Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Metaxu Mixer

Well THAT was fun. Lauren Cerand and Bud Parr organized a mixer at Verlaine last night. After a very long day home with a sick-ish child baking cookies for some distant relatives too ill to cook their own, a little selfish literary bacchanal was just what the doctor ordered.

I had never met another blogger before, which seemed weird for about two seconds. Then, we were talking about which was our favorite Mr. Darcy (I can’t remember any actors’ names, so I’m useless), preferring Rosalind over Viola (or the other way around), nightmares about bad book covers, bad agents, bad copyediting… And the cocktails: potent and delicious. I didn't get to meet all but had great conversations with all whom I met. I confess to having been a little star struck--very, very happy to put faces and audible voices to the voices I know so well on-screen. It was really fun.

I was happy to meet Marcy Dermansky, who had read Twins alongside Bill Gordon at Mo Pitkins’: a reading I had all but gone too and had been sorry to miss. She reminded me that we had had a little blogging communion (fitting word for Catholic novels) over our mutual love of Antonia White’s May Sinclair and, at the end of the night, when I found myself without a business card, she whipped a copy of Twins out of her bag and gave it to me.

She said, with a certain tone in her voice (pique?), “This was supposed to be for Cate Blanchett. But here, you can have it.”

I’m a goofball, I know, but in the context of an evening meeting publicists, publishers, bloggers, and writers, I couldn’t think who Cate Blanchett was. A really important editor? A blogger too fancy to go to the Lower East Side? I was fully five blocks west before I realized whom she’d meant.

Cate Blanchett. Oh. Wow. I have Cate Blanchett’s copy of Twins.

I’m only ten pages in, but it’s really good. Cate will have to buy her own copy.

Underrated Writers, 2006 Edition

Jeff and Trevor have compiled and published their list of underrated writers. I nominated Elizabeth Bown and Tsitsi Dangarembga. I was excited to see Richard Grayson nominated. I met him this fall. He’s a really nice person, and a great teacher, too. Shortly after I wrote my hand-wringing entry about Barbie, a book appeared in my mailbox: it was Richard’s I Survived Caracas Traffic with the hilarious story “Twelve Step Barbie” marked.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

End of 2006 Wrap Up

Everyone is cleaning house this month, making their Best of 2006 lists. Some are lamenting their failure to reach their reading goals of 75 books or 52 books or whatever. Mark Sarvas is nicely testy about the problems with “Best of Lists” over at the millions (rightly insisting on the insane arrogance of “best,” preferring “favorite”) but so far my favorite contrarian response to the mood is Mrs. Bookworld’s. Without snark, she lists the dozen books she wishes she had not finished last year.

Overwhelmed as I am by the trifecta of end-of-term, daughter’s upcoming birthday, and Christmas, I thought I would take stock. On the down side: it looks like I only read about 25 books last year (and that includes The Da Vinci Code). The plus side: I wrote one. (Well, published.)

I particularly loved Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Gina Ochsner’s People I Wanted to Be, and Natasha Radojcic’s You Don’t Have to Live Here: all three of these books are gorgeously written, humane, aware of (and realistic about) injustice but striving for something better. They’re great books by strong women. Ha Jin’s Waiting was another favorite from the year. I just finished it a few weeks ago and haven’t even had to time to write up my reaction. But I found it so deeply moving. Roudning out my list of favorites would be Seven Loves, of course, Michael Frayn’s Spies, Michelle Herman’s The Middle of Everything, and William Dean Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes.

I’m shocked at how many memoirs I read. Proportionately, they should show up more often on the list above. Still, they brought me great pleasure so I expect to continue to read them.

It’ll be interesting to see how 2007 goes. With no book to write, no pregnancy or newborn, I predict some differences. What will they be?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Upcoming at the LBC

Next quarter is my first one up with a nominee at the Litblog Co-op. I nominated Valerie Trueblood’s first novel, Seven Loves. It’s the story of a woman’s life through seven people whom she’s loved: a moving conceit and a novel that more than lives up to it. It’s a terrific book.

It’s going to be a really interesting January over at the LBC. Seven Loves is up against a really weird novel by Stephen Graham Jones, Demon Theory. The book is written as a really fleshed-out screenplay for a horror movie. It’s exactly not the book for me: a little gimmicky, a little sexist, a little silly and, I must say, I’m enjoying it. The third book is the new novel by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (The Wizard of the Crow, the Kenyan novelist whose A Grain of Wheat is a postcolonial classic: a tough, intense book that I’ve taught a couple times.

I was so intimidated in my quest for a book to nominate. I got really focused on finding a book that the other bloggers would like, forgetting that I needed to find one that I liked. I also spent a lot of time thinking about how many, many new books other bloggers must see all the time. I don’t work in a great bookstore; I don’t have an MFA and lots of friends from grad school days; I don’t get all that many free books. How could I possibly find a book that would really deserve touting?

I thought about what I wanted and missed from the past couple quarters since I started participating. I decided that I wanted to find either an African book or a book by a woman. I couldn’t find the African novel I wanted: some great-sounding books were just a little bit too old; lots and lots of first novels by African women sounded formulaic; Chimamanda Adichie’s book came out to so much acclaim that nominating it would harldy fulfill the mission of the LBC; Tsitsi Dangarembga’s second book came out so quietly, I didn’t notice it.

I turned to women writers. I wanted the woman’s book to have an unobtrusively feminist perspective and a female protagonist. Maybe that sounds heretical to the aesthetes among you. I insist on great writing and I felt that I’d read a lot of great writing from nominees. But I wanted to read great writing from a woman that sounded womanly to me. Edie Meidav and Sheila Heti (I almost called her Sheila Ticknor) ventriloquize a male voice and write about men; Gina Frangello’s S&M book was too sexual for me. So, I worried and struggled and, when the babies slept, I went back onto and typed in book after book that I liked to see if the recommendations would yield a surprise.

Then, out of the blue, I got a sweet email from someone who, from reading my blog, thought, that, perhaps, I would like her novel. Might she send me a copy?

Well, as you know, I love free books. I said yes.

And the rest is history. I read Seven Loves. I loved it. I nominated it. And, on January 15, the discussion will begin. What a round it should be: the firework-y men’s book I’ve come to expect, the African novel I sought and did not find, and Trueblood’s beautiful, moving, strong story. Stay tuned….

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Apparently, I’m not the only one thinking about Barbie and Bratz dolls this time of year. Margaret Talbot has a nice essay on the Bratz dolls in the 12/4/06 New Yorker and Newsweek is covering the Barbie v. Bratz court battle. Barbie, a doll that used to be for eight- and nine-year-olds is mostly for three- to six-year olds now. My older daughter will be four in two weeks. Christmas is in three. All she wants is Barbie.

I almost caved.

We were not allowed Barbie when I was little. My mom did a great job of explaining that the dolls just were not for our family. She didn’t burden me with feminist explanations, but they were central to her refusal. We had other dolls—nice, chunky Sasha dolls, built like little girls and easy to sew and embroider for.

My mom is firm for her granddaughters, too. When we talk about it, she keeps sputtering “But you’re a feminist!” She’s good to promise to support me in my decision but I can tell that she finds my confusion puzzling. It’s so clear to her that Barbie is dumb and bad. She’s found a nice, chunky doll and a small fashion doll, too, so my daughter will be duly gifted. There’s also a very big box of very pink Duplos in the basement from her other grandma. But they’re blocks. You build with them. You pretend to have a castle and you dump them into the box with green, yellow, red, and blue ones.

At Thanksgiving, I polled the guests, mostly childless, many of them psychologists and therapists, and in their forties. They shared my confusion. When I announced that I would clearly not buy Bratz for my daughter—just the name itself goes against so much of what I value for her—the one teenager in the room rolled her eyes. I think I sounded hopelessly old and maybe even a little racist to this cool teen. Barbie is a blonde. The Bratz are racially indeterminate but definitely “ethnic.”

But that’s not my issue with any of them. And the hip teen’s disapproval helped pull me back to my senses. I don’t like the Bratz because they are brats: they are dolls “with a passion for fashion” and that’s not what I want my three-year old to be learning and thinking about. True, Barbie is a lawyer now, but that’s as much an afterthought as are the black and brunette Barbies. She is all about fashion, too.

I know the studies that say that little girls playing with Barbie don’t focus on her breasts and often don’t play games about fashion and dating. But why give children a toy hoping they will play with it against its type? In The New Yorker, Talbot seems to come about to my position but more elegantly and with less hand wringing. (I’m sorry I can’t link to it here.)

I try hard to be a mellow mom and a strong but non-proselytizing feminist. Barbie is a test for that double role. Being a mellow mom means that I include a little packet of SpongeBob or Dora “fruit snacks” (gummi bears) in my daughter’s lunch knowing they are fun but of dubious nutritional value. I try to avoid TransFat, but, sometimes, at the end of a hard day, we stop in the bodega for some Little Debby goodness. We aim for organic and healthy, but settle for yummy; we aim for wood, but accept plastic. But we insist kindness and lots of books. Behind my efforts not to show it, I do believe that everything I let into my home—from a person to a Macintosh apple to pack of crayons or a dolly is a reflection of our values. I don’t think Barbie is exactly evil, but I don’t see how she enhances the lessons I want my daughters to learn.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Recently, the girls (7 months and nearly 4) and I took the Light Rail to Hoboken. It was a chilly Sunday morning, Dad had to go to the office, and we needed a change of scene.

When we moved here 2 and a half years ago, I had never heard of Jersey City, but I knew all about Hoboken (or so I thought): a great music scene, a really cool place to live in New Jersey (if “cool” and “New Jersey” can be put together). I wanted to live in Brooklyn. But then we looked at the apartments. Yes, we could afford Brooklyn—but not the Brooklyn of our dreams. The Brooklyn we could afford was across the street from a prison or a twenty-minute uphill walk to the first of three subways to my job in midtown. And daycare was going to cost triple what we had been paying. So, reluctantly, I agreed to look at some apartments my husband had seen on craigslist in Jersey City.

Now, we’re here. But the romance of Hoboken lingers. We don’t really like the city, which seems like a fine place to be single or newly married. But the name! Hoboken. Hoboken! What a great word. To walk along Frank Sinatra Drive in Hoboken and look across the Hudson River at the Manhattan skyline, well, it’s enough to make you burst into song. Instead of giving the three syllables more or less equal emphasis, my daughter used to really play with it, talking about Ho-BO-ken. We went there once in our first fall here and she got a hat. Her Ho-BO-ken hat. We did not go back until the other weekend.

So, there we are, on the light rail, listening to that soothing voice (the same woman’s voice on those between-terminal airport trams): “Harsimus Cove. This stop is Harsimus Cove. The next stop is Pavonia/Newport.” Oh, how my daughter lit up at the announcement of “Hoboken Terminal.” Such is the magic of a pretty name.

You can imagine, then, that our stop’s name left her a little crestfallen: “Jersey Avenue.” Not a lot of poetry there. The Jersey Avenue stop in Jersey, City, New Jersey. I don’t remember a place I’ve loved to live more, but the name does leave something to be desired.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Colette: the anecdote of the day

This is the best thing I learned today by far. It's from Colette's Sido (1929) by way of a scholarly book I'm reading for review. (The quote is the book's summation, not Colette's, btw.)

It seems that Colette's father "passed his retirement in his study writing his memoirs and binding the volumes himself. While her father was alive, neither Colette nor any other member of the family was ever tempted to open one of the books, because of their unprepossessing titles: My Campaigns, the Lessons of '70, Marshal Mahon Seen by a Fellow-Soldier, and so forth. After her father died, however the library was converted into a bedroom and Colette's elder brother made a discovery:....Except for a dedicaition, the books contained all blank pages." (Victoria Rosner, Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life, Columbia UP, 2005, 91.)

Amazing. As Victoria Rosner goes on to discuss, it's amazing, funny and sad how little, in the end, one has to do to set oneself up as a writer. Think of the solitary hours he passed, unmolested because he was writing. I wonder if they were spend in tortured writer's block or, instead, as I prefer to think, blissful dozing, confident in the knowledge that none would disturb l'auteur du famille.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Passing Glances at Virginia Woolf

Recently, I wrote about an old feature of the International Virginia Woolf Society Bibliography: Passing Glances. My friend Sally Greene began collecting allusions and references to Woolf in popular novels and pop culture. At Ana Maria’s urging (and thanks to Google which now provides me with categories for free and daily email alerts, too), I’m going to try to keep track of mentions of Woolf in the blogosphere.

I’ve already linked several times to the dicussion of “Kew Gardens” at A Curious Singularity. You can also find some information about a Woolf wiki here. I’m a bit skeptical of wikis these days: they seem to me destined to go the way of hypertext and choose your own adventure. Still, I’d be grateful to be proven wrong.

Both Mark Thwaite and Susan Hill are steadily reading their way through Woolf. Mark has posted entries on To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and, most recently, this enthusiastic and insightful entry on The Waves. Susan is conducting an ongoing reading project, Woolf for Dummies, which seems to be geared to those who really are afraid of Woolf. The most recent entry I can find is just a query to see who’s read Night and Day yet. That book, Woolf’s second novel, is not one that generally inspires readers to continue. Still, her posts seem to have encouraged book-buying of at Equiano’s and Kate’s, too.

Someone called Anne (not me) posted a long Woolfish comment to the query “Do men ever write in women’s voices?” (which seems a silly question) and the more interesting follow-up, what are the best female protagonists created by men?

A romance novelist considers the spark of inspiration ignited by her teacher assigning some Woolf. I’ll be curious to see where this leads…

Woolf still doesn’t have the web presence of the Bronte blog but it’s fun to find her cropping up here and there.

Monday, November 27, 2006

More Poetry

I don’t get a lot of comments on this blog so it was a delightful surprise to find 3 awaiting my long-weekend post on Byatt and John Donne. Clearly there’s a hunger for poetry our there. If you’re still not sated, you should hop over to the Poetry Foundation website. This week, Mark Thwaite of ReadySteadyBook (and who may be the Dan Wickett of the UK) is contributing a journal—five longish blog entries beginning with, he tells me, one on Bishop.

Before you read Mark’s though, do read the previous one, by my friend and colleague Rachel Zucker. She’s a great poet: her book The Last Clear Narrative is intellectual and unsentimental and passionate and funny about marriage, motherhood, pregnancy, and all their attendant losses and gains. In this journal, she writes movingly about a miscarriage and the decision to write about it.

If all of that leaves you hungry to chime in, Cam has created a poetry meme. You can find it here.

And with that, I must go re-read “Lycidas” for a guest lecture I’m giving this afternoon!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Inside the TLS: John Donne edition

The September 22, 2006 edition of the TLS has been sitting around the house for a while. Donne is on the cover. He is a writer whose poems I don’t know well, a great writer about whom I’m not all that curious. I feel a little sheepish about this. And, feeling this way, it’s long interested (and artificially confirmed) me that Woolf’s essay on John Donne—a lead essay for the TLS as it happens—seems so dutiful.

In any case, I’m glad I hung on to the issue. A. S. Byatt’s essay on Donne, “Observe the Neurones,” is a revelation: smart and crazy. I’ve gotten obsessed by it in the couple weeks since I read it. Byatt opens by “trying to work out why [Donne] is so exciting” and she finds the answer in neurology. (I am embarrassed to confessed how slowed I was by not realizing “neurones” is simply the British spelling of “neurons.”)

Thought really is physical, Byatt reminds us, and each thought lights up a neural pathway. Building on this, Byatt seizes on another’s hypothesis---that perhaps “we delight in puns because the neuron connections become very excited by the double input.” That is, a pun lights up two paths at once, giving our brain an extra jolt of electricity. In short, there may be a physical pleasure to some kinds of thinking.

For the rest of the essay, Byatt develops this neurological hypothesis with regards to Donne and another “exciting” poet, Wallace Stevens, using neurology and the work of Harvard literary critic Elaine Scarry. (Scarry’s most famous for The Body in Pain but Byatt is working with Dreaming by the Book.) If puns bring pleasure, might metaphysical poetry, too, be “exciting” for similar physiological reasons? I think that’s a good guess.

In graduate school, we each had moments of great enthusiasm for our own projects. It comes to seem, at a certain moment, that you are writing the argument, the key ot all mythologies. Of this, my friend would say, “Oh, she’s at the phase where everything is everything.”

That phrase became a kind of limit and warning to me: anytime I felt on fire with the sense that everything fit, that “everything is everything,” I would pause, check my pulse, and back down.

Byatt describes a Donne poem, “The Cross,” that suffers from the enthusiasm of the everything is everything moment: having compared his own body to a cross (and thus, to Christ on the cross), he moves to what she calls “a mad bravura demonstration of the brain’s power to detect—or confer—abstract forms.” As she notes, after listing the many crosses in Donne’s poem, “this is nonsense at any level of logic except the brain’s pleasure in noticing, or making, analogies.” Ultimately it seems that the pleasure of reading Donn is like that of the pun: Donne ignites a spark. Reading this gives me a way to enter his poems again.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ha Jin at Fordham

I’m loving Waiting which I’m reading on the strength of Ha Jin’s talk about his writing last Thursday at Fordham. The event was in conjunction with his upcoming opera at the Met. (More opera, I know!) He’s collaborating with composer Tan Dun and film director Zhang Yimou on “The First Emperor.”

Ha Jin was amazingly impressive. The event—a staged interview—suited him well. It was informal (conducted by my colleague, Professor Chris GoGwilt and then opened up to questions from the audience) and Chris’ well-researched questions taught me a lot about him.

He talked about himself as having been a “half-hearted” writer for many years. Even after he published his first book of poetry in English, he was still half-hearted. He came to English by an accidental route. When the universities were closed during the Cultural Revolution, he followed along with a radio program on learning English—a half hour a day. A year later, the universities now open, he put this small progress in English onto his college application and was assigned to be an English major. Then, he came to the U.S. in 1985 to get a Ph.D. in comparative poetics at Brandeis. That dissertation was written for the Chinese job market.

But, when the Tiananmen massacre happened in 1989 and, in the chaos his son was suddenly permitted to leave China and join him in the States, his life changed forever. Ha is the son of an army officer and a former officer himself. And, he said, seeing the People’s Army turn on the people was traumatic. That trauma combined with his son’s fierce desire to emigrate. Suddenly, out of his trauma and for his son, he, too, decided to stay in the United States.

Now, he said, he had a big problem: what to do with his life? Having some friends who taught creative writing, he thought that, perhaps, with lots of hard work, he could, in ten years, maybe get a decent job teaching poetry.

Throughout the conversation, he was genuinely humble. He spoke of himself as a writer who was still learning, still experimenting, still trying, with each new book, to deserve the name of novelist. All of this struck me as a very ancient Chinese scholarly stance. Ha seems to take the long view of time and to have little interest in acclaim. When asked what it was like to work with Tan Dun and Zhang Yimou on the opera, he laughingly explained that he has to remember that he is one of many artists, that opera is new to him, that he is collaborating on a project not of his own invention but one that he was commissioned to do. Under the laugh, you could imagine many, many moments in which things did not go his way. Still, he took it lightly and with easy maturity.

In short, I was mightily impressed. I am eager to see the opera and the book is a delight.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Free books! Free books! Free books!

There’s quite a tempest in a teapot over at Reading Matters and MetaxuCafe over free books and bloggers’ reviews. Kim suggests that reviews should include the provenance of a book—particularly whether the book was sent for free or paid for. (Bud’s post has links to her posts and the great comment threads as well as Matt’s contrarian response.)

I’m going to join the many, including Matt, who say that these ethical compunctions are so much nonsense.

It seems to me that there are lots of ways of supporting the arts. One is to make a lot of money and become a patron. The ethical problem of that is that it’s hard to make a lot of money and remain ethical. Riches are often ill-gotten in this world. Another is to work in the trenches of editing, publishing, writing, blogging, and even academe and benefit from a barter economy.

One of the great material benefits of having chosen a bookish life is free books. And I don’t mind contests, getting paid, or other baloney either. Good reviewers can’t be bought.

That said, all of us are caught up in the web of who knows whom. In the even smaller world of reviews of academic books, it’s often possible to trace alliances and rivalries within a review. Still, as Ron says rather pointedly:
if you can't tell the difference between somebody who's genuinely passionate about a book and somebody who's repurposing press releases, then frankly you're probably not the most attentive of readers to begin with.

I used to be more worried about these ethical knots until Woolf schooled me to think about writing and reviewing as a profession, not a hobby. For her, it’s a feminist point: we are not mere scribblers and hobbyists and part of taking ourselves seriously as professionals means spending some time thinking about how to make money from this pursuit. In my case, my money mainly comes from my teaching but I am happy to get a little here and there for a guest lecture, an inside review (going back to the editors, that is) of a new text book; I am equally happy to get paid in kind (books) for my writing here at Fernham. We run a tight economic ship here in my family and the free books have become an amazing valve, letting off some of the accumulated pressure from constant budgeting.

Here’s the Woolf wrangle that taught me to get over myself. It’s from a 1925 letter to her friend Jacques Raverat:
I’ve been engaged in a great wrangle with an old American called [Logan] Pearsall Smith on the ethics of writing articles at high rates for fashion papers like Vogue. He says it demeans one. He says one must write only for the Lit. Supplement and the Nation and Robert Bridges and prestige and posterity and to set a high example. I say Bunkum. Ladies’ clothes and aristocrats playing golf don’t affect my style; and they would do his a world of good. Oh these Americans! How they always muddle everything up! What he wants is prestige: what I want, money.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Perhaps Tellingly

After writing about book-buying sprees recently (over at the LBC), I got to go on one yesterday. I was surprised at how much I’ve been influenced by litblogs and podcasts in what I chose:
  • John Banville, The Sea because Mark Sarvas enthused about it
  • Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss because of the Booker
  • Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident because she gave an amazing interview on WNYC and then Lauren Cerand hosted her reading
  • Laird Hunt, The Exquisite because Bud Parr is so enthusiastic about it
  • Tayari Jones, The Untelling because I like her blog
  • Julie Powell, Julie & Julia, somewhat skeptically, but she is a cook and a blogger and I do expect to find it funny, and
  • Lauren Slater’s Best American Essays, 2006
    but not
  • Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions even though I’m tempted and it’s clearly a triumph of book design. Have you seen it? It’s like a really gorgeous issue of McSweeney’s. But I listened to Michael Silverblatt’s interview with him on WKRC’s bookworm, after hearing and reading lots of buzz on the book and he was so incredibly pretentious I could not bear it. (I haven’t listened to the Bat Segundo version yet—I’ll have to do that.)
I’m intrigued by the conceit—a love story from two perspectives, one running from front to back, one from back to front, meeting in the middle. Each page has the same number of lines, half from the woman’s perspective, half from the man’s, and then marginalia that puts this time-bending story into historical context. It is, in short, way too complicated to describe in full.

And Danielewski is clearly really, really smart. Am I jealous? Maybe. But when I heard him describe all the rules he’d set for himself and say, “…perhaps tellingly, the word home is never used…” I threw in the towel for now.

Perhaps tellingly? As a thing to say about your own crazy work? That struck me as beyond pretension. It’s not “telling” when it’s your own deliberate choice and there is no “perhaps” about it. How about “Because they’re drifters, I decided to banish the word home from my vocabulary for this book.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Gina Ochsner’s People I Wanted to Be

This is Gina Ochsner’s second collection of stories but she’s new to me. Although she comes with glowing praise from Chang-rae Lee (an author I admire greatly and one who shares East Coast/West Coast history with me), lives in Western Oregon (not so far from my native Seattle), and has been mentioned on Moorish Girl, I learned about her book from my friend in London.

London or Oregon, what does it matter? These stories are amazing! I have been living in this world for a couple weeks now and I am sorry to leave it behind.

It is some consolation to think that, perhaps, I can sway a few people to dip into this haunting, moving world of fog, affection, and longing.

The stories are set in Russia or Prague or Oregon. Wherever, they are, the background is gray, foggy, and a little bleak. The color in the stories comes from the characters whose ordinary lives are full of the intense emotions of ordinary lives: longing for children, longing for love, hoping for a satisfying job, fantasizing about an elsewhere, an alternative, and weighing the real costs of making a change or resigning oneself to one’s lot.

There is realism here. There is magic. There is a lot that I recognize from other contemporary writers but this doesn’t feel tired or familiar or derivative. I’ve been trying to figure out why and I have some thoughts about it: Ochsner really seems to like her characters, so when they see ghosts or become ghosts, she’s more interested in the drama than in showing us the dazzle of her own craft. It’s not “hey, look, I made you believe in a ghost,” but “this ghost is really coming at a bad time in the narrator’s marriage.”

She also writes really well about work. I was reminded of Hopkins’ line, “And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim,” from “Pied Beauty” several times: Ochsner loves describing the equipment of different jobs: the tackle boxes, the pencil cases, the knives and scalpels, the brushes.

Finally, her women are wonderful. I’ve read lots of women writers with great male characters lately (Edie Meidav comes to mind), and Ochsner’s men are great: tender and strong, vulnerable and courageous. But her women are really, really terrific. And she is great on the longing for children or the hilarious, comic fierceness of women trying to keep from getting pregnant or trying to get pregnant. I may have more to say about individual stories down the line. Overall, though, there is not a clunker in the lot. A really, really moving and wonderful collection. I’m thrilled that it came my way.

There’s not a lot of Ochsner in the blogosphere, but you can find a rave from The Stranger and another from I Read A Short Story Today.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Dan Zanes at Carnegie Hall

This was a benefit for Carnegie Hall’s children’s music series so you could pay $150 or $300 or a mere $8. We paid eight. Great. We had pretty bad seats, but it was a great hootenanny. Dan Zanes came out in a very, very bright red suit and sang “The Wonder Wheel,” his new old song about riding the Coney Island Ferris Wheel with all his friends.

I love Dan Zanes and I love his music—the new stuff that sounds old and the old stuff that he reminds you of: hearing him and Natalie Merchant sing “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road” was moving and fun and beautiful all at once. And when Barbara Brousal—who has every bit as much star power as Natalie Merchant—came out to sing her gorgeous “Malti,” she brought the house down.

This was the third time my older daughter and I have seen Dan Zanes; the second for my husband, too. The formula is so winning and great: lots of homespun special guests come out in quick succession to sing a mix of new and old folk songs on old-time instruments. We were sitting with a bunch of eleven year-old boys who whooped and hollered when their friend made his Carnegie Hall debut, playing trumpet alongside his father and Anna Zanes. Father Goose comes out toward the end and leads everyone in his Jamaican dub-style medley of nursery rhymes and the band slowly marches off-stage in a waltz through the crowd.

I’m not a good singer but I love to sing. When I was little, the other kids at summer camp let me sing only because I learned all the lyrics. So, out of tune, I could carry the other campers through the tougher verses. Dan Zanes’ happy open attitude about music—everybody sing along, everybody dance—helps keep me singing with my girls now. We sing all the time.

This morning, my daughter said she wished she could go back and be a baby again but this time she would try to remember it. She is jealous of the infant and feels like things would be better if she could remember how I used to tend to her as I now tend to the baby. So we talked about how no one remembers being a baby.

“Except you, Mama.”

No, I don’t remember being a baby.

“But you remember all the songs, Mama. All of them.”

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Opera for All

I was interested & excited to learn about recent efforts by the Metropolitan Opera and CityOpera to bring younger audiences to the opera. I like opera—love it—but am not an aficionado. Friends and I used to pile into a Honda and make the drive from New Haven to the Met a couple times a year for $25 nosebleed seats. I dragged my husband to Eugene Onegin in Indianapolis and an amazing production of Dialogue of the Carmelites at Glimmerglass.

Still, I was shocked and thrilled to catch the ad in the Times for CityOpera’s Opera For All performance of Carmen. All seats in the house $25. I got on-line. We got two seats in row D for $50. (Not even $59.95 with "handling fees.") Row D. Amazing. And for Carmen--not just any opera but the opera—happy and sad, dancing and singing, lots of red satin. No elephants, I know, but still, what’s not to like?

In any case, I have two recordings of Carmen on my iPod and listened to them constantly. Then, last Friday, we went to Carmen. Even with the lasting, constant exhaustion of mothering two children under four, the first two acts just flew by. I loved it. My fatigue caught up with me in act three, but still, the sparkles! the fluttering petals! the singing children! Toreadore! En garde!

For all the operas I have attended, for all the Sundays of my girlhood spent with “Sunday Afternoon at the Met” playing in the background on the radio, for the “Bravo Opera!” sticker on my little red wagon, for all the times I saw my father poring over a libretto, this is the very first time I remember just truly loving it, not mostly loving it while sometimes wondering if I had the sophistication to muscle through the performance.

Opera for all indeed. Bravo opera.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

More on Sideshow

Largehearted Boy has a great Sidney Thompson post: a soundtrack--one song per story in Sideshow. It's a fun idea and a nice way to look again at that LBC-nominated collection.

Election Day Shorts

The day began at 6:00. I got all my ducks in a row--formula mixed, some of it stirred into rice cereal flakes, coffee made, yogurt smoothie poured into sippy cup, showered. So, when the girls awoke at 7 (bless them for sleeping!), I was ready to go.

By 8:30, one was at preschool, the other, at daycare, and I was voting. #82 in my little precinct which, I was told was a lot for so early in the morning. Good. I want lots and lots of people to vote. Good.

I promptly turned my ankle-badly--on the uneven walk, nervously remembering previous election days. Not good.

CNN had some crazy "Democracy Bus" out in front of the TimeWarner building: cameras, a grafitti board, etc. Goofy but festive, even at 9:30 in the morning. It was very festive indeed when I was limping home at 3:30. Strange.

Then, in Starbucks, there was Leslie Stahl, getting her mochachino or whatever she drinks and a Ray Charles cd. Full make-up, black ballerina flats, and New York Times. Seeing her always cheers me somehow: it's nice to think that these television journalists spend at least some time sitting in Starbucks reading the paper and thinking about their stories. That seemed good and exciting. As I stood next to her, I wanted so badly to say something, but what? That seemed good, too.

So here I sit, exhausted and watching the results.

I am amused and occasionally engrossed by politics but I pray for peace. I hope for peace.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Firmin week at the LBC

This quarter’s Read This! pick from the LitBlog Co-op is Firmin by Sam Savage. I really can recommend that you read it: if you’re reading this, if you like reading enough that you read lit-blogs, you’ll likely be charmed, as I was, by this fable about a rat whose born into a Boston bookstore and learns to read.


The book is beautiful and full of charming little pen-and-ink illustrations. Hungry, Firmin gnaws on paper and then surprises himself by learning to read. As he works himself through the books by the great ones, the gap between his life and the glamour of the lives he reads about grows ever more painful and poignant.

There is some discussion at the site about whether or not Firmin is really a rat—eavesdrop or chime in as you wish. (I think he’s a rat…).

I was inspired to contribute my own reminiscence of Boston area bookstores.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Blogging Woolf

I’m back to working on Woolf—the break of a month or so really feels longer than it has been because, well, the book is done. Woolf has been on my mind 24/7 for years and years and now, even as I return to her, I can go for hours at a time without the nagging buzz of "must finish Woolf manuscript" in the background. Someone described this as a Woolfish blog and that seems about right to me. It’s not a Woolf blog and it won’t be. Still, I find myself wishing for more Woolf in the blogosphere, wishing for something like the Bronte Blog for Woolf.

When I took over as the bibliographer for the International Virginia Woolf Society, I had hoped to really expand the “Passing Glances” which my predecessor Sally Greene began. (If you search around on the IVWS website, you can find the page. Click on bibliography, then click on one of the earlier years and scroll down….barely worth it, I know…) She asked readers to submit mentions of, allusions to, and debts to Woolf in contemporary culture. Instead of expanding the idea, it died on my watch. Sorry! This idea, I see now, of course, would be ideal blog fodder. Any takers?

Still, there’s been some great Woolf stuff around the blogosphere this month and it feeds my enthusiasm for the return to Woolf. I even found, amazingly, an entry on Woolf and Hakluyt (the subject of one of my chapters) by my old friend Sally! After reading To the Lighthouse, Mark Thwaite has turned to Mrs. Dalloway which he seems to have liked a lot. Ana Maria uses her knowledge of Woolf to help her through Robbe-Grillet: it’s always such a pleasure to read her thinking through her readings and this is a really mart entry about how we approach experimental writing and what it feels like to have a brain abuzz with tons of reading. And, as I mentioned before, A Curious Singularity continues to blog Woolf’s amazing short story “Kew Gardens.” There are lots of bloggers, lots of opinions over there—including a very funny entry from someone who couldn’t even bring him or herself to finish the (very short) story.

My next project will be pretty tightly focused on Mrs. Dalloway. So, as a warm-up, I’m going through David Bradshaw’s notes to the Oxford edition of Mrs. Dalloway. What have I learned? Lots. Among the tidbits, this favorite: early in the novel, Mrs. Dalloway thinks about houses she has visited, about all the parties she’s been to. She lists two famous houses and then “the house with the china cockatoo.” This refers apparently, to the “home of Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, Baronness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), an indefatigable philanthropist, friend of Charles Dickens, the Duke of Wellington, and a host of other Victorian notables…[At her London home,].a white china cockatoo ‘hung “on a level with the top of a passing omnibus” on a circular perch in the big bay window…Like the Royal Standard at Buckingham Palace, the bird’s purpose was to indicate that its owner was in residence’” (Bradshaw, quoting Diana Orton, Made of Gold).

Now, that is rich. “Like the Royal Standard.” Imagine thinking that about yourself! “What I really need is something like the Royal Standard!” And then, that degree of vanity reached, coming to the next thought, “I know, we’ll put the white china cockatoo in the bay window upstairs!”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Birth and Marriage

I’ve just finished a book on birth (for pleasure) and marriage (for work). Neither book is great, but both are interesting for the way they treat subjects about which we are all “experts.” Everyone has lots of ideas about birth, it seems, how it should best be done, who should be present, what it ought to mean (or not) for mother and child. So, Tina Cassidy’s engaging (and surprisingly not-too-political) book, Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born excites all kinds of thoughts, reminiscences, and opinions.

Birth and marriage are interesting. I remember how I used to blush when my mom would say that sex is interesting—usually as a cue, I think, to keep me from running away from an embarrassing conversation. But, of course, sex is. All of these big things are. What makes Cassidy’s book effective is that it’s simply a journalistic history of how we get born: there’s a chapter on C-sections, a discussion of forceps, etc. (She tells the same sorry story that Atul Gawande told in The New Yorker recently of the history of forceps: the inventors kept their tool secret for generations—profiting mightily from their monopoly.) What makes the scholarly book on marriage less successful is that it attempts to put forth an argument about how marriage has or has not changed with reference to a very small handful of novels.

Marriage has changed, I have no doubt, but charting that change needs large samples punctuated by salient in-depth examinations. Novels are obsessed with marriage. In fact, you could argue that the genre flourished through its dependence on a modern idea of romantic, companionate heterosexual coupling. But novels are idiosyncratic, strange, amazing, and individual. This makes them a bad foundation for a sweeping generational argument.

Birth has changed in a different sense, but it has changed nonetheless. The Times review found Cassidy's book gory. I love medical writing and I found it pretty tame. It is, however, overlong and plagued by an irritating tic: each chapter ends with a little scene involving that chapter's topic (say, c-sections) and a coy anticipation of the next (say, the role of the father). So, we get a little perky uptalk along the lines of [I'm making this up--it's not a quotation] "Prepped for her c-section and strapped to a table, the modern mother turns to her husband, who may be green at the gills at the sight of his flayed wife. Who let the husband into the room in the first place?..."

Reading along in both books, my mind continuously wandered off to other birth stories—especially my own—and marriage stories—especially my own. I imagine many, many other readers of these books will have the same response, all of which leads me to feel rather cynical about the books. They gain so much of their interest from anticipating our own interest and expertise in the topic.

I’m having trouble getting at the nub of what I’m trying to say here—what interested and bothered me in both of these books—but it seems like neither one fully got to their point, either. The one, too broad, the other, too narrow, both relying too much on the way that these two huge words, so applicable to all of us (even in our non-participation in the latter), neither sufficiently acknowledging that it's in the wholly personal version, the unique and crazy individual story of one little family's life, that these words take on their weight.

Monday, October 30, 2006


It's Manbug week over at the LBC. Boy, it's a weird book and it's compulsively readable. Once I got into it--and I initally just thought, "oh , dear, this isn't going to work,"--it was an unexpected pleasure. It's the story of a love affair between two men, narrated by the one who suffers from some kind of mild Apsberger's syndrome. This, itself, makes him charmingly pedantic about his surroundings. Check it out.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Five Questions

If you’re looking to expand your horizons and your blogrolls, I hope you’ve been visiting John Baker’s Blog and reading through his many, many mini-interviews. You can find my rather terse answers to his five questions here. But it’s worth poking around in the archives for others.

I’ve updated my blogroll here, too. I have gotten so in the habit of reading via bloglines, that I’m slow to add links from here. Still, there are some excellent places to visit over in the right hand column, so do poke around. For all the linking I do to Light Reading, I don’t quite know why it hasn’t appeared over to the right until now. More recent discoveries include Geoffrey Philp’s blog—great for reading about poetry and Caribbean literature, Bookfox--John Fox’s unapologetically literary blog with a great “mix tape” feature (a cluster of paragraphs on the same theme from different authors), Kate’s Book Blog—because everytime I pop over there, I’m glad to have done so, and Pinky’s Paperhaus—which is just a really peppy, smart, postmodern funhouse of a place to visit. And you probably already know this, but You Cried for Night is now reeling and writhing: this AusLitBlog is always worth a visit. (The address is the same but, as Genevieve notes, the title is a little less despairing...)

LBC Autumn Pick--Firmin

The LBC is doing it again: discussing the three nominees for this quarter, including the wonderful and strange winner, Firmin, a novel about a highly literate rate chewing his way through the contents of a Boston used bookstore.

So, whilst I juggle two adored but tearful babes, hop on over to the LBC and check out the discussion.

Up this week: Sideshow. The author, Sidney Thompson, will be guest blogging today and throughout the week other LBC'ers will be offering up short critiques of individual stories from this eery collection.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Food, Magical Food: Madhur Jaffrey Edition

Yesterday, cooking up some ground beef (it was a lamb recipe, but we’re on a budget this month after the birthday bacchanal and beef was in the freezer) with tomatoes and peas, I had a real sense of the magic of cooking. It’s a Madhur Jaffrey recipe from her Quick and Easy Indian Cooking: a cookbook that has been utterly dependable for me. The recipes are genuinely easy and I am always amazed to discover, after forty minutes or so, that I have put together something that tastes like Indian food to me.

Her recipes are great the way that Julia Child’s are: she describes clearly and concisely each step of a recipe that is truly alchemical. Patricia Wells writes great recipes, as do the folks from Cook’s magazine, but the food they’re asking you to cook doesn’t metamorphose in front of your eyes. They just help you take a chicken that’s raw and turn it into a cooked one. No small feat, but not magic. Magic is going from butter, flour, and milk to a perfect béchamel.

Jaffrey consistently amazes me. It’s as if she’s working magic through me, so little do I know about Indian cooking, so good does her food taste.

Take the beef recipe. You pulverize a bunch of garlic, ginger, and onions into a finely chopped paste and throw them into a generous bit of heated oil. Already, the kitchen changes. But then, you add two spices (tumeric & cayenne) and two seeds (cumin & cardamom) to the mix. It changes color. There’s suddenly depth to the flavor befitting eight ingredients—but, for all the opening of jars and measuring, it’s not super hard. Then, you add another layer: yogurt (always magical heated, I think) and tomato. Only then do you add the meat, salt, and more spice (garam masala). After twenty minutes, it’s chile, cilantro, lemon, and a whole bunch of frozen peas (a decidely underrated gem, I think). And that’s dinner.

When I was in college, I remember going through the cafeteria line with my friend from Pakistan. We were trying to figure out what was edible that day. She complained that all the meat had an unpleasantly meat-y taste, that she was not used to eating meat that tasted like meat. My friend is one of the smartest people I know. One of her great gifts to me in our youth were little wayside observations like this—suddenly something about American cuisine (haute and low) was clear: we like meat-flavored meat and not everyone does.

I admire Jaffrey’s powers of translation: she helped me make my very ordinary ShopRite 85% lean meat taste less like meat.

I see from Michelle that Jaffrey has a memoir out. I’ll have to add it to my wishlist…

R. W. Apple

“I envy the Swedes their social conscience, their gift for design and urban planning and their fish. Especially their fish.”—R. W. “Johnny” Apple

The Times correspondent R. W. Apple died a couple weeks ago, when this blog was slowed by my birthday, my parents’ visit and the orgy of eating that accompanies them. I can’t claim to have noticed his writing on my own—or to be a great follower of his news and political reporting—but, when I learned that he was a Princeton classmate of my father’s and known as “Johnny” Apple, I took notice. My father has some good Johnny Apple legends, and even without Apple’s presence, stories about him have a way of livening up a dinner.

So, as he has been doing more and more food writing over the past few years, we took to comparing favorite stories about him—be that his derring-do in VietNam (where, I am told, his expense reports made as good reading as his journalism) or his account of eating from street vendors in Hong Kong with restaurateur Jean-George Vongerichten. Best of all, I thought, were the accounts that combined both—as in an article about finding good food in a war zone.

When we heard of his death, we talked about his gifts. What made him such a great food writer? His gusto, his generosity, and the sense he imparted in every piece that what you had missed was not just a great meal but a really fun time. But reading him did not excite envy, for, as many of his friends and associates note, he was not secretive about his finds. His willingness to share a tip extended far beyond his cronies at the Times. His references to “my wife, Betsey,” would make for an easily parodied tic if they were not accompanied by such a genuine sense that he had a better time because she was along.

Adam Nagourney has a lovely reminiscence that shares much of what I admire in Apple’s writing and he aptly describes Apple’s gifts. Reading this, listening to some of the audio slideshows, and reading his piece on ten restaurants worth a plane trip give me but a pale sketch of what surely was an amazingly charismatic, big, fun person. Nagourney writes of a dinner in L.A. during the 2000 Democratic Convention:
Johnny offered Mr. Puck a challenge — “We are in your hands,” are the words I recall — and thus began a four-hour blur of plates and platters and bottles of wine the likes of which I had never seen before, or since, at a Puck restaurant. Two hours into our bacchanal Mr. Puck proved that he knew his Apple: out from the kitchen came a plate of pig prepared four ways, precisely the kind of unpretentiously rustic and absurdly rich dish that could make Johnny literally rise from his chair and yelp in delight. That’s just what he did, before proceeding to correctly guess the farm in Pennsylvania where Mr. Puck had purchased his pork.

He goes on to write of Apple’s equal delight in street food and eating home-cooked meals with friends.

I find this, also from the Nagourney piece, heartrending:
His very last e-mail message, sent the night before he died, was a response to a Times food writer looking for suggestions on pancake recipes for a magazine feature. “Just very quickly since I don’t have my files here,” Johnny wrote. “1. American pancakes — Overrated, as you say. You might try the Bongo Room, in Wicker Park, north of Chicago. 2. Don’t forget Breton buckwheat crepes. 3. From South Asia (states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India): they make great dosas.”

Friday, October 13, 2006

The One Book Meme

Fun to read, intimidating to do for all the reasons Ana Maria states, but I get this from an impressive little chain—Ana Maria, who got it from Bud, who got it from James Marcus. Clearly I must play along.

1. One book that changed your life? Anne of Green Gables: I remember coming down to the kitchen and asking, “Mom? What’s a kindred spirit?” I listened to her answer, which filled out the description of Anne’s feelings for her best friend and then declared the obvious: “Anne of Green Gables is my kindred spirit.” But that was the first time I remember finding a friend inside a book.

2. One book that you have read more than once? A Room of One’s Own. I resisted Woolf for years because she was the favorite of my exacting Yankee grandmother. I turned to her at twenty-two just out of a sense that I must and I have never looked back. A Room is my favorite—beautiful, smart, unapologetically feminist, lyrical, intense, funny.

3. One book you would want on a desert island? The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I hate loneliness and boredom. I love writers who seem to create a world, writers who can appear to give you the full palette of human experience. Joyce does this; so does Dickens. Still, for me, there are only two: Woolf and Shakespeare. Shakespeare offers consolation and distraction and I would need both, I think.

4. One book that made you cry? It’s been a long time since I cried from reading a book. The burning stables in Black Beauty are devastating.

5. One book that made you laugh? I laughed out loud a couple times at Michael Martone, last quarter's LBC pick. There are laughs this quarter, too, so stay tuned...

6. One book you wish had been written? A novel by Katherine Mansfield.

7. One book you wish had never been written? That does seem a little mean, but I wasted far too much time on D.H. Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious. I love Lawrence—and can tolerate him even in the late, hateful Mexican phase—but the fake psychoanalytic stuff is really horrible tripe and doesn’t add anything to the world but meaningless meanness.

8. One book you are reading currently? People I Wanted to Be by Gina Ochsner.

9. One book you have been meaning to read? So, so, so many of these—my whole apartment feels like a giant to-be-read list. I like Bud’s approach to the question and will copy it: On my nightstand is Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit, which never quite seems to rise to first spot. But every change of season, I think that perhaps this is the moment to get further than eighty pages into Proust. I would love to read Remembrance of Things Past. Soon.

10. Pass it on: Carolyn because she's funny & doesn't pull punches.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Kew Gardens

Ana Maria was kind enough to send me over to A Curious Singularity where a lively and smart discussion of Woolf's story "Kew Gardens" is ongoing this week. "Kew Gardens" is one of Woolf's first breakthrough modernist works and an early publication from her own press, illustrated by her sister. It's got a long and storied history in the world of Woolf and in the world of modernism. It's moving and wonderful to read so many writers grappling with it today.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lady Ott

Exciting news from the Guardian (via the Woolf listserv):
A cache of unpublished letters from the novelist Virginia Woolf and scores of first editions inscribed by leading writers and poets of the early 20th century has emerged in the contents of the library of Lady Ottoline Morrell, the society hostess who became one of the most flamboyant, loved and mocked associates of the Bloomsbury group.

The Guardian quotes generously from a letter from Woolf but does not indicate how large this cache might be.

Lady Ott is always interesting and she seems to have been so for many, many interesting people. The caricatures of her in modernist fiction are both cruel and loving: one wants to have had the privilege of going to Garsington and deciding for oneself to mock or simply enjoy the hospitality.

Bertrand Russell’s comment seems to me to capture a kind of sexual frankness that’s very different from anything current today (except perhaps in campus brochures from the Dean’s Office): "For external and accidental reasons I did not have full relations with Ottoline that evening but we agreed to become lovers as soon as possible."

Duly noted.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Where I’ve been…

I had a bunch of October 1 deadlines and, miraculously, met nearly all of them because I wanted to be free to celebrate my birthday. So, I worked like a bee the whole last week of September, anticipating Friday the 29th.

I turned forty.

That’s very hard to believe.

But the shock was significantly leavened by the surprise arrival of my parents from Seattle. The popped in to the bar at the Algonquin on Friday night and we moved from there on to dinner at Per Se. That, in fact, had been my fantasy of the perfect fortieth birthday—dinner with my parents and my husband at Per Se. I am still reeling from the strange, thrilling pleasure of having a fantasy come true. My husband engineered it--wow!

Those October 1 deadlines don’t slow down the blogging while I’m working—writing a quick blog entry is often a good way to keep me at my desk even if I cannot still work on the task at hand. But the orgy of work followed by the shock of a new decade, accompanied all the while by the demands of the gorgeous, funny, demanding daughters, and leavened by all kinds of treats from my husband and my own parents made the next week one in which I couldn’t really get to Fernham. There has been a lot of eating (more foie gras!) and a lot of reading in the intervening time. I look forward to sorting it all out in prose in the coming days…

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Alice Munro

I picked up the latest Munro story collection sometime recently while sitting in a relative's den. It's so well-written, it's hard not to admire at first--you're in such good hands. But I was alone in the house, it seems, and sitting in that suburban cul de sac in a quiet Northern town reading about Munro's lonely women filled me with rage and nervous energy. I wanted to get in the car, turn Nirvana up loud and read about death or joy--anything intense. Too much quiet desperation. This, from Lydia Millet in the Globe and Mail puts its finger on that sense of intense claustrophobia:
And yet -- and yet -- given that what Munro does, she does with immaculate precision -- why always, with such a richness of skill, this insistent choice on the purely personal, the proximate world of the self and its near relations? In the cosmology of this world, the personal, social world, the individual is seen delicately negotiating a balance with friends and family: Her journey is the steady sun around which all planets revolve.
This is a fair criticism and I agree. It also makes me feel a little bad: she is so much a better writer than most and I am so overwhelmed by the maleness of the blogosphere this week, that criticizing a woman for being small, domestic, and minor rubs me the wrong way even as it is true that Alice Munro is starting to give me a mild case of the Anita Brookners.

All of this reminds me of Mark Thwaite’s comments on Roth: among the few excellent, established, prolific writers, there are going to be very few whose books are a must-read for any one of us. Most of us are not “completists” and would rather read the best of Alice Munro than all of her. For those of us who are not fans, it can get exhausting to be reminded of a new trip to that tiresome world that we visited once and where we are glad not to live, whether it’s the breakneck wondrousness of Rushdie, the wry sophistication of Atwood, or the bleak railway stations on Canada’s plains.

I got the link from Jenny who got it from Ed.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Derived from...A Corruption of...Jamaican greats

Reading around on Bud’s lively Metaxu Café, I found Geoffrey Philp’s blog. A Jamaican writer who’s teaching and writing in Miami, Philp’s been publishing mini interviews with other Caribbean writers at Bud’s site and on his own site. Going to his site, I found a great birthday tribute to “Miss Lou,” Louise Bennett Coverley who died in August. As I wrote here upon her death, her courage to write in Jamaican was an inspiration to many, many. You should go read his tribute for yourselves, but I couldn’t resist re-quoting this brilliant quotation comparing “corruption of” and “derived from” from Bennett’s “Auntie Roachy,” the wise woman persona of her work.
Like my Auntie Roachy say she vex any time she hearing the people a come style fi we Jamaica language as 'corruption of the English Language'. You ever hear anything go so? Aunt Roachy she say she no know why mek dem no call the English language corruption of the Norman French and the Greek and the Latin where they say English is derived from. Oonu hear the word: English 'derive' but Jamaica 'corrupt'. No, massa, nothing no go so. We not corrupt and them derive. We derive, too. Jamaica derive!"

What’s not to love here? The humor is warm even as the anger and frustration is real. I can’t wait to read her again…

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Middle of Everything

Mark Thwaite opens his lukewarm appreciation of the latest Philip Roth (Everyman, ambivalently received all around) with a speculation on what it means when, in a blogging life, a certain book never does make notice on the blog. This happened to me with Michelle Herman’s lovely, moving The Middle of Everything and not because I thought it a worthy secondary work. Instead, I loved it, thought about it, talked about it, and spent so much time describing its merits to some of my friends that by the time I turned to my blog, I was done. Paradoxically, then, a certain kind of book that really excites my enthusiasm might just escape mention here.

Sadly, reading around here is so slow, that I mention almost everything I read.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Inside the TLS, 9/1/06 edition

What got me excited in the September 1, 2006 TLS?
  • A negative review of David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry by Marjorie Perloff. Her expertise, her vast knowledge of the field and, most importantly, of the anthologies of the field, allows her to compare his approach against others. His attempt to side-step identity politics in favor of aesthetic criteria is revealed to have serious blind spots and deficits of its own. (That passive is weird--I don't have the patience or energy to rise to Perloff's operatic grandeur. I don't have the knowledge to do anything other than stand back and admire. The review has great power--but I'm powerless to put my finger on its source. I think it's because Lehman is trying to sidestep a p.c. approach and she attacks him on other grounds where the easiest thing to have done would have been to call him out for not beign p.c.--a charge he anticipates.)
  • A very funny account by Michael Greenberg of the monthly polyamory meeting down in the West Village: “I pull The Kreutzer Sonata from my shelf, Tolstoy’s diatribe against sex, to read on the subway ride downtown…:”
  • A great review of Claire Messud, whose book awaits.
  • A strong review of Rachel Cusk, too, whose book sounds good, but I read Tom Perrotta’s Little Children already. Do I really need another book about how dull it is to be a mom in the suburbs?
  • A totally gorgeous photo of Miriam Makeba in the “In Brief” pages.

Somehow, more than any other book review, reading through a week's TLS makes me feel smart and hopeful. It's that New Year's Day feeling I sometimes get: the one in which I actually believe that I'm going to be the better person of my resolusions.


"Mama? Can you feed the baby with one hand and me with the other?"

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A plague of essays

Why, now that I have a blog—even a seldom-updated one, even one that never ever pretends to be keeping abreast of the “news”--do I keep a pile of periodicals by my desk as potential blog fodder? Why, in particular, do I comb my alumni magazines for things to write about? At first, I tell myself that others who did not attend my schools might be interested in this or that literary tidbit. But, of course, these tidbits are skewed to reflect glory back upon alma mater. And all of us alums, of course, already get the magazine. It’s a kind of madness.

At times like these, the blogosphere feels strangely Victorian to me. I think about those reviews of reviews, those huge periodicals now mouldering in the basements of university libraries everywhere, that brought together long book reviews—many of which were very, very long summaries—and digests so that print seemed to multiply and multiply.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Inside the TLS

I am a big fan of the TLS. I like its former editor, John Gross, and his book on the "man" of letters. I know a bit about its history and origins through my work on Virginia Woolf. For Woolf, the TLS was the major outlet for her short essays and reviews. Many, many of the essays in The Common Readers began their life as TLS pieces. And, as a privilege accorded to Woolf and Woolf alone, the editors doubled their usual fee for a contribution from her. In the 1920s for a woman to be held in such esteem by a totally mainstream publication is really cool and remarkable.

I got a deal on the TLS this year, so it's been coming for about ten weeks now. I've read two or three of those ten issues. I gobble them with delight and am full, bursting, with the desire to tell everyone--to at least blog--about what I read, what new book is coming out, what catty thing got said (Jenny Davidson had a great post recently about an appallingly mean review there--I may be less kind toward authors than she because there's something I like about the energy of a bad review.), etc. I just can't believe that this conversation has been going on all this time without my attending to it. And I can barely find the time to attend to it now...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Howells' women

Initially I was more enthusiastic about Howells’ women then I am now. He does a better job with women than Dickens. Still, in a Dickensian way, they remain a bit more like types than characters. The advantage is that he has a rich imagination for types, so, in Hazard there are many types of women.

Howells wrote the novel shortly after his daughter’s mysterious death in early adulthood from something that biographers, as I understand it, now think was anorexia or some kind of autoimmune disease. Knowing that, it makes it all the more poignant that Howells is particularly good and generous at imagining all kinds of possibilities for young women of his daughter’s generation. At the same time, he cannot really see feminist world and he finds it impossible to imagine strong women as wives. But, in 1890, are we so surprised that he could not?

There is an artist who turns down her feckless young teacher (the man of the Chianti) for a life dedicated to art without any certain prospect of marriage; there is the young Virginian belle, all wiles and charm, the wild Western heiress who attacks a suitor with her nails when he fails to propose, and the Manhattan socialite who gives up a life of recitals and days at home to join a sisterhood and devote herself to charity.

Most interesting of all, however, is Basil March’s wife, Isabel. She is such a great wife. At the beginning, when the move from Boston to New York is an open question, she is full of opinions and ideas, all of them expressed with comic emphasis. (I could never live in an apartment! Well, if Tom must give up Harvard for Columbia, I suppose sacrifices must be made!) As the novel progresses and life in New York becomes a settled fact, she settles into the background.

By the book’s end, she functions as a kind of flattering conscience for her husband, soothing his ego and bringing him back to their shared principles or reminding him of the moment when it might be pragmatic to bend one principle in favor of another. In this, she seems most wifely to me, and least like a separate person from Basil. And is it any wonder? After all, Isabel is an anagram of Basil with the addition of that lovely feminine e.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More on Hazard and Howells

One of the reasons, beyond my enthusiasm, that I wanted to write about A Hazard of New Fortunes and Howells this week is that the book I read was so different from what I expected.

Having heard my husband talk about it for years, I knew to expect a story about conflicting values in the Gilded Age. In fact, while this is the book’s climax and its central message, it’s not what dominates the first two-thirds. I knew, too, about the famous apartment-hunting scene (and I’d even read much of it), in which a middle-class family tries to find a place to live in Manhattan and is shocked at the high rents and pervasive squalor. I wasn’t particularly surprised to find myself more interested in some of the minor women characters than he was. (I’ll write more about these women tomorrow.) Two things did surprise me, however: the pervasiveness of the humor and the attention given to the setting—in the offices of a literary magazine.

The editorial meetings at Every Other Week, especially those just before the launch are so deliciously familiar and exhilarating. I have never worked on a glossy magazine, but I have worked for all kinds of ill-fated little periodicals and Howells (who was editor of The Atlantic after all) captures the mix of ambition, vision, and pragmatism of the early days. Everyone wants it to be totally new and different and no one can really think of much that’s all that different from what’s gone before. All the most thrilling and strange innovations turn, upon closer inspection, to be totally impractical and, in the end, the magazine is a really good version of what already exists.

Almost every scene with Beaton, the magazine’s artistic editor, is comic. A pretentious prodigal son (his father is a poor stonecutter in Syracuse), Beaton constantly finds excuses for not sending money home. My favorite scene has him morosely drinking Chianti in a restaurant, thinking that if he gave up drinking, he could send home three dollars a week. Two sentences later, he’s off with a scheme—if he switched to half-bottles and got the waiter to set aside what others leave behind, he might be able to send home two dollars. Of course, if he hadn’t bought that fur coat…

These two qualities of the novel—the powerful, insightful and humorous depiction of literary work and the humor overall—elevate it to a very high rank with me. I cannot figure out why its reputation is not higher than it is. When people describe Howells as a realist, reading him sounds like a chore. I expected to feel that I was getting a dutiful and dull snapshot of New York in the 1880s. Instead, I got a lively, funny insights. Why don’t people tell you this?

All of which brings me to a thought for another day about the experience of admiring—for totally different reasons—something a loved one also admires.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Hazard of New Loves

It’s been a longstanding joke of my husband and I, that I know more about William Dean Howells than almost anyone who has never read him. The longest, most substantial, and most erudite chapter of his book is on Howells. He was working on Stephen Crane when we met, but quickly moved to the Howells chapter. I remember sitting on his futon in his apartment in a Somerville triple-decker, faint with hunger, dressed for a date, listening to him work out a reading of Sewell’s sermon on complicity in The Minister’s Charge. He would read a passage to me, ask me what I thought of it, refine my thoughts, connect them to his argument, refute me, and then move forward, painstakingly, carefully, to the next bit. I hugged my knees to my chest and wondered when we would ever get to eat dinner!

Still, I admired his tenacity—even his apparent ability to work through dinner, something I cannot do—and his ability to make an argument. I would contribute a thought about the significance of a word, a metaphor, the order of a list, and he could shape it into a larger picture about charity and complicity in the Gilded Age. And, of course, you know the end of the story already: Reader, I married him.

Nonetheless, I was not all that eager to read Howells. That chapter took a lot out of me. My mom and I called it the “howls” chapter since it seemed to cause us all such pain. But, when my book came out, my husband reminded me: when his book was published he read Mrs. Dalloway.* Now, that mine was out, I owed it to him to read Howells.

I loved A Hazard of New Fortunes so much, that I’m declaring it Howells week here at Fernham. A blogging experiment. Let’s see how it goes.

*I protested, meekly that he had not finished it. But, he replied, he read the first three-hundred pages, enough to get the gist. [Mrs. Dalloway is 296 pages long in the old paperback. Ed.]

Monday, September 11, 2006

Thinking is my fighting, William Dean Howells edition

For reasons I’ll explain more fully tomorrow, I’ve declared it William Dean Howells week here at Fernham.

Still, I can hardly let this grim anniversary pass without comment even as I know how little I have to add to the discussion. Certainly, the circumstances of my personal connection to the day are too trivial to dilate on. Sitting in my farmhouse in Fillmore, Indiana, I decided to watch a bit of the Today Show before heading off to the airport to pick up a visiting speaker from Princeton. I watched as the second plane hit. As for my visitor, his plane had been due to leave Newark around ten. Of course, it never left the ground.

William Dean Howells does, it turns out, have something to offer us—those of us whose world has changed even as our grief is indirect—in thinking about how we carry on. A Hazard of New Fortunes is a novel that makes an argument: it pits a philistine capitalist against a cultured socialist. In short, this novel of 1890, pits two prominent and incompatible world views against each other. This, I think, is the position that nice people, good people, small-d democrats who had, thus far, lived fairly nonviolent and comfortable lives, now find ourselves facing: the fact that democracy must work to accommodate people whose ideologies strive to exclude each other.

The setting of Hazard is a literary magazine in New York and caught in the middle is Basil March, the editor, a good-humored man from “the West” (in this case, Indianapolis). The capitalist funds the venture as a sideline; the socialist works as a regular freelance translator. When the two meet, sparks fly. March’s efforts to keep the peace show us the difficulty, perhaps even the futility, of such efforts. And he (Howells, March) by no means splits the difference or is in any way stupid or blind about the imbalance of power or ethics. The power is all on the side of capital; the ethics, in this case, is almost entirely on the side of socialism.

It’s not hard to imagine translating this conflict into contemporary terms. In fact, it’s a conflict that plays out daily. An oilman, from Wyoming or Texas, funds a creative venture without much thought until he gets wind of the Palestinian on his staff, or the Saudi feminist, or the Venezuelan socialist… Caught in the middle is some good-natured liberal whose job is suddenly on the line. What should the editor do?

Distressed by the hanging deaths of anarchists in the Haymarket Affair, Howells wrote A Hazard of New Fortunes. Though the novel pits capitalism against socialism, it is the socialist Lindau with whom March has the prior connection (Lindau was his German and fencing tutor as a boy in Indianapolis); it is Lindau who is learned, intelligent and a linguist; it is Lindau who fought in the Civil War (losing a hand in the fighting) while the capitalist bought a substitute. There is no question as to where Howells’ sympathy lies, even as Lindau is annoying, impolite, impolitic, and often wrong. For all of us who are writers, thinking is our fighting, as Woolf said, and we must fight on towards peace.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Contemporary Art

Last May, we went to DIA: Beacon for the first time. It was a transcendent experience. So, when we planned our end-of-summer jaunt to New England, we had high hopes. We came away disappointed. Where the Beacon museum, a converted box factory, makes large-scale contemporary art gorgeous, accessible, and meaningful, everything at Mass MoCA, a converted textile factory, seemed over-thought and over-theorized. The exhibit about post-9/11 history had all kinds of goofy curatorial theatrics. (“In this time after history we find that the time of history is a time out of time…”) Some of the art was all right. I loved an installation by Peggy Diggs—a bunch of jars of ephemera from her life, all labeled (e.g. “my father’s press pass, 1967”; “tea bags from the best conversation my sister and I ever had”). But some eighteenth-century European dresses fashioned out of African kente cloth left me cold: once you’d figured out the trick, what is there to say?

I was the only one in the family who liked the Huang Ying Pong retrospective, however. And my attraction to that taught me something about my aesthetic. Way too complicated. Pong is a Chinese artist, born in the fifties and working in Paris. A lot of what was on display was not so much art as divination tools used to make decisions about how to make art. From what I gathered (not much as we were shepherding the two children), he takes Chinese and Western tools of divination (I Ching, tarot, astrology, etc.), and uses them to guide his aesthetic decisions. In short, there were lots of very complicated wheels within wheels. I had trouble tearing myself away. Very Matteo Ricci...

I love things that are way too complicated. For all that I try to simplify my life as I live it (short commute, groceries by delivery), I am consistently attracted to the most baroque, most colorful, most intense design. When I first learned about memory palaces, I became obsessed—I eventually wrote an essay on them.

When I was much younger, my mom helped all of the neighborhood kids make papier mache masks out of grocery bags for Halloween. There were bears and pumpkins. I was a wizard. The front of my mask was his face. The back was a portrait of him taming a unicorn with the first line of a never-to-be-written short story written above the sunset scene. Crazy. Far too complicated.

I’m less patient with this side of myself lately. But I was very happy to see that Mr. Waggish found echoes of hermeticism and memory palaces in the work of a contemporary graphic novelist. He’s readier to figure this as a kind of genius. I’m so aware of it as a potential rabbit hole that I fear falling into that I don’t quite know how to judge it.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Sexism and DNA

I’ve just read The Double Helix (1968) as it’s the freshman book at my university. I must say that, having been warned that I would hate its sexism, I did not. In fact, I loved the book. It’s a kind of nonfiction Lucky Jim, I thought, and I found the whole thing fascinating, riveting, and hilarious.

I did like Lucky Jim and was interested to see that Maureen Corrigan did, too. She writes with some disappointment that no woman has yet written an academic novel as hilarious as Amis’. That is the kind of challenge that gets me going, for at least an hour or two on thinking that perhaps that will be my next book.

In any case, my enjoyment of Amis and Watson and Corrigan’s of Amis got me thinking about what it means for feminists to like openly sexist books. Where is the line? (One kind of answer might lie in the apparently appalling enfant terrible behavior of Harlan Ellison, groping the breast of a woman introducing him. I found Ed Champion’s accounts of this event while I was composing this post.)

Brenda Maddox’s biography of the great scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose photographs of DNA were central to Watson and Crick’s discovery, is a necessary project. I’m grateful that it exists and applaud her for uncovering the history of a woman who appears in The Double Helix as someone who leads Watson to daydream “how she would look if she took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair”! I read that and am momentarily aghast. But then I think about what it’s like to be 24 and in a lecture hall, expecting to be bored, and I’m fascinated by the transition, too, “Then, however, my main concern was her description of the crystalline X-ray diffraction pattern.” This seems like grad school to me: I remember sitting through one seminar and alternating between intense thoughts about the legal status of free speech and peering under the seminar table to see if I could figure out how expensive my chic male professor’s shoes must be. Did his fancy lawyer-wife buy them for him? Now, that’s different for all kinds of reasons of history and power, I know, and perhaps these reasons of history and power make me willing to grant Watson a pass. There is no doubt that Watson is a jerk. He is not very smart about women and he is particularly cruel to Franklin—as he himself seems to dimly recognize in the somewhat ham-handed epilogue.

But the overriding feeling I had in reading The Double Helix was delight. The account of what it feels like to find a really interesting problem—the structure of DNA is certainly that—fascinated me. I am less troubled by his lack of ethics than I am interested in the eager, rapid, magpie mind that saw the virtues in both the x-ray photography of Franklin and the model-building of Linus Pauling. And I find the account of Crick’s error at a fancy dress party—he came dressed as G. B. Shaw, realizing only too late that no girl wants to be kissed by that scratchy beard—hilarious rather than upsetting.

Why, I wonder, is this so? When I read some accounts of people passing off their bad behavior as charming, I’m offended and appalled. But, reading this, I was very willing to give Watson a pass.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Around the Web

Some really great things around the web lately.

Black Looks links to a literary magazine by South African lesbians. A lot of the little things are only ok, but one or two pieces are really moving and very much worth your time. There's an amazing story of a woman who became a fourth wife and, while training to be a healer, discovered--acknowledged to the woman training her--her lesbianism. It's really gripping. You can download the whole ‘zine here.

On the issue of reproductive rights, the Cardiff feminists at Mind the Gap ask their American readers to participate in Ms. Magazine’s I had an abortion petition campaign. Women who have not had abortions but support access to this important right can sign an ancillary petition.

In more literary matters, John Baker’s blog has been features answers to his five questions all month: there’s a whole array of mini-interviews with litbloggers to page through. No doubt you’ll find, as I have, links to lots of new blogs to check out in the coming months.

If you need a late-summer pick-me-up, head over to Summer Pierre’s always interesting blog, An Accident of Hope. She’s doing these really cool Lynda Barry inspired fliers every day this month, picking an everyday word (toothpaste, babysitter) and making a flier for it, a kind of prose poem. Very nice. Lynda Barry, the Seattle cartoonist, has long been

Finally, a big congratulations out to my friend and fellow Seattleite-turned-New Yorker (but she’s REALLY a New Yorker—Brooklyn!) AND new mom, Megan Kelso, who’s graphic novel, The Squirrel Mother has just come out to great acclaim. We’ve been commiserating over the long, long gestation (of our books—our babies just took the normal amount of time) when we see each other from time to time and it’s fun and funny to have had daughters and books both born within weeks of each other.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Pat De Caro’s Bookcover

My publisher asked me to provide an image and give them some input into the design of my book cover. The moment they asked, I felt burdened and exasperated by the request. I was tired and pregnant and ready to be done with the project. But I had promised myself to follow through until the end and so I tried to look upon this unexpected task as an opportunity. After all, complaints about not having input into cover art are a familiar kind of complaints about publishers. What to do?

I called my mom.

I knew what I did not want: no image of Woolf and nothing too girly. So many feminist books end up clad in pink and purple with flowery script. I wanted the book to look strong, intelligent, but not confrontational. After a few minutes, she suggested I use the Pat De Caro print she gave me a few years ago. “Quietude” has hung in our home for years. Pat is a Seattle artist and a dog-walking friend of my mother’s. The print of hers I have is a lovely one of a young woman with bobbed hair sitting alone in a bedroom, reading. It’s simple, quiet, unsentimental, with a really lovely Bloomsbury feel to it. Perfect!

I took the print down off the wall and carried it into Manhattan on the train. The good folks at the frame shop in Columbus Circle took it apart for me and I got it scanned at Kinko’s. The framers put it back together, free of charge, and I was on my way.

My publisher accepted my ban of pink and purple and chose a lovely chocolate brown and oatmeal with silver accents. They even made the back cover and flap into a darker detail of the image in chocolate and pale chocolate so you can see the woman echoed from behind the blurbs.

One totally unequivocal good of my book is the cover, thanks to my mother and Pat De Caro. Hurrah!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


The troubles with copyediting have been well documented here at Fernham. And, in spite of them all, I am genuinely delighted with my book. It feels kind of surreal, amazing, and good to truly be that thing that I meant to be: an author, a person who has actually written a book. And there it is, a thing in the world. A book. It’s funny how much these material things matter even to those of us who live the life of the mind. I am a mother: look, two daughters over there. I wrote a book: hold it in your hands.


When I received the proofs the second time, there was a query from the copyeditor next to the word “graft”: “Do you meant grants?” I wrote “No. STET” and then, a bit piqued, I copied out the OED definition of graft in the margin to show the copyeditor that I was, indeed, using the word correctly. This definition now appears in main text! The sentence now reads: “But they do have privileges: they have been away, they have drivers, they are on the receiving end of government graft (OED graft n.5: The obtaining of profit or advantage by dishonest or shady means; the means by which such gains are made, esp. bribery, blackmail, or the abuse of a position of power or influence; the profits so obtained).”

Words fail me.

How could a thinking person imagine that I meant to include this note to the copyeditor in my text? Why is a non-thinking person doing this job? The incompetence is staggering. The mind boggles.

Hip, hip, Hooray!

My book is out.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Tim Tams

Our peerless babysitter is back from a month in Australia and New Zealand and, when she came to sit on Friday, she brought a bag full of gifts: a boomerang, very cool stickers of aboriginal art, a koala t-shirt for the dear one, and a sheep bib for the babe. She also brought a package of Tim Tam biscuits for my husband and me. She explained to the dear one and me how to eat them: you bite off opposite corners of the chocolate covered biscuit and use it like a straw, sucking your tea or coffee through it.

The next day, the dear one and I were showing off our bounty to my husband. As I explained how to eat the cookies, his expression was amused and skeptical. The dear one didn’t miss a beat. Stepping up on tiptoes, she whispered in my ear, ‘You can share them with me, Mommy.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Michael Martone

Michael Martone's Michael Martone is this summer's read this. The very funny book is a whole series of contributor's notes--of varyiing degrees of (suspected) fictionality. You can read the bloggers' versions and you can now also read a back-and-forth between Kassia Kroszer of Booksquare and myself. I don't know Kassia; she lives on the West Coast; we had so much fun emailing each other paragraphs, asking each other questions about the book. As we both agreed at the end of our conversation, it was a different--and I think better--post than either of us could have come up with singly.

I know I've been sending you over to the LBC all week--but I'll be back in the saddle at Fernham with, I hope, stuff to say about William Dean Howells, Julia Child, and more on Michelle Herman...

Monday, August 14, 2006

Michael Martone

It’s Michael Martone week over at the LBC. His new book, Michael Martone by Michael Martone, consists of several dozen contributor’s notes. Each one begins conventionally enough: “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana,” but then, from there, each takes a turn. In celebration of the goofy brilliance of this conceit, lots of litbloggers have tried their own hand at contributor’s notes, too. They’re quite funny and very Martonian, to coin an adjective. If you’re amused, then you should definitely pick up the book: it’s a quick, happy, fun late summer read.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

White Spirit

Last week was White Spirit week over at the LBC. I wrote up my thoughts on the author Paule Constant’s connections to Conrad here but more interesting –really thrilling to me—are her answers to my questions, which you can find here.

Even in an electronic age, it seems very cool to be able to ask a question of a French novelist—one whose stature, I’ve since learned, is quite great—and get a reply within the week. The process was not simple—it was positively old world. Dan Wickett heard from the translator Betsy Wing that she’d be willing to play along. Dan asked us if we had questions for Constant. He passed those questions on to Betsy who sent them to Constant. Wing then translated Constant’s replies into English, sent them to Dan & he posted them over at the LBC. Fascinating.

The punch-line: she’s never been able to finish a book by Conrad.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading

Maureen Corrigan believes that books find you when you need them. How appropriate, then, that a copy of her memoir, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, showed up in my mailbox with a post-it on it. Our upstairs neighbors just read it and passed it along.

At a moment when I’m finding it hard to find the time to read and finding it harder to get into a book, I devoured the opening pages and finished it in a snap. (These days, that means two weeks…) Corrigan is the book critic on NPR’s Fresh Air. I like her voice—both her literal voice and her enthusiastic, warm writing and it is interesting to learn more about her: a feminist, a Catholic from Queens, a Fordham graduate with a Penn Ph.D. who teaches at Georgetown now.

The feminism was the most interesting angle for me because she wears it with such grace. She writes movingly about the complicated feelings of being an unmarried, in her late-twenties, and teaching at Bryn Mawr where an older generation of unmarried women welcomed her into all-female community that was at once wonderful, stimulating, intellectual and a little threatening. I remember those feelings well: you want to fall in love and get married; you see the pain that’s part of the lives of women of a generation whose lives forced them to choose between family and career; you feel the richness of the lives of older unmarried women; you’re still determined to try to find a partner.

Like a lot of these books about being a reader, it’s a lot of fun even if, ultimately, it makes you feel not so much like you’re reading as like you’re talking about intending to read. I grew eager for more analysis, greater depth. The first chapter is the weakest—too bad, as it’s about the process of adopting her daughter. But there, just where you want reading and life to be most integrated, they never fully come together. Even so, she writes in a way that’s both wry and moving about why she was reading a grisly true crime novel in her hotel room in China instead, say, of soft-focus books about motherhood.

There are lots of really good ideas—the difference between male extreme adventure (Shackleton nearly freezing to death) and female extreme adventure (the Brontes spending decades and decades in complete cultural isolation), the popularity of Catholic martyr stories (a genre represented by Marie Killilea’s Karen books, which I’m sure I read as a girl)--in this book, but they’re not really developed. It’s too journalistic for my taste—I don’t wish for a scholarly treatment, but I’d like things to be developed beyond, well, a clever blog entry…