Sunday, December 18, 2005

Christmas Break

The beloved toddler turned three today!

We're all off to Seattle tomorrow for ten days. That's right--no Modern Languages Association convention this winter; no one is on the job market; we can actually sleep in (as much as toddlers permit) and not think about how we'd teach a survey of women in literature.

I'll be back at my post here at Fernham around January 1.

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! and bountiful Kwanzaa, too.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Snow Man

A few weeks ago, I looked up on the train to see an excerpt of a Stevens poem on one of those poetry underground posters. I began to read it and then gave up. I admitted to myself that I just don’t really like Stevens and, with great relief, decided to mentally shelve him.

Now, last week, both Amardeep and Ana Maria posted really interesting readings of “The Snow Man.” Amardeep’s is great for its sensible approach to unpacking a text that’s difficult, oft-studied, and therefore intimidating; Ana Maria just dives right in with a theme—the poem’s interest in the terror of death, the intensity of grief.

I guess Stevens is back on my list of worthies.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Don Quixote at 400, again

Christopher Lydon’s show was one of the great treats of living in Boston. Now, he has a new NPR talk show, open source radio. I haven’t heard it but it’s very blog-friendly—even blog-driven. He and his producers develop their story ideas through their blog and contact guests and callers that way, too. It’s a really interesting and very democratic way of getting out of the usual run of NPR guests.

So, when Bud Parr forwarded on an email from him asking for possible guests for a show on Don Quixote, I was heartbroken to have to say no. I’ve always wanted to be a guest on a good NPR show—it seems like such a fun rite of passage. Alas, my not having finished the novel seemed an insurmountable bar to me.

The show airs tonight, with lots of streams available. And Bud Parr will be a guest. How exciting! I’ll be listening for sure.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

L’Elisir D’Amore

Yes, that was me yesterday on the PATH train: eating a chocolate truffle, listening to Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” (can there be anything better than that opera—I’m totally obsessed with it—it’s so joyous!) and reading the new Eloisa James novel, Kiss Me, Annabel. "Eloisa" is a friend and colleague--hers are the only real romance novels I've tried--beyond some pretty tatsy chick-lit. But please don’t stage an intervention—I’m enjoying it too much. And, if you want an interesting diversion, head over to a group blog of romance writers. The tone is very welcoming—the ethos there seems to be the opposite of many so-called serious writers—not "stand back amazed at my intelligence," but "I’m a working mom, just like you. I love shoes! Here’s how I wrote my books. Give it a whirl."

Monday, December 12, 2005

Editing, Tics, and Diffuseness

I have finally finished the first version of my essay on teaching Mrs. Dalloway. It was due on November 1, so sending it off this afternoon seems almost respectable. I hate when I miss deadlines; it makes me feel bad about myself and I worry that my mother will be disappointed in me. But, there it is.

I wrote the essay in little pieces, filling in the gaps whenever I could over the course of the fall. Around November 1, when it was due, I felt that the piece was nearly finished and I wrote to the editor to tell her that it was coming along all right but might be a bit late. Then I returned to the guidelines: I had remembered a 5,000-word limit; I had written about 5,400 words; the essay has a strict maximum of 2,250 words. I breathed a sigh of relief—some of the things I had not been able to explain thoroughly were going to be cut anyway. Still, that’s a lot of cutting.

Today’s project was to move from 2,913 to 2,250 and it’s taught me a lot about my own diffuseness, my persistent verbal tics. I excised the irritating “indeed” long ago but not, it seems “of course.” I must have crossed out three or four of those over my latte this morning. I still cannot rid myself of all kinds of formations involving the word “own” (as in “of one’s own” or “Woolf’s own”) an embarrassing echo of the title of my favorite text, clearly, and one I have to consciously excise from everything I write, from my book on down to memos and assignments. I have also x-ed out tons of three- and four-word verb phrases (“help my students learn to” becomes “students learn,” “I ask them to list” becomes “we list”).

The digressions and amplifications all have to go, too, of course. Lists of things that I don’t do, asides that offer additional interesting information, and all the little baroque decorations are gone. The finished text (2,244 words including the bibliography) feels clean, white, nearly adjective-free.

Looking at one’s own prose this closely is a little jarring and it leaves me with two questions: 1) I wanted to write about an activity I do to, in the final version “counter the impression that nothing happens in Mrs. Dalloway. I chose “counter” to avoid the militaristic “combat” and because I didn’t know if one diffuses or defuses an impression. Which is it? Dictionaries and idiom archives didn’t help and Googling both phrases yielded results. 2) What are the tics that you have to revise out of your prose?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Brick Lane by Monica Ali (2003 Man Booker Shortlist)

It took me a long time to read Brick Lane and now it’s taken me weeks to write about it, too. If you haven’t read it, it’s worth the time (my slowness shouldn’t deter you): it’s a tough and tender novel with a great central character. Monica Ali’s book traces the life of Nazneen, a simple Bangladeshi village girl, whose family marries her off to an emigrant, living in the dispiriting tower flats outside of London. He is in his forties and everyone—including, at first, Nazneen—presumes him to be successful. He is not. The apartment seems to breed broken, flea market furniture and she rebels against her marriage with methods so subtle that her husband fails to notice. She, doesn’t, for example, match the creases on his trousers when she hangs them on the hanger, leaving them slightly mussed. There’s a nice and more complete review here, at niraj 2.0 (proud to be brown!—a nice slogan.)

I enjoyed the book. The last third, which takes place in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, is particularly wonderful. Nazneen is in her 30s and has lived in London—well, in her flat—she rarely leaves—since she was eighteen. Her girls are teenagers; her husband is broke and broken; she is sewing and, through that work, meets Karim, the man who delivers the sewing. Where her husband drones on and on about the lack of global appreciation for Tagore, Karim is ready to strike, to march, to fight for the rights of British Muslims.

This character, Karim, Monica Ali’s beauty, youth (she’s 37 or so), and status as a non-white Englishwoman has led to comparisons to Zadie Smith who, in White Teeth traces the radicalization of a young man, too. But reading Brick Lane is not like reading White Teeth or, for that matter, Andrea Levy’s Small Island. Ali is tender and interested in the slow emergence into consciousness of a single, humble woman; Levy is sophisticated, generous but a bit detached, and fascinated by the wartime setting of her book; Smith is hilarious, brazen, and interested in the bruises the world imposes on confident young people. The heart of Brick Lane is Nazneen and her letters home to her sister are intensely moving. Different, again, from Smith and Levy, Ali’s book is the story of a single character and unusual for that character being a wife and mother, a woman who does not, for many years, think of herself as an individual except in stolen moments. Smith and Levy’s pieces are really chamber works, looking at a small cluster of characters.

Putting that comparison to rest, then, we are left with a lovely, lovely book. It shares, nonetheless, a common problem: Ali seems to know no better what to do with the dreams of young men than anyone, from the men themselves to those politicians in Paris last month, They die in accidents at too-dangerous jobs, lose their dreams of assimilation to racism (Nazneen’s husband’s boss is Mr. Dalloway), or become radicals and leave the West behind (literally and philosophically). But Monica Ali does find great cause for hope for immigrant women: As Nazneen’s friend Razia assures her, “This is England…You can do whatever you like.”

Elsewhere, I first learned about blog carnivals from Dave over at WordMunger: someone collects the best of the blogs—generally or on a specific theme. It’s a great way to find out about blogs you might not otherwise hear of. When Black Looks returned from summer vacation, I caught her announcement of the carnival of feminists. The Happy Feminist is hosting this time, and she’s linked to my post on Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf! Thanks, Happy! The next carnival of feminists will be hosted by Scribbling Woman. You can submit your best feminist post to her by 12/17.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Mourning in Greek

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes a lot about reading and being unable to read. There is a particularly moving passage on wandering about her apartment stacking piles of Daedalus neatly, the closest she could come to organizing her life. For all the reading she does, however, little of it is in fiction. Her husband is depicted several times re-reading novels “to see how they worked” (including, touchingly, one of hers, which he was reading with admiration on December 5, 2003—Didion’s birthday and just three weeks before he died) but Didion turns to psychology and etiquette.

On one important occasion, however, she deliberately turns to literature for consolation, deciding to re-read Alcestis:
“I remembered the Greeks in general but Alcestis in particular as good on the passage between life and death. They visualized it, they dramatized it, they made the dark water and the ferry into the mise-en-scene itself.” (150)
She writes so well about this play—in which Admetus, soon to die, seeks a substitute and his wife volunteers to die in his place—that I wish she wrote more about literature. Her discussion of the difference between the play and her memory of it (from having studied it in high school) captures the odd way that we distort texts to suit our own needs and meanings. This turn to the Greeks for consolation struck me as it’s something that Virginia Woolf, too, did. So, I went back to my own manuscript and found this discussion of what Woolf finds consoling in Greek literature:

In her 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek,” Virginia Woolf depicts the Greeks as facing grief with an image of the very military heroism she typically deplored: “They could march straight up, with their eyes open; and thus fearlessly approached, emotions stand still and suffer themselves to be looked at” (CR1, 34). Her depiction of the Greeks as hunters of their own timid emotions combines a residual Victorian admiration for courage with her modern interest in psychological self-knowledge. What Penelope, Antigone, Electra, and Clytemnestra all show is the power of inconsolability, the fidelity and courage of a mourning that never ends. What they say is without irony, unlike the First World War poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon for whom “it was not possible…to be direct without being clumsy” (CR1, 34). The modern response contrasts with that simple, original bravery: “In the vast catastrophe of the European war [that is, WWI] our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel” (CR1, 34). These modern fragments, unlike the Greek, are distortions and diminutions. In the continuing, extended mourning period after the War, Woolf proposes the words of the Greeks as an alternative to irony, pomposity, and mawkishness. The mourning here is distinctly anti-Victorian in its rejection of sentimental soft-focus weeping and its emphasis on the violence preceding grief.

So, Didion finds something very similar to what Woolf finds in ancient Greece: a culture able to face death as both utterly normal and completely devastating.

(Happy Belated Birthday to Didion, whose book, you've no doubt heard, is now in development as a one-woman show.)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking

Had I been operating from my rational mind… I would not for example have experienced, when I heard that Julia Child had died, so distinct a relief, so marked a sense that this was finally working out: John and Julia Child could have dinner together. (205)
When I read Ed’s satire of Didion, I laughed so hard that I almost could not read her essay. But I did. I bought the book for my husband for his birthday and let it sit, unread in my desk for a couple weeks although the excerpt in the Times and the enthusiasm of Bud, my mom, and many others made me itch to cheat and read it first. Now his birthday is past and he has read and admired it. I have too. It is terrific. And, as Didion says of one phase of her grief, I know that I do not sufficiently appreciate it.

I gobbled Didion’s book over the weekend. She offers such a rich picture of her marriage that it contributes to my understanding of marriage and such a rich picture of her grief that I know it will help me cope with my own. Didion reports that when their daughter complained at having experienced too much death (a suicide, the murder of her cousin Dominique [Dominick/Nick Dunne’s daughter]), her father said “it all evens out.” While Didion assumed this to mean that good times return to all, Quintana and her friend Susan Traylor understood John Gregory Dunne to mean that everyone lives with a full measure of grief, a meaning that Didion now recognizes to be the accurate one.

I read The White Album and other essays in graduate school and admired Didion’s clinical precision. I still do. But I never expected to identify with her: that identification is not part of the persona of a clinically precise writer. I never thought of her as sharing my weirdly determined optimism and I certainly did not think of her as a contemporary of my parents—though she is. She watched Julia Child and made soufflés in the seventies as my mother did; she keeps a journal of what she cooks as I try to do; she likes to read etiquette books, especially Emily Post; she shops at Citarella. Her husband graduated from Princeton in 1954. My father graduated from Princeton in 1955. And, like my (very much not famous) father, her husband wrote tiny, laconic entries for his reunion books. Strange to think that, like her daughter Quintana (who was my age), I, too, grew up making fun of the pretentious, long-winded self-congratulory essays in those occasional bound reunion volumes from Princeton.

I have only experienced real grief second hand, watching my mother grieve for her mother, my husband grieve for his father, and my mother-in-law for her husband. Our courtship was shaped by the anticipation of grief: six weeks into dating, just before Valentine’s Day, my husband’s father received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. We were not even a couple, but our ability to steer our way through this and become a couple at the same time made me—made us?—think we might do all right in a marriage. We did marry a year and a half later, and, several months after that, my father-in-law died.

It turns out that being able to come together in a crisis is a good predictor of some good things necessary for marriage, but not everything. And reading about grief helps me understand the disorienting disconnection between us during those hard first years. How could we expect to forge a partnership when one of us was actively grieving for a deservedly beloved parent? Didion’s marriage sounds lovely, a great and supportive partnership between writers, happily devoid of competition. This is not the same kind of balance we have struck, but it is fascinating to read about how a professional woman worked to figure out how to be a wife: “In those first years,” Didion writes, “I would pin daisies in my hair, trying for a ‘bride’ effect. Later I had matching gingham skirts made for me and Quintana, trying for ‘young mother’” (209). This admission, charming and pathetic, reveals much about the complexities of choice for women; Didion does not question her love for her husband or her daughter; it’s clear that her marriage included tensions and fights and yet none of this is what initially was confusing. What was confusing is how to present oneself in public, how to dress and act.

A major theme of the book is the irrationality of grief and its attendant vulnerability. I’m sure that this vulnerability lies at the heart the difference between this book and previous Didion works. It facilitated my (perhaps embarrassing but moving to me) sense of identifying with her even as I cannot, thank God, fully understand her grief. A clinically precise exploration of magical thinking is just the kind of paradoxical project to bring out the best in Didion. Her double sense that Julia Child’s death gave her husband a great dinner companion and that such a thought is absurd captures for me the comforting and strange inadequacy of our understanding of death.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Whaddaya do when yua not shua?

So asks the priest in the opening line of a sermon on doubt that’s also the opening line of Shanley’s amazing and deservedly lauded Broadway play, Doubt. The thick sixties Bronx accent, coming out of the mouth of a sweet-faced, fully-kitted out young priest (Brian O’Byrne) sets the tone for the play: far funnier than I’d expected.

I knew, ahead of time, the story: in a Catholic junior high school in the Bronx, 1964, a nun suspects a priest of improprieties with a young student, the first black student at the school. What course of action should she take in the absence of evidence?

What I didn’t expect was for the play to be so amazingly funny, so deeply moving, and so much richer for the humor than it might have been. A solemn play about sexual abuse hardly sounds entertaining or cathartic, but this funny and troubling one with three incredibly sympathetic characters will stay with me for a very long time.

The third character, Sister James, a young, enthusiastic and intelligent nun, is the foil for the audience as she shuttles between young priest, eager to bring the church into the modern era, and the older nun, Sister Aloysius (the magnificent, towering Cherry Jones), who clings to the virtues of tradition, discipline, and distance. Watching this play with my mother-in-law (a retired ninth-grade English teacher) and my husband (also a professor) only emphasized for me how much this is a play about what kind of teacher one wants to be, about the dangers of making friends with students and the dangers of being feared by them. When Sister James is told that her enthusiasm for history may put other subjects at a disadvantage, she immediately promises to feign greater enthusiasm for other subjects. No! comes the swift counsel: just teach, don’t enthuse.

I may pretend that I’m thinking about the ways in which the play itself offers a prehistory of the church’s current sexual abuse scandal but I’m thinking as much about how the nun makes clear that the priest’s request for sugar—three lumps!—is read as a sign of decadence or her speech on the ball point pen as a sign of general social decay. Painful, insane, hilarious.

  1. The brilliant, sharp and admirable Katha Pollitt takes on Maureen Dowd,
  2. Fareed Zakaria celebrates Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia’s new president) as part of a larger international trend of women in politics (oh, let it be so! Oh, let the US join in!). Most heartening of all, he notes that, internationally, women in power seem to be fulfilling the dreams of the early feminist-pacifists: “There is growing evidence that, at the very least, where women make up a significant percentage of government, they tend to hold priorities that are different from men's. The World Economic Forum found…that women wanted more money for health care, education and social welfare, and less for the military.”
  3. although Uma offers a discouraging international reminder of the real plight of ordinary women who are not President, and
  4. Bud Parr launches Metaxu Café, a compendium of the best of the litblogs—check it out! (He explains the name here.)


Monday, November 28, 2005

John Patrick Shanley

We went to see Doubt on Friday with my visiting mother-in-law. It was wonderful—so terrifically funny, so I enjoyed it more than I had expected. I’ll write more about it soon, but before then, I just want to doff my cap to the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, whose “Who’s Who” is pretty wonderful. From the program:
JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY Playwright is from the Bronx. He was thrown out of St. Helena’s kindergarten. He was banned from St. Anthony’s hot lunch program for life. He was expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School. He was placed on academic probation by New York University and instructed to appear before a tribunal if he wished to return. When asked why he had been treated this way by all these institutions, he burst into tears and said he had no idea. Then he went in the United States Marine Corps. He did fine. He’s still doing okay.

That made my week.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

You’re always sorry,
You’re always grateful,
You always wonder what might have been…

Lucky, lucky me! Two of my very, very best friends are in town for Thanksgiving so yesterday and today I got to have long, leisurely, loud, giggling lunches. Incredible. There are no friends like the old close ones. What a lift.

I miss those grad school days of dinner parties and long walks and talks so much. It feels hard to know that some of my dearest are by no means my nearest, that not only is family in Seattle, but beloved friends are in Ohio, Virginia, Rome, Tel Aviv. What would my life have been like could we have stayed together beyond our twenties, if getting jobs didn’t mean dispersing across the globe…

But then, when I look at the map, I imagine all the little flags, not of conquest but of connection.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Someone must have put vinegar in my coffee today because I am not my usual sunny self. So, when the editorial assistant working on my book emailed me yesterday to say that "marketing" would like me to change the title, I wrote back to say that, well as I understood the importance of marketing, I felt that marketing was wrong and, furthermore, that I would not brainstorm three alternate titles before Thanksgiving.

Perhaps "marketing" has some alternates to propose.

I don't exactly feel better; I expect to lose; but I just could not cave in without an ardent protest.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Julia Briggs’s new biography of Woolf

I went to hear Julia Briggs talk about her new biography of Woolf on Friday night at Barnes & Noble on 82nd & Broadway. (Curtis Sittenfeld reviewed the book on Sunday in the Times: she liked it.) I arranged to meet Mark and Vara, old friends and esteemed Woolfians, in the W-section of Barnes and Noble at 5:30 for the 7:00 reading. From there, we planned to get a drink and return in time for the reading. Strangely, at 5:30 there were already eight or nine people seated in the folding chairs, awaiting Julia’s arrival. Devoted Woolfians though we are, an hour and a half of waiting in a folding chair has no appeal. We headed over to Amsterdam for a cozier chat.

The talk was well-attended and interesting but it was definitely—and rightly—pitched to the general audience for whom the book is written. I love Julia—she is a great scholar and teacher and incredibly generous with her students and, more remarkably, with people like me who meet as a friend of a student. Years ago, it was Julia who listened patiently to my nascent plans for a book and said, “well, if you’re going to do Woolf and the Romantics, you have to do Byron, don’t you? That’s the influence that’s really worth figuring out.” Without knowing anything about Byron beyond gossip, I knew immediately that she was right and that, I would have to go beyond Woolf’s easy-to-comprehend love of Keats or even her more intellectual fondness for Coleridge. Anyone who reads here regularly will know that Byron is a bit of an obsession here at Fernham. I have Julia to thank.

The forty people there ranged from Jane Marcus, a grand-dame of American Woolf scholarship (She wrote Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy and Art and Anger among other things.) to dozens of middle-aged readers who love The Hours. There were about forty folks in all—a good turnout, I thought, for 7:00 on Friday night and a new biography of Woolf. The questions were sweet and not too annoying but they were far from academic: What did Woolf look like? Did she believe in God? What’s your favorite Woolf novel? Was she influenced by Sterne? By Henry James?

Before things got started, we waved at Jane, said hello, and then Mark and she conferred about official editing matters. When Mark rejoined us, he said “Jane wants to know if we’re all coming over for a drink after the reading. I said you probably couldn’t, Anne.” What? I was all over that. Needless to say, I went, we went, and the hour of wine & cheese and cheesecake with Jane and Julia and a few others beat the reading by miles!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Women Carrying Sticks: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

In today’s Times, Liberian-born journalist Helene Cooper writes about what the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the Presidency of Liberia this week might mean for poor African women continent-wide. (The Times covers the election here and Black Looks weighs in with a reminder that a woman did lead Liberia in 1996-7). Cooper’s is a wonderful editorial, in part because she willingly notes that, traveling the continent
to write about poverty and development ... everywhere I went, from Accra, Ghana, to Mekele, Ethiopia and Kisumu, Kenya, I kept thinking that none of those places, for all of their endemic poverty or corruption, seemed as bad off as my own home country, Liberia.
She finds poverty on a Liberian scale in Bukavu, Congo where the plight of the women seems particularly harsh. In light of Johnson-Sirleaf’s victory, Cooper writes of her desire to “go back to Bukavu to find that woman, and to tell her what just happened in Liberia. I want to tell her this: Your time will come, too.”

You might wonder how bad this poverty is, and Cooper renders it simply and affectingly:
What struck me most, though, in Bukavu were the women. As I drove into the city, I passed women I have known all of my life. There were old women - old in Africa means 35 or so - with huge bundles of bamboo sticks on their back. In most cases, the burdens were larger than the backs carrying them as they trudged up one hill after another.
The parenthetical (old in Africa means 35 or so) is, of course, devastating to her educated American audience where 35 is a good time to start having a family, not old age. And that vision of women who, here, are the subject of “Sex and the City” bent double under loads of firewood reminds us of the global gap. This passage immediately brought to mind a parallel one from Orwell’s essay “Marrakech” (1939):
But what is strange about these people is their invisibility. For several weeks, always at about the same time of day, the file of old women had hobbled past the house with their firewood, and though they had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had seen them. Firewood was passing—that was how I saw it. It was only that one day I happened to be walking behind them…I noticed the poor old earth-coloured bodies, bodies reduced to bones and skin, bent double under the crushing weight. Yet I suppose I had not been five minutes on the Morroccan soil before I noticed the overloading of the donkeys and was infuriated by it.

Orwell’s antiseptic prose can be hard to take when you get used to writers who present themselves as ethically correct. Where Cooper is sly and generous, Orwell honestly offers an account of his own failing. What seems a failure of eyesight becomes a failure of moral imagining, as Orwell knows and as he bravely lets us see, too. By comparing his own blindness to the women with his outrage at the donkeys’s treatment, he only underscores the plight of these women, so wholly invisible to him for so long, now, thanks to his vision, impossible to forget.

With all of this you might think that I had left old Maureen Dowd and her grim assessment of the blithe willingness of American college students to plan their Stepford-wife futures and all those secretary-marrying educated men (so foolish as not to marry her, I guess) pretty far behind. Well, I have and I haven’t. I find myself more in sympathy with Amardeep Singh, who likes Dowd on the balance, than with the sharp and hilarious Uma, who finds her concerns petty and laughable. I cannot quite put my finger on the link I want to draw, that needs to be drawn—something more than just the observation, true though it may be, that women are nowhere seen as first-class citizens and that women don’t even often see themselves that way. Maybe it’s as simple as this: some of us know that in 2005, in Bukavu, Congo, there is a woman for whom life means carrying “so many logs that her chest almost seemed to touch the ground, so stooped was her back. Still, she trudged on, up the hill toward her home. Her husband was walking just in front of her. He carried nothing. Nothing in his hand, nothing on his shoulder, nothing on his back. He kept looking back at her, telling her to hurry up.” Knowing that, it is hard to imagine how a young American woman could sit in the halls of a great university, living in the bland hope of life as an educated housewife. Perhaps, too, we Americans should think about what it means that the only woman president we can imagine is in a one-hour primetime network slot.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

John Fowles

I learned about Fowles’ death from Mrs. Bookworld’s rather cheeky (and, as always, correct) rebuttal to the BBC. (The BBC took UK bloggers to task for not dropping everything and immediately blogging about his death; Mrs. Bookworld notes that the purpose of her—of most—litblog is to record personal obsessions and enthusiasms and opinions and not necessarily to commemorate every worthy’s passing.) (Mark Sarvas collects reminscences here.)

It wasn’t until I read Jenny’s great post on the rather horrifying misogyny of his journals that I decided to write a post of my own. Like many, I came to the wonderful French Lieutenant’s Woman through the film. Those were the days in which Streep and Irons could do no wrong and that haunting hooded cape, those great misty shots, moved me. I turned to the book—my father had it in his library—and read it, confused by the contemporary interchapters which, frankly did not interest me much. It as the first book of that sort I’d read.

In 1994, Twentieth Century Literature, a quarterly out of Hofstra, published my first academic article (on, surprise, surprise, A Room of One’s Own). It came out in the issue that also announced the annual award for the best article of the year. The judge had been John Fowles. Of the twenty or so articles he had to choose from, he mentioned mine as one he’d almost chosen but had decided against because he’d always found Woolf so terrifying. In the end, he plumped for an article (also on Woolf) by a man. I was—and still am—frankly kind of amazed that an academic journal runs a contest judged by fiction writers and that John Fowles actually skimmed (and seems to have kind of liked) something of mine. But there was something odd in the kind of honorable mention status he gave my piece that confused me: it felt unfair to be passed over because he was unable to read Woolf and his inability sounded like a pedestrian male, British anti-Woolf reaction, not a thoughtful “she’s not for me.” Further, it seemed weird then to give the prize to another piece on Woolf (though I have no way of judging whether or not it was “better” than mine).

I’m sad that the journal entries—the Guardian (via Jenny) quotes one on the general superfluity of women—offer such an easy and reductive explanation for the odd tone. He just didn’t like women (nor did he find them very necessary—perhaps he and Maureen Dowd could have had a pow-wow).

Elsewhere, on Paris, Moorishgirl notes a chilling little racist lapse in the Times--referring to the rioters as “second- and third-generation immigrants.” As she notes, aren’t the immigrants the ones who have arrived from elsewhere? In fact, for all its failings, France does confer citizenship on people born in France (and then leaves them to figure out the rest for themselves in huge, isolated, inhuman highrises).

Monday, November 14, 2005

Time for a new Room

Will someone please marry Maureen? Using her bully pulpit at The Times, she has managed to spin her inability to find a suitable mate into a national crisis.

Fort Lee, N.J.

This was my favorite among the many witty responses to Maureen Dowd in the Sunday Times magazine. I enjoyed Dowd’s piece, as I have enjoyed Lisa Belkin’s: the interest in gender attitudes among current undergraduates is fascinating. Still, these journalists, while gifted and sympathetic, are just journalists in the end and they always leave me hungry for more.

I think back to Woolf, of course, and her comment that she wrote A Room of One’s Own for the young women—“they seem to get fearfully depressed.” How I long for a new version of that book for today’s young women, who, with their plans of marrying well and staying home with children, seem far from depressed enough.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Paris is Burning

The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon…or too late.—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1967) (translated from the French)

On my first trip to Paris in 1983, I spent a month living with an elderly widow. She got a little money in exchange for boarding me and my French improved over nightly dinner. She warned me about les Noirs and les Arabes and I tried to look away in the face of her racism.

Still, it is impossible to visit Paris and ignore the dozens of African men selling mechanical birds at the base of the Eiffel Tower, the Arab men painting portraits on the Place in front of Notre Dame. And, years later, visiting poorer friends in those high rises on the periphery or going to the Flea Market on a Saturday jaunt, I saw for myself the neighborhoods that are now in flames.

How easily Fanon and Sartre could have predicted this. And what would James Baldwin, whose “Equal in Paris” masterfully compares his relatively humane treatment in a Paris prison with what would have been his fate as a black man in an American prison in the sixties, think? Baldwin’s experience of “equality,” as he likely knew (but partly suppressed) had everything to do with his being American.

The gap between my gut reaction to this violence and what I read and hear from the French government staggers me. While I think back to what little I know of the pain, alienation, poverty, and hopelessness of life for French Africans (citizens and immigrants both), the government seems to speak only of restoring order. Of course, with rioting spreading across the nation, order should be restored, but, eleven days ago when rioters expressed their outrage at two accidental deaths, could not someone have reacted with sympathy instead of defensiveness?

I walked to the train this morning gathering my thoughts about Paris, sending off little disorganized prayers for the people desperate enough to want to make themselves heard through riots. My iPod was on shuffle and when Cheb Hasni came on, the festive and plaintive Algerian music was almost too much. I remember feeling such hope for France and the world, for a strike against jihadists and for cosmopolitanism when I first heard that music on another trip to Paris. This morning, how different it sounded.

On the elevator, a boy bragged to a girl that he already had a topic for his history paper: the Algerian Conflict. “What’s that?” “I don’t know. It was on the list. I picked it because it had a definite start and end date.” So he thinks now, alas, so he thinks now. But, hearing that I felt both saddened and confirmed that the little I can do here from Jersey City—listening to Algerian dance music, flipping through my Fanon and Sartre, writing a little bit about it, sending thoughts of peace and healing and better conditions, opportunities, and rights to Paris—are better than the nothing of not caring what Algeria is, just being glad that, whatever went wrong there is over.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Overheard, Soho Edition

Part One, 9:15 a.m., Prince and Sullivan
Anorexic ageing hippie, Stevie Nicks style, with purple chenille scrunchy atop her long, flowing, greyish black hair: "Hey! Aren't you gong to say hello?"
Thin, male, also in his fifties, catty-corner from Stevie, answers with a far quieter, "hey."
"Did'ja hear? Whatshername and whatshisname got back together!"

Part Two, 10:30 a.m., Balthazar
Fortyish couple breakfasting with her parents. She wears her marathon ribbon and medal (those things are BIG--Olympic-sized). So does Dad. Husband is in a long-sleeved marathon t-shirt. Breakfast is nearly over. She sips champagne; Dad has a mimosa. Mother orders one last cinnamon bun, hands eighty bucks to her son-in-law and proceeds to quiz marathon-running cardiologist daughter all about the heart. Clearly the non-running, pastry-eating mom has had a heart attack or transplant. A riveting conversation follows about the difference between fibrulation (very bad) and an atrial flutter (passing, caused by adrenaline). I listened, riveted (I love doctor talk) whilst manging my sticky-bun and soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers. Yum. Resolve to exercise more. Take the long way home.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Stamina & Coffee Shop Competition

It’s the final stretch here: the long period between midterms and finals during which I rarely find time to read. Days are spent trying to catch up with myself. So, this morning, with no appointments, I went to Starbucks in hopes of grading a few papers. 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl was there, in full make up and a smart red leather blazer, writing. She looked good: smart and serious. Tired as I was, unmotivated as I was, seeing her work away her morning over a latte was somehow cheering and companionable. It is heartening to think that television journalists might occasionally write and, much as I wanted to leave and give up, I made myself stay until she had gone.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Eating and Judgment: Foie Gras Edition

I learned judgment in a restaurant, so eating and literary criticism are deeply intertwined for me. When I was eleven or so, my mom went to Los Alamos for a week to visit her mother. During those seven or so days, we had Chef Boy-ar-dee twice (on the first and last nights, I think) and, for the middle four or five, we (my sister and I) went out to dinner with my father. Each night, we ordered Shirley Temples with our dinner and cheesecake for dessert.

My father would ask how the Shirley Temple compared with last nights, and we would speak seriously about the advantages of extra grenadine, of two maraschino cherries, of 7-up versus ginger ale, and of the quality of the plastic cocktail pick. One night, sitting in a velvet and brass booth in a fern bar, eating a burger and nursing a Shirley Temple, my father asked us if we knew who was singing. We did not. “That’s Frank Sinatra,” he said. “He’s a great singer, but he’s not a nice man. Your mother will tell you that Bing Crosby is a better singer. He is not. He is a nice man [this was before his family came out against him], but he is not as good a singer as Sinatra.”

Great but not nice: this was revelatory for me and I count it as the moment of origin in my life as a critic.

My parents were in town this weekend and we ate our way through Manhattan. Tastes do change over the decades, though. I can now say, with amusement and pride, that I can compare the relative merits of the foie gras appetizer at three restaurants (and this is in addition to the wonderful one at 71 Clinton Street)…

Thursday, October 27, 2005

We are Gentlemen from Japan

If you must know who we are
We are gentlemen from Japan

Last Friday, I had coffee with a student just back from two weeks in Japan; he was helping a colleague settle in for a Fulbright year there. Most days, I read Ty’s blog about his year in the JET program: he’s teaching in Japan. Out of the blue, last month, I got a postcard from my oldest friend who was on vacation in Japan.

What’s a homebound Anglophile to do? Well, that was me, tapping my feet to The Mikado on the train this morning. Very little can beat Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s not exactly Japan—it really is pretty far from Japan—but the Victorian version of what might be interesting about Japan is hilarious, rousing, lovely, and makes a nice counterpoint to the vagaries of the commute.

When I first got my iPod, I loaded it with the Fernham equivalent of smooth jazz: lots of Brazilian jazz and soulful world music, nothing too loud or strange. That was lovely. But now, the floodgates are open and I am just putting every single thing onto it. It makes shuffle a little unnerving (Willie Nelson came on the other day. How can that be? Well, he’s on the Johnny Cash retrospective…), but I must say that it’s lovely to have the Gilbert and Sullivan option.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Today’s “assembly” was a Zen “sitting” for beginners. This was an event meant to bring freshmen together with professors and staff and it did. I enjoyed it and enjoyed the stray thoughts that the luxury of ninety minutes of guided meditation brings. What was it like? It was slightly more stressful than a Quaker meeting (because you have to sit in a special way—though I opted for chair and not cushion) and slightly less (because you never have to talk or worry that the spirit is not so moving you).

I found myself charmed by the teacher (the roshi)’s humility and his utter unwillingness to “sell” Zen practices to us. This was a step up from the proselytizing I remember from meditation practices in Seattle in the seventies. So, I found myself remembering the guided visualization I did during drama class in the gym at the Orca School. (I kid you not.) At the time, I hated those moments, on the floor, eyes closed, listening to a record of whale sounds. (Again, you may think I jest unless you, too, remember Seattle or Seattle-like places in the seventies.) But, I must have liked them or been moved or impressed by them because I remember them vividly. And that memory always takes me to a purely happy one, of my Creative Dramatics Class, years earlier, in the basement of the University District Public Library. At the end of every class, we got to pick out a couple ribbons and pretend to be sea anemones by running around in circles waving the fabric. That is about the most fun I have ever had. I was four.

I also shocked myself almost to giggles with my own small vanities, thinking “she’s not very good at sitting still”; “she needs to turn that phone OFF”; “he certainly seems to be concentrating”; “boy, my hands are stubby.”

During a moment of questions, one young man asked what to do with the thoughts that come during a sitting.

You must endure them, came the answer.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Well, La Di Dah

I was eleven when “Annie Hall” came out in 1977. My parents were Woody Allen fans and I remember seeing it all the time, it seemed, on television, which must mean more than once since this was before VCRs or DVDs. My mom, who would watch Allen kissing beautiful women with a hilarious combination of shock and attraction (O my god! Gross! Look!), encouraged me to adopt some of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall style and I did occasionally wear neckties and caps to middle school. Diane Keaton was the only movie star that ever received any kind of official parental endorsement and it was clear to me that their admiration—and mine—was warranted. She was incredibly cool.

Last week, I wanted to write a brief piece in appreciation of Daphne Merkin’s essay on jolie-laide in the Times’ T magazine. The moment passed, but the Merkin-Keaton combination in this Sunday’s magazine is irresistible. Merkin’s got a lovely cheerful tone—a nice way of coming across as a smart woman who likes to write about trivial things. She’s neither condescending about matters like movie stars and make-up nor is she dazzled by them.

A theme of Merkin’s profile is Keaton’s own sense of minor regret—she should have been more courageous, less afraid of intimacy—and the fact of our (America’s Hollywood’s) utter failure to appreciate her talent. What struck me is how much wealth Keaton’s self-diagnosed timidity has brought to her life: an array of interesting lovers instead of marriage, the financial freedom to pursue hobbies (such as home decorating and renovation) at a high level, a career unlike anyone else’s, chances to edit, direct, and photograph, motherhood on her own schedule (She is 59; she adopted the first of her two children at 50.). She is still incredibly cool—and Merkin is the right writer to show it.

The profile made me deeply and giddily happy again, as Keaton’s Hall always has done, but it also left me stumped: how could anyone bring these two together again? Clearly, Merkin needs to write a screenplay…

Monday, October 24, 2005

BBC’s Byron

I cannot say much about the BBC’s Byron which aired this weekend since it was on past my bedtime. I set my reading (the wonderful Brick Lane) down at 9:45 or so on Saturday, clicked on the t.v. and found the show that my former student had told me about over coffee on Friday. I got through a good forty minutes—enough to make me wish for greater stamina or a dvd. It’s fitting that this should be so: Byron conducted his whole life past my bedtime.

Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) plays Byron and he struck me as just right: irritiating, immoral, sexy, imperious, petulant. I also found the depiction of Byron’s friendship with Shelley to be just what I wanted. When I studied Romantic poetry in college, Byron did not even rank and Shelley was held up to us as a great political hero, a revolutionary and poet who fulfilled the ideas that the first generation Romantics—well, really, mainly Wordsworth—espoused and then backed away from. But I could never get excited about Shelley. It was not just his generic mistreatment of women. (His first wife killed herself; Mary Shelley was consistently belittled for taking the deaths of her children too hard.) I just found the whole idea—Terry Eagleton’s and others’—of Shelley as somehow the best, most moral poet as somehow annoying. I preferred Coleridge.

From Byron’s point of view, however, Shelley comes off as a real prig and I find that small revenge on Shelley somehow satisfying. Often right about important things (such as Byron’s shocking neglect of his daughter Allegra), Shelley shows up at Byron’s house occasionally to remind him of his duties, to call him back to himself. In this moral universe, Byron’s complete lack of interest in what others think is a more truly revolutionary stance than Shelley’s complicated dance of revolutionary politics and forays back into respectability. I guess, in the end, Shelley still cared that others like him while Byron enjoyed notoriety more.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Goops and How to Be Them

Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), an American humorist and author of light verse (notably the one about the purple cow), wrote Goops and How to Be Them in 1900. It’s a delightfully illustrated book of light verse on manners. (Burgess did the drawings, too.) The children, good and bad, are little bald creatures with completely round heads and strangely elastic bodies. The adults, more realistically rendered, tower over them and wear more detailed Victorian clothes.

My father gave a copy to us and we loved it. The book is dedicated “to Agnes who is Not (always) a Goop!” and all the poems have that same mischievous spirit: endorsing good manners while winking at the fun of misbehaving:
The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth—
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop—are you?
Now, the beloved toddler, not yet three, is requesting nightly readings from Goops, or “Folks,” as she calls it, laughing and trying to remember the right name. Forty years ago, my admiration, fostered by my father, was an eccentric taste for an old book of comic poems about etiquette. Now, in 2005, what does it mean? Good manners are in fact important to me, more so than I would have thought, and I love this way of teaching them. Having the book that I had makes me confident in the message; it feels less connected to the dubious morality of groups like the Moral Majority with whom I (probably) agree on table manners but disagree on most everything else. What interests me almost equally is the eccentricity. When does encouraging her to be an individual and introducing her to things that I care about move from powerful fun into willed eccentricity? Time will tell, no doubt but in the end, parenting (mine at least) continues ad hoc.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Vita and Virginia

No, not that old pair of Sapphists.

I’m happy to report that Farrar Strauss Giroux has published a translation of Melania Mazzucco’s Vita, a sweeping historical novel of Italian immigrant life. The translator is my dear friend Ginny, Virginia Jewiss. I’ll give you the full report once I’ve read it but the notices are good (one in the New Yorker this week—not the architecture one, the one after that) and most don’t mention the translation—alas, usually a good sign. Those that do, have only praise. Of course, I expect no less from Ginny whose Italian is flawless and who, one memorable Easter, came to my tiny apartment with a guest, a merry Italian poet who taught me the expression “fuore come un balcone” (spelling?). Literally, “crazy like a balcony,” but meaning something like “so far out that she’s not even in the house.”

Bravissma, Ginny!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Mrs. Dalloway, Again

The change of seasons has hit hard here at Fernham and the fatigue is intense. Ten hours of sleep sounds just about right. So, after two days home with a slightly peaked, deeply whiny, and yet still much beloved toddler, what passes for getting back to work is not very impressive.

As I procrastinate my way toward approaching this essay on teaching Mrs. Dalloway, I’ve been reading the new edition. I s-l-o-w-l-y read my friend Mark’s general introduction to the new Harcourt edtion and now, with equally painstaking care, am reading Bonnie Kime Scott’s introduction to the novel.

Savoring these familiar details, I see that in reading, I’m not that unlike the beloved toddler herself: “Tell me again about how her mom died when she was thirteen; tell me the one about how Bloomsbury started again; tell me what you think about her marriage to Leonard; tell me again about starting the Hogarth Press.” It’s intoxicating. I read about the deceased Thoby Stephen’s college friends gathering at the Bloomsbury house of his sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, to talk and I hunger to start my own salon. It happens every time.

Finding Woolf again, and again, and again, I feel boring and lucky. Mostly lucky.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Summer Guest

When my mom sent along Broken for You she said that the one she really wanted me to read was Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest (2003; a second novel—he won a PEN/Hemingway award for Mary and O’Neil).

So, I read it.

It’s a lovely and moving book. And, in the category of uplifting books about the terminally ill, head and shoulders above the Kallos. But that’s unfair. The book, set in a fishing camp in rural Maine (about an hour north of Waterville, so inland and remote, lake country not the coast), follows the lives of employees and guests one summer when a very rich frequent guest comes to the camp with some quite specific final requests. It’s one of those one-character-at-a-time, flashback heavy novels but in this case, the device builds suspense rather than feeling cheap. And the way that kind people cope with missed chances in life is really movingly handled. It’s rare to read a book that has so many adults in it, so many characters who create good lives even after disappointment. For example, the prologue describes a man—lawyer and veteran, disfigured by a shell in WWII, taking his wife and infant son to live in remote Maine. He cannot stand to live where everyone pities his ravaged face. His wife, once a concert-level pianist, comes along with some trepidation. But this doesn’t turn into a story about a bitter marriage or soured hopes or a sad and lonesome retreat. I worried, with this set up, that I might be reading a paler, sadder Angle of Repose, but Cronin’s characters accept their fate and build their lives as best they can from there. The characters are rich, the plot is both surprising and satisfying, and the language is assured, sensitive and intelligent. A really, really fine and diverting read.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Rain Boots

When we lived in Indiana, I didn’t do much walking. I was teaching in a village and living in the country. I drove everywhere; we even drove to the trail where we ran. Now, a city girl again, I need rain boots. Last spring, I got myself some fine ones from L. L. Bean: inexpensive rubber wellies in a multi-colored stripe--the kind of fun, happy boots that I had as a child and that I was seeing on grown women all over the city. The rain left before I got to wear them but they sit proudly on the floor of my closet/study and I admire them daily.

Today, it rained and rained and rained. It rained as it does here—more than Boston, harder than Seattle. It rains so that you want to lay in lumber to build an ark. I didn’t wear the wellies, though; I wore my spiffy new black Timberlands. It’s still early enough in the fall that being all in black feels special and cool. Still, the wellies call me. Tonight, on WNYC, Margaret Juntwait said her feet became so sopping on the way to work, she stopped in a shoe store and bought a pair of those brightly colored Wellingtons that everyone seems to be wearing. So hip, am I, I thought! I hopped online and found a similarly exuberantly striped pair at Land’s End (no big spender, I) for the beloved toddler.

Just ten minutes ago, my husband poked his head in my closet, “You know, those boots,” pointing down at my multi-stripe wellies, “are gone this year. None of the NYU students were wearing them today.”

Sigh. Middle age.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Food Writing

I’ve been thinking a lot about food writing lately & it seems others have, too. Over the summer I bought a copy of Gastronomica which I enjoyed but, alas, not as much as I’d hoped. It’s a beautifully produced quarterly with lovely images, few ads, and a range of articles, essays, and creative work on food. Although I liked it enough to go back for their Julia Child Tribute issue (unread, at the bottom of a pile somewhere around here), I also read it thinking that there was still a lot of room in the food-writing category.

It doesn’t look like Julie Powell or Doug Psaltis are rushing in to fill the gap. The bad reviews of their new books have brought me many smiles these past few days. David Kamp in the Times admonishes Powell to avoid what he sees as
a larger, troublesome trend among young memoirists, who seem to think that repeated references to their poor hygiene and the squalidness of their surroundings give texture and depth to their work. No, no, no! Being subjected over and over again to images of your piled-up dirty dishes and backed-up plumbing (bodily and otherwise) only makes me want to put down your book. Stop it!
I love the “Stop it!” Much better than the currently ubiquitous “ick!” it manages to be both humorous and scolding at once. A lovely moment.

Over at Tingle Alley, you can find a skeptical read of Powell’s book (Julie and Julia, which emerged from her blog and chronicles her efforts to cook every recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year). That book—Child’s book—has epic status in my home, too. Years ago, before I was born, my father went on a business trip to New York City. My parents were newlyweds and my mother was new to Seattle. Every night, so my mother says, she turned down invitations to dine in order to stay home by the phone. But he did not call. He came home, happy and full of stories of many wonderful meals out in the City. Her present? Mastering the Art of French Cooking with recipes marked: he was hoping she could recreate some of that fine dining at home. She was...steamed? frosted? Let's say, as she might, that she found it interesting that he would offer this as a gift. The final straw was his request for Filet de boeuf Prince Albert a recipe for truffle-stuffed beef that contains multiple sub-recipes and takes pages and pages of Child et al.'s book. My mom put her foot down with that one: never! But, she did learn to cook with Julia (as did I). And, for my father’s 65th birthday, my sister and I helped her make the dish for my dad. It was delicious. But, as my mother says, she’ll never make it again.

As for Doug Psaltis, Bookdwarf charts with amusement the little tangle of some very important chefs who seem to have blurbed the book proposal, not realizing the book itself would be so nasty. The Times has some lovely quotations from Jacques Pepin—whose own memoir was so lovely—and Mario Batali, both of whom are distancing themselves from the difficult Psaltis.

So, for now, thinking of going back to M. F. K. Fisher (I love "Young Hunger" and haven't read it in years), looking at the unopened Brillat-Savarin on my shelf, and I’m sticking with Andrea Strong. Strong's weekly newsletter always makes me hungry and happy: that’s good food writing!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Copyright & Google Again

I’m beginning to write an essay for a book on how to teach Mrs. Dalloway (it will be part of the MLA’s Approaches to Teaching series. And, in looking at the preface to Approaches to Teaching Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I found one of the best explanations of why current copyright law works against scholars, teachers, students, and common readers:
Originally slated to come out of copyright in 2002, seventy-five years after publication, To the Lighthouseis no under copyright in the United States until 2022, in conformity with the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act….In England,…Woolf’s works went into the public domain [briefly] (1992-95)….In Canada, Woolf’s works are now out of copyright.

Virginia Woolf died in 1941. Her husband died in 1960. They had no heirs. Keeping her work in copyright until 2022 insures huge profits for her U.S. publisher, Harcourt who has—and will have--no competition.

Capitalizing on the success of The Hours, Harcourt hastily published a Mrs. Dalloway Reader. It was sloppily researched and full of misleading information. Material written long after the novel was presented in the Reader as if it were a prelude and there was little in the way of information to lead a curious reader to accurate sources on Woolf’s life, writing, and works. To their credit, Harcourt responded to a letter from a group of Woolf scholars and published a corrected volume. And, out of the same protest, Harcourt learned that teachers wanted annotated editions of Woolf’s novels—not cumbersome ones, but the kind that help undergraduates or people reading on their own get a foothold on some basic facts about London in the 20s, etc. Now, they have actually published a nice, lightly annotated edition of Mrs. Dalloway. But Penguin and Oxford did their treatment to all of Woolf’s novels in 1992: for the past thirteen years, I have had those editions in my personal library but been unable to teach from them because I cannot order English books (and now they’re not available in England, either). I don’t see how copyright law serves anything but Harcourt. I don’t hate them nor am I broadly anti-corporation, but I think that the Copyright Extension Act is absurd.

Elsewhere,Over at Moorish Girl, guest writer Marcy Dermansky recommends a personal favorite of mine: Antonia White’s stunning, heartbreaking Frost in May. Read it!

and I recently earned a little money reviewing a book (a textbook) and sent 25% of it off to Book Relief: this seems like a great Katrina relief charity for readers. They’re working—with generous donations from publishers—to help children, schools, and libraries affected by the hurricane rebuild their personal libraries. Publishers are donating the books, so a mere fifty cents gets a book to a child.

71 Clinton Fresh Food

Last spring, Andrea Strong wrote a column/rant in the Strong Buzz urging New Yorkers to go to restaurants with challenging menus. If New York is to remain a world-class restaurant city, she argued, New Yorkers need to support chefs who stretch themselves beyond a really nice roast chicken. High on that list of restaurants was wd-50, Willie Dufresne’s Lower East Side restaurant.

Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted challenging for my birthday dinner, so we had a drink at wd-50 and headed across the street to Dufresne’s first restaurant (now under its third chef), 71 Clinton Fresh Food. The menu at wd-50 looked even better in person than it had on the web; the restaurant even prettier at night than it had walking past one midday last spring. Our drinks were lovely; the bartenders knowledgeable and friendly (a nice combination). In short, we were a bit sorry to have been conservative in our choice.

But the meal at 71 Clinton did not disappoint. My husband started with a salad of heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese curd. It was lovely but my appetizer was stratospheric: a foie gras nougat (a huge, creamy dollop of foie gras) sitting on a bed of what looked like tiny grape nuts but were caramel crunchy things, and covered in pale green basil foam. To the side was a small lump of pink gelatin with a rosy-citrusy taste. I was in heaven. It was so pretty and really one of the yummiest things I’ve ever tasted.

My veal (and yes, I ordered foie gras and veal: with a babysitter about four times a year, each event ought to be a real blow-out, I think) was a little intimidating. I don’t think I liked it—well, I know I didn’t like it but it was interesting enough and good enough that I’m willing to believe I might be partly to blame. Anyway, it was a very big, very, very pink piece of meat: about six or seven thick two-bite pieces. In college, I had a friend from Pakistan who complained that all the meat in the states really tasted of meat; she was used to cooking with lovely masking sauces and vegetables in which you weren’t so aware of eating flesh. I thought of her.

My husband’s chicken was divine. Cooked sous vide (under empty?—the waiter says they seal it in a pouch and poach it), it was pale, pale, pale (more meatiness, but less jarring to me) and tender as butter. It sat atop a little pile of swiss chard next to a small pile of gnocchi—the best, lightest potato pillows!—all bathed in a brown butter and foie gras (mmmm…) sauce. His chicken matched my appetizer.

For dessert? Chilled peach soup with vanilla shortbread cookies and a generous dollop of crème fraiche gelato. Delicious.

Clinton Street and the Lower East Side in general was hopping after dark—I love just being out and feeling myself part of a scene—and Malcolm Gladwell was seated just a few tables away from us inside, so all in all, it was a good night. And, thanks to the New Yorker writer with the huge forehead and crazy hair, I even managed to get a smidge of literature in this post…

Monday, October 03, 2005

August Wilson, R. I. P.

On October 17, the Virginia Theater will be renamed in honor of playwright August Wilson, who died yesterday in Seattle. His achievement, a ten-play epic, chronicling a century of African-American life (one play for each decade) is magnificent. Wilson announced his terminal cancer late this summer, the announcement about the theater-naming (Broadway’s first theater named for a black playwright), and the premier this year of his tenth play: this confluence of events means, I hope, that Wilson himself got to hear some of the praise that will continue to pour his way in the weeks to come.

In college, I took a course in African-American literature and we made a field trip down to New York. We walked around Harlem, lunched at Sylvia’s, and then went to see Courtney B. Vance star in “Fences.” My professor had been Vance’s at Harvard (where he’d discouraged Vance from acting) and so we got to meet the actor afterwards. Somewhere, I still have a snapshot of the two of them, surrounded by us, twenty undergraduate women. And I remember the set, tall and intimidating with huge verticals separating the apartment wall from the tiny yard, reminding you at all times of the hemmed-in life of this middle class family. I liked “Fences,” but I also found it very talky and a little depressing. (I was twenty, after all.) The play, about a frustrated man taking his anger out on a gifted son, was hard for me to watch then: one does not want to think that adulthood can be disappointing on the cusp of it. Growing up in Seattle, in a little racial utopia, it was hard to see the real consequences of racism on lives, to see wasted talent. I wanted so badly to believe that the world was hungry for talent, that the world hated to see gifts of any kind go to waste.

In grad school, you could get a great deal on tickets at the Yale Rep: a season for about five dollars a play, so I saw “The Piano Lesson” and “Two Trains Running.” Lloyd Richards, Wilson’s longtime collaborator and the Yale Rep artistic director did a wonderful job on those productions, but my memory of them is imperfect. I remember the set of “Two Trains Running” as gorgeous and I remember rooting for the characters, for their love even as I worried the worst would happen. I knew that we were lucky and it was special to have these things premiering in front of our eyes. Still, snob that I was, I dismissed Wilson’s plays at times as too like Lorraine Hansberry’s. Having seen “A Raisin in the Sun” countless times (including one memorable and terrific performance at Holy Names High School starring my friend Bob Smith), I thought that his plays were just too realistic, too ordinary. Now, I find it hard to imagine a cooler achievement. He set himself a really interesting long-term project; he spent twenty years working on it but did not—at least as far as I can see—force himself to stick to too many rules other than the loose one of a play per decade. If writing “A Raisin in the Sun” is an achievement worthy of a lifetime, what does it mean to have written ten?

May he rest in peace.

The Times obituary is good. And, for those of us who could use the refresher, Newsday helpfully put the cycle in order:

"Gem of the Ocean"
Set in: 1904
Premiere: Goodman Theatre, Chicago, April 2003
Plot: A young man seeks an old seer's counsel about a violent incident, while a former Underground Railroad guide frets over his sister and a black constable tries to enforce the white man's law.

"Joe Turner's Come and Gone"
Set in: 1911
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, May 1986
Plot: A mysterious man in search of his wife, accompanied by his young daughter, arrives at a boarding house where a neighbor tries to help him rediscover his identity.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Set in: 1927
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, April 1984
Plot: In a Chicago recording studio, Ma Rainey and her band -- exploited by the white-run music industry -- fall into strife among themselves.

"The Piano Lesson"
Set in: 1936
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, November 1987
Plot: Boy Willie, a sharecropper from the South, wants to sell his family's ancestral piano. His Pittsburgh sister Berniece insists on keeping it -- the piano has the carved faces of their great-grandfather's wife and daughter, who were sold in exchange for the piano during the days of slavery.

"Seven Guitars"
Set in: 1948
Premiere: Goodman Theatre, Chicago, January 1995
Plot: A group of neighbors in the backyard of a tenement house returns from a funeral, and the play flashes back to the final week of the young singer-songwriter who died.

Set in: 1957
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, May 1985
Plot: A former Negro League baseball player who was born too soon to make the transition to the major leagues now collects garbage and nurses grudges against his athletic 17-year-old son.

"Two Trains Running"
Set in: 1969
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, March 1990
Plot: A group of regulars hangs out at a cafe that might be condemned -- or might be bought by the nearby mortuary owner. Romance blossoms between an ex-con and a waitress.

Set in: 1977
Premiere: Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh, 1982
Plot: The owner of an unlicensed cab business faces the threat that his building will be demolished, while his son -- out of prison after 20 years -- seeks a reconciliation.

"King Hedley II"
Set in: 1985
Premiere: Pittsburgh Public Theatre, December 1999
Plot: The title character, just out of jail, is saving money to open a video store but instead becomes a bank robber.

"Radio Golf"
Set in: 1997
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, April 2005
Plot: While Aunt Ester's house is scheduled for demolition, Harmond Wilkes II wants to teach kids in the neighborhood how to play golf -- and wants to become Pittsburgh's first black mayor. His partner helps a white radio investor take advantage of minority ownership tax breaks.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Happy Birthday, Cervantes!

Happy Birthday to me!

That's right, Miguel de Cervantes was born on this day in 1547. I was born on this day in 1966. Not a bad birthday-sharer, I think. Enrico Fermi is another, but it rapidly gets anticlimactic from there. Who would have guessed that I entered the world on the precise same day that Cheryl Whelan, "Vicki" from The Love Boat, was born?

39 seems great so far. I got some lovely gifts. The very best was that, with my husband's guidance, the beloved toddler signed her name on a birthday card. I do feel very grown up. I had a long day at the office, leaving an hour earlier than usual, getting home an hour later; I popped out of work for a few minutes to go buy myself a birthday cake; I came home, made Annie's mac'n'cheese for the beloved toddler; I popped "Kipper" in the DVD player and soused the mac with ketchup; I made my favorite potatoes au gratin, steak, and green beans; I put the beloved toddler to bed; I ate with my husband and then I cleaned up the kitchen. (Don't get too hard on him: he came through with chocolates and two cds; he's got a cold and his work week was even more wicked than mine.) After all that, to be able to say that it was indeed a great birthday feels good.

(Nice to know, too, that a babysitter is coming on Saturday night for a proper blow-out...)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Audience, Ego-Surfing, & Google’s Lawsuit

Bud’s thoughts about audience got me thinking. I haven’t been inspired to engage with other bloggers much in these posts lately. Sometimes it’s nice to use Fernham as my private little soapbox; sometimes I delight in getting comments, linking to others, fantasizing about others linking to me; sometimes I long for more readers; most of the time I know that the four posts a week I aim for is my upper limit so that keeping things modest is the only realistic answer. Still, thinking about audience got me itching to participate more. I couldn’t bring myself to do it with a post, but I have been commenting around at some of my favorite stops. I was pretty excited to get mentioned on Maud’s blog.

All these thoughts about audience, access, and community are linked to the Author’s Guild’s lawsuit against Google. Google’s planning to make tons and tons of snippets of books searchable and available by digitizing libraries (you can find out more at BoingBoing). I think this is cause for celebration (you can see my comments over at Moorish Girl. I was responding to this post of Laila’s just asking for opinions). She posts an interesting (albeit wrong, in my view) rebuttal, too. Now, I see that, not unexpectedly, Dave has a really smart defense of Google, invoking fair use and castigating current copyright rules. The point that I was trying to make that I still haven’t heard enough: folks like Sonny Bono and other defenders of copyright cast themselves as saviors of the creative class when really they are protecting corporate publishing and withholding access from young artists, students, and scholars (young, middle-aged, and old).

Monday, September 26, 2005

Homecoming by Natasha Radojcic

This 2002 novel is a stunner. It’s the story of Halid, a Muslim soldier, injured and traumatized by fighting in Sarajevo; he returns to his village (which has not suffered much visible damage) but cannot quite bring himself to knock on his mother’s door. It’s village life, though, so as he runs into a gypsy boy (a son of the local arms smuggler), an old friend, the baker, the town Jew and sage, it’s quickly clear that his mother has heard, from more than one source, that he is back. Still, in this world where women—especially widows—keep to their homes and observe social customs with great fidelity, Halid knows that she will not seek him.

Like Mrs. Dalloway and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, Homecoming tells the story of the reverberations of war, its after effects, its lingering injuries, and the havoc it wreaks on women’s lives. Radojcic’s treatment of the women characters here is fascinating: there are whores and widows, a gypsy child bride and a lost love and we see them all through Halid’s sensitive but unsentimental and patriarchal gaze. This means that, more than West or Woolf, Radojcic is crude the way that men are when, together, they flirt with a woman or assess her looks. At the same time, her description of how the hardship of war has ruined his love’s beauty emerges out of grief, not a cold-blooded judgment of a woman’s lost worth.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without spoiling it and I won’t because you should read it: it’s short and really great. I think it’s worthy of being compared to books like Barker’s WWI trilogy, Woolf, or West (I know the WWI canon best). It’s also clearly deeply indebted to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He’s Natasha’s favorite & his influence lies clearly on this book. Usually that means something almost kitschy: suddenly old men with wings start showing up in her work, too, but here, it has more to do with an affectionate and intense understanding of how gossip works, of village life and its incredibly complex permutations. Thus, in Homecoming, Muslims, Christian Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies all interact and know each other and treat each other with love, suspicion or wary respect based on some combination of stereotypes, political facts, and individual character. This seems akin to the way that people treat, say, priests in Garcia Marquez: being a priest means something in Colombia, but it does not mean only one thing and everyone in the village knows which priest is greedy, which lovingly dedicated to the poor, which cannot hold his liquor and which can, who is smart, who doesn't know Latin, etc. I would say that the final chapter is a bit too indebted to Chronicle of a Death Foretold but that is a quibble with an otherwise totally terrific book. I’m going off to get my hands on her memoir-novel, You Don’t Have to Live Here, too. But I promised my mom I’d read The Summer Guest next. And then, there’s Laila Lalami’s new book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits: that’s beckoning, too.

You can hear a great interview with Radojcic on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show here (scroll down).

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


I don't have the patience to write tonight and I'm eager to finish Homecoming, which dazzles. So, in the search for inspiration, I checked out Google's new blog search, you know, the one all the kids are talking about these days, and lo & behold, I found this: Summer Pierre's blog with her account of what it was like to sing in the middle of the reading on Monday night.

Elsewhere,Ian McEwan reconfirms what sociologists and literary historians keep saying—women read more than men. And, did you see this great monument to procrastination, a “Not to do” list? Both of these links come from Maud Newton, of course.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Natasha Radojcic Reading

I recently met Natasha Radojcic, author of Homecoming and You Don’t Have to Live Here, and she was kind enough to invite me to her reading last night in the East Village. With some wangling, I made it. What a treat!

Last night’s reading was the first in a series of two-person readings every Monday night at the new club, Mo Pitkins’ House of Satisfaction (Avenue A, btw. 2nd & 3rd). I was a few minutes late and missed Leigh Newman’s introduction and the first few paragraphs of Natasha’s new work, but, once I caught my breath, what a pleasure.

I am reading her Homecoming now—I hope to be able to write about it here later this week—and find it dazzling. It’s a bleak story of a soldier returning from the war in Sarajevo. (And she tells me she finds Mrs. Dalloway depressing…) But the new work takes a different turn. This book not only participates in the magic realist tradition (Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a hero of hers), it revels in that genre’s most utopian strains. So we heard about a lazy Mississippi town, Dreaming, where no one dies and all love to dance and then, about a drab woman from Bayside, Brooklyn, who seems to be on her way to a Southern adventure. Reading the one and hearing the other—less polished, happier—was so exciting. I could see that I was watching an ambitious novelist work to push her art forward.

The upstairs room at Mo’s is perfect—long and narrow with a velvet curtain at the back of the stage and exposed brick walls. It’s just wide enough for three narrow rows of tables: little tables for two snugged up against the red leatherette banquettes on each side and then a long, cafeteria style line of tables in the center. The menu fits the neighborhood: collegiate cheap. I just had seltzer and cranberry but, were I much younger, I would have been tempted by the “Choose any 6 for $13” option, with a wild list of snacky-things to heap on your table. Can you imagine how fun it would be to be in your twenties, ordering pitchers of beer and platters of 6 little things for $13?

After Natasha read, Leigh, the hostess, got up and announced that, over the weekend she had randomly met Summer Pierre (?), a singer-songwriter newly arrived in New York & wanted to give her the chance to play. She did sing one song and it was lovely and smart and moving. Then, Lisa Selin Davis got up and, anxiously apologizing, did about ten minutes of hilarious stand-up about how unprepared she was to read, what a horrible day she’d had, how that made her less nervous than usual, but that she still had cotton mouth, etc. We were horrified and in stitches. Then she read a terrific passage from Belly in which the title character, a father released from prison, gets drunk and makes a pass at his daughter’s lesbian lover.

I hung out with Natasha and her friends for a bit then went to Two Boots for a slice and ambled to the PATH train home to JC. All in all, a delicious and fabulous break from the routine of fixing Grover Grape juice & Annie’s mac & cheese for the beloved toddler and then watching Aaron Brown and Andersoon Cooper empathize with the suffering of Katrina. And more than that, too.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf's Nose

Wasn't I flattered when the editor of biography contacted me and asked me to review this book? Wasn't it a happy day to receive the thin volume free in the mail? And to take a day off from manuscript work in July to write the review, well, it made me feel important and busy. So, then, what is the emotion when the editor writes to say, oops! we assigned the review to somebody else. Bless her, she tried to place it elsewhere. No dice. Here it is.

LEE HERMIONE, Virginia Woolf’s Nose. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 141 pp.

Hermione Lee is the author of the best biography of Virginia Woolf: in a field crowded with competitors for the definitive portrayal of a beloved woman writer, this is no mean achievement. Her status as Woolf’s definitive biographer is testament to Lee’s overall standing as one of our best literary biographers. In addition to Virginia Woolf (1998), she has written books on Willa Cather, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bowen, and Philip Roth. She is currently at work on a biography of Edith Wharton.

Lee’s latest book, Virginia Woolf’s Nose, is a handsome, slim volume on writing biography. It originated in a Cambridge University seminar and a series of lectures at Princeton. That origin, the book’s subtitle, Essays on Biography, and the humorous title itself (an allusion to the controversial prosthetic nose Nicole Kidman wore to play Woolf in the movie of The Hours) give the flavor of the book. Lee’s wit canters along at an easy pace here: Virginia Woolf’s Nose is a delightful read. Although this book is entirely concerned with literary biography, Lee never distinguishes between her subgenre and biography tout court: this is my only quibble with an otherwise lovely book.

The book opens with Elizabeth Gaskell’s note to herself: “If you love your reader and want to be read, get anecdotes!” Hermione Lee heeds Gaskell’s dictum here: we get stories of Jane Austen fainting, of Pepys forgetting to bring home the lobsters he has bought for dinner, of Trelawny grieving for Shelley while Byron darkly refuses to do so. Many of these stories are familiar but no less enjoyable for the repetition. But pleasure is not the whole point of this book nor is Virginia Woolf’s Nose only a fireside chat in the company of an engaging biographer. Each of these four essays discusses a particularly thorny aspect of biography: how to deal with gaps in the record, or a thin record in which every event seems to take on great significance, how popular fictional portrayals color—and flatten—public perception of a literary figure, and how biographers deal with death. Neither theoretical nor especially practical (this is not a how-to guide for beginners), Lee makes her case through judicious comparisons. As readers of her work will expect, she has little patience for polemical or narrow readings of a life. We should not expect Lee to insist that a single event colored an entire life any more than that a single theoretical perspective can bring that life into order. She revels instead in navigating how the details of a life combine to create a likeness of the writer.

How, for example, are we to deal with a significant moment in the life of someone about whom little is known? This is her subject in “Jane Austen Faints,” in which she contrasts the nostalgic world of the Janeites with the growing feminist effort to “construct a more robust, less sanctified Austen” (74). There is no doubt that Lee’s sympathies lie with the feminists, but the pleasure and point here lies in reading, side by side, competing versions of the same story: Jane Austen’s faint at learning of her family’s sudden decision to move to Bath. (She was twenty-five.) It may be an anomalous moment in an otherwise discrete life; it may be a sign of intense repressed emotions; it may be the occasion for larger speculations on the social position of an unmarried woman, subject to her parents whims. What Lee watches—and teaches us to watch—are the moments in which the biographer turns to conditionals and speculations, what “Jane” “must have felt” or what “seems likely.” In the end, she reminds us that the best biographers are careful to distinguish between the historical record and their interpretation of it, and, harder still, are careful to assess how accurate an historical account is likely to be. What ever we might want Austen to have been like, we must, Lee counsels, remember how far we are from knowing her.

In spite of this, Lee insists: “explanation is exactly what is wanted” (120). She will brook no shirkers. This insistence holds even on the difficult subject of death, where Lee notes with some amusement that biographers often find it “hard to resist colouring the moment of death with the subject’s own attitude to death” (114), otherwise, why would a biographer of Proust give him “mother” as his last word? And should we be surprised that biographer Andrew Motion found the modern, clinical view of death fitting for his biography of Philip Larkin, whose stark, clinical poems provide Motion with his imagery of pain, rage, and inevitability (116)?

On the novel and movie of The Hours, which used her Woolf biography as one of its sources, Lee is particularly generous where she might have been churlish. She clearly admires the book and likes the movie, though more reservedly, and says so before launching into her critique. In doing so, she distinguishes herself from those critics, also quoted here, who loudly protested against what they saw as the disappointing portrayal of Woolf as a fragile, humorless, suicidal woman. Lee places herself above the fray of either possessive American feminists or, across the channel, of bitchy, jealous Englishmen, even as she concurs with the feminist objections. She calls Cunningham’s an “inventive, absorbing novel” which “makes a sensitive reinvention of Woolf’s inner life” even as she expresses reservations about turning real people into characters. However, when she notes that instead of a coat from Harrod’s, Woolf’s niece “would much more likely be wearing a cut-down jacket of Duncan Grant’s, or a velvet cloak made out of old curtains” (50), I could not help but wish that Lee would turn her hand to novels. That eye for detail, that way of knowing a life so well that you can guess not only where your subject would shop but what kind of coat her young niece would wear, is what makes Lee a biographer worth listening to again and again.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Stephanie Kallos, Broken for You

Well, I finished it, I cried at the end, I enjoyed it, but Kallos’ Broken for You is not a good book. There is a lot—too much—that’s interesting in the book: it’s the story of an isolated, depressed Seattle heiress in her seventies who takes in a broken-hearted thirty-something as a boarder. This one decision, prompted by the advice of a skinny girl in a coffee shop, opens up the older woman’s life and brings her the joy and the random family and love that her life has lacked for decades. I loved this plot line and loved the character of the agoraphobic woman, surrounded by valuable things, opening up. I love the vision of the generous woman with a full-time house party. I long to throw my own.

Since this is a largely negative review of a bestseller from last year, I’m going to keep on going with some spoilers, so be forewarned.

I was less enamored of the story of a woman in her thirties who, even with a sexy man throwing himself at her, continues to pursue her alcoholic ex. Where I felt sympathetic with the withdrawn older woman who has lost a son and has a failed marriage, I felt impatient with the young woman. When the young woman is in the car accident—the moment, my mom tells me, she lost interest in the book—the plot falters significantly. The car accident is the novel’s turning point and that second act of the book is its weakest spot. The third act, in which the young woman transforms herself into an artist, while not as good as the beginning, is almost as good as the first.

There’s a real Seattle optimism to this book, an optimism that’s both heartening and suspicious. The plot ultimately hinges on a theme of forgiveness and tolerance that’s connected to the Holocaust. Having grown up with Night (and even, it must be said, The Painted Bird), I’m not sure how ready I am for this happier magic realist Holocaust book: I await Everything is Illuminated with hope & trepidation—I spent a couple memorable nights in college partying with Director Liev Schreiber. It turns out that the old woman’s valuable china collection came from her father’s opportunistic purchases of china from French Jews during WWII. The old woman’s guilt over this bounty has wrecked her marriage and her life until she hits upon a solution: since she has been unable to return the figurines and dishes to their rightful owners, she’ll break them. Breaking them turns out to be therapeutic to the young woman, who becomes a mosaic artist. Though Kallos writes that the art and its matter are controversial, that the artists’ own lack of Jewish ancestry is an issue, all the Jewish characters in the book are big-hearted, warm, loving, accepting folks. I like the idea that, as Kallos herself notes, the mosaics become a kind of atonement for Kristallnacht and it seems right and smart to be attentive to the idea that not all will agree. I do not like the depiction of all Jews as merry Tevye’s, affirming “L’Chaim” to the well-intentioned goys.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


[I wish there was a poetic verb for reading over the shoulder, something akin to eavesdropping…]

On the Uptown A train this morning, I sat down next to a skinny high school girl writing with great concentration in a spiral bound notebook:
September 14, 2005
To: Shaun
From: Niqua
At: 8:45 AM
Dear Shaun,
Why you be always playing with me? You be lieing about the stupidest s**t.

The contrast between the pitch-perfect business memo format and the tone—you can see one finger pointing in Shaun’s face, feel her other hip cocking in exasperation—is grand. The time, too, is excellent: Niqua clearly expects a response later today. In fact, she clearly expects this to be the first of several missives to Shaun.

Elsewhere, two dear friends are in Asia this fall and blogging about it. A former student has started a blog about his year as junior teacher in Japan & my dear, dear, beloved friend (the one who sent me the Ann Patchett books, among other things), a writer and scholar is off today (en vol as I write) for a three-month sojourn to Thailand. Louise’s father, who died, a suicide, several years back, always loved his visits to Thailand and so she’s going to find out and pay tribute. It’s the beginnings of a book about him, so do visit and watch. She’s a beautiful writer doing a very brave thing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Return of the Guild: More on Katrina

I’m still thinking about Katrina and wishing I had a little more pocket money to send off to those who have been displaced. While questions of race and class are shaming and ought to remain so long enough to effect some real social change (I know, I dream), I have been noticing something else lately.

The story of black and white is overwhelming, but it may be too simple. There is another story, of people looking after those who work in their industries. The Romance novelists at the Squawk Box have raised over $3,000 and have an ongoing auction at eBay for a fellow romance writer displaced by Katrina: she is black, none of the romance bloggers are. The Children’s Book Council has put together a wide range of links for writers and readers to help replenish the libraries—home, school, and public—of those affected (via Out of the Woods Now). Musicians have Musicares. And food writer Andrea Strong lists a range of ways for those in the food and restaurant business can help, including a job bank for displaced food service workers.

Music, food, and reading are all arenas in which people of different races can and do mix—harmoniously and with great, moving benefit for all. Maybe thinking about the recovery in terms of these guilds, these spheres of interest and influence can serve as an antidote to the poison of so much on the news.

That seems like a place to stop, but I’m not happy with this post: I suspect that, in my fatigue I’ve let Pollyanna have too much of a say, so let me just end with this, a caveat: I’m not sure this where I want to end this small set of observations, but it’s where they’ll end now.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Fox and The Goat

My students are writing fables this week, which brings me to Aesop. There are some nice collections on the web, but I have been pouring over my beautiful edition of Jacob Lawrence’s illustrated fables.

The illustrations, all black and white, are complex and stunning. Harder to read than most of Lawrence’s work, they show his intense engagement with the moral of each fable and his acute observation of the gestures therein. I read from the publisher (the Unversity of Washiington, where Lawrence spent the latter part of his teaching career) that “he first sketched out the scenarious using humans” only turning them into animals later.

You can find how little we know about Aesop at Wikipedia; lots of sites collect the fables (since they’re in the public domain) but the University of Massachusetts site is particularly elegant and fun, with student-illustrated fables.

I’ve given you an imagine from this website: Lawrence’s drawing for “The Council of Mice” (also known as “Belling the Cat”) but another fable really struck me this time, and not only because of the hurricane and its sorry, costly aftermath (though partly because of that): “The Fox and the Goat.” Here it is:
One day a fox fell into a deep well from which he could not escape. Just as he was about to give up hope, a goat came by to quench his thirst.
Seeing the fox in the well, the goat exclaimed, “What in the world are you doing in that well, old fox?”
“Haven’t you heard news of the great drought? As soon as I heard, I jumped down here where the water is cool and plentiful. It is delicious too, and I have drunk so much I can hardly move.”
When the goat heard this, he jumped into the well, and the fox immediately jumped onto the goat’s back and up his horns, scrambling to safety.
Moral: It is not safe to trust the advice of a man in difficulties.