Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bah humbug!

I tend to think I love Christmas but, more for myself than for you, I’m going on record right now as a newborn Scrooge. Instead of a lovely, luxurious time to lavish thoughtful gifts on loved ones, sing carols, and eat my favorite Scandinavian treats, Christmas has become time to languish at home with a stomach bug and fight and fret over the budget.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Friday, December 14, 2007

War, Trauma, and the Real in The Farther Shore

I don’t suppose I’d pick up The Farther Shore if I didn’t have to read it as an assignment, if you will, for the LitBlog Co-op. I’m glad that it crossed my desk and that the prospect of a conversation about it kicked it to the top the pile of books. It’s a moving, lovely, spare book--both fast-paced and elegant. It should be a movie: it’s exciting and violent and dramatic with a simple, straightforward story arc. At 173 pages, it clips right along.

We begin with six American soldiers, all men, working the night lookout on a rooftop in an unnamed coastal African city. Stantz, Zeller, Santiago, Fizer, Heath, and Cooper, staunch off fear and boredom as they look down over a city they don’t understand. It’s a familiar scene. It comes as much from Hemingway and Hollywood as from experience. And even the protagonist, Joshua Stantz, is a familiar type: the sensitive young man, in over his head, smarter than his sergeant and counting the days until he can go home and apply to college through the G.I. Bill.

Things go wrong fast and suddenly a few of the characters you were just trying to keep straight, flipping back to see which one is the medic or the wiseass, are not characters but corpses. We have a situation. It’s serious. And the soldiers have to improvise a plan.

The prose is so elegant and thoughtful that this very familiar structure--of soldiers cut off from the army, working their way back--seems not formulaic but classic.

For example, early in the book Stantz thinks “there were close to a million people out there, and most of them had probably just been scared out of their sleep” (5). That’s just lovely to me: in imagining the people in the city as people, Stantz immediately complicates and humanizes his own presence as an American soldier. What is he doing there?

So sick from the heat he cannot eat for most of the book, Stantz always thinks of the Somalians as people. He’s never condescending and when he fumbles, we blush with him. He asks a man who’d studied in the States if he misses the U.S. Do I miss it? The man is dismissive. Americans always want to know if we miss America, he scoffs. Stantz is hang-dog and we can feel him making a mental note for better behavior on his next encounter. (I’d bet this is an autobiographical moment.)

As I said at the beginning of this post, I started off intending to write about The Farther Shore as a war book but, truth be told, my days of reading Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Tim O’Brien are in the past. Other greats of war literature--Crane, Remarque--are shamefully untouched. I never finished Catch-22. The war book that I know best is Mrs. Dalloway and reading Matthew Eck is like reading a prequel to the shell shock she depicts there. Again and again, Stantz consciously decides not to think about something, stuffing it down, knowing that his survival depends on his not dwelling on this or that horror or bit of grotesquerie. He must continue to run, to hide, to use his wits to move forward. This for me is what makes this beautiful little novel so moving: the pain of watching someone set himself up for a long, hard recovery.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

READ THIS: Matthew Eck The Farther Shore

It's Matthew Eck week and we're doing something a little different this time at the LBC.

Rather than asking you to keep you eyes always on that site, we're posting stuff on Eck all over the whole web. It's our hope that you won't be able to read a litblog without coming upon mention of his book...

Of course, over here at Fernham, I've yet to do much to add to the general celebration. We've been felled by a range of rather dull ailments, deadlines, and tasks--mildly ill children, leading to extra loads of laundry, etc. But fear not. I hope to post on Eck before the week is out.

In the meantime, you might check out Levi's interview or Dan's review or, if you don't want to take Dan's word for it, then check out all the other reviews here.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Holiday Gift List

My friend who teaches at Hunter clued me in to this calendar on Lulu: A cool calendar to benefit scholarships for Hunter College students with cool, strange NYC photographs. 16 professors dressed up as famous literary characters in decidedly contemporary settings. Here's the product description:
What if Gulliver traveled to New York today? Would he hang out on Wall Street? Would Macbeth's witches romp in Central Park? Beautifully photographed by Ben Kelly, this calendar imagines major literary characters come to life in New York City. The photos feature English professors from Hunter College posing as characters such as Janie from "Their Eyes Were Watching God", Juliet from "Romeo and Juliet", and T.S. Eliot's "J. Alfred Prufrock," set against the vibrant backdrop of New York City.
All for only $16. A fun & unusual Christmas gift for a reader....

I'll leave it to you to guess which model is my dear friend!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

READ THIS: Matthew Eck The Farther Shore

Well, the LitBlog Co-op took a quarter off (did you miss us? did you notice?) to regroup and sharpen our mission. But we're back, in time for the winter reading rush, if there is such a thing, with a new READ THIS selection, Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore.

It's a spare and gripping war novel, by a veteran and set in an unnamed Somalia.

I was dubious at first, but the prose is so expert. It's a compelling and moving read. I'm happy to urge you to READ THIS.

There will be posts over at the LBC site and all over the blogosphere about Eck's book all next week. In the meantime, get yourself a copy so that you can participate in the discussion.

Elizabeth Hardwick, R.I.P.

Strange and fascinating to hear that this Kentucky writer's goal was "if it doesn’t sound too ridiculous — my aim was to be a New York Jewish intellectual" because, for me, I suppose one of my strange aims, since I left Seattle, since I learned who she was at some point in graduate school, has been to grow into being her.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Pop Woolf: Art Education Campaign

Newsweek has now twice run an ad for Arts Education featuring Virginia Woolf. The headline is "Why some people think Virginia Woolf is the state's official animal."

And the copy goes on to explain the importance of funding arts education for kids.

You can see (and download) the ad here.

It's one of a whole series of punning ads--Whitman & chocolate, Duke Ellington & royalty, & my second favorite, the Spanish ad punning on Goya and canned beans.

The Woolf ad is on my offfice door now.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Seeing as I go to about one play a year, I feel it was quite clever of me to plan to go to a non-striking show tonight.

"Cymbeline": Shakespeare's very, very odd and beautiful late play. With Martha Plimpton as Imogen and that beautiful haunting dirge that haunts Mrs. Dalloway--
Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

One hour till curtain...stay tuned...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


  1. Written about, but unread
  2. Thought about buying, but should probably read Drown first (since it’s on my shelf).
  3. Read but not written about
    DANCING TO “ALMENDRA.” By Mayra Montero
  4. Watched my mom buy & discussed it with her, but still unread:
    EXIT GHOST. By Philip Roth.
  5. Read and written about
    FALLING MAN. By Don DeLillo.
  6. Reading
    THE INDIAN CLERK. By David Leavitt.
  7. Read, written about, reviewed
    THROW LIKE A GIRL: Stories. By Jean Thompson.
  8. Purchased in London
    AGENT ZIGZAG: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal. By Ben Macintyre.
  9. Have no plans at all to read
    CIRCLING MY MOTHER. By Mary Gordon.
  10. or
  11. Watched my husband read
    HOW DOCTORS THINK. By Jerome Groopman.
  12. Will happily discuss with you
  13. Read, written about, reviewed, disliked
    LEONARD WOOLF: A Biography. By Victoria Glendinning.
  14. Still looking at the review copy from BookExpo of
    TWO LIVES: Gertrude and Alice. By Janet Malcolm.
  15. Thinking about spending that Three Lives gift certificate in my wallet on
    THE GATHERING. By Anne Enright.
  16. or
    MATRIMONY. By Joshua Henkin.
  17. or maybe even
    THEN WE CAME TO THE END. By Joshua Ferris.
  18. but probably will defy logic and actually purchase

That, in brief, is my brief version of the list.

Monday, November 26, 2007

George Orwell on Graham Greene

No real time to post or think, but time enough to share this little nugget, from Orwell's "The Sanctified Sinner," an essay on Graham Greene: “He [Greene] appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingue in being damned; Hell is a sort of high class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only.”

Friday, November 16, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

In my head, there are seven or eight posts--each the work of a moment.

In my life, there is an empty fridge, a visiting relative en route, and a couple beloved daughters with upcoming "vacations" from preschool and daycare.

It's time to face life and stop living in my head.

I'll look forward to "seeing" you all in a post-Thanksgiving triptophan haze.

Enjoy the holiday.

Friday, November 09, 2007

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master...

Elizabeth Bishop's great poem has been much in my mind these days. I haven't lost any "you," the devastating loss that ends the poem with a bang, but, boy, have I lost things.

And I am familiar with and tired of that feeling of panic when one does--the feeling that ALL is lost--not just the keys, but everything. I lost my keys yesterday. I was too tired to fully enter the vertiginous sense grief, but I still went through a cascading range of emotions. Losing a small thing makes me feel that I've lost control of the world and of my mind both. I doubt the many little tricks that keep the day perking along smoothly and, in doubting them, I see how much of my day depends on those little tricks (swipe your MetroCard and turn right down the stairs; walk up 58th if you're getting a latte, 60th if you're saving your money; always take your keys with you to the bathroom; remember to grab your keys on the way out). All these little habits give me the mental space to plan my class (or worry about it), to go over my list of the things I need to do, to listen to a song and release myself from those lists.

Babies struggle to learn about "object permanence." The "fort-da" game or peek-a-boo teaches them the big but ultimately gentle lesson that things that go away often return. But when we adults lose something, it reminds us of the dark side of that game: sometimes things don't return; sometimes they are lost. And, as Bishop's catalogue forces us to confront, sometimes it's not just keys that we lose.

I came across Woolf's version of this in Mrs. Dalloway the other day, lovely because it inverts the usual proportions: Clarissa's unhappiness, arising out of imperfect relationships, is as bad as the feeling of losing a thing. Or rather, her inability to remember why she feels unhappy is like being unable to find a pearl in the grass. Odd, dramatic, certainly contributing to Clarissa's tinselly self, but also wonderfully right:
But--but--why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she could discover, desperately unhappy? As a person who has dropped some grain of pearl or diamond into the grass and parts the tall blades very carefully, this way and that, and searches here and there vainly, and at last spies it there at the roots, so she went through one thing and another.
I gave a big lecture yesterday--ill-attended, but stressful nonetheless. I left my keys in the bathroom just before--though, thank goodness, I only noticed them missing afterwards. Instead of being able to reflect on my performance, I had to trek to my husband's office, borrow his keys, and walk home, tired, wrung out, and a bit ashamed. Of course this is precisely when one does lose things. And it's precisely when one has the least elasticity to absorb the loss.

Someone turned the keys in to security. I picked them up this morning from the supervisor, running in late with oil on his hands--he had a flat tire on the way to work. So it goes. It's November. It's a wonder the world turns at all.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Katherine Lanpher’s Leap Days

I love memoirs. I love reading my friends’ books. I love meeting authors. When I met Katherine Lanpher at Lauren’s burlesque show/reading/fete for Girls Write Now, I wanted to befriend her, remembered listening to her on the radio with Al Franken, remembered reading about her fabulous West Village apartment in the Times (you can see it on her webpage, under “articles” [scroll down]) and begged her to send me a copy of her book.

Thanks to her publicist, she obliged.

I gobbled the book. I’ll admit that I hadn’t read it when it came out because our stories were too similar: she moved to the West Village in mid-life on February 29, 2004. (She was 46.) I moved to Jersey City in mid-life just six months earlier. (I was just shy of 37.) In those early days in New York, it was too hard to read about the seemingly footloose life of a single woman my age when I was slogging through the slush with a stroller on the wrong side of the Hudson.

But I’ve read it now and am so glad. It’s a lovely collection of essays, really, more than a memoir, about adventure and possibility and discovering that those things can continue on into one’s 40s, can continue even after one has “decided” that the time for adventure has passed.

That said, the weakest piece for me is the first. There, I think, she writes a very funny account of going through one of those trapeze camps where you overcome your fears by doing circus tricks. This seems like a gimmick to me; a pretty good column from O: the Oprah Magazine or More (where she is an editor). It’s as if someone wanted more justification of the title and asked for an essay that was literally about leaping. I get it, but it’s merely fine, where much else in the memoir is lively and moving and strong.

She writes, for example, about coming to terms with not having children--even though their inability to have a child contributed to her and her husband’s divorce, even though, as she acknowledges, it seems that any upper-middle class American who wants a child just “gets” one somehow.

She writes also, movingly and with great strength about the history of herself as a feminist: the minor indignities and outrages that lead to a deep and abiding commitment.

And, for anyone who moves to New York, she writes terrifically detailed accounts of the delights and minor humiliations of living in the city, and the constant question: are you a New Yorker yet?

Living in Jersey, I’ve opted out of that, still, I was fascinated to read her subway tales. She writes of her wonder at riding the train with a friend who insists on getting in just the right car: the car, it turns out, that will mean he has no walk when he gets off at Christopher Street. She writes, too, of being amazed that anyone can read on the train when the train itself is so amazing. And then, of herself now, reading away, and thinking back. As someone who now reads on the train (or fiddles with my beloved iPhone, listening to my hoarded “free” songs from Starbucks. How I lap up the opportunity to get a free song with my $4 coffee!), I loved the pleasure of seeing my own history of thought about the commute in print.

The thing that the book does not, and cannot, resolve, is the thing that keeps these chapters lively and interesting: it’s a memoir of a woman who loves adventure and homemaking. She became a journalist and married a French theater-guy because of that love of a adventure. But she settled into a lovely cottage in St. Paul with a huge kitchen and dining room out of her love of home. What surprised her--her courage to pick up stakes and move--is also, it seems to this reader, wonderfully in character.

Monday, November 05, 2007

One last bit of Stevie Smith

I first read this novel in 1991: I was single and young, but even then, I loved this little ironic passage on marriage. Now, Smith’s delight in those whose imperfect marriages become an interesting fact, a bit of running commentary, seems even more delicious:
There you are you see, quite simple. If you cannot have your dear husband for a comfort and a delight, for a breadwinner and a cross patch, for a sofa, a chair or a hot-water bottle, one can use him as a Cross to be Borne.
“It reminds me of our craft articles published passim, in all our so-very-much-alike women’s papers: How to make a knitting bag out of a top hat. May also be used for a beret or a tea cosy.

The Daily Show, Sunday edition

Taking my cue from New Yorkers everywhere (even on this, the other side of the Hudson), I try not to be star-struck.

Still, I'll say that when you're spending your Sunday in the toddler room of the Liberty Science Center, gazing at giant millipedes, helping the little ones poor uncooked rice from cup to cup or shoot plastic balls through a giant air cannon, the whole experience takes on unexpected glamour when Jon Stewart is there doing it with his wife and kids, too....

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Stevie Smith and the Jews

Part of that pert and determined voice--and part of what makes Novel on Yellow Paper of continuing interest--is that Stevie Smith’s Pompey still has the power to shock. But when that shock comes in the form of garden variety 30s anti-Semitism, it’s hard to know how to take it.

If you do pick up Novel on Yellow Paper, you’ll find Pompey riding horses with her friend Leonie, “a Jewess, but slim” right in the opening pages. In spite of myself, I find this non sequitur very funny. Less funny but more interesting is her account of finding herself the only goy at a party:
Hurrah to be a goy! A clever goy is cleverer than a clever Jew. And I am a clever goy that knows everything on earth and in heaven. This moment of elation I am telling you about: the only living person in that room, the cleverest person in that room; the cleverest living goy.
Do all goys among Jews get that way? Yes, perhaps. And the feeling you must pipe down and apologize for being so superior and clever.
This nonchalant self-acceptance of her own prejudices is why I call her anti-Semitism “garden variety,” she seems to see her own opinions as utterly common to her context. But Pompey’s self-analysis is anything but ordinary. Even as she feels superior, she pursues that feeling, puts it under a microscope.

Not much more about Jews shows up for the next hundred pages though her thoughts about her German boyfriend Karl keep the topic close to mind. This is, after all, a 1936 novel, so knowing that Hitler is already in power, that the war is just 3 years away, gives her thoughts a special electricity.

She breaks up with Karl, goes to Germany, stays with some Jewish friends who already are keeping “a weather eye out for self-preservation” under Hitler. On the way home, she weeps on the train for fear of what may come and for shame at how her own thoughts might contribute to the general fund of hatred in the world, of mounting cruelty against Jews.

A hundred pages is a long time to wait for a character to redeem herself, and Smith doesn’t let Pompey completely off the hook here. Instead, just a few episodes later, Pompey finds herself thinking about a friend who’s just married a Jewish man, about how, for her, his Jewishness still conveys something meaningful about his personality: “she was married to a man that was—and after all I’ve said about Germany what black treachery and perfidy this is—well I’ll say it, got married to a man that is a Jew.”

I’m loving and admiring this more and more, and partly because it is shocking and partly out of historical interest but also because it really does seem to do something honest and kind of ugly but also really penetrating. What do you think? How far are you willing to go along with a text when it offends you?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Novel on Yellow Paper, 1936

Stevie Smith’s first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper, made a big splash in 1936 and I think it’s still worth your time. In the protagonist, Pompey Casmilus, Smith has created one of the most vibrant, funny, and specific voices in fiction that I’ve ever encountered. Anyone interested in voice would do well to study this one.

It’s not really a novel: there’s little plot--and what plot is there is buried in digressions and indirections--but it’s so funny and surprising that it does pull you through for quite a ways. (I do admit, however, that by around page 200, I am done and it can be hard going to read those last 50 pages or so.)

She is so pert and determined: “I think the two subjects about which there is most nonsense talked are sex, and how to bring up children,” she writes after a long section on her absurd sex education classes in school. Then, in a new paragraph, she boldly soldiers on, “So now shall we talk about how to bring up children?”

I love that wild irreverence, that bold female voice that somehow manages to be both utterly ordinary and colloquial and, at the same time, totally individual.

A nice page from her hometown university at Hull.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Smith on Hearbreak, Booze

“And I must say, and here never better, there’s nothing like the bar if you’re feeling a bit below par.”--Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper

Stevie Smith Week

I'm declaring it Stevie Smith week here at Fernham. I've just re-read the amazing, puzzling, exasperating, and hilarious 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper and my nerves are all jangled from the experience, so I'm going to inflict it on you.

We'll start with just a taste:

“And the people who say that children’s voices are the purest music certainly ought to be the people who sit near children’s playgrounds.”

As she says, "Read on, Reader, read on and work it out for yourself."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Victor was right

It was 1992 or so. I was in a stuffy apartment in New Haven at a party. Just a grad student party, but a good one. And a scary one: some young professors were there, too.

Victor Luftig, a young professor of British modernism, cornered me and pointed at Tom Perrotta with his beer bottle: you see that guy? Tom? Tom Perrotta? He’s the real deal. He’s going to be big.

No way.

Victor was a nice guy. Not mysterious or cruel. I could usually understand everything he said. These were not signs of future promise at Yale in the 90s. Aware of my own niceness, I tried to keep my distance.

Tom was nice, too. He was the only College Writing Tutor who was in my extended circle of acquaintances. He seemed like a good guy. Someone you’d like to watch a game with. Someone Victor probably did watch games with.

Tom was not going far. Victor was not the one to predict who would.


Years later, I’m sitting in the basement in a neglected but grand campus building, working on one of five computers shared by the 40 of us who teach freshman writing at Harvard. Tom works there, too. He walks in with a new haircut and a black leather jacket. MTV is actually making his novel into a movie. I started to pay attention.

Now, he’s everywhere. I’m really happy for him. I thought Little Children was a good book, a smart book, And I remember loving Bad Haircut.

I suspect that Perrotta’s success comes out of his being a good guy and being a really smart guy: he never presented himself as someone out of the ordinary so he can write novels about ordinary people that aren’t condescending. This seems to me to get at the heart of some of the problems of literary fiction: in short, and to be totally bald about it, perhaps novelists often feel so alienated from the world that they end up writing about worlds which fail to reconnect with readers. This is more about class alienation than anything else. I’m tired of reading books about writers and teachers, books that seem to imagine writers and teachers as the only people whose inner lives are worthy of consideration. Even Virginia Woolf stretched to imagine the inner world of the wife of a Conservative MP. I keep thinking about Laila Lalami’s eloquent plea for more fiction about poor people and keep looking, looking, looking for examples. While Tom doesn’t do that, he isn’t writing about how hard it is to write a novel in Brooklyn…

So, I am proud to have known Tom and happy for him. His novels are really good--maybe he is our generation’s Jane Smiley or Richard Russo, writing really good, dependable books every other year and then, occasionally a great one, but pretty consistently capturing something about the zeitgeist.

They’re not the books that thrill me, however. That’s probably not surprising, given all the time I’ve spent reading British modernism. So it’s interesting to me to witness the little critical firestorm over the reviews he got last weekend.

Like Levi, I guess I would have been perfectly happy with the moniker “dependable” for Liesl Schillinger, who wrote the cover review for the New York Times. But why am I calling someone dependable whose review of the new DeLillo was so openly out of sync with his project? Hers wasn’t an informative, biting, or pleasurable bad review, just an anti-intellectual one. Still, like Carolyn, I would have felt a little intimidated to have my review up against hers--an inaccurate phrase, but that is how it must feel.

I was grateful, then, to Mark for taking the time to point out Schillinger’s inanities:
And perhaps this muddle makes sense to you but to us it's just, well, a muddle:

Usually, when you ask yourself, “What would a Perrotta character do?” you know the answer: he’d do the familiar, guiltily compromised, self-interested thing that any normal guy would do ... and you understand him, even if you don’t applaud him.

Back to the Style section, if you please.
Interesting, how the "strong silent type" line made Mark squirm with agony, made Carolyn wish she'd thought of it, and went right past me as a little lame and a little funny. In any case, kudos to Carolyn for her review in the LA Times. I liked this bit here:
Tom Perrotta ("Little Children," "Election") brings this world to life with a few strokes. He never condescends to modern suburbia -- instead, he mucks around its corners, opens closets and reveals oddball secrets. It's a kind, gentle satire -- one that gives equal time to its villains and its heroes. The evangelical pastor, for instance, believes he's doing the right thing, even when he shows up uninvited on a parishioner's doorstep to shield him from sin.

It veers toward cliché, perhaps, but that’s a hazard in trying to describe this Perrotta world of ordinary suburbia.

Updated to add what you already know: that Laila liked it pretty well.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Girls Night Out for Girls Write Now

I turned in my tenure materials this week and was thinking that I needed a break, a treat. What would it be?

A couple hours later, I have an email from Lauren Cerand telling me about the benefit she was organizing for Girls Write Now. Girls Write Now is a nonprofit that pairs NYC high school girls with a passion for writing with women professional writers: the coolest kind of Big Sister group I could imagine. Tayari Jones, newly moved to Jersey City, was going to be reading. How could I resist the chance?

Tayari and Janice Erlbaum were the two readers and they’ve already posted their accounts of the night on their blogs. My version will be kind of backwards.

I had arranged to meet my husband for dinner on Bleecker & Elizabeth at 8:40. When I did, I was whipped—a mild cold, the whole tenure thing (did I mention that?), and then the events of the night, had me reeling.

“How was it?”

“Well…It started at Bluestockings, this radical feminist bookstore, and three pairs of girls read poetry with their mentors…then I walked up to Houston and got a grilled veggie pita…,” continuing in a flat monotone, “then I went to the Slipper Room and I met Tayari…and she introduced me to Tara Betts, the slam poet, who'd read over at Bluestockings…and I saw Lauren…and she introduced me to Katherine Lanpher—do you remember reading about her? She used to have that radio show with Al Franken? And she wrote that book about moving to New York in midlife that came out right when we moved to New York, too…and then, Lauren told Tayari that the burlesque dancer wanted to go first…so she did. And she stripped down to a g-string and tassels…and then Tayari read and that was great and I clearly have to read The Untelling right now…and then Janice Erlbaum read from a new book and it was incredibly moving, too, and made me want to read both her books…and then it was time to go meet you, but there was a go-go dancer dancing while I left and I missed the band?” I concluded, slow and puzzled at how this could all have happened in three hours.

“So, it wasn’t very good?”

“I just am not really sure what just happened.”

Still unsure, but more and more amazed. I got online this morning and sent in my donation to Girls Write Now. You should, too. Besides, I don't think I've ever been cool enough to have been to a Gothamist-recommended event.

And while I was uncertain about the feminist politics of burlesque dancing in the abstract, and embarrassed in person, it is really, really fun and funny to watch. I am not that brave.

To cap this all off, I went to class this morning and learned that my student, whom I thought I’d seen at the reading, was indeed there, and is a youth mentor with Tara. Very cool indeed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Woolf

So, we didn’t watch Satyricon, because my husband came home on Friday with a video for me: Alan Bennett’s screen adaptation of The History Boys. I loved it. And, having missed it in London AND New York, I was very glad to be able to see it at home.

All of which has me thinking about Alan Bennett and Virginia Woolf. And sent me to read the play I’d forever meant to read, Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I only knew about it from Brenda Silver’s Virginia Woolf Icon. (You can read an essay by Silver & emerging from the book here and you can read my review of Silver, too.)

I was not all that surprised to find that I loved the play and found it hilarious even as I could see its enraging anti-feminism pretty clearly. The play, a teleplay from the 70s, is about a closeted man, a lecturer in English literature, whose crisis involved a grotesquely defaced portrait of Woolf (with enormous tits) that’s up on the board for his lecture on Bloomsbury.

I went on to read another play, with a slideshow, in which a batty woman shows slides, one of which depicts one thing, but she says it depicts “Percival before he went to India and died.” In Woolf’s novel The Waves Percival dies in India.

And both The History Boys and The Uncommon Reader are rife with inspirational thoughts on reading that chime very closely to Woolf’s own thoughts.

But for a man of Bennett’s generation and working class from the North of England to admit an affinity with Woolf (that elite, effete, Londoner) would be, I guess, anathema.

Still, there’s definitely a strong love-hate relationship to Woolf here. To be continued….?

UPDATE: I’m sure you’ve already seen Maud Newton’s lovely review of Bennett for the LA Times. And, to my surprise, it was reviewed in AM NY (the subway freebie paper) this morning as part of their—get this—new book section.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Spam of the Day

So nerdy is your humble litblogger, so focused is she on finding good writing implements, that this one took me a good minute to decipher:

No more lonely nights! The new era of big pen!s begins!

Thinking to self: big pens...hmm...would I be a better writer with a big pen?


Friday, October 12, 2007

It Amused the Bookstore Clerk…

…so it might amuse you.

It’s been a long week here at Fernham. Monday was a holiday, so that’s three days with the little ones to start. Plus, I’m up for tenure and pulling my file together. It’s enough to send a girl to her Tylenol bottle (and her wine bottle, for that matter) a few more times than usual.

So, clutching my coupon for 30% off one item, I headed to the chain bookstore on the way home from work to purchase:
  1. Orlando. I know, I’ve read it, I own it many times over, but I’m teaching it Tuesday night and I didn’t have the annotated edition yet (and forgot to request one from Harcourt). Woolf with an introduction by the wonderful Maria DiBattista! Woolf with footnotes! Hooray!
  2. Satyricon. My husband has been wanting Fellini & La Dolce Vita was $40; Amarcord & 8 ½ were out (as was Casino Royale, which is what I really wanted to see….) So, a Fellini Friday it is, and finally,
  3. The Jungle Book, because it’s never too early for Kipling. Because I’ll do Disney & I’ll do princesses, but so far I’ve managed to contain the Disney princesses.
It makes perfect sense to me: a little fantasy for everyone in the family. But, I suppose it could seem a little funny. It certainly did to the guy ringing up my purchases.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doris Lessing's Nobel

Congratulations to Doris Lessing.

I slog through her works--she is a writer I admire more than love--but this is great news and a happy, unexpected event.

I would have guessed that she'd remain a contender forever.

I'm surprised at how excited I am.

I remember going to London a few years ago. I was still living in rural Indiana and was just pining for city life. My friend, by contrast, was tiring of London and the publishing circuit. Her emblematic story of how life was just too dull was that she had been to a party the night before and there was Doris Lessing in the corner with her cat...

She captured so perfectly the tone of one for whom that sight was an inevitability of a certain kind of publishing party. And I, playing the part of the country mouse, sat, mouth agape, burning with envy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Women and Leadership, Newsweek and Hollywood

By virtue of my affiliation with the Women’s Studies Program at Fordham, I got invited to the Women in Leadership Conference at the Museum of Natural History yesterday morning. It was sponsored by Newsweek and timed to coincide with the publication of their special issue.

I had to teach at 11:30, so I could only attend the first panel. I’d give it a very mixed review indeed. Arriving at the museum itself was exciting. I was marching up Columbus, running a bit late, behind three or four smartly-suited women in their forties. One had a small rollerbag. One was clutching an email with a line or two highlighted, clearly squinting to find the right address. I love that sense that we’re all going to the same place. And we were.

We entered by way of the new auditorium at 79th and Columbus. On the gracious old bricked path sat a new Infiniti. Infiniti was a corporate sponsor. Later, as the panel closed, a woman from Infiniti got up and introduced the new car (They were giving one away.)—the EX. It’s a sweet car. She had a funny term for it: it’s a new luxury crossover... She managed to list these and a couple more adjectives and I kept waiting. I’m teaching freshman writing this semester, so I’m on alert: Where’s the NOUN! Where’s the NOUN?

The crowd was corporate and attractive. Lots of handsome, trim, intelligent-looking women in really nice dark suits. I was too late for coffee, but it was fun to mill about in their midst. There were tons of diversity pamphlets from PriceWaterhouse Cooper, another corporate sponsor. I picked one up. Sad to say, that pamphlet contained some of the clearest feminist statements of the day—about coming out at work, maternity leave policies, the perspective being a minority brings, ambition and gender, and balancing family with career. I think that in Hollywood and academia we pride ourselves on being ahead of the curve socially and we are also averse to bureaucracy so that we often fail to make the structural changes that corporate culture makes. Maternity leave can be better for attorneys than for academics. The corporate world is not angelic—recent lawsuits at Bloomberg and Madison Square Garden, just to name two, remind us that we have a long way to go—but I admire the way that some corporations actively try to write anti-discrimination policies rather than just trusting themselves to be fair, failing to notice that the men have tenure at Ivy League schools and the women are administrators.

Overall, the prevailing lack of feminist consciousness was my big disappointment with the panel. The panelists were Andrea Wong (President and CEO of Lifetime), Mara Brock Akil (creator & executive producer of “Girlfriends” and “The Game” on the CW), Kyra Sedgwick, and Rachael Ray. Cynthia McFadden of Nightline moderated.

McFadden was a disappointingly casual moderator. She opened by asking Andrea Wong if Hollywood was still a boy’s club. Wong seemed thrown by this question and then gave the answer that lots of powerful women give: I just motored through and chose to ignore everything.

It’s a supremely disappointing answer. And she was very disappointing throughout. But what can one expect from the woman who brought Wife Swap and Dancing With the Stars to television? She makes her living on trash and the exploitation of women.

By contrast, Mara Brock Akil was thoughtful and smart: for me, she was the star of the panel. When Wong said, in response to a question about Lifetime’s reputation as a channel for women-as-victims, that she was hoping to make Lifetime into a place of inspiration, Brock Akil just stopped her and expressed her firm disagreement. Women are complex and stories need to be interesting, she reminded everyone. (Stop the presses, I know, but this was a relief after the inanities that preceded it.) She said that as a black woman she sometimes wanted to combat overblown negative stereotypes with emphatically positive ones, but that, instead, she chose to try for a good story, one that depicts black women in their full complexity. I was grateful for a thoughtful answer from a young and powerful woman.

Brock Akil also talked pointed about the hiring process in ways that resonated with my own job. She said that when a new show is going on the air, it gets a greenlight and suddenly there’s a huge scramble to find staff. If you’re in a room full of men, it can happen that all the people they happen to know and can recommend are also all men. So she says her job as a producer is to pause, slow down, and try to think about women and minorities who might be qualified and recruited to apply. I try to think about these issues each fall when I have to hire an adjunct to teach a class that starts—oops—tomorrow.

Rachael Ray was herself—a little annoying, very casual, kind of charming—it’s going to be hard for her to continue her “aw, shucks” routine for much longer. She is clearly an independent woman and a workaholic and, while nervous to appear overtly feminist, she seemed like she had a strong intuitive sense of how to support women and men and their families in the workplace.

Kyra Sedgwick was also terrific—smart and funny and thoughtful about the work/family balance. She seemed to understand acutely the challenges facing female directors in Hollywood. She mentioned four or five, and talked about their struggles to get projects financed.

Unfortunately, McFadden didn’t follow up effectively here: why is the route to becoming a director still so difficult for women? What might women do to ease the path? To her credit, Wong did wake up for a moment to say that she hoped that Lifetime could become a destination for female directors—and stars like Sedgwick—to get projects made that might not get made elsewhere. Sedgwick’s body language clearly expressed that she was happy right where she was, thank you.

In all, this was an interesting diversion—one I’ve clearly spent far too much time thinking about—but a disappointing showing for contemporary mainstream feminism. There was no mention of any of the structural changes that might make work, ambition, and achieving power and influence easier for women, no talk about child care, health care, affirmative action. Everything—and this seems to be a problem about American power—was always pushed back onto the individual: I succeeded because of my brothers, my mother, myself; I now try to mentor others (or not).

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett’s slim hilarious novella was a real treasure, a find from BEA. I devoured it with tremendous pleasure and am happy to see it got some attention on Sunday the 30th. (You can read the first chapter here. It'll hook you.)

The premise is silly and delightful: that the Queen (unnamed beyond her title but very like the current holder of the English throne) stumbles into a bookmobile one day when her dogs get loose. Too polite, too aware of her dumbfounding effect on commoners, she checks out a book: Ivy Compton-Burnett. This permits some small talk and necessitates, awkwardly, a return the following week. Again, overcome by her own politeness, she returns Compton-Burnett and checks out the well-pedigreed Nancy Mitford.

One thing turns to another, and the Queen becomes a Reader. Soon, she is disrupted state dinners with quotations from literature, unnerving the President of France by asking him about Jean Genet. Suddenly, bootblacks and cooks who read get promoted over the political animals who have no time for thought. Palace machinations and retributions ensue. Prince Philip, heading down the hall with his hot water bottle, distinctly puzzled at the sight of his wife so absorbed in a book.

I picked this book up because Bennett, author of a teleplay entitled Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf, plays on Woolf’s literary criticism (The Common Reader, I & II) in his title. Not yet having read the teleplay (note to self: must read teleplay), this new book seems like a great entrée into Bennet’s thinking on Woolf and reading.

And it is: I read it a month ago and life does call me to return, so I can’t articulate the notion precisely here. Here’s an initial crack: Bennett, like a lot of English male writers, resents the ascendancy of Woolf and Bloomsbury snobbery in general failing to recognize how far her shares her generous sense that literature should be--is--open to all readers.

The Uncommon Reader is a delightful pun on that notion of common and commoner: the Queen is the opposite of common and yet she falls in love with reading in the most common and familiar way and, like all of us who are committed readers, her reading consumes her, competes with her life, in ways that have unpredictable consequences.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Dad, look at the birds flying apart and together
flying this way and that way.
Up into groups.
Doing loop-de-loops.
--Olivia, 4 1/2

Saturday, October 06, 2007

So Near--and yet so far

I think it was the fifth time the baby threw up that I knew I wasn't going to be able to blog that day. She's fine. Something didn't agree with her. And the look on the face of a baby (well, she's 1 1/2) throwing up is incredible: I can see where horror film special effects people get their ideas. It's so funny and sad and touching to see the look of horror, surprise, and confusion on her face as she erupts. Poor baby.

That's only the most disgusting and dramatic thing that has kept me away. And it's too bad. In my head, I have half-written posts.

And I've been writing and reading. And doing stuff. But that little twenty-minute window to write it up has evaporated of late.

Monday, October 01, 2007

R.I.P. Miss Moneypenny

Actress Lois Maxwell has died. She was 80. She played Miss Moneypenny--surely one of the great names ever!--in the first 14 James Bond films!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


When I interviewed Alice Sebold, I didn’t have a copy of her new book, so I asked her what it was about.

It’s about, she said, a woman who kills her mother.

I immediately thought of Electra and Orestes, plotting to kill Clytemnestra to avenge her murder of their father. My thoughts don’t usually go so highbrow so fast, but there you have it. You mention matricide to me and, trying to imagine antecedents (because that’s the kind of literary connection that interests me), I start mentally flipping through the files of Greek drama, Shakespeare, and the opera.

But now that I have the book on my nightstand, I see that it’s about a woman who helps an aging and ill mother die. A very different kind of murder, to me.

Or is it?

One of the great pleasures of the summer was reading Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear. I totally fell in love with it and am going to be teaching it at the end of the semester. In this book, the thrill of a spy plot maps onto the protagonist’s guilty conscience: he murdered his wife, a crime for which he served time in prison. And for most of the book, that murder hangs heavily over his psyche and the plot. Gradually, however, Greene lets you understand that his “murder” occurred in the context of the main character’s husband watching his wife make a slow, excruciating decline towards death from cancer. This isn’t murder as I usually understand it. But it is murder to the protagonist, a scruple that makes him all the more appealing as a person. However quick I may be (I keep writing “we” and then reminding myself to revert to “I,” to remember that I speak only for myself) to excuse or forgive someone caught in the awful position of watching a beloved die, to forgive their deciding to help that death come more quickly, it must be a painful, agonizing decision. How could one ever know if one were releasing the beloved or simply releasing oneself from caretaking?

This is why, I think, stories about people who insist on labeling euthanasia as “murder” appeal to me even though I am strongly averse to that as a political or legal label.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Do you ever stumble upon the blog of someone whom you know in “real” life and read it, sneakily comparing the online persona against the person you know? Do you ever confess to a live friend that you blog only to have them come out to you as a reader?

Great guilty pleasures, both, of our digital age.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Highbrow & Lowbrow, in print & online

I’m sorry to have missed Mark Sarvas et al.’s panel up at Columbia on Tuesday night: it sounds like a banner version of the longstanding/ongoing conversation about blogs and book reviews. You can read accounts by James Marcus and Ed Champion (I won’t characterize them, as Mark labeling Ed [accurately] as “impressionistic” seemed to get Ed into a lather….). On James’ site, a British commenter alludes to the lively discussion over there on the same topic. If you want a flavor of that, you can do no better than to read my friend Louise Tucker’s brilliant blog post on the so-called Golden Age of publishing (an illusion, she reminds us). I was glowing with pride when it went up--all the more so when it got 263 comments! Way to launch a polemic.

Editor Elizabeth Sifton compared Mark to Irving Howe--a lovely, flattering, amazing compliment. I don’t know Howe’s work well enough to be able to guess the specific contours of the comparison beyond the notion that, like Howe, Mark writes very intelligent, clear criticism, the kind of criticism that serious readers can learn from. The kind of criticism that doesn’t require one’s being fully up-to-date on the latest theory to grasp.

That sounds like an anti-theoretical barb. It’s not. Or not exactly. However, when reading about a fictional text, I like the references to philosophers and theorists who might illuminate that text to work in the service of the argument not as flamboyant signs of the writer’s erudition. I mean, I could spatter this whole posting with references to Habermas and Bourdieu, couldn’t I? But why?

From all accounts, it seems that the flame throwing between newspapers and blogs has abated. The papers may have run out of ammunition. Everyone recognizes--even the Times, which ended TimesSelect this week--that the future of daily information is digital and free.

The question of the day now, has returned to the richer one of popular versus elite. What is the best way to reach an audience? Are open forums the best way to be democratic? Is a thoughtful, learned review necessarily snobby?

I don’t think these questions are ones of either/or: each critic has his or her foibles--as readable as James Wood is, for example, it’s hard to assign him to undergraduates because of his pretty pervasive habit of quick, unexplained allusions to Continental and Russian novelists (along the lines of: “Unlike Turgenev, Conrad’s fathers…”). Older readers get used to this and find such tags either helpful or not, but young readers often get stopped: “Oh, no! I haven’t read Turgenev. I have no idea what he’s talking about…” The ability to keep reading in one’s ignorance, trusting that context will fill in clues, is a skill, and some days, it’s not on my lesson plan.

What I want to note, however, is that the blogosphere seems to have spawned a new breed of nonacademic literary critics, of academic literary critics who make an effort to write jargon-free prose. Read Mark or Bud Parr or Garth Risk Hallberg or Ana Maria Correa and you’ll see what I mean. These critics also draw our attention to literary critics working primarily in print--James Wood is maybe the leading example--whose work is intelligent and readable.

Those of us in the academy would do well to take note.

Counting and Keeping Track

I aim for four blog entries per week and usually make three though, with the new semester and its new routine, I’m searching for moments to make even that work.

I am to exercise three times a week and often make it.

I have even--gulp--joined WeightWatchers and find myself counting “points” and “core foods” and swapping 30 minutes of pilates for a glass of wine.

So why can’t I make my goal of 20 pages of Dalloway a day?

Keeping track of things, setting short-term weekly goals that get reset every Monday morning works for me. In graduate school, I was still not fully in the computer age. I was keeping a shoeb0x-sized card file with short thumbnail summaries of every article and book I read for my dissertation. In order to keep track of my progress--in order to give myself a feeling of progress--I made little progress cards with a chart listing the work that, in an ideal week, a dissertator would accomplish:
  • seven pages written
  • one book read & noted
  • three articles read and noted
Each Sunday night, I would think back on my week, assess my progress, and then, vow to make my goal next time. I don’t think I ever did as much work as I thought I ideally should, but I did finish the dissertation.

It turns out, I think, that I am just on the edge of being a textual editor. I find the process really interesting in the abstract but I don’t quite have the discipline to carry out the tiresome work of collating editions.

And, with that, I must turn to page 183 of the 1928 Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway and see how it differs--if it differs--from the first English edition. Comma by comma; line by line.

Perhaps I should, Bridget Jones style, start blog entries with the summary of the day’s accomplishments: ”18 pp. MD, v.g.; one slice pie, v.b.; 30 minutes pilates, g.; blog entry, g…

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bad Reviews

Have I lost my edge?

I mean, have I fallen prey to the habit of only praising books? Of only writing good things about them?

I don't think so. In my review of Jean Thompson, I raved about the book but I did say that bits were too easy: that's not totally gutless. And in a review I just turned in of two scholarly books on modernism, I had some rather strong things to say about the weaker book and didn't really mince words about the better one, either. But then, that review is 16 months late (academia allows such appalling behavior though it shames me) in part because I've been dreading finding the right way to finesse my wording.

Still, I'm surprised to see that my very brief account of Glendinning's biography of Leonard leads one to think that I liked the book. I think the same is true of the forthcoming short review for the Virginia Woolf Miscellany.

I did not like it.

But, somehow, I found that hard to say.

Knowing I was going to review this book, I read Glendinning's biography of Bowen early in the year. I'm thinking about spy fiction for my project after the Dalloway one, and Bowen will certainly be a centerpiece. I know that she knew some of the Cambridge spies and I was hoping to figure out some leads there. Instead, I came away depressed and discouraged. Glendinning made Bowen seem dull and ordinary, not an author one would want to pursue study of.

This was discouraging--about Bowen and about Glendinning. How could I get through the Leonard biography? I was not hopeful, but then, once begun, I loved the first two or three chapters about his life before marriage. And then, we got to the part where he meets and falls in love with Virginia Stephen. It was a complicated courtship, over-determined by their mutual love of Lytton Strachey, who loved both but would marry neither. (Which makes sense, given that nagging problem of sexuality: hard for Leonard, who was straight, to be with Lytton; hard for Lytton, who was gay, to be with Virginia--to whom he proposed in a moment of panic.) There were other factors as well. When are there not?

But in Glendinning's account, the 30 years of their marriage were, for Leonard, a long and stressful exercise in postponing the inevitable suicide of Virginia.

It's clear that Glendinning finds Virginia weird.

I suppose she was.

But that seems an unfortunate attitude in a biographer.

And some of this I said, I think, in my review. But I cordoned off my frustration--my anger, at times--because I could see that were I to write a review that really argued what I sketch above, I would simply come off as one of those disgruntled Woolfians, too in love with Virginia to see what a burden, what a sick weirdo, she truly was…

Perhaps it's not so much a question of whether or not I've lost my edge as it is testament to the difficulty of tone in prose. Things that one can say aloud to a friend, things that one can write in a blog such as this, even, don't always translate into the measured prose of a review--even for so tiny a print publication as the Virginia Woolf Miscellany which is, after all, stapled, for goodness sakes…

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

“Mama? Remember that movie with the really good dancing? The one with the clapping and the stomping and the really pretty dancing? What was that movie?”

Vaguely worried, I think back to a video of High School Musical 2 that we saw over the weekend: “High School Musical?”

“No. The one with the really pretty dancing.”



I wrack my brain. What else have we watched? Then I remember that she came up for water on Friday night when her father and I were watching a video. Interested, she stayed for a few minutes before going down to bed. “Pride and Prejudice?”

“Yeah. Can I watch that. I mean now, like today, when I’m still little? Can I watch it?”

So she did. And about two thirds through, came out to see us, while we were eating dinner, in tears, “This movie is just so beautiful, it’s making me cry.”

She’ll be five in three months. She doesn’t eat vegetables. But she can’t understand why “that man” (Mr. Darcy) is “so grumpy all the time” and thinks that Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley) is really, really pretty.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

How to Write, Venus Edition

Strange, then, to turn from Mosely to Danell Jones’ The Virginia Woolf Writer’s Workshop. Where all of his examples seem to lead a person to genre fiction replete with dark psychological motivations and violence (one long chapter discusses a hypothetical Mad Max-style road/vengeance father-son plot), Jones mines a more encouraging, feminine, and thoroughly Woolfian vein.

A long while back, I got a random email from her: she had this idea to cull all Woolf’s advice about writing from her books--novels, essays, diaries, and letters--into one place and write a kind of writer’s guide in the voice of Virginia Woolf. Bored and curious more than hopeful, I agreed to give it a look. Most academics won’t stick their necks out for stuff like this, but I love it, find it fun, and don’t mind venturing my opinion where my knowledge might be thin. (What, after all do I know about novel-writing?)

The manuscript was really rough but promising. I sent her my comments. She, by return of post, sent me a really beautiful scarf! That was unexpected.

The book is so much improved and it is now really, really lovely--welcoming. I read it in proofs and now the finished copy is here. It’s very pretty, which is nice. But she really pulled it off: she makes it possible to imagine the delightful, absurd but not so absurd possibility that you’re taking a writing workshop from Woolf. She’s woven together dozens and dozens of quotations from across all of Woolf’s work seamlessly and effectively (and, they’re all indexed in the back). Here’s how the book begins:
What, she writes on the board, are the conditions necessary to produce a work of art?
Up shoots the hand of a young woman in an Ani DiFranco T-shirt. “A room of her own and five hundred a year?”
True, she says, amazed how the words she wrote all those years ago seem to have sprouted wings…”
With chapters on Practicing, Working, Creating, Walking, Reading, Publishing, and Doubting, Jones captures the key topics that Woolf meditated on in her comments on writing. And, of course, these are topics of great interest to us all.

There’s another new light book on Woolf out this month, too, though I haven’t seen it yet, I’m eager to get my hands on Ilana Simons’ A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Maybe this will be this year’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. As tiresome and irritating as I now find Alain deBotton, that was, I thought, a genuinely amusing and good book.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Quarterly Conversation, Fall 2007

It's now available online.

You can read my review of Jean Thompson's Throw Like a Girl.

You can read a review by fellow Hudson County blogger, Matt Cheney or one by the fabulous Sarah Weinman.

You can read the lead article, on James Wood and DeLillo's Falling Man, by Garth Hallberg of the Millions, whose own novel has just come out.

You can read Scott's own piece on prison lit.

And there is a lot more, too.


How to Write, Mars Edition

Around the time that John Scalzi’s screed against writing in coffee shops came out, I got a copy of Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel. Shortly after that, I got a manuscript of Dannell Jones’s The Virginia Woolf Writer’s Workshop, too.

I liked both books a lot. Both offered a pleasant distraction and that momentary pleasing sense that one’s novel (Am I writing a novel? perhaps, but, for the moment, only in my dreams) is just a few simple steps away. The “you’re not fooling anyone” mode that Scalzi went for doesn’t really work for me. I’m much more inclined, if I were to shell out money for a self-help book on writing to go the encouraging/pragmatic route.

This Year You Write Your Novel is an odd, left-handed way to get introduced to Mosely, but there it is: I’ve read one book by him and this is it. One of my favorite college professors really loved him and was sorely disappointed that the first Easy Rawlins movie was a disappointment. I saw him--fancy, sparkly, and big, standing outside the Javitz Center at BEA. That’s it.

And, months ago as I was thinking about writing about this guide, I saw that he’d been in a little brouhaha over a recent pornographic novel. Prude that I am, I just didn’t want to enter that conversation (I still don’t), so that became another reason not to write.

Still, Moseley’s book is wonderful: quick, smart, and very narrow in its focus. It’s not about managing your time or publishing. It’s about actually going from start to finish with a draft of a novel. A great, reasonable goal. He focuses on the balance between really going for the dream of the story--the deep unconscious thing that makes it work--and discipline. You must, he says over and over, sit down and write daily. You will, he reminds us, neglect other parts of your life. What I love best is how he just affectionately shrugs at the problems that may cause for some of his readers:
I know that this is difficult. Some of you live in tight spaces with loved ones. Some of you work so hard that you can’t see straight half the time. Some of you have little ones who might need your attention at any time of the day or night.
I wish I had the answers to these problems. I don’t.
That seems right and kind to me. The problem of time is one of the big problems of writing, but we each have to solve that problem in our own apartments.

Monday, September 03, 2007


I haven’t yet written anything about London. I’ll try to remedy that this week--it’ll be a nice respite from the dizzying demands of the beginning of school.

After complaining about modern travel, it’s only fair to note that, of my six round-trip flights since April, the flights on Air India from New York to London and back were the two that were almost entirely without incident.

I’d never flown Air India before, but I’ll do it again in a minute. The chief steward announced that, once we reached our cruising altitude, the crew would be serving us “a sumptuous dinner.” A phrase worth risking an airline meal for, I think.

It wasn’t quite that--the lamb curry was a touch over-microwaved--but the hot mix was a million times better than pretzels and diner came with yogurt and a yummy milky sweet dessert and really good tea. (Well, the flight continued from London to Mumbai [which, by the way, all of the Indian crew consistently called “Bombay…” C’mon! We’re trying here! It’d be like going to China and having everyone talk about Peking. {Maybe they do…} It’s disconcerting and funny.], so how could they not have good tea?)

The stewardess initially seemed to raise an eyebrow when I requested a beer, but she immediately offered a second and then also insisted I choose some water, too.

The movie was “The Year of the Dog,” an indie film about a woman whose dog dies starring Molly Shannon. It was a downer, but interesting: a good, serious movie. Imagine that.

The documentary feature was on low-cost green architecture in India.

The map charting our progress continually announced: “Physical Features Map Only. NO POLITICAL BOUNDARIES DEPICTED,” which isn’t such an issue crossing the Atlantic, but surely comes into play with that pesky border with Pakistan.

The plane was nearly empty on the way to London, so I had three seats to myself and got some real rest. The quicker-thinking Indian grandmother near me nabbed the middle five--all four feet of her--still, I could kind of lie down and I arrived in London on Sunday morning feeling almost human.

On the way home, the plane was full. I sat with a working mom from Boston and her two-year-old daughter. Father and the older girl were sitting up ahead. They were returning from a month with grandparents back in India and we had a pleasant time commiserating over travel with small children. Hers were lovely.

And the vegetarian dinner was truly sumptuous this time.

Funny to travel to London to look at the manuscript of a novel in which a character returns to London from India and thinks about how much has changed in London since his departure. What would Woolf, what would Peter Walsh, think of me--seventy years on--traveling to London on an Indian jet full of affluent Indians?

Seeing that first class is not in my future, this seems like the way to go: pay $200 less than any American carrier AND get treated like a human being.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Grace Paley

Some great writers we think of not so much for their own work (for, perhaps, we don't know it so well), but for the affection we feel for the friends who love them. So it is for me and Grace Paley. She is beloved by two dear friends of mine and for their sake--as well as in the anticipated pleasure of turning to her one day--I mourn her.

PEN is gathering tributes.

Monday, August 27, 2007

E. B. White’s Stuart Little

I’ve read The Elements of Style so many times, I feel that I know bits of it by heart. We used to march around the schoolyard intoning “Omit needless words. Omit needless words.”

I teach “Once More to the Lake” with pleasure most every year.

I remember his children’s books fondly, sure, but nothing could prepare me for the pleasures of reading Stuart Little aloud to the older daughter. Who remembers that as Stuart runs away from home, he pauses to fill in as a substitute teacher? Listen to this, it’s totally delightful:
The boys and girls crowded around the desk to look at the substitute. Everyone talked at once, and they seemed to be very much pleased. The girls giggled and the boys laughed and everyone’s eyes lit up with excitement to see such a small and good-looking teacher, so appropriately dressed.
With the first day of school looming, this is a great (and intimidating) reminder of the substance of students’ first impressions. I’m looking through the closet for my most delightful and appropriate dress.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Summer Mix

For the third summer in a row, I’ve made a compilation of summer songs. In 2005, the mix was called “dancing ‘round the kitchen” because that’s what we did every night: I cooked and my daughter and husband danced. Last year, when the baby was a newborn, the album was “our HUGE family” since we were all reeling with the discovery of what it meant to go from three to four.

This summer, it’s a survivor’s mix, Shady Shores, in honor of a summer that wasn’t quite as summery as we had hoped. (It’s also the name of the lane that my grandmother-in-law’s cabin sits on.) But again, as with each prior year, the songs themselves come to transform our memories, and what seems sometimes stressful and confusing in the midst of it, gets colored by the happy memories of the songs we associate with the year.

This year’s mix has two songs by our favorite group, Pink Martini, and two songs by Lucinda Williams, whom we saw in Utica at the Saranac Brewery. The opening song on the new Pink Martini album, “Everywhere,” is so sweetly sentimental, sung with such purity by China Forbes that the older girl immediately fell in love with it. That had to go on the album. As, in honor of her current obsession with “The Wizard of Oz” did Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s very odd & wonderful version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Overall, we think it’s the best of the three: it really does seem to make all four of us happy and it’s in heavy rotation on iHome, iPod, iPhone (!!!), and in the car.

I always aim for a current summer hit or two: two years ago, it was “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and last year it was Gnarls Barkley. This year, after driving around Seattle listening to “The Mountain” for two weeks, I chose two: that Delilah song (cheesy but sweet—and it also has the requisite NYC reference which is another piece of the equation) and “Calling All Friends.”

But the track that’s been the funniest and most controversial is #14: at my husband’s request, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.

Daughter #1: “Mama, what’s a devil? Mama, what’s sympathy? Mama, who were the Kennedy’s? Mama, why did we kill the Kennedy’s? Mama, is he a devil or is he just pretending to be one in the song?”

Daughter #2, pitch-perfect to Mick Jagger: “whoo-oo, whoo-oo.”

Herewith, then, the list:
  1. Everywhere --Pink Martini
  2. Lookin' Out My Back Door-- Creedence Clearwater Revival
  3. Hey There Delilah-- Plain White T's
  4. Righteously-- Lucinda Williams
  5. Don't Look Back-- Peter Tosh
  6. Al Otro Lado del Rio-- Jorge Drexler
  7. Peg-- Steely Dan
  8. La P'tite Monnaie-- Benabar & Associes
  9. Surfin' USA-- The Beach Boys
  10. Cante e Dance-- Pink Martini
  11. Coney Island-- Death Cab for Cutie
  12. Somewhere Over the Rainbow-- Israel Kamakawiwo'ole
  13. Pata Pata (Album Version)-- Miriam Makeba
  14. Sympathy for the Devil-- The Rolling Stones
  15. Upside Down-- Jack Johnson
  16. Wasn't Born to Follow-- The Byrds
  17. Mama You Sweet-- Lucinda Williams
  18. Cinnamon Girl-- Neil Young & Crazy Horse
  19. Calling All Friends-- Low Stars
  20. Saratoga Hunch-- Dave Frishberg

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Bella Woolf in the Gambia

I’m reviewing--have just reviewed--Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Leonard for the Virginia Woolf Miscellany.

There is a lot to like in the book. Leonard is a really interesting person and she lays out all the bits of him for you to think about. She never really lets the narrative run, however, so it’s often a little distracting or even frustrating. We can go for 50 pages without hearing about the Woolf’s cook and then suddenly “Louie” appears without any further explanation. I have to rack my brain to remember that she’s Woolf’s cook. What about other readers?

Here’s a bit, though, that I adored that needs no further introduction. Woolf’s charismatic older sister Bella was married to an officer in the British Empire and posted to the Gambia. She wrote to Leonard of her problems with the local Girl Guides:
I have to be very strict, very strict. Of course I can’t object to them wearing their uniforms at night to solicit men, because to them it’s a most glamourous dress. But I’ve had to put my foot down and tell them they must not give birth to their babies on the parade ground.

Julia Briggs, 1943-2007

I met Julia Briggs through friends. So, I would run into her at Woolf conferences from time to time. She would be there as a keynote speaker; I would be trailing behind her, the good friend of one of her advisees. At one in particular, she asked me what I was at work on & I explained my project of picking a period of literary history and explicating the lessons--literary and feminist--that Woolf seemed to draw from it. But I was at the very beginning & it was all rather vague.

"Well, if you're going to do the Romantics," she said, "it has to be Byron, doesn't it?" I didn't know why, but I trusted her completely and followed that lead, occasionally amused to think that, if one's surname was Briggs one might well have recognized the Byronic in Woolf: Woolf wrote an essay called "Byron and Mr. Briggs" after all. Years later, my book nearly complete, I went to a celebration of her Woolf biography in New York and reminded her of the story and that she had set me off on the hare that was to become my Byron chapter. She laughed, didn't remember it, but was pleased, I think.

Julia was beautiful--the Independent’s obituary (odd remark about her “darkly Jewish” looks notwithstanding) does a lovely job of explaining the kind of light bohemian grace with which she wore that beauty--and it was a great, thorough beauty of body, mind, spirit all rolled into one. I did not know her well but she always struck me as someone who had the hang of life. It’s not that life was easy for her. Often, when I saw her, she was or had been sad. But still she was so beautiful, such fun, so funny, so loving and generous. She just seemed to have the knack for being alive. That has long inspired me as it will continue to do. I know so few feminist academics who are so openly happy in both their work and their children and so knowing Julia was for me, a tremendous gift.

And then, even in death, she had a gift of bringing people together. I learned that she was in hospice just before I left for London. So much for my fleeting thoughts of asking her to lunch… But, in one of several emails I received from her family and friends, an old friend & I saw each other’s information, we got in touch and had dinner in Oxford last week. That, in itself, struck me as the perfect tribute to a woman who was so good at being a friend.

There's a nice tribute here. And, really, you should be paying more attention to Paula Maggio's lovely new Woolf blog!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Gwenda Bond, Rainmaker

Well, I missed Always week--and that’s a sign of just how busy and scattered life is here at Fernham. For, how else could I miss a week focusing on a feminist writer whose latest book is set in Seattle? (That makes 3 recent LBC books in the PNW, by the way: Seven Loves, The Cottagers, and Always!)

In any case, you might check out some of the great discussion of and by Nicola Griffith at the LBC website and around the blogosphere. Gwenda Bond nominated the book and she really made it happen this week. You can read
  1. the Roundtable at the LBC
  2. Nicola at 5X5
  3. A guest essay at Booksquare
  4. Bookslut blog interview
  5. Metroblogging Seattle post
  6. and The Pivot Questionnaire.

And, I’d say, if you ever want someone to be your rainmaker, get on Gwenda’s good side fast. She really made it happen!!

For those of you keeping score...

...I'm off to London tomorrow for the last of 3 Mrs. Dalloway-related research trips.

Upon my return, I think (maybe?) life will settle into a routine and, here's hoping, that routine will permit some blogging.

I'm hopeful about this as I find that I'm thinking in blog entries all the time and I just lack the five minutes it'd take to write up the story of Bella Woolf (Leonard's sister) in the Gambia, or my impressions of Marya Montero's novel, or Alan Bennett's forthcoming novella, or Conrad's use of "indolent" in The Secret Agent, or watching the baby come into language, or two recent books on how to become a novelist--one friendly and feminist, one macho, or... Well, you see how it is.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Read This: Jamestown

This quarter’s Litblog Co-op Read This pick--thanks to Megan Sullivan--is Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown. The book was in the window at Three Lives in the Village a few months back and the clerk there was excited about it, too, so don’t just take it from us…

The discussion of it and the other nominees is going to be heating up across the web as we enter the dog days of August. So, to whet you appetite, you might want to read Leora Skolkin-Smith’s review or hear Sharpe himself read from the book on NPR or read a short and cheeky interview at New York Magazine (where they don’t do long and thoughtful) or a longer and more detailed interview from Small Spiral Notebook (by Scott Esposito, no less).

Then, of course, hop over to Soft Skull and get your own copy…

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Other news from Seattle...

Since March, I've been on five airplane trips. Shall we review the horrors of post-9/11 airline travel?
  1. Trip 1: Newark-Ft. Myers: the return was cancelled due to snow. We drove home with the girls. A VERY L-O-N-G drive.
  2. Trip 2: JFK to IND: a mechanical delay
  3. Trip 3: Newark to LAX: a lost bag, returned 8 hours later.
  4. Trip 4: JFK to Dayton: a suspicious package had the Dayton airport in lockdown for 2 hours after my arrival there. Fortunately, I found a seat in the bar...
  5. Trip 5: Syracuse to Seattle via O'Hare, without spouse, with children (do not try this at home): thunderstorms in the midwest grounded the flight into O'Hare, leaving me and my daughters (4 1/2 & 15 months for those of you keeping track at home) stuck at the gate for seven hours. Upon landing in Seattle at midnight, we waited an hour for my bag (the teddy bears, onesies, and jeans arrived) before learning that the bag had decided to go to Houston. It arrived 24 hours later.
So, needless to say, this journey, compounded by jet lag, meant that it took us a few days to acclimatize to the glorious (if, then, heat-wave stricken) Pacific Northwest.

Nonetheless, early bedtimes (aided, again, by jet lag), champagne and other delights from my father's cellar, and a really amazing video collection and projection t.v. all soothed the rough edges. Evenings in Seattle are pretty unbeatable--sitting out on the patio, listening to the fountain, munching red pepper and goat cheese, and deciding whether to watch another episode of "Prime Suspect" or maybe "The Bourne Identity" or perhaps old English thriller. (We watched them all eventually, and more.)

My sister, brother-in-law and their two boys (7 and 4) treated us to many of the delights of the city: Matthews Beach, a beaver dam in the city (!), the wonderfully amazing Woodland Park Zoo, the Experience Music Project and Monorail. And two delicious dinners at her place! The older girl was wide-eyed with delight at her time with her beloved cousins.

And, though I found myself reeling under the weight of mothering without my husband or daycare, I also reveled in the ministrations of my mom. She spelled me readily and handily and the girls adore spending time with her.

In the past, a week in Seattle was like a week at a spa. Now, it's a little more like the Italian house that Byron found so congenial--"The place is very well and quiet and the children only scream in a low voice..."

Monday, July 23, 2007

Heard on vacation

(and addressed to me):

You're a good mother. You're just not used to spending time with children...

(So, I'm back from two weeks in Seattle and, while still vacationing, am now on vacation in a spot where I have 4 hours of childcare a day. I think I may refind myself shortly.)

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Don't despair--I'm on vacation and will get back to posting soon. Sorry to have disappeared without warning!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Best American Essays

I like making lists. I like keeping track. I like having too many things on my plate. I read Dr. Crazy’s lists of accomplishments and hoped-for accomplishments avidly and I’ve been reading Sandra’s slog through The Artist’s Way with equal interest. I have my own lists--of deadlines and of dreams--and then, too, there are the lists of prizes, the volumes of bests that, perhaps, some day, I might find my own name in. (A girl can dream, can’t she?)

Those annual volumes of The Best American Essays edited by the essayist of the moment under Robert Atwan’s direction have been floating around the house a lot lately. My husband’s reading essays for a couple of his projects, so these books keep showing up wherever he’s been reading. Each time I see them, self-flagellating narcissist that I am, I remember with some pain, that I’m not in there.

Well, of course, Anne, because you didn’t publish an essay…or write one…

I’d really like to write essays. I plan to. But that’s the problem--I plan to every day. Do I? Can I? A year ago, a friend asked me to contribute an essay to his journal. Sure. And, though I’ve written a couple thousand words, it’s awful and needs to be scrapped.

I have some hope that I can start over during my travels to family over the next five weeks.

I’m not upset about this. Just interested.

So many of us want to write. So much of the challenge lies in actually setting pen to paper, and then, once that’s done, in crafting it into something worthy.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

James Baldwin’s Another Country

When I read Another Country in high school, it changed my life. I had never read a book before that depicted the world I wanted to live in, hoped to live in, thought I lived in. It’s a vast soap opera set in New York--mostly the Village--in the late-50s. The characters are mostly artists, black and white, gay and straight, and they love each other, hate each other, sleep with each other, and try to write books and make music. For all the--many--failings they exhibit, they are all trying desperately to live authentically and to figure out how to cross barriers in order to make connections.

When I read it a second time and a third time, I was disappointed in the prose. I remembered the books emotional impact but all I could see were the moments of laziness, sloppiness. I was disappointed.

But I remembered that it was a book that changed my life, so I kept believing in its power without feeling it.

Summer school ends tomorrow and we finished with Baldwin. I felt, once again, the book’s amazing power. Why?

It’s partly the power of reading a New York novel in New York, of knowing the city better than I did the first few times through. It’s partly being older and having a fuller perspective on the failings of art and love. It’s partly watching my students’ engagement with the book. And, most of all, it’s largely having the Woolf book behind me.

In the midst of writing on Woolf, it’s hard not to insist that every sentence be as crafted as a Woolfian sentence. But that’s not the only way to write. And it’s a relief to be enough out of her thrall to see the passion of Baldwin.

And he’s been in the news all week: Maud links to the TLS plea to release Baldwin’s letters; Dwight Garner joins his voice to the plea; Randall Kenan, author of The Fire This Time is on WNYC. And, if you can, check out the DVD, The Fire Next Time for amazing archival footage of Baldwin and moving tributes by Baraka, Styron, Angelou and more--we watched it in class and I was fighting back tears.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Alice Sebold Interview

I interviewed Alice Sebold author of The Lovely Bones, Lucky and the forthcoming The Almost Moon (October 2007). She was in New York for BookExpo America in early June and I met her in the lobby of her hotel. The chance to interview her just fell into my lap. I seized it immediately. She was lovely, polite, and smart--very generous with her time. Somehow, while I got the chance to interview her, I didn’t get an advance copy of the book. Afterwards and since BEA, I learned that the galleys to The Almost Moon were one of the conventions hot giveaways. I didn’t get one--though mine is in the mail, I think--so, in retrospect, I feel sorry that I must have seemed unprepared. Still, looking back on our conversation three weeks ago, that immediate pang of self-criticism has waned and what emerges most vividly to me, in writing this up is her generosity and her intelligence.

Fernham: Tell me about your new book.

Alice Sebold: Well, it’s about a woman who kills her mother.

She paused to let that sink in and continued.

AS: It’s about mental illness and it’s about how you always have your mother. How she’s always with you even when she’s gone. It’s something the character has to figure out. I was interested in strained relationships with mothers. You can let it pass or work it out, but it’s there. I just took a dramatic leap and wrote about someone who kills her mother. Of course, she doesn’t escape her. You never escape your mother even in death. My mother was kind of owned by her mother until my grandmother died at 96. My mother was 70. And I watched a certain part of her spirit unable to be free while her mother was alive. And now, it can be. My mother is an amazing being--I mean, I have my side of the story about my mother, too--but she’s an amazing being and it’s been amazing to have her feel that freedom for herself.

F: Has your mom read the new book?

AS: Yes. I just sent it to her last week. I wanted her to read it before BEA. Then, I could go to BEA knowing--well, either it was going to be o.k. or… She called and told me “You’ve written a wonderful book. And, unlike some people, I am able to identify the difference between fiction and fact.”

F: That’s a grand reply.

AS: Oh, my mother is quite grand. She’s wonderful. You know, she’s always had an idea of herself as a writer. That’s was a burden to me when I was younger, but now it’s a gift. My father read it, too. He left me the longest phone message I’ve ever gotten from him about it. He’s retired now; he was a professor and I think he read it as a kind of assignment. Anyway, he took it very seriously and had a lot--for him--to say about it. I think that I came into existence for my father after attention from the world.

F: Tell me about your teachers--what they’ve meant to you and what you learned from your teachers. I particularly want to hear about Tess Gallagher--I so vividly remember seeing her give a poetry reading when I was in high school.

AS: Well, I feel so lucky to have intersected with so many great teachers who inspired me with their work, their teaching, their person. Along the way, I’ve had the chance to meet certain people. I mean, watching Ray Carver at a party and seeing that he was not so great at a party and recognizing that that doesn’t have to do with writing, that was a gift.

I remember Toby Wolff said that the former students you hear from are never the ones you hope to hear from. And I worked myself up for years and years to ask for a recommendation from him and when I finally did, he said of course he would write for me.

But with Tess, it was her work, her teaching, and her person.

F: I remember at that reading, sitting myself behind William Stafford on purpose in hopes of overhearing the elder statesman of Washington State poetry make an aside about Tess Gallagher. She walked in and Stafford said, “That Tess, she always wears such funny hats.” I was so disappointed: I thought it was a terrible, dumb thing to overhear. But now I think it’s kind of great.

AS: Maybe my noncompetitive clause on dress dates from Tess.

F: Tell me about yourself as a teacher.

AS: Well, I’m not teaching full-time now, but when I do workshops--a week here or there. I’m tough. I never lie. A lot of people find different ways of lying when they teach. But I’m not about being tough and mean. I try to suss out what writing means to people at the very beginning. People usually telegraph that pretty quickly. The goal for the old man who just wants to write the story of his life and bind it in leather for his grandchildren is different from that of the woman with six hair colors who’s written three pages in six months and frenetically insists that “it sucks and doesn’t have a plot.” With her, you want to find the four good images in those pages and show them to her and get her to work with that.

I taught at Hunter College for ten years when I lived in New York and toward the end, I got to teach a few fiction workshops. Who knows why they let me do that. I hadn’t published anything yet. But one of the things that was really frustrating then, that I had to learn to just let go of, was what to do with the occasional student who’s a fabulous writer but doesn’t want to do anything with it. You have to overcome the impulse to push him into writing and recognize that he’s fine; he’s a happy person; he’s going to go on and get a good job designing video games or whatever and maybe that’s better.

F: Tell me about the reading you do. Does your reading change when you’re deeply immersed in writing from when you’re between projects?

AS: Well, when I’m really really writing, I read poetry the way you pick up a pretty piece of stone on the beach. For something beautiful, specific and hard. For this last book, there were two poets. Philip Larkin. There’s a sadness in him. So many poems that seem hostile to the world also describe a desire to belong, to be a part of things. That was a real touchstone for me. You know, it’s funny, somehow two collections of his work came out at about the same time--one is chronological and one is by themes. You should get the Penguin one. That’s the one I used, that’s the one. And--I’m embarrassed to try to pronounce her name--the Polish woman. Szymborska. She was the other poet for me.

I have a thing about pronunciation. It’s because I’m so poorly educated.

F: (I protested this fervently, but she was on a roll and persisted.)

AS: I just finished doing the audio of The Lovely Bones and there’s a character in that book named Hamish. I’d been pronouncing it hammish in my head [with a soft a] and the recording engineer pointed out to me that it’s usually pronounced hame-ish [with a long a]. I was so embarrassed. And so disappointed. Why can’t it be hammish? I want his name to be hammish. And for years I mispronounced Simone de Bouvier because I think my mom must have had de Beauvoir in the house but we talked about Jackie de Bouvier so I just thought Beauvoir was pronounced that way.

F: I still stumble over “sword” and “monastery” from reading historical novels as a girl.

AS: I never really bonded with well-educated writers because of that kind of one-upsmanship. Now, I’m happy to have avoided that and that moment of theory, deconstruction and all that. It was intimidating. Years after the fact, I bonded with my father over that, about our both missing that heavily theorized deconstructionist boat. It’s funny, because we never spoke about it to each other at the time, but I was in college and he was a Spanish professor and we were both really alienated from the prevailing theoretical mood. Then, he retired at 70 from teaching and we had this conversation about how we had both felt out of sync.

F: Do you read memoirs?

AS: Not lately. There’s a biography of Colette that came out ten years ago. You should read that. You know, I was just talking about her with the woman who photographed me for this new book. She was wonderful! Anyway, we talked about how Cheri and The Last of Cheri are the Colette novels for young women, but My Mother’s House and Sido, that’s what to read now. That’s Colette for middle-aged women. [Sebold and I are both in our early 40s; though it goes against the grain of common parlance, we are, I think, technically middle-aged.]

F: I’ve never read Colette. But so many of the people I like most who write about Woolf also love her, so I know I would love her.

AS: I think I avoided Colette for a long time because I was put off by the very things in her that drew me to Woolf. That is, Colette had a make-up line, she wrote all about sex, she was frightening.

F: Tell me about what you like about Woolf.

AS: I was assigned Woolf in college and I didn’t like it. I came to her late. After liking Henry James and Edith Wharton, then I could come to Woolf and like her. But the thing that made me a Woolf fanatic was A Writer’s Diary. Before I was published, I would read an entry every morning as a way to get me started writing. I did that again this time reading bits of Woolf to get started. I remember when I was starting out, reading her sniping and complaining and wanting to say, “But don’t you see, you’re Virginia Woolf!” But it sounds different now. I understand her better.

F: So much of your memoir Lucky is about before and after--before and after the rape and the way the rape ended an era of your life. But it seems to me like, since The Lovely Bones, you’ve been living in a new after. Does it feel that way to you, too?

AS: You know, I think life is lived in eras and I’ve had a lot of them. Some eras are the result of marriage or a job. But with this one, it’s weird to create an era by the result of work you’ve done.

F: Thank you so much for your time!

AS: Thank you.