Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Man Who Would Be King

After all these years, I finally made it to Three Lives Books--thanks to Bud, who took me there. What’s been the matter with me? Well, let’s see--tight purse strings, little babies, and a poor sense of direction in the West Village which had me confusing Biography Books (which is fine but not great) with Three Lives which is both great and incredibly clost to the PATH train. Hooray!!

On my first trip, I bought, among other things, a very, very pretty little Melville House edition of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King which I gobbled one night in the tub, dreaming of Sean Connery, of George Clooney in a remake.

The novella, set in Afghanistan, is not only a terrific adventure story but also a great fable for our times. Two English loafers tire of the strictures and civilization of colonial India and head off to a remote part of Afghanistan, hoping to be greeted as liberators--oops! wrong century--to be made kings. The story is framed by a newspaper man who first lends the two adventurers his atlas and then, three years later, listens to the whole tale from the surviving one.

I can think of no quicker or more delightful way to read about the beginnings of “The Great Game” (as the Anglo-Russian land-grab over Central Asia was then called) than this.

The Melville House edition--from Hoboken!--is lovely. Still, it’s too bad to misspell Noble (!) Prize and the name of one of the two protagonists (Carnahan for Carnehan) on the dustjacket…).

Special Collections

Every time I go to the New York Public Library, I think--or wonder--if it’s a good job, a well-paying job. The workers there seem unusually friendly, helpful, and competent for people whose job it is to match a call slip with a book, to stamp a call slip with a time, to check a bag for contraband. ''

The friendliness of the regular librarians is matched by the diversity of the public. It is also matched by my terror of special collections.

And the public is truly the general public. On Ash Wednesday, a black man with two huge, flat dreadlocks, one on each side of his head, hanging like the rectangular locks of some barristers’ wigs, approach a beautiful librarian, a black Carribbean woman, asking for the phone book. As I sharpened my pencil, the dreadlocked man returned and, pointing at the ash on her forehead, said, “I noticed that you have the mark of the beast on your forehead. The Catholic Church is the devil…”

As we went on, she smiled, and sweetly said, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. The phone books are over there.” When he left, she turned to her co-worker, sotto voce, “Get a haircut.”

This good, warm, and human behavior (polite to the crazies but still enough of a person to let off steam), held, too, when I went to apply for a reader’s card at the special collection within the library, where Woolf’s manuscripts are housed. The librarian was generous, welcoming, and assuaged my nerves. He asked if I intended to consult the manuscripts that day. No, I said, I had too many books with me. Best to return when I didn’t need to leave so much at the coat check.

“Yes. It’s best if you can just bring in a pencil. They’re quite particular there.”

My fear of special collections mounts.

The reference librarian was helpful, too, when I went to see if it could be right that the first American edition of Mrs. Dalloway was available in the general collection and that I need not go to special collections to consult it.

“Yes, that looks right. And if you can avoid looking at their copy, do. They’ll much prefer it.”

My heart is now pounding in my chest.

Still, I rang the bell to enter the special room and was ushered in by a kindly man. This was not, perhaps, going to be so bad. He asked me to sign in, “we live and die by numbers here,” and helped me discover what was becoming clear: for all the great manuscript material they have, they don’t have the books I need.

Well, I told him, once I get the books consulted, I will need to come back to look at the manuscript material. Thank you so much, I said, and I’ll be back in a few weeks.

“Have you spoken to --- ?”

No, do I need to?

“Oh yes. He’s not in today. Let me give you one of his cards. He is the one who authorizes anyone looking at actual manuscripts, not just the cd rom or microfilm. And, when it comes to publication, you’ll need a letter from the Society of Authors. He follows the letter of the law on that. Let me stress that. The Letter. Of. The. Law.”

I am officially terrified to return.

In telling this story to a friend, she informed me that there is, in fact, a whole chapter of a recent novel, Round-Heeled Woman is the book, I think, about how hard it is to get into special collections...I'm relieved and amused to know I'm not alone...

Editing--Collating Editions

I wrote with some embarrassment over my unwillingness to donate one of multiple copies of a book. This week, I find myself wishing that libraries worldwide had shared my caution.

I’m at work on a textual edition of Mrs. Dalloway. The first phase of that work, as I’m learning (this process being new to me), involves collating all the changes amongst the editions of the novel published in Woolf’s lifetime. (This means checking all the spelling and punctuation variants across editions.) (I will also be checking the first English edition against the two surviving proofs as well as consulting extant drafts of the novel).

As I embark on this collation, then, imagine my surprise in finding that the New York Public Library, home to most of Woolf’s papers, does not own the Hogarth “Universal Edition” of Woolf’s novels. This universal edition, with blue jackets, was a repackaging of her books for completists, readers who wanted the pleasure and prestige of a lovely block of identical blue-jacketed novels in their library. (I have never seen these books in person.)

In fact, according to WorldCat, there are only 23 copies of this edition in libraries worldwide, none in New York City. It’s a good thing, I suppose that my brief does not extend to the second universal edition which came out in 1942. Only four libraries have that book--and one, Princeton, shows up as owning it on WorldCat but it’s not listed in Princeton’s own database. That database, rather alarmingly, lists their copy of the first edition (1925) as missing.

Why does all this matter? Well, in the short term it matters to me immensely because I’ve contracted to do this work and I intend to do it properly, thoroughly, and even, although it is unnatural to me, meticulously.

But, beyond that, why does it matter to know that the first edition has “silver-flashing plumes” while the first American edition has “silver flashing--plumes”?

I don’t think it’s too heretical of me to say that I accepted this project in part to come to my own answer to that question. I’m not seeking a piety about sacred texts, but a real, earned knowledge.

Stay tuned.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf

I really thought that I was making a bit of a break from Woolf to imagine a new project (after the Mrs. Dalloway one, that is), that would have Bowen and and Graham Greene at its center.

Now I find, as I read Victoria Glendenning’s biography of Bowen, that I’m working on yet another woman writer with a family history of manic depression. Both Woolf and Bowen lost their mothers as young adolescents.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Camel Bookmobile

I don’t quite now how it happened, but I actually did send a box of books off to Kenya yesterday. The appeal hit me at just the right moment. It’s such a romantic and moving notion: books arriving by camel. And then, I’d just read Wizard of the Crow. Most of all, however, I was in the foulest mood possible: really, just barely civil. I wanted to break things, destroy things, spend money, overeat, wreak havoc. Somehow, my better angels led me to this entry onMaud’s blog. I found a way to spend $42 and put the brakes on my careening frustrations.

So, I went through my office. I love books and am a hoarder. What did I have that I could spare that was not utter junk? I have five copies of To the Lighthouse in my office (and more at home), but I couldn’t find one to part with. The same was true of all my Woolf books--this one is unmarked and valuable for being pristine; that one has my grandmother’s markings in it; the other was the first one I read and has naïve markings; and the final one has more recent notes and is essential for finding key passages fast. O.k., so I could let myself off the hook there: I’m a Woolf scholar and it’s o.k. to be a little batty with regards to that.

But why couldn’t I part with one of my two unread copies of The Thirty-Nine Steps? Or The Quiet American? Well, one copy of the Buchan is a reprint of the original and has a cool thirties roadster on the cover; the other has some sources and editorial material. The same kind of thing was true of Greene. And then, there are the dozens of rare African novels, literary journals, literary histories and political histories that I inherited from a retiring colleague. Could I, should I, part with them and send them to Kenya? I could not part with that treasure, either. In short, I began to fear that I would never find a book at all.

I ended up with thirteen to send--and it’s not such a bad list either: a couple English writing textbooks; two anthologies (including one of postcolonial literature); Much Ado About Nothing, The Oresteia and Beowulf; four great Dover Thrift editions (Mansfield, Joyce, Eliot, and Conan Doyle); and, to round out the baker’s dozen, The Color Purple and The Double Helix. Given all that I couldn’t part with, I was glad to send a box that, I hope, won’t look like the runt of the litter when it gets to its destination, some six or eight weeks from now. (I think it’s going by camel…)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Poetry for Children

Whenever I go to a children’s bookstore of the children’s book section of a chain store, I’m dismayed and disappointed by the choices of children’s poetry on hand. True, Chris Raschka has illustrated some gems and John Hollander, a personal hero, has made some amazing selections. Overall, however, the choices are slim.

Glad I am, then, to have the books of my girlhood. Today, my daughter chose the Golden Treasury of Poetry (c. 1957; 1974, ed. by Louis Untermeyer) as her reading tonight. The pictures are by Joan Walsh Anglund: charming but a little insipid. We flip through the book: a big, 300-page treasury, and she chooses based on whether the pictures are in color (every page is illustrated, but only 10 percent or so are in color) and if that color picture appeals. I don’t generally read either the title or the poet but just dive right in.

Tonight, she loved two by Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash, Louis Untermeyer, and an Untermeyer modernization of part of Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” (“That’s a very good knight!”). She could tell that Lewis Carrol’s “Father William” was funny without understanding it, but, when I read a bit of Wordsworth to her, she closed her eyes and began to pretend to snore.

That’s always been my feeling about The Prelude, too…

*(I admire and respect Wordsworth and I genuinely love the Intimations Ode, Tintern Abbey and many other shorter lyrics. I just can't do The Prelude.)

The dreaded 100 books meme

In full list mode, having done my top ten, I found Cam and Imani playing around with this meme. I copied it out and drove myself insane with it. It's a crazy list: no Woolf at all, only two Austens, no George Eliot and light on Brontes, no 18th century novels at all (Fielding, Defoe, Burney, Richardson, etc.) very little African American literature, tons of Steinbeck but no Hemingway, almost nothing literary that is also not commonly taught at school or acknowledged as canonical except for, strangely, Margaret Laurence. I find it very hard to strike through things. I mostly love reading; my tastes are pretty catholic. I thought The Da Vinci Code was entertaining. It just doesn't bug me all that much that it's not well written. I don't think Dan Brown was aiming for that. It was a good, amusing little story. So what?

Similarly, there are books that I know I'd probably enjoy--as cotton candy, like Sophie Kinsella, or more richly, like John Irving. But will I ever get to them? Unlikely. And it doesn't make sense to italicize them just because I imagine I'd enjoy them well enough. Still, if stuck in a cabin over the weekend with The Bible and Confessions of a Shopaholic, I'm confident that the Kinsella would be read by the end of the weekend.


Look at the list of books below. Bold the ones you’ve read, italicize the ones you want to read, cross out the ones you won’t touch with a 10 foot pole, put a cross (+) in front of the ones on your book shelf, and asterisk (*) the ones you’ve never heard of.

1. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)
8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. *Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
15. + Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
17. *Fall on Your Knees(Ann-Marie MacDonald)
18. The Stand (Stephen King)
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban(Rowling)
20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
21. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)

25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
27. +Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
28. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)

29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie(Mitch Albom)
31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)

34. 1984 (Orwell)
35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
37. *The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
38. I Know This Much is True(Wally Lamb)
39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. +The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
45. +Bible (like Cam, I have read parts; not all)
46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. +Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. + She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)

53. *Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
54. Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. +The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)

56. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
57. +Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
59. +The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)
61. +Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand) (It means so much to so many students of mine that I feel I should learn, first hand what the story is.)
63. +War and Peace (Tolstoy)

64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
66. +One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
67. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. +Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. +Les Miserables (Hugo)

70. +The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding)

72. +Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. +The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. *The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. The World According To Garp (John Irving)

79. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
80. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
81. *Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. *Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)
85. +Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down(Richard Adams)

87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
91. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth(Pearl S. Buck)
94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
95. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
99. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)
100. +Ulysses (James Joyce)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

My Top Ten

This was hard. Bud posted his top ten and I immediately got nervous in a shameful way. So many books that might and should be on my top ten aren’t there because I haven’t read them (or haven’t finished them). Poor Madame Bovary, for example. I was twenty-four and in love. I was in Paris. I bought the novel in French. My French is good, but I was undone by all those ribbons and petticoats. Then, my beloved’s indifference to me became excruciating. I left him and the book.

Watching Eric Rohmer’s Summer last night--a movie I hadn’t seen in a decade and one that lives up to its unofficial status as my favorite film--I was again shamed to be reminded of Dostoevsky. The heroine (French, lonely, self-defeating) has read him; I have not.

And this is a dangerous game, isn’t it? If you’ve read David Lodge, you’ll remember the English professors playing a suicidal game of admitting which classics they haven’t read. Drunk, the young antihero plays his trump card: Hamlet. He wins the game.

He doesn’t get tenure.

So these are the thoughts that have been racing through my mind.

Still, top ten lists are amusing, so I offer mine. I took this to be about fiction, so Yeats, Shakespeare, and Virgil are not here. They probably would be otherwise. As would Keats’ odes.

I drew this up quickly: the top five or so are without doubt the most important novels in my life. After that, I’ll admit to some tinkering. I let the unquestioned masterpieces pass without comment. They are, to me, sacred texts. As Henry James (who came in thirteenth or so) said, one does not defend one’s god; one’s god is, in himself, a defense. (I doubt he foresaw that being applied to Leslie Stephen’s bluestocking daughter Virginia….)
  1. Pride and Prejudice
  2. Mrs. Dalloway
  3. Another Country by James Baldwin. I came to this on my own somehow in high school and it changed my life. It’s not close to being in the top twenty-five best books, but it does something incredible: it really tries to imagine a world of inter-racial love and friendship, of alliances between gay and straight people, even (least successfully) of finding smart women interesting and sexy. This was the world that my Seattle friends and I thought we were building in the early eighties in high school and to find Baldwin having tried it already made me believe in our fantasy all the more.
  4. Invisible Man
  5. Great ExpectationsLittle makes me happier and more connected to my girlhood and my father than Dickens. It’s hard not to choose Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, but this novel of a thwarted fairy tale did some important illusion-breaking for me. I have re-read it several times since with increasing pleasure and admiration.
  6. Anna Karenina
  7. Anne of Green GablesD. H. Lawrence wrote a gorgeous essay on the hymns of his youth as the lifeblood of his poetry. Nothing, he wrote, could touch him more deeply than “Oh Galilee, sweet Galilee / Where Jesus loved so much to be.” L. M. Montgomery was that to me. I still remember breathlessly running down to the kitchen, “Mama, what’s a kindred spirit?” “Oh. Well, Anne is my kindred spirit.” My parents were kind and did not giggle in front of me. I knew I was swept away, but what a pleasure it was.
  8. Women in LoveI came to Lawrence late. What a thunderclap. And, when I turned briefly away from Woolf to work on Lawrence--just for a little testosterone break--I met my husband.
  9. Ulysses
  10. Wizard of the Crow I love what Bud said--that if he’s lucky, the book he’s reading now is his favorite. I’m still living in the spell of this one: a great, great epic of African literature with a marvelous romance, lots of humor, and biting satire.
Not a lot of overlap with other lists, I see, but that’s the fun of the game, isn’t it?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ha Jin, Waiting

I got excited about the Opera of The First Emperor because, well, China is cool and I knew the names Tan Dun, Ha Jin, & Zhang Yimou. I bought tickets & went. I went to hear Ha Jin speak at Fordham in an interview connected with the opera. And, weeks ago, I read Waiting for the first time. Finally, I have a minute to type in my thoughts which have been languishing in longhand for a while now…

I loved this book, but it took a while for me to find the first passage that struck me as great. I read along passively: it’s so well-written but the prose doesn’t overwhelm you with its power or skill at first. Then, suddenly, the crackle of this amazing description of the springtime hit me:
Then spring descended all of a sudden. Aspen catkins flew in the air, so thick that when walking on the streets you could breathe them in and you would flick your hand to keep them away from your face. The scent of lilac blooms was pungent and intoxicating. Yet old people still wrapped themselves in fur or cotton-padded clothes. The dark earth, vast and loamy, marked by tufts of yellow grass here and there, began emitting a warm vapor that flickered like purple smoke in the sunshine. All at once apricot and peach trees broke into blossoms, which grew puffy as bees kept touching them. Within two weeks summer started. (27)
What moved me? I like the phrase “Aspen catkins” with its internal rhyme; I like the excess of it--the catkins scent is not only so thick you breathe it, they are so abundant that you flick them away; I love the immediate image of Chinese old people in conjured by “cotton-padded clothes”; best of all, the second moment of excess, when apricot and peach trees break into blossom and those blossoms themselves then grow puffy from the bees.

From this moment on, the experience of reading the novel changed. That passage made me know for myself what I had heard (and believed) from others: that Ha Jin is a great writer.

Then, I was surprised at how affecting the plot is. I can’t quite explaine it--it’s partly that it made me remember the years and years of my life that I spent working and lonely, longing for a partner. Those years were far from monkish years, not solitary at all, but I did spend a lot of time waiting.

But there is something more. The hospital setting, full of doctors and nurses, most of them far from their home villages, educated beyond their parents and in a different field from them, is familiar and modern. But rather than focusing on alienation or bacchanal, Ha Jin emphasizes the sense of lives in suspense. (The austerity of the Chinese Communist setting only aids this.) When the protagonist goes back to his home village annual (to request a divorce from his wife), he is simultaneously relieved to be among familiar, easygoing faces and appalled at the parochialism of the villagers--symbolized most potently by the bound feet of his wife.

When you have lives in two places, in two worlds, and before you have definitively broken with one in favor of the other, it’s easy to live--as the main character does--in a fantasy in which the life that is “real” oscillates between places according to mood--in harmony, one can feel that the real life is here, wth only a dull awareness of another life ongoing there; out of sync, the real life seems to be there, this life here, only a figment.

The book is wonderful and I wouldn’t want it to be a sentence shorter. The ending really took me by surprise--watching his decisions grow dumber and thicker and then watching the lovely and disastrous consequences of his passive, suspended life, was a really gorgeous and moving reading experience.

But now, weeks later, I can see the book as a fable, too. I can imagine boiling it down to five hundred words and a moral and finding that equally worthy of meditation.

That duality--its beautiful length and its powerful précis--may be a sign of a certain kind of greatness.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Times New Roman vs. Garamond

I know this is silly, but sometimes I find myself thinking about fonts. I know, too, that I’m not the only one. For, really, why are there so many? And why do so many books have “a note about the font” at the back?

I used to write everything in Palomino. I thought it was a beautiful font. Then, at some point a few years ago, its very beauty became offensive and shameful to me: a sign of my dilettantism, yet another indication that I would never get my book done. I switched to Times and, occasionally Times New Roman. I cannot tell the difference. Both are fine, functional typefaces and I like them for the way they pass, on the printed page, almost unnoted. But the reign of austerity could not continue forever. When I taught my first graduate class on modernism in 1999 or so, I wanted the posters advertising my class to be as pretty as those of my colleagues, both Victorianists. But I needed, too, for my work to look modern, to look new. I found Skia, a lovely, squat sans-serif font that has a look of the twenties about it. I continue to use Skia in my teaching from time to time.

But I stuck with Times for my writing life. There, I needed to be ramrod-straight, serious, intellectual, and uncompromising until the book came out.

Well, the book is out. Where does that leave me?

Rudderless, of course, and amazed to find that I am free to do what I have always been free to do: abandon Times. I am working on a new project, an edition of Mrs. Dalloway, and, to do it, I need an electronic copy of the novel. Someone in duplicating services scanned it into Word for me, after much grumbling, and now I am laboriously correcting the scan. I need an exact copy of the book--what was on page 23 will be in my word document on page 23, with all the same dashes, hyphens, etc. This means that I will have--and need to have--lots and lots of white space surrounding the text. It turns out that Garamond lets me do this really well. And what a lovely font! Elegant and old-fashioned without looking Victorian, it pleases me.

Looking at it, day after day, I realized that I could easily turn my back on Times forever, should I so choose. I’m writing this in Georgia now. It’s lovely for writing: round and bold, easy to read (Garamond can be hard on the eyes when reading a screen), but with a little more personality than bland old Times.

Still, when I have to write something official, I will return to Times, I think.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Read this: new Ngugi

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s new novel The Wizard of the Crow is this quarter’s READ THIS selection from the LBC. I was a little sorry that my nominee, the wonderful Seven Loves by Valerie Trueblood didn’t win. Still, there’s no shame in losing to a masterpiece written by a master.

Ngugi is the author of many novels and plays--Petals of Blood and A Grain of Wheat are the best known; he spent years in prison in his native Kenya for the ideas expressed in his books; he has taught all over the U.S. (And why, oh why, when he & I overlapped, did I not take his class?) After writing his first couple novels in English, he did what many, many postcolonial writers cannot do or dare not do: he switched to writing in Gikuyu. He then translates his books into English. Ngugi is a powerful advocate against colonialism and the continued colonialist financial exploitation of Africa and the developing world more generally. His “Decolonizing the Mind” is a widely anthologized polemic, an essay about the power of walking away from English, the colonial language.

All of this is pretty serious stuff and I admit that, although I am glad to have read A Grain of Wheat, I don’t look back on the experience of reading it with joy. So, why should you read The Wizard of the Crow?

Well, as interesting as it is to know all this stuff about Ngugi, put it aside and pop over to the LBC and read some of the other enthusiastic accounts about this new novel there. The Wizard of the Crow is a great, serious, hilarious satire. At its heart is a love story and, to my delight, the woman and man are evenly matched and she is lovely, strong, complex and interesting. At the heart of their story--the tension in their friendship and wary courting--is the conflict between what George Orwell called the desire to live inside the whale with the need to step out of his belly and prophesy. That is, in the face of overwhelming violence and corruption, don’t you just want to retreat to the forests and live the life of a mystic? But how can you leave behind the sufferings of your neighbors, your people? There are layers and layers of storytelling, which make the book, for all its heft, just sing along. And, though every character is weak and flawed--some much more than others--Ngugi shows such affection for and understanding of them all that you finish feeling the joy and variety of life as much as the corruption of society. Someone said Catch-22 and, if I’d been able to finish that book, I think I’d agree with the comparison to be apt. Maybe John Irving at his best. Or Rushdie at his. And yes, absolutely Garcia Marquez. But really, what I think of is Dickens: that broad, teeming canvas, full of eccentricities and joy.

So, do yourself a favor and READ THIS!!! Man, it’s good!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What to Read Next: Don DeLillo

I've been wanting to write about how to decide what to read next, how, when. During my many years of teaching, of working on my book, I was always behind; I always knew precisely what I needed to read next--and after that--for class, for planning my next class, for my book. The book is done. I’m still on maternity leave, not teaching this year. I can read whatever I want. How to decide?

There are so many exciting brand new novels. And then there is the category of books from the past decade or so that I’ve purchased with some enthusiasm but haven’t yet read. And then there are books, second and third books, by writers whom I admire but haven’t read all of. And all the classics that I never did make time for. Or maybe I should dip back into the Indian novels I used to love. Or continue reading African novels. Or read some of the works of forgotten women modernists whose books I know I’d like. Or read some Japanese literature. Or...

But while a more thoughtful version of this meditation awaits, there was the problem this week of what to read next.

A problem immediately solved by the appearance, in my mailbox, of a advance copy of the new DeLillo. I am really interested in novels about September 11. I’ve never read DeLillo (until today). This book is both. Thanks to a slow commute and a fast, moving narrative, I’m sixty pages in. It’s great. Falling Man is clearly what to read next…

Monday, February 05, 2007

Women Writers, Censorship and War

In my head, I have been writing for days a small piece on women writers, censorship and war. I have been thinking about what it means that many of us--myself included--can live through war untouched by war. I think about Molly Ivins’ death and her call to us to raise hell against this war. I think about Tillie Olsen’s death, too, and her peace work. And Valerie Trueblood’s peace work. And what I means to be able to say that one worked for peace.

In the mean time, I want to draw your attention to two things worthy of commemoration and celebration. First, the incisive and powerful Laila Lalami (of MoorishGirl and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits) had an Op-Ed on censorship in the Times on Saturday.

Progress comes in such babysteps, doesn’t it? There was a time when it would have been nearly impossible to imagine a Morrocan-American woman being a respected writer, sufficiently authoritative to speak out against censorship. And yet, here we are, still speaking against censorship.

And worse. Journalists killed all the time all over the world.

But we must celebrate the lives of those who work for justice. If you’re in the San Francisco area, you might want to join others in celebrating Tillie Olsen. Another of her grand-daughters asked me to spread the word about a memorial service:

Tillie Lerner Olsen
Author, Feminist, Activist
January 14, 1912 - January 1, 2007

Join family, friends, and readers for a Memorial Celebration of Tillie Olsen's Life

Saturday, February 17, 2007

First Congregational Church of Oakland

2501 Harrison Street (corner of 25th and Harrison)
Oakland, CA

1:00 celebration followed by reception.

Parking on site. The church is 8 blocks from the 19th Street BART Station.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


I explained to my older daughter (4), that “exhausted” means “very very very very very very tired.” Now, she has taken to adding “exhaust-“ as a prefix to any word to make it a hyper-superlative (so favored among the preschool set). Thus, we get “Wow, Mom! Applesauce, fish sticks, ketchup, and cottage cheese. There’s nothing here that children don’t like! This dinner is exhaust-great!”

As childhood mispronunciations (compity for company, regliar for regular) fall by the wayside, it’s exhaustgreat to have a new linguistic oddity (beyond the amazing Jersey accent!) to amuse and delight us…