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 souffl├ęs 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.