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.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

TBR, 2: Broken for You

Like manna from heaven come the padded envelopes from my mom in Seattle. What will be in this one? Today's bounty was a new (new to me) book, Stephanie Kallos' Broken for You. A debut novel, a Today book club pick, a book about an old woman with a brain tumor who takes in a broken-hearted thirty-something woman. All in all, it sounds just good enough and just Oprah-y enough to suit my current state. But the real clincher that sent it to the top of the pile is the epigraph from Guendolyn Pletscheef:
They're so much more than objects. They're living things, crafted and used by people like us. They reach out to us and through them we forge a link with the past.

Lovely in itself, but here's the thing: all my childhood, Mrs. Pletscheef was just the old lady down the street. I grew up a couple blocks from her. What could be more delicious than to read a fictional account that touches on the life of the rich old lady at the end of the block. While she wasn't exactly my Boo Radley (and I don't think this will be To Kill a Mockingbird), it's as close as I'll likely come.

It does make me rethink the old neighborhood. Surely something could be done with the family who were making money bottle-cutting. They had a paneled van with brown bottle animals glued on the top. Do you think that shows up in Kallos' book?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


I love reading others’ lists of the books on their to be read piles. Now, having finished the book, I am suffering from a suddenly overwhelmingly open stack. With no new book to write (at least not yet), I have neither things to read for pleasure that need to relieve the constant diet of Woolfiana (spy novels, Eloisa James) nor things to read for quasi-pleasure that may inform Woolf (African women writers, Lessing). Where to begin?

Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of a Giraffe was an early favorite but feels a bit light this week. Still, I’m not quite rested enough to resume Don Quixote. Over at Book World, Sandra is not only finishing Cervantes, but reading Johnson and Richardson. Just writing that list shows me that I’m not quite up to her speed. Once around the room with Clarissa was once too many for me, but what about Boswell? This might be a good moment for the Life of Johnson. Or perhaps I should finish the underwhelming but interesting Black Gold of the Sun by Ekow Eshun. I am curious about Case Histories, too. And then, I look at the shelves and feel myself, once again, choosing to neglect Sylvia Townsend Warner, to fail to read Bowen more deeply, to deprive myself of a really deep taste of Auden.

For now, it’s been magazines, I’m afraid. I did a pretty good perusal of this week’s cartoons in the New Yorker. As ever, they did not disappoint.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Book’s Story

Dave asked how long the book is and I thought I’d take that question and spin it into something more: the story of how the book came to be. It’s a long story—especially for such a short book (the manuscript, including everything, came to just over 300 double-spaced pages; I’m guessing that, without footnotes, it’s around 80,000 words)—but I’ll try not to dilate too much.

I finished my dissertation in 1994: a study of Woolf’s essays, it had no argument and I set it aside to rest for a bit while I tried to figure out how to proceed. At the time, I had a sweet teaching gig, non-tenure track, so I used the four years I was in that job to explore. I wrote book reviews, an article (never published) on theories of the essay, a long piece on D. H. Lawrence’s exasperating psychology books (published much later), and an odd essay on the connection I saw between Frances Yates’ 1966 The Art of Memory and the way Virginia Woolf described the British Library Reading Room. I met my husband and got a job in Indiana—pretty much on the same day—and we moved to the Midwest together in 1998.

In 1998, on a fateful drive from Chicago down to our Indiana apartment, my then-fiancĂ© asked me if I thought, now that I was under pressure to produce a book under some time constraints (with a tenure-track job and a publish or perish mandate), I could expand the idea of the Renaissance essay into a book. Sure, I said, without hesitation, you’d have to do something with Greek literature, and probably something on the 18th century, and I’d like to do something with Romanticism since I love that. I’d skip the Victorian era since that’s been done. It all just came tumbling out of my mouth and that was the book.

At a conference, Julia Briggs told me that, if I was going to do Woolf & Romanticism, I had to do Byron. She just said it like that, with her own special kindness and also with a very English definiteness. I could do no more than agree.

In 1999, my memory essay was published in a volume of essays on Woolf and the Renaissance and, when the reviews came in, those that noted my contribution at all, noted that it was strange: why was I comparing Woolf to a mnemonist, Giordano Bruno, whom she’d never read. Hmm. I thought: an apt question. Now, the chapter that I’d thought of as the kernel was suspect and my confidence was a bit shaken.

We moved to another school in Indiana in 2000 where we could both have jobs. I estimate that each job change costs me a year in writing. When you factor in the fall spent getting ready for MLA interviews, the ruined Christmas break doing MLA interviews, the January spent flying back for campus visits and the summer moving, pretty much all your “extra” time as an academic has gone to the job hunt, not to progressing on the book.

Still, I kept writing. Then, all of a sudden, it was time to send out queries to publishers. In spite of fleeting fantasies about Harvard randomly deigning to publish my first book or a lovely, hip book from Columbia, when I was honest with myself, I knew from the start that the best-case scenario would be Palgrave or Cambridge. As prestigious as Cambridge is, they are also publishing a lot of Woolf books these days. I sent out twenty-some query letters and received eighteen or so nos. The only presses that asked for more information? Palgrave and Cambridge. I went with Palgrave because I think they publish less scholarly, less thoroughly rigorous and more adventurous, more reader friendly academic books. Much as I admire and envy those Cambridge books, I’m just not that kind of scholar—or not now.

Still, it’s hard. All summer as I was revising, I’d read and I would think to myself that my manuscript somehow wasn’t turgid enough. Turgid. That’s the word I was using in my head and it sounded the same to me as I imagine it does to you: blech! So, each time I began to doubt my own voice, I would hear that word, turgid, and remind myself that I was writing my book, not a generic monograph. It’s an eccentric book: a scholarly book but one that could not be predicted by others. That’s what terrifies me about it and that’s what I like about it, too. It may be weird. It is esoteric. But I don’t think it’s turgid.

So, that’s the story.

Helping a Writer Affected by Katrina

I’ve heard about MusicCares reaching out to New Orleans musicians, but this is the first mention I’ve seen of writers helping one of our own. Over at the Squawk box, the Romance novelists are helping Leslie Ferdinand (who writes as Christine Holden). Check it out & give if you can.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina in Black and White

The pictures of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have been shocking and dismaying in so many ways. The veneer of civilization seems to be so thin. We went from the standard coverage of a storm to a complete loss of law and order—and cowardly hysteria over that loss. Especially dismaying is to see that the thousands of suffering, abandoned, looting, gun-toting, starving, crying, and dying, people were almost all black. I feel outrage at the news stations that played, in a continual loop, a picture of a black woman leaving the grocery story with a couple packs of diapers, as evidence of widespread looting. Diapers? Looting? I thought of Jean Valjean. I feel outrage, too, at reports of people stealing multiple televisions. That does not put me in mind of Les Miserables at all.

I saw a bit of the MSNBC concert for Hurricane Relief and did get to see Mike Meyers, mismatched with Kanye West. Meyers read off the teleprompter, doing his best George W. Bush, but not for laughs. It went something like this: “The. Devastation. In. Louisiana. Mississippi. And. Alabama. Has. Left. Us. All. Very. Concerned.” Then, Kanye West got on. He was a sloppy mess: embarrassingly inarticulate but also genuinely distraught. He spoke with shame about having been shopping before having given and he spoke with resolve about his renewed commitment to give. (Although it was weird and off-putting to hear him talk about consulting his business manager regarding how much he can afford to donate: we just guestimated between the two of us—a bit more than we spend on our mom’s birthday felt like a good start.) Most of all, he spoke with distress at the plight of blacks, and their portrayal in the media. The Times quotes part of his comments today as part of a larger article on the racism of media coverage: "I hate the way they portray us in the media," West said. "You see a black family, it says they're looting. You see a white family, it says they're looking for food." As the comparison between captions of two widely circulated photos attests, West is speaking accurately.

For MSNBC’s part, Matt Lauer got on, a few minutes after West, and read some legal boilerplate about how we’re all very upset but no one of us speaks for the MSNBC corporate heads—they were obviously covering their butts for West going off script. By contrast, when the white singer, Celine Dion, loses it on the CNN broadcast and cries and yells with outrage (why is it, she asked, that it is so easy to send airplanes to another country to drop bombs and kill children, that we cannot seem to drop water, milk and food in our own country to save their lives?), Larry King replays it as an example of moving, emotional eloquence.

Ordinarily, I have little good to say about Larry King’s relentless milking of public emotions. In this case, however, he was right and Matt Lauer was behaving as a cowardly company man. Even in our discussion of media portrayal, we are more ready to accept a weeping woman than a weeping and outraged black man. Shaming days indeed.

As for what to do now: reading these discussions—and the editorials in the Times have been exemplary in my view—has made me even more skeptical than ever of what I hear. Having visited New Orleans twice—once on a magical vacation, once for a conference—I feel for it what anyone who’s been there must feel: a deep, pained grief. I also know that, at one point a week ago, I thought, “Huh. The SuperDome. That’s right by the River. That doesn’t seem like a very good plan.” It makes me inclined to be rather critical of the folks in charge. I liked the interview I heard with the mayor of Hattiesburg. It went something like this:
CNN: Have you heard from anyone at FEMA?
Mayor: I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that organization.
CNN: Oh boy. The Federal Emergency Management Administration. FEMA.
Mayor: Hmm. FEMA you say? I’m sorry. I haven’t seen anyone from there here. Nope. Never heard of them.

The journalist, ready to believe the worst about the mayor of Hattiesburg was made to squirm as the mayor, with patient outrage, explained what it was to be facetious. You could almost hear him spelling the word out over the phone lines.

More pratically speaking, I expect that you all, like us, sent a bit to the Red Cross. I think I’ll give a bit to Habitat for Humanity next. Ana Maria has a lovely and eloquent response from Colombia that includes some good links. And I think about the Faulkner book shop in the Quarter, and A Confederacy of Dunces, and A Streetcar Named Desire, and the Neville Brothers, the Marsalises, Louis Armstrong, Kate Chopin, the great Creole intellectuals of the 19th century, and even the gripping and silly Interview with a Vampire and pray for the return of a great, great city.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


I turned the book in at 4:00 this afternoon.

Classes start tomorrow.

Two good omens:
  1. On the way home, African drummers were playing on the train.
  2. After dinner, the beloved toddler clambered up on the couch, looked at the long line of hardback diaries and letters, each with a tiny picture on its spine, and said, “fir… fir…Virginia Woolf.

I wonder what happens next. In any case, see you Monday.