Friday, March 30, 2007

A more familiar problem of time

I'm still here--barely. Swamped by bureaucracy and hoping to re-emerge refreshed from the weekend.

The baby fell off the bed yesterday. She is fine, but will be sporting quite a shiner for her baptism on Sunday.

Back to the memos and meetings for now.

Back to books on Monday, d.v.

Monday, March 19, 2007

New DeLillo--Falling Man and the Problem of Time

When Bud and I had lunch, we talked about blogging and the future of book blogging and the reasons why it can be hard to get a conversation going on a book blog.

The problem, it seems to me, is the problem of time.

While we all follow the news on the same day, we aren’t--thank God--reading the same books at the same time. That’s why, for lively discussion and a change of pace, I love the success of some of the great reading group blogs like 400 Windmills (Quixote), A Curious Singularity (short fiction), and the LitBlog Co-op (contemporary literature).

More fiercely than that, though, I love the ability to choose to read whatever in the world I want to read next, regardless of what is being talked about.

And the forthcoming DeLillo is a great example of that.

My upstairs neighbor is in the book business. She came by the new DeLillo and passed it on to me. I read it and gave it to a student who’s a huge fan. (JRG: If you read this, maybe you could put the first paragraph into the comments to satisfy the commenters?) So now, a couple months before it’ll start showing up everywhere else, I’ve read it.

And, oddly enough, it’s the only DeLillo I’ve read. So, what can I tell you about it?

It’s a 9/11 novel. It’s wonderful. My guess--confirmed by my student--is that it’s excellent but not the very, very best of his work.

It opens on the morning of September 11, 2001, after the collapse of the first tower, with a dust-covered and bleeding man walking uptown, briefcase in hand. In shock, he steers himself to his ex-wife’s apartment.

From there, we follow him, his wife and son, his wife’s mother & her boyfriend, and the owner of the briefcase, in those dark, confusing weeks after September 11. There are also several interpolated chapters--stunning and moving and deeply upsetting--following the life (and death) of one of the suicide bombers. DeLillo captures the uncertain mood of those days perfectly but this is not a novel about that strange grief-stricken elation, that “we are all Americans now” mood that the war so effectively killed. Instead, it’s a novel about mounting anger, anxiety, and nervousness. Maybe it’s a novel about the mood that led to the war. The children--the son and his friends--are incredibly wonderful, creepily watching the skies with binoculars.

Best, for me, was the brittle anger of the ex-wife, lying next to her husband in bed, wondering if they would ever make love again, washing his clothes separately, and, most chillingly, letting herself think racist thoughts--doesn’t that music sound Arabic? Is that blouse Morroccan? Why is she wearing that blouse in these difficult times? Why is she listening to that music in these sensitive times?

Oh, those poisonous thoughts. Oh, the marvel of watching DeLillo reveal the poisonous thoughts of an ordinary unhappy woman to us.

There is neither hand-wringing nor kumbaya here. Just carefully observed, horrible, limited, and ordinary upper-middle class white Americans burrowing back into the Upper East Side.

So, months from now, when the book comes out, when people start talking about it, perhaps you’ll remember reading this little meditation-cum-review and think to pick up the book. But, by then, where will the comments thread on this post be? You’ll post your reaction on your own blog and our imperfect, ill-timed conversation will carry on imperfectly, at its own lugubrious and erratic pace.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Spring Break

I'm off to Florida with my family for a week.

I'm sure you'll find plenty to read in my absence...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Those Dry & Witty Stracheys

One of the great, great pleasures of editing--gleaning great quotations from the reviews one edits. My favorite in a long time is this, from my friend Jay's review of a biography of the Strachey family (Lytton was the most famous brother, a great friend of Woolf and author of the terrific Eminent Victorians). Lytton's sister Pernel describes to her elder sister Pippa of a typical Newnham College nightly ritual:
I have got to go to a hideous entertainment called a cocoa; you are given one spoonful of powdery cocoa and one spoonful of ‘cow’ that is condensed milk. These you mix together in a cup of milk till they look like mud; boiling water is then poured on, the next process being to try and drink it. Weird cakes are also passed around. At 10 o’clock at night this depresses me somewhat.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Delta Zeta at DePauw: Sisterhood is Global?

I’m still chewing over the horrific, tragicomic events at DePauw’s chapter of Delta Zeta sorority. You may have read the article in the Times last weekend: representatives from the national headquarters of the sorority had been unhappy with the house for some time. It was not full and had a reputation for attracting members who were a little too smart and not quite pretty enough… I could stop right there and be justified in my outrage.

Anyway, representatives from national swooped in and summarily evicted 23 members--including all (or, according to some reports, all but one) minorities and everyone who was a little overweight. Of the twelve remaining “sisters,” six resigned in protest over the action.

The heartless women from national evicted these women on December 2, just before finals, as has been widely reported. In an eloquent letter of protest to Delta Zeta’s headquarters from DePauw’s president, Robert Bottoms, he notes that the timing of the notices created “an unacceptable disruption in the academic lives of our students.” I can only imagine the distress of these young women, most of whom care about their grades and their education, upon learning this news just as they were gearing up to study for exams.

This action--and the DZ officials’ lame, double-talking justifications of it on CNN and elsewhere--has only reconfirmed my very worst suspicions of what is wrong with sororities and the Greek system in general. I am outraged at the evictions themselves--so antithetical to sisterhood--and the timing of them--so hostile to education. Susie Bright, so clever and so much brasher than I, writes about how the “Greek system is founded on discriminations of race, class, and family— sugar-coated over the years as a ‘way to make friends.’” Then she gets to the heart of what is so sickening about this action--and so heartening about the admirable, brave behavior of the young DePauw women since. She reminds us how sororities “prey on every freshman's fear of being lonely and miserable.” Furthermore, she says, let us not forget what it means that DZ national so prizes pretty women who are good at “recruiting”:
It's the heightened heterosexual regime of trophy wife assembly. These young women must learn to project the promise of Virgin WASP Money while getting sloshed and performing merit-based blow jobs on a calculated ladder of potential husbands, i.e., frat-brats. Plenty of the De Pauw ‘undesirables’ had boyfriends and sex lives— they just weren't ‘partying’ hard enough. Yep, their booze and tease stats were too low to qualify.
Disgustingly put--and deservedly so. Bright’s vulgarity lays bare the vulgarity of how the Greek system continues an old-fashioned middle-class marriage market in which women attend college to secure their class position not through career but through marriage.

I taught at DePauw for four years and I remember Delta Zeta as an all right sorority. On a campus where the vast majority of students belong to a sorority, it was difficult to maintain my natural suspicion of the Greek system. And, as you might imagine, when three quarters of the students are “Greek,” some of the sororities and fraternities turn out to be all right--not as horrific and exclusionary as the usual run of such organizations. Newsweek quotes DePauw’s Dean of Students as praising the old DZ for filling "a great, eclectic niche." That’s not, as Newsweek notes, typical of sororities. Still, the model of houses (maybe) being like special interest dormitories was the one that prevailed when I was at DePauw. And, judging by the school’s memo of its recommitment to Greek Life, it continues to be the hope of the DePauw administration.

I do not see how anyone can continue to countenance that hope in the face of these events. It’s time for the sororities and fraternities to go. It’s time to find a better way to help college students find friends and overcome the social terror of moving from home into the world.

There was a lot of talk all over the web about this last week. MommyPhD does some eloquent hand-wringing over this--she is a DZ alum; BitchPhD praised the sisterhood of the resigning six--everyone’s heroes, for sure; some well-meaning but na├»ve mothers and boyfriends are quoted over at mothertalkers; Jennifer Weiner is mad, too. And you can find more at the university website and the very good student newspaper.