Wednesday, September 26, 2007


When I interviewed Alice Sebold, I didn’t have a copy of her new book, so I asked her what it was about.

It’s about, she said, a woman who kills her mother.

I immediately thought of Electra and Orestes, plotting to kill Clytemnestra to avenge her murder of their father. My thoughts don’t usually go so highbrow so fast, but there you have it. You mention matricide to me and, trying to imagine antecedents (because that’s the kind of literary connection that interests me), I start mentally flipping through the files of Greek drama, Shakespeare, and the opera.

But now that I have the book on my nightstand, I see that it’s about a woman who helps an aging and ill mother die. A very different kind of murder, to me.

Or is it?

One of the great pleasures of the summer was reading Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear. I totally fell in love with it and am going to be teaching it at the end of the semester. In this book, the thrill of a spy plot maps onto the protagonist’s guilty conscience: he murdered his wife, a crime for which he served time in prison. And for most of the book, that murder hangs heavily over his psyche and the plot. Gradually, however, Greene lets you understand that his “murder” occurred in the context of the main character’s husband watching his wife make a slow, excruciating decline towards death from cancer. This isn’t murder as I usually understand it. But it is murder to the protagonist, a scruple that makes him all the more appealing as a person. However quick I may be (I keep writing “we” and then reminding myself to revert to “I,” to remember that I speak only for myself) to excuse or forgive someone caught in the awful position of watching a beloved die, to forgive their deciding to help that death come more quickly, it must be a painful, agonizing decision. How could one ever know if one were releasing the beloved or simply releasing oneself from caretaking?

This is why, I think, stories about people who insist on labeling euthanasia as “murder” appeal to me even though I am strongly averse to that as a political or legal label.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Do you ever stumble upon the blog of someone whom you know in “real” life and read it, sneakily comparing the online persona against the person you know? Do you ever confess to a live friend that you blog only to have them come out to you as a reader?

Great guilty pleasures, both, of our digital age.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Highbrow & Lowbrow, in print & online

I’m sorry to have missed Mark Sarvas et al.’s panel up at Columbia on Tuesday night: it sounds like a banner version of the longstanding/ongoing conversation about blogs and book reviews. You can read accounts by James Marcus and Ed Champion (I won’t characterize them, as Mark labeling Ed [accurately] as “impressionistic” seemed to get Ed into a lather….). On James’ site, a British commenter alludes to the lively discussion over there on the same topic. If you want a flavor of that, you can do no better than to read my friend Louise Tucker’s brilliant blog post on the so-called Golden Age of publishing (an illusion, she reminds us). I was glowing with pride when it went up--all the more so when it got 263 comments! Way to launch a polemic.

Editor Elizabeth Sifton compared Mark to Irving Howe--a lovely, flattering, amazing compliment. I don’t know Howe’s work well enough to be able to guess the specific contours of the comparison beyond the notion that, like Howe, Mark writes very intelligent, clear criticism, the kind of criticism that serious readers can learn from. The kind of criticism that doesn’t require one’s being fully up-to-date on the latest theory to grasp.

That sounds like an anti-theoretical barb. It’s not. Or not exactly. However, when reading about a fictional text, I like the references to philosophers and theorists who might illuminate that text to work in the service of the argument not as flamboyant signs of the writer’s erudition. I mean, I could spatter this whole posting with references to Habermas and Bourdieu, couldn’t I? But why?

From all accounts, it seems that the flame throwing between newspapers and blogs has abated. The papers may have run out of ammunition. Everyone recognizes--even the Times, which ended TimesSelect this week--that the future of daily information is digital and free.

The question of the day now, has returned to the richer one of popular versus elite. What is the best way to reach an audience? Are open forums the best way to be democratic? Is a thoughtful, learned review necessarily snobby?

I don’t think these questions are ones of either/or: each critic has his or her foibles--as readable as James Wood is, for example, it’s hard to assign him to undergraduates because of his pretty pervasive habit of quick, unexplained allusions to Continental and Russian novelists (along the lines of: “Unlike Turgenev, Conrad’s fathers…”). Older readers get used to this and find such tags either helpful or not, but young readers often get stopped: “Oh, no! I haven’t read Turgenev. I have no idea what he’s talking about…” The ability to keep reading in one’s ignorance, trusting that context will fill in clues, is a skill, and some days, it’s not on my lesson plan.

What I want to note, however, is that the blogosphere seems to have spawned a new breed of nonacademic literary critics, of academic literary critics who make an effort to write jargon-free prose. Read Mark or Bud Parr or Garth Risk Hallberg or Ana Maria Correa and you’ll see what I mean. These critics also draw our attention to literary critics working primarily in print--James Wood is maybe the leading example--whose work is intelligent and readable.

Those of us in the academy would do well to take note.

Counting and Keeping Track

I aim for four blog entries per week and usually make three though, with the new semester and its new routine, I’m searching for moments to make even that work.

I am to exercise three times a week and often make it.

I have even--gulp--joined WeightWatchers and find myself counting “points” and “core foods” and swapping 30 minutes of pilates for a glass of wine.

So why can’t I make my goal of 20 pages of Dalloway a day?

Keeping track of things, setting short-term weekly goals that get reset every Monday morning works for me. In graduate school, I was still not fully in the computer age. I was keeping a shoeb0x-sized card file with short thumbnail summaries of every article and book I read for my dissertation. In order to keep track of my progress--in order to give myself a feeling of progress--I made little progress cards with a chart listing the work that, in an ideal week, a dissertator would accomplish:
  • seven pages written
  • one book read & noted
  • three articles read and noted
Each Sunday night, I would think back on my week, assess my progress, and then, vow to make my goal next time. I don’t think I ever did as much work as I thought I ideally should, but I did finish the dissertation.

It turns out, I think, that I am just on the edge of being a textual editor. I find the process really interesting in the abstract but I don’t quite have the discipline to carry out the tiresome work of collating editions.

And, with that, I must turn to page 183 of the 1928 Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway and see how it differs--if it differs--from the first English edition. Comma by comma; line by line.

Perhaps I should, Bridget Jones style, start blog entries with the summary of the day’s accomplishments: ”18 pp. MD, v.g.; one slice pie, v.b.; 30 minutes pilates, g.; blog entry, g…

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bad Reviews

Have I lost my edge?

I mean, have I fallen prey to the habit of only praising books? Of only writing good things about them?

I don't think so. In my review of Jean Thompson, I raved about the book but I did say that bits were too easy: that's not totally gutless. And in a review I just turned in of two scholarly books on modernism, I had some rather strong things to say about the weaker book and didn't really mince words about the better one, either. But then, that review is 16 months late (academia allows such appalling behavior though it shames me) in part because I've been dreading finding the right way to finesse my wording.

Still, I'm surprised to see that my very brief account of Glendinning's biography of Leonard leads one to think that I liked the book. I think the same is true of the forthcoming short review for the Virginia Woolf Miscellany.

I did not like it.

But, somehow, I found that hard to say.

Knowing I was going to review this book, I read Glendinning's biography of Bowen early in the year. I'm thinking about spy fiction for my project after the Dalloway one, and Bowen will certainly be a centerpiece. I know that she knew some of the Cambridge spies and I was hoping to figure out some leads there. Instead, I came away depressed and discouraged. Glendinning made Bowen seem dull and ordinary, not an author one would want to pursue study of.

This was discouraging--about Bowen and about Glendinning. How could I get through the Leonard biography? I was not hopeful, but then, once begun, I loved the first two or three chapters about his life before marriage. And then, we got to the part where he meets and falls in love with Virginia Stephen. It was a complicated courtship, over-determined by their mutual love of Lytton Strachey, who loved both but would marry neither. (Which makes sense, given that nagging problem of sexuality: hard for Leonard, who was straight, to be with Lytton; hard for Lytton, who was gay, to be with Virginia--to whom he proposed in a moment of panic.) There were other factors as well. When are there not?

But in Glendinning's account, the 30 years of their marriage were, for Leonard, a long and stressful exercise in postponing the inevitable suicide of Virginia.

It's clear that Glendinning finds Virginia weird.

I suppose she was.

But that seems an unfortunate attitude in a biographer.

And some of this I said, I think, in my review. But I cordoned off my frustration--my anger, at times--because I could see that were I to write a review that really argued what I sketch above, I would simply come off as one of those disgruntled Woolfians, too in love with Virginia to see what a burden, what a sick weirdo, she truly was…

Perhaps it's not so much a question of whether or not I've lost my edge as it is testament to the difficulty of tone in prose. Things that one can say aloud to a friend, things that one can write in a blog such as this, even, don't always translate into the measured prose of a review--even for so tiny a print publication as the Virginia Woolf Miscellany which is, after all, stapled, for goodness sakes…

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

“Mama? Remember that movie with the really good dancing? The one with the clapping and the stomping and the really pretty dancing? What was that movie?”

Vaguely worried, I think back to a video of High School Musical 2 that we saw over the weekend: “High School Musical?”

“No. The one with the really pretty dancing.”



I wrack my brain. What else have we watched? Then I remember that she came up for water on Friday night when her father and I were watching a video. Interested, she stayed for a few minutes before going down to bed. “Pride and Prejudice?”

“Yeah. Can I watch that. I mean now, like today, when I’m still little? Can I watch it?”

So she did. And about two thirds through, came out to see us, while we were eating dinner, in tears, “This movie is just so beautiful, it’s making me cry.”

She’ll be five in three months. She doesn’t eat vegetables. But she can’t understand why “that man” (Mr. Darcy) is “so grumpy all the time” and thinks that Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley) is really, really pretty.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

How to Write, Venus Edition

Strange, then, to turn from Mosely to Danell Jones’ The Virginia Woolf Writer’s Workshop. Where all of his examples seem to lead a person to genre fiction replete with dark psychological motivations and violence (one long chapter discusses a hypothetical Mad Max-style road/vengeance father-son plot), Jones mines a more encouraging, feminine, and thoroughly Woolfian vein.

A long while back, I got a random email from her: she had this idea to cull all Woolf’s advice about writing from her books--novels, essays, diaries, and letters--into one place and write a kind of writer’s guide in the voice of Virginia Woolf. Bored and curious more than hopeful, I agreed to give it a look. Most academics won’t stick their necks out for stuff like this, but I love it, find it fun, and don’t mind venturing my opinion where my knowledge might be thin. (What, after all do I know about novel-writing?)

The manuscript was really rough but promising. I sent her my comments. She, by return of post, sent me a really beautiful scarf! That was unexpected.

The book is so much improved and it is now really, really lovely--welcoming. I read it in proofs and now the finished copy is here. It’s very pretty, which is nice. But she really pulled it off: she makes it possible to imagine the delightful, absurd but not so absurd possibility that you’re taking a writing workshop from Woolf. She’s woven together dozens and dozens of quotations from across all of Woolf’s work seamlessly and effectively (and, they’re all indexed in the back). Here’s how the book begins:
What, she writes on the board, are the conditions necessary to produce a work of art?
Up shoots the hand of a young woman in an Ani DiFranco T-shirt. “A room of her own and five hundred a year?”
True, she says, amazed how the words she wrote all those years ago seem to have sprouted wings…”
With chapters on Practicing, Working, Creating, Walking, Reading, Publishing, and Doubting, Jones captures the key topics that Woolf meditated on in her comments on writing. And, of course, these are topics of great interest to us all.

There’s another new light book on Woolf out this month, too, though I haven’t seen it yet, I’m eager to get my hands on Ilana Simons’ A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Maybe this will be this year’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. As tiresome and irritating as I now find Alain deBotton, that was, I thought, a genuinely amusing and good book.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Quarterly Conversation, Fall 2007

It's now available online.

You can read my review of Jean Thompson's Throw Like a Girl.

You can read a review by fellow Hudson County blogger, Matt Cheney or one by the fabulous Sarah Weinman.

You can read the lead article, on James Wood and DeLillo's Falling Man, by Garth Hallberg of the Millions, whose own novel has just come out.

You can read Scott's own piece on prison lit.

And there is a lot more, too.


How to Write, Mars Edition

Around the time that John Scalzi’s screed against writing in coffee shops came out, I got a copy of Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel. Shortly after that, I got a manuscript of Dannell Jones’s The Virginia Woolf Writer’s Workshop, too.

I liked both books a lot. Both offered a pleasant distraction and that momentary pleasing sense that one’s novel (Am I writing a novel? perhaps, but, for the moment, only in my dreams) is just a few simple steps away. The “you’re not fooling anyone” mode that Scalzi went for doesn’t really work for me. I’m much more inclined, if I were to shell out money for a self-help book on writing to go the encouraging/pragmatic route.

This Year You Write Your Novel is an odd, left-handed way to get introduced to Mosely, but there it is: I’ve read one book by him and this is it. One of my favorite college professors really loved him and was sorely disappointed that the first Easy Rawlins movie was a disappointment. I saw him--fancy, sparkly, and big, standing outside the Javitz Center at BEA. That’s it.

And, months ago as I was thinking about writing about this guide, I saw that he’d been in a little brouhaha over a recent pornographic novel. Prude that I am, I just didn’t want to enter that conversation (I still don’t), so that became another reason not to write.

Still, Moseley’s book is wonderful: quick, smart, and very narrow in its focus. It’s not about managing your time or publishing. It’s about actually going from start to finish with a draft of a novel. A great, reasonable goal. He focuses on the balance between really going for the dream of the story--the deep unconscious thing that makes it work--and discipline. You must, he says over and over, sit down and write daily. You will, he reminds us, neglect other parts of your life. What I love best is how he just affectionately shrugs at the problems that may cause for some of his readers:
I know that this is difficult. Some of you live in tight spaces with loved ones. Some of you work so hard that you can’t see straight half the time. Some of you have little ones who might need your attention at any time of the day or night.
I wish I had the answers to these problems. I don’t.
That seems right and kind to me. The problem of time is one of the big problems of writing, but we each have to solve that problem in our own apartments.

Monday, September 03, 2007


I haven’t yet written anything about London. I’ll try to remedy that this week--it’ll be a nice respite from the dizzying demands of the beginning of school.

After complaining about modern travel, it’s only fair to note that, of my six round-trip flights since April, the flights on Air India from New York to London and back were the two that were almost entirely without incident.

I’d never flown Air India before, but I’ll do it again in a minute. The chief steward announced that, once we reached our cruising altitude, the crew would be serving us “a sumptuous dinner.” A phrase worth risking an airline meal for, I think.

It wasn’t quite that--the lamb curry was a touch over-microwaved--but the hot mix was a million times better than pretzels and diner came with yogurt and a yummy milky sweet dessert and really good tea. (Well, the flight continued from London to Mumbai [which, by the way, all of the Indian crew consistently called “Bombay…” C’mon! We’re trying here! It’d be like going to China and having everyone talk about Peking. {Maybe they do…} It’s disconcerting and funny.], so how could they not have good tea?)

The stewardess initially seemed to raise an eyebrow when I requested a beer, but she immediately offered a second and then also insisted I choose some water, too.

The movie was “The Year of the Dog,” an indie film about a woman whose dog dies starring Molly Shannon. It was a downer, but interesting: a good, serious movie. Imagine that.

The documentary feature was on low-cost green architecture in India.

The map charting our progress continually announced: “Physical Features Map Only. NO POLITICAL BOUNDARIES DEPICTED,” which isn’t such an issue crossing the Atlantic, but surely comes into play with that pesky border with Pakistan.

The plane was nearly empty on the way to London, so I had three seats to myself and got some real rest. The quicker-thinking Indian grandmother near me nabbed the middle five--all four feet of her--still, I could kind of lie down and I arrived in London on Sunday morning feeling almost human.

On the way home, the plane was full. I sat with a working mom from Boston and her two-year-old daughter. Father and the older girl were sitting up ahead. They were returning from a month with grandparents back in India and we had a pleasant time commiserating over travel with small children. Hers were lovely.

And the vegetarian dinner was truly sumptuous this time.

Funny to travel to London to look at the manuscript of a novel in which a character returns to London from India and thinks about how much has changed in London since his departure. What would Woolf, what would Peter Walsh, think of me--seventy years on--traveling to London on an Indian jet full of affluent Indians?

Seeing that first class is not in my future, this seems like the way to go: pay $200 less than any American carrier AND get treated like a human being.