Thursday, August 26, 2010

Little Magazine Fail

Back in January, 2009, I wrote an essay about Virginia Woolf and my grandmother. It’s a good essay. My parents think it’s good. Some pretty famous Woolf scholars have read and enjoyed it. I hope, one day, to publish it in a little magazine.

I entered it in a contest. It came in second. I was disappointed but still hopeful that it would find a home.

I sent it to the Yale Review. I got my PhD at Yale. Woolf published some essays in The Yale Review in the 1930s. I thought an old-fashioned personal essay that was about the love of reading and a mean Yankee grandmother written by a Yalie might find a home in the Yale Review. It was a longshot, but not utterly insane. The essay had, after all, come in second in a contest.

I called the Yale Review late in the spring of 2009 to check on the status of my essay. “Oh, my goodness!” was the flustered reaction. Profuse apologies for the lack of acknowledgment (not to mention reading or decision) ensued.

In the fall of 2009, eager to move on, I left a voicemail: I am submitting the essay elsewhere. It's still elsewhere. I still hope for news, dimly.

And now, awaiting me in my mail at work, is a note, dated July 28, 2010, from the Yale Review. It’s not a rejection. It’s an apology that, given the intense preparations for the 100th anniversary issue, they won’t be able to get to my essay until June of 2011.

Shame on them.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


My new obsession is Tobermory, Ontario, a small town on the Bruce Peninsula in Lake Huron, about 7 hours north of Clayton, NY.

Why, you ask, does a woman who spends her summers 7 hours north of New York City dream of spending a week 7 hours further north?

Because she can, dear reader, because she can.

It began with The Wind in the Willows, which accompanied us up to the River for the third year in a row. This year, however, we actually read a couple chapters aloud.

Then, one day, during 30 seconds of the 30 or 40 minutes of television the children watched all summer, there was an ad on t.v. for a new musical based on Kenneth Grahame’s book, set on the St. Lawrence River, and coming to the stage in Gananoque in August.

I was sold. I got tickets. The girls and I got our passports and went. The girls loved it—just adored the show. I thought it was about as good as you might guess good regional theater in Ontario would be: the first act was terrific, the second relied a little too heavily on very rusty jokes (from Grahame’s book, but that was 1933) about a Toad in an Irish woman’s pink dress. It might have been 1950.

I was disappointed, too, to be sitting seven rows back with my little girls, behind a busload of old age pensioners. Why did the 80-year-olds get all the good seats? And it does spoil my time a little to be a good 40 years younger than the average audience member.

Nonetheless, the opening moments were fantastic. The opening scene takes place on the dock—Gananoque’s Singer Theater is the old Canoe Club—and we were treated to a few songs from David Archibald, the play’s co-author and composer.

“Up the River” opens with the actors singing and dancing on the dock. Mole comes on stage, welcomes spring, notices the River in wonder, and then Ratty (who, in the true Canadian spirit, keeps insisting he’s a Beaver. The Canada jokes were pretty tired but this one was funny.) actually rows up to the dock. Mole climbs on board and they row out to a little grass-covered float anchored near the dock. As they picnic, a wet-suited and flippered otter swims up and joins them. That was great summer family theater: witty and funny and worth the price of the ticket. (You can read a review here.)

I also liked David Archibald’s singing: very old school folk with a British Isles/Canadian/Great Lakes tinge (sincere, story-telling, sentimental about a park-like vision of wilderness). His song, “The Rocks of Tobermory” was haunting, so I looked him up.

Then I looked up Tobermory. There is nothing like a map to inflame my dreams of travel. Just look at that peninsula! And then listen to this:
Fathom Five is Canada's first National Marine Park, with over 20 shipwrecks and 19 islands within it's boundaries. The deep clear water and the numerous shipwrecks attract over 8,000 divers each year. Glass bottom boat tours leave Tobermory several times each day to take visitors over the shipwrecks and to Flower Pot Island. The best known island in the Park features two 60 foot high 'flower pots', a lighthouse and walking trails.

When I lie awake worrying about the coming semester and all that I will have to do, I soothe myself back to sleep with promises of a trip to Tobermory next summer…

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Call it macaroni

I flew through Elizabeth Bowen’s wonderful novel The House in Paris so fast that I had no time to note it here. Instead, I dove into another Bowen, her first novel, The Hotel. From there, I give you this gem of biting British comedy. Poor Miss Pym has had a fight with her friend and she enters the dining room of the hotel with a tear-stained face, too late for luncheon:
Miss Pym looked diffidently at the waiter. She had cut herself off from the omelette, so he shrugged his shoulders and brought her up a plate of macaroni from the servants’ lunch. This the bruised creature pitifully but with evidence of hunger bagan to eat; the traditional British struggle with macaroni brought her down sharply from tragedy to farce.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Woolf’s Reading Notebooks

I mean no disrespect to Brenda Silver in saying that her guide, Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks makes for pretty dull reading. How could it be otherwise? A book that summarizes over forty volumes of Woolf’s notes can only offer the barest indications of the books and subjects noted. For the book to be produced at a reasonable length, it had to be what it is: a dated list of the contents of each of the notebooks.

Having looked at the notebooks from the early 20s, when Woolf was writing Mrs. Dalloway, I marvel anew at her perseverance in dating these very sketchy and various volumes.

I wonder, too, how it might be possible to convey what makes them such amazing documents.

Woolf kept a diary. She also kept draft notebooks for her novels and the essays she wrote alongside them. The reading notebooks are a third kind of notebook, more casual than either of these. Volume 19 is a notebook with cardboard covers, reinforced inside and out on the spine with cloth. Two pairs of metal grommets on the front and back permit it to be bound with laces (and there is a very heavy shoelace attached here, though no longer binding the pages). Inside, are over 100 loose pages, each with two holes. This permitted Woolf to unbind pages from old notebooks and pull old notes as she was revising and expanding essays—for her Common Readers, say. As Silver points out, this can make dating notebooks extraordinarily difficult, as a single notebook (like notebook 26) may contain pages from 1919, 1920 or 21, 1926, 1928, 1935, and 1938.

And in these notebooks, you find Woolf at her most personal, her most uncertain. In the midst of notetaking on a critical book on the novel, she pauses: “(one feels out of one’s depth)”. Of Oedipus Coloneus, read in French, she writes “I did not much enjoy it & found the complexity of the plot annoying.”

It is so rare to hear Woolf speaking in this voice—the voice of a reader in the process of making a judgment. Equally rare, if less vivid, is the chance to leaf through the pages and see how she took notes, what quotations stood out for her. Just seeing that she used the left margin to note page numbers is of interest to me, and, in reading through the notebooks back in June, I found that I had some answers to the kinds of questions readers always want to ask writers—how do you take notes? what kind of pen do you use? when you’re working on a review, how much research do you do? what books influenced you most when writing this one?

Having perused a few of these volumes for my edition of Mrs. Dalloway, I remain grateful to Silver and staunch in my admiration for what she achieved, but I wish her book offered readers more of the romance of reading that I found while working with the actual documents in the Berg Collection.

Friday, August 20, 2010

More on that cheese

We were gone for seven weeks. Six of them we spent, as we have come to do, down the road from my mother-in-law about six miles outside Clayton, New York. It’s incredibly beautiful there, but the gourmet/organic/locavore culture has yet to arrive.

In the middle of our time, we dropped down to Amherst, MA for a week.

The Farmer’s Market there could make you weep for joy: artfully displayed berries, lettuces, sunflowers. Every booth staffed by a thin, tanned New Englander, some liberal arts graduate turned farmer.

I bought a little container of goat cheese for us to take on a picnic. The label said “Healing the earth through organic farming.” That took it a bit too far even for me and I had to laugh. I mean, I know we were in the Happy Valley—I love the happy valley—but the outrageous navel-gazing arrogance of suggesting that a tiny little goat cheese operation was “healing the earth”!

Then, two days later, we pulled out of town and headed back up to Clayton.  On the way to the highway, we passed farmstand after farmstand. We planned to get some corn to bring back for dinner but, with a long drive ahead, it seemed better to wait until we got closer to the River.

It was too late before we remembered that Central New York just doesn’t have that farmstand culture. We had missed our shot at corn. There would certainly be no more organic goat cheese until our next visit to the Happy Valley (or the Union Square Greenmarket). Suddenly, the farm’s slogan didn’t seem so inflated. We laughed at ourselves, wishing a few more people upstate were interested in healing the earth.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tallying Summer

After seven weeks away, seven hours from home, six of them spent in our customary little rented cottage just four doors down from my mother-in-law’s, on the shores of the mighty St. Lawrence River, I am surprised by what I missed and what I did not miss about city living:

I did not miss:
  • podcasts
  • NPR
  • television
  • the news in any form
  • running errands
  • calculating the commute time
  • a feeling of constant hurry and competition 

I missed
  • really good cheese
  • fresh produce (up there, it’s a private culture: people have gardens, not farmer’s markets, and the tomatoes were only just arriving as we left)
  • music at dinnertime (somehow, not a habit of my mother-in-law’s at the River, though she listens to it in her home in winter)
  • seeing people on the street who look interesting, look like people I’d like to meet

I am fond of traffic, of street noise, of the subway. I am fond of waking at 4 AM to the sound of an owl, of the sound of waves hitting the shore. I like going for a run and checking on the osprey nest. I like going on a run and smiling at the nervous tourists in line for the Statue of Liberty Cruise. I have beloved friends and family in both spots and, in both spots, I am delighted to run into them. I feel profoundly at home in both places.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why didn’t I like that book?

I love reading bad reviews—really delicious, mean, pointed reviews, that get at the heart of what a book has gotten wrong—but I don’t like to write them. When I read a book that I don’t like, I’m much more likely to let it passed unremarked than I am to publicly excoriate it and its author. I appreciate—all too well—how hard writing is, so I don’t really want to add pain or disappointment to the world.

Still, I finished a book this week that I just thought was poor and I’m trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Let me, without naming the book, take a crack at the gap between what it was trying to do and what it did.

I’ll start by saying that everything about it should have made me like it: a friend in the book business sent it my way (hoping for publicity, sure, but this friend is judicious and knows my taste), the author and I have a lot in common (same kind of college, love of the same great American lyricist, one of us currently lives in the other’s home town, etc.), and it’s a comic novel, a middlebrow book by a lover of James and Wharton.

So, this is a fast-paced novel, the kind of novel that would make a really good ensemble-cast movie. I read fifty pages, fell asleep, and woke up from a nightmare at 3 AM and, unable to shake the dream, turned on the light and finished the book. But, doing so made me feel a little sad: the writer is clearly so smart and the book is sloppy, unfocused, and unsure of its genre. I can see the hilarious book behind it but this book is not it.

Here are two examples of scenes that misfire: There is a big wedding at the heart of the book. The bride and groom are ill-matched, the wedding is beyond expensive, and the groom has cold feet. As things begin to go wrong, there is an avalanche of the cupcake tower wedding cake. Slapstick is hard to write, but this should be a slapstick scene: full of frosting wrecking expensive shoes, tears, dogs getting sick, laughter, recriminations. To work, it needs to be big and hilarious. But the writer can’t forget that she also likes her characters, cares about them; I can sense her liking them, but we haven’t seen a nice moment from the bride in so many pages that I don’t like her anymore and am not sorry that “her day” is getting spoiled. Thus, the scene neither has enough action nor enough poignance to work.

There is also an injured child. Here, the author does a very very bad writer’s workshop thing: she shows us the child, motionless after a fall, then switches perspective to another character for three pages, then shows us the child, safe and sound with a few stitches in her scalp. Only then, in flashback, does she explain the accident.

Writers: do not do this. This is a very lazy way to create suspense.

There are some icky things going on with race in this lily white book where comic relief comes from the non-whites.

Finally, although there are metaphors and descriptive set pieces in the book, there is no motif—of images, of habits—to let us know the characters and their minds. In fact, the images are so underdeveloped that, in the next paragraph when the author refers back to “the crabwalker” or “the Flatlander,” I always had to slow down and re-read the set up for the reference.

Mark Sarvas does such a good job with the silly but consistent recurrence of the Monte Cristo sandwich in his book. Marcy Dermansky, too, gives Marie a real love of food that remains a touchstone in almost every scene--she is hungry, loving or hating the food and drink, over and over again. 

This book should have been a comic masterpiece, a funny book by a smart person about silly rich people. I would have been better off reading two brilliant examples of the genre: Mark Sarvas’ Harry, Revised and Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie. For now, I’m choosing between Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Eloisa James’ bodice-ripping retelling of Cinderella: A Kiss at Midnight.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Sample footnote

Hugh Whitbread has given me some of the best ones for my edition of Mrs. Dalloway. Still, I spend my days with a mix of pride and shame, reducing five volumes of Woolf diaries down to twenty pages of notes and then reducing those twenty pages down to three pages of footnotes.
It’s like making demi-glace: so much work for something so unimpressive looking. Still, if the footnotes are good, then the edition will be a feast.
12.17-18 When his old mother wanted him to give up shooting Clive Bell proffered a similar promise to Vanessa during their engagement: “Bell had confessed that he could even give up hunting if necessary in order to marry” (L 1.206; 27 Aug. 1905; to Violet)
Clarissa is weighing the good and the bad of “the admirable Hugh”: so overly proud of his “little job at the Palace,” but also a kind man, a man who gives up shooting if his mother wishes him to. But, then again, it’s hardly saintly to give up hunting. And fat men who visit dowagers and compliment their cake are, in general, not adding a lot of good to the world.

I love all the moral calculations that go into the assessments and reassessments of Hugh and finding this little connection to Clive Bell, Woolf’s brother-in-law, only sweetens the complexities. From the first, Clive was a little outside Bloomsbury for his gentleman-sportsman ways, just as this quotation shows.

So, that’s one footnote.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I've been taking Woolf's advice and kayaking and reading a lot:
“The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life…--one must become externalized; very, very concentrated” (D 2.193; 22 August 1922)
Blogging will resume in due time, no doubt.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

TBR Pile, Virginia Woolf edition

On my table are: Yeats poems. Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel. (which I think very interesting); Susanne et le Pacifique: (also interesting); the Adelphi; Chaucer; Lord Willoughby de Broke’s autobiography (sporting); a good many Elizabthans plays which I’m going to write about and—mere daily trash: Joan of Arc [Saint Joan]: I can’t see why people are moved by this: interested, instructed—yes; but I cant squeeze a tear. I like Shaw as a figure: he seems to be lean, lively, destructive and combative. But Lord! leave me on a desert island with his lays, and I’d rather scale monkey puzzles.” (L 3.130; 4 September 1924; to Jacques Raverat)

Monday, August 02, 2010

Those Crazy Visual Artists, 1918 edition

“They are going to live on top of one of the Wiltshire downs, so that Will can see nothing but the sky, which is the only thing he likes to paint though a certain amount of green is admitted very low down on the edge of the canvas.”(L 2.284; 19 October 1918; to Vanessa)