Friday, April 30, 2010

Into the Well

I was on the phone with a colleague the other day and he asked how my leave is going.

I groaned. He laughed. He told me that when he’d seen our colleague for the first time, back at work after a year’s research leave, he looked like he was still at the bottom of a deep well. We both laughed and then we talked about the well for a while.

I like that metaphor because that is what it feels like when I spend the day in the library. It doesn’t take more than three or four hours for me to turn into a disoriented, blinking mole, shocked at the clamor and noise of the world around. When I get deep enough into my work to actually break ground—which is rare—it can be hard to return to family life. Most days, however, I have to be so conscious that I need to leave at 4:30 in order to fetch the girls that all I do is peer down into the well, imagining what I might find in the distant darkness.

Peering down isn’t enough, however. If you want to find the treasure that lies beneath the surface, you have to dive down into the well.

Merry little magpies like me find many reasons to peck around at the ground instead. The sky is blue. The children are charming. Smart friends and acquaintances are tweeting away, updating statuses with wit and energy. Why leave this happy conflagration for the mysteries of the deep?

Because the treasure is at the bottom of the well.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


This stretch of research leave marks the first time since my children were born (more than 7 years ago) that I have had hours to spend in the library poking around. I thought I’d left it behind—worried, even, that I wouldn’t want to be a scholar anymore--but, though the muscles have atrophied, I am gaining strength again and returning to that delicious sense of pleasure in going deep, deep, deep into a bit of reading to see if there’s anything there. I like almost every bit of it: the silence, the mental effort of reading a theoretical essay, the pleasure of skimming something that, in the end, doesn’t fit, and, to my point today, ferreting out little bits of historical research.

Today, after a couple hours of responding to colleague’s writing, I rejected a tedious project (collating editions has still not risen to the place of pleasure. When it does, I think I will have achieved Boddhisathva-hood)—the one I really should do—in favor of opening the cardboard box on my shelf. What was inside?

A bound black volume with COMMERCE TLC p.v. 126 stamped on the inside masked an imperfectly bound collection of pamphlets. How these 12 documents came to live together, I don’t know—and I’m smart enough not to get distracted by the desire to find out. I called this out of its dusty home to consult No. 8: London Municipal Society and National Union of Ratepayers’ Association. The Greater London Traffic Problem: A Scheme for Its Solution. No. 18. London: London Municipal Society. n.d. stamped 1923.

There is some talk in Mrs. Dalloway, in several spots, about London traffic. Most germane for me, Richard Dalloway thinks that something should be done. It occurred to me that a committee on traffic reform is just the kind of thing Richard Dalloway, MP, might be on. Was there such a commission?

Well, it turns out that traffic lights were introduced in London between 1923—when the novel is set—and 1925—when it’s published. So I called up the pamphlet in case it said something about this innovation. It is silent on this score. Instead, for 11 pages, the authors describe all the competing interests and stakeholders in the problem and summarize the reports of other commissions and committees. Unlike other traffic-related documents which mention specific intersections or the problems with buses, say, or pedestrians crossing multi-lane roads, this one never stoops below the level of bureaucracy to describe the street.

How, then, did No. 8 come to be bound alongside No. 2 “Sorelle, R.P. and J. R. Greeg…Teacher’s manual to Secretarial studies (1923)” or “No. 6 “U.S. President, 1801-1809 (Jefferson)..Message transmitting a memorial of the merchants of Baltimore, January 29th 1806” or No. 12 “Review of the commerce of New Orleans. For 1875-76” which begins “The hopes of the trade, freely indulged in last September, have not been altogether fulfilled.”

Indeed. My hopes—for pamphlets on municipal traffic or otherwise—are seldom altogether fulfilled. I will say, however, that it is quietly thrilling to learn that I still really do like the scholar’s life. I just hope there will be more of it again some day.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lizzie Skurnick for Girls Write Now

I’ve encouraged you all to go to the Chapters Readings before, and Friday brings another chance. The wonderfully smart and funny Lizzie Skurnick will be reading from her new book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading (2009). Lizzie’s book is a love letter to some of the great young adult fiction of the seventies, much of it by women and about real girls facing real and interesting problems: the very books that I hope the girls of Girls Write Now discover and find refuge in. My mother-in-law and I devoured the book together last summer, reminiscing about all the books we had loved and the ones that had meant so much to her 9th graders back when she was teaching. Reading with Lizzie will be some of the teen girls and their mentors who are participating in Girls Write Now this year. Here is the roster:
  • Emily Alvarez, "I Write for a Reason"

  • Michaela Burns, "Red Apple Pie"

  • Tianna Coleman, "Who am I: An Ode to Precious"

  • Clio Contogenis, "Mary Ellen, Nana Mary"

  • L’Eunice Faust & Tasha Gordon-Solmon, "If God Had Made Eve First"

  • Rachel Garcia, "The Yellow Dress"

  • Dalina Jimenez & Corey Binns, "Welcome Home"

  • Ceasia King & Ariana Proehl, "Ego Trips (We Know Exactly Why)"

  • Syeda Showkat & Kirthana Ramisetti, "Nora and Carol at the Discount Plus Christmas Party"

  • Shannon Talley & Jen McFann
Pamela Vasquez, "Bark Bark Roof Bark"

  • Quanasia Wheeler & Cynara Charles-Pierre, "The Yum that Keeps Giving" & "Thanksgiving No More"
I’ll confess that the first time I went to a paired reading, my heart sank a little at the length of the program. But, trust me, the women of Girls Write Now are fierce and organized: the readings are snappy, and the girls will have you laughing and crying. It’s the kind of event to make you remember why all the work we do, all the love we have, for literature really counts.

The event happens at the wonderful Center for Fiction (17 E 47th), this Friday from 6:00-8:00. I will be there & I hope to see you, too.

P.S. It’s not too late to apply to be a mentor for 2010-2011.

P.P.S. Finally, whether you’re in New York or not, you can pretty up your home and help the cause by buying one of (Seattle’s own) glassybaby votives/vases. Stop by their beautiful New York shop (in Jane Jacobs’s old house!) at 55 Hudson Street or just enter the code GWN on their website. (You can also just donate to Girls Write Now through the Network for Good here.)

These are the prettiest candleholders ever. Our apartment is FULL of them and I cannot get enough.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A happily married woman

For me, one of the chief differences between what I call middlebrow fiction and literary fiction has to do with the degree to which the writing announces itself as writing. It’s impossible to fly through a Woolf novel for the plot: not only are her plots thin, almost event-less in the ordinary, outward sense, but her writing demands your attention. That’s fact—the poetry of Woolf’s prose—has sustained my interest in reading, studying, and writing about Woolf for two decades.

But I also like to read another kind of book, a book like Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, where the writing is clear and strong and full of careful and apt description but all of that is in the service of telling a story, of exploring how these fictional characters will react to the situations she has imagined for them.

As I said yesterday, most of Someone at a Distance is written with an Orwellian clarity: prose like a windowpane. There are no missteps, no groaners. And there are a few moments of really beautiful prose. For me, these two paragraphs on how a wife comes to rely on a happy marriage were among the most poignant in the book: beautiful, funny, and smart. They come half way through, just before that happy marriage must endure a brutal test, and, knowing what is coming (the hints are strong), the description has all the more power:
A happily married woman acquires the habit of referring everything to, discussing everything with, her husband. Even the smallest things. Like bad coal, for instance. To be able to say, sitting across the hearth from him in the evening: ‘Isn’t this coal bad?’ and to hear him say, looking up from his book at the fire: ‘Awful. Sheer slate,’ is to have something comfortable made out of even bad coal. 
            A loved husband is the companion of companions, the supreme sharer, and a happy wife often sounds trivial when she is really sampling and enjoying their mutual and unique confidence. But in doing it, she largely loses her power of independent decision and action. She either brings her husband round to her way of thinking or goes over to his, and mostly she doesn’t know or care which it is. (210-11)
I love the mid-century, English specificity of bad coal. I don’t know what “sheer slate” means exactly—though we can easily guess the discomfort of a fire that’s not warming us as it should—but it’s funny how right it sounds, even 60 years later: that’s just what one is supposed to say. And Whipple is right to notice how a shared complaint, a regular one against some domestic inconvenience, can reconfirm domesticity in a lovely way. Also wonderful—and characteristic—is the gentle feminist turn in the second paragraph. I feel my own trivialities to be understood and forgiven in that description of how such details are really a “sampling and enjoying” of intimacy. And yet, as Whipple warns, there is a danger—a very specific one—to too much of this. Spending too much time luxuriating in the “us” of a marriage, one risks losing oneself.

Yet, moments later, when Ellen must make a decision without consulting her husband, she “felt she was breaking one of the countless Lillputian bonds that bound her up with Avery.”

One of the challenges of marriage is finding the right balance between coupledom and independence. Clarissa Dalloway manages it by marrying a man who leaves her to be independent; Ellen North chooses to lose herself in a man and, when he shows himself less worthy, she must begin to forge a new life by untangling herself from the webs of the old. What’s lovely in Whipple’s writing here is that she takes the time to describe what it is that Ellen, who seems so plump, ordinary, and sweet, has at stake—to lose and to gain.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Another Persephone Book

Once a month or so, my mom asks me “Have you read Someone at a Distance yet?”

So, when I packed my suitcase to go to Seattle for Easter, I popped Someone at a Distance in my bag, confident that her presence would prompt me to get started on the book. It did and I have. What a lovely novel.

Dorothy Whipple’s 1953 book, reprinted by the amazing Persephone Books, is a really lovely, quiet, devastating bit of domestic fiction. Ellen North, the sweet and generous 43-year-old wife, is at the book’s heart, but the omniscient narration keeps her at a distance. And those very English, decorous distances are a theme of the book, beginning with the twin beds, three feet apart, that furnish the bedroom she shares with her husband Avery. Distances can signify comfort or discord and they do both here.

The book explores the devastation that just one unhappy person can wreak on the lives of the contented middle class. At first, that unhappy person is Ellen’s mother-in-law, a widow who feels that she is far from getting her due in attention from her son, daughter-in-law, and their two teenage children. But, when Mrs. North hires a French girl to live-in as a companion, the plot really sets in motion: Louise's unhappiness is the serpent in Mrs. North's beloved suburban garden.

For the long, slow (but not dull) first half of the book, Whipple spools out, Louise’s grudge against the world and her icy quest to get her due alternating with Ellen’s happy, middle-aged contentment in her garden, her marriage, and her growing children. When Louise finally strikes, the devastation is swift and total. From there, the plot picks up, and the denouement is every bit as riveting as the exposition.

The writing is straightforward, not showy but always apt. There are some occasionally really elegant and deft phrases and Whipple goes into the motives and reactions of each of her characters, major and minor, with tremendous sympathy. The book is a masterpiece of middlebrow fiction: not aspiring to the status of literature, but miles better than most plot-driven psychological novels that keep your local Borders stocked and your neighbors’ reading groups talking. This would be a wonderful book to talk about with a friend.

Or your mom. I’m waiting for mine to call me now so we can…

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Kindle, Again

My dad surprised me with a Kindle for my birthday about six months ago. I was thrilled, but, truth be told, I haven’t used it nearly as much as I planned to. I downloaded a raft of free classics right away and even re-read This Side of Paradise on the PATH train.

To be honest, however, the prospect of reading Kant on the Kindle on the morning commute is a little bit of an uphill climb. I haven’t done it.

Fitzgerald, to be sure, is less of a challenge and I fared better with him. Still, I found the Kindle made my novel reading a little more scattered—somehow, and in spite of that %-read sign down below, I found it more difficult than usual to keep track of the plot and where I was in the arc of the story. On the plus side, however, I was really tickled when I belatedly remembered there had been some business about a taxi in the book and could simply search “taxi” and find each appearance of the word. It’s too bad that, when I go to write about it, there’s no easy way to translate the %-read or page marks to page numbers in a print edition, but I can do that by hand, no doubt. In fact, that %-read sign distracts me and eggs on my competitive side.

That is just part of what I thought from the beginning: that the Kindle really would be ideal for reading bestsellers: ephemeral books of the moment, books that are more fun to read when they come out but that you may not want or need to own in a personal library.

At dinner in Seattle last week, our friends both raved about Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Game Change. Since I was traveling (with my Kindle and a lot of books), it made sense to download it and I’ve just loved reading it. The book is really fun: well-written, full of gossip, and fast-paced. As long-time readers here know, I was really engaged in the 2008 election and my taste for hearing about it has not slackened. But reading along on the Kindle, and watching myself rise from 22% done to 35% done, has made the reading itself into a race just as merry as reliving the election (without all the angst and worry about the outcome this time around).

So, I have renewed enthusiasm and purpose for the Kindle. I’m always really interested in those nonfiction books that people devour fast and I love to read them fairly soon after they come out, so the Kindle can be my spot for that.

There are so many different kinds of reading: some really do require a lovely edition, others are just fine online, others—somewhere in the middle—look to me like they’ll work great on an e-reader.