Tuesday, January 30, 2007


A while back, I thought I would make a casual effort to collect Woolf-ish things in the blogosphere. The project has taken a while to get off the ground and I’ve been wondering why.

I think that it partly made this blog feel a bit too official to me--something that always makes me a bit itchy. Fernham seems to be at its best as long as I keep it loose. Every time I get really good at meeting my (pitifully modest) goal of four posts per week and my sitemeter count upticks a bit, I get nervous and busy and turn my head away from the blog just long enough for my readership to fall back off, for the blog to return to its rightful place, on the backburner of my life.

Then, too, I subscribed to weekly Google alerts for “Woolf” and “Virginia Woolf” only to find lots and lots of references to people writing about the movie, or noting that they just read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time and didn’t much care for it, or saying that some day they might want to read Woolf. These aren’t the kind of rich, nuanced readings that I was hoping to link to, to weave together.

Still, I watch, I look and I read. And I have found some wonderful tidbits for you:
  • Amardeep Singh posts a lovely meditative appreciation of “Street Haunting,” one of Woolf’s great essays--and an essay getting a lot of scholarly attention of late. The essay is simply about walking in the city in winter, about concocting an errand to justify the “journey” and all the little encounters along the way. Since he posts it over at the Valve, there are some amusingly churlish responses, too.
  • Mrs. Bookworld has been gobbling Woolf’s diaries. I was so jealous of her that I began doing the same. Shame to say, I’ve never read the diaries the whole way through. Now, with a new Woolf project, I have all the more reason to begin. And what I delight they are. Now, rather than envy Mrs. Bookworld (who is, after all, convalescing from foot surgery these few weeks--get well soon!!), I envy Woolf herself. Interesting people are constantly interrupting her work. When my doorbell rings, it tends to be UPS with a package for upstairs. When hers rings, it’s her friend Walter Lamb, just in from seeing the Queen--“he always stops by after he’s been to see the Queen,” she says with mild irritation and then, recalling his good gossip (about the King demonstrating how ill-fitting his dentures are), decides that it is kind of fun to have him around.
  • Bloglily spent some time with Strachey’s Eminent Victorians in December (she, too, is on a health break--good luck with the radiation therapy, Bloglily--a strange thing to add parenthetically, but a sincere wish nonethless.)
  • And probably most famous of all, Susan Hill’s blog resumes its Woolf for Dummies Course. This last is the strangest to me. In my ignorance, I don’t know her work, but her blog is set up almost entirely for readers--especially high school students--who are coming to the web for help in writing papers on her. The “course” is briskly encouraging--kind of a Barbara Woodhouse for readers instead of dog owners (Woolfies! Woolfies!).
  • I keep thinking Imani must have had something to say about Woolf, but this is all I have found…so far…

And then, all of a sudden, I have found, too, tons of delightfully random, not totally literary references to Woolf from blogs I never would have found otherwise.
  • There’s a great critique of the limitations of SuperGirl that draws upon A Room of One’s Own here,
  • and here is a review of a play based on Woolf’s The Waves--surely one of the great “unfilm-able” novles, but one that had had many dramatic interpretations,
  • I’m a little jealous that a pretty picture and a very brief quotation from Woolf can garner so many comments here,
  • but it’s a sign of how Woolf continues to inspire. As is this lovely entry at Hot Toddy, on Woolf’s diaries as an inspiration for blogging,
  • and, strangely enough, Woolf can even be an inspiration for parenting!

Finally, the Woolf listserv, which has many, many more readers than Fernham, has been abuzz of late with the connections between Patti Smith and Woolf. Apparently, as googling them shows, Smith acknowledges Woolf as a major influence and has given several performances and exhibitions on the connection.

Off web, my copy of Susan Gubar’s latest book, Rooms of Our Own arrived in the mail today. I can’t wait!!!

So, those are the passing glances to Woolf around the web this month

Monday, January 29, 2007

Trueblood, Jones

Carolyn (Pinky's Paperhaus) & Ed (Return of the Reluctant) collaborated on the podcast with Valerie Trueblood. It’s preceded by a mini-interview with me: very strange to hear one’s own voice--and laugh.

This week is Demon Theory week at the LBC. It’s another of the nominees this quarter. This book--a literary film treatment of a horror trilogy--is not my kind of book and I didn’t much like it. However, there is a lot interesting in it--enough that I participated in a roundtable discussion of it with four other LBC’ers. I think that roundtables like this one mark one of the strengths of the LBC: lots of bloggers getting together to “talk” about a title. (We emailed back and forth for a week or so, refining and adjusting our responses as the thing grew and grew.) So, hop back over to the LBC and check out the roundtable!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Happy Birthday, Aquarians.

Virginia Woolf, born on this day in 1882.

My mom, born on this day, much more recently, and celebrating in London!

Valerie Trueblood is guest-blogging today over at the LitBlog Co-op. She's already posted a great and thoughtful piece about time and age. Pop by....

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The First Emperor

We went to see The First Emperor on Monday night. It’s the new opera by Tan Dun with a libretto that he co-wrote with the novelist Ha Jin. The production was designed by film director Zhang Yimou. If that’s not enough stars for you, the title role was written for and sung by Placido Domingo.

All the buzz surrounding the premiere--including the on-stage interview with Ha Jin--back in December led me to buy tickets. The review in The New Yorker was lukewarm, but in a way that didn’t concern me: the reviewer’s quibbles were beyond my abilities to grasp opera. He did say that an Italian singing in English while pretending to be Chinese strained credibility. I think this is a silly and vaguely racist criticism. Good grief: it’s opera! Credibility?

At intermission, we ran into friendly acquaintances. “I’m not feeling it,” she said. And I kind of agreed.

By the end, I was totally moved.

First of all, I judge an opera a success if I am not fidgety. My standards are not so high. I want good singing, pretty music, and some dazzling things to look at along the way. The First Emperor had all of that and more. I loved it. The more I think about it, the more excited I get. I did not fidget. When I did check the time, I was shocked at how much had passed.

The opera tells the story of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who oversaw the building of the Great Wall of China and those hundreds of terra cotta soldiers. The opera is about the building of the wall and his commissioning of an anthem worthy of an emperor. He tracks down his boyhood friend (and cell mate from prison), a musician, and forces him to write the anthem. The musician seduces the emperor’s daughter (who is engaged to marry a general).

So, that’s where we are at the end of Act One: firmly in the midst of an opera that promises to end badly. (It does.) Oh, it’s grand. When the musician and the princess first come together, they’re all in white on the stark gray set. Suddenly, a long red silk scarf appears and they dance with it. Walking in, the emperor is at first overjoyed to see the princess, long an invalid, so happy but the red scarf enrages him: like a bull, he turns on his friend. How dare you ruin my daughter and shame me!

From family circle Row K (there is no row L--we were second only to the standing-room folks--but hey, it’s only $15!!) of the Metropolitan Opera House, the visual poetry of it was glorious, a little silly, and very operatic. Three hours seems like a fine length for an opera--or anything--to me. Still, some of the prettiest arias and duets went way too fast: they should have been doubled over, played with, repeated, allowed to build and flow. I wanted more of a chance to learn them, I wanted more of a chance to hear the tunes. But Tan Dun’s music is great--I knew I would love it and I did. He has figured out a way to mix Chinese and Western sounds in a way that is lovely and beautiful and harmonious.

And then, in Act Two, suddenly, there is color.

Other good things: a singer from the Beijing Opera, singing in Chinese (the rest of the opera is in English). An acrobat-dancer. Drums on stage in the opening scene. A giant (8 foot?) Chinese gong, studded and mottled, just on the edge of the stage, which gets played with a giant pole. Watching Placido Domingo, respendent in a gold lame robe, bang the gong. An amazing chorus. Costumes that are different front & back. A very, very pretty pink dress for the princess in Act Two. Tan Dun himself conducting. A completely, totally full house. Walking out, hearing a beautiful woman, 50-ish, say, in gorgeously clear Chinese “…ting chang-chang ge…” (listen sing songs--about all the Chinese I remember from a year in college) and then hearing her teen-age son, already plugged into his iPod, say, “Listen, mom, the story was great, but the music sucked.” With heavy Chinese accent, she answered, “I cannot agree.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Seven Loves Week at the LBC

This week we’re talking about Valerie Trueblood’s great debut novel Seven Loves over at the LitBlog Co-op. There’s a contest--you could win a free copy of the book if you haven’t read it--and more! I interviewed here and will post that tomorrow: it’s a great, rich, and interesting interview with lots to chew on. Please do go read it tomorrow and then go back to the LBC on Thursday: Valerie will be guestblogging and so, if you have a question for you, you can pose it.

And if you’re still hungry for more, you can find an excerpt to a wonderful essay on reading here.

Finally, just so you know that I’m not alone in my admiration. There is a wonderful review here.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Helping Orphans Worldwide

My friend, the novelist Natasha Radojcic, has partnered with writer and publisher Allison Weaver in a project with two purposes: raising money for orphanages and running a literary magazine. For a $5 donation, you can contribute to the cause and--maybe--get published, too. (Scroll down: accepted manuscripts will be paid a minimum of $200--that’s a pretty decent return on investment.)

Here’s what they say:
H.O.W.; a new journal representing the vision of two writers dedicated to publishing quality fiction and nonfiction while giving a voice to those suffering in silence worldwide.

H.O.W. was started with the purpose of raising money for orphanages across the world. For each submission you send us we ask that you include a donation of five dollars. The entire sum will be donated to the orphanage we are working with at the time. This year we are focusing our attention on a small orphanage run by Haregewoin Tefarra, an Ethiopian woman, who opened her home to hundreds of children orphaned by AIDS. She now operates two houses in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

The orphanage’s mission is: to house and support children, both HIV-positive and HIV-negative; to provide food, clothing, education, and medical care; to reunite children with surviving family members whenever possible; to seek new family situations if necessary through licensed inter-country adoption agencies from North America and Europe; and to promote employment among adults living with AIDS.

Submission Guidelines:
1. Please submit one story, or essay, at a time. Submit clearly typed manuscripts, double-spaced on 8 1/2 x 11 inch white paper, one side only, to: H.O.W. 22 West 15th street (apt 3B), NYC, 10011. The submission must contain your name, address, e-mail address, and a telephone number where you can be reached. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope or we cannot guarantee your work will be responded to or returned. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable, but please let us know immediately, if your submission is accepted elsewhere. It takes up to 4 months to respond to submissions. We do not accept submissions via fax or email.

2. The word-length limit is roughly 8,000 words.

3. After edits are done to our satisfaction, writers will receive a payment. Payment varies according to the length and genre of the submission, but we pay $200.00 minimum for fiction and nonfiction. We buy First Serial Rights; nonexclusive, and one-time anthology rights. Authors proof their galleys and receive 2 copies of the issue in which their work appears.

4. All manuscripts are carefully considered. Due to the large number of submissions, we regret that we cannot comment on every manuscript.

5. Do not forget to include a check for $5.00 made out to Helping Orphans Worldwide, or else the submission will NOT be read.

Natasha Radojcic
earned her MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Pindeldyboz, The Boston Review and Small Spiral Notebook. Her two novels, Homecoming and You Don’t Have to Live Here, both published by Random House, have been translated into seven languages.

Alison Weaver earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School University. Her short fiction has appeared in Small Spiral Notebook, Opium Magazine, Red China and The Fifth Street Review. Her memoir, Gone to the Crazies, will be published by Harper Collins this July.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Phew! Deadlines and the Days After

I got my work done and in on the 15th. Just barely. But the editor had forgotten about the holiday, too, so she was pleasantly surprised that I pulled it off.

I woke up empty-headed and grouchy. It’s a great but disorienting feeling to make a deadline. All my energy had been focused on that one project and, with it done, I feel both accomplished and flat. Accomplished for obvious reasons. Flat because I look up to notice that my house is in a shambles: I don’t remember the last time the baby had a bath, there is a headless playmobil figurine on the changing table, my measuring tape is on the floor under my desk (why? it takes me a couple minutes to remember that I went on a shopping spree for running clothes during this whole frenzy & had to measure myself), the pantry seems to consist, inexplicably, mainly of Starburst and Zweiback. And my family, reasonably enough, is more focused on these facts than on my individual achievements.

I went for a run: the second of the season, the first without a stroller and with my iPod. That’s when, after a deadline, I really know that I am mad as a hatter. Miriam Makeba came on and I picked up the pace. I went from
  • remembering that I wanted to blog about the interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga in Transition to
  • remembering that I wanted to purchase her new novel—only available in the UK—to
  • thinking about contacting her publisher, who used to work for Heinemann’s African Writer Series, and interviewing her (a good idea, sure, but something that ordinarily makes me really nervous), to
  • imagining applying for a Fulbright to South Africa so I could dance with Makeba and, perhaps, as I reach the outer edges of sanity, that nice French scholar from Cape Town I met who invited me to visit some time to
  • frantically, parenthetically, trying to remember how long ago I did meet him and how to say “I have been busy” in French to
  • somehow envisioning myself at a big dance party in the courtyard of Oprah’s new South African girl’s school with Miriam Makeba, my daughters & husband, Dangarembga and her family (visiting from Harare, don’t you know), the Cape Town Frenchman, and the whole Jolie-Pitt clan—maybe Nicholas Kristof could come, too…
Then, thank goodness, I have the mental equivalent of the sound of a record needle scratching across vinyl.

And I remember all the things that I have pushed to the margins in order to finish.

That’s the thing about deadlines. Everything narrows down to a point and when that one project is done, there’s the illusion of open space. But the world quickly obliges by rushing in to remind me of, oh, let’s see—laundry, the book review that’s two months late, the essay that’s three months late, the articles I need to edit, the edition I need—urgently—to begin, the books I want to read, the loved ones I’ve neglected ….

The mix on my iPod is new. It was on shuffle. A few songs passed. Suddenly, I’m back in Boston--
Every time that I look in the mirror
All these lines in my face getting clearer
The past is gone….

Dream on, indeed.

NYC Event: MEMORY AND LONGING--Christianse & Hartman Conversation

[This just in over the wires. I can't go--we'll be at the Opera!!!--but it sounds great. I got Yvette Christianse's novel for Christmas and am eager to read it.]


Monday, January 22, 7pm, Sulzberger Parlor, 3rd Floor Barnard Hall

Join the Africana Studies program at Barnard College for a provocative conversation about legacy of slavery and the politics of history. The evening begins with a reading from poet Yvette Christiansë’s acclaimed debut novel Unconfessed. Called “a devastating song of freedom” by Kirkus Reviews, the novel, inspired by actual South African court records from the 1800s, tells the story of slave woman Sila van den Kapp, who was sentenced to death on April 30, 1823. The novel follows Sila from a Cape Town jail to her commuted sentence of hard labor on the now notorious Robbins Island where she was one of two women prisoners, and where, more than a century later, Nelson Mandela would spend 28 years of his life. Christiansë will be joined by Saidiya Hartman, visiting professor of English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University, whose new book, Lose Your Mother, retraces the history of the Atlantic slave trade by journeying along a slave route in Ghana, following the trail of captives from the hinterland to the Atlantic coast.

In so boldly and so eloquently confronting the silences of history and absence in the archive, both Christiansë and Hartman lead us to a new understanding of the forces that shape history, the meanings of memory, and the profound power of storytelling. It’s a stimulating discussion of the ways in which African descended people grapple with the longing for lost homes and histories that is the legacy of slavery in the US and Africa.

Book signing to follow. 212.854.9850

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

READ THIS! Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow

The LBC has spoken: this quarter’s selection is Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s sprawling masterpiece, Wizard of the Crow. It’s an amazing romp through an African dictatorship: at once pointedly satirical about political corruption at all levels, hilarious, and moving. It’s also the first African novel I’ve read by a man with really strong, wonderful, brave women characters. We’ll be talking about Wizard over at the LBC in two weeks—with interviews with Ngugi and all the other bells and whistles you’ve come to expect.

I was a little bummed that the novel I nominated didn’t win, but it is a great wonderful book: you should read it, too. I nominated Valerie Trueblood’s Seven Loves. I’ve already written about the process of finding it. If you pop over to the LBC site today, you can see my testimonial about it.

We’ll be talking about Seven Loves all next week: there’s a podcast, a written interview, and the author will be guest-blogging to boot! Grab a copy of the book, read it over the weekend and stop by….

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Small Deadlines & Meta-Reading

Monday (MLK Day) marks a small deadline for me and I'm slaving away to meet it--or pretending to. I am staggered by my own reluctance to read when I'm under pressure. I will sit down to "work" and decide that the most important thing I need to do for the day is to read, say, a certain essay.

Then I will proceed to google the author, free write on my current procrastination, and then do all the other unrelated procrastinatory things (checking blogs, making notes for future blog entries in the "Fernham" file on my computer, reading catalogs, watching cooking shows). All the normal kinds of procrastination seem, well, normal to me.

What astounds me is my ability to sit, with text in hand, and still not read it but instead to read around it, consider it, read everything in the world ancillary to it in my whole apartment and available on the web before I actually read the essay in question.


I did actually get down to some reading today but, oy!, it was no thanks to me that I got myself working.

I hope to be more present, less scattered, once Monday's past....

Besides, the new quarter at the LBC is kicking into gear next week and it's going to be great!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Tillie Olsen Tribute, January 14, 2007

I have been moved by those who have commented on my Tillie Olsen post. I was particularly touched and grateful to receive a comment from her granddaughter, Rebekah Edwards. She pointed me to a lovely, lovely website created by Olsen’s daughters. There, you can find an obituary written by the family.

She also informed me of a wonderful tribute happening this weekend: "the family requests that on her birthday, January 14th, people whose lives have been touched by Tillie gather with friends in their homes and public libraries to celebrate her life and to read her work together. We would be comforted to hear from you about your celebrations. Please email us: tillies_family@childpeacebooks.org."

It would be wonderful if people from the feminist blogging and litblogging community could take a few hours out, on this upcoming Martin Luther King Holiday Weekend, to honor another great American.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tillie Olsen, RIP

Tillie Olsen died earlier this week (via RSB). The pioneering leftist feminist writer was just weeks shy of her 95th birthday.

I wanted to commemorate her death by re-reading her great short story “I Stand Here Ironing,” but it’s in the office and all I can find on-line are dozens of disheartening links to term papers for purchase. More interestingly, there’s a teaching wiki up that may be of interest to some.

My mother devoured Tell Me a Riddle when I was a girl and I remember her raving about it. I liked the title, but when she told me that one of the great stories was called “I Stand Here Ironing,” and consisted of a woman ironing and talking and thinking about her daughter, I resisted. The very idea felt claustrophobic to me. My mother ironed. She talked about me. Tillie Olsen, from Nebraska with a Scandinavian name (a married name—she was the daughter of Russian Jews), was too close to home. What could I learn from her?

I went on to teach the story several times. It's terrific and devastating. The writing is deceptive: spare and realistic as a great poem by Frost or William Carlos Williams with uncanny moments of mother-speak that bring you right into the intense world of love and worry that is motherhood.

I’m willing, in retrospect, to forgive my snobbishness as a teenager: after all, my mother was educating me to think beyond ironing. Interesting, though, that being unable to see what could possibly be interesting about a woman ironing almost cost Olsen the Stanford Creative Writing Fellowship. (This is from Constance Coiner’s great biographical essay on Cary Nelson’s excellent website.)
At an initial screening intended to eliminate most of the applicants, one of the reviewers for the competition, after reading a few pages of "I Stand Here Ironing," tossed it in the wastebasket in disgust, muttering, "'Can you imagine? That woman went on for pages just about ironing. Standing there ironing!’" Procedurally, at that point the story would have been eliminated from the competition. However, Dick Krause, the one person on the screening committee with a working-class background, happened to overhear the remark and asked to see the piece; he was so moved by it that he delivered it personally to Wallace Stegner, the director of the program. After reading the manuscript, Stegner declared: "'Well, we have to have her"' (interview).
Stegner was right, of course. He and my mom hail from the same corner of Iowa and they understand what us snobs often fail to: that everyone’s life is interesting and that it’s worth working hard to listen to the lives of working class people.

Tillie Olsen became a writer against the odds. In Silences she offers an account of how the life of a working class mother mitigates against writing. She’s the writer the Virginia Woolf dreamed about, hoped for, and longed to find when she spoke to Working Women in the Cooperative Guild. Unlike Woolf or American leftists (such as Meridel Le Sueur with whom Olsen is often paired), Olsen was working class: she never had to agonize over the ethics of her identification with the cause. The huge gap between her acclaimed first short story in 1934 and “I Stand Here Ironing” in 1955 stands for the years spent working and raising four daughters.

But she was clearly no ordinary mom. She spent time in jail; she was smeared by McCarthy-era anti-communists, she worked throughout her life for working people, for social revolution, for women’s rights. When the Feminist Press was founded, she worked for them as an advisor, recommending many of the titles that only they have brought back into print.

Trying to write, she sent her daughter to live with her parents. Later, “examining Yonnondio's 11 rough drafts and trying to figure out where she was when she wrote them," Olsen "realized that most of her best writing was done" after her reunion with her daughter (Duncan 212-213)” (Coiner again).

Hungry to read, “She copied passages from books she could not afford to buy and tacked them on the wall by the kitchen sink for inspiration.”

Now that is worthy of a place above all our kitchen sinks. Bless Tillie Olsen! May she rest in peace.

Blue Collar Holler offers this information, should you wish to offer a gift in her name: The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Tillie Olsen Memorial Fund for Human Rights, Public Libraries and Working Class Literature, c/o the San Francisco Foundation, 225 Bush St., No. 500, San Francisco, CA 94104. The date and time of a public memorial will be announced.

This is What a Speaker Looks Like

Congratulations to Nancy Pelosi!

The excitement is catching and lots of fun even for me--and I'm pretty neutral on Pelosi.

Why does it matter? Well, her breaking the marble ceiling, as they're calling it, matters because studies have shown that once women occupy something like 30% of elected positions, the agenda does start to change. One woman doesn't--can't--change congressional agendas. But we're still woefully behind in government and so symbolic victories matter because they pave the way to the day when women make up closer to half of elected officials. Then, the thing that the suffragettes hoped for a century ago may begin to happen: more attention to health, education, and affordable housing, and, just maybe, a government less enamored with war...

Underrated, Best of: more lists

While I took a break, the blogosphere kept on turning. If you haven’t already checked it out, be sure to visit Mark Thwaite’s collection of the Best Reads of 2006. He’s gathered suggestions from a group of authors, bloggers, and editors (including me). One really nice aspect of his list is that everyone wrote a few sentences explaining why they loved their nominees. Plus, it’s not limited to new books (I wrote about A Hazard of New Fortunes which came out in 1890), so it gives a better flavor of how we read, I think: not only the new, but also the recent, the old, and the ancient. This kind of list, like Jeff and Trevor’s collection of underrated writers, strikes me as the kind that actually might inspire reading.

Still, that said, I’m feeling a bit dizzy with the weight of choice and recommendations these days. I find myself having retreated back to assigned reading. But then, as I said yesterday, there are some looming deadlines…

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Year!

When I was a little girl, I loved fact-filled compendia. I devoured The Book of Lists and The Guiness Book of World Records. I scoured almanacs, collections of trivia, and a whole series of folklore books for children. I used to dog my mother and my teachers with my recitations of superstitions, incantations (for lovers, against warts), and riddles.

Somewhere amidst all this trivia, I read that, rather than simply making resolutions, it’s a good idea to actually spend a little time doing each of the activities you resolve to do more of in the coming year. Surely a good idea.

And somehow, yesterday, I managed to do almost that: I took a long walk down to the Hudson, I did a yoga DVD (with my older daughter). (May I just say that the Yoga ABCs DVD includes some poses that, while easy for four-year-olds, have me in some pain today? Next time, I’ll be skipping “C for Caterpillar” and “I for Iguana”…) I read a little. We had friends over for dinner and actually cooked together—something I’ve always wanted to do. We tried new meats (rabbit!), new recipes, and it all felt very decadent and festive.

Now, with deadlines looming, I can do little more than list all that lies, undone, before me. Still, it was a festive and promising start. Fingers crossed….