Friday, March 31, 2006

A 4-3-4-10

"So, what's the gig here?"
"I've got a 4-3-4-10."
"Yeah. That 4-3-4 is tough, especially when I'm on nights..."
"...but the 10..."
"...yeah, the 10 is sweet.

As far as I can tell, the one good thing about having your wallet stolen--right from your office, no less--is getting a bit of cop-to-security guard argot.

All the security guards here at school are retired NYPD "brass." (That was the other little snippet: "Do you have to be brass to get this gig or can you just be a grunt like me?" Turns out, you have to be brass.)

When I went to leave the office yesterday and found my purse was gone, I walked down a flight to where I'd been trying, fruitlessly, to fax our daughter's health records to her new preschool. The purse wasn't there. Was it down on the third floor, then, where I'd been in a meeting? I kept walking down, and found, in the stairwell, three coupons from my favorite children’s bookstore, my proof of car insurance, and my pens.

Stolen. Damn.

I rushed to the ground level and found the security guard. He came to my office with me, sweetly reminded me how very, very, very dumb it was to leave my door open and my purse unattended even for a moment. I muttered something about preschool pre-registration and the exhausting distraction of endless copyediting and then, seeing my own inanity, just shook my head. He then walked back down the same stairwell and found my purse, minus the wallet but with the checkbook, the iPod, etc. I had my keys and cell phone with me, luckily.

We called the NYPD. And I waited. The guards changed shift. I got to hear them talk over their incident reports. I got to hear them describe me as a grand larceny case. And I learned that the guards here work 4 twelve-hour night shifts, with three days off, 4 twelve-hour day shifts, and then have a ten day break before starting all over again: a 4-3-4-10.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Reading on the Train

Since I’m reading the nominees for the spring selection at the LitBlog Co-op, my train reading has been a little more interesting than usual. Some days, I confess, I hold the book up high so that others can see what a pretty book, what an interesting book, I’m holding (if not reading…).

Usually, however, I’m reading AMNew York or Metro, the freebie commuter newspapers that get passed out at the entrance to the train. They annoy me, but I’ve grown to really love that friendly moment of “hi” and a quick exchange from the AMNew York guy of the moment, so I keep taking the papers.

Whatever I’m reading—or if I’m just listening to music—I always love to look around and see what others are reading. There’s lots of Fay Kellerman and Dan Brown and The Five People You Meet in Heaven to be sure, but I’m surprised at how many people are earnestly reading the Bible or a small devotional at all times of the day. A lot of people are studying, reading fat law books and textbooks. Recently, I saw a little girl, about seven, flying through some really dumb worksheets from school, spending about fifteen seconds on each page, jamming them back into her enormous backpack as she finished as if she were in a homework race.

More people than you might expect are reading really interesting books—books that were popular five or ten years ago that they’re just getting to, classics, underground (ha!) hits.

The one reader, however, who sticks with me most is an Asian woman in her fifties. I saw her three times in the last car at 9:15 in the morning. She was Upper East Side socialite skinny in tight jeans. She had really complicated hair: very long bangs that were thin and curled out from her forehead and then a series of poofs and bunches on the top of her head, geisha-like. She got on the uptown B/D at 42nd and rode to Columbus Circle with me, reading a yellowed copy of a Pelican history of the height of the Dutch Empire.

It’s been a few months, but I still think of her, with her elaborately made-up eyes and her serious, serious book.

I am curious about her: everything in her appearance seemed calculated to make you guess she was primarily interested in appearances and there she was, with more patience for serious nonfiction than most, certainly than me.

To lower the tone considerably, she does put me in mind of that great song, “Zip,” in which (the peerless) Elaine Stritch sings in the voice of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee explaining what she thinks about while she strips:
I was reading Schopenhauer last night,
And I think that Schopenhauer was right.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Books to Eat

I'm slowly trying to remember bits of my life that do not involve the Chicago Manual of Style. It's hard, I know, but I'll get there.

Here's something that helps: the Edible Books Festival. Blake Eskin has a piece on it in the Times book review this week: some wacky California librarians came up with the idea for a new April Fool's celebration that would combine foolery, books, and a celebration of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (who wrote The Physiology of Taste [1825]). The results are goofy, beautiful, gross, and amazing.

Anyway, take a look at the gallery.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Copyediting update

It has not been pretty around here at Fernham. When I anticipated what my copyedited manuscript would look like, I feared the red pencil of a stickler or the queries of a smart but pedantic and unsympathetic reader. Instead, my copyeditor did very little at all.

Sure, she went through the whole manuscript and painstakingly marked every footnote reference, em-dash, accent mark, and italicized word, but I have found dozens of appalling errors that she missed. Worst of all, these errors are mine: I’m disappointed that she didn’t catch them, but I’m the one who wrote a couple sentences without capital letters, who began one sentence with “in particularly," who typed “as” when I meant “at.”

Every time I catch an error, I feel a tremendous wave of relief. This soon ebbs and a briefer echo wave of anxiety touches the shore. What else am I missing?

I find that, in a rather brief book, I’ve used the word diminution four times. I have a habit of piling on noun phrases linked only by commas. Sometimes I like the rush of this but, at other times, I don’t quite know why I didn’t have time to write and. I’ve had to look up hubbub, hard-nosed, and grass roots.

The Chicago Manual is my best friend. Chapters have been farmed out to my husband, my colleague, my writing group. (See what I mean about avoiding and--that’s just how that sentence came out.) I have been through the whole thing, quickly, once, and have a week and a bit to go through it again. So, that’s what’s going on here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Gone Copyediting

The copyedited ms. of my book has arrived, via DHL, from Chennai, India, where I see my copyeditor has been kind (I hope not too kind) and has also corrected my spelling of Gyanendra Pandey's name.

This is my second-to-last chance with the beast. I'm terrified.

In any case, blogging will be light for a bit.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Naomi Wolf on Young Adult Fiction

It’s easy to make fun of Naomi Wolf, with her mainstream success, her good looks, and her often narcissistic mastery of the obvious feminist observation of the moment (beauty has a hold on us, we can be straight women and feminists at the same time, childbearing and rearing changes us). But I want to praise her restraint in yesterday’s book review. Given the opportunity to review a new genre of young adult literature full of brand-names, sex, and cliques in yesterday’s Times book review, Wolf actually sticks to description.

I haven’t read these books, but the description damns the genre well enough. As others have said, all those dropped names grate on my nerves:
The mockery the books direct toward their subjects is not the subversion of adult convention traditionally found in young adult novels. Instead they scorn anyone who is pathetic enough not to fit in.

And, at the end of the piece, Wolf allows herself a smart comparison between these books and the classics (among which she includes Frances Hodgson Burnett and the Brontes, both books for girls* and books for adults that girls have gravitated to):
The great reads of adolescence have classically been critiques of the corrupt or banal adult world. It's sad if the point of reading for many girls now is no longer to take the adult world apart but to squeeze into it all the more compliantly. Sex and shopping take their places on a barren stage, as though, even for teenagers, these are the only dramas left.

Frankly it would have been hard for me, given this material not to write a rather screeching polemic. It would be easy to decry these books as corrupting and easy to lament, in some fashion, the decline of the youth of today, etc., etc. Instead, Wolf describes and then, at the end, gently rebukes the values of these books. End of review.

This is not what you would guess from reading responses to her around the blogosphere (two particularly good ones are Gwenda’s and Scott’s—which he linked to in Gwenda’s comments). Some seem to hear her calling for censorship, to fear that she’s advocating parental warning labels on these books.

This readiness to cast Wolf as being on a rant when she actually avoids the most obvious, easy rant strikes me as particularly ironic in a week where the review also includes discussion of a book on “Moosewood Conservatives” (a goofy but interesting category of conservative hippies). Pankaj Mishra’s very funny skeptical assessment of David Foster Wallace and in which, elsewhere, in the Times Jason Reitman quips “Nothing says, 'I want to tell you how to live your life' more than Birkenstocks." We are all tired of this righteousness. What’s nice about Wolf’s piece is she lets us pass judgment.

There’s another thread in the comments of others that I have more sympathy with. Those commentators remember those V. C. Andrews books or tattered copies of Forever and remember, too, knowing at eleven or twelve, the difference between a book consumed in a fever pitch the way one might read Seventeen and a life-changing good book.

My friend who writes romance novels began that career as a fan of the stuff. Her father, disdaining the romance, struck a deal with her: one classic for every romance. She tore through all of Twain in order to get to the romance books. We had another brand of derision in my house. Flush with the pleasures of Damien and Siddhartha, I ran to ask my father if he had ever read this Hermann Hesse.

“No,” he said thoughtfully, “but I believe they are books that people your age like.”

I slunk away and pulled something else of the shelf: Margaret Mead? Lord of the Flies?

I plan similar stratagems of mockery and trickery when the dear one’s reading doesn’t quite match my hopes.

*I know that lots of boys and men read these books, but it’s the female readers who interest Wolf (and me) here.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Plague of Essays (and a brush with greatness)

For the past month, I have been reading essays, essays, essays as part of a project to nominate essays for a new edition of a freshman textbook. I have done this once before, so I was less intimidated. But, having done it before, I had also already nominated many of my favorites. In the intervening four or five years, I have used the textbook and so I have a different sense of both the book and how it works in the classroom than I once did.

It’s a thrilling, daunting, and random project to have nominate a dozen essays: where to begin?

Here’s the process I went through: I sat down and thought about essays I had read in the intervening years that had impressed me. I thought about nonfiction writers whom I admired, focusing on the past five years but thinking back as far as I could—Coleridge was even on that first list. I made two lists: one of writers whose voices I’d like to see included in the anthology and one of resources for essays (including friends who read a lot of nonfiction, like Bud and Dave). I remembered the buzz around The Bitch in the House and read that, thinking that the collection’s topic might be of interest to college freshmen. I went gathered the titles of books nominated in the nonfiction category for the National Book Award and checked out the last three or four volumes of the Best American Essays from the library.

Then I read and read. Much of what I loved, I did not choose. Great, funny New Yorker pieces seemed too light and too insiderish. Moving arguments by great thinkers were too involved in a deep social context: taken them out of the debate where they originally appeared, and the contributions themselves seemed too flat, too polemical, or just too hard to understand. Novelists I admire and love with young, fresh voices turn out not to be good essayists or not to be essayists at all. Dave suggested it would be great to include some wonderful blog entries—he even suggested a few—but they died on the page for me and I didn’t have the time to find alternatives.

What did I end up with? I was asked to nominate ten to twelve and I nominated fifteen. Of those, only five are by women: a disappointing result, since I actively worked to find women writers. Only one was written before 2000; it is from 1910 or so. I chose three editorials from the Times and one additional article from the Times. Three essays come from collections published by Farrar Strauss Giroux, two from Jonathan Cape. I did end up nominating two essays from The Bitch in the House, though I recommended that they choose between them.

What am I excited about? Remembering a beautiful essay whose last line has stuck with me since I reviewed the book in 2000; finding lovely literary essays, one on Whitman, one on Chekhov, that are the perfect combination of sophisticated and accessible; and nominating Helene Cooper’s inspiring editorial about the new president of Liberia. I’ll be curious to see which, if any, among these choices makes the editors’ cut.

As for the brush with greatness… You know that little frisson of pleasure you get when you see someone famous? It happens to me often just before I can name who it is. Anyway, I got that feeling last night on the downtown A-train around 8:30 p.m. I thought, “wow, I know that person from somewhere! Cool! Now, who is it?”

Do you know who it was?

The security guard I like who checks bags in the Main Reading Room at the NYPL.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Pleasant (for blog against sexism day)

On this, International Women’s Day and Blog Against Sexism Day, I am thinking about context: how the meaning and sense of “sexism” changes depending on where you are.

I am a feminist, a writer, and a professor: that’s a position of wonderful, often wondrous, privilege. While feminists in academe play a large role in setting the agenda for American feminism (by, for example, designing Women’s Studies courses that educate young feminists and help set their agendas, their career paths), they have consistently failed the causes of women outside the white, American middle class.

It is easy to see why this is so. The sexism we each experience within our own lives is so palpably, frustratingly unjust that it can be hard to remember to compare it against larger injustices. Thus, people spend their energy fighting the tone deaf remarks of their university president about the dearth of women in the sciences, as happened at Harvard last spring, because it’s a local indignity—right here at my workplace the assumption is that women are inferior—rather than fighting grosser injustices experienced by, say, the women who clean their offices and do not have good child care while they work.

Off campus, out of the Ivy League, these professors sound quaint rather than right.

They are right. But there is something quaint about their complaints, too.

It is hard to articulate this, but I believe we must resist sexism wherever it occurs—be it gross or subtle, local or wide-ranging. At the same time, we need to be mindful of the context of our complaint.

Growing up in Seattle, listening to Free to Be, You and Me and reading poems in an anthology called Girls Can Too, I knew that people used to undermine girls, but I felt strong. At my women’s college, I felt strong enough that I grew tired and impatient with the knee-jerk feminism of some of the women around me. I certainly had no interest in reading boring old women writers like Virginia Woolf! It took me a while to realize that the freedom my classmates experienced at the women’s college was one I had always taken for granted.

On the first day of graduate school, in a class taught by a prominent feminist, a man raised his hand as first to speak. I was shocked! Forgetting that I was no longer in a single-sex school, all I could think was “How dare an auditor raise his hands before any women speak!” I soon learned that I was at a different institution indeed. I learned to be grateful for twenty-one years of ignorance about the realities of patriarchal power, however white-gloved.

Five years later, preparing for the job market, I went in for a mock-interview with the department chair and a small committee. I need not worry; I would do fine, they assured me: “You’re so pleasant.”

I was livid. I am pleasant; I mean to make that choice much of the time. But I did not spend six years working on a Ph.D. to earn the nod of “pleasant.”

So, I read with amusement the kerfuffle in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which a man rethinks his job interview and decides that at times it is best to choose “pleasant” over “smart.” The Little Professor has a nice entry on the matter (and the comments are interesting, too), in which she notes: “In most quarters, it's considered civilto refrain from constructive criticism of a potential employer when a) said criticism has not been requested and b) you have not yet been hired.” Too true.

And yet… Given my own experience of being pleasant, being belittled and praised as pleasant, I see this as a complicated feminist issue. A too-pleasant young woman may never be taken seriously but a brash one probably will not get in the door. Beginning our careers, in academia and elsewhere, we all have to figure out how to strike the right tone and what that right tone is depends on our sex and our willingness to capitulate to those in power. It remains a complicated, pragmatic dance that each of us must negotiate daily.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Shades of Praise

Tomorrow is Blog Against Sexism day: I’m thinking about my contribution.

Blog Against Sexism March 8March 8, 2006

I want to mark today with a little blog entry against racism. Let’s celebrate Shades of Praise, an interracial New Orleans gospel choir. They’ve been around since 2000 and, since Katrina, they’ve become a support network for each other.

My friend Rosa is a member of the group—she sent me the heads up about this story on NPR (with pictures). When I first visited New Orleans, my friends and I stayed with Rosa and she showed us what the city could be: we went to the Rock-and-Bowl to hear (and dance to) Zydeco Force, we went to a cemetery and a traditional cafeteria. Everywhere we went, shabby or fine, Rosa shone, saw the light in the city, and made the city shine for us. She, a transplant from Connecticut, embodied all that is magical and funky and accepting and loving and cool about New Orleans and she made me want to move there, too.

She inspired me then: I wrote a short story about that trip, the only fiction I've written since college. So it’s no surprise to me that she’s part of this great group that is so inspiring. Hats off to Rosa and Shades of Praise.

Monday, March 06, 2006


It’s not so much that I have been—or am—depressed these days. Just that I feel the imminent presence of the winter blues. So, I spend time and energy staving them off. Today, that effort got a big boost in the form of three free books in the mail: two of the LBC’s nominated titles for the Spring READ THIS! Selection and a book from Knopf’s First Reader program—something I signed up for through their website a million years ago and promptly forgot.

I know nothing about any of these books. All three are pretty—one is especially so, with gorgeous endpapers and a handsome cover—and enticing. It feels like spring.

So, when I heard an Oscar pundit surmise that Crash’s massive campaign of mailing out DVDs to Academy members might have put it over the edge, I understood. There’s nothing like a little freebie to lift the late-winter blues.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Bill Gordon reading, Monday @ 7:00

From the organizers:

MONDAY, MARCH 6: Please join us for an exciting evening as buzzed-about new literary series, "The Reader's Room: Where Writers Take Center Stage," at Mo Pitkin's (, welcomes breakout debut novelists MARCY DERMANSKY, author of TWINS (William Morrow, October 2005), which The New York Times Book Review called "a brainy, emotionally sophisticated bildungsroman-for-two," and BILL GORDON, author of MARY AFTER ALL (Dial Press, January 2006), a remarkable first novel that prompted the The Boston Globe note that, "Like gritty Jersey City itself, Mary's life traces a cycle of decline and resurgence. Gordon brings warmth and compassion to telling the story." Local independent bookseller Bluestockings will have books for sale at the event. Mo Pitkin's is located at 34 Avenue A, between 2nd and 3rd Streets. 7:00PM, FREE.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sophie Scholl

I have a new heroine to root for, not just on Oscar night, but for a long time to come. Until today, I didn’t know the story of Sophie Scholl. But now, I’ve watched Michael Verhoeven’s 1982 film The White Rose and will be rooting for a newer retelling of the same story on Sunday, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which has been nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. The new film is drawn from transcripts of “the People’s Court” trial in February of 1943; these transcripts became available after the wall came down in 1989. (This suggests to me that the skepticism of this post from Crooked Timber may be misplaced…)

Both films tell the true story of a small group of college students in Munich who were executed in 1943 for their resistance to Nazism. Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie, three other students and, later, the philosophy professor whose anti-Nazi lectures inspired them, wrote and distributed leaflets denouncing Nazism. The acting is strong throughout the film. What I found most moving was the uneven commitments of the members and their shifting loyalties. As easy as it might be to depict these six as martyrs from the start, Verhoeven is careful to make them seem familiar, like idealistic college students. One has young children. One is most excited about the pamphlets when the physical danger of getting caught is far. Several of them balk at promoting something more than just articulating opposition. None of them can initially imagine the use of a woman among them. As for Sophie, she doesn’t break up with her German-soldier boyfriend. Instead, she bickers with him when he visits her on leave.

Unlike many movies about great, brave people, The White Rose tells the story of the good and the brave, of young people who threatened the Nazi regime. I did not feel that I was watching a film about saints. They—Hans, Sophie, and Christoph Probst—were executed on the day of their trial. They believed, as university students and children of Weimar Germany, that executions could only happen 99 days after a trial and they hoped, given the German Army’s losses in Russia, that those 99 days might lead to the end of the war. I understand, from a colleague who has seen the new film, that many admirers of the Scholls are eager to insist that they sought their own martyrdom, that they were careless because they wanted to invite attention, to sacrifice themselves for freedom. Verhoeven’s film doesn’t take that approach: he shows, instead, that, when their death comes, they face it with both shock and tremendous bravery. For me, that—the ability of a person who is just beyond the normal reaches of bravery to rise to greatness in the face of evil and injustice—resonates much more deeply.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


The two projects of the day were filing and reading essays. The former task arose because my “in box” had grown to two feet tall; the latter, because I’m helping out with the next edition of The Norton Reader, a composition textbook, and need to nominate some new essays.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, that, as I was flipping through a catalog, Kevin Kopelson’s new book, Neatness Counts: Essays on the Writer’s Desk caught my eye. When I tired of filing and straightening, when filing became procrastination from reading instead of a necessary step in restoring some order, I headed down to the New York Public Library, filled out a little slip and, twenty minutes later, Kopelson’s book was on the long library table before me. Done with filing, I could read about it.

I dipped in here and there, skimming, enjoying, feeling amused, and settled in to read, in earnest, the first essay, on Elizabeth Bishop.

Kopelson opens with Mary McCarthy’s wonderfully catty quip that she shouldn’t call Bishop a great writer so much as a neat one. How then, he asks, did such a precise writer tolerate such a messy desk?

The essay is smart and funny and full of odd little wayside observations. This is the one that made me laugh out loud: Bishop, who struggled against depression, once told a doctor that she tried to keep the last line of her poem “The Bight”—“awful but cheerful”—in mind. “Twenty years later,” Kopelson notes, “she taught a mynah bird to say ‘awful but cheerful.’ She also taught it ‘I, too, dislike it,’ a line of Moore’s poetry, and ‘Nobody knows,’ a line of her maternal grandmother’s” (9).

Here is the ending of “The Bight.” A bight, is, I take it, a wide bay and this one, like Bishop’s desk, like mine, is abundantly chaotic:
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.