Monday, August 25, 2008

The Untelling

I finished Tayari Jones’ The Untelling a couple weeks ago and it’s only the vagaries of making the transition from summer back to teaching that have kept me from writing up my enthusiasm for the book.

I knew from the combination of humor and passionate ethics on her blog that I would love her novel; her reading at the Girls Write Now benefit only confirmed that feeling. It was just a matter of getting to the book…

There is so much to love about this novel. Ariadne, the protagonist with the burdensome, ambitious name, is a young Spelman grad, drifting through her twenties. She doesn’t really know herself if her job teaching literacy for a community organization is a testament to her commitment to social justice or a symptom of her lack of ambition. She has a nice boyfriend, a locksmith and this character, Dwayne, is one of the book’s real pleasures: a lovely, lovely, settled young man, utterly confident of himself and his place in the world in all kinds of ways that unsettle Aria.

Tayari is really genius in writing about class: the scene in which Aria sits and watches as the pregnant teen from her literacy class does calligraphy to address envelopes for her roommates wedding invitations is so rich. A regular middle-class girl, newly graduated from college but without family money to draw on, Aria looks in wonderment at both women and sees clearly how strange each is to the other, and, most distressingly, how far she is from either. This seems utterly right to me: so often, we skate along assuming equality and suddenly someone mentions their sailboat, or that they’ve reached the time of the month when it’s down to Ramen and tuna, and we’re brought up short—or, worse, see that we’ve brought someone else up short. Again and again in The Untelling, Tayari captures those economic complexities and brilliantly articulates the specific prism of the young, gifted black women who’ve gone to Spelman and remained in Atlanta, expecting their Morehouse man, expecting a lot of themselves, and caught in a richly conflicted relationship to all the various neighborhoods of their city—this one too bourgie, that one too ghetto, this one uneasily gentrifying, that one stubbornly down at the heels.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you because I think you should read it yourself. I know it’s a few years old now, but seek it out. I gobbled it. It’s an important book, a lovely book, with a real plot, rich characters, and a deeply satisfying ending.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Why, if you were a copyeditor working at Harcourt in 1925 would you let colour and civilisation stand in their British spellings but insist upon changing banisters to bannisters?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Winner of Sorrow

I promised some Cowper news—not something anyone has every day, Cowper being long dead. But when I wrote about Dalkey in my swoon over Michalopolou’s I’d Like, the press’s associate director popped me an email to say, among other things that Dalkey’s going to be publishing Brian Lynch’s historical novel, Winner of Sorrow, about Cowper this winter.

I can’t wait.

And the title is utterly beautiful.

Here’s what the press says:
A fictional imagining of the gentle but troubled zealot William Cowper—best known as a precursor to Romantics such as Wordsworth and Burns—Brian Lynch’s The Winner of Sorrow brings to life the mind and times of an eighteenth-century poet. Intense and exhilarating, this is literary fiction at its finest—the reader will be hard-pressed not to rush ahead to see what happens next. Yet you’ll want to savor every word as Lynch traces Cowper’s tragic descent into madness, which is presented matter-of-factly so that the novel is not sentimental but austere, not precious but serious, and yet, remarkably, lively, sensuous, and blackly comic.
I first learned of Cowper from Woolf, as he wrote “The Castaway,” the deliciously self-dramatizing poem that Mr. Ramsay recites in To the Lighthouse. The poem, about a man who falls overboard in a storm and gets left behind. Cowper at first seems to be celebrating this scary, humble, brave death, but the gem of the poem is its final lines, in which the poet’s own depression—and all our solitude—trumps this sailor’s watery grave:
No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.
I love this poem and love Cowper.
While you wait for Lynch’s novel, you might read some Cowper or Woolf’s wonderful essay on him, the first of “Four Figures” in The Second Common Reader.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

More of the Best, more BAHLER, plus: JERSEY!

Michael was asked: How Has Being From New Jersey Influenced My Writing?

Answer: Got me.

Dan Wickett asked me to help spread the word about this new anthology by letting New Jersey writer Michael Bahler guestblog at Jersey City's own Fernham...I hope it's sparked your interest in checking out more literary magazines and, especially, picking up a copy of Dzanc's new anthology...

BEST of the WEB: More Michael BAHLER

Michael Bahler writes:

The Perils of Online Publishing

My first online story, “Stephanie’s Blood,” was about a woman who bit her toenails. My girlfriend at the time was so excited when it came out, and she emailed the link to all her friends. The next day, however, she was not so excited.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Will you please tell everyone I don’t bite my toenails?”

My second online story, “Virgin Annie,” was about a guy lusting after a Korean woman named Annie K— who he suspected was a virgin. Just last year, I received a surprise email from a real-life Annie K—.
“I googled my name and found your story,” she wrote. “I am Korean, but I am definitely not a virgin.”

I recently showed the “The Stiff Jew” to a colleague.
“Michael, you’re Jewish?”

But my most harrowing online publishing experience had to do with a story I wrote entitled “My Blankie. My Penis.” The opening paragraph of the story read:

“Herpes. Could it be anything else? I’d slept with Adina on a Saturday. The condom had burst. I’d woken up five days later with itchy red dots up and down my penis.”

Around the time it was posted, I was interviewing to become a federal prosecutor. I’d made it all the way to the third round, and had met with the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. “I have no doubt,” he had told me, “you could do any job in this office.” I was also doing online dating, and had been emailing a woman I really liked.

I received a form rejection from the U.S Attorney’s Office, and the woman blew me off. These two developments could have had something to do with “My Blankie. My Penis” showing up first when my name was googled.

I love online publishing, but I think it’s unique from print journals in that stories become readily available to people who might not necessarily be interested in reading them as stories. It makes publishing a little dangerous. My father told me that I should start writing under a pseudonym, but instead I changed the heading on my resume from “Michael Bahler” to “M. F. Bahler.”

The site that posted “My Blankie. My Penis” later reinvented itself and took down my story. I changed my resume back to “Michael Bahler.”

Guestblogger MICHAEL BAHLER: The Saga of The Stiff Jew

Michael writes:

I originally wrote the “The Stiff Jew” for an anthology about Jews dating gentiles (called something like “Was She Worth It?”). The editor of the anthology ultimately passed on my piece, emailing me: “Hi Michael, I thought the narrative was obtuse and underdeveloped . . . . Best wishes and Happy Rosh Hashanah!”

So I took “The Stiff Jew” and I showed it to my writing mentor, an established fiction writer who usually heaped praise on me.
“This is probably the worst thing you’ve ever written,” she said.
“I don’t remember showing you everything I’ve ever written.”
“I’m not saying it’s not salvageable, but it needs a lot of work.”

So I forgot about the “The Stiff Jew” until I saw that Swink was accepting submissions for an upcoming online edition with the theme “taking sides.” Since my piece was—on a basic level—about taking sides on Jesus, I sent it over. Almost two years later, I got a response:
“We love it. We want to publish it an upcoming edition. Please say yes!”

Somewhat ironically, “The Stiff Jew,” written for a Jewish anthology, has now ended up in an anthology with so many gentiles.

Curious? Check out the new Dzanc books anthology, collecting the best writing from online literary mags, The Best of the Web 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

We interrupt this blog...

A few weeks back, Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network, Dzanc Books and formerly a force behind the Litblog Co-op wrote to ask if I'd let a guestblogger pop in to help draw your attention to Dzanc's new anthology, The Best of the Web, 2008 (edited by Steve Almond). To me, Dan is one of the real heroes of the literary blog so I jumped at the chance to participate.

The idea behind the anthology is to collect some of the best writing from online literary journals in one place: a *great* idea, and one that really shows the coming-of-age of blogs, online publications, and the links between technology and literary life. It's an exciting prospect.

Since I blog from New Jersey, Dan's paired me up with a New Jersey writer and contributor to the anthology, Michael Bahler. He'll be posting here tomorrow. Enjoy!

(Cowper and Stevenson, Jones and Robinson will have to wait...)

Monday, August 18, 2008


Like Dorothy, I'm finding myself back in the city and a bit out of shape for work and the semester to come. I have lots and lots of things to tell you about--cheese and Robert Louis Stevenson, Cowper!, books in Van Vorst Park, Tayari's amazing book, Roxana Robinson, poetry...

But after six weeks upstate, I'm in great physical shape (for me) and terrible bureaucratic shape. I come home exhausted and bleary. It took me an hour to make a dinner that ought rightly to have taken half that: I kept standing in front of open cabinets, open fridges, staring... Each thing I had to throw away took two tries: I tried to put paper in the garbage, garbage in the recycling, missed the bin for recyclable glass. You get the idea.

So I'm back but not back... More to come...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dr. Seuss

Were I younger or even more procrastinatory, I would make this into one of those quizzes that are all the rage on the internets these days.

For now, let’s just keep it to this: my favorite Dr. Seuss was always Green Eggs and Ham, the story of a gourmand and a picky eater, the story of gathering up your courage to try a new thing and finding that thing to be great, the story of the ever cheerful Sam-I-Am, the friend who is just so enthusiastically sure that you may like them…

The older girl loves that book, too.

She has seen the movie of The Cat in the Hat at daycare and likes the idea of it, but she has never sat through the whole book (and she has an amazing attention span).

The little one, by contrast, has been very slow to sit still for books but, oh! The Cat in the Hat, that story that I found so upsetting and unsettling as a girl, the story her sister finds dull, is a delight to her. Oh, Mommy is gone and someone else is making a BIG MESS in our house and it’s really funny. She finds the whole thing riveting and hilarious and, clearly, fully of really good ideas for what to do when my back is turned. She sits through the whole thing, commenting on the pictures and, occasionally, “reading” along.

We are in trouble!

What was your favorite Dr. Seuss book? Do you think it true to character now?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dagmar Mohne Hansen Lahlum

Were I a novelist, were I really going to write an espionage bestseller—as my mother-in-law announced to relatives at dinner the other night (mostly to cover up a lull in the conversation), I would write a novel based on the life of Dagmar Lahlum.

Lahlum was Agent Zigzag’s lover during his 11-month stay in occupied Norway. He picked her up at the Ritz and, neither knowing the other was a spy for the allies, they became lovers: Dagmar, fond of Chapman but also working for the Norwegian resistance; Chapman, well, being Chapman, a sentimental womanizer, finding his port in the storm.

Still, they bought a skiff and together sailed up the coast to the estate that Quisling had taken over. When Chapman returned to England in 1944 he was able to provide MI5 with a precise map of the Quisling compound, should the Allies want to bomb the Nazi government in Norway.

That’s a great scene to imagine from her point of view, isn’t it? Sailing with your lover, who has just confessed that he’s spying for England, and then picnicking on Quisling’s grounds together…

She never had children and lived a long life, always beautiful, in leopardskin and red lipstick to the end. At her death, her niece burned a drawerful on unsent letters to Chapman.

Oh, you can hear, it’s practically a movie already, isn’t it?

Reading Jenny’s account of traveling to Copenhagen to get the flavor of the place for the Explosionist, I had my own momentary fantasy of a Norwegian visit for background material for my novel.

Unwritten novels are always the best..

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Well, I made it to 1916 in Woolf’s letters. I must say, I find the reading very hard going. There is so much struggle and grief in the first three decades of Woolf’s life that it comes as a tremendous relief to read this editor’s note: “The increasing vigour of Virginia’s letters indicate her complete return to normality, and she was not to have another total mental breakdown until she killed herself 25 years later.”
Phew! Plain sailing ahead.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Codes: More on Zigzag

Chapman’s success as a double agent was not only due to his own criminal genius. German intelligence was not nearly as strong as English. Specifically, England cracked Germany’s supposedly uncrackable code long before Germany recognized it.

Macintyre reprints the explanation of Chapman’s code in full from the MI5 archive.

Puzzling over it, I’m reminded of my girlhood fascination with codes, secret ink, and hidden messages. But my problem, of course, always was that, not being a spy but, rather, a 10-year-old girl in Seattle in peace time, I had no message to impart other than “Hi. Can you read this message?”

Leaving the war to the side for a moment, there is something thrilling in having a message so important, so particular that you would want to take the word CONSTANTINOPLE, assign each letter in the word a number according to its place in the alphabet, then, the word (A=1, there being no B in Constantinople, C=2, the first O=9, the second O=10), multiply the resulting number by the date of the transmission, then do four or five other really complicated things so that

And then, too, it’s exciting and useful to know that even spies had to send dull messages at times. I will be sure to impart this information to my children when they send each other messages in code. You can pretend, I’ll tell them, that you’ve just completed a very, very dangerous mission and your control agent needs to know that you’re ok.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Agent Zigzag

I finished Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag with relish! What a great story—a nonfiction work that truly earns its subtitle: Lover Traitor Hero Spy.

Eddie Chapman was a young career criminal (26 or so), imprisoned in Jersey, UK, when the Nazis occupied the island. Bored and hungry, he offered himself to the Germans as a spy, got crack training, and then, upon landing (by parachute) in England with a mission, thought better of it and offered himself to the English as a double agent.

The English ran him for about 2 years (1942-1944) and he played an important role in the war, spreading, for example, misinformation about the location and damage of the doodlebugs, Germany’s unmanned bombs that did such damage to London during the blitz.

It’s a gripping, fun story, somewhere between Hogan’s Heroes and James Bond—but true. Macintyre is a strong writer who never loses his narrative thread. There are many, many moments when he might have been waylaid by an interesting or distressing side story, but he keeps the plot moving and keeps us focused on Chapman. The prose is fine—good enough that, late in the book when he permits himself the execrable (but inevitable) Ian Fleming pun (Fleming, Ian Fleming), I didn’t just forgive, I laughed.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

More Michalopoulou

The opening story of I’d Like has a woman, a frustrated painter, disappointed in herself, sitting at a reading with her husband, a novelist who is not as famous as he thinks he should be. As the great Greek-American novelist strides on-stage, the husband grips his wife’s hand and, in their edgy, jealous stress, he grabs it so hard that he breaks her finger. They have to leave before the reading….

Another story has a professor, sitting in his office late at night, bored by grading papers. He pours himself a whiskey (do professors really keep whiskey in their offices?) and, out of boredom and a sense of practical joking, calls his house just to hear his own voice on the answering machine. But instead of the machine, his own voice answers and informs him that he is, in fact, not a professor but a character in his voice’s novel. He is not, somehow, the real him but the phantom one. Irate, he threatens to drive home and prove his own reality to his voice, but he can’t find the door out of his office…

This second story is the only one so far that ends with what I’d call a magic realist gimmick. I loved it. It tells well—which is why I tell it—but it’s far from the best story in the lot. The other, better stories deploy their magical touches with tremendous feeling and irony.

When I met her—for thirty seconds, to thank her and sign my book--at the PEN festival, I had the urgent and embarrassing sense of meeting a kindred spirit. She cannot have shared this feeling, of course, which made me all the more embarrassed. But now, reading these stories, my crush, my enthusiasm is renewed. I am hungry for more. The back of the book tells me there is a lot more, so I’m going to seek it out, but I find it’s mostly in Greek or German…

Friday, August 08, 2008

I’d Like

Amanda Michalopoulou’s collection, which I haven’t quite finished, is stunning. Her note says:
My original objective was to write a few short stories to supplement the twenty or so I’ve published here and there in the past few years. When I started to write, the old stories didn’t fit in anywhere—they scurried back to the anthologies they’d come from. So a new objective took shape: to write stories that would read like versions of an unwritten novel. Or, better, to write the biography of those stories as well as of their fictional writer.
An unwritten novel is a very Woolfian thought, and a lovely one. And these stories are linked in brilliant dream-like ways: it’s a pleasure to see the red beret show up in one story, then another, then another, and then “oh, so that body on the hospital gurney was her…” It’s like the lovely coincidences in a Kieslowski movie. But unlike those films, these stories feel deep and finely-crafted. I have the feeling that were I to make a study of them, I would continue to understand how the sisters are related to the mothers, how the daughters are like each other, etc. It’s not just the image of a red beret tossed into the air for effect, it’s the feeling that these lives are tangled in each other, full of ambitions and disappointments, full, in short of the lives of women who want to be artists and are always pulled back by the needs and desires of family, the needs and desires for family.

A picture and a brief bio are here.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Dalkey Archive Press

When Dalkey sent me the galleys of Theater of Incest and some other book with bugs in the title, I sympathized with the publicist’s plea: however great a book Theater of Incest may be, it will not get the readership it deserves, given the title.

I certainly have not read it yet.

But I admire Dalkey tremendously. As Djuna Barnes’ publisher and the publisher of other lesser known modernist works, I see Dalkey as one of the real heroes, a house with a distinct personality, publishing books of high quality that for all their variety, seem to go together.

But I have found a Dalkey book that I am totally, utterly thrilled with: Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. I learned about it when I heard her read and speak at a PEN event last spring. It is a dazzling, moving, strange collection of connected short stories. I’m not done with it yet and I think I’ll have a lot more to say. It’s stunning, though.

Bravo to Dalkey for bringing us this great work!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"Definitely gifted."

"Definitely gifted!"

I spent fifth grade in a "gifted" program. Being labeled as gifted was comedy gold for my family. For the rest of my life, whenever I did something foolish, clumsy, or embarrassing, my family could look at each other and nod, "definitely gifted."

I'm finally reading Tayari Jones' The Untelling. I'm not very deep in but it's every bit as great as I guessed it would be and the mother in that book, with her very, very high expectations, has a phrase to shame and intimidate that leaves "definitely gifted" in the dust:

"That is not what Dr. King died for."

Oh wonderful! The pressure. The expectations. The delicious disproportion between an ordinary daughter's foibles and Dr. King. It speaks volumes, doesn't it?

Yay, Tayari! I feel like her stalker, reading all about the progress of the new book here as I read the old one, but this is stalking from a distance and for pleasure. Now she really is gifted....

Textual Editing as Meditation

And then, every time I go through the book, just as I am my most bored and irritated, I find something.

It feels like a glimpse of enlightenment must feel to those who meditate: patience, patience, patience, then, suddenly, with a quiet but brilliant clarity, the curtains part and I can hear something I had never heard before.

Thus, when Dr. Holmes gives Rezia a tranquilizer after Septimus’ death, she falls to sleep, “She put on her hat, and ran through cornfields.” And, somehow it’s clear: Rezia, the young widow far from home, Ruth, “in tears amid the alien corn,” as Woolf had it in the essay she wrote alongside Mrs. Dalloway.

I think I am the first person to notice this. Of course, if I’m not, do tell me and I can give credit.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Textual Editing’s Weird Knowledge

Have I made it clear enough that this stage of editing is a bit of a slog for me? Still, going through Mrs. Dalloway for the 20th or 21st time still has its pleasures. I am still convinced the novel is a masterpiece even as I guard against the sense one gets, when working hard, that anything one has spent a long time on must be worth something.

It’s strangely fun, for example, as I work on this little appendix of corrections to the proofs (and appendix that may or may not end up in the book), to see the following note:
118.8 air-cushion-- UP ] ~; AP
and know, just from that, the exact paragraph in the novel that this comes from, and then to think, while carrying on with the mundane task of reformatting my list of corrections, about Peter’s thoughts on Clarissa, on her little attentions to her friends—getting someone an air-cushion or a book or some flowers—and how this womanly care is both lovely and a little irritating.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Pleasures of Zigzag & Kite Runners

Back in July, both Ana Maria and Dorothy expressed their annoyance—even, perhaps anger—at a little essay in the Guardian about Reader’s Block, the inability to finish a book. I read the piece and didn’t find anything in it to irritate me. I admire their venom and frustration--maybe I'm missing something in my own make up as a reader? But then, I experience reader’s block a lot and find the phenomenon fascinating--and I'm clearly not alone. I cherish the knowledge that Charles Darwin’s reading journal recorded where he stopped reading books and, occasionally, why. (Oh to be a Victorian, recording everything!) And I loved Germaine Greer’s testy response to reader’s block, too:
Have you experienced reader's block?
It's just a different world. I read all the time; I can't stop reading. It might apply to my assistant, but she is on holiday, so she is probably reading like mad.
Could you recommend a book to get people reading again? Oh God, I don't read novels! Why do people think that reading a book means reading a fucking novel? You finish reading the book and you think "Well, that's over. There's four hours down the drain." At least in non-fiction you might pick up some information you can trust. My whole world is built out of books, but they aren't Booker prize-winners, which I frankly always think are overrated. Like lots of people who end up reading stuff they don't want to read, what I pick up is mainly dictated by what's in the airport bookshop, which is a very depressing cross-section. I think some people are reading a whole lot more that they need to be. I think all these children banging themselves on the head with Harry Potter would be better off doing almost anything else. Why are we so sanctimonious and moralistic about reading?
Her solution is more extreme than Woolf’s which is all about variety: read for pleasure; reading is an end in itself; choose a book that complements what you have just read.

In this summer of isolation and Woolf, the action heroes of Agent Zigzag (on whom, more soon) and melodrama of The Kite Runner have been welcome breaks.


Another word to add to your vocabulary, another reason to love Wikipedia.

I was listening to “Proud Mary” and googled the lyrics to figure out the phrase “pumped a lot of tane.” The Tina Turner version is ‘tane, for octane, which makes sense as the kind of lousy, hard job someone might have in New Orleans, but wikipedia suggests, too, that the line may be a mondegreen, helpfully linking to an entry on the topic.

The coinage comes from a 1954 essay by Sylvia Wright in Harper’s:
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray, [sic]
And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual fourth line is "And laid him on the green." As Wright explained the need for a new term, "The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original."
I love mondegreens—and I’m thrilled to have a word for them! The homespun ones are best. The widely circulating ones tend to have a bit of a Reader’s Digest-y “oh, the funny things kids think” quality.

In high school, a friend of mine, very straight-laced but funny and brilliant, loved the Soft Cell hit “Tainted Love.” This seemed to open new windows into her tolerance and personality until we determined that she thought the song was “Painted Dove”!

Do you have a favorite?

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Twin Towers

My friend Erika has a lovely essay on her memories of the Twin Towers and Windows on the World over at Quay. I love this kind of essay—snapshots of the same thing, over time, and it seems to me an elegant and thoughtful way to evoke those ghosts now. Her evocation of the restaurant is so much more human and humane than DeLillo’s or Begbeder’s, so I am glad to add it to my little interior anthology of 9/11 literature.

(Not to mention that I take a secondary and far more vain pleasure in being the unnamed friend in the fourth section!)