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.