Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Edie Meidav's Crawl Space

You can read my post on egotism and ergotism here.

[Ergot, it turns out is a fungus that can cause all kinds of bad things, including hallucinations, in those who ingest it...]


Some words, while not onomatopoeias, still immediately convey their sense. “Bummer,” it seems, is such a word.

A week ago, the dear one (3 ½), fell out of bed in the middle of the night. We watched her nurse a swollen, bruised arm for twelve hours before taking her to the hospital down the road from great-grandma’s camp: both bones in her forearm are broken and she is in a cast for six weeks.


She was brave to the point of eerie stoicism. She was appropriately insistent on a pink cast and genuinely thrilled to have that demand met. Still, she was in a lot of pain all last week.

“Bummer,” I said to her, trying to conceal my distress at the beloved, perfect girl being broken and hurt. “Big bummer.”

“Big bummer,” she said, mocking my intonation perfectly. She knew just what I meant.

But, I heard myself adding, this is the kind of bummer that turns into a really good story. Maybe even, I heard myself adding, it’ll be your first memory! We’ve been working on that story ever since: how she fell out of bed (sometimes she adds an embellishment about the intruding dragons who were bothering her), how we went to the hospital and got an x-ray, how we went to another doctor two days later and got a pink cast and some stickers…

I don’t know what else to do. She has new clothes (halter dresses and fetching tanks to fit over the cast), a high-tech swimming sleeve with rubber gasket for summer water fun, and lots of stickers, but, otherwise, I’m working the literary angle. Words may not fix the broken bones, but they can help turn the pain into a good story. Sometimes I feel a bit like a tabloid journalist, exploiting her pain, but mostly I just think this is the right approach both for me and for my dear little wordsmith.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Lockhart’s Criticism

When you first read Keats in college, as I did, you learn that he died not just of tuberculosis but that he died of bad reviews. The cruelty of Lockhart’s reviews of the Cockney School of Poetry, of labeling the young genius by his class rather than his talent, are legendary.

Virginia Woolf’s love of Keats was as intense and loyal as that of any passionate English major. Still, she’s the one who taught me to think with sympathy about the demonized Lockhart. She explores the difficulty of judging one’s contemporaries in “Lockhart’s Criticism,” her review of a collection of the writings of John Gibson Lockhart. Lockhart was Walter Scott’s biographer and son-in-law, editor of the Quarterly Review and, as a twenty-three year old contributor to Blackwood’s, the author of the “Cockney School of Poetry,” a series of six articles which famously and virulently condemned Keats. Keats, who stands consistently among the very highest writers on Woolf’s Olympus, lies at the center of “Lockhart’s Criticism” and of Woolf’s exploration of her own prejudices.

Of Lockhart’s job as a reviewer, Woolf writes:
When Lockhart, we have to remember, saw ranged on his table the usual new books, their names conveyed nothing to him. Keats, Hook, Godwin, Shelley, Brontë, Tennyson--who were they? They might be somebodies, but they might, more probably, be nobodies.

This, in miniature, is how I feel when I sit in judgment of books for the LitBlog Co-Op. It is an intimidating and thilling task. I started writing book reviews in graduate school because I felt like I needed to flex my critical muscles on untested books. It's one thing to find greatness in Shakespeare, it's quite another to read the latest novel by Nadine Gordimer or a new book by Kellie Wells and decide, unaided by professors and reputation, where it stands.

When I read Toussaint’s Television, for example, I can’t tell if it’s pale Beckett, bad Beckett, or some other, more interesting good new thing that I’m too ignorant to understand. Is my dislike of the sado-masochistic scenes in Gina Frangello’s novel a sign of my prudery (I am a bit modest) or part of a smarter judgment about the way the novel fit uncomfortably and unsuccessfully between genres.

Lockhart's failure, of course, is that he judged Keats by his social class--a "cockney"--not his poetry. That we must strive not to do. I read a review of the World Cup in the New Yorker that noted the disconnect between Ghana's conservative playing style and descriptions of the team as "exuberant, spirited, energetic, passionate, musical" that seemed to be more about prejudices about Africa than actual observations of the team.

I love reviews that take their gloves off. It’s a lot more fun to read a review that really and frankly expresses and opinion than to read someone who sounds like their straining to be quoted for the blurb in future editions. It’s harder for me to be frank now, in the LBC, because I “know” the writers, nominators and publicists. So, I think about Keats and try not to write a thumbs-down review that would kill a young genius. And, I think about Lockhart and try to remember not to judge literature by my own prejudices but, instead, to judge it on its own terms. For me, that means following the lesson of Woolf, who always tried to discern a book’s own goals for itself. What is it trying to do? Does it do it?

READ THIS: Michael Martone

Michael Martone’s eponymous new novel (Michael Martone, natch) is the summer READ THIS! selection of the litblog co-op. I loved it. I didn’t think it was the best of the four this time, but it was one of my favorites and it’s certainly the easiest to recommend. It’s very, very funny.

Every chapter is a “contributor’s note” of several pages, with varying degrees of fictionality, about Martone himself. One such note, a very funny meditation on the etiquette of giving and hosting readings on college campuses (where to get the water? bottled or in a glass? where to dump the left over water? how to shake hands while holding said water?) was in the Best American Essays for 2005 volume.

So, be sure to stop by the Litblog Co-op site often over the next few weeks as we’ll all be discussing Martone and the three other nominees—Kellie Wells’ Midwestern magic realism, Paule Constant’s comic revision of Heart of Darkness (yes, that’s what I said), and Edie Meidav’s strange, epic memory novel of Vichy France.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Allez Les Bleus?

I’ve never been a soccer fan but the timing of the World Cup matches, especially in the knock-out rounds, matched meal times for the beloved infant pretty well, so I caught a lot of games. An all-Europe final four wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped, but I loved watching Zinedine Zidane, loved his handsome intensity and his age and that great, great name, and I love France, so I plumped for them.

When it turned out they were facing Italy in the final, I questioned my choice. I have loved France since I was seven, but it’s not done much to love me back. In fact, loving France is hard a lot of the time. When I went to France at sixteen, my French was fluent and I was treated well—often mistaken for Swiss or Belgian, there was something not-quite-us-but-very-acceptable about me. In later visits, my French rustier and rustier, I was treated with more disdain. On my one visit to Italy, by contrast, I got off the train without a word of Italian and bluffed my way through with French and Sesame Street Spanish and was welcomed as a prodigy. Besides, two of my dear friends are married to Italians.

French racism is an uncomfortable mirror of our own: they mistreat their African immigrants and welcome African-American with open arms where we, as I heard a Haitian woman observe recently, are much more willing to accord a black person respect if we learn they are not African-American.

Watching Zidane head-butt the Italian player in the final moments of the final was heart-breaking. Now, speculations rage about what provoked him. Initially, I imagined the Italian player had just been trash-talking and, in the heat and fatigue and stress, he heard one “your mama” too many. While some speculate that Zidane, who is the son of Algerian immigrants, was called a “terrorist,” it seems that, my first guess may have been closer to the truth: the Italian player has admitted to making a crack about Zidane’s wife


One of the great pleasures of learning French, of loving France, of loving any other country is the ability to sigh wistfully on occasion and say, “Well, if we were in France, we’d be….drinking Lillet on the terrace…discussing Beauvoir and smoking Gitanes….enjoying oysters on a bed of sea salt…attending the opening of the new exhibition…instead of stuck being here in the U.S…” Of course, it turns out that loving France is a lot like loving the U.S.: it's not always an easy break from life's warty complexities. I still like Zidane and I still love France, but Sunday didn't do anything to nurture my affections.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Thao Nguyen

They call her the Rosa Parks of street harassment. That might be going a bit far, but she deserves our admiration. Nguyen is the woman who used her cell phone to snap a photo of a man exposing himself on the subway. When the police didn’t respond, she sent it to the local papers. The response was immediate and led to his arrest. Hurray!

The HollabackNYC blog is now a place for anyone to speak out against street (and underground) harassment. It's about time.

In kindergarten, I was followed home from school by a man who exposed himself to me. A vigilant neighbor noticed me on the wrong side of the street, and came and chased him away. In sixth grade Home-Ec the luck of the alphabet put me between two boys who spent the hour shooting their pencils into my lap or under my chair so they could dive under the desk and grope me. Years later, when I told friends about the kindergarten incident, they treated me with kid gloves as if I were a survivor of horrible, ongoing abuse. In sixth grade, my teachers dismissed my complaints as weakness, a failure to understand what boys are like. What I love about Nguyen’s response and the whole HollabackNYC phenomenon is that it seems to have found the appropriate middle ground of outrage.

When the website founders were interviewed on NPR the other day, a woman called in with a shout-out to all the Catholic and Yeshiva school girls whose uniforms made them daily targets for lewd comments.

Three cheers to Thao Nguyen and those who’ve spoken up since! Here’s a little bit of guerrilla feminism that helps make the world better, that makes it less and less possible for us to accept annoying nonsense and worse in public.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


It’s my husband who used the term post-partum to describe my post-book slump and it’s true. I do have the odd moment of the baby blues but it passes, like a swift lonely little cloud. The book blues, however, have set in, complete with ominous clouds, lightning and thunder. Bummer.

This won’t become a baby blog, I promise, but I understand the temptation: I want to desperately to think again, to write again, but the book is off my desk now and the infant is a gobbler. Divine as she is, she does eat up my reading time most days. When I still had the book to finish, I was torn and distressed but that final push was focused and important and I could do it. I don’t have the stamina to invent or even really to enter deeply into the imaginative world of another.

Much television is being watched.

There are a million things that I want to write about and, in the middle of the night sitting up with the infant, I sit and think about what to say about HollabackNYC, the World Cup, how I feel like Lockhart (the Romantic-era reviewer not the Boston Pops conductor) when reading for the LBC, how finishing a book and giving birth are and aren’t alike but the tank is empty. It’s not just the book of course: the cumulative effect of three months without much sleep make my life and my brain function more interrupted than Virginia Woolf ever imagined. I can’t even be bothered to get the hyperlinks for these things…

On a day like today, when it’s horribly humid and the infant is only happy when she’s in the front carrier, plastered to my chest, I think that perhaps I can try to write standing up, putting the laptop on the mantle. Perhaps I can assemble some of these scattered thoughts into a complete one. The thought of composing upright immediately reminds me of Hemingway and I think, yes, “just like Hemingway!” and feel a moment of hopeful ambition, which, just as quickly, is clearly completely absurd and hilarious. I doubt Hemingway spent hours wearing a BabyBjorn…