Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Magnificent Obsession

I went to an author talk last week (the event that prevented me from attending the Boxcar Reading), that’s worthy of a write-up in “The Talk of the Town.” To explain how I ended up at the Sean Kelly Galley on West 29th in the wilds of West Chelsea (the roar of the West Side Highway and the twinkling lights of Jersey just visible, audible), I need to go back about fifteen years. When I was in graduate school, I worked as an editor on a journal that brought law students and graduate students together. Our weekly meetings were a highlight of my life then and I made several friends with whom I’m still in touch.

One friend, a law student, was coming off one of those high-powered banking jobs. He had done his two years and needed an advanced degree to secure the next promotion. But banking wasn’t really his interest. And he certainly didn’t want to get an M.B.A. His goal was to learn about finance so that, one day, he could start a publishing house dedicated to promoting contemporary art.

I still reel back a bit at the ambition and the incredible sense of orderliness to the plan: so much deferred gratification, such a clear sense of the process.

All that work and care has come to pass. Gregory R. Miller & Co. is now a publisher and last week I went to an author talk and booksigning in honor of one of Greg’s books: Michael Sheridan’s The Furniture of Poul Kjoerholm: Catalogue RaisonnĂ©.

If Greg’s journey to publish the book is a tale of dedication and resolve, so, too, is that of Michael Sheridan’s coming to write it. Sheridan, an architect, had on a formal and spiffy suit. He has a high-domed head and a confident air. He spoke, without notes, to a group of twenty or so enthusiasts of Danish modern furniture--and that is one of the lovely and amazing things about Manhattan, that we can gather such a group, that such a group exists. He described his admiration for Kjoerholm (you can see some samples here) and how he came to organize an exhibit in Denmark and then to write this book and organize the exhibits (at two Manhattan galleries) of his work.

Coming to the event from the outside, it was charming, amazing, daffy, and a little inspiring to hear Sheridan pronounce with great confidence that he has no doubt that 100 years from now people will still be manufacturing some of Kjoerholm’s pieces, that they will still be collecting, talking about, and learning from his designs.

As for the furniture itself. Well, it’s beautiful and very plain Danish modern furniture. I love it, but it doesn’t keep me in the gallery for long.

It was great to see Greg--whom I hadn’t seen since my wedding in 1999--and to meet his sister-in-law and her daughter. While Greg hosted the gathering, the three of us wandered the gallery together, talking about Fordham (where I teach, where the sister went to law school), Webkinz (those stuffed animals with websites that Greg’s niece and my daughter like), and furniture.

The book is truly beautiful. And, I’m told, it’s a first: Greg and Sheridan have given the design world the kind of complete treatment of an important artist that the fine art world has long had. I admit--as you can hear--that I am far from understanding what I think of all of this, but I always admire passion, dedication, hard work, and the efforts to fulfill a dream. And there is something even more touching about seeing that first hand when the dream--whether to make the furniture, write about it, or publish the book-- is something far out of my ken.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Around the web

And Max entertains fantasies of novelists starring in a Bravo-style reality show.

While my college listserv for writers and editors urges me to vote for Jamie Kiffel’s entry in the amazon contest.

YA novelist Grace Lin has two new books out for Chinese New Year: Bringing in the New Year (a picture book) and The Year of the Rat. She's also written a timely picture book on foreign adoption. In addition to being a wonderful author and illustrator and a great inspiring chronicler of Chinese-American life (we particularly love Red is a Dragon and The Ugly Vegetables), Grace was a student in my mother-in-law’s 8th grade English class years ago. Small world, eh?

Jessica, of The Written Nerd, won a big grant to get her Brooklyn bookstore started. Congratulations!!!

Paula weighs in on the perennial Virginia Woolf vs. James Joyce spat with some important context. (For the record, I refuse to choose: both are great beyond a doubt. One, as regular readers of this blog may have noted, is a personal obsession but I won’t proselytize…)

Pinky has some great, witty, postmodern Pinky-ish thoughts about reality and film with regards to Edward Doheny, Greystone Mansion (the house he built but did not live in, and There Will Be Blood, a film that isn’t really about Doheny but was filmed in the house that he built. Got that?

And Levi offers up the report on Mark’s reading last week.

Why couldn't I make it? Well, let's save that for another post...

We interrupt this litblog...

Obama! Obama! Obama!
The Toni Morrison endorsement is, as one would expect, moving and majestic and operatic in its grandeur. I wonder where Maya Angelou (she of “It’s morning in America,” remember?) comes down this time, or if other novelists will weigh in, too. But given the continuing, and now toxic currency of her "first black president" quip (a quip that, in its original context, was interesting and insightful enough but now has a new icky life), I think it's great that she has clarified her allegiances now.
I have admired Senator Clinton for years. Her knowledge always seemed to me exhaustive; her negotiation of politics expert. However I am more compelled by the quality of mind (as far as I can measure it) of a candidate. I cared little for her gender as a source of my admiration… Nor do I care very much for your race[s]. I would not support you if that was all you had to offer or because it might make me "proud."

In thinking carefully about the strengths of the candidates, I stunned myself when I came to the following conclusion: that in addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit … a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom…. Wisdom is a gift; you can't train for it, inherit it, learn it in a class, or earn it in the workplace--that access can foster the acquisition of knowledge, but not wisdom.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Digested Read

I love "the digested read," but this one takes the cake. I mean, I knew that a Mario Vargas Llosa novel about a man obsessed with a promiscuous woman was probably not for me, but it's so much fun to read about how very silly and not for me it is: the literary fiction version of the whole Sarkozy affair.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

More E. B. White: Writers’ Rooms

Can E. B. White do no wrong? My daughter and I have read Stuart Little (hilarious and delightful) and The Trumpet of the Swan (less good, for a slightly older child, but still wonderfully imaginative). Charlotte’s Web, beloved on DVD (we have an old cartoon version with Paul Lynde as the rat!), awaits reading.

And then there are The Elements of Style, of course. But what about this month’s find: an amazing little tidbit from his Harper’s column on the dangers of progress and change. The whole thing is great, but this observation about the dangers of renovating one’s writing room amused me most:
Yet for all that, there is always a subtle danger in life’s refinements, a dim degeneracy in progress. I have just been refining the room in which I sit, yet I sometimes doubt that a writer should refine or improve his workroom by so much as a dictionary: one thing leads to another and the first thing you know he has a stuffed chair and is fast asleep in it.

So, I’m thinking about that wonderful wit and versatility and, in doing so, remembered a recent conversation with Garth, who recommended White’s Here is New York, which I’ve not read. It awaits me on the coffee table now.

If you want to contemplate writer’s rooms, it’s hard to beat the Guardian. And if you want to read a funny essay by Garth Risk Hallberg, pop over to Slate where he has some amusing things to say about the corruption inherent in Amazon’s “reviews.” This piece could so easily have become a breast-beating screed: oh! where is the honor of the reviewer! how far have we fallen! Instead, he tells us more about something that anyone can see smacks of corruption: yep, those “top 10 reviewers” are not really reviewers in any traditional sense, neither amateurs nor professionals, they’re “a curious hybrid: part customer, part employee” and, as he notes wryly, “this feels like a loss.” It does indeed.


My department has entered the digital age at last, with individual web pages for us. I have been wanting this for a long time, but, oy!, the hassle of trying to create a webpage within a humungous and unwieldly university template. I'm grateful to my colleagues on the committee for doing it for me.

The picture is of me, streamside, after a picnic in the Adirondacks.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dr. King!

I remember listening to that exuberant, boring Stevie Wonder song as a little girl and hoping for a holiday.

Here it is and I feel so proud and happy. My little girl’s pre-K teacher read her a book on Dr. King in Spanish on Friday: “It started out when he was a tiny baby,” she said, making a cradle with her arms, and rocking an imaginary baby Martin.

Today, I’ve sent her off to daycare with her sister, our own MLK book in hand to “read,” so that I can try to catch up a bit on some of the many, many missed deadlines that hang overhead.

And I’m inching closer to volunteering for Obama. I dreamt about campaign strategy for him the other night, so clearly I’m obsessed.

The dream? A version of how he got trapped in the last debate with that “What’s your greatest weakness?” question. This time, the candidates were asked, a la Hillary in New Hampshire, how they kept up their energy while on the road and what their diets were. Obama mentioned something about low carbs and protein-rich salads. Cut to a smiling and proud Michelle. Then, Hillary raved about all the great potatoes in Idaho and the oranges in Florida and how eager she was for her next campaign stop in… I don’t know… add in your craven food/union/regional plug here.

In the coffee shop today, I was plugging Obama to a total stranger, so I'm already campaigning in my own way, I guess.

Friday, January 18, 2008

East Coast Premier: Mark Sarvas reading Harry, Revised

Lock up the dog! Order a pizza for the kids! Do what you must to attend this event...

It's very exciting: Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation will be in town on next week for a Wednesday night reading of his forthcoming novel, Harry, Revised. I'm hoping to go--but the aforementioned kids and dog and prior commitment and all the necessities of balancing nights out with my spouse make things, well, uncertain. In any case, you should go.

If you haven't been following along on Mark's blog, he's been getting all kinds of exciting good news (fancy blurbs! translations! foreign rights!) before even the publication date, so you can attend and then tell everyone that you were present at the creation.

I'm being a little silly, of course, but I'm really, really happy. It's so wonderful when a great writer and blogger and person has good fortune.

Here's a bit from the press release:

Class of 2008--Reading Series at Boxcar Lounge
Boxcar Lounge
168 Ave. B, New York, NY
January 23, 2008
8:00 PM

Get a sneak preview of the coming year's best new first-time authors in the comfort of a cozy East Village bar. Boxcar Lounge is located at 168 Ave B (10th/11th). The series is curated by Jami Attenberg, author of Instant Love and the new novel The Kept Man (Riverhead Books, 2008).

You can read a full description of all three writers here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Stress and Procrastination

Sometime last week a friend poked her head into my little cubicle: “How’s it going?”

I looked at my desk with its various piles of urgent, semi-urgent, neglected, and soon-t0-be-forgotten papers. Over on the out-of-commission scanner sat two pieces of paper, out of reach but fairly radioactive in their import.

How was I? Those two sheets summed it up: “I’ve got a tenure application here and a summons to call for a follow-up mammogram. That’s what’s going on.”

So, yes, I’ve been a little stressed. But the drama is of my own making, of my own desiring. The mammogram last June wasn’t worrying: it was just a bad photograph and they want a new one. I should get tenure in May. I’m not genuinely worried about either potential bad outcome. In my heart I expect that sometime in the next few months, I’ll have good news for now on both fronts.

And yet.

I’ve indulged myself in the ritual of getting stressed. Of becoming neurotic. Of getting tension headaches at the least mention of promotion or someone else’s book or the job market.

I think, to be honest, that I needed the attention. Not really from anyone (except, perhaps my husband, who’s been remarkably patient through this whole thing) as from myself: I needed to be the star, the neediest one, the one who was a little fragile, a little rocky.


I’m done. It’s a dull role and I prefer others to it. The application is in and with matters out of my hands, much of my stress has lifted. I made the appointment. Back to work.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bursting into Language

While the big girl (5) is beginning--just beginning--to grasp reading, the little one (20 months) is bursting into speech. It’s amazing and hilarious to watch and to learn a little bit about memory and priorities from the words that come and those that she doesn’t need.

Our urban toddler who loves t.v. and singing cannot distinguish her farm animals from each other, but the tiniest little Dora or Diego gets a big shout out. She labored with the latter yesterday, looking at a little candy cane in the treat box: “Go. Eggo. DEE-eggo.”

But best of all was Christmas Eve. This little one is mostly still shouting one word at a time. Up until Christmas, the only sentence in regular rotation was “Ah wah gee dow” (I want get down): the urgent necessity every morning when trapped in the crib. So, imagine our surprise on Christmas Eve. The four of us were having hor d’oeuvres: champagne, cheese, and crackers for the grown-ups and milk and Pirate’s booty (the amazingly addictive natural cheeto-substitute) for the kids. Daddy reached in for a handful of booty and, plain as day, we heard: “Daddy, don’t do dat Daddy.”

And with that, she was off.

“Don’t do dat,” it turns out, is very useful. (And nicely alliterative which helps when consonants are still a challenge.) Upon seeing her sister sled downhill on a golf course in Utica a few days later, she came up with a great corollary:

“I wah do dat!”

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hope, Change 2

When you're torn about whom to vote for, when your primary vote (on February 5th) actually, improbably, seems to matter a little, and then one of the candidates comes to YOUR town during winter break, well, you walk up the hill to go to the rally.

I met my husband in line at St. Peter's College yesterday at 2:00. Doors opened, they say, at 2:30, but we didn't make it inside until 3:45 or so. Obama spoke an hour later.

It was good, not great. Not great because he was tired, I was tired, and it was the stump speech, much of which I'd heard. But I feel great today about having been there. Very exciting. We were in the last 100 or 150 people who got into the gym, so Obama was a couple basketball courts away. Still, when he was waving good-bye in our direction, I stood up on tiptoes, waved ardently and, I could swear, he made eye contact with me.

Charisma is a lovely thing.

We walked briskly down hill to arrive at daycare just five minutes before closing, grabbed the girls, ordered a pizza, and collapsed.

I am still troubled by the sex thing. After Iowa, Chris Matthews reminded people that Americans granted black men the right to vote 50 years before we granted that same right to women. Gloria Steinem made that same point in her Times editorial. (I suppose she was flipping between MSNBC and CNN like the rest of us?) And Dr. Crazy, too, has been eloquent in her defense of the importance of a woman president. I don't want to wait until I'm 91 to elect a woman. My daughters will be older than Obama is now. (Maybe they'll run....)

Still, whomever we elect, we will have broken a major identity barrier. The discussions about which is more intractable, racism or sexism, seem impossible and ludicrous to me: without context, it's impossible to decide. In a way, Obama vs. Clinton is so hyper-charged on the issue of identity that identity leaves the room for a moment and we get to think about which person is right for the country right now.

When I think about all those Novembers trudging to the polls to vote for anemic democrats (Dukakis? Kerry?), I am readier than ever to vote for someone I can feel hopeful, excited about. I guess I wasn't undecided for very long, was I?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Judgment: 3 Titles

(Tearing herself away from CNN & her beloved Keith Olbermann momentarily to work on overdue stuff...)

I read and enjoyed three books lately but the contrast among them is instructive and tells me a lot about the limitations of my laid-back critical method.

I really do believe that readers must take a novel on its own terms. It's important that we figure out what a novel is trying to do and only then judge it. Not only is it important to read this way, it is central, for me, to the pleasure of reading. It's simply a lot more fun to pick books judiciously and then read them whilst thinking of them as good.

But when I think back over Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore, David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk, and the book I'm in the midst of now, Anne Enright's The Gathering, it's clear to me that there is a good, a better, and a best.

Eck's book was fine. Competent and interesting. Ultimately, it had fewer flaws than Lara Santoro's Mercy (about which I'll have more to say later), but it was less innovative and taught me less. (Both are novels about well-meaning bumbling whites in Africa.

Leavitt's book was very good indeed, if a bit too academic. It was slow-going for me at first but then I got into it and sailed through it and hope to have more to say about some of the truly amazing things I found there some day soon.

But it's only the Enright book that has me calling my mom and reading paragraphs aloud, that has me laughing aloud, that causes pain and creates joy. I'm really enthusiastic right now about The Gathering. And I really started out skeptically: the conceit of preparing for a wake or funeral is really worn out, I think. But this book is anything but shopworn to me. I'm loving it.

If I could just carve out the time to read...

Monday, January 07, 2008

My Obama-Clinton Problem

First of all, I think this is a good problem to have: two candidates I like a lot and feel connected to. I have some hope for change, as the campaigns would have me say.

Obama really got me excited a while ago: he’s anti-war, intelligent, handsome (forgive me), and can rise to charismatic. Then my husband, who’s from outside Utica, insisted that I take another look at Hillary. He saw, second-hand, Hillary’s amazing success with upstate New Yorkers in the senate campaign and that made him believe in her. (He had never tired of Clinton the way I had.) And he (my husband, that is) railed at me: how could I, a feminist, not see that the most qualified candidate in the field is the woman?

So, not thinking very independently, I confess, I sent Hillary $25 and signed up. If she wins, I will be excited and moved beyond measure. I dream of taking my daughters to D.C. a year from now to celebrate the inauguration of the first woman president. (My husband, for the record, loathes identity politics and initially supported Hillary not because of her sex but her intelligence and experience.) I think she is brilliant and methodical: important qualities in an executive.

But, electing a woman who was first known to us as a wife and who comes with the baggage of her husband’s peccadilloes is not the clear feminist victory I wanted.

And I’m frankly sick of the baby boomers ruling the world.

Obama, by contrast, seems to have a marriage that looks like a souped-up version of something I recognize: a strong wife with an independent career locking horns with a strong husband with ambitions. He’s not that much older than I. He is also super-intelligent. And I thought his post-Iowa acceptance speech was incredible: polished and inspired. I had goose bumps listening to him.

Hillary still has my $25. But, as a good luck charm, I carry a dollar bill from Obama’s lawyer in my wallet. (It’s a long story how I came by this…) I don’t know how I’ll vote on Super-duper Tuesday. You?

Friday, January 04, 2008

“Not going yet.”

I’m going to write about something that’s bugged me for about twenty years. I don’t know why, but every time I think about it, I get irritated.

It’s such a little thing, you’ll think me silly, but here it is: Jane Tomkins, an influential feminist critic of American literature, wrote an essay that I read in graduate school that announced her turn from traditional scholarly work to more essayistic writing.

In general, I’m in favor of this move. I don’t like jargony academic writing and I love informed essays about literature.

However, in this particular piece ["Me and My Shadow," 1987], she describes herself sitting in her study (which I knew then to be in Chapel Hill), looking out over a wooded scene, in stocking feet, thinking about how she has to go to the bathroom but not going yet. “Not going yet,” appeared, as I recall as a fragment.

And, for some reason that fragment just sets me off.

I mean this made me so mad that I wrote an essay against the personal turn in feminist criticism--my first publication--which basically is my lament at her self-indulgence.

This little detail, “not going yet,” seems so incredibly inane to me that every time I think about Jane Tompkins (which is not that often) or her husband, Stanley Fish (more often, as he pops up on the Times weekly), or about personal criticism or about Chapel Hill, I do a little inner shiver.

I did one today. I’m in the midst of writing a book review of Susan Gubar’s Rooms of Our Own, a lovely, if flawed, adaptation of A Room of One’s Own for a contemporary context. In my review, I wanted to praise the elegant design of the book and I got pretty far into a paragraph doing so before I noticed that the thing I don’t like about the cover (and there is much to like) is that it matches my mental image of the study in Chapel Hill where Tompkins sat, holding her urine. Ick!

Funny, too, because I sit here, in my (not very sylvan) dining room, in stockinged feet. And, like Tompkins, sometimes I put off going to the bathroom if I’m on a roll with my writing. So I don’t know quite why this bugs me so much.

But it does.

Bah humbug.

(Someone else thinks through the Tomkins issue with more patience than I here.

WWI Blog

Regular posting should resume soon, d.v., but I wanted to pop in to make note of an exciting blog project: a British man is posting his grandfather's WWI letters, 90 years to the day after their writing, on a blog. Via the BBC's Newshour.

He--the grandson--isn't giving any clues as to what happens to Harry Lamin. We'll just have to read along.