Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Whaddaya do when yua not shua?

So asks the priest in the opening line of a sermon on doubt that’s also the opening line of Shanley’s amazing and deservedly lauded Broadway play, Doubt. The thick sixties Bronx accent, coming out of the mouth of a sweet-faced, fully-kitted out young priest (Brian O’Byrne) sets the tone for the play: far funnier than I’d expected.

I knew, ahead of time, the story: in a Catholic junior high school in the Bronx, 1964, a nun suspects a priest of improprieties with a young student, the first black student at the school. What course of action should she take in the absence of evidence?

What I didn’t expect was for the play to be so amazingly funny, so deeply moving, and so much richer for the humor than it might have been. A solemn play about sexual abuse hardly sounds entertaining or cathartic, but this funny and troubling one with three incredibly sympathetic characters will stay with me for a very long time.

The third character, Sister James, a young, enthusiastic and intelligent nun, is the foil for the audience as she shuttles between young priest, eager to bring the church into the modern era, and the older nun, Sister Aloysius (the magnificent, towering Cherry Jones), who clings to the virtues of tradition, discipline, and distance. Watching this play with my mother-in-law (a retired ninth-grade English teacher) and my husband (also a professor) only emphasized for me how much this is a play about what kind of teacher one wants to be, about the dangers of making friends with students and the dangers of being feared by them. When Sister James is told that her enthusiasm for history may put other subjects at a disadvantage, she immediately promises to feign greater enthusiasm for other subjects. No! comes the swift counsel: just teach, don’t enthuse.

I may pretend that I’m thinking about the ways in which the play itself offers a prehistory of the church’s current sexual abuse scandal but I’m thinking as much about how the nun makes clear that the priest’s request for sugar—three lumps!—is read as a sign of decadence or her speech on the ball point pen as a sign of general social decay. Painful, insane, hilarious.

  1. The brilliant, sharp and admirable Katha Pollitt takes on Maureen Dowd,
  2. Fareed Zakaria celebrates Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia’s new president) as part of a larger international trend of women in politics (oh, let it be so! Oh, let the US join in!). Most heartening of all, he notes that, internationally, women in power seem to be fulfilling the dreams of the early feminist-pacifists: “There is growing evidence that, at the very least, where women make up a significant percentage of government, they tend to hold priorities that are different from men's. The World Economic Forum found…that women wanted more money for health care, education and social welfare, and less for the military.”
  3. although Uma offers a discouraging international reminder of the real plight of ordinary women who are not President, and
  4. Bud Parr launches Metaxu CafĂ©, a compendium of the best of the litblogs—check it out! (He explains the name here.)


Monday, November 28, 2005

John Patrick Shanley

We went to see Doubt on Friday with my visiting mother-in-law. It was wonderful—so terrifically funny, so I enjoyed it more than I had expected. I’ll write more about it soon, but before then, I just want to doff my cap to the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, whose “Who’s Who” is pretty wonderful. From the program:
JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY Playwright is from the Bronx. He was thrown out of St. Helena’s kindergarten. He was banned from St. Anthony’s hot lunch program for life. He was expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School. He was placed on academic probation by New York University and instructed to appear before a tribunal if he wished to return. When asked why he had been treated this way by all these institutions, he burst into tears and said he had no idea. Then he went in the United States Marine Corps. He did fine. He’s still doing okay.

That made my week.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

You’re always sorry,
You’re always grateful,
You always wonder what might have been…

Lucky, lucky me! Two of my very, very best friends are in town for Thanksgiving so yesterday and today I got to have long, leisurely, loud, giggling lunches. Incredible. There are no friends like the old close ones. What a lift.

I miss those grad school days of dinner parties and long walks and talks so much. It feels hard to know that some of my dearest are by no means my nearest, that not only is family in Seattle, but beloved friends are in Ohio, Virginia, Rome, Tel Aviv. What would my life have been like could we have stayed together beyond our twenties, if getting jobs didn’t mean dispersing across the globe…

But then, when I look at the map, I imagine all the little flags, not of conquest but of connection.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Someone must have put vinegar in my coffee today because I am not my usual sunny self. So, when the editorial assistant working on my book emailed me yesterday to say that "marketing" would like me to change the title, I wrote back to say that, well as I understood the importance of marketing, I felt that marketing was wrong and, furthermore, that I would not brainstorm three alternate titles before Thanksgiving.

Perhaps "marketing" has some alternates to propose.

I don't exactly feel better; I expect to lose; but I just could not cave in without an ardent protest.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Julia Briggs’s new biography of Woolf

I went to hear Julia Briggs talk about her new biography of Woolf on Friday night at Barnes & Noble on 82nd & Broadway. (Curtis Sittenfeld reviewed the book on Sunday in the Times: she liked it.) I arranged to meet Mark and Vara, old friends and esteemed Woolfians, in the W-section of Barnes and Noble at 5:30 for the 7:00 reading. From there, we planned to get a drink and return in time for the reading. Strangely, at 5:30 there were already eight or nine people seated in the folding chairs, awaiting Julia’s arrival. Devoted Woolfians though we are, an hour and a half of waiting in a folding chair has no appeal. We headed over to Amsterdam for a cozier chat.

The talk was well-attended and interesting but it was definitely—and rightly—pitched to the general audience for whom the book is written. I love Julia—she is a great scholar and teacher and incredibly generous with her students and, more remarkably, with people like me who meet as a friend of a student. Years ago, it was Julia who listened patiently to my nascent plans for a book and said, “well, if you’re going to do Woolf and the Romantics, you have to do Byron, don’t you? That’s the influence that’s really worth figuring out.” Without knowing anything about Byron beyond gossip, I knew immediately that she was right and that, I would have to go beyond Woolf’s easy-to-comprehend love of Keats or even her more intellectual fondness for Coleridge. Anyone who reads here regularly will know that Byron is a bit of an obsession here at Fernham. I have Julia to thank.

The forty people there ranged from Jane Marcus, a grand-dame of American Woolf scholarship (She wrote Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy and Art and Anger among other things.) to dozens of middle-aged readers who love The Hours. There were about forty folks in all—a good turnout, I thought, for 7:00 on Friday night and a new biography of Woolf. The questions were sweet and not too annoying but they were far from academic: What did Woolf look like? Did she believe in God? What’s your favorite Woolf novel? Was she influenced by Sterne? By Henry James?

Before things got started, we waved at Jane, said hello, and then Mark and she conferred about official editing matters. When Mark rejoined us, he said “Jane wants to know if we’re all coming over for a drink after the reading. I said you probably couldn’t, Anne.” What? I was all over that. Needless to say, I went, we went, and the hour of wine & cheese and cheesecake with Jane and Julia and a few others beat the reading by miles!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Women Carrying Sticks: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

In today’s Times, Liberian-born journalist Helene Cooper writes about what the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the Presidency of Liberia this week might mean for poor African women continent-wide. (The Times covers the election here and Black Looks weighs in with a reminder that a woman did lead Liberia in 1996-7). Cooper’s is a wonderful editorial, in part because she willingly notes that, traveling the continent
to write about poverty and development ... everywhere I went, from Accra, Ghana, to Mekele, Ethiopia and Kisumu, Kenya, I kept thinking that none of those places, for all of their endemic poverty or corruption, seemed as bad off as my own home country, Liberia.
She finds poverty on a Liberian scale in Bukavu, Congo where the plight of the women seems particularly harsh. In light of Johnson-Sirleaf’s victory, Cooper writes of her desire to “go back to Bukavu to find that woman, and to tell her what just happened in Liberia. I want to tell her this: Your time will come, too.”

You might wonder how bad this poverty is, and Cooper renders it simply and affectingly:
What struck me most, though, in Bukavu were the women. As I drove into the city, I passed women I have known all of my life. There were old women - old in Africa means 35 or so - with huge bundles of bamboo sticks on their back. In most cases, the burdens were larger than the backs carrying them as they trudged up one hill after another.
The parenthetical (old in Africa means 35 or so) is, of course, devastating to her educated American audience where 35 is a good time to start having a family, not old age. And that vision of women who, here, are the subject of “Sex and the City” bent double under loads of firewood reminds us of the global gap. This passage immediately brought to mind a parallel one from Orwell’s essay “Marrakech” (1939):
But what is strange about these people is their invisibility. For several weeks, always at about the same time of day, the file of old women had hobbled past the house with their firewood, and though they had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had seen them. Firewood was passing—that was how I saw it. It was only that one day I happened to be walking behind them…I noticed the poor old earth-coloured bodies, bodies reduced to bones and skin, bent double under the crushing weight. Yet I suppose I had not been five minutes on the Morroccan soil before I noticed the overloading of the donkeys and was infuriated by it.

Orwell’s antiseptic prose can be hard to take when you get used to writers who present themselves as ethically correct. Where Cooper is sly and generous, Orwell honestly offers an account of his own failing. What seems a failure of eyesight becomes a failure of moral imagining, as Orwell knows and as he bravely lets us see, too. By comparing his own blindness to the women with his outrage at the donkeys’s treatment, he only underscores the plight of these women, so wholly invisible to him for so long, now, thanks to his vision, impossible to forget.

With all of this you might think that I had left old Maureen Dowd and her grim assessment of the blithe willingness of American college students to plan their Stepford-wife futures and all those secretary-marrying educated men (so foolish as not to marry her, I guess) pretty far behind. Well, I have and I haven’t. I find myself more in sympathy with Amardeep Singh, who likes Dowd on the balance, than with the sharp and hilarious Uma, who finds her concerns petty and laughable. I cannot quite put my finger on the link I want to draw, that needs to be drawn—something more than just the observation, true though it may be, that women are nowhere seen as first-class citizens and that women don’t even often see themselves that way. Maybe it’s as simple as this: some of us know that in 2005, in Bukavu, Congo, there is a woman for whom life means carrying “so many logs that her chest almost seemed to touch the ground, so stooped was her back. Still, she trudged on, up the hill toward her home. Her husband was walking just in front of her. He carried nothing. Nothing in his hand, nothing on his shoulder, nothing on his back. He kept looking back at her, telling her to hurry up.” Knowing that, it is hard to imagine how a young American woman could sit in the halls of a great university, living in the bland hope of life as an educated housewife. Perhaps, too, we Americans should think about what it means that the only woman president we can imagine is in a one-hour primetime network slot.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

John Fowles

I learned about Fowles’ death from Mrs. Bookworld’s rather cheeky (and, as always, correct) rebuttal to the BBC. (The BBC took UK bloggers to task for not dropping everything and immediately blogging about his death; Mrs. Bookworld notes that the purpose of her—of most—litblog is to record personal obsessions and enthusiasms and opinions and not necessarily to commemorate every worthy’s passing.) (Mark Sarvas collects reminscences here.)

It wasn’t until I read Jenny’s great post on the rather horrifying misogyny of his journals that I decided to write a post of my own. Like many, I came to the wonderful French Lieutenant’s Woman through the film. Those were the days in which Streep and Irons could do no wrong and that haunting hooded cape, those great misty shots, moved me. I turned to the book—my father had it in his library—and read it, confused by the contemporary interchapters which, frankly did not interest me much. It as the first book of that sort I’d read.

In 1994, Twentieth Century Literature, a quarterly out of Hofstra, published my first academic article (on, surprise, surprise, A Room of One’s Own). It came out in the issue that also announced the annual award for the best article of the year. The judge had been John Fowles. Of the twenty or so articles he had to choose from, he mentioned mine as one he’d almost chosen but had decided against because he’d always found Woolf so terrifying. In the end, he plumped for an article (also on Woolf) by a man. I was—and still am—frankly kind of amazed that an academic journal runs a contest judged by fiction writers and that John Fowles actually skimmed (and seems to have kind of liked) something of mine. But there was something odd in the kind of honorable mention status he gave my piece that confused me: it felt unfair to be passed over because he was unable to read Woolf and his inability sounded like a pedestrian male, British anti-Woolf reaction, not a thoughtful “she’s not for me.” Further, it seemed weird then to give the prize to another piece on Woolf (though I have no way of judging whether or not it was “better” than mine).

I’m sad that the journal entries—the Guardian (via Jenny) quotes one on the general superfluity of women—offer such an easy and reductive explanation for the odd tone. He just didn’t like women (nor did he find them very necessary—perhaps he and Maureen Dowd could have had a pow-wow).

Elsewhere, on Paris, Moorishgirl notes a chilling little racist lapse in the Times--referring to the rioters as “second- and third-generation immigrants.” As she notes, aren’t the immigrants the ones who have arrived from elsewhere? In fact, for all its failings, France does confer citizenship on people born in France (and then leaves them to figure out the rest for themselves in huge, isolated, inhuman highrises).

Monday, November 14, 2005

Time for a new Room

Will someone please marry Maureen? Using her bully pulpit at The Times, she has managed to spin her inability to find a suitable mate into a national crisis.

Fort Lee, N.J.

This was my favorite among the many witty responses to Maureen Dowd in the Sunday Times magazine. I enjoyed Dowd’s piece, as I have enjoyed Lisa Belkin’s: the interest in gender attitudes among current undergraduates is fascinating. Still, these journalists, while gifted and sympathetic, are just journalists in the end and they always leave me hungry for more.

I think back to Woolf, of course, and her comment that she wrote A Room of One’s Own for the young women—“they seem to get fearfully depressed.” How I long for a new version of that book for today’s young women, who, with their plans of marrying well and staying home with children, seem far from depressed enough.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Paris is Burning

The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon…or too late.—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1967) (translated from the French)

On my first trip to Paris in 1983, I spent a month living with an elderly widow. She got a little money in exchange for boarding me and my French improved over nightly dinner. She warned me about les Noirs and les Arabes and I tried to look away in the face of her racism.

Still, it is impossible to visit Paris and ignore the dozens of African men selling mechanical birds at the base of the Eiffel Tower, the Arab men painting portraits on the Place in front of Notre Dame. And, years later, visiting poorer friends in those high rises on the periphery or going to the Flea Market on a Saturday jaunt, I saw for myself the neighborhoods that are now in flames.

How easily Fanon and Sartre could have predicted this. And what would James Baldwin, whose “Equal in Paris” masterfully compares his relatively humane treatment in a Paris prison with what would have been his fate as a black man in an American prison in the sixties, think? Baldwin’s experience of “equality,” as he likely knew (but partly suppressed) had everything to do with his being American.

The gap between my gut reaction to this violence and what I read and hear from the French government staggers me. While I think back to what little I know of the pain, alienation, poverty, and hopelessness of life for French Africans (citizens and immigrants both), the government seems to speak only of restoring order. Of course, with rioting spreading across the nation, order should be restored, but, eleven days ago when rioters expressed their outrage at two accidental deaths, could not someone have reacted with sympathy instead of defensiveness?

I walked to the train this morning gathering my thoughts about Paris, sending off little disorganized prayers for the people desperate enough to want to make themselves heard through riots. My iPod was on shuffle and when Cheb Hasni came on, the festive and plaintive Algerian music was almost too much. I remember feeling such hope for France and the world, for a strike against jihadists and for cosmopolitanism when I first heard that music on another trip to Paris. This morning, how different it sounded.

On the elevator, a boy bragged to a girl that he already had a topic for his history paper: the Algerian Conflict. “What’s that?” “I don’t know. It was on the list. I picked it because it had a definite start and end date.” So he thinks now, alas, so he thinks now. But, hearing that I felt both saddened and confirmed that the little I can do here from Jersey City—listening to Algerian dance music, flipping through my Fanon and Sartre, writing a little bit about it, sending thoughts of peace and healing and better conditions, opportunities, and rights to Paris—are better than the nothing of not caring what Algeria is, just being glad that, whatever went wrong there is over.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Overheard, Soho Edition

Part One, 9:15 a.m., Prince and Sullivan
Anorexic ageing hippie, Stevie Nicks style, with purple chenille scrunchy atop her long, flowing, greyish black hair: "Hey! Aren't you gong to say hello?"
Thin, male, also in his fifties, catty-corner from Stevie, answers with a far quieter, "hey."
"Did'ja hear? Whatshername and whatshisname got back together!"

Part Two, 10:30 a.m., Balthazar
Fortyish couple breakfasting with her parents. She wears her marathon ribbon and medal (those things are BIG--Olympic-sized). So does Dad. Husband is in a long-sleeved marathon t-shirt. Breakfast is nearly over. She sips champagne; Dad has a mimosa. Mother orders one last cinnamon bun, hands eighty bucks to her son-in-law and proceeds to quiz marathon-running cardiologist daughter all about the heart. Clearly the non-running, pastry-eating mom has had a heart attack or transplant. A riveting conversation follows about the difference between fibrulation (very bad) and an atrial flutter (passing, caused by adrenaline). I listened, riveted (I love doctor talk) whilst manging my sticky-bun and soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers. Yum. Resolve to exercise more. Take the long way home.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Stamina & Coffee Shop Competition

It’s the final stretch here: the long period between midterms and finals during which I rarely find time to read. Days are spent trying to catch up with myself. So, this morning, with no appointments, I went to Starbucks in hopes of grading a few papers. 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl was there, in full make up and a smart red leather blazer, writing. She looked good: smart and serious. Tired as I was, unmotivated as I was, seeing her work away her morning over a latte was somehow cheering and companionable. It is heartening to think that television journalists might occasionally write and, much as I wanted to leave and give up, I made myself stay until she had gone.