Monday, February 28, 2005

Reviews: If you don't have anything nice to say...

There’s quite a little brouhaha about what it means to review a book and whether or not it’s ethical to review (or award prizes to) one’s friends. Ron Hogan at Beatrix has some sharp words for The Tournament of Books and Gwenda weighs in (largely agreeing with Ron) that it is all right and probably inevitable that friends review friends; full disclosure is always preferable; things get considerably ickier, however, when money is involved.

The problem with book reviews for all but the most famous writers is the problem of audience. In almost every case, the most engaged and interested reader of your review will be the author herself. And, if you’re inclined to be a sweet-natured person or if you’re reviewing to while away the time before your own beloved book appears, naked and screaming, vulnerable to reviews of its own, it’s easy, as a reviewer, to let the specter of the writer loom too large. After all, as Woolf reminds us, reviews wound:
It is all very well for you…to say that genius should disregard such opinions…Unfortunately, it is precisely the men and women of genius who mind most what is said of them….Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.(A Room of One’s Own 56)

And few of us have the wit, stamina, or soapbox A. J. Jacobs had to rebut a bad review.

I started this blog to avoid writing a negative review. I don’t like to write them. But it is more dishonest to falsely praise a poor book. While reviewers need, I think, to think of the author as part of their audience, she is only part: the chief responsibility of reviewers is to other readers. I wouldn’t accept a review of a friend’s book unless I had confidence in its quality. But I will not vow to only write positive reviews. I love reading witty and well-written reviews and I will admit to taking special pleasure from negative ones; I think comparisons are helpful (which has a lot to do with why remain a fan of the Tournament of Books: when the reviewers stumbled, as they did, I could see through their judgments and I was glad to hear their reasoning, even when I thought it wrong). But, most of all, given all the inevitabilities of writers knowing each other, an occasional negative review reminds us to demand a lot from our reading. I don’t think a culture of “grade inflation” among book reviewers will bring more readers.

What I want in a review is a characterization of what the reviewer thinks the book is aiming to do and then an assessment of how close it came to the mark. Reviewing is dog’s work: a necessary evil, even, at times a malicious pleasure. But judging books is part of reading and if we don’t exercise our judgment, then we’re just skimming the surface.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Let us consider letters….Life would spilt asunder without them. ….Byron wrote letters. So did Cowper. For centuries the writing-desk has contained sheets fit precisely for the communications of friends. Masters of language, poets of long ages, have turned from the sheet that endures to the sheet that perishes, pushing aside the tea-tray, drawing close to the fire (for letters are written when the dark presses round a bright red cave), and addressed themselves to the task of reaching, touching, penetrating the individual heart.

This, a very compressed selection from Jacob’s Room (each ellipsis marks a full paragraph), is my favorite bit from Woolf’s 1922 novel. I promised myself that writing this weblog must be also a commitment to writing to my friends more, not less, often. An entry here is easier to write than a proper letter and Woolf shows why: to really write a letter, one must try to reach the individual heart.

I’ve gotten some really good ones already in 2005: a long letter from a friend and former student on really fun paper, an envelope in an unfamiliar hand with “celle qui t’aime” where the return address should be, a postcard from a long-lost friend in Japan. Life would split asunder without such things. When I opened the note from “celle qui t’aime” and saw who had written it, I thought, with a blush of pleasure, “yes, that’s right, she does love me. And I, her. She is my friend.”

I have written more letters than usual in the past six weeks. Writing a good one takes concentration, but then, sometimes, a bad one will do. After all, a letter is a “sheet that perishes.” We may be trying to reach an individual heart, thinking about what that one person would want and need to hear, but the main thing we’re saying is “hey!”

Today I got a great, day-changing email from Italy. My friend there gave me the sunny, public, glam version of her day: all monuments and great pasta, and then the grouchy, February one (including a sick cat). The grouchy one is funny and reassuring (hey! my dog is sick…) but sunny one is spectacular. It reminded me of my girlhood pact with my grandmother: in lieu of keeping a diary, I wrote her letters. She was ill (with diabetes and all its attendant annoyances and worse), so I did not dare burden her with my woes: I just brightened everything up. It was cheering for us both.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The A Train

It takes about two minutes, certainly no more, for the A train to get from Penn Station (34th) to 14th Street. Today, 3 young men got on at 34th. They were not handsome—a real motley crew, in stained, old clothes, very plain, black, white and gray. They smelt of a locker room and I soon learned why.

“Your attention please, please, your attention please. Those of you in the middle, please step out the way, the show is about to begin.”

--Boom-boom-chick, boom-boom-chick—from a little radio on the floor.

“Here we go!”

Then, two minutes of old-school eighties-style break-dancing in the car as we hurtled downtown, including those great wrist-to-wrist upper body rolls, cartwheels, somersaults, two-man cartwheels (“Do not try this at home, ladies and gentlemen!”), one-handed push ups. Many riders looked embarrassed or wary that they were about to be had somehow (by itinerant dancers?), but the sweet-faced young Jamaican woman who’d been singing to herself earlier, the toothless elderly woman thumbing the Zabar’s catalogue, and I looked on in admiration.

Jamaica only had a ten—they weren’t worth that—but Zabar’s and I each put a dollar in the hat. Hefty nurse and a few others followed suit. We pulled into the 14th Street station and they were gone.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


It is just one damned thing after another, isn’t it? Susan Sontag’s death cannot really have left us devoid of female public intellectuals, but one does feel starved for smart women. It’s not so much a question of what women want but what do we want from feminism?

When I read Virginia Woolf, I assume she is a feminist but listen to the ways in which she allows other aspects of her character to enter into her judgments of things. I trust that her feminism runs deep enough that it's compatible with her other opinions, that it's strong enough to withstand surprising—even antithetical—predilections. Making that decision freed me to do the same for myself. I am a feminist. I know that that is true. So I assume that anyone who sees or knows or reads me will recognize, at some point, the feminism in something I write. I also trust that those I come into contact with will not balk if I admit that I’ve been following some bit of trivia that isn’t feminist.

So, what would I want a feminist to say about the three sex-role stories of the month—Judith Warner’s book, ''Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” Michael Kinsley’s alleged sexual discrimination (via Gawker), and Lawrence Summers’ remarks at Harvard?

I can see why the Harvard remarks got peoples' knickers in a twist, I guess. I think it’s smart and right of Summers to make them available on the web. It also seems to me perfectly reasonable and appropriate to ask why it is that fewer women have tenured positions in the sciences. He offers three hypotheses:
One is what I would call the… high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.
It’s the second that got him into trouble, of course. But what’s wrong with asking the question? And should we be surprised to have Harvard asking serious questions with potentially conservative social assumptions behind them? For all its liberal reputation, it’s also the home of The Bell Curve and the Thernstroms. Questions do contain assumptions in them, of course, but Summers’ question, delivered at a conference, introduced with many caveats, and qualified throughout with the expectation and hope of being proved wrong strikes me as the sincere question of a man who genuinely would like to have more tenured women faculty in the hard sciences without having to do anything very drastic to change the world he lives in. From my perspective, that’s not a bad starting place. He even goes so far as to suggest that Harvard might consider offering childcare for its faculty.

What interested me most, skimming through his remarks, were the anecdotes that came so close to home:
That is, in fields where the average papers cited had been written nine months ago, women had a much harder time than in fields where the average thing cited had been written ten years ago. And that is suggestive in this regard.

This makes complete sense to me: one maternity leave, one pregnancy, one academic year (where juggling teaching with the work at home make scholarship slow to a glacial pace) and you’re out. The Second Shift describes the life many of us live: however great and helpful our partners, the husbands are often helping in the home, not managing it. I think those things (too-speedy academia and husbands doing more chores) are worth working to change but they're a work in progress. Elsewhere, Summers says:
So, I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something.

This seems a funny thing for a Harvard President to have noticed. I would bet that this is the first time in the history of Harvard that a sitting president has a) been actively trying to raise feminist daughters and b) has spent enough time with them (or their caregivers) to notice something. It’s warm and personal—maybe inappropriate for a conference, maybe a nicely calculated moment—but it’s also very familiar to me from conversations with other parents.

It also brings me back round to Judith Warner. I spend time every day trying not to get hooked by the kind of mommy anxiety she’s tracking, so I read Judith Shulevitz’s review on Sunday in the Times with a squint. Sadly, my main reaction was delight to learn that I’m giving my daughter just about the average amount of attention that working mothers give. Hooray for me! Totally average. I hooted at Chez Miscarriage’s parody of celebrity instant-message conversations about Warner and at her collection of “mommy drive-bys”—those horrible judgmental comments from strangers about your parenting.

How do I want feminism to help me think this through? I’m not sure. I don’t think motherhood is a very promising political action group: we’re too tired to do much more than finish loading the dishwasher. I do think, Chez Miscarriage aside, that Lisa Belkin and others are right to wonder if these “opt out” moms with high-end degrees and ramped-down careers don’t stand a chance to force some changes, but it’s hard. When I became chair of a major committee, I made a commitment to everyone that we would always adjourn promptly at 5:59 and I made a point to tell everyone that this was for our families, that I had an infant, that I respected family time, that I was inspired by the President of Princeton who had done something similar as a new administrator. I felt very brave and proud doing that. My successor, the father of an infant, regularly kept us until 6:15, 6:30 the very next semester. What can you do?

I almost called this blog ODTAA, or One Damn Thing After Another for the literary society (at Newnham? Girton?) in Cambridge, England that invited Woolf to give part of the talks that became A Room of One’s Own. I love the idea of a club of college women in the 1920’s giving themselves that name (probably after John Masefield’s 1926 bestseller?). I decided against it because it was a bit unwieldy and because I thought my mom might chastise me for swearing. I told her so today. To my amazement, she loved the name and wants me to incorporate it into the title somehow. We’ll see.

Monday, February 21, 2005

My local

Monday is my writing day. I don’t have to go into the city. I stay close to home and try to put in a few hours on my book. Often, these are the only hours of attention that poor neglected creature gets all week. Work, the beloved toddler, and all the other accompaniments of a working mother’s life make their demands.

So, I head off to my local coffee shop for the morning. The food is good; the service is glacially slow but friendly; the eavesdropping, however, is unparalleled:
“Have you tried massage for your allergies?”
“Does anyone know how far Hackensack is?”
“You know I only come in between projects”
“Seriously, we should do that: give me a call and we’ll hit a couple buckets of balls”
“cause we’re thinking of starting a restaurant, so I just wondered”
“No, I was in grad school and they were punk undergrads at Rutgers and then we just got together and rented the studios, then the developers came in”
“If I counter with a fixed rent, paying him a steady income for the store”
“Her eyes were swollen shut! I mean, a sick bird is much worse than a sick child”

Here, I can watch without being watched. The room is small, there’s a mix of soul and contemporary gospel on the stereo and it’s one of the only places I’ve ever frequented where the conversation seems to flow between tables, going private and public again with grace and without intrusion. The owner asked me, with a twinkle, if I’m a writer. I guess I am.

In England, folks head off to their local for a pint. I love the way that adjective, local, stands in for the noun (already much abbreviated), the pub. Though mine has no liquor license, I’m still happy to say that I love my local.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Tournament of Books

For me, the Tournament of Books has totally delivered on its promise: it's been fun to visit the Morning News for a daily round, comparing two highly-touted new books. My time is limited, my budget for hardbacks small, and I always wonder: is the new Philip Roth (on which I spent my birthday money but haven’t yet read) a disappointment or a brilliant dystopia? Would I like Jonathan Strange, having devoured the Harry Potter books, or is it too deep in the genre for a dabbler like me? Pitting books against each other helps me think these questions through in a way that a single review could not. Having the judges articulate a reason—however lame—for their preference and adding that to their photo, age, and thumbnail preferences gives the reader like me just a little more than usual. It’s fun.

Sarah Boxer at the New York Times has some suggestions for improvement:
What's the verdict on the competition itself? Not bad. Breezy. Sporty. But more sport would be better. Where is the play-by-play? Where are the slam-dunk sentences and the three-point plot twists at the buzzer?

She singles out Choire Sicha’s irreverent review for its wit. Although I’ve liked bits of his writing elsewhere, his was the only first round entry that made me really feel how horribly unfair the process is. He was so cheeky that my sympathies went to the writers. Clearly, there is a problem of tone inherent in this contest. Still, it’s a rare book award where we common readers can sit in the bleachers and watch things unfold. In general, I take Boxer’s suggestions as a friendly amendment, in the spirit of the Tournament. I'm looking forward to tomorrow & I'm already looking forward to next year.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

February 16, 1930

Sunday 16 February [1930]
To lie on the sofa for a week. I am sitting up today, in the usual state of unequal animation. Below normal, with spasmodic desire to write, then to doze. … I doubt that I can write to any purpose. A cloud swims in my head. One is too conscious of the body & jolted out of the rut of life to get back to fiction. … I believe these illnesses are in my case—how shall I express it?—partly mystical. … Two nights ago, Vita was here; & …. Well, as I was saying, between these long pauses (for I am swimmy in the head, & write rather to stabilise myself than to make a correct statement), I felt the spring beginning, & Vita’s life so full & flush; & all the doors opening; & this is I believe the moth shaking its wings in me. I then begin to make up my story whatever it is; ideas rush in me; often though this is before I can control my mind or pen. It is no use trying to write at this stage. And I doubt if I can fill this white monster. I would like to lie down & sleep, but feel ashamed. Leonard brushed off his influenza in one day & went about his business feeling ill. … But as I was saying my mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often my most profitable way.

This, then, is the uncanny way that the Pepys’ Diary blog works. Reading this entry from Woolf’s diary seventy-five years ago today, resonances jump out that would not were I to read this in July (or even if today weren’t also, unseasonably warm, occasionally sunny). It’s tempting to concur, to conclude that February 16th is not a writing day, but one in which to lie back and let the soul compose itself.

I have been thinking about this diary entry lately. When I read it two weeks ago, I startled myself with a little flash of anger at the opening sentences: I thought with some indignation “I don’t have time to keep such careful track of a moment of convalescence!” True enough, but the weather report fragment (“Below normal, with spasmodic desire to write, then to doze”) is wonderful—a buried metaphor of the self as its own complex climate. I love the contrast between the teeming mind and the sense that she could never fill the “white monster,” the page before her. And then, too, I’m struck by the paradox of idleness here—a very Victorian one—idleness is justified because it is ultimately, the way of most profit.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Gates

Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Gates are open, as everyone knows. Gothamist was really quick with a happy and useful post, but then on Monday, Curbed chimed in, witty and elegant, while Gawker, bless them, came in with early news of the backlash.

Speed is not my forte or my goal here. I have, however, been thinking about those curmudgeons who don’t like it: not the unthinking nay-sayers who cry “over-rated” (an easy criticism of anything popular), but the more thoughtful or pretentious ones who say that it lacks political content or that, because the precise number of gates, shade of orange, width or height of any one gate, wouldn’t change the piece, it doesn’t count as art. This strikes me as a strangely calcified and frumpy vision of what art is. As for the politics of it, I think that Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times offers a persuasive case for its deep roots in an anti-monumental populism:
A century and a half ago, Olmsted talked about the park as a place of dignity for the masses, a great locus of democratic ideals, influencing "the minds of men through their imaginations." It's useful to recall that Christo conceived of "The Gates" 26 years ago, when Central Park was in abominable shape. The project had something of a reclamation mission about it, in keeping with Christo's uplifting agenda. He was born in Bulgaria in 1935 and escaped the Soviet bloc for Paris in 1958. His philosophy has always been rooted in the utopianism of Socialist Realism, with its belief in art for Everyman.

But in place of the gigantic monuments of Mother Russia, forced upon the Soviet public and financed by the state, he has imagined a purely abstract art, open-ended in its meanings, paid for by the artist, and requiring the persuasion of the public through an open political process.

After which the art comes and goes. "Once upon a time" is a phrase Christo likes. Once upon a time, he imagines people will say, there were "The Gates" in Central Park.

I went to Central Park on Thursday to watch them being raised. It was a gray, chill day and I found it moving and exciting to see small groups of people lifting the steel gates into place. I went again on Sunday with my beloved toddler, a friend, and her two beloved toddlers. The sun was out and so were thousands of happy New Yorkers. It was the best kind of festival and celebration: truly, as others have said, a huge democratic procession. I can see how it might be meditative or stately, but in the sunshine with three people under three, it was just festive and joyous. On our way out, we stopped to admire two policewomen on horseback. A sedan pulled up behind them, red lights flashing in its grille. In almost the same instant, I noticed a cyclist near me begin to applaud and the brilliant orange hair of a woman in the car. It was Jeanne Claude and Christo. I--and everyone around me—began to clap as they drove slowly by, windows open. How lucky to have the chance to thank them, to see them enjoying their own creation, and to see how much the creation is the festival, the accidental, democratic, and ephemeral community that rose up around it.

Over at Light Reading, Jenny Davidson has a smart and much needed response to a rather idiotic bit of antifeminism from the LA times (via Maud Newton) (a lament that, without Sontag, we are now without a female public intellectual).

Monday, February 14, 2005


Back in January, a friend wrote for advice about teaching Jacob’s Room (1922), Virginia Woolf’s third novel and her first experimental one. It’s a novel that I have lots of affection for. I am tempted to write that I’ve become disenchanted with the book, but that’s exactly wrong. Jacob’s Room is a book that, for me, remains full of moments of enchantment. When I think of the book, I immediately think of little gems within it. Still, as a book it does not work: it’s boring, its hero is a blank (for all kinds of decent intellectual reasons, but still, what’s the satisfaction in reading about a blank hero?).

I didn’t write this to him. I wrote, instead, that I didn’t really know of any great essays on the novel but recommended he look at Christine Froula’s new book. Later that week, I re-read the chapter I’m working on now (should be working on at this very moment) only to discover that I myself have written fifteen pages on Jacob’s Room. My first impulse was to write back and offer to share the manuscript. Perhaps I could just attach it in an email? But then, I decided to do neither. What checked the impulse to share? And why did I forget my own nascent attempts to come to terms with the book?

When I read some blogs, I get the sense of secrets, of a whole, rich life lived behind them and I admire the restraint and focus of the blog. Danny Gregory’s review of Bob Dylan’s memoir ends with a list of lessons on creativity culled from Dylan and the list seems to come out of a kind of gentle, patient exhaustion at being turned to by others for advice and a restraint, holding something back for his own creative self, for his own forthcoming book, too. Andrea, at Superhero journal, too, reaches out with great warmth and then disappears for a week or so, making me guess at all kinds of great, creative happenings. Now, in my Monday surfing, I read that Ayelet Waldman is discontinuing Bad Mother for now. She is not a restrained person; I don’t feel she’s keeping secrets or holding back and I like that, too, but it doesn’t make me hungry for her books, just her compulsively addictive blog.

I remember the crestfallen look on my professor’s face when Paul DeMan’s Nazi sympathies were revealed. He had been her advisor and she always felt he was not giving her his full wisdom; only decades later did she see how horribly deep his restraint had been. But then, in his restraint, did he betray or protect her, a young Jewish graduate student?

There are so many motives stand behind the act of keeping a secret, of holding something back: being a good teacher or friend, being shy, being superstitious about sharing creative work too soon, being greedy for full credit in some mythical future. In my friends, I want warmth; I get hungry to know if they’re writing, if they’re working, how they’re doing it. I can sometimes feel betrayed, or, less melodramatically, left out, to find that a new book or article is coming out and I haven’t heard about its gestation. In writers I’ve not met, unknown companions, it’s often restraint that brings out my admiration.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Rhyme's Reason

I have to try, again, to teach my students to scan poetry tomorrow. I am terrible at it and love it and want to get it right, so I’ve been working on a worksheet (horrible word), which leads me back to one of my most precious books, John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason. I discovered it thanks to high school friends, each a poet’s son, and I bought it as a sixteen-year-old and read it over and over again, trying to lay down the tracks of those rhythms in my head. I don’t write poetry anymore except satiric occasional verse (for a friend’s 40th, my nephew’s 3rd birthdays), but the book has a special spot on my shelf and is the only book I own that is always in a special book jacket (some lovely Hmong embroidery, another high school gift). Hollander remains an intellectual hero after all these years I am still dazzled by him and this.

To Keats’s call, How many bards gild the lapses of time, Hollander answers Read this as dactyls and then it will rhyme.

It’s probably, sad to say, my favorite couplet in English. Tonight, I read this with fresh delight:

“A book” is an iamb; so is “the book”; but what we write as “the book” (and pronounced as something like “thee book”) promotes the unstressed syllable, in emphatic contrast, to something having more of the power of “this book” or “that book.” Thus we might, iambically,

Observe the whore outside the store.

But if we mean to single out the allegorical figure of Revelation 17 then she may become trochaic, when

Babylon we mean here—
the whore
(Not some hooker by the seashore).
(Hollander 10)

The word whore, faintly embarrassing, quaint, and ordinary, is terrific. The Joycean range—from streetscape to Bible, from whore on the wharf, a temptress of Stephen Dedalus, we move straight to Revelation. I have some hope that my students may remember their prosody a bit better starting tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Woolf makes good things happen

I am utterly delighted. Right before Christmas, a friend wrote on behalf of a stranger: would I read her manuscript on Woolf, designed for a popular audience? I agreed, curious. Weeks later, I finally read and made comments on it. It’s a great and fun idea and I wish it well, even think it could sell lots of books. She wrote right back with a lovely thank you and I thought that was the end, but just now, in my office inbox, I find an envelope from her with a beautiful turquoise, lapis, and gray silk scarf inside: “it seemed like it might be the sort of thing one would have seen at a Bloomsbury fete” she writes. I feel so lucky.

On another topic: Christo's gates are going to be gorgeous! A parade of orange.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Pat Barker's Regeneration

After many years, I have finally read Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1991). The novel, about life in Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital in Scotland during WWI is, of course, terrific--I’ve never heard anyone say otherwise. I have read W. H. R. Rivers’ essay on the treatment of war neurosis several times and know him to be the prime practitioner of successful early treatment of shell-shock so I was very ready for a novel in which the fictionalized Rivers played hero. I had never thought through, however, the central irony of the cure: that Rivers was curing men to rejoin the army, to return to France and, most likely, be killed. The better he was at helping them talk through their trauma, the quicker he exposed them to more.

This is, of course, what happened to Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) and his appearance in the novel, as a young, fawning friend of Siegfried Sassoon created a renewed heartbreak in me. To watch the fictional young man blossom into life as a poet, compose “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and to know his fate (coming, I presume, in volume two of Barker’s trilogy) affected me more than seeing his things on display at the English Faculty Library at Oxford. There, I felt--shameful arrogance--slightly embarrassed at the completeness of the display: he was, after all, not much more than an undergraduate when he died, and the recreation of his bedroom library looks like just that. The diorama, in that cold, modern room, full of fluorescent light, seemed more like an indulgence of parental pride than a monument to a poet. Not so in the novel.

As for Sassoon (1886-1967), knowing he survived beyond the war only intensifies my fascination with his (failed) pursuit of martyrdom in spite of his pacifism. I see now why Jean Wilson wrote his biography, couldn’t understand why others didn’t share her fascination: there’s a crazy, admirable English integrity to returning to a war you don’t believe in, a different irony than the one at the heart of Rivers’ practice--though I’m not quite sure how.

I enjoyed the book, but didn’t think it was amazing until fifty pages from the end. The account there of Rivers witnessing another doctor’s treatment in London--extreme electric shocks, cigarette burns, brutality, impatience (this last seemed almost the worst to me--was gut-wrenching. Suddenly the whole pace of the book shifted for me, what’s at stake loomed much larger. I was doubly grateful to have had some of the patients cured in the mean time--her humanity there saved me. What’s worse about all of this is how familiar the treatment is from The Bell Jar or Girl, Interrupted. (Barker makes a fascinating point, linking women’s mental illness in peacetime to trauma, which, apparently, was worse among men whose job was to watch the battle from a balloon than it was among men in the trenches; passivity, isolation, disempowerment leads to insanity.) Doctors like Rivers remain rare; we remain inhumane to each other; war continues and we continue to train people to honor martyrs and seek martyrdom. Even I had to choke back tears at the Budweiser ad in which returning soldiers get a standing ovation in the airport: but then I think of my student, dropped out of college and now reapplying for an ROTC scholarship. She did not only choke back tears, she made a decision to willingly put her life on the line. I don’t think those in power are taking that willingness to sacrifice seriously enough. Young people are quick and generous in their offers; the elderly and powerful, just as quick and eager to spend young lives in the pursuit of--what? “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”

Monday, February 07, 2005

Top ten lists, literary criticism, and the pleasures of pointlessness

Over at Wordmunger, Dave has a smart posting from a few days back in favor of charting a middle course on the subject of literary criticism: good criticism (which I take to mean interpretations of literature informed by theory) and theory (which I take to mean treaties on how to read literature that may or may not include examples) can do much to illuminate our readings of the books and poems we love. Putting things through a theory machine (theorist + text = brilliant reading) doesn’t exactly inspire.

But I am guessing, from what I see on the web, that blogging itself is an outgrowth of the frustration with theory’s inability to connect to the experience of reading. In spite of Chekhov’s Mistress’ musings over the impact of Top Ten lists (such as the one at the Guardian), the real message I hear--and not just in this one post--is of excitement about this new opportunity to write about reading, even if it seems sometimes like all we're doing is writing about other blogs. (He manages to strike an admirably detached tone over the feeling of being left off, moreso of surprise at who else is left off, and about the impact of mainstream journalism suddenly seeming to want to notice.)

I’m not all that interested, in the end, in reading more about theory’s failures. I have found many things of value in the theory I’ve read. What gets me excited, though, is the idea that somewhere on the web, I can be reminded, every day, of Samuel Pepys and that, in thinking of his diary or Addison’s Spectator, I can think of the ways in which what we’re doing is and isn’t like that; that I can hear a great story about the best spy novels ever on NPR (but miss the list) and then be reminded of it again, thanks to The Elegant Variation; that Jenny Davidson over at Light Reading, is combing Michael Chabon’s gigantic website to find that he’s writing an introduction to the D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths and that, finding it, I am inspired again.

I think, I hope, in my happiest moments, that we are inventing a new way to talk about literature right here.

Friday, February 04, 2005

High Table

Once I got to eat at high table at Oxford. It remains one of the best experiences of my life, the perfect combination of pomp, wine, ceremony, good conversation, and irreverence. I was with a great friend, a beloved friend, who is also a tutor there and she was my guide. Sherry beforehand in the Senior Common Room (or something like that) then, a somewhat tipsy procession to high table where I sat on the Master’s right (as a guest) and the wine flowed and I saw for myself how much better the food was. Constant attention—more than even in a really, really fine restaurant—but mostly focused on topping off the wine glasses. The Great Hall at Exeter College is really fine, a Gothic wonder, and, sitting at the long table on the dais, perpendicular to the even longer students tables below, I felt embarrassed at my delight in being important, elevated. I felt like Maggie Smith in the Harry Potter movies.

After dinner, we repaired to the Fellows Dining Room for a second dessert—not a pudding but fruits and more drinks. I never got the hang of the rules here and will butcher them, but there were three or four passed platters—fresh fruits, dried fruits, biscuits, and perhaps, cheese, also, water and a couple kinds of wine. As this went around, you had to take if others took but could not take if no one yet had. I don’t remember the protocol for diving in or not. I remember wanting desperately to figure the game out, wanting to do right but also wanting, just because it was so elaborate and fascinating, to know the rules, to be able to have them in my head as part of the memory. I was too wine-fogged by then to remember and had to lean over to my friend, over and over, and ask (whispering much too loudly) whether I was meant to take something or not. I think I grabbed a dried apricot—I can’t resist them—when I wasn’t meant to and thus set off a new round of platter passing.

After that, then, a few folks repaired to the Senior Common Room where we’d begun for brandy and cigars. Most left quickly—even Oxonians cannot do this much decadence—but my friend and I smoked the smallest cigars they had just so that I could say I had.

Tonight (shortly), I have to go to a lecture at 4 (it’s faculty day), “After the lecture there will be a reception at 5:15…followed by a dinner at 6:15…after dinner we will return…for dessert, coffee, and cordials.” I must say, my hopes are high.

She loves ny has published a Valentines Day report on the resy page:

annisa -- 741 6699 -- 1 ring, 5:30 or 10:30
aoc bedford -- 414 4764 -- 1 ring, 8
aquagrill -- 274 0505 -- line busy; 1 ring, 5:30 or 10:30
babbo -- 777 0303 -- line busy
balthazar -- 965 1414 -- line busy; 3 rings, hold, fully booked
blue hill -- 539 1776 -- 1 ring, this is jill, hold, fully booked
bouley -- 964 2525 -- 1 ring, how may i help you?, 11
erminia -- 879 4284 -- line busy
il buco -- 533 1932 -- 2 rings, 11
kitchen club -- 274 0025 -- 1 ring, we only have 6 and 10
l'impero -- 599 5045 -- 1 ring, 6:15 or 10
mas -- 255 1790 -- 3 rings, fully booked
montrachet -- 219 2777 -- 1 ring, let's see, 8:30
nobu -- 219 0500 -- line busy
nobu next door –- 334 4445 –- 2 rings, 8:30
one ibl, two ibs -- 228 0822 -- 1 ring, fully booked
plate nyc -- 219 9212 -- 1 ring, 8
provence -- 475 7500 -- 2 rings, bon jour, 6 or 9:30
tocqueville -- 647 1515 -- 3 rings, completely booked
woo lae oak -- 925 8200 -- 1 ring 7:30 or 9

Ah, bonjour indeed! Delicious.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Leslie Stephen

Father’s birthday. He would have been…96, yes today; & could have been 96, like other people one has known; but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;--inconceivable. I used to think of him & mother daily; but writing The Lighthouse, laid them in my mind. Virginia Woolf, November 28, 1928, VWDiary, 3.208.

This seems so human and rich to me—this admission of the ways in which someone we love and respect can also inhibit us. The calculus, too, is familiar: my mom still does this on her mother’s birthday every year. In Grammy’s case, it’s the mark of the depth of our loss (not that she was so young when she died, but she was so full of life, it seems unfair and strange that it ended; life was better with her around). For Woolf, though, a Victorian patriarch was a good thing to have moved beyond.

I had always thought that “laid them in my mind” meant “laid them to rest” but I see now, too, that it’s like laying down track: the novel fixed them. She need not obsess about them anymore; in a way, she has entombed them; but they are fully and completely with her, too. Certainly, in reading To the Lighthouse one does not feel that the Ramsays are anything less than vivid and completely present.

Chekhov’s Mistress has an amazing (to a non-technie technophile like me) feature: their headlines page offers the fifty most recent postings, automatically updated, on the literary blogs tracked there. Very cool and a major timesuck.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Byron's letters

I was copying Byron’s letters from college for my students this morning. What a voice! One, to his solicitor, begins (quoting from memory) “Your last letter came with much advice but no money. The former I can excuse for all think themselves well-equipped to offer advice, but..” All I can think is how I need to write like him—the voice satiric, imperious.

Then, from the left flank, come memories of Leonard Bast styling himself after Ruskin in Howards End, Forster mocking the mismatch between the basement apartment and the noble prose. And I remember that I already have written on Woolf’s indulgent mockery of Bernard styling himself after Byron in The Waves.

That’s the February dilemma: on the one side, the roots are beginning to stir (my writing group meets in two weeks, so we’re beginning to exchange tentative little emails—I’m not as far as I’d hoped, but I’ll see you there, etc.: and my project for tonight was to comment on someone’s writing how-to guide), on the other, I feel like a block of granite. Frozen. Depressed. Dulled.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Ahoy! Why is it that pirates are so incredibly cool? So, within genre fiction—spies (another weakness, another day), detectives, Westerns, romances, pirates—pirates is the category that adults really don’t indulge in (I don’t think Borders has a section for pirate books) and also the one that consistently makes people just totally happy. It’s also one that works best for children. I’m taking advantage of that fact, and using the beloved toddler as a reason to incorporate pirates in as much of my life as I can. The mardi gras beads are back out, every day. While I'd avoid imposing cowboys or spies on her, I have no such compunction about the equally violent, misogynistic pirates. Quite the opposite.

I still don’t know really what I love about pirates, but I know that the N. C. Wyeth illustrations for Treasure Island remain a completely primal love, that the fake treasure map entry to the University of Bath Treasure Island website makes my heart skip a beat, that I long to visit the 826 Valencia Pirate Store, that I look forward to a daily dose of Dora’s Pirate Adventure almost as much as a spin of the utterly hilariously fantastic Captain Bogg and Salty cd.

No big theories, but I think that all the adventure and all the singing are big clues.