Friday, April 27, 2007


The baby is one today. She has two words: "hi" and "uh-oh."

"Uh-oh" is my favorite for it signifies result (I just did something naughty), ongoing action (I'm doing something naughty) and, best of all, intention (I'm thinking about doing something naughty).

This third, I'm thinking about doing something naughty, is supremely useful. I can turn my head or leave the room, hear an "uh-oh!" and rush to prevent the next small disaster.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Fear No More

Shakespeare was born on this day in 1564. WQXR was celebrating with songs from Shakespeare and speeches read by Julliard students. Caller number twelve who correctly identified the source won a little parcel of plays. I was one for three only: Othello.

But I’ve been thinking about Cymbeline today, since that’s the play that’s quoted in Mrs. Dalloway. WQXR played a really gorgeous setting of the song “Fear no more,” the very song that links Clarissa and Septimus in the novel. I found a folksy version of it on iTunes to download. Then, with the play on my mind, a postcard arrived from BAM. They’re doing Cymbeline the first two weeks of May…Oh, how I long to go. Here, then, is the gorgeous dirge, sung over what the singers believe to be a dead body. He need fear the sun’s heat no more, for he is dead:
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.
And that final couplet is so glorious, so poignant. Yes, chimney-sweepers, covered in dust, remind us that we are made of dust and to dust must return but, the song reminds us, even golden lads and girls share that fate.

I saw a gorgeous production of Cymbeline in Oxford when I was twenty-four. When I was twenty-three and taking my orals, John Hollander examined me on Shakespeare. He asked me if I could talk for a minute about how plays-within-plays worked. Somehow, thanks to Woolf, I had already grown fond of Cymbeline and I was canny enough to guess that a vaguely competent answer on that play would stand me in better stead than a pedestrian answer on Hamlet. So, I said, “Well, the play-within-a-play in Hamlet is the obvious place to go, but what I find really interesting is the one in Cymbeline as it takes the form of a Jacobean masque within a romance…”

I think that was the moment in the ninety-minute exam where I passed. The subsequent hour was just confirmation. So I always feel grateful to Shakespeare, to Tennyson for loving the play and teaching Woolf to love it, and to Woolf who taught me to love it and helped me pass my exams to become a professor.

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Eat me! Drink me!

The baby turns one on Friday--the reason that, once again, I won’t be attending the dazzling-sounding PEN World Writers Festival. Can it be two years since I heard Tsitsi Dangarembga speak? Sigh. Now, Tsitsi has a second novel out, The Book of Not only in England. I’ll try to get my hands on it in August when I’m in London. And Richard Nash kindly sent me the relaunched Transition which includes a story of hers and an interview, too. I read the interview--wonderful and moving about the struggles of writing in Zimbabwe, film school in Germany, and how the success of her first novel came when she’d already moved to film. This explains, in part, the years its taken for her to write the second, but, more generally, it’s a reminder of how contingent and random literary success can be. For Dangarembga, her success took just that much too long that she had embarked on a wholly new project before the waves of success washed back to her.

This year’s PEN festival looks as wonderful as ever. And Bud Parr has gathered a storied group of correspondents to party and cover events over at Metaxu CafĂ©. I’ll be watching from the sidelines in between slices of cake. Next year, when the baby is two, I anticipate a less action-packed celebration and may be able to fit in some PEN events alongside the familial festivities.

But turning one is a big. And, so, too, will be our celebrations. Grammy and Papa will be flying in from Seattle for a weekend full of fun. (Quiet and very local, but involving lots of very good food and bubbly, no doubt.) But, what to get the little girl who has everything?

I found her the best present ever!

Don’t tell the baby, but she’s got some very, very nice Alice in Wonderland dishes awaiting her on Friday. They’re from the British Library but I picked mine up in the New York Public Library gift shop, a great place for literary gifts. They have the original manuscript drawings and handwriting. The cup says “DRINK ME”; the plate says “The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts…” and the bowl says “The Marchioness! The Marchioness!...” They’ll go nicely with big sister’s Winnie the Pooh and Peter Rabbit china.

(My sister points out the Virginia Woolf tea towel and asks if purchasing it might not mark a setback for global feminism. Hmm. Still, I'll probably pick one up when I'm in London. I'm a sucker for Woolf kitsch.)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

READ THIS: Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead

Well, spring quarter festivities have begun over at the LitBlog Co-op. This quarter's pick is the dreamy and moving Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead by Alan DeNiro. It's a jolly, rich Borgesian ride.

Take this tidbit, for instance, the opening lines to the story "A Keeper": "Tonight the woman who always calls, calls. This time she asks me how to divid a beggar and an arctangent. What could I have possibly said to her? I think she is a keeper. 'Stop trying to mix the humanities and the sciences. And go to be.'"

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Woolf’s Diary

I’m working my way through Woolf’s diary, with large stacks of post-its in hand, noting everything that might pertain to Mrs. Dalloway and everything that delights, too.

In that latter category, then, comes this reflection from April 18, 1918 on her habit of writing during tea-time:

“There is a grave defect in the scheme of this book which decrees that it must be written after tea. When people come to tea I cant say to them ‘Now wait a minute while I write an account of you’. They go, & its too late to begin.”

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sillier than Benjamin

Michael Chabon is not the only fan of Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. As much as I loved the Greek and Norse myths they collected, retold, and illustrated, I loved their biographies. I still have my beautiful versions of them from childhood: large, lavishly illustrated hardback books, with vivid full-color lithographs on every page and lots text. I have George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Pocahontas, and Abraham Lincoln. I remember reading them over and over to myself when I was six or seven. Although she is only four, I have occasionally read them to my daughter.

When I do, I wonder what she makes of them. She’s so very little, what of these stories captures her imagination?

Well, I got a glimpse the other day when she saw a dollar bill lying next to her piggy bank on the changing table shelf.

“Mama, is that Benjamin Franklin?”

“No, honey, it’s not but that’s a very good guess. It’s George Washington and he was a friend of Benjamin Franklin.” (I wince inwardly at that “friend”, but how else to put it to a four-year-old? “Colleague” seems pretentious and equally inaccurate. “Ally”? “Compatriot”? How, really, to be articulate with her whilst changing her sister’s diaper?) “George Washington,” I add, “was the first President of the United States.”

“What was Benjamin President of?”

“Well, nothing, honey. He worked hard to make the United States into a country.”

“Well, I know someone who’s even sillier than Benjamin.”


“ABRAHAM LINCOLN! Can we read that book tonight?”

So we did. As I read along (it takes a good half hour to read the whole book aloud--and that is surely part of the appeal of these books for any child eager to stave off bedtime), I found the “silly” part: it seems that when Lincoln was a rapidly growing young man, his stepmother joked that she was perfectly able to mop the floors of his muddy footprints but he’d best keep his head clean as she was not tall enough to wipe the ceiling. So, to tease her, he took a muddy-footed young friend, held him upside down and had him make footprints across the ceiling. “Abraham, I ought to thrash you!” his stepmother said with a laugh. And then, good boy that he was, he got a bucket of whitewash and cleaned the ceiling for her.

Definitely sillier than Benjamin.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mr. Bentley

One of the effects of working on this edition of Mrs. Dalloway has been the discovery of wondrous little details in the text, such as this gem, the appearance of Mr. Bentley, and his thoughts about science and the soul as he watches an airplane fly overhead:
Away and away the aeroplane shot, till it was nothing but a bright spark; an aspiration; a concentration; a symbol (so it seemed to Mr. Bentley, vigorously rolling his strip of turf at Greenwich) of man's soul; of his determination, thought Mr. Bentley, sweeping round the cedar tree, to get outside his body, beyond his house, by means of thought, Einstein, speculation, mathematics, the Mendelian theory--away the aeroplane shot.
The airplane as aspiration is lovely--and it makes me nostalgic for 1925 when a plane could seem so. (Though to most of the central Londoners in the novel, the plane [which is a skywriter, advertising toffee or soap] recalls WWI.)

Mr. Bentley, whose cameo ends with this quotation, is a classic Englishman. He’s obsessed with his lawn. Following in the footsteps of Darwin, he sensibly thinks out how “man” thinks through problems of the soul through science, and, in doing so, he hits upon little bits of poetry (“a bright spark,” “sweeping round the cedar tree”). Lovely.

Books Unblogged

So, the other books (besides Twins) I’ve read but not written about turn out to have something in common: they’re nonfiction.

I enjoyed all three but I think I know why I don’t have much to say about them here: they were best-sellers and easy reads. What’s to say? It’s like offering up an English-to-English translation. I can see, however, why nonfiction so far outsells fiction: decent nonfiction just skips right along. You get a ripping good story, a pleasant sense of the author’s voice, and lots of information, but, really, very little thinking is involved. The point of view doesn’t shift, the metaphors are deliberately pedestrian--making the unusual common rather than the other way around, and the pacing intends to just pull you right along.

So, yes, I liked the book-length Freakonomics as devoutly as I’d enjoyed the article in the Sunday Times. And though I found Julie Powell annoying at times, I got a lot of pleasure out of Julie and Julia. Finally, Simon Winchester’s great tale of the origins of the OED, The Professor and the Madman, did not disappoint.

None of these books disappointed, in fact.

I do want more, however. Deep in Woolf’s diaries, behind in my reading for the LitBlog Co-op, and otherwise feeling the pressure of looming Woolf deadlines, I am pondering, somewhat abstractly and abstractedly, where to turn next…

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Marcy Dermansky’s Twins: Reviewing Late

Heaven only knows why it took me three months to tell you what a fun, hilarious, and touching read Marcy Dermansky’s Twins is. It’s a young adult novel that you can read quickly and with great pleasure and one to give to any of your young reader friends.

Besides, maybe it can give some weight to my recommendation that I’m writing about this book a few months later and there are some things in it that I remember so vividly and with such pleasure. The opening conceit, in which the needier twin convinces her sister that they should celebrate their birthday with lower back tattoos--each will carry her sister’s name forever--is brilliant and immediately raises the stakes for their bond. The novel is all about that desire to brand your beloved forever and all the ways such bonds go awry even as they never go away.

I loved, too, the depiction, late in the book, of life at Hampshire College. The easy, happy, intellectual bohemianism--a carefree, careless atmosphere of sex and drugs and ideas--is perfectly rendered. I was--and am--a very uptight person, but oh! those weekends at Hampshire when I was in college. I used to take the Peter Pan bus from Boston out to the Happy Valley for forty-eight hours of play. Best was when my friend was dating the already dashing Liev Schreiber. I saw them in a production of “The Cherry Orchard” and then we went to a raucous cast party. Dermansky’s version doesn’t have Liev Schreiber, but it matches my memory perfectly.

And it is otherwise a heart-wrenching, wild and sweet story of sisterhood. I want it to be a movie right away.

So, of the books on my desk that I’ve read but haven’t told you about, there’s no excuse for the delay on this one. Grab it and enjoy.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Mrs. Filmer’s Married Daughter’s Hat

In Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), right before Septimus commits suicide, he helps his wife, an Italian hat-maker, make a hat for “Mrs. Filmer’s married daughter.” I love that name--the complexity and formality of it, the reminder of the name changes for married women, in a novel in which the protagonist, Mrs. Dalloway, thinks about how she’s not Clarrisa anymore (let alone still a Parry). Mrs. Filmer once had a Christian name, a maiden name; her daughter, once a Miss Filmer, is now married with a new surname. Who is she? Who are these women?

Here, then is a bit of the scene for your weekend pleasure--a delightful and happy scene of hat-making just in time for you to don your Easter bonnet, a scene made poignant--perhaps melodramatic--by the impending suicide of a good, shell-shocked man. The scene makes me as happy as Rezia is in the moment--perhaps it will you, too:
He took it out of her hands. He said it was an organ grinder's monkey's hat.

How it rejoiced her that! Not for weeks had they laughed like this together, poking fun privately like married people. What she meant was that if Mrs. Filmer had come in, or Mrs. Peters or anybody, they would not have understood what she and Septimus were laughing at.

"There," she said, pinning a rose to one side of the hat. Never had she felt so happy! Never in her life!

But that was still more ridiculous, Septimus said. Now the poor woman looked like a pig at a fair. (Nobody ever made her laugh as Septimus did.) What had she got in her work-box? She had ribbons and beads, tassels, artificial flowers. She tumbled them out on the table. He began putting odd colours together--for though he had no fingers, could not even do up a parcel, he had a wonderful eye, and often he was right, sometimes absurd, of course, but sometimes wonderfully right.

"She shall have a beautiful hat! " he murmured, taking up this and that, … But she must be very, very careful, he said, to keep it just as he had made it.


It was wonderful. Never had he done anything which made him feel so proud. It was so real, it was so substantial, Mrs. Peters' hat.
“Just look at it," he said.

Yes, it would always make her happy to see that hat.

It’s the end of this scene that’s so devastating and poignant. The long-suffering Rezia, in her happiness, knows to expect hard times to come and so she saves up the memory of the hat as a memory of what it was like to be a normal married couple with Septimus.

Moments later, he kills himself.

I wonder what she thinks of the hat then.

But in the midst of the scene, none of that is prefigures. Instead, without heavy-handedness, Woolf gives us a joyous glimpse of what we’ve only seen in memory up to now: two people who love each other working together, sharing private jokes and appreciating each other’s strengths. It’s a gorgeous portrait easy marital harmony.

Monday, April 02, 2007

How to Write a Negative Review

I love reading negative reviews but I have a hard time writing them. And I wonder about their usefulness, too. A book’s author is often the most attentive reader and I always think of her--of Virginia Woolf’s eloquent and pained responses to reviews, of the reviews I hope and fear to read of my own work one day. (One does exist, by the way, in the new issue of Woolf Studies Annual, but I haven’t seen it yet.) It seems churlish, knowing how hard it is to write a book, to be mean about someone else’s.

But not all books are good, and every book, even a great one, has limitations.

It seems to me that Emily Nussbaum’s review of Deborah Garrison’s new collection of poems in Sunday’s NYTBR offers a great model of a kind of negative review. This is a second collection, a follow-up to a popular and successful first. Nussbaum establishes that with generosity and this pads us against feeling too bad for Garrison (after all, the implication is, she is going to be just fine--as the picture of her, smart, good-looking, and, apparently thriving in a backyard in New Jersey, seems to attest). Nussbaum is careful, too, to note that Garrison’s “Sex in the City”-type poems appealed to her; she found them light but pleasant; she likes “Sex in the City.”

Then, in the last three paragraphs of the review, she zooms out to take a look at the bigger picture.

Garrison is writing about motherhood now. Of poets on that topic, how does her work stack up?

Well, not as well as one might hope. Nussbaum puts Garrison in a large constellation dominated by the stars of late-twentieth century women’s poetry: Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, and, finally, Sylvia Plath:
But is it wrong to want more? Since …midcentury, … there has been a flood of smart, morbid, searching, sometimes outrageous writing on maternity. The best such poems burn off the pink sentimentality of motherhood in favor of something wilder and more surprising. …
This, “is it wrong to want more?” is, I think, a key question of reviewing. I’ve just finished a book that didn’t do it for me and that wanting more was the whole problem: the author built a world for me and then didn’t really do much with his creations. All the lovely sentences built towards predictability, beauty without momentum, cruelty. I wanted more.

Nussbaum continues, comparing Garrison to Sylvia Plath. It’s an unfair fight--and Nussbaum acknowledges that--but the point here is to remind ourselves as readers what it feels like not to want more, to read poems about something common--being a mother--and be left feeling stunned, amazed, transported.
To my mind, the great unsung poet of motherhood is Sylvia Plath. She may have a reputation as the ultimate misery chick, but in fact, her writing overflows with talk of birth, of breastfeeding and motherhood, much of it, despite sad undercurrents, loving and celebratory. In the gorgeous “Nick and the Candlestick,” for instance, Plath writes “O love, how did you get here? / O embryo / Remembering, even in sleep, / Your crossed position. / The blood blooms clean / In you, ruby.” The poem ends with one of her most moving images: “You are the one / Solid the spaces lean on, envious. / You are the baby in the barn.” In poems like this, and in her finest descriptions (as when a newborn’s “clear vowels rise like balloons”), Plath makes strange what should be familiar — which is, after all, a central task of poetry.

It’s unfair, of course, to expect Garrison to be like Plath. She has her own gifts and an audience sure to appreciate them. In real life, I’d rather have a likable next-door neighbor than a bipolar goddess as a confidante. But in writing? Give me the strange mother over the sweet one any day.

Where Have I Been?

My desk at home, where I work only at night when my husband is home and upstairs, is in our bedroom. When we set up this desk, we imagined the always overflowing shelf above my workspace as a convenient spot for a few books currently essential to my work. We wanted to keep the bedroom a sanctuary, in spite of the space restrictions of apartment living.

Well, here we are, ten months later, and the stack here includes, among many other things, all the books I’ve read but not yet told you about. Plus a few leftovers from the LitBlog Co-op last quarter--things that I haven’t yet filed elsewhere or about which I’m still thinking. Every time, for example, I see Demon Theory, I’m paralyzed about what to do with it. I didn’t like it, but my dislike turned to fascination as I thought more about the book. I don’t really want to give it away, nor do I want it on display. So there it sits.

And the other week was, well, stressful. Things at work were a little intense--good, but intense. And then I went to the CCCC’s conference at the end of the week (two weeks ago now): that’s the big conference on teaching writing (composition, not creative writing) at the college level. I had all sorts of split motives all the time. I considered attending a joint presentation by Joy Harjo and Lee Marmon (a photographer and the father of Leslie Marmon Silko) but decided that I would do better to go to a smaller, wonkier presentation.

At the wonk-fest, I was bored (as I’d expected to be) but imagine my double disappointment upon arriving at the book exhibit to find Joy Harjo kitted out entirely in red satin, signing books.

I meant, then, to make up for that by going to hear Dorothy Allison, but I ran into a bunch of old friends and our conversation was so fun and good that I missed her, too: I had to run off to a department meeting. And so it goes.