Thursday, February 26, 2009

Metaphor: Bad prose and inspiration

I'm growing weary of the abundance of post-its on my computer monitor, so I'm trying to take them down today. (Don't worry, it doesn't take long the for the clutter to reaccumulate...) And, while I don't often blog about my students or my teaching, two of the little scraps I'm tossing seem worthy of sharing.

First, from a textbook, for the BLOCK THAT METAPHOR file:
"In reality personal and professional ethics share some common ground and this makes the perceived clash between the two easier to digest."
All last year, I worked one-on-one with an ESL student. Mostly, we marched through readings from class. The textbooks were so badly written and so abstract that I could see where the struggles came. This sentence was so difficult to parse and it yielded so little meaning (ethical behavior at work overlaps with individual ethics? really? stop the presses!), that I couldn't stop laughing and I copied it down just to remind myself how not to write, how much were were asking of our students.

Then, from an application, a wonderful moment of heroic rhetoric right here in the 21st century: "Like Leonidas at Thermopylae, my grandfather did not stop fighting..."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rebecca Solnit inspires

I knew that I was onto something when I invited Rebecca Solnit to be the keynote speaker at the Woolf conference. I knew that her admiration for Woolf was enough: that all that is interesting about her writing would make her an inspiration to the 200 or so scholars and readers who are coming to New York in June.

Still, how exciting to read that Solnit's book on walking (that most Woolfian of topics) inspired director Astra Taylor's latest film. The 29-y.o. director of "Zizek!" wanted to make another film on philosophy, but:
If people found talking-head films uncinematic, what would they make of a talking-egghead film? “Secretly I thought it was going to be disastrous,” Ms. Taylor said in a recent interview. “I might as well do an audio interview.” Then it occurred to her that her talking heads should walk and talk. She had just read “Wanderlust,” a discursive study of the history of walking by Rebecca Solnit, and was reminded of the figure of the peripatetic philosopher, from Aristotle (who paced the Lyceum while teaching) to Kierkegaard (a proponent of thinking while walking, which he frequently did in the Copenhagen streets) to Walter Benjamin (the embodiment of the Paris flâneur). She realized that putting her subjects in motion would elicit a different kind of interview than if they were seated behind their desks in offices. This conceit became a guiding principle for a film that would attempt to take philosophy out of the ivory tower and affirm its place in the flux of everyday life.
I share this sense that walking is central to thinking. Had I more patience, I could regale you with smart reasons why, but let's leave it at:

Isn't this cool?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Beyond Suspicion by Tanguy Viel

In Three Lives back in December, my favorite clerk told me to slow down on the Bolano craze. She could see my fatigue, my lack of commitment to a new big book. Try this, she said, passing me a copy of Tanguy Viel’s Beyond Suspicion, it got me through a reading slump.

Reading slump: that is certainly where I was in December. No fool I, I knew that a single stylish French thriller couldn’t kick me back into gear, so I eased back into reading with the latest Eloisa James. She never disappoints. But, back to the Viel. What is it and what did I think?

It’s a slim little noir volume. The blurbs compare it to Patricia Highsmith, whom I have not read, but it does have that Talented Mr. Ripley perverse-Hitchcockian flavor. The story centers on two couples: an older pair of brothers and a brother and sister pair who target the older couple in a gold-digging scheme.

The brother and sister are also lovers. Or the lovers are pretending to be brother and sister. Part of the pleasure of the text is the coyness on that front: the frisson of incest. The incest taboo also insures that they will be beyond suspicion (the title) in their scheme to hook, marry, and murder the one brother.

I liked the book, but it’s not going to resonate with me long term. At the same time, I would read another of these little confections. It’s stylish, slick, and short. Even I, distracted and slow, consumed it in a couple days. It’s very cinematic for sure, without reading like a film treatment. And yet it really is just very very elegant candy: there isn’t much to it. The frisson of incest is important to the plot, sure, but it doesn’t lead to any insights, it doesn’t really lead anywhere. The book does have a thriller-climax, but it’s not thrilling: there’s a dead body, the murder hasn’t quite gone as planned, there is a witness…or is there? Isn’t that the way they all end?

Sarah, she who reads all, read it too.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cause and Effect

The toddler was in the highchair, wailing, when I came to pick her up yesterday after my day at the museum with the big girl. She was in time out.

She ran to me for comfort. I scooped her up, but then asked her why she was in trouble. I got some confused, panicked finger-pointed about how he did this and he did that and then she put me in chair and I cry. The teacher explained: she doesn't listen when the teacher says no. They've been working on this, but she still doesn't listen. So, she had a time out. Mommy approves.

So, later, we are reviewing the lesson:

Mommy's prompt: "So, when Miss Lizbeth says no...."

Baby's answer: "I get time out."

I love that naughty, unreconstructed baby. She cuts right to the chase.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Met and the vet

Even when it’s a school holiday, I usually forge ahead. Especially since having kids, I feel all the more sure that time is slipping past, writing is not getting done, and every three-day weekend needs to be seized as a chance to write a bit more, to catch up (with what? sometimes I wonder).

I don’t quite know why I decided, against my workaholic ways, to take today off. It’s true that I am tired beyond tired, so tired that the tears were flowing down my cheeks the other day and I was powerless to stop them.

In any case, I did the supremely indulgent thing of sending the toddler off to daycare and taking the kindergartener into the Met. We had a spiral notebook and a mesh bag of colored pencils for her. We quickly suss each gallery for a place to draw. She chooses a work of art—preferring three- to two-dimensions—and begins sketching. I have time to read and study every work of art at great leisure before she’s done with a single sketch. We walk quickly through a few rooms and then it’s time to sketch again.

I haven’t had such a leisurely visit to the Met in years. We caught the last day of “Art and Love in the Renaissance,” lingering over cradles and birth bowls, moving more quickly through the room devoted to courtesans (although a majolica platter featuring a head made of a collage of penises did make us both giggle); some Impressionist paintings (including Degas’ sculpture of the 14-year-old dancer); the shark in a tank (which she found terrifying and puzzling “why would you want to make art that upsets people mommy?”); Egyptian art, including, of course, the Temple of Dendur.

By then, it was time for lunch. After all this sophistication, all our chat about the jubilant brushstrokes of Monet and how this or that painting looked slightly pointillist, she chose the taxicab: a dozen chicken nuggets, a bag of Lay’s, and a juice box served in a cardboard box that looks like a taxicab. She drove it around the table, making “stops” to pick up nuggets and chips, in spite of my pleas that the table might have germs on it. She is still six, after all.

We had a totally amazingly fun day. It is so immensely great to have such a companion: I feel overwhelmingly lucky and also sheepish to take such pleasure in my own child.

And lest I feel any pang of guilt over playing hooky, I remind myself that the day began cleaning up after a sick dog and ended at the vet’s office, getting medicine for same. She is fine. One of the most amazing and hard things about adulthood is the sheer relentlessness of life: even on a day dedicated to art and ease, there is a load of laundry to cycle through, ditto for the dishwasher, and a sick dog to clean up after.

Happy President’s Day!

Monday, February 09, 2009

We interrupt this litblog...

An occasional feature just to remind us that we live in a world that is...well, very, very scary.

(h/t Rachel Maddow for showing the graphic after Obama's masterful first presser.)

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Blossom Dearie

Blossom Dearie has died, of natural causes, at 82.

If you don't know her wonderful hip, very, very white jazz style, you owe it to yourself to check it out. She'll have your fingers snapping and have you feeling like a really happy, very posh beatnik in no time. Just the antidote to my February blues.

She is amazing. She takes a simple little song like "Tea for Two" and slows it WAY down, making it sultry and cool. Or "Surrey with a Fringe on Top," from Oklahoma of all things, suddenly is full of a sexy urban wink: something utterly different from the great but totally straight version by Shirley Jones and Gordon Macrae. I love her "Rhode Island is Famous for You," one of the great place name songs.

Verve Records has a nice compilation of her essential hits. I was collecting those at some point in the 90s and somehow this one made my list. I've never regretted it. Terry Teachouts much smarter and more informed remembrance is here--with a video clip of "Surrey with a Fringe on Top" as a bonus!

I am so grateful to her for her lovely songs. May she rest in peace.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


We're deep in the semester all of a sudden and my inbox is burgeoning with all kinds of texts to read and review. The most literary of the lot: proofing my own prose. It's a lot of donkey work for the next few weeks and I'm finding it hard to leave it behind even in my dreams.

Last night? I was an apprentice in a sighted (i.e. not blind) John Milton's print shop, keeping him company as he composed an elegy for John Donne. Then, I fashioned an ear of corn out of straw: the sole decoration on the pinecone wreath. He saw this as a delightfully frivolous touch and wondered aloud at how beautiful the other mourners would find it. He felt that he was really pulling out all the stops.

No Puritan, I knew that others would be leaving gaudy wreaths of yellow and gold mums. Still, I saw how starkly beautiful it was and thought that it would be the most unusual and glorious wreath in the graveyard.

Yes, it’s February.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

My sister-in-law gave me Three Cups of Tea for Christmas 2007. I was a snob about it: it looked so Oprah, so popular, that I was skeptical. But also curious. I finally read it. It is amazing that Greg Mortenson could manage, with a ghost-writer, to take such a gripping, thrilling story and write such a clunky book. It took me a very long time to get past the clumsy prose. I would read a page and come across an inadvertent pun, an odd Germanic neologism, a word that might be an adverb or a verb, rendering the sentence needlessly ambiguous and confusing.

And then, Mortenson is such a Western type. He reminds me of guys I used to date—or try to date—out in Seattle. Living in his car, dating a doctor, he grows angry at her desire for a meal. He is saving his pennies to build a school in Pakistan! She should be happy with ramen! Believe me, I’ve been there. I once made ramen and a tuna sandwich for a boyfriend who grew enraged that I had cooked two nights worth of food in one.

But I remembered that Nicholas Kristof (who shares the Western boy ethos but remains a hero) had written a glowing account of Mortenson’s work, founding schools in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan, focusing on girls education. I know, too, I need to know more about Pakistan and that when faced with a more serious article, I tend to skip or skim.

There is quite a bit of The Man Who Would Be King to this tale. There are definitely moments, especially early on, when Mortenson’s story made me uneasy. The son of missionaries (as I am the great-granddaughter of missionaries, so I cast no stones, only recognize the dangers of that drive to set off to elsewhere in the hopes of changing it), Mortenson failed to reach the summit of K2, got lost and disoriented, and, after a long recovery, promised his host village that he’d return to build them a school.

When a fellow American arrives at the construction site and Greg asks him to march around like a “Big Man,” I grew really worried. The account of his detention in Waziristan, too, reads like a scene from any recent Muslim-baiting Hollywood film. (This will be a film, mark my words.)

But there is a lot more here. The prose improves as the story chugs along and the adventures make the lousy prose less obtrusive in later chapters. (Still, if you read it, I counsel you to read fast and for the plot! It could have been so much better.)

Mortenson seems to have learned genuine lessons about cooperation and humility. So, although his charity now trades on his story as the cowboy who singlehandedly built over 60 schools (a major, major achievement, there is no doubt), what I love about the book is the way that he has the village elders cut the ribbon at a school’s inauguration.

I am most moved, however, by how this man grew to recognize the power of educating women. When he sets off to build that first school, the town surprises—and frustrates—him by asking for a bridge first. But that bridge suddenly permits women to walk home to their mothers every Friday. In a remote, craggy region where marriage often means saying goodbye forever, this is a huge gift to a community: young wives remain connected and, through this connection, are happier people. When he returns, years later, a young girl marches into a council of elders and demands tuition for a certificate program in maternal health. Now. Mortenson first puts her off, but then suddenly sees that she represents all he has been working for: a young woman, leapfrogging over centuries of patriarchy, to stand up for herself and the women of her village, proud, confident, and utterly unafraid of men. It is hard not to see the goodness—the greatness of this.

Education matters and it matters most among those who have so little access to it.

If, as Kristof argues, as Mortenson shows, we cared more about education and less about bombs, we might just remake the world. For all the posturing and purple prose, I came away impressed by the book.

If personality-driven charities make you more allergic, Kristof also recommends this one, Developments in Literacy, run by Pakistani-Americans. It’s all about the kids.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Women’s Project Presents Freshwater

When I first got word that there would be a first-ever professional production of Virginia Woolf’s only play, Freshwater, I was cautiously excited. It could be terrific; it could go so wrong in so many ways.

Freshwater is a farce, a little drawing room romp, that Woolf wrote for her niece Angelica’s birthday party. The inside jokes are thick and fast: Bloomsburies played on the roles of their Victorian elders. The characters are Julia Margaret Cameron, the great Victorian photographer (and Woolf’s great-aunt); her husband, Charles Hay Cameron; the painter George Frederick Watts; his child-bride Ellen Terry; Tennyson, and Lt. John Craig, the only character not based in history.

While Tennyson, the Camerons, and Watts expound on the purity and beauty of art (with Tennyson quoting himself often and at length), Ellen Terry chafes under the strictures of a life that is bohemian and strangely dull. She jumps at the chance to escape to Bloomsbury where she and her beau will dine on sausages and kippers, far from any nightingale’s song.

But allusions to “Maud” are just not hilarious to most people and there is little more tiresome than going to the theater to congratulate yourself on what a clever little English major you are. Director Anne Bogart, dramaturg Megan Carter (who came to talk to my class on Friday!! Thank you!), and the rest of the cast and crew have figured out ways to translate Woolf's highbrow farce for a 21st century audience. In doing so, they show us how funny Woolf can be, and, more importantly, have created a really fun, happy bon bon of a show.

This charming production begins with the glorious set: step off the frigid streets into the tiny, dark lobby of the Julia Miles Theater, and then, into the house itself to see James Schuette’s joyous set, lit like a summer’s day, festooned with a crazy amateurish patchwork curtain, sewn together from dozens of primary-colored pillowcases. The amazing Akiko Aizawa, playing the maid, sets the merry tone: she marches back and forth across the stage, military style, only to look out, sternly counting the audience and then, suddenly, girlishly, to break character, giggle and point, as if at friends and family. Meanwhile the actors backstage whisper and hush each other. It feels as much like being at a village pageant or a local theatrical as possible.

Then, out pops the daffy Gian Murray Gianino, in full Gilbert and Sullivan style military garb to sing “All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor.”
All the nice girls love a sailor
All the nice girls love a tar
For there's something about a sailor
(Well you know what sailors are!)
It’s very hard not to smile. What a relief! Hilarious and delightful, the show continues, drawing from vaudeville, music hall and Monty Python to make sure that even long parodic speeches on the importance of art are full of pratfalls and laughter.

The show is funny and meant to be, but it also makes pointed fun of the self-absorption of artists. Woolf admired artistic dedication, but, as director Anne Bogart pointed out in the talk-back after the show, it’s also about not hurting others in the pursuit of art. For this, the youthful Ellen Terry is our guide: she is bored, posing for a painting, and no one cares. It’s one thing for Watts to dedicate his life to perfecting a painting, but quite another to demand his wife spend her days perfectly still. This is the comic version of Woolf’s critique of Milton and Carlyle.

I have a lot more to say, but other things in my day are calling. You can read reviews in Variety and the New York Times.

“Freshwater” is playing in limited run until February 15. There are discounts available, but even the full-priced tickets are an affordable $42. It’s a little dose of summer in midwinter. Do go!