Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer

I heard J. R. Moehringer interviewed on WNYC in September, talking about his childhood, growing up without a father and passing time in the bar down the road (in Manhasset, Long Island) where his uncle worked. Upon graduating from Yale, he got a job in the giftware section of Lord & Taylor and began making a killing on commissions: a depressing kind of success. Had he and his single mother fought and worked and dreamed for all those years of an Ivy League education in order for him to sell crystal and fine linens to the ladies of Long Island?

Although it is not a topic of inherent interest to me, something about his voice was tremendously appealing. So much so, that I noted the title and topic. A few weeks later, the book arrived in the mail from my father. He had read it, loved it, and, as he occasionally does, hopped onto amazon & ordered it for me. The next week, my mother-in-law asked me if I’d read The Tender Bar yet.

Last month, I did. It really is a wonderful book. There are some hilarious passages of him working on his college entrance essay:
’Try as I might,’ I wrote, addressing the Admissions Committee directly, ‘I feel unable to truly convey the emphatic pangs of hungry ignorance that attend this my seventeenth year, for I fear that my audience is well fed!’
As my fingers flew across the keys of the secondhand typewriter my mother had bought me, I could hear the Dean of Admissions summoning everyone into his office. ‘I think we’ve got something here,’ he’d say, before reading a few choice passages aloud.
My mother, however, after reading my essay, chose three small words to express her opinion. ‘You sound—insane.’
He is ruthless about his own style throughout. In one scene, he brings his early attempts at fiction to the bar: “Why is the bar like a fart in the badlands?” Cager asks, forcing J.R. to admit the typo: “Should say ‘fort.’ Fort in the badlands.” “I think I like it this way. Fart in the badlands. Think about it.” He is also honest about the hard work he put in learning to write—the reading lists, the lists of words to use and avoid, the reading, the striving to seem smart and then to be so. I know I liked this book because I recognize his faults--that embarrassing combination of pretense and typos--as my own.

Another part of what makes the book such a pleasure is the pleasure Moehringer takes in finding smart people wherever he goes. He loves anyone who loves words, who is a good storyteller, from publicans and alcoholics to deejays and bookstore clerks to professors and journalists. Getting a wordy-gurdy clue right as a young boy is the first moment he turns from being just a squirt into J.R., the kid who hangs out at the bar. Everywhere he looks, he seems to turn up readers: in the bar of the title, the men argue about Melville; in the strip mall bookstore where he works, the reclusive autodidacts who run the chain tease him for referring to Scarlett’s Letter and then take him in hand, schooling him in the difference between Hawthorne and Scarlett O’Hara.

My usual stops in the litblogosphere don’t seem to have had much to say about this book yet, but there’s still plenty online. Frances Dinkenspiel praises his writing (quoting a nice representative bit—an unpretentious, funny, and apt description) and his ability to make friends in odd places. Tina Ristau singles out Moehringer’s relationship with his mother, whom he adores and longs to protect, as a strength. Gale Zasada offers a nice summary of the book, for which she has high praise.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Pretty thundering dull

Earlier this fall, I spent a wee bit of time reading up on London tabloids in the 20th century and came across this tidbit, the perfect little smidgeon for a day when I feel about as dull as poor “Lonely”

Lonely, of March, Cambs, writes:
  • I’m 23; I save £3 a week, don’t smoke or drink.
    Yet I can’t get a girl for love nor money.
    I’m not a fairy prince, what am I?
Answer: Pretty thundering dull, we should think.

(from the Daily Mirror, 1990s; quoted in Matthew Engel’s Tickle the Public [1996] 160)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Virginity, Annunciations

Virginity is not a topic I care much about—I didn’t like being a virgin, I didn’t feel much better about the word or the category once I wasn’t any more. I find the topic and the word embarrassing.

But I’ve been thinking about virginity more than usual lately, thanks to Nicholas Kristof’s devastating reports in the Times about sex slavery in India (TimesSelect, only, alas). In one of his video diaries, a woman activist in a Calcutta slum (She educates the children of prostitutes, all of whom [the children] are now the first in their families to become literate.) alludes to the high price men pay for the privilege of sleeping with a virgin. Prostitution, she says, is the only profession where your pay is the highest when you begin.

With this haunting me, I recalled Daphne Merkin’s recent essay on women who get plastic surgery on their genitals (to make them prettier, more like those of porn stars, or more virginal—an idea I find almost too horrifying to write, let alone think, about—and thought with a more critical eye about this article about the new boom in China: rich men advertising for virgin brides. The light tone of “everything’s for sale” did not match the sense that this was a very, very old-fashioned marriage bargain: money for a “pure” bride. At least many of the women interviewed for the article feel the same.

It felt good, when I was younger and it mattered more, not to care about virginity too much. This fetishization of virginity stuns me. But should it?

I went to the Met today to catch the Fra Angelico show before it closes. Since most of his work is in frescoes in Florence, I hadn’t seen it since I was last there—19 years ago. At twenty, I decided that he was one of my favorite artists and I made the pilgrimage over to the museum to see if, two decades later, my earlier judgment held. I was particularly curious to see if I could understand why it was that I was so especially enamored of his annunciations.

The paintings are stunning. I was moved and transported. The colors are glorious—many, many golds and blues. The facial expressions are solemn, solitary, unguarded, and individual. You really get the sense, looking at each face, each Christ, each Mary, each saint or cleric, of looking at person. More than that, each person looks like a holy person so the experience of contemplating his art is meditative and spiritual. All the more pleasure for me, then, of course, comes in seeing all those paintings of people reading. And that, I think, is the appeal of the annunciation. Mary is sitting and reading: the only reading woman we ever see, the only time we ever see Mary reading. That figure of a young woman reading in the midst of many, many images of older male readers must be central to the appeal of the annunciation. Of course, the bitter joke and great blessing of what comes next--the angel’s terrifying and wonderful announcement of her imminent motherhood—will curb, if not end, Mary’s reading for a while.

This, then, is the continuing story of women, education, and sex. It’s a story I have a lot more to say about, but I wanted at least, tonight, to sketch the links I see at the moment, to bookmark the story about Fra Angelico and current educators in the slums of Calcutta so that, if nothing else, I can remember something of the skeleton of my thoughts.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bill Gordon reading, TONIGHT @ 7:00

I wish I could go: a reading of a novel about Jersey City!

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 25, 7PM: Join us for "First Fiction" night as two fresh voices share tales from their debut works. BILL GORDON is the author of the remarkable novel MARY AFTER ALL (Dial Press, December 2005), which tells the story of Mary, a Jersey City native who comes of age during the turbulent 1970s and discovers her own route to independence along the way. RONNA WINEBERG's award-winning collection of stories, SECOND LANGUAGE (New Rivers Press' Many Voices Project, 2005) has been described as "like entering a series of complex, absorbing worlds…" and "beautifully written and deeply satisfying" by critically-acclaimed novelist Margot Livesey. Bluestockings, the Lower East Side's best independent bookseller and cafe, is located at 172 Allen Street (between Stanton and Rivington). FREE.

I met Bill this fall & just got a copy of his book, Mary After All (thank you, Lauren!).

I'll be home in JC, giving the dear one her bath...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Tuesday, links elsewhere

  • Chris Raschka has won the Caldecott prize for best children’s picture book. (We’re not up to the Newbery stage yet here, the dear one being only three.) I remember prizing those books with their shiny gold medallions as a girl and am delighted that Raschka now joins that club. His Doggy Dog is a big favorite: an absurdist poem that anyone can love: “Doggy dog. You are a dog.” And his work on two illustrated poetry collections for children, A Poke in the I, a book of concrete or shaped poems (including George Herbert and John Hollander among others) and A Kick in the Head, a compendium of literary forms from couplet and haiku through sestina and beyond, are visual feasts.
  • Elsewhere, in children’s lit, Gwenda reports on and links to a great story about Dolly Parton’s genius book giveaway project.
  • Mrs. Bookworld led me to one of the great headlines ever: “Talking parrot gives away girlfriend's secret lover.” Definitely for the “There’ll always be an England” file.
  • For one last dose of James Frey, don’t miss the Rake’s ballad.
  • There’s a new carnival of feminists up at Feministe including lots of interesting links. You can also go to the Feminist Carnival blog for information about where and when new carnivals will appear. I was thrilled to be included in one a while back and continue to find lots and lots of great new reading in the blogosphere through this thriving carnival.
  • It’s old news now, but in case you missed Miss Snark’s Happy New Year bloopers, do check them out. One of the better such compendia I’ve seen.
  • Finally, last but not least: Happy, happy anniversary to Ana Maria at Out of the Woods Now! If you long for more poetry in your life, be sure to stop over there from time to time. She’s a near-name sister, fellow Libran, Quixotista, and, it turns out, about the same age as me, blogospherically speaking.

Happy Tuesday! Happy Linking!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Icefield Sonnets Hawley & Jalbert

I went to the premiere of Icefield Sonnets yesterday, a work composed by Pierre Jalbert based on three gorgeous sonnets by Anthony Hawley, whom I know and like a lot. The sonnets are called “Cold is a cell,” “Glass is a place,” and “North is a notion.” They are fourteen narrow lines each and each one has a stark, gorgeous beauty to it. Best of all, the lovely wintry music of Jalbert (composed for soprano, baritone, violin, cello, piano, and percussion—mostly marimba as far as I could tell) brought out the resonances and ambiguities of the poems—playing with line breaks and enjambments in ways that enriched my understanding. Clearly these two young men—Hawley was born in 1977; Jalbert was born in 1967—understand and admire each other; it’s a happy pairing in which the poetry is enhanced by a composer who loves words but loves music, too. A truly collaborative and moving result.

Of course, it was a great and lovely pleasure just to get out. My husband was working and couldn’t join me, so, in a first (but not a last), I got a sitter to go out solo on a Sunday afternoon. She was a full forty minutes late. I was near tears. Then, track work diverted the 2/3 so I hopped on a C—which turned out to be the train I should have taken all along and, after all that, I emerged from the subway only a half block from the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, the venue of the Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music at 3:05. Only five minutes late. And, of course, chamber music concerts in churches don’t begin on the dot of three. I got in line for tickets, far from the last to arrive. I spotted Anthony, in town from Nebraska where he’s now a professor. He was clutching an advance copy of his book, so that was exciting to catch a glimpse of, too. I was so delighted and amused to be amidst so many fellow travelers: Whole Foods tote bags, natural fibers, young folks in cargo pants, old black women in pigtails and floppy hats, a few pretentious men of a certain age, in suits, with beaming female companions (“Look! I’ve got a boyfriend! Look! Doesn’t he look like a cross between Seiji Ozawa and Edward Said?”). About 200 folks in all. With lots of Perrier and Pepperidge Farms cookies at intermission. And two hours of lovely music—of which the “Icefield Sonnets” piece was the highlight—for only $15. What a deal!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

You Don’t Have to Live Here

I read Natasha Radojcic’s other novel over Christmas. While Homecoming has gotten more attention, You Don’t Have to Live Here is not to be missed either. Homecoming which, I believe, was written second but published first, is easier to read and easier to take—as the author told me, people find it easier to read a story about a bad boy than a bad girl.

But if bad girls interest you, read the inspirational and unsentimental novel You Don’t Have to Live Here. It tells the story of young Sasha, a girl being raised by her beautiful mother in (the former) Yugoslavia in the seventies and eighties. The novel begins a little slowly and is generally a bit harder to read than Homecoming. The latter takes place in a single day and has a seamless narrative structure. You Don’t Have to Live Here, a more ambitious, book is also more fragmented, more episodic. But, from the moment Sasha goes to Cuba things pick up and accelerate through the rest of this short great book. The Cuban interlude is fascinating in its own right for its Alice-in-the-looking-glass look behind the iron curtain: Sasha’s uncle is appointed the Yugoslavian ambassador to Cuba and, in accompanying him, she attains a level of luxury and celebrity she had not had at home; her mother even dances with Fidel!

Upon her return, however, Sasha’s hard luck bounces her from family to family, mishap to mishap. Her mother develops terminal cancer and she is left to fend for herself. In Greece, her father’s benign neglect sends her into the arms of some handsome American soldiers and, in part because of them, she takes her dream of moving to America seriously. The scene of her joyously shooting a pistol into the air at her own good-bye party is one of the most poignant and terrifying in the book: desperate to fit in, to do the normal thing, she always manages be just a little bit off key. Radjocic conveys the loneliness of boldly plunging in only to find one has mistepped, of having to carry on anyway, with tremendous sympathy. When gets to New York, she finds a job—but not just any job. Working at the Pink Pussycat in the Village, Sasha befriends dealers and strippers while polishing the sex toys in the window. (This part of the story at least, is autobiographical and, alas, locked behind the Times’ firewall.)

In an interview on WNYC (scroll down), the host asked her what she wanted people to learn or get from her work and she gave a great answer: that you don’t have to live here, that, however bad things are, you can always take steps to make changes. I loved that play with the title and was devastated and very moved to find the title phrase appearing in the book in a much more melancholy context. Lovely.

But the end of the book made it for me. So read it all the way through and tell me if you don't agree. It’s short and great.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Happy Anniversary!

That's right, it's been a year since my first post here at Fernham. 175 posts this year, not quite up to my goal of 4 posts a week. Over 9,000 visitors so far, though, at over forty a day. Mostly from Americans, with some regulars in Colombia, England, Australia, and Japan and I'm really amazed and delighted to see Latvia, Nigeria, & Saudi Arabia all show up on my sitemeter map from the past 48 hours.

I find that I think in blog posts now, shaping little stories of my day and weighing their fitness for posting here.

Fernham isn't going anywhere for now, up down or sideways, just humbly trucking on, writing about books and bookish things a few times a week as long as it's still fun. Thanks for reading!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Poetry: an eccentric list of ten

Classes begin tomorrow. I’m teaching two sections of a first-year (college) core course, an introduction to literature. So, my brain is crowded with the logistics of the syllabus. I decided to focus on close reading rather than comprehensiveness this year. That means only six short stories, only one play, and, most strange, heartbreaking and painful of all, only ten poems. We end with Mrs. Dalloway and a bunch of related secondary readings. I spent a lovely Friday in the main reading room at the New York Public Library going through my anthology (R.S. Gwynn’s Literature: A Pocket Anthology: only thirty dollars and full of good old stuff, not the typical, heavily contemporary short anthology) and picking twenty poems. Pulling it together today, I realized that, as usual, I had about a week less than I thought. That means, only ten poems. What an odd list that makes. Not at all what I would have expected, but I think a fun and formally, thematically diverse selection of tough poems worthy of intense thought. Here they are:
  1. John Donne, “The Canonization,” 1633
  2. Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” 1881
  3. Emily Dickinson, “I felt a funeral in my brain,” 1896
  4. William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” 1807
  5. Gwendolyn Brooks, “the mother,” 1945
  6. Seamus Heaney, “Digging,” 1980
  7. George Herbert, “Easter Wings,” 1633
  8. John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” 1819
  9. Elizabeth Bishop, “The Fish,” 1946
  10. Frank O'Hara, “The Day Lady Died,” 1964

It’s weird and heartbreaking to leave off Yeats and Eliot. I feel bad that there is not a sonnet in the bunch but we are doing Othello so don’t despair of Shakespeare’s absence. Strangely, this does not look anything like what my top ten favorite poem list would look like (not that that does—or will—exist). What do you think?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

NYC event: Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music, 1/22

My friend, the poet Anthony Hawley, is coming back to NYC from Nebraska next weekend for a concert that sounds really promising: on the program are some of his poems set to music. A fitting thing as his wife is a musician herself. So, here's the press release in case you're in the area and are looking for an affordable poetry & music event, too:

The program:
Aram Khatchaturian: Trio in G minor for clarinet, violin and piano
Pierre Jalbert: Icefield Sonnets on poetry of Anthony Hawley for soprano, baritone, violin, cello, percussion and piano; Nicholas Armstrong, conductor
Pierre Jalbert: Two movements from the Sonata for Marimba
Pierre Jalbert: Four Porter Songs on poetry of Christina Porter for soprano, baritone and piano
Walter Rabl: Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, op. 1
Pierre Jalbert (1967) served as composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and teaches composition at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston. He was awarded a Rome Prize, a BBC Masterprize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and BMI and ASCAP awards, among many others.

Anthony Hawley (1977) teaches poetry at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His first full-length collection of poetry, The Concerto Form, will be published in February 2006.

Christina Porter (1984-2005) graduated from Saint Ann's School ('02) in Brooklyn and was a sophomore at Dartmouth College. She died from a head injury sustained while skiing. The concert serves as a tribute to Christina, whose love for music, art and poetry has survived her untimely death.

Sunday, January 22, 2006, at 3 PM, Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music
at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church at Lafayette Avenue and South Oxford Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn,
four short blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Tickets: $15, available at the door. Seven tickets: $70. Students: $5.
TDF and High 5 vouchers accepted. Each ticket will be honored at any of the concerts.
Information: (718) 855-3053.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Four Things Meme

Dave tagged me, in an effort to jolt me back from vacation (and, perhaps, to make me more forthcoming than usual). Here goes:

Four Jobs You’ve Had
  1. babysitter
  2. dishwasher and prep cook
  3. bookstore clerk
  4. English professor

Four Movies You Could Watch Over and Over
  1. Annie Hall
  2. any Sean Connery James Bond
  3. Le Rayon Vert or any similarly talky Eric Rohmer
  4. The Philadelphia Story

Four Places You’ve Lived
  1. Seattle, WA
  2. New Haven, CT
  3. Cambridge, MA
  4. Fillmore, IN

Four TV Shows You Love to Watch
  1. the late, lamented NewsNight with Aaron Brown
  2. Good Deal with Dave Lieberman
  3. Extreme Homes: Makeover Edition (I’m blushing)
  4. Project Runway

Four Places You’ve Been on Vacation
  1. Paris
  2. London
  3. New Orleans
  4. Thousand Islands, NY

Four Blogs You Visit Daily
  1. WordMunger
  2. Chekhov’s Mistress
  3. MetaxuCafe
  4. Gothamist

Four of Your Favorite Foods
  1. cheese
  2. hard-smoked salmon
  3. caramel in all its forms
  4. cheese is really good.

Four Places You’d Rather Be
  1. Paris
  2. a big apartment on the Upper West Side
  3. an elegant apartment in a quiet corner of the West Village
  4. a bigger apartment, one that actually has kitchen drawers instead of a shelf with mugs for silverware

Four Albums You Can’t Live Without
  1. Sondheim, A Little Night Music
  2. Jacques Brel, 2-CD Greatest hits
  3. Beleza Tropical: Brazil Classics 1 (a David Byrne compilation with lots of Caetano Veloso)
  4. Ella Fitzgerald, The Rodgers and Hart Songbook

Four Vehicles You’ve Owned
  1. 1975 Checker Cab, 1986-1996 (gift/hand-me-down from home & the car I learned to drive on)
  2. 1985 Honda Civic, 1996-2002
  3. 2002 Volkswagen Golf, 2002-04 (the only painful sacrifice in leaving Indiana for New York/New Jersey and truly my car—we share the Subaru)
  4. 1998 Subaru Outback, 1999-present (awaiting summer in the safety of my mother-in-law’s garage upstate)

Four Taggees
I’m so late to this party that I won’t tag anyone, but do play along!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Her question was exactly what he feared—that Lahcen’s assurances of help would give Zohra hope, a hope that he knew would eat away at her determination to let him go…

I have been a fan of Laila Lalami’s Moorish Girl for over a year and I suspected—knew—that I would like her novel. But how did I know that? Moorish Girl isn’t a very audaciously personal blog; it’s mostly a collection of stories about writers and writing from around the world; she doesn’t write much about herself. Having read—and loved—the novel, I can see now what I should have been able to guess about how the two connect. Her blog is really interested in the outside world. Her entries often cover the way that writers run afoul of politics and the way that novels teach us things that are hard to learn from the newspaper.

Her novel, too, is all about the way that politics intrudes on individual dreams. The conceit is simple, and elegant. The opening chapter details a brief, harrowing journey from Morocco to Spain in a little Zodiac lifeboat. Then, four chapters give us the backstory of each of four characters from the boat—what led them to make this dangerous choice. Four more chapters detail what happens after Spain: some are deported and must resume life in Morocco, others, in Spain, face new challenges; all remain poorer than they want to be; all remain poor.

There’s a lot to like about this short, moving book. Many images haunt me still. Here’s one: as the Zodiac nears the shore, the captain orders everyone to swim the final yards to shore. Murad must shake off the desperate clinging of a young girl who cannot swim; he cannot save himself and her both. Ashore, he is not only dogged by guilt but also arrested. He feels utterly defeated. Then, catching sight of her in the same police station, he feels relieved and elated that she is still alive. The quick, unsentimental extremity of emotions here, the way that being arrested seems like an end to him until he thinks to be relieved that the arrested girl is at least alive, seemed precisely right to me. There are lots of moments like this here—lots for you to enjoy when you turn to it yourself.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Welcome, 2006!

It’s seemed unusually hard to get this year started. After a lovely ten days in Seattle, I spent a week curled up in bed, only leaving to do the occasional load of laundry or defrost the occasional quart of soup from the freezer. Now, we are back from a weekend upstate, visiting Grandma and bringing bags of outgrown clothes to our little storage shed in Saquoit, bringing bag bags of soon-to-be needed clothes to our littler apartment in Jersey City.

During these weeks, I saw Capote and Dr. Zhivago--both incredibly good, as advertised—and read Natasha Radojcic’s You Don’t Have to Live Here, J. R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar, and Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangeroous Pursuits. All three were great and I look forward to writing more fully about each this week.

For now, it feels like an achievement simply to announce that I’m back.