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.