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…

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Louise Bennett, 1919-2006

Louise Bennett has died. This great folklorist, singer, actress and poet was, as obituaries from Kingston, Jamaica, New York, and London attest, an inspiration to Bob Marley, Harry Belafonte, and many, many more: an icon of Jamaican culture.

I first heard of her from Jahan Ramazani’s book, The Hybrid Muse--a really readable and smart effort to bring postcolonial criticism to poetry (there are chapters on Yeats, Walcott, Bennett, and others). Jahan’s book made me interested enough to take a chance and include her in a class. It was tough to get ahold of her work, mostly out of print, but I got a copy of Jamaican Labrish (1966) and photocopied bits for my students.

If you want to read poems from the Windrush generation—that first group of emigrants to England after WWII—Bennett is your woman.
What a joyful news, Miss Mattie
Ah feel like me heart gwine burs’
Jamaica people colonizin’
Englan’ in reverse
By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town
By de shipload, by de planeload
Jamaica is Englan’ boun

As you can see here, she also made a point of celebrating Jamaican English—something that gave Marley and Belafonte the courage and model to follow suit. She deserves to be much better known outside Jamaica.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Thinking Back Through Our Mothers

“Oh damn,” said Julia Hedge, “why didn’t they leave room for an Eliot or a Brontë?”--Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room

Woolf didn’t have children. She buttressed her disappointment by noting that none of the great four women of the nineteenth century (Austen, Eliot, Bronte, and Bronte) had children. Still, she insisted on the importance of “thinking back through our mothers.”

So, having read these two memoirs by writer-mothers a decade older than me this month (Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading and Michelle Herman’s dazzling The Middle of Everything), I noticed two things: first, both write about girls playing at being the Beatles and both spend some time contemplating the significance of their own favorite Beatle. I must say, I can’t relate. I always vacillated between Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger in my fantasy life: if you’re going to rock, why be sensitive?

Second, both Maureen Corrigan and Michelle Herman celebrate the existence of mothers who write. This seems like a pantheon worth erecting, worth adding to. We all know—too well—about the generation of women who chose between writing and childbearing. It’s time, they say, to rethink that “wisdom” of either/or and to notice a new fact: that many contemporary writers are both. Corrigan wishes she had Laurie Colwin before she adopted her daughter. Herman lists Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro, Alison Lurie, Lore Segal in her “mental list of great women writers and artists who had managed to have children (and do right by them—for I didn’t feel comfortable including famous suicides on such a list).” I’d add Atwood, Morrison, and perhaps the once great but now loony Alice Walker.

(For more on Herman, hop over to the Collected Miscellany archives!)

Now, it seems, we can think back through our mothers by thinking back through mothers. Do you have favorite mother-writers? Do such lists, such facts matter to you?