, Bangor: runs through the hilly, mossy, rose-filled town
  12. 2002: Sonoma State University (opted not to mix early pregnancy with a trip to wine country)
  13. 2003: Smith College (reluctant to leave the beloved babe, even for Smith)
  14. 2004: University College, London—lunching in the British Museum, just feet from the round reading room where Woolf set her most famous critique of patriarchy
  15. 2005: Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR—The twin glories of Woolf and my homeland, the Pacific Northwest.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

More African Literature

If you haven’t been lately, hop over to Black Looks. There’s a link to a great photo essay on modern Nigeria. No long vistas of savanna with antelope here. Instead, you’ll find great contemporary fabric printed with camcorders and cell phones. Also, a nice discussion of a new book, Ekow Eshun’s Black Gold of the Sun. Eshun was born in England in 1968 and the book recounts his journey to Africa where he was not recognized as an African but seemed white.

I love V. S. Naipaul's splenetic accounts of England and India, James Baldwin's bewildered disconnect from Africa (and his equally bewildered sense of deep connection to Ingmar Bergman, whom he visited in Stockholm, and, as you know, Andrea Levy. I bet I'll like Eshun's book. I'll let you know.

(Eshun’s book is also reviewed here and here.)


It’s an obsession, but I haven’t yet figured out how to write about food. Andrea Strong has, and I gobble The Strong Buzz every Monday. Full of typos and long, windy digressions about her cool friends and bad dates, she also has great ideas about food and good taste. It is true, as someone else noted, that she is an easy grader, but it’s delicious fun to read her enthusiastic weekly review, giving us the whole picture of what a night out at a certain place is like. There’s always a great, odd line, too, like this one:
Things got off to a terrific but teary start with a platter of fantastic deep-fried Frog’s Legs ($13). Just pretend they are chicken if you are squeamish about the Kermit issue, and eat them.

“The Kermit issue.” I love that.

Then, Gawker pointed me to this great review over at The Black Table, comparing high end Chinese with regular old ordinary Chinese. It’s funny and ends up making the same point Calvin Trillin made in a recent Gourmet: good dumplings are worth traveling for and often exist in humble spots.

In 1929, Woolf chastised novelists for neglecting the role of food in our lives. They may still do so, but M. F. K. Fisher is no longer our only great food writer. Everyone raves about Johnny Apple (that’s R. W. Apple to most of us—I only just figured that out) and many tease Frank Bruni. What makes good food writing?

I like a nice balance of knowledge and enthusiasm with no Puritanism and minimal orthodoxy. You?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


While everyone else is abuzz with news of BEA in New York, I have snuck west to Seattle for three weeks. It's my own private Yaddo: mom tends to the beloved toddler while I write. Instead of going to a conference on the book industry, I spent the weekend before at a conference on teaching students to write and will spend this coming weekend in lovely Portland at the Fifteenth Annual International Virginia Woolf Conference. In keeping with my low profile smallness, my conferences take me far afield, firmly in the realm of reading with a small r, literature with a big L, and, well, just about no money changing hands at all.

Having stopped by my friend’s booth at the National Stationery Show at the Javits Center last month (booths and booths of sex-in-the-city, why-French-women-don’t-get-fat, Kate Spade-inspired pseudo-charm mingled with horse cards and odd tarot), I have an inkling of the disorienting fabulousness of a huge show, where books on Spam are ranged alongside masterpieces. I find the book display at the MLA sufficiently sobering.

But how I love conferences! The new acquaintances, the celebrities, the old friends, the chance to talk with enthusiasm about one’s passions without fear of sniggering from your companions. I even—if you can imagine—kind of like staying in dorm rooms (as I often do at these smaller events), although they never have desk lamps and it is really tough to do a bit of bedtime reading under a huge, buzzing fluorescent glare. At the Woolf Conference in New Hampshire, I snuck a huge bottle of Maker’s Mark into the dorm and hosted quite a fete. In London last summer, we closed down a hotel bar in Bloomsbury and staggered to Covent Garden to make sure a friend got back safely. Not all of the fun involves drinking, either. At the very first one, at Pace, I watched a very melodramatic speech, ending in tears, only to hear a more cynical elder stage-whisper “Do you think she cries every time? The next year, in New Haven, I put together a panel with some friends. A young woman came in to see us talk and walked out in a huff, seeing we were so young, “I thought you were going to be real Yale people…”

Elsewhere on the web: Thanks to Dan Wickett, we have a genuinely engaging comparison between first books and first babies by Rachael Perry. You might also want to check out The Flaneur (via Ready Steady Book) and fantasize about joining them in a small absinthe. Book Coolie raves about Suicide Notes and you know I love Book Coolie. Then, I found the Hapa Project and Penguin Remixes so long ago, I can’t figure out how I got there. But, if you want to spend time looking at some cool remixes and hybridizations, check out these sites. The former looks at the self-image of people of mixed racial heritage; the latter, offers a chance to mix some great spoken word tracks with some groovy backbeats for a funky, literary club mix. I don’t dare go back for fear of getting sucked in.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Will you read my stuff?

I try to say no, I really do. But in the end, curiosity and the desire to be (or be seen as) a good friend overcomes me. I say yes. And then, in my box, sit screenplays and poems and stories. There they sit. Reminding me of my lack of industry, of the difference between uttering a cheerful yes and actually finding the time to read. So, I feel bad for a long time. And then, I sit down to read. The poems are dazzling, the stories, caustic and crackling with original resentment and intelligence, the screenplay, richly imagined, commercial and fun. My friends are good writers, smart people, and well able to succeed at that trick of drawing an audience into their world. And my book, well, when it comes out, I have a growing number of folks who might just read it. But please, until September first, just don’t ask if I’ll read your stuff…

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Small Island

I finished Small Island today, wiping away tears on the E train uptown at 9:30 this morning. It’s a substantial, moving novel. I feel like I’m last to the party on this one, but I’ll write a little bit about it nonetheless. It concerns two married couples, one black and Jamaican, one white. Neither couple is well-matched and the unhappiness, the bad fit of their marriages drives the plot. The Jamaicans are part of the Windrush generation, the Caribbean WWII veterans (and the women they brought with them) who came to England in 1948 in search of work. While war-ravaged England had work for non-white immigrants, it didn’t have much place for them to live.

That’s where the book takes place, in 1948 when Queenie, whose husband Bernard has not returned from duty in India, takes in Gilbert and, later, Hortense, his wife as lodgers. The small island refers first to the “boys” from islands smaller than Jamaica but, ultimately, to England itself, a small island full of residents ignorant of “their” empire, petty-minded toward the soldiers who’d fought to defend it.

The structure is pretty straightforward, but the book doesn’t feel schematic: in fact, it took me quite a while to see clearly how she had done it. We are with each of the four characters “Before” and in “1948.” They’re flawed people who face big obstacles. The depictions of racism in England are disturbing but the depictions of the evil and small-minded actions of the American G.I.s were even more painful for me to read because they ring so true. There’s an amazing scene of a small race riot when Americans try to impose Jim Crow laws on a movie theater.

Reading the conclusion today, I was moved by Gilbert, the Jamaican veteran, who gives an amazing speech against racism. I was so moved, in fact, that, as much as I’d been longing for Levy to give her characters a chance at vindication and self defense, I thought this was perhaps going a little far. I turned the page, and the weaselly Bernard just shrugs, utterly unwilling and unable to understand his accent. That seemed like a lovely comic touch that also brought one of the book’s points—about the difficulty of recognizing intelligence in the face of difference (of race, of accent, of language)--home.

This is a rich, character-driven novel that’s set in a beautifully rendered, bleak post-war London. What a treat!

You can read an interview with Andrea Levy on the Orange Prize page.