Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tomorrow, I say to myself, I shall plunge into the thick of it.

An amazing gem on the writer’s life, from Woolf’s letters:
“Here we are with our noses to the grindstone. The grindstone is made of innumerable books which have to be transubstantiated into precisely the right number of articles, containing the right sentiments, views and facts, in the right number of words at the right moment. This not once, but weekly, every week, very month, every year—till all our precious time is over, and life, which surely has other uses, has poured in cataracts of printers ink, down the main gutter to the Thames. Perhaps the horror will mitigate. I have had only 4 days writing at my novel [Mrs. Dalloway] since I got back. Tomorrow, I say to myself, I shall plunge into the thick of it. But how does one make people talk about everything in the whole of life, so that one’s hair stands on end, in a drawing room? How can one weight and sharpen dialogue till each sentence tears its way like a harpoon and grapples with the shingles at the bottom of the reader’s soul? (L 3.36; 13 May 1923; to Gerald Brenan)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Movie and a Journey

I’m not quite sure why I still get Parents magazine: it was reassuring when the babies were young toddlers, but I’ve pretty much outgrown it now that they’re 3 & 7. All that advice about pregnancy fitness and how to tell your boss that you’re not coming back to work after all (ha!) or how worried you really should be about the hidden perils of [insert your kid’s favorite food or activity] feels very distant, thank goodness, from my life now.

Still, I was really excited to see a short feature in the March 2010 issue on great foreign films for kids and families. I depend on DVDs for some family quiet time and I’m always looking for cool stuff to show the girls. They got The Red Balloon, White Mane (on one DVD) and Paddle to the Sea (about our beloved St. Lawrence River!) for Christmas. It’s true that they prefer iCarly and Yo Gabba Gabba! (who wouldn’t?), but still, I feel better about screen time if some of it is imaginative and beautiful. (Yo Gabba Gabba is pretty awesome, I must say…)

Less excited to read this, about My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro; Japan 1988): “You can explain to your child that the Japanese culture is rich in superstition.”

Really? Is superstition the big lesson about Japan that we’re taking away? I understand that it’s hard to write a “Cultural Highlight” for each of six films in 20 words or less, but I think we can do better than that.

And don’t bother trying to find the list on the Parents magazine website which is so cluttered with ads and surveys that it’s like descending into the Sunday supplement of your local newspaper only to find the comics are missing.

Still, the movies recommend sound great and my girls will be getting a couple for Easter, I think. I wish they had included a Spanish film. I combed the web for suggestions, but all the most popular Spanish films are dubbed Disney movies. I found a big list of Spanish-language films here, and, combing through it, some

Here are the recommendations:
  • My Neighbor Totoro (Japan 1988) best for ages 4+
  • Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002) 10+
  • Children of Heaven (Iran 1997) 6+
  • The Red Balloon (France 1956) 4+
  • The Cave of the Yellow Dog (Mongolia 2005) 4+
  • Azur and Asmar (The Arabic Middle East [? I have no idea what that means?!] 2006) 6+ (imdb tells me it’s a Belgian film) 

I’d love to hear any others you’d add to the list—Spanish or no!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Household Help

Between The Known World, Wench, and Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, I have spent many, many hours of 2010 imagining slavery and servitude. Let me be very clear in saying that I in no way conflate one with the other. The idea of humans owning other humans is shudderingly abhorrent.

Nonetheless, and among many other things in their books, Alison Light, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Edward P. Jones all ask us to focus our imaginations on a small, domestic interior with two women, a master and a servant or slave, and the intense, fraught power relations contained within the smallest gestures. These scenes—in which a slave in The Known World backs up against the wall as she listens to an older woman lecture her newly widowed daughter on the folly of freeing her slaves, in which an infertile mistress fawns over her husband’s children by a slave while the mother must look on stoically—helped me better understand a much more benign but also beloved pair of scenes in Mrs. Dalloway in which Lucy, the beloved maid, and Clarissa, bicker in gestures—that’s the best way I can think to describe it, for no words are exchanged:

And Lucy, coming into the drawing-room with her tray held out, put the giant candlesticks on the mantelpiece, the silver casket in the middle, turned the crystal dolphin  towards  the  clock.

and then, many pages later...

"And how," she said, turning the crystal dolphin to stand straight, "how did you enjoy the play last night? "

Now, the scenes I referenced from Jones and Perkins-Valdez are grand in their significance; this one is in more of a minor key. Even so, through that crystal dolphin—a little gift to Vanessa, whose nickname was Dolphin—signifies the rigidity of the power dynamic between servant and mistress. Lucy likes working for Clarissa and she swells with pride at the thought of how much Clarissa’s guests will enjoy the party. Turning the crystal dolphin is an act of creativity or rebellion, perhaps, but when Clarissa turns it back straight, it’s not a conversation: it’s a power play. The mistress wins.

It’s really Alison Light who reminded me of this detail, for she found a fragment in the Monk's House Papers in Sussex which document Woolf’s own observation of the phenomenon:

“But in Bloomsbury the servants were not victims or drudges, and Woolf noted that even her char moved an ornament on the mantelpiece at Monk’s House to leave it ‘askew’ each day, a symptomatic act which, Woolf imagined, showed the desire for ornament and her thirst for art (it might equally have been an assertion of independence” (151)

I will only add that we hire a woman to come clean—every other week—and one of the first things I do when she leaves is to adjust all the ornaments that she has moved while dusting. I mean no insult in observing that she has a particularly rigid sense of symmetry. My aesthetic is, like Lucy’s, more askew.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Woolf’s Letters

Well now that’s done and I’m glad it’s over.—T. S. Eliot

I feel a bit like Eliot’s poor typist, home at tea-time and glad to shut the door on the young man carbuncular.

For the past three hours, I’ve been thumbing through a heavily post-it flagged volume of Woolf’s letters, read in July 2009, and typing every quotation therein which might be of use for the Dalloway edition. 

I have found many, many gems: wonderful little tidbits that will make great footnotes. I have learned so much about Woolf’s composition process and her imagination. Woolf’s dressmaker, for example, was called Sally Young; Clarissa Dalloway’s is called Sally Parker. But don’t these two Sallys make you think again about what it means that she chose to call Clarissa’s best friend Sally, too?

That said, I do not like Woolf’s letters.

I would have guessed that the worst of Woolf would emerge in the diary. So often, in articles, a scholar triumphs to demonstrate how a tone-down opinion in a novel or essay is expressed with greater venom (be it snobbery or anti-Semitism or hatred of the poor or horror of bodily functions) in the diaries, that I feared that I’d find the diaries hard going.

In fact, it’s the letters that seem to show Woolf at her worst: snobby, manic, overly eager to please, too clever by half. There are many many wonderful moments to be sure, but there are icky ones too. And I just don’t find icky  moments elsewhere in her work. And the diaries, such private documents, seem to observe a greater sense of decorum than the letters. I think this is so because she was her own audience in the diaries—they are not a special command performance for a friend or her sister—they are a place in which she asked herself to think with precision about an event, a person, or an image.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I told my mom to read The Known World, though I hadn’t read it. My mom had been bugging me to read it and I did. Somewhere in the middle of reading it, I read Tayari’s post about Wench and I knew that it was the next book for my mom and me.

Once again, my mom read it first and loved it. Now I’ve read it, too—and already leant it out to a friend.

Wench is based on a real resort in 1850s Xenia, Ohio where slave masters would take their slave mistresses on vacation. The three-part book focuses on Lizzie, one of four women who come together each summer to share stories and struggles. This is a serious novel but also a pleasurable one—it won’t break your heart and pull out your guts the way some other books about slavery do. Instead, it pulls you in to the incredible friendship among women, the way women need to learn to be true to each other and not depend on men.

What Perkins-Valdez does so amazingly is to offer up the story of all the confusing emotions of a young slave, Lizzie, who becomes her master’s mistress as a teen-ager. What is it she feels for him? Can you call it love when your lover owns you? When, on the last day of your “vacation” he ties you to the porch and leaves you a bowl of water like you’re a dog? Of course, it’s not anything we would want to call love, but it makes you think hard—very hard—about human attachments and marriage. Lizzie’s situation is an extreme version of what marriage was for many women for centuries: total economic dependence, lack of property (of course, a slave was property), utter lack of legal stature, utter lack of rights over one’s own body or to one’s children. If that is your situation and you’re still a human, mightn’t you soften a bit? Find some loyalty or affection for an owner who is attached to you? Find some ways to love and mother your children, to figure out—desperately, anxiously—ways to get your lover-owner to promise to free them?

I’m not surprised that this book is getting a lot of buzz (it's in its fourth printing already, last I heard!): it’s a wonderful story about the power of women, of a mother’s love, of friendship. You can read more about it here and here. And, if you're in New York, you can hear her read--and support Girls Write Now while you're at it--on February 26th.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Alison Light on voice

The thing that makes—or breaks—a book for me is voice. If its resonant, distinctive, authentic, I am eager to read on. But voice is so hard to describe. It certainly seems tricky to discuss it as a scholar with any kind of theoretical rigor, so I was really delighted by this passage in Mrs. Woolf and the Servants in which Light describes the impossibility of characterizing voice and then goes on to beautifully, carefully, characterize a speaking voice. Here, Light is describing the experience of listening to a series of BBC recordings of the recollections of servants:  
“No matter how patient the transcriber, a voice cannot be written down. Inevitably its flavour and richness is lost…On the page, Happy’s memories of her past read a little flatly…The taped interview, however, is a different story. Happy laughs throughout, a rich, throaty laugh, which often overcomes her, and stops her from talking….Mrs. Sturgeon also laughs every time she mentions a terrible experience. Her laughter ironizes much of what she recalls: ‘oh it was the the most marvelous door!’ she says, tongue in cheek, when she remembers the almost sacred ritual of cleaning the oak front door and the brass door knocker” (298)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants

As I mentioned last week, I finally read (and loved) Alison Light’s brilliant social history, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants. Light’s book opens with a chapter on Sophie Farrell, the Stephen & Duckworth family cook (and thus the cook of Woolf’s childhood) and then largely focuses on Nellie Boxall, Woolf’s cook for 18 years. Boxall, Farrell, and other servants of Bloomsbury become the occasion for meditating on the phenomenon of domestic service.

Until WWII, most women who worked, worked in domestic service but, understandably, the workers’ rights movements that were arising in the 20th century largely focused on waged labor outside the domestic sphere. Through careful excavation, Light, herself the granddaughter of a domestic worker, imagines the intense intimacies of the Victorian and modern home. (Image: Nellie Boxall; Harvard Theater Archives.)

The book was widely reviewed when it came out two years ago, so you’ve probably read all about it already. Still, the story doesn’t get stale. It’s amazing to think of Woolf growing up in a house where she just took off her clothes and let them fall to the floor, where servants cleaned her chamber pot every morning (how wonderful, I think, that I do not have to sleep near a big bowl of urine! One of the perks of the 21st century.), where she never cooked. Or that, when the Woolf’s hired switched to a daily cook in 1929, it was the first time in their lives that they had been alone in their house.

How very strange to think that: that one would live forty-seven years with an employee, a servant, always in the house. No wonder, I think, that the class of servant-employing British (from middle-class up, say), developed a national character of stiff upper lips and discretion. If someone else knew all my intimate details, everything about my body and its functions, I would develop some secrets in other parts of my life, too.

If you’re interested in others’ opinions on Light’s wonderful book, you might look to Mona Simpson in The Atlantic. I especially admired the way that she flipped the linkage between Orwell and Woolf (which usually goes to Orwell’s advantage) here:
Orwell’s relation to coal production remained abstract, whereas Woolf would see her own dinner cooked, her underwear scrubbed, and her chamber pot from the night before emptied and washed. Domestic work has always put the people doing the work and the ones benefiting from it in a deeply intimate and unequal relationship. Woolf needed to hire a woman in order to write. None of us, least of all a woman given to inward examination, wishes to think that the emotional conditions necessary for her to do the work she loves involve some form of oppression. These messy feelings of guilt and dependence may have been Woolf’s obstacle in depicting Nellie. Light’s book proves one thing that could not have been the problem: it wasn’t that Woolf didn’t love her enough.
 By contrast, I was quite disappointed with the conclusion of Claire Messud’s review in the Times. She writes "As readers, we must be grateful that Virginia had the good fortune to have help — she was so emotionally delicate that she would have written little without it."
I don’t think that emotional delicacy is the issue. In a house without toilets or central heating or a washing machine, where the oven had no gauges and temperatures had to be checked by sticking an arm in, without refrigeration, where food came daily, delivered by any number of sellers, it’s hard to imagine anyone managing to wash and iron clothes, tend the fire in the hearth and the kitchen, cook and clean meals and also write Mrs. Dalloway. I’m surprised that Messud is so unfair to Woolf—and in such a boring, antifeminist way.

There’s a nice post at the McNally Jackson blog, too. And Paula Maggio offered a great round-up of reviews, blog posts, and interviews back in 2008.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Alison Light, at last

Many years ago, I was at a conference in Oxford, feeling quite pleased with myself. My paper had gone well, I had made friends, I had spoken at Oxford! At the end of the day, I sat down next to a new acquaintance to await the last plenary talk. “Have you read Forever England?” My seatmate asked. I had not, but I was full of that anxious mix of adrenaline, confidence, and fear, so, to my regret I said “I heard it’s not very good.”

Alison Light was seated directly behind me, not seven inches back.

I was so ashamed that I think it deterred me from reading not only Forever England but also her more recent book, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants which I have finally finished, to my delight.

I think, in retrospect, I know, what—beyond callow youth and idiocy—made me dismiss the first book: Light is a more of an historian than a theorist and it would have been fashionable for me to look askance at a book chronicling forgotten conservative women writers between the wars. Ironically, this is the very kind of book that will be useful to me in upcoming projects.

I’ll write about Mrs. Woolf and The Servants in a future post, but before I do, I wanted to offer a little apology to the world for having been such a dope in front of the writer.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chapters Reading Series & Girls Write Now

As you may know, I’m on the board of Girls Write Now, the peerless mentoring organization that pairs women writers with girls from the New York City public schools. If you like great fiction and care about girls’ education (and why would you be here if that weren’t true?) and you live in New York, you might add the Chapters series to your calendar for spring. The line-up is great!

Beginning Friday, February 26, please join us for a series of evenings, featuring Girls Write Now students and the professional writers who inspire them, at the Center for Fiction (, 17 East 47th Street, between Fifth and Madison. Each event will take place from 6-8PM, and admission is free and open to the public. 
CHAPTERS also features a line-up of special guest authors, curated by Maud Newton
Friday, February 26: Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench
Friday, March 26: Nami Mun, author of Miles From Nowhere
Friday, April 23: Lizzie Skurnick, author of Shelf Discovery
Friday, May 21: Ru Freeman, author of A Disobedient Girl
Friday, June 18: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of The Thing Around Your Neck

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What is your dog’s name?

When, after many years of wanting a dog, my mom finally got a beagle, she named him Henry. My Iowa-born mom had become an Anglophile after all those years of marriage to my dad, and, not having sons, she wanted a strong, beautiful English name. Henry lived up to it. He was succeeded by William, which caused some nervous joking in the early days of my relationship with my husband, Bill. When William died, my parents adopted an older beagle, already named. Now they have Chance. It’s a sharp break from their pattern and goes against my mom’s principle of giving dog’s “real” names, but it’s a sweet name and it fits that affectionate, energetic dog.

When we adopted our stray, our friend, the poet Maurice Manning, urged us to give her a literary name. We over-thought the matter: my husband’s field is 19th-century American literature; mine is 20th-century British; we split the difference and combed great works from a 20th-century American name, settling on Dilsey, the name of the mammy in The Sound and the Fury, for our dog had been abused but still had a great spirit and we hoped that she, like the character in the novel, would endure. Only later did I realize that Maurice’s dogs at the time were the more humbly named Mango and Deke.

As I annotate Mrs. Dalloway, I know I want to write about Clarissa’s dog, Rob and Elizabeth’s dog, Grizzle. Clarissa would prefer Elizabeth fuss over Grizzle than Miss Kilman; Peter Walsh remembers Clarissa ostentatiously hugging it just after Clarissa has revealed her snobbery. I’m guessing Rob is a nod to Walter Scott, but Grizzle is very  much akin with the Woolf family dog names which include Shag and Gurth.

How do you name your dogs?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Those Cute, Cute Foreign Orphans

I’ve been riveted by the whole sad debacle of the imprisoned missionaries, jailed in Haiti for taking children across the border without permission. The conversation seems to have changed, ever so slightly, in the past few years, towards a better understanding of how best to help and away from the kind of imperious behavior that these Americans seem to have displayed. (Though, I hear that Angelina may be on the ground in Port-Au-Prince…) From the first, CNN interrupted its “disaster porn” coverage of the earthquake to remind people that the best course of action was not to swoop in and adopt a little Haitian baby, even as endless heart-wrenching stories of accelerated adoptions already underway fueled our hunger to reach out and help.

I was reminded of this wonderfully biting satire by Binyavanga Wainaina (who wrote that great Granta piece, “How to Write about Africa”): 
Hello kitty kitty kitty¦ Are you an orphan? Are you Sudanese? Chadian? Are you a sub-Saharan African suffering from mild mental retardation? Are you an African woman suffering from the African male? Would you like an Oxfam biscuit? Organic antiretrovirals? Have you been raped? You might not know it, but you are an orphan, a refugee. Can we fly 103 of you to France to be loved? We can breastfeed you. We can make you a Darfur orphan. Even if you are not. If you are black and under 10 years old, please come talk to us.
Come kitty kitty.

Isn’t that fantastic? Especially in light of this Haitian story, in which some of the children reportedly still have parents(!). I love “You might not know it, but you are an orphan.” As with the longer piece on Africa, he cuts right to the core of blind sentimentality, the 21st-century Mrs. Jellybys, so sure that they are offering the best help for those whom they are so sure are desperately in need of it. You can read the whole piece here.
Or, as
a commenter in the Times writes: 
Don't play poker with a guy named Doc. Don't eat in a restaurant named Mom's. Don't go hiking without a compass near the North Korean Border. Don't travel to Iran to participate in anti-government demonstrations. Don't take a busload of kids across the border without their parents' permission. That's what my Daddy taught me.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Birds, Birds, Birds

Olivia Gentile’s Life List is the book I gave this Christmas. My mom and my mother-in-law both got copies. I loved this book. I think about it all the time. I am a little amazed to find that it’s not a bigger phenomenon than it is.

Life List, the biography of legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger was one of my favorite reads of fall 2009, but I had to special order it from Three Lives where they hadn’t heard of it. Though stumping the geniuses at Three Lives brings me a small swell of pride, I was baffled. How could you not want to read a book about a 50s housewife who turned a terminal cancer diagnosis into the inspiration to pursue her hobby of birdwatching with ever greater seriousness? 

And how not love the irony of her so far outliving her diagnosis that she eventually had the longest life list of anyone on Earth. Last year, when a friend sent me the information with a link to her friend’s (very fun, beautiful) website with tons of lovely drawings by Rebecca Layton, I was excited and filed the book away in memory. I happened to catch Leonard Lopate’s interview with Gentile on WNYC and my interest only grew.

Snetsinger’s story is a super-interesting manifestation of the Betty Friedan problem: she had always wanted to be a scientist but lacked the courage to defy social expectations; she married, had four children, and grew increasingly depressed and distanced from her marriage and life. The difference for her—the escape—was the combination of a terminal diagnosis and the financial security that came from having a successful husband and a small legacy from her father, advertising legend (Marlboro Man, Jolly Green Giant) Leo Burnett.

Gentile’s book is well written, mostly journalistic, but with a kind and humane voice and a strong feminist subtext—especially helpful in asking us to piece together and imagine some of Snetsinger’s choices and a real page-turner. In addition to being a really rich footnote on the plight of the dissatisfied housewife, Life List is also full of amazing story after story about exotic, dangerous, and uncomfortable birdwatching expeditions. I love the preface, in which Gentile goes on a bird walk as a disinterested beginner and the leader says “Who knows? You may be the next Phoebe Snetsinger!” That confident enthusiasm and the unusual name combine to make the germ of this wonderful book.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Known World

I’ve been battling a cold and, today, though I felt better than yesterday, I took advantage of it’s being a school day (and my being on sabbatical) and just went back to bed.


I lay there and, in one swallow, finished the last hundred pages of Edward P. Jones’ masterpiece of a novel, The Known World.

Lately, I read about books, recommend them to my mother and my mother-in-law, and then heat up the orange mac for the kids while toiling away at some para-literary activity (marking papers, selecting essays for a textbook, downloading articles for an article I’m writing). My novel-reading days are too few and far between. If life in at 70 is as kind to me as it has been to my mom and mother-in-law, I may, perhaps, have a chance to catch up!

But my mom begged me to read The Known World so we could talk about it. I did. And I can’t wait to call her.